Indian Link exclusive interview: Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Pawan Luthra in conversation with the PM ahead of the 2019 Federal Elections.

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PM Scott Morrison on why he deserves a second turn in government, about issues of concern within Australia’s Indian community, and about the Australia-India relationship.

Welcome to Indian Link, Prime Minister.

Great to be with you.

To use rugby terms, we are almost in the last quarter of the game, where your team started well behind on points. Where do you feel you are now, with respect to the 2019 election, and as captain of the Coalition team, what do you need to do to get over the line on 18 May?

We’re going to keep focusing on what the choice is of this election and explaining that choice to Australians all around the country. It’s a choice between myself as PM and Bill Shorten. It’s a choice between a government that has already legislated and will continue to reduce taxes for all Australians, and not increase them like Bill Shorten and the Labor Party will do. A government that knows how to manage money and is bringing the budget – has brought the budget – back into surplus next year, which means we can pay down Labor’s debt, and a Labor party that will see $387 billion of higher tax and a record of not being able to manage money. You know what, when you can’t manage money you always spend more of it, and you always come after people in higher tax [brackets] to make up for your inability to manage money – that’s what we saw with Labor. It’s a choice between having a stronger economy – the Indian community is our largest source of migrants to Australia, and they came for the opportunity, for their family, for their children, and they want to be part of a stronger economy. There is a much higher proportion of migrants, 1 in 3 in fact, who work for themselves and run their own businesses, and they’ve come here for that.

The Indian community is our largest source of migrants to Australia, and they came for the opportunity, for their family, for their children, and they want to be part of a stronger economy

PM Scott Morrison 2.Indian Link

So they come to the country of opportunity.

That’s right. And that’s why our policies, which are designed to ensure that (particularly) small and family businesses continue to do well. That they can be in an economy that’s stronger, and not weighed down by higher taxes, meaning that your money is better off in your hands than the government’s, and you can realise the dream and have the promise that was made in coming to Australia fulfilled.

Prime Minister, you come from a family which seems to be drawn to politics. Your father John Morrison, was a policeman who served on the Waverley Municipal Council for 16 years, including for a brief period as mayor. What drives you?

Family drives me. Family is the most important thing in life for me. But Australian families have three very honest and decent aspirations: they want to be able to get a job, raise their families, and work hard. They want to be able to buy a home and live peacefully in it. And they want to be able to save for their retirement so they can be independent. I want Australians to achieve all of those things, and at this election Bill Shorten wants to tax all of them more and get in the way of those decent, hardworking aspirations. So as a politician, and particularly as PM, what I am seeking to do, and have been doing, is get the obstacles out of the way and ensure that we can keep the promise to all Australians that you’ll be able to pursue these dreams, that you’ll be able to realise your opportunities, and not have a government penalise you for doing just that, which is what Bill Shorten and the Labor Party propose to do.

During your tenure in politics you served as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection in the Abbott Government; then in the 2014 cabinet reshuffle, you became Minister for Social Services. You were promoted to Treasurer in 2015. And now of course you are Prime Minister. Which one of these posts did you find most challenging and looking back, where do you feel you made the most difference?

I’ve got to say I found them all genuinely equally challenging. They were quite different and needed different skill sets. Serving in each of those portfolios has given me a depth of experience to be doing the job now as PM. You’ve got to have a good understanding of the government’s finances, of what drives the economy, and as treasurer I was able to do that. As Social Services Minister, you need to understand the difficulties and strains that are experienced by Australians often in the most difficult of circumstances like people with disabilities, people with very low incomes, and ensure that our social safety net can connect to them and that we can get more people off those safety nets and into jobs, because the best form of welfare is a job. And obviously as Immigration Minister, my record in border protection and stopping the boats is reasonably well-known. But the reason I did that wasn’t just that it was enough to stop the deaths at sea, but because I wanted to protect the integrity of our immigration programs. I’ve always been a big believer in immigration and its role in making our country stronger economically, our society stronger. But I know it only works when Australians show confidence in it, and Australians don’t have confidence in an immigration system when borders aren’t being properly protected and the Immigration program just sort of runs off on its own and doesn’t have clear rules and rules that aren’t enforced. The people that trust the system, they have to have confidence that it’s being run properly, and I was very proud as an Immigration Minister to have delivered that.

I’ve always been a big believer in immigration and its role in making our country stronger economically, our society stronger. But I know it only works when Australians show confidence in it, and Australians don’t have confidence in an immigration system when borders aren’t being properly protected and the Immigration program just sort of runs off on its own and doesn’t have clear rules and rules that aren’t enforced.

