Transcript: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on “Face the Nation”

Credit: CBSNews
Credit: CBSNews

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The following is an extended transcript of an interview with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison that aired on Sunday, September 26, 2021, on “Face the Nation.”


MARGARET BRENNAN : Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for joining us.

AUSTRALIA PRIME MINISTER SCOTT MORRISON: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

MARGARET BRENNAN: It’s good to have you in studio. I want to ask you big picture. Both President Biden and President Xi Jinping of China have said that they want to avoid conflict. But then you have the U.N. Secretary General saying the relationship is completely dysfunctional and we need to avoid a Cold War. Do you see us headed towards conflict with China?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: I don’t think that’s inevitable at all. I think what’s in everybody’s interests is a happy coexistence, but a happy coexistence that depends upon free nations like Australia, countries throughout the Indo-Pacific region living in a free and open Indo-Pacific. And that should be all of our objectives. And I welcome the- the moves that President Biden is making to connect with President Xi and seek to find that place where we can respect our differences, focus on the things we can work together on. But at all times, we have to, as sovereign nations, stand up for the values and beliefs that we hold. I think that’s a prerequisite to a happy coexistence.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Happy coexistence is a diplomatic term, because things don’t seem so happy right now in the region. I mean, you had the Biden administration officials saying Australia is subject to coercion by China right now. I mean, do you think China’s strategy is to try to crack Australia as a way to get at the Western Alliance and the United States?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Well, if that is the case, Australia will always be resilient, will always stand firm on the things that we hold dear. The United States is no different. An any liberal democracy is not going to compromise on issues of our free press and a free parliament.– 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Are they trying to force you?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: –We’ve- we’ve experienced some difficulties in the relationship, which- which China have set out and the issues that they’ve raised with. This is things like our free press about the way that we make sovereign decisions about who can invest in Australia and the fact that we stand up on issues like human rights and issues like Xinjiang. And of course, when it comes to Hong Kong, which is we have a large Chinese Australian population and many who have come from Hong Kong. And so of course, we’re going to have views about this. We respect that every country has its own sovereign right to run its country the way it sees fit, and we recognise the- the many achievements that China have made over the years. But at the same time, Australians will always be Australians. We will always stand up for our values and- and the- and the way we run a liberal democratic country, just as I’m sure the United States always will. Our great friend and partners.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, here in the United States, the FBI director said this week that every 12 hours the US opens a counterintelligence investigation into China, and that’s how they’re targeting the US. What are you seeing in Australia? What is the biggest threat you see from China?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Well, we- we’re resilient to foreign interference. We’re resilient to whether their- their attacks that come through- through forms of cyber or other forms of foreign interference. Any sovereign country would be. But the way we prefer to–

MARGARET BRENNAN: They are trying to squeeze you economically.

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: The way we prefer to look at it, though, is diversify our economy, ensure we’re resilient in our own manufacturing settings and our resources and our agricultural sectors. We find new markets. We have- we live practically within the Indo-Pacific. There are many different countries with many different outlooks. And in Australia, we live in the Indo-Pacific. This is not a theoretical concept. This is where we live and we want to live with the countries in our region and in a positive way. And the way to do that is where there are differences, well you hold your ground on your differences, of course you do, and you try and find a positive way to work with others in the region and and you work with your partners and your allies. And that’s why we’ve been able to come to this historic new level of partnership with- called Orcas with Australia and the United Kingdom, the Quad, which we’re- which is why I’m here–

MARGARET BRENNAN: The meeting at the White House. 

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: –That’s right, the quadrant. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: That President Biden is holding you–

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: India, Japan, Australia and the United States.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Isn’t that an anti-China alliance?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: No, it’s a positive alliance. It’s a positive partnership, even more technically correct for contribution in the Indo-Pacific. The Indo-Pacific–

MARGARET BRENNAN: Against who? 

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: –Those of us who live there want a peaceful, free and open Indo-Pacific. So it’s not about being against something, it’s about being for something. That’s how we look at it.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So why do you need U.S. made nuclear submarines?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Because Australia’s defenses depend on having a long reach. I mean, Australia is a long way from everywhere, and in order to ensure that our security interests are best protected, we need to have a long reach and a long range.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But you needed them faster than what the French were delivering you. That’s what led to this big diplomatic blowup with the French. You switch to nuclear powered submarines.– 

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: That’s right. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you can police longer distances. We’re talking about in China’s backyard the friendly coexistence. You need some military support here, no?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: We’re- we’re talking about the international waters of the South China Sea, a free and open Indo-Pacific. I mean, international waters means exactly that. And whether it’s ourselves, the Germans, the French, the British and our partners throughout the region and Japan and India and all of us. These are international waters. They should- the- the international law of the sea should matter, and it does to us and it does to all the countries of the region. And so the ability to be able to operate where all countries should be able to operate, I think is very important. But the- the key reason for our change is conventional submarines can no longer meet that need with the changed strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific. And that’s why we’re able to proceed with that contract because it no longer was going to be able to do the job that we needed these boats to do.

