ABC RADIO AM WITH SABRA LANE
WEDNESDAY, 2 SEPTEMBER 2020
SUBJECTS: State borders; National Cabinet; Tony Abbott’s comments on COVID restrictions and aged care; Australia in its first recession in 30 years; Cheng Lei; foreign policy; Australia’s relationship with China; Port of Darwin.
SABRA LANE, HOST: Mr Albanese, welcome back to AM.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Good to be here, Sabra.
LANE: Scott Morrison would like the borders open by Christmas. A plan will be put to National Cabinet this Friday. Queensland's keeping its borders closed until September, possibly longer. We've heard how hard that is for businesses to survive along the border. Is this more about politics than it is about health?
ALBANESE: Well, the borders are closed in Tasmania until at least December One. So, what has happened with the so-called National Cabinet is that it's not national and it's not a cabinet. State premiers and chief ministers tell each other what they're going to do. And then the Prime Minister announces them. The Prime Minister needs to get some common-sense arrangements. It's up to the premiers when borders open. But of course, there needs to be appropriate exemptions.
LANE: The common sense that you talk about, I mean, National Cabinet is being advised by a national health committee set up with representatives from all the states and territories. Yet premiers seem to be ignoring it.
ALBANESE: Well, what Scott Morrison clearly does have control over, as well, is the national border. And what I'm getting is literally hundreds of constituents complaining that they're stuck overseas, they can't get home, they can't get to see relatives. It is those issues as well that need to be addressed.
LANE: And again, it's the states saying, ‘We want a cap in place because we can't deal with any more’. So, it's the states.
ALBANESE: The Prime Minister is in charge of our national borders. He can't have a circumstance whereby every problem he says is a problem for the states and he bears no responsibility whatsoever.
LANE: Now, Tony Abbott's called for COVID-19 restrictions to be relaxed, arguing that officials have become trapped, in his words, ‘crisis mode’, and that governments need to consider ‘uncomfortable questions’, again, his words, about the number of deaths they are prepared to live with. What do you think?
ALBANESE: Look, I think that Tony Abbott's comments are most unfortunate. He was never known for his compassion. But really, this is a new low for Tony Abbott, essentially to dismiss the number of deaths that have happened for older Australians, particularly those residents of nursing homes. And in addition, to somehow argue that it would be acceptable if there were more deaths. What we know from the Royal Commissioners, is that with proper planning, much of this could have been avoided.
LANE: Does he have a point? Another of his arguments is that first this was about flattening the curve, then it became suppression and then somewhat elimination, that the goalposts have been changing on this.
ALBANESE: I don't think there's much merit to Tony Abbott's comment, frankly. I think it would have been wiser were they not have been made over in the UK where he's now working for another government, not Australia’s.
LANE: The virus has triggered a recession. We'll get confirmation later today of just how deep that is. This is the first since Labor’s recession of 1991. If you were Prime Minister today, what would you do today to create new jobs?
ALBANESE: Well, for a start I'd have a social and public housing construction program. We know the need is there. For a start, I'd have a national energy policy framework to drive investment through the economy and lower energy prices. For a start, what I wouldn't have done is do what they did with legislation just this week, which was to potentially cut the wages of already low paid workers by up to $300.
LANE: Just on social housing, how many houses would you build?
ALBANESE: Well, I'd negotiate with the states and territories to expand that. What we did during the Global Financial Crisis was 20,000 new social housing units but 80,000 renovations. That created jobs. It also led to a much better quality of life for people in public housing, reduce those queues, and made a big difference.
LANE: China's detention of Cheng Lei, an Australian journalist, is that hostage diplomacy?
ALBANESE: Well, it certainly is a real concern here. Once again, it's unclear what the circumstances are, what the journalist has been charged with, if at all. And this is of great concern. And I stand with the Government in its diplomatic measures to look after this Australian citizen.
LANE: And overnight, there's been another ban imposed by China. This time it's Australia's biggest barley exporter that has been singled out. Is this punishment?
ALBANESE: Well, the relations are very bad. And it's a real issue, I think, that Australian ministers can't pick up the phone and seem to have no relationship with their Chinese counterparts. China is the largest recipient of our exports, by a long way. And it is a real concern that the Australian Government don't seem to be able to manage the relationship.
LANE: Now, the Government announced last week its intention to assess deals between the states, local governments and universities with China to ensure that they're in the national interest. It doesn't cover the Port of Darwin sale. That is a commercial agreement. You have long been critical of that sale. The rules have subsequently changed since then regarding the foreign ownership board reviewing these things. But if you were Prime Minister today, would you review that? Would you renationalise it?
ALBANESE: Well, this as a test for the Government. When they introduce their legislation, if they think that an individual researcher at the University of Sydney engaged in a research project with someone from the University of Beijing is a big issue, but the sale of the Port of Darwin to a government, Chinese government-owned entity isn't a problem, then I think it shows that the legislation is all about politics and not about substance.
LANE: Would you renationalise Darwin Port?
ALBANESE: This is a test for the Government. I can't think of any infrastructure asset in the country that is more central to our national interest, and particularly to our defence, than the Port of Darwin.
LANE: Would you renationalise it?
ALBANESE: I would never have sold it.
LANE: Would you renationalise it?
ALBANESE: I would never have sold it, Sabra. We're going to wait and see the legislation. We'll see what prospects there are for amendments to the legislation. But we'll hold the Government to account on its own rhetoric. And we'll see whether they're serious or not.
LANE: Mr Albanese, thanks for joining me on AM this morning.
ALBANESE: Thanks very much, Sabra.