INTERVIEW WITH ANDREW CLENNELL
Subjects: Australia’s economic recovery; national security; Solomon Islands; Richard Marles’ speech in China.
ANDREW CLENNELL: Joining me now from his farm in Dayboro in Queensland is Defence Minister Peter Dutton. Mr Dutton, thanks for joining me.
PETER DUTTON: Morning Andrew.
CLENNELL: I will get to the matters of Defence and China and the Solomons shortly, but I wanted to start with a question on the economy because it’s so front and centre of the Liberal campaign. And my question is, can you really argue you are in such a strong position on the economy when we have nearly a trillion dollars debt, inflation taking off and interest rates on the way up?
DUTTON: Andrew, at the start of Covid, I remember speaking to a friend of mine who had a business of about 250 staff and they were labourers. They faced the prospect of going into administration and all of those jobs being lost. We saved 700,000 jobs through the decisions we made around JobKeeper. The other economic stimulus and confidence remained in the economy. If confidence had have been dashed, you would have seen small businesses like that with fire sales of assets, including their own homes.
So instead of seeing the economic remarkable story that we’ve experienced, frankly, over the course of the last couple of years – the biggest shock to the economy since the Great Depression – we’ve seen an unemployment rate of four per cent – it was projected to be 15 per cent.
We had situations, Andrew, where it was explained to us in the National Security Committee that we would have to set up morgues adjacent to major public hospitals because tens of thousands of people would have died. So yes, it’s cost money to take us through that and to deal with the reality of the recovery and the cost of the response.
I mean, ventilators, we couldn’t source ventilators around the world. We were able to produce them by sending the army into a factory here in Australia. We were running out of raw materials for face masks, so all of that comes at a cost.
But what I’d say is that even with all of that, Labor is still proposing an $80 billion additional spend and it would go on. I mean you know Labor always spends more money when they’re in government. That’s why they tax more because they’ve got a spending problem.
CLENNELL: And I’ve seen the tax guarantee of the Prime Minister today, but I just wanted to ask about what you said about low unemployment. Isn’t that just a function of closing the international borders and pouring $314 billion dollars into the economy?
DUTTON: No, it’s a function of a couple of things. Firstly, when you look at the rebound of the economy and that’s been supported through the support that we’ve put into the economy – you’re right in terms of the stimulus – but it’s also because confidence has remained. There’s a huge building boom that’s taken place, people are renovating whilst they’re at home over the course of Covid; they’ve added value to their assets; they’ve paid down credit card debt; they’ve paid down debt, so they’re willing to spend more, which means more jobs in the economy.
And yes, there’s a function related to migration and where we initially closed the border with China – which is what saved our country in my judgement from the worst of Covid – it was criticised by the Labor Party at the time, but it was the right thing to do and we’re gradually reopening the borders in a responsible way over the course of the last few months and now into a position where we do want more people to come back because it doesn’t matter what sector is speaking to across the economy, people do have shortages, they do want labour and part of that, you know, the success story, the balance that we’ve got since the Howard days, of bringing in skilled migration has been an underpinning of the economy.
CLENNELL: Sure, do you expect a rate rise in May?
DUTTON: I think if you look at what’s happening in the United States at the moment, where inflation’s at seven per cent, a similar story in parts of Europe, I think we need to really be realistic about the economic risks on the horizon. That’s why there’s only one side of politics that can deal with whatever is coming next in the economy. Whatever shock and difficulty is coming next; Scott Morrison, the Liberals and Nationals will be able to deal with it.
If there’s a rate rise – and that’s an issue for the Reserve Bank Governor – but we’ve put in place settings that don’t put pressure on interest rates and yet Labor always does when they jack up debt.
CLENNELL: Alright, you’ve given an interview to the Sunday News Corp newspapers where you warn of Australia possibly becoming a tributary state to China and of chemical attack on an allied city. Do you mean a chemical attack by China? And what’s behind these claims?
