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Source: Prime Minister of Australia

LEIGH SALES: Prime Minister Scott Morrison joined me a short time ago from Parliament House. Prime Minister, thanks for your time.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks, Leigh.

SALES: People are still very anxious and tentative because of coronavirus and because of the layoffs we’ve seen, what happens to your economic recovery plan if people go, oh, thanks, I’ll save the tax cut in case I lose my job and businesses go, well, no way am I hiring or expanding in this environment?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this is why we’ve designed the budget the way we have, Leigh, and this is why we’ve done it at such a scale, we’re dealing with an enormous challenge when it comes to the coronavirus recession and the pandemic that caused it. And that’s why we’ve targeted the measures to those particularly on low and middle incomes, because we know that they are more likely to spend it. Now we’d never tell an Australian how to spend their own money. It’s for their own decision. But the way we’ve designed and targeted these measures has been to ensure that there’s the right incentives to do just that. And particularly for businesses as well. I mean, the investment allowance opportunities are through what we’ve put in the Budget are quite significant, but they all are designed about bringing a whole range of decisions forwards, whether it’s bringing forward the tax cuts or bringing forward investment decisions by businesses or bringing forward their decision to hire, bringing forward decisions to get infrastructure moving. That is what fills the gap that we’re seeking to do with this budget and then build for the future.

SALES: On the point about targeting low and middle income earners because they’ll spend, wouldn’t the most guaranteed way to do that be to keep JobSeeker at its doubled rate because on the regular rate, people are below the poverty line. So you give them an extra $40 a day and they will definitely spend that on essentials.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, JobSeeker is already at elevated levels and it will be maintained at those elevated levels-

SALES: It’s going off though.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we’ve got those arrangements for the end of the year, and I’ve made it pretty clear that beyond that period of time that we’d be leaning into seeing some form of extension of that when we have a better understanding of where things are at later in the year. I mean, JobSeeker was doubled during the course of the most vicious parts of the pandemic and those more difficult parts have also been more recently in Victoria, JobKeeper was in place. And now we’re changing gear in our recovery. And we’re seeing that happen right before us. We’re seeing more businesses coming back online. We’re seeing more jobs come back in. 60 per cent of those jobs that have come back in recent months have actually been for women. And we welcome that. So the economy is coming back, but it’s still got a long way to go. And this budget will give it the important boost for now, but also building it back for the future.

SALES: A big part of your budget is aimed at creating new jobs, a million of them you’re hoping for, but there’s no additional funding for childcare. Who do you think’s going to look after the children of the new workers?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, there’s $9 Billion for childcare, Leigh-

SALES: No additional funding for childcare.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we have put significant amounts during the course of this COVID recession to ensure that the childcare operators have been able to come through the recession-

SALES: No, no, I’m talking about you want to create a million new jobs. Where are those workers going to put their kids?

PRIME MINISTER: Well 85, there’s an 85 per cent rebate for low and middle income earners. And when we had this reform first introduced, Leigh, we saw the participation rate for women in the economy reach record levels-

SALES: Why do you assume I’m talking about women? Men are parents too, they’re 50 per cent responsible.

PRIME MINISTER: What I’m telling you, Leigh is- sorry, I’ll let you finish.

SALES: Men are responsible for childcare as well. You’ve pivoted to talking about women, but men should be 50 per cent responsible for childcare too.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’m not disagreeing with that, Leigh. What I’m saying is that when we put the reforms of childcare in place, what we saw is not just women’s participation soar. We also saw the men’s participation rate and the overall participation rate in the economy also increase. So the reforms we put into childcare had their desired effect. And we’re now continuing on with those settings. I mean, now under childcare, there’s no cap. I mean, 85 per cent of what low and middle income – particularly low income people – are able to access gives them an 85 per cent rebate. These were significant changes when we introduced them and those changes produced some really good results.

SALES: Prime Minister, you ask anyone who tries to get a childcare place for their child and they’ll tell you, it’s really difficult and you go on a waiting list. You put another million more people into the workforce, it’s going to be increasingly hard.

