Prime Minister – Transcript – Interview with Leigh Sales, ABC 7.30

Liberal Party of Australia

LEIGH SALES: Prime Minister, welcome back.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks Leigh, great to be here.

SALES: When you look at the threats to your Government’s survival, they’re almost all own goals. Almost all of the incoming fire is from your own missteps or from inside your own party. Why would the public trust you with another term as Prime Minister, when many people on your own side don’t seem to trust you?

PRIME MINISTER: Leigh, over the last three and a half years, since I took on this job, I said I wanted to keep our economy strong, I wanted to keep Australians safe and keep Australians together. And at that time, none of us could foresee what would come in the form of the pandemic and the many other disasters. But at the end of that, where are we? We’ve saved 40,000 lives. The Australian economy has come through this pandemic stronger than all of the G7 countries in the world. We have the second ratest high, the second rated highest pandemic preparedness in the world. We’ve got unemployment down to four per cent and falling. Even our debt, given the massive interventions we’ve had to take, is a fraction of what we’re seeing overseas. And we’ve landed some of the biggest security agreements with our biggest allies and partners in the world today. Now that is doing what I said I would do, and I don’t get distracted by all the other things, because that’s not my job. My job is to focus on those things. We’ve delivered on those, and more importantly, we’ve got the plan to keep doing it to keep Australia strong in the future.

SALES: Alright. If it’s that rosy a picture, why are the polls all showing things tight, with Labor in a winning position?

PRIME MINISTER: The elections are always tight, Leigh. The last election was tight. In fact, most elections are tight, and …

SALES: Yeah, but shouldn’t it, shouldn’t it be not tight, if it’s as rosy as you said?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I think Australians, well, no, I didn’t paint that picture, Leigh. What I was saying is you asked how, you know, how we have performed, and I’d set out how we’d performed. Australians have still got many challenges, the cost of living challenges right now. And that’s why it’s been so important that the $100 billion improvement that we’ve been able to achieve, just in the last 12 months, by the biggest single economic recovery you’ve seen in seven years, means now that we can take action to deal with cost of living pressures right now. That’s exactly what we had to do in the pandemic. We got the Budget back into balance, worked hard to achieve that before the pandemic hit, which meant we could do JobKeeper, which saved 700,000 jobs, countless businesses and lives.

SALES: Alright, let me put it to you that with the record of performance during COVID, which, as you point out, is better than around the world, and the economy doing relatively well, that there can only be one factor that’s playing into the negative sentiment towards the Coalition. And that, without sounding rude, has to be you.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it’s a tough job and it’s been a tough time. And people have had a tough time of it over the last three and a half years …

SALES: People in your own party, because they’re the ones that seem to be leading the criticism?

PRIME MINISTER: Oh, look, Leigh, there are always people who are disappointed with outcomes that they wanted that they didn’t get, and they’ll have an axe to grind. And we’ve seen that, that’s pretty normal in politics, particularly when you’re going into an election. So the people I work with every day in my Cabinet, we’ve all been very focused on getting Australia through this crisis. And Australia has come through this crisis stronger than almost any other advanced country in the world. And that’s what we’ve kept focused on. And that’s what we’ll continue to keep focused on because I know my economic plan is working because Australians are in work. Unemployment has fallen from 5.7 per cent down to four per cent. Now that has happened during a crisis, an economic crisis, that was 30 times worse than the global financial crisis that Labor faced. And our employment outcomes are 50 per cent better.

SALES: I’ll come back to some of the criticisms from your colleagues later, but just to ask you about the news of the day – the New South Wales court decision. Let’s go back to first principles. Why did you decide to intervene and dictate this preselection process yourself, with a small group of people, rather than leave it to local branches to pick candidates? It’s the same sort of faceless men scenario that the Liberals used to tear shreds off Labor over.

PRIME MINISTER: Let’s go back to first principles. Sussan Ley, one of my finest Cabinet Ministers, one of our most successful women Members of Parliament, was under threat. She was under threat from factions within the Liberal Party, and I decided to stand up to it.

SALES: Yeah, but that’s for the rank and file. It’s a democratic party, supposedly.

PRIME MINISTER: No, well I’m sorry, no, I’m very serious about having great women in my ranks.

SALES: Yeah, what about the others? There’s other seats as well.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Fiona Martin was another.

SALES: Trent Zimmerman?