DUTTON: No I don’t. I mean, just to put that into context, James asked me a question about the purchase of tanks, why we needed tanks, and I responded in the in the context that if there was an attack, essentially a terrorism attack, again, like 9/11 of whatever form, if that took place, is it conceivable that we could be drawn back into a conflict in the Middle East. Yes; who knows what the next 20 years holds – but wasn’t in relation to China that comment.
But my comment otherwise, is that we live in a very uncertain time. We need to deal with the realities.
CLENNELL: What’s with the tributary state? You’re saying that China’s going to invade Australia?
DUTTON: No, not at all. I think if you go back and have a look at – Kissinger has written a lot on this – and many others of their experience of China. China wants a relationship where they’ll come to the table and say, ‘Look, we’re paying a fair price for your commodities, but we don’t expect you to be critical of our human rights abuses. We don’t think that you should say anything against China when there’s foreign interference, or theft of IP, or the interference on university campuses in Australia.’ They want us to remain silent on all of that. That’s what I think China’s approach is. They’ve been very specific in relation to Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands, and we’re seeing all of that play out.
But I think what this election is about Andrew, is who is best able to deal with that reality? We’ve restored funding, we’ll increase funding in Defence, but Labor cut funding. They always find a higher cause, a more important spending priority than Defence.
They ripped money out of Defence, which meant less ADF personnel, but also less investment into the infrastructure and into the vessels. They never ordered a submarine, never ordered a boat; that’s the huge difference between the two parties on national security. We are in a much better position under a Coalition Government to deal with this risk.
CLENNELL: But with these sorts of comments, are you trying to frighten people into voting for you?
DUTTON: No, I’m trying to give people – and I have done this for a number of years Andrew – give people a realistic understanding of what it is that I’m seeing without divulging the secretive, sensitive nature of the intelligence that we collect and just what’s available open source.
Look at President Xi’s speech this week when he’s using the same language as President Putin. This this bond that’s been formed between Russia and China – I mean that is disturbing – and I don’t think you need to embellish or make anything up here, it’s about presenting the facts.
It’s not just Australia’s conclusion. The United States is swinging resources from CIA, NSA into countering China’s interference. The United Kingdom, Japan, India, countries in our own region, including New Zealand, all have the same view. It’s not our countries that have changed. I mean we still stand for the same values. It’s China under President Xi. And as we found in the 1930s, if you just continue on an appeasement phase – which is what Penny Wong is proposing – then you will find yourself in conflict.
We need to be open, call out bad behaviour, call out the bullying tactics and normalise the relationship and keep peace and stability in our region. That’s what our approach is, in contrast to Labor’s, and I think we live in a very precarious time.
We should be open and honest to the Australian people about that and to put forward the plan that we’ve got to keep our country safe. That’s exactly what the budget was about, it’s about what managing money is about because without that, you can’t pay for what you need to keep us safe.
CLENNELL: Mr Dutton, why couldn’t Australia’s diplomacy stop an agreement between China and the Solomon Islands?
DUTTON: Andrew, we have an excellent relationship with the Solomon Islands and if you see the comments, even of Prime Minister Sogavare, he’s very complimentary of the relationship with Australia. We’re their partner of choice. We have a record amount of money going into aid projects, helping build capacity.
CLENNELL: Okay, so why is this agreement occurring? I mean this is really a strategic point. Why has this agreement occurred? Do you the Chinese will get a military base there? What has Kurt Campbell been able to establish there in his talks with their government?
DUTTON: Well Andrew, if it was just the Solomon Islands in isolation, that would be bad enough, but as you know, they’ve got a port in Sri Lanka where they’ve taken that port back because the Sri Lankans couldn’t pay for the debt that they’d incurred from the Chinese in building that port. The Chinese don’t play by our rules. If you look at what’s happened in Africa, there are corrupt payments being made. We can never compete with that sort of playbook. We have values and we have the rule of law that we abide by. We’re a good, trusted partner with the Solomon Islands and others.
CLENNELL: Just on that, do you believe corrupt payments have been made in relation to this deal?