MARGARET BRENNAN: And we’ll- we’ll get to that because everyone’s heard about the very strong language the French have voiced in their opposition to it. But big picture? You’re buying these nuclear submarines, are you looking at an arms race with China? Because that is what the Chinese have warned that that is what this is a signal of.

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: No. What we’re doing is we’ll be moving from our existing conventional fleet of submarines, our Collins-class submarines and over time to be able to replace that with a- with a fleet of nuclear submarines–

MARGARET BRENNAN: Because China has picked up its military. 

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: –with higher capability. There’s been an increased militarization of the Indo-Pacific for many, many years and- and we’ve seen that escalating for some time. And so the escalation predates our decision.

MARGARET BRENNAN: When do you actually get these submarines?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Well, that’s what we’re working through over the next 12, 18 months. That’s what August provides for–

MARGARET BRENNAN: You need them before 10 years?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: That- that’s not a possible timeframe. We’re talking about nuclear submarines, which- which carry a very high level of responsibility for nuclear stewardship. Now, these aren’t nuclear armed submarines. They are conventionally armed submarines. But the stewardship that is required for a nuclear submarine fleet is of the highest order. This is technology that the United States has only ever shared once with the United Kingdom in 1958. So this is a significant- a significant decision by the United States to give us access to that technology. Now that means we have to build the capability to steward that in the most responsible way. We take our nonproliferation responsibilities extremely seriously. Being from a Pacific nation, we’re aware of the deep sensitivities, nuclear issues in the Pacific and- and so that’s why we are particularly sensitive to those issues and will build that capability. And it will complement the many other areas of defense cooperation we have with the United States and many other partners.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But are you concerned that this could be read by China as a reason to feel more threatened? Do you think this puts a target on your back?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Well, I believe it should be. And that’s really our point. Australia has every right to take decisions in our sovereign interests to provide for our defenses, to work with our partners, to create a more stable region, to ensure that there is a- an effective balance in the region of interest, which means that all countries can trade and engage with each other and lift the prosperity of their own people.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you expect retaliation for this?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: I see no reason why there should be.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You haven’t spoken to the Chinese president in well over a year. Things are not very friendly at the moment.

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Well, the phone’s always open at our end. The door’s already- is always open at our end. There is no Australian obstacle to direct dialogue at a political level between Australia and China. But that opportunity the China side have not shown an interest in, but they’re always welcome when they wish to.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Would he take your call? 

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Who’s? 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Have you tried to call the Chinese president? 

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Those- those opportunities have been available for years, but that’s not something they’re interested in at the moment, that’s their choice.

MARGARET BRENNAN: He doesn’t want to take a call right now. 

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: No. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: So, how real- big picture. How real is the threat of a hot war? Of military conflict in your region of the world? I mean, you have the two presidents of the most powerful countries in the world, US and China, saying we don’t want a conflict. Do you see one as potential in the next five to 10 years?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: As I said before, I certainly don’t see it as inevitable and I think it’s all completely avoidable. And those issues, though, are going to be resolved principally between the United States and China. They are not issues that are going to be resolved directly by Australia. What Australia has to do is, understanding that environment, we have to take decisions in our national interest to ensure we have adequate defences and an adequate way of providing stability in the region, not just for Australia, but all of our friends in the region. Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, all countries we work closely with in the region, ASEAN countries. And in addition to that, working with Japan and India, of course, who are Quad partners, Republic of Korea. We are all working together to have a more stable, free and open Indo-Pacific.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is- is Taiwan the biggest area of potential miscalculation?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Well, the risk in- in- in any tense environment is miscalculation. That is always the great risk, and history teaches us that. And so that’s why I think all countries have to show caution. But in Australia’s case, I think we certainly have done that. But at the same time, we’ll always stand up for what we believe in, and we’ll always hold our ground on the things that we know matter.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So the- the French government made clear they were not happy they lost this contract for submarines, and the US and Australia, UK as well, have inked one. A defense contractor in France says it’s sending you a bill for $66 billion. Well, do you intend to pay that?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: I think that’s a rather extraordinary claim. It’s simple. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think there’s any wrongdoing?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: No. We- we had a contract for procuring submarines that had gates in the contract which gave us the option. If we didn’t believe that we should continue, then for any number of reasons- in our case, what these submarines could do no longer meeted it the strategic need that Australia had. So we’ve exercised our option under the contract not to proceed. Had we proceeded, then as prime minister, I would have been negligent because I would have been going forward with a massive and very costly contract that would not have done the job that Australia needed to be done.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you regret not being more transparent or direct when Australians are known for being direct? 