PRIME MINISTER: Fiona, and Trent Zimmerman was someone, you know …

SALES: Yeah but, but it’s not, what what’s going on with the Liberal Party that the Prime Minister’s dictating, rather than the grassroots of the Party?

PRIME MINISTER: No, the Prime Minister was standing up to things happening in the Party to make sure that quality people, who are doing a quality job in their seats, should be able to go forward to the next election.

SALES: Yeah, but they should be able to persuade their grassroots members if they’re doing that.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, when that process, on this occasion, was not getting that outcome, I thought it was really important. See, I’m asked all the time, Leigh, “Why won’t the Prime Minister do more about getting good women in Parliament and stand up for the women in Parliament?” See, I stood up for the women in my team.

SALES: It wasn’t, it wasn’t just women.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that’s what the principal reason was and people know that. There were other members who were, who were able to be endorsed by that process. But the other, all the members that I, not just I, this process was done by myself, the Premier. They see our faces all the time. And the other one was Christine McDiven, who was the first ever female President of the Federal Liberal Party. Now, she’s certainly not a faceless man, she’s a woman who I’ve worked with over a long period of time …

SALES: But what’s the point of being a…

PRIME MINISTER: But of those candidates we picked, Leigh, 50 per cent of them are women, 50 per cent men. Of those, they came from Vietnamese, Indian, Chinese backgrounds, as well as Sri Lankan and Croatian. I think the candidates that we’ve chosen, I’d like the members to be able to do that, but we were running out of time. The job had to get done and, but I will always stand up for those in my Party, and particularly those in my Government where factions try to take them out.

SALES: But you’re in a faction, well, you’re not in a faction, actually.

PRIME MINISTER: No, I’m not, no, I’m not, Leigh, no, I’m not.

SALES: But you’ve, you’re not, but you’ve got your own agenda though. You’ve got your own people that you want …

PRIME MINISTER: And that is ensuring that we put the best candidates in the field, to ensure that our Government can put the best foot forward to ensure we continue to have a strong economy for a stronger future. I’ve never had any time for the factional games in the Liberal Party. When I was Director, you know, you get plenty of enemies in that process when you don’t let people bully their way into getting the outcomes that they want.

SALES: Oh come on. You’ve got your allies and your agendas. You’re a, everyone in politics does. You have to. It’s disingenuous to say you don’t.

PRIME MINISTER: No, I don’t, I think it’s unfair. If you knew my record better, particularly when I was a Director, I always stood up to the factions. I came independently into the role.

SALES: You’re claiming like you’re like an honest broker who doesn’t have his own agenda and his own allies. Of course you do.

PRIME MINISTER: No, I’m a Prime Minister ensuring that the Party that I lead puts the best candidates in the field. And the candidates that I, and the Premier and Chris McDiven have selected, as I said, represent the diversity of our population and our Party. They represent men and women. And importantly, they’re nurses, they’re small business people, they’re Defence Force veterans. These are great candidates. Maria Kovacic there in Parramatta – she hasn’t been parachuted in from the Eastern Suburbs. She was the Western Sydney businesswoman of the year, and I’m really glad we were able to select her.

SALES: In the past week, we’ve seen two MPs from in your own party, from different factions, come out with the most strident criticisms of you. The first was Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, and today it’s a state New South Wales MP Catherine Cusack. Miss Cusack said she would not vote for you in the election, even though she’s a lifelong member of the Party. Why would somebody like that just turn on you if there was no basis?

PRIME MINISTER: Oh well, look, Catherine, I’ve known for a long time. She made pretty similar criticisms of Gladys Berejiklian, actually. So when people have become frustrated in the political process, they’ve lashed out. People have axes to grind in in political parties. Connie, the same. They will express this, and particularly at a time when it is sought to do most damage to the individual. And look that’s, they’re the things that I’ve become very used to in politics. But you know, as Prime Minister, you’ve got to take all the slings and arrows, and I do. But I don’t, I never lose my focus on the job, Leigh. And a Prime Minister can’t. And I’ll always stand up to the things that are trying to take our our Government off in the wrong direction.

SALES: But let’s look at the range of people who’ve questioned your character. Senator Fierravanti-Wells, Catherine Cusack, Barnaby Joyce, in a text message, where he called you a hypocrite and liar. Jacqui Lambie, Pauline Hanson – both say they’ve felt bullied by you. Julia Banks. Emmanuel Macron said that you lied to him. There was a leaked text from Gladys Berejiklian calling you a horrible, horrible person. That’s a lot of smoke …

PRIME MINISTER: Which she denies.