Prime Minister, you are on record talking about the economic benefits of immigration. In 2016, speaking at Sydney’s Lowy Institute, you emphasised the importance of “keeping the door open on our economy to help increase earning capacity and boost living standards”. But now, you are cutting numbers from 190,000 to 160,000. Is that pandering to the hard right of your party or are you trying to win support from One Nation voters?

Absolutely not. Again, it’s for the same reason why I protected the borders – Australians have to have confidence in the program, and our population growth has been running too hot. That’s been putting a lot of pressure on our big cities, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne. When people came to this country as migrants, they didn’t come to sit in traffic jams and have their quality of life deteriorated because of population growth that was getting too great. So we’re managing the migration program to ensure we keep population growth under control so we can keep that promise to the migrants who have come to Australia, that they can enjoy the quality of life in our cities that they came to enjoy. So we’re managing the program responsibly and that’s why we’ve made those changes – to ensure that we can keep the program well supported and that’s what we’re achieving.

PM Scott Morrison 1.Indian Link

But will they find jobs where you’re sending them? Unemployment rate in SA for example is 5.7% compared to 4.3% in NSW and 4.8% in Victoria. Will that not put more pressure on the new migrants?

No, because the areas where people will go are where there are opportunities. And in South Australia, we’re seeing a big turnaround in the economy. We’re seeing a big turnaround in the Tasmanian economy, and there are parts of Australia around the country who want more migrants. In Sydney and Melbourne it’s getting choked and congested, and that’s where we’re looking to manage the program. But in other parts of the country, they’re very keen to see migrants come, and provide jobs, and to have their support and their involvement in their local communities. So I think it’s a win-win.

There seems to be a sharp growth of independent parties like One Nation, UAP etc. What role do you see for them in Australian politics?

These parties ebb and flow between elections. The thing about independence and these minor parties is they’re not going to run the government, they’re not going to reduce your taxes, they’re not going to keep the economy strong, they’re not going to protect the borders, they’re not going to do any of these things. That’s what the Liberal Party does, with the National Party informing the government. So I would suggest that those who have interest in what some of those smaller parties are talking about, they won’t be able to do anything about it. The large parties on our side of politics – the Liberals and Nationals – we can do something about those issues and that’s why I’m urging people not to vote for the minor parties and vote for the Liberal and National parties, because we’re the ones in government that can take real action on the things that are of concern to Australians.

Another policy which is creating much discussion in the Indian Australian community is the fairness of your party’s temporary sponsored visa compared to the ALP’s proposal. Your proposal is capped places of 15,000; ALP is uncapped. Your proposal allows families to only elect one set of parents to unite with, ALP allows both sets. The cost of the visa is 4 times the ALP cost. Your thoughts?

Well, we’ve made available that temporary parent visa, and that does provide the opportunity that previously wasn’t available to ensure that people can come and be reunited with their families. One of the things that we do have to do is manage the program responsibly, and there is concern that having an unchecked, unconstrained migration program will only undermine the confidence in the program and contribute more to integrity issues within the Immigration Program itself. It’s just part of our responsible approach to managing immigration. When immigration is managed well, Australians support it very strongly. Under the Labor Party as we saw previously, it wasn’t seen to be handled well and it wasn’t handled well; that can only hurt migrant communities because it makes the program less efficient and as a result there are greater calls in the community for migration programs to be seriously reduced. I don’t want to see that, and that’s why we stand by having proper controls in place and extending the opportunities we can. And if after a bit of time, we think we can do better than that, we certainly will. I wouldn’t trust Labor on these things – they say a lot of things but they rarely do them, and the costs that are ultimately involved and the price is paid, you are paying for in higher taxes. So when Labor says they are offering you something, check your wallet, because that’s where you’ll find the answer to what they’re offering you – you being taxed more.

Talking about India-Australia relations, it seems to be limited to the four Cs – Commonwealth, cricket, coal and curry. There really does not seem to be a strong connection especially in trade and commerce. The bilateral trade needle is stuck in spite of the rapid growth of the Indian middle class. If re-elected on 18 May, what more steps will you take to take this relationship more forward? 