PRIME MINISTER: Well Leigh we’ve seen a million people come out of the workforce and we’re trying to get them back. And so we’re talking about an economy getting back and recovering the lost ground that we’ve had. And those, that childcare system was supporting that workforce before we hit this COVID recession with record levels of participation in the economy. And we also saw fee levels actually fall by just over three per cent as a result of the reforms we put in place. But Leigh if you’re suggesting that we should have free childcare for everybody well that’s not something we’re proposing. One of the key responses that we’ve been able to put in place to this COVID recession is we haven’t baked in long term spending. It’s temporary and it’s targeted and 90 per cent of the additional spending in this budget is in these two years. We saw the problems that have happened before when people bake spending in over a decade. That’s not a way to run an economy.

SALES: Australian debt will be at $1 trillion in a few years. There’s no prospect of a surplus on the horizon to start paying that down. That’s okay while interest rates are low, but even if rates go up by only 1 per cent and they almost certainly will before all of that debt is paid off, that’s going to add a stupendous amount of money to what Australians owe. Are we about to see the first generation of Australians have lower living standards than their parents?

PRIME MINISTER: No I don’t believe so Leigh. Had we not acted in the way that we have and I’m not sure what the alternative is that others are suggesting, but had we not acted in the way we had, we would have seen a generation go out of work and spend a lifetime on welfare for many of them. I know for a fact Leigh, I used to be the Social Services Minister. When you have Australians, particularly young Australians, go out of work when they’re young and they don’t get back into a job, their risk of spending a lifetime on welfare actually increases. And that’s why we’ve acted so quickly and in this budget with the hiring credit to ensure that we’re avoiding those outcomes. But it’s not just that, it’s 340,000 training places. It’s 29,000 additional university places next year. It’s 100,000 additional apprenticeships. And these apprenticeships and these training places and the university places and the short courses, they apply to all ages. There’ll be many Australians who will be changing course as a result of this recession. And that support is there for them to achieve that.

SALES: Prime Minister, I’d like to spend quite a bit of time tonight talking about aged care. Three quarters of the COVID-19 deaths have been in this country in aged care facilities. That’s 673 people. Those facilities are the responsibility of the federal government. In the past, gastro and flu epidemics have ripped through aged care facilities. We knew from Newmarch House in April how horrific coronavirus in aged care care could be. How did the federal government fail so comprehensively to prevent this tragedy?

PRIME MINISTER: Well Leigh first of all, on a couple of points, the Commonwealth government put in $1.5 billion extra in support to deal with everything from workforce support to PPE and training and equipment to assist the aged care sector as it dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic. What we saw in particular-

SALES: And there are still-

PRIME MINISTER: Leigh, if you can just let me finish, if you could just let me finish, It’s a big question.

SALES: As long as you address the question I’m very happy for you to finish.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I am talking about what we’ve been doing to address the COVID-19 pandemic in aged care-

SALES: I’m asking why you’ve failed.

PRIME MINISTER: Well Leigh, I don’t agree with your assessment. What I’m saying is that in aged care, what we have seen is the community transmission, in particular that occurred in Victoria, find its way into aged care facilities. But in comparison to what we’ve seen around the world, 8 per cent of Australia’s aged care facilities had COVID-19 cases. Now, that compares to 56 per cent in the United Kingdom. We have acted. There have been half a dozen cases where I’d agree that the failings were acute, but they were not system wide. In the vast majority of aged care facilities what we saw is the system actually deal with the pandemic and prevent the horrific results that were seen all around the rest of the world-

SALES: Still 673 people is still a terrible result. You’re pointing out the steps that you’ve taken since all of this happened. They’ve been done in reaction.

PRIME MINISTER: No, that was during what was happening.

SALES: They’ve been done during what was happening in an ad hoc kind of way because you’ve had to respond in reaction to the crisis. The Royal Commission finds-

PRIME MINISTER: I don’t agree with that, Leigh-

SALES: The royal commission finds, I’m quoting from the royal commission. It finds that part of the problem with aged care is that continually making band-aid fixes on the run means we have not been able to resolve the underlying problems with a system that has failed to provide the Australian community with the assurance of quality and safety in aged care that it expects.

