Interview with Neil Mitchell, 3AW

NEIL MITCHELL: Prime Minister, good morning.

PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, Neil. It’s great to be back in Melbourne after quite a while.

MITCHELL: I was going to say, welcome back to Victoria. It’s February, I think, isn’t it?

PRIME MINISTER: It has been quite some time. It’s a beautiful day and it’s great to be back.

MITCHELL: Does it look any different? I suppose you haven’t gotten to the city yet.

PRIME MINISTER: The traffic is a bit quieter, I can assure you of that, from last time I went down, as Melburnians would know. But as time goes on we will see things continue to sort of get back to some form of normal. But it’s, you know, I commend all Victorians for pulling through what has been such a terribly difficult time and now coming out the other side and the comeback has begun.

MITCHELL: You, and more so Josh Frydenberg, were very critical of the way Daniel Andrews ran things here. But was he right, given where we are? Did he do the right thing in retrospect?

PRIME MINISTER: I don’t think that’s how you describe what I was saying.

MITCHELL: Well, Josh was.

PRIME MINISTER: When Melbourne went into lockdown, we supported the lockdown because it had become necessary because the outbreak had not been contained. There was the hotel quarantine failures and then there was the outbreak containment which wasn’t able to bring it under control and lockdown became the only way of dealing with it. Now, that lockdown has gone for a long time, a very long time, and obviously that has significant costs that are associated with people’s livelihoods as well. But we’ve come out the other side and the only real issue was towards the end about at what point did that move open again. But they were decisions for the Victorian Premier and we’ve maintained a very good working relationship all the way through. In fact, I’ll be meeting him later today while I’m here.

MITCHELL: Yeah but you also, you and other ministers, in fact the Health Minister and Josh Frydenberg talked about the contact tracing not being up to scratch while the Victorian government was saying it was. Well, you were right there, weren’t you?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, and we’ve just had Dr Finkel who has just completed a national review of all the contract arrangements, including in South Australia, which is now dealing with, you know, a very concerning outbreak there. I’ve spoken to the Premier this morning, the chief medical officer also and they’re swinging into action there, picking up from the lessons from what has occurred in Victoria. And so hopefully they’ll be able to get onto that very, very quickly. But that’s a concerning situation, but one which no amount of resources being spared to deal with. But the contact tracing, I mean, making sure you quarantine arrangements are in order. But the outbreak containment through contact tracing is absolutely critical and ensuring that they move towards an industrial and digital scale is, I think, one of the key lessons there. And that’s what Dr Finkel has done and that has led to a significant improvement in the Victorian contact tracing.

MITCHELL: Is it fixed yet? Is Victoria fixed yet?

PRIME MINISTER: Certainly the advice from Dr Finkel was that there’s been significant improvements from where it was.

MITCHELL: Yeah but is it done?

PRIME MINISTER: It is chalk and cheese, night and day.

MITCHELL: Is it right, though? Is it gone as far as it needs to? Does it still need improvement?

PRIME MINISTER: There are still improvements to be made and I am sure the Premier would agree with that. But those improvements are being made. I think that’s the critical thing. But it is in a position now that if it were in that position many, many months ago then I think things would have been quite different.

MITCHELL: Ok. In South Australia, would you be sending in more help there? Or have they got it under control?

PRIME MINISTER: We’ve already stood up the aged care response, like the one we had in Victoria that we set up there. And so, again, moving quickly. There are excellent facilities there because of staff, not because of residents, that we’ve put into a lockdown amongst those facilities. More broadly across South Australia, they’ve engaged in very significant testing over the last 24-36 hours. And there are large numbers that have been placed into isolation this morning and that’s right. But I think, Neil, it’s a reminder, even after, you know, a lockdown, even after all of this time, the virus hasn’t gone anywhere and it can be activated. And that’s why none of us can be off our game. And we’ve got to match fit on this all the time. New South Wales have been able to keep pushing through. They’ve had outbreaks they have contained and, you know, Victoria’s had outbreaks, smaller ones more recently and they’ve been able to get on top of in regional areas. And so, you know, Tasmania was the same. So we’ve just got to stay on the front foot. But in comparison to the rest of the world, I mean, I just finished the events over the weekend with all the ASEAN leaders and spent a lot of time also with European leaders recently and the United States. I mean, the comparison there could not be more stark. It’s getting worse, not better there. But here in Australia, they’re getting better, not worse.