SALES: That’s a lot, that’s a lot of smoke – no fire?

PRIME MINISTER: No, what I’m saying is, if you take a thread through all of that, across my political career and particularly as Prime Minister, I mean when people come and they just want a yes from me or they want the outcome they’re seeking, and I disagree with them and I take a different position, that’s not what people are … the allegation they make against me on that is not true.

SALES: Yeah, but they don’t always come out …

PRIME MINISTER: I’m allowed to disagree with you, but that doesn’t mean, that doesn’t mean the alternative.

SALES: Of course, but …

PRIME MINISTER: And as a Prime Minister, you can’t just say yes to everybody and give everybody what they want. And when they don’t get what they want, like a $90 billion submarine contract, then of course they’re going to lash out.

SALES: But it’s not always to the degree that we’re seeing around you, particularly coming from inside your own Party. You know, the discontent around the floods response. The discontent around the preselection. There’s a lot of noise within your own ranks.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’m very determined, Leigh. And I’m very determined to ensure that the Government can get on with the important job that it has. And on our flood response – I mean, $2.1 billion has been committed into the New South Wales flood response. Over a billion of that has already been paid out the door. Now, I find in these situations when people have an axe to grind, particularly on the eve of election, you know, that is what happens in politics. But the facts tell a different story about what we’ve done.

SALES: But let’s talk about, say someone has an axe to grind. Catherine Cusack, as part of her discontent, points out that in the initial raft of flood disaster recovery payments, it went to seats held by Nationals. Then it was extended to Labor areas after a huge outcry. You said today that was because more assessment was required. But come on, it was immediately obvious that all of those areas needed help.

PRIME MINISTER: No, no. Actually, you’ve completely mischaracterised the situation, Leigh, to be fair. What I said when I went to Lismore is that we’d immediately identified three local government areas on the basis of the advice we had from the National Recovery and Resilience Agency that should qualify for those three payments. And I said when I was there, I said it to the Ballina Mayor, who we hadn’t included at that time, I said to the Labor Member up there in Richmond, I said that we would be doing further analysis in the coming days, and we’d make further announcements. And that’s exactly what we did. Now that misunderstands that in every disaster, that’s how it works every time. You list some local government areas straight away, and then you add others to the list. Now I can understand why Catherine would have been devastated by those floods. She’s lived up in that area, grew up in Alstonville, and she knows that area well. It’s her whole life, so I can understand why she was upset. But the truth of the matter was, that, you know, we had always intended to make further assessments, and if those assessments supported those payments, then we would, and we did.

SALES: In an interview last week, you said, “I know I’ve got critics who say you shouldn’t be spending money on helping people during these crises.” Who said that?

PRIME MINISTER: Oh look, all the time.

SALES: No they don’t. Who said that? Who said people, you shouldn’t spend money helping people in crisis?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I’m sorry, you should try looking at my Facebook feed from time to time. It’s probably just as as nasty as yours, as people what you’re saying on yours.

SALES: No, seriously.

PRIME MINISTER: No, there are some views that sort of says, ah well, people, you know, they shouldn’t get payments, they should have their insurance, and I know they can’t get insurance. And so we have lent in. I mean, we had $6 billion in this Budget alone to be dealing with the most recent natural disasters, the South East Queensland floods and the New South Wales floods. And we moved quickly also on the fires as well. The pandemic payments, JobKeeper all of these, the Cyclone Seroja, all of these, we have been the first there in getting payments out. Now right now, as I said, in New South Wales alone, more than a billion dollars have been paid directly into people’s pockets. Now, New South Wales has yet to get those payments through because they go through their small business payment process, and we’re funding half of those as well. But our job in those crises, because we fund those payments 100 per cent by the Commonwealth, is to get them out as quickly as possible. And the team at Services Australia do a great job in achieving that.

SALES: You’ve always been big on Australian values, like community and mateship and so on.

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah.

SALES: I wanted to ask you, you’ve been friends with the former Hillsong Pastor Brian Houston for a long time, right? He stood down from Hillsong last week, when the church leadership was concerned about two incidents. One was that he had sent a flirtatious text to a staff member. The other was he spent 40 minutes in a woman’s hotel room. Why did you kind of disown him last week when you were asked about that, given that he is a long-term close friend?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I wouldn’t describe that as my reaction. I said I was disappointed and I was shocked.