PRIME MINISTER: That’s why I called the Royal Commission. I called the Royal Commission because I’ve been aware for some time of the serious needs that are there and we’ve got an ageing population and more and more people demanding appropriately services in aged care and particularly in residential aged care, that the needs are far more acute. This is not something that has just happened in the past couple of years. This has been something that has been transitioning now for over a decade and beyond which the Royal Commission has also acknowledged. That’s why I called the Royal Commission-

SALES: Prime Minister on the point of you calling it. Sorry to interrupt you.

PRIME MINISTER: Sorry I’ll let you go again.

SALES: On the point of you calling the Royal Commission, since 1997 there have been 18 reports or inquiries into aged care. 12 in the past three years alone. Time after time in these reports, we hear of neglect, indifference, malnutrition, festering wounds, a lack of respect for human dignity. Isn’t the only conclusion a rational person can draw from all of that, that over the years our political leaders have not cared enough about the elderly to stop the buck passing and to somehow end this sustained political neglect.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think that’s a very unkind assessment.

SALES: 18 reports.

PRIME MINISTER: The challenges in aged care are real. And in aged care, funding increases every year by a billion dollars and then the needs become more acute. It’s a challenging environment and the workforce training is continuing to increase. But the challenges continue to arise. And what we’re committed to do is respond to this Royal Commission of the aged care enquiry, as we said last night, and we will do that properly when we get those recommendations. We have already responded to the recommendations they have made. One of the most important recommendations they’ve been making is about in aged care. Now, since we’ve been in government, we have more than tripled the number of in-home aged care places that are available in this Budget alone, 23,000 additional, the single largest increase in in-home aged care that has been done on any one occasion. Now, there’s 185,000 in-home aged care places now, there were just over 60,000 when we came to government. 97 per cent of people who are waiting for an aged care place are already either on some form of in-home aged care or receiving other in-home assistance. So I’m not disputing that the nature of the challenge, Leigh, but I’m saying that it’s a huge challenge-

SALES: But everyone knew. We’ve been hearing this for years Prime Minister. We’ve been hearing this sort of stuff for years and we get the same reports out of aged care of neglect and horror.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it’s a difficult challenge, Leigh, and that’s why we continue to spend more on it and we continue to learn more about how we can improve in this area. Now, we’ve all had our own experiences with age. Clearly, we’ve all had to go through those difficult decisions. I mean, and I’ve got to say, the aged care experience that fortunately my family has had was it was a positive one. But the needs are greater when people are going into residential aged care. And that’s why the transition is to people going into in-home aged care. That is an important shift and it’s a shift that we have supported. I’m not denying the challenge, Leigh. The challenge is great and the investments are being made and the commitment is there from me and my government to address the royal commission that we, in fact, called.

SALES: Last week the report of the royal commission into aged care, specifically looking at the pandemic, noted that despite the Newmarch House outbreak in Sydney in April, causing 17 deaths, and I quote, It is unclear whether the lessons learnt from those outbreaks were shared widely before community transmission put people living and working in aged care in Victoria at risk. How is that possible?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the lessons from Newmarch were in many different areas, and they were applied as we sought to deal with what was the significant community outbreak-

SALES: I just said they weren’t shared widely. They weren’t shared widely, the royal commission found.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Leigh I was there and I know what came out, we commissioned those reports into Newmarch and the lessons from – in particular in terms of transferring of residents are dealing with communications and many of the other issues that were identified in those reports – were being put into practise by the Victorian Aged Care Response Centre. And that was done over many weeks and many months. And it ensured that we avoided a far more severe outcome. As I said, about half a dozen of those centres out of hundreds and hundreds of centres in Victoria were the ones where we had terrible results. But in the vast majority of cases, we were able to avoid that. As I said, Leigh, I think there needs to be acknowledgement in the UK and throughout the rest of the world where you get a community outbreak of the coronavirus, that is being reflected in what has happened not only in aged care, but also in hospitals and other health settings, because the people who work in these settings live in the community. Now, as the coronavirus cases have receded in Victoria, well, we have also seen the number of cases in aged care in Victoria recede. So I think it is not possible to disconnect what happened with the Victorian wave from the impact in the aged care area. That is that would be nonsensical.