DUTTON: Well, it’s not something that I can comment on Andrew. That’s an issue for others to comment on, but all I’d say is if…
CLENNELL: …it sounds like you do?
DUTTON: Well I mean I see intelligence and there’s a lot of work that we as a National Security Committee have done on this issue for a long time to look at ways in which we can, frankly, prevent this situation from happening because we don’t want any military presence from the Chinese only 1,800-2,000km off our coastline.
So we’ll continue to work closely with the Solomon Islands, with other countries, and I think the Prime Minister, through his step up in the Pacific, has put this issue on the radar for a number of years now. He’s been frank and open and honest with his counterparts, and the reality is that China has changed.
China’s incredibly aggressive; the acts of foreign interference, the preparedness to pay bribes, to get outcomes and to beat other countries to deals. That’s the reality of the modern China.
That’s why I think we’re better off not to sit in the corner and close our ears and not say anything and pretend nothing’s happening. That is the Labor way – and it’s a recipe for opening yourself up, as Richard Marles has.
I mean I would never run a speech through the Chinese Embassy to get their approval before I spoke; and yet that’s what the deputy leader, the future deputy prime minister under an Albanese government has done – and he’s not apologised for it. It shows the culture within the Labor Party. It is not going to keep our country safe. It’s not just about money for the Labor Party – they always strip money out of Defence as I said before – it’s about their culture. Penny Wong, and Richard Marles, and Anthony Albanese out there this week show their naiveté, their lack of preparedness to keep our country safe into the future.
We’ve spoken frankly about the risks, but we’ve got a plan to keep our country safe. That’s what we’ve done through AUKUS and we’ll continue to do with our very strong partners in the region and abroad.
CLENNELL: You’ve always had a lot of respect for Richard Marles though. So has your position on him changed?
DUTTON: I like Richard as a person very much, and I’ve been very open, I don’t resile from that, I think he’s a good person, but I think the running of the speech through the Chinese Embassy to make sure that they are okay and see if they had any changes, I think was a fatal mistake.
CLENNELL: Alright, just on that. Scott Morrison called him the “Manchurian Candidate” in Parliament. Do you think he had this in mind when he made those comments? And what do you make of those comments?
DUTTON: I just think if you look at the response of Richard Marles, even in the last 24 hours, he’s obviously gone to ground, understandably, he’s not going to want to be facing the cameras after what’s been a shocking few days; but this is the man who would be the deputy prime minister – and potentially the defence minister in an Albanese government.
Now, Brendan O’Connor has been a disaster as the Shadow Defence Minister, and nobody seriously thought he would be the defence minister – not even Anthony Albanese. I mean, Mr Albanese hasn’t backed in Brendan O’Connor. So the working assumption was that Richard Marles would be the defence minister, but that clearly now is completely untenable.
Kristina Keneally doesn’t want to be the home affairs minister, but neither does anyone else on the Labor frontbench. So when you talk about border protection or you talk about defences of our country, they just don’t have the culture within their party, the ability to make tough decisions when they need to be made and to stand up for our country. They’re backing China over the United States, and that is a shocking mistake.
CLENNELL: Mr Dutton, we’re just about out of time. In fact, I’m told we are out of time, but I’m not going to ask you one final question, so I’d appreciate if you could answer briefly. Last year, you made some comments that if there was a conflict between China and Taiwan, if China were to invade Taiwan, you couldn’t see a situation where Australia wasn’t part of that war. Do you still think that?
DUTTON: Well, every bit of my being Andrew, at the moment is to make sure that conflict can be avoided, that we can have peace and stability in our region – that’s why we’re investing – it’s why we’re forming the partnerships with the US, the United States, United Kingdom through AUKUS, the most important partnership that we’ve got. But now with Japan, India, New Zealand, Canada, others, to really lean in to keep our community safe here. We’ll always stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States as they will with us in times of peace and conflict.
CLENNELL: Mr Dutton, thanks so much for your time.
DUTTON: Thanks Andrew.