SALES: And then you pointed out you hadn’t been at Hillsong for 15 years. It’s like you were distancing …

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this is what had been put to me.

SALES: It’s like you were distancing.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, no, look I haven’t been. I mean, I’ve attended their conferences. I attend many churches around, but my home church is in Sutherland.

SALES: But as a loyal mate, why didn’t you say, you know, “I don’t want to join a pile-on of this bloke”?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I didn’t. I just said I was disappointed and shocked, like a lot of people have been. And I said the church’s response was very appropriate, and I think it was.

SALES: Have you spoken to him since then?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I haven’t.

SALES: Every federal election, when Australians think about who they want to vote for, there’s a few things they can take into account. They can think about, you know, who they like and trust more out of you and Anthony Albanese. For the Government, they can look to your record. They can also look at your policy agenda going forward. But going forward, where is the Coalition’s transformational plan? Because, for a decade, there’s been nothing on company tax, nothing on industrial relations, the things that people would traditionally look to a Coalition Government for.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Leigh, we’ve cut company tax from 30 per cent to 25 per cent for small and medium-sized businesses. We’ve abolished a whole tax bracket. And in the next term, on the laws we’ve already passed, if you’re earning between $45,000 and $200,000, you will pay no more than 30 cents in the dollar in tax. So I wouldn’t say that’s all, that has been significant. But on top of that, our investments, particularly in training – we have 220,000 apprentices in trade training right now. That is the highest level of trade apprentices in training since records began in 1963. The investments we’re putting into skills, the infrastructure we’re building like the Western Sydney International Airport, which is something we did and made happen. The investment in ensuring that we’re getting reliable and affordable energy – there’s $21 billion transforming our energy sector. The data and digital plan – that is some $2 billion that we’re investing in, which includes now, on top of that, 120 per cent tax deductions for small and medium-sized businesses to digitally upgrade their businesses. And, of course, the modern manufacturing plan, and we mentioned just this week the Treasurer announced further support for the critical minerals and rare earths sector to to build up our processing capacity here in Australia. But it’s not just that, it’s in space, it’s in defence industry, it’s in the food and beverage, it’s in medical. We’re going to have mRNA manufacturing down in Melbourne. We just announced money to support the Cyclotron and that backs up the synchrotron, which is the big infrastructure you need to have great medical advances. So, our plan has been, that has been our plan. That’s why we’ve had a $100 billion turnaround in our Budget in the last 12 months. And that plan will take us forward. The thing I’m most excited about, Leigh, is $21 billion being invested in our regions. Now in that plan, whether it’s up in Middle Arm, which is up in the Northern Territory, up in Central and North Queensland in the Burdekin, the Pilbara, the Hunter. They are regions where we need to unlock the wealth. And the infrastructure investments we’re making there in this Budget is transformational. It is Snowy on on steroids, and that is what is going to produce the wealth that’s going to pay for the things that matter. Because if you don’t have an economic plan, which we clearly do, and that’s demonstrated in our results, then you cannot fund the things and the essential services that we’ve been able to guarantee.

SALES: Prime Minister, every election campaign for the past 27 years that this show’s been on, both leaders have done a couple of primetime interviews on this show during the campaign. I’ve already invited Mr Albanese and he agreed. So, I wanted to invite you while I’m here. Would you be happy to do a couple of interviews on air?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we’ll be appearing on the ABC and everybody’s programs over the course of the campaign, Leigh. And we’ve always made ourselves pretty available.

SALES: Well, that’s not a direct answer, actually. Will you be doing two interviews on primetime on 7.30?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the election isn’t about the 7.30 report. It’s about the Australian people and we’ll make ourselves available to the ABC and all the networks, and I’ll be standing up every day. And you make a good point, Leigh …

SALES: You want to be the first, are you going to be the first Prime Minister in 27 years to not do two interviews on the main primetime current affairs program in the country?

PRIME MINISTER: Surprisingly, I don’t think the major issue that people are thinking about at the next election is the 7.30 Report.

SALES: No, not at all. But they do want to hear from you. And that’s a million people that you’re turning your back on, if you don’t do it.

PRIME MINISTER: They will get that opportunity. They will get that opportunity.

SALES: Alright, well we’ll put a bid in every day and see how we go.

PRIME MINISTER: Not a problem.

SALES: Thank you, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks a lot.

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