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: We are–

MARGARET BRENNAN: Why weren’t you direct with the French president? 

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Well I- you should be assuming I was– 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Saying, you’re going to lose us?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: And- and I have been. We were very clear that we had deep concerns that conventional submarines would no longer do the job. We had discussions about that. And at the end of the day, we didn’t see the situation the same. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mhmm. 

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: The French obviously thought their submarine could still do the job. We didn’t believe that was the case. And as a result, we decided not to proceed now. I’m absolutely not surprised that that would come as a deep disappointment. Of course, it was a very significant contract. And I and in particular, French President Macron, who I know will, had made great efforts to ensure this contract could be successful, and we appreciate that. But at the end of the day, Australia has to make decisions in its natural- national interest. We had sought- we had communicated that and unfortunately that contract was not going to be able to proceed because the submarine was not going to do the job we needed. It’s a- it’s a- it’s an outstanding submarine. If you’re looking for a conventional submarine, we were no longer looking for that capability. We needed a more supreme capability and we went down that path. So I understand the disappointment. Of course, they would be disappointed. But this is a contractual matter and it will be resolved, I believe, amicably.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to ask you about COVID.

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Sure.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Australia is one of the few Western democracies that has really put in place some very, very strict COVID protocols. You shut down your borders 18 months ago. When will they reopen? Are you going to have vaccine passports? When will Australians be able to leave?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: We will see our international borders, particularly for Australians to leave and return, and Australians who are overseas who have been vaccinated to return and that will occur before the end of the year, and it could happen well before that. I mean, right now we’ve reached the point where half of our adult population aged over 16 has been double vaccinated. Three quarters of them have had their first vaccination. In our older population, those rights are already much higher, over 90%. And so with the vaccines, that is improving our resilience and- and we’ll be able to open up those borders. But I’ll tell you what shutting those borders did. It saved over 30,000 lives in Australia. Almost- it’s around about 1,200 Australians have lost their lives to COVID. That is what is lost in a day here in the United States. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: Yeah.

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: And if we’d had the same rate of fatality of just the OECD nations on average, more than 30,000 Australians additionally would have- would have passed away. And so we took action to save lives. We also took action to save livelihoods, and our economy has come back strongly even with the restrictions we have in place now as they lift. Then we will see our economy come back strongly. There is nothing wrong with our economy. The only thing that’s holding back is obviously restrictions that are helping save lives.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So you talked about the difference in the death toll that the New York Times said more people died in Florida of COVID this week than in all of Australia during the entirety of the pandemic. 

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Correct. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: But then, culturally there’s this huge difference. You talk about shutting your borders. You will go into quarantine when you return home to Australia. 

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Correct.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think less liberty is medically necessary? We have a huge argument over that in this country. Why did you think it was worth it in Australia?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Thirty-thousand lives is the simple answer.

MARGARET BREANNAN: People in this country won’t wear masks.

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: That’s a matter for the United States.

MARGARET BRENNAN: But what do you attribute that difference culturally to?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Well I- look, we’re different societies. I think we are different societies. I mean, we’re great friends and we share beliefs and values that we hold dear. And that’s why our alliance, 70 years now, since we had the ANZUS alliance that commits- more than 100 years standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States and in pretty much every conflict, you can imagine those who have got- those that have gone well, those that have not gone so well. But on every occasion, Australia has always been there with the United States. That said, we’re still different societies and in Australia when it comes to public health, we’re a very pragmatic nation. And I can tell you the virus doesn’t care what you believe. The virus cares about how it can come and take your life. And in Australia, we’ve introduced what we believe are practical controls that have saved tens of thousands of lives. And I think the proof of those decisions is in the results.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The Delta variant is really challenging some of the record, though. I mean, Sydney again in lockdown.

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: True.

MARGARET BRENNAN: In Melbourne this week, you did have some protests–

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: We did.