SALES: Let’s whip around a few other matters. How would you describe Donald Trump’s leadership during the past week around his diagnosis of coronavirus?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it’s not for me to engage in commentary on other world leaders. It’s for me to work with them and, and the Australia US relationship couldn’t be at a more, in a more strong state. And that’s what’s important to Australians Leigh. It’s not important for me to offer commentary on other political leaders whether it’s there or anywhere else.

SALES: He’s mocked mask wearing Prime Minister. He’s refused to social distance. He’s misled the public re his condition. He’s exposed his close staff to danger of a potentially fatal illness. He’s deliberately downplayed the threat of coronavirus to his nation. 200,000 Americans are dead. You don’t think that deserves public condemnation from other world leaders?

PRIME MINISTER: As Australia’s Prime Minister it’s my job to work with every world leader in Australia’s national interests.

SALES: It’s also your job to stand up for what’s right.

PRIME MINISTER: Leigh, what I’m focussed on is what’s right for Australians. And that’s why we’re putting in place our Australian response to coronavirus. That’s why Australia’s relative success compared to the rest of the world, whether it’s on our economic results or on the health results when compared to the rest of the world, Australia sits in a handful of countries who’ve been getting the balance right. And I’m pleased with how Australians have responded and enabled us to achieve these results, working together with the states and territories. I think Australia in so many ways has shown the way, not just on ensuring that we’ve been able to suppress the virus, but ensuring that the impact on our economy has been cushioned. I mean, Australia’s economic performance during this time, when you compare a 7 per cent fall in our economy in June to almost 20 per cent, 20 per cent in the United Kingdom, 12.2 per cent in New Zealand. I mean, countries like Sweden, they had bigger impacts on their economy. In Australia, we’ve been able to get the balance far better than in most places. It’s a difficult challenge to address, but we’ve been doing it better than most.

SALES: Would Australia prefer a Biden presidency to four more years of Trump?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Leigh, you would know that there is an election on in the United States and to ask me to commentate on the candidates in a US election, that’s a bit of an irresponsible question to be frank.

SALES: When the same question was asked of John Howard in 2007 of McCain versus Obama. He said that terrorists in Iraq would be praying for an Obama victory. There is precedent, actually, for putting on the record what you think is in Australia’s best interests.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, what’s in Australia’s best interests is that we have an outstanding relationship with the United States and we have one. And I’m confident that I’ll be able to pursue that relationship with ever whom the people of the United States choose to elect. I think I’ve demonstrated that with leaders from around the world of various different political persuasions because I focus on Australia’s national interest. I don’t get involved in the politics of other countries, Leigh. And so I don’t commentate on the politics of other countries.

SALES: Prime Minister, can I ask you to level with the Australian public? Has this country been through the worst or is the worst yet to come?

PRIME MINISTER: I hope we have, Leigh. That’s the honest answer. But this is an uncertain time. If we continue to manage the suppression of the virus in the way that we have, then I think we can have greater hope that that indeed is the case. And I think Australia, as I just said, has had compared to the rest of the world much better results. But we need to keep that up. The COVID-19 virus hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s still there. There is no vaccine at this point. And we hope that one will be able to be established and prove successful. And we’ve made the provision to ensure that all Australians would benefit from that should it be successful and go through the trials. But we need to keep the habit of the COVIDSafe behaviours. We need to keep the habit and strengthen our public health systems to deal with any outbreaks. But we can’t shut Australia away either internally or otherwise. We need to ensure that we get these jobs back. And that’s what last night’s budget was about, a recovery plan for the COVID-19 recession and to build our economy, the future. Getting those jobs back, getting those investments happening, getting the businesses opening and moving forward. And then moving on to the big challenges like ensuring that our manufacturing industries, particularly advanced manufacturing and we can establish a new future there over the next decade. They’re getting the energy costs that are low and that are affordable and lower emissions and reliable to drive the industries and the jobs that are needed.

SALES: Prime Minister, thanks for your time.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks a lot Leigh. Good to be with you.