MITCHELL: What does this say about home quarantine and the dangers of home quarantine, which one would assume is less secure than hotel quarantine? What does it say about that?

PRIME MINISTER: We looked at this and considered this last Friday at the National Cabinet and we’re not convinced at this point that we can take those risks and that the systems can be as certain. Particularly when you’ve got the elevated number of cases overseas, we don’t think at this stage we can move toward anything like that. I mean, there are already some exemptions that are provided in all states and territories that sort of deal with specific circumstances. But that’s only where they can meet the high standards expected of quarantine that is applied in a hotel setting. But let’s not kid ourselves that those are foolproof either. And that’s why the outbreak containment, the tracing, the COVIDSafe behaviours, the wearing of masks, all of these things are very important to ensure we stay on top of it.

MITCHELL: By the way, you may be aware of this, the Northern Territory has just declared South Australia a hotspot, which means people going to the Northern Territory will have to go into quarantine.

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, I was advised of that by the Chief Minister and, look, I anticipate other jurisdictions will make similar decisions and that’s for them to do. The whole point of the hot spot is that it does provide that temporary protection. It’s important, though, that as Northern Territory has demonstrated, they put areas of the country, not entire states, on hotspots from time to time, and they quickly take them off again. The Northern Territory has shown a very good model there.

MITCHELL: Would you object to, say, Victoria and New South Wales closing their borders to South Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’ll leave that to both of those states to make those judgments. I mean, I remember the conversation I had with Premier Andrews and Premier Berejiklian when we shut the border down between New South Wales and Victoria. I mean, that was a sensible decision, it was necessary and we look forward to those borders reopening. And these are always temporary measures and they need to be done on the basis of health advice. But I spoke to Premier Marshall this morning, and I mean, they’ve been working hard to keep their systems match fit. But as he said to me this morning, you know, there’s a constant reminder and a wakeup call for the whole country. Perhaps particularly for those states and territories that have been behind borders. In New South Wales and the ACT and I’m sure as I move around Victoria today, I don’t think I’ll see any situation where I think people are not taking this seriously. And it’s important that behind borders that a complacency doesn’t build up.

MITCHELL: The tennis coming to Melbourne, all the international players coming here for all tournaments, do you need to sign off on that or have you signed off on that?

PRIME MINISTER: No, that’s a, that’s well, the visa issues, but that of itself isn’t an issue. It’s the public health issues are being done by the state government.

MITCHELL: So are you happy with it? Happy with it?


MITCHELL: A lot of, a lot of people coming from a lot of countries?

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah but we’ve already seen a lot of this happening already. I mean, we have people who are coming in for a range of different occupations. I mean, they’re not celebrities. They’re not coming and playing tennis or anything like that. But I think we’ve demonstrated through a lot of our major sporting events this year, I mean, the fact that the AFL and NRL and the women’s netball were able to continue, I think, demonstrated that within these codes and within these events that Australia is very good at managing their practices of these things.

MITCHELL: The vaccine lab that you’re opening, just how important is that for, I mean it’s great for the Victorian economy and everything – not opening, but announcing – it’s great for the Victorian economy, the Australian economy. What does it mean for the future of public health?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, this is, there are two elements here. I mean, the things we’ve already announced, which is the fact that the AstraZeneca vaccine and the University of Queensland vaccine will both be manufactured here in Melbourne. And that’s part of our manufacturing agreements for those vaccines that we’ve already completed with CSL and that was announced some time ago. So that’s dealing with the immediate issues of the COVID vaccine. But what we’re doing here is over the next 12 years, we’re ensuring that our procurement for vaccines going through CSL and that’s about a billion dollars over the next 12 years, that gives them the certainty to invest in upgrading their capabilities. And one of the lessons that many countries, including Australia, is we’d need to continue to invest in supply chain resilience, particularly in areas, it just doesn’t deal with the COVID, things like COVID vaccines, because, you know, there could be another pandemic on something else. And to have this capability at an upgraded level, I think is very important. So this is for the future. But it also is creating obviously economic opportunities right now and a security right now and security around our supply chains and in a critical medical area.