MARGARET BRENNAN: –against mandates. So, is there just sort of an exhaustion level here politically that makes it difficult for you to try to control the virus?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: The Delta variant is the game changer when that started hitting around the world from about mid this year. Of course, it’s had a devastating effect here in the United States. We have had a lot of success with COVID in managing the virus pre delta where we didn’t have to go into lockdowns. We could manage it through the testing and tracing, isolation, borders, quarantine. All of that was very effective. But when Delta hit, it was- it changed everything. And so regrettably, we’ve had lockdowns in our two biggest cities in Sydney- Sydney and Melbourne now for- for many months, and we’re looking forward to the end of that. And those restrictions are already starting to ease. And the vaccination programme, which has been running successfully, our rates of vaccination on a daily basis per capita have even exceeded those that were achieved in the United States, in the United Kingdom at their peak. And so that is getting us to a place where we’ll be able to open again.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Very early on in this pandemic, Australia was really the only country that stood with the Trump administration at the time in demanding a real investigation into the origins of COVID. 

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Yes. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: The Biden administration’s intelligence officials came forward and said they just don’t have clarity. Do your agencies have any clarity into the origins?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Well, Australia and the United States shares- share information on these issues.–

MARGARET BRENNAN: You are one of the five countries.

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: It’s part of the closeness of that relationship, which, you know, led to the ANZUS partnership we have now. What matters is the World Health Organization should know, and the WolD- World Health Organization should be able to go and find out. And this isn’t a political issue. It’s not an ideological issue. I mean, where it originated from. That’s a matter that needs to be determined. Now, I have no theories on that. That’s not my job, but it is my job as a leader–

MARGARET BRENNAN: But you’ve seen the intelligence.

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: I’ve seen a range of reports, but there’s none of those that can lead me, at least, to come to any finite conclusion. But I would like the medical experts to know because this can happen again. This can, if it occurred in a wildlife wet market, we need to know because there are many of those. If it occurred in some other city, or how it transferred into the human population. This is important for public health. That’s the only thing that matters. And so Australia just asked the honest question, Hey, how did this start? It’s pretty important we know, and we think the World Health Organization needs to have the ability to ensure that I know the answer to that question because let’s face it, COVID-19 has had a devastating impact.–

MARGARET BRENNAN: Do you think they failed in going about that?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: I’m very- I think I’m one of many who have been frustrated that we haven’t been able as yet to get those answers and we need to persist with those answers. And I welcome the fact that, you know, we- we were part of a process that saw over 60 countries come together and say, we need to know we need a process to actually make sure we found, find out what happened here. That’s important and they need to get on and complete that job.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Before I let you go, I do want to ask you about climate change. 

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Sure.

MARGARET BRENNAN: In April, you said Australia was on the path to net zero emissions. You haven’t really given a timeline of I want you to be able to deliver on that. Anything to update us on in terms of what you plan to come to agreement with the United States on in these meetings, because so far the Biden administration has failed in its attempts to broker a major climate deal with China. Is there anything you can do or tell us about movement on the climate front?

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Well, for Australia, performance matters. And- and at the start of this year, I said Australia wants to achieve net zero as soon as possible and preferably by 2050. That’s- that’s what Australia’s position is, and our track record on this is strong. We’ve already reduced emissions in Australia by over 20% since 2005. We committed to Kyoto. We met that target and we beat that target. We’re going to meet and beat our Paris target as well.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You will meet and beat it? No country is actually delivering that so far? 

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: We will meet, and we will beat it. See this is what Australians think. See it’s one thing to have a commitment. But in Australia, you’re not taken seriously unless you’ve got a plan to achieve the commitment. And how we do this, in Australia’s view, is incredibly important.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, a plan to achieve is different from actually doing it, and no country in the world actually lived up to the Paris climate change accord.

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: We have, and we are already at 20% down on our emissions from 2005. Australia has the highest rate of rooftop solar in the world. Australia has one of the highest rates of increase of renewable investment. We’re spending $20 billion to develop things like hydrogen technologies and so many others that are part of the new energy economy that actually gets you to net zero. So the- the issue we have is it- it’s about how, not just by when. And the question has already been passed. It’s how we do this and not just advanced economies like Australia. It needs to be transformational in developing economies. We want to ensure that countries in our region, like Indonesia and Vietnam and India- I met- I’ve been meeting with Prime Minister Modi over this very issue, and a technology partnership which sees us working together to ensure we get low cost solar as well as hydrogen part of their energy supply chains. That’s what gets you to net zero because unless we can put developing countries and developed countries on the path to net zero, well the world just gets hotter. And we’re very practical people and we need a plan that’s going to work not just for countries like Australia and the United States, where our emissions actually- reductions exceed countries like the United States, New Zealand, Canada and so many. We’re getting on with it in Australia and we’re going to keep getting on with it.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for joining us.

PRIME MINISTER MORRISON: Thanks very much for your time. Good to be here.

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