MITCHELL: A couple of quick things, I know as the former prime minister John Howard suggested, you have a face-to-face meeting with the Chinese president to try to work out problems there. Will you try to do that once the restrictions on travel are lifted?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, what John said was to do these face-to-face meetings, actually assists, of course they do and Australia is always open to those. I mean, just on the weekend where I was engaged in a multilateral discussion with Premier Li Keqiang on three occasions, actually on the weekend. Sorry, two occasions on the weekend through the East Asia Summit and the RCEP, which is the trade…

MITCHELL: So do you want to do that with President Xi?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, again, we welcome that. I mean, Australia has not broken off any dialogue. We’re totally happy to be having those discussions. And we stand ready to.

MITCHELL: This new trade deal with China, though. How can we trust it at a time when Australians are still being told they can be locked up for no reason in China?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, let me just put in context what was agreed on the weekend. This was a new trade arrangement that was driven by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. So countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and others, and they have been driving, for the last eight years, it’s quite been quite a bit of time to get a trade arrangement between all of these countries, which includes China, including ourselves, includes Japan, includes Korea. Now Australia already has trade agreements with all of those countries. And what this does will, I think, really simplify those arrangements. So, I mean, what we have with China, we already had established through the China- Australia Free Trade Agreement. But there’s no doubt there’s been some tensions around some particular commodities and exports at the moment. And we’re seeking to work through those patiently and practically. China says very clearly that they’re saying that this is not an act of retribution or coercion or anything like that. That’s what they’re saying. And so we will work with that and seek to resolve these issues as practically as we can.

MITCHELL: Two other quick things if I may, I was just talking to a mother whose 29-year old son in the UK desperately needs cancer surgery, stage 4, back in Melbourne, problems getting him in. Can we raise that with your office and see if there’s any room for compassionate action?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, you certainly can. And we’ve been, I mean, we’ve facilitated the arrival of over 30,000 Australians directly. I mean, 400,000 Australians have actually come back to Australia since the start of this pandemic and we’ve got a team of case managers working vulnerable cases specifically. So very happy to chase that up, Neil. It’s very hard getting people back because every time we get someone back, there’s at least one or two who also wants to come back on top of that. I understand that. And that’s why we’ve had to say RE international students, that there’s no shortage of flights. And we put on additional flights. We’ve opened up quarantine capacity in the Northern Territory and Tasmania, the Commonwealth’s funding that. But until we can get m, continue to be hard for people to get home. But we’re moving everything we can to get them home.

MITCHELL: Thank you so much for your time. Just finally, a good working relationship with the state government. Daniel Andrews – Josh Frydenberg, quote, ‘He’s not a leader. He’s just a liberal.’ That’s a good working relationship?

PRIME MINISTER: We get on just fine. I’m looking forward to catching up with him this afternoon. I mean, the National Cabinet has met on 31 occasions, Neil. And so, you know, over the course of this year, of course, there’s been a lot of difficult issues. And from time to time, there’s been some disagreements. I think people understand that. But I can assure you that we’re both leaders, him of Victoria, me of the country, and it’s our job to work together and we’ve never lost sight of that.

MITCHELL: Josh isn’t going with you is he?

PRIME MINISTER: No, he won’t be there today. But I’m sure he and Treasurer Pallas equally work together very well. Doesn’t mean they have to agree on everything. And one of the things I should say, Neil, because one of the other reasons I’m here in Melbourne today is one of the things we have to work on together. And I think Victoria and the Commonwealth can actually set the framework here, is on mental health, because the royal commission is here in Victoria. But also today I’m releasing the Productivity Commission report on this and the national suicide prevention adviser’s interim report. One of the key things we’ve got to do here is work in this grey zone that exists between primary health, your GP and what happens in hospital, there’s a lot of shared responsibility to sit in the middle there. And that is something that he and I are very committed to try and resolve. There’s a lot of good faith and goodwill to achieve that.

MITCHELL: Quite extraordinary isn’t the number of self-harm attempts by young people has increased by a third? The number of presentations anecdotally for mental health issues at emergency departments has at least doubled, yet the suicide rate hasn’t gone up?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think that’s a testament to the fact that the services [inaudible] and we have surged those supports, particularly here in Victoria, particularly here in Victoria, through the lockdown. And look, I hope what you’ve just said doesn’t change [inaudible] coming in in terms of the actual death from suicide. And it is running on an equivalent level to what we’ve seen last year. But, you know, whether it’s the services for young people, or BeyondBlue, or Lifeline, they have all done an amazing job here in Melbourne. And I really thank all the workers there and the volunteers and those who support those organisations they have been lifesavers.

MITCHELL: Thank you so much for your time. Appreciate it. Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks, Neil. Good to talk to you.

/Public Release. View in full here.