I would certainly make a visit. There’s been invitations for that but I’ve had to have the election and we’ve been very focused on that. But I would be seeking to follow up on those meetings. I met with PM Modi on several occasions. We’ve had the major piece of work that we had done on commercial relationship with India recently and we’ve responded to that report, so there’s a lot to get on and do there. I agree that the opportunity for the relationship is far greater than what it has been to date and that is a view shared by India as well. And on occasions where we’ve sought to broaden that relationship, there have been some obstacles in trying to get through that in terms of dealing with government and bureaucracy and so on, and we have to persist and try and get through these barriers. Because the synchronicity between Australia and India, I think, is significant. Culturally, we’re aligned. In terms of values, and what we’re about – peace-loving people, rule of parliamentary democracy – these are values we all share, and this is why when I often talk on India’s national day, it is a seamless transition from coming to Australia as a citizen of India and becoming a citizen of Australia. There’s no big value shift in doing that. It’s just a natural, and I think an easy transition, because the values of the countries are so similar. They are so aligned between our countries there’s an obvious next step to those relationships.

Because the synchronicity between Australia and India, I think, is significant. Culturally, we’re aligned. In terms of values, and what we’re about – peace-loving people, rule of parliamentary democracy – these are values we all share

PM Scott Morrison 3.Indian Link

I’d be looking forward to visit there again; I’ve only been on one occasion and very briefly. My wife has been there many times and she loves it. She absolutely loves it. She’s been keen to take me there just privately for many years.

There is a strong feeling of difficulty in doing business in Australia within the business community in India, after the constant delays and challenges which the Adanis have faced. They have successfully fought off all legal challenges thrown at them by environment and other groups, yet it has taken them this long to get Federal approval for this project. Has there been hyperventilation against the Adani group, and what effects from that flow on to Indian businesses wanting to invest in Australia?

I was very disturbed to hear Tanya Plibersek say, if Bill Shorten is elected PM and Tanya Plibersek will be the Deputy PM, ‘An Indian business cannot be relied upon to grow jobs in Australia’. Now apart from it being deeply offensive to the Indian business community in Australia – I know people of Indian background who are running businesses here employing lots of people and have been immensely successful and highly entrepreneurial – to suggest that Indian business can’t create jobs in Australia as Tanya Plibersek has done, I think is not only deeply offensive but it’s economic nonsense. Remember it was Tanya Plibersek who thought Africa was a country, so we’re not going to take too many tips from her about geography or matters regarding ethnicity of businesses. But when it comes to the relationship, we have to get over those issues. I believe that those types of comments have impacted investor sentiment in Australia, and that’s why it’s important that Tanya Plibersek doesn’t become the deputy PM of Australia. But beyond that, I think there are equal frustrations of Australians trying to do business in India, and these are the things that together as governments we have to try and overcome.

I know people of Indian background who are running businesses here employing lots of people and have been immensely successful and highly entrepreneurial – to suggest that Indian business can’t create jobs in Australia as Tanya Plibersek has done, I think is not only deeply offensive but it’s economic nonsense.

Finally, your message for the Indian Australian community, in the lead up to the elections?

Firstly, Namaste. More broadly, the reason you have come to Australia is to be part of a country that provides opportunity, that provides choices, that backs your judgment that you’re the right one to make the decisions for you and your family and for your community, and the policies that we’re putting forward at this election are about continuing that. The Labor Party’s higher taxes, not being able to manage money, taking money off you to spend on what they think is important, rather than letting you make your decisions about what you think’s important, I think goes very much against why you would have come to Australia in the first place – whether you’ve come more recently or you came generations ago for a better future for your family and your children. So that choice is there: it’s a choice to keep the promise that you made to yourself and to your children in coming to Australia by having a government, our government, the Liberal National government, which will also keep that promise to you and your family.

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL WITH PM SCOTT MORRISON

Favourite curry to cook?

The girls love butter chicken. Not the most healthy, but it’s a special treat every now and then that I cook for them. I haven’t done too bad on the vindaloo on occasions too by the way, but I’m a big fan of anything to do with the kormas. I also do quite a number of Sri Lankan dishes, and southern Indian dishes – you know, the ones where you cook with coconut oil and coconut milk and you put in some leaves and limes, that adds a bit of a different taste to it. I quite like those, particularly in summer.

Rumours are that you want to write a curry cook book called “Curry Nights with ScoMo”. True or false?

(Laughs) I should, shouldn’t I? I don’t know when I’d get the time. I must admit, all the recipes I use I borrow from the celebrity chefs. I enjoy it. I always found it very relaxing and it’s my meal of choice pretty much anywhere I go. If there’s a curry on, you can find me there.

Perhaps at a later time, Indian Link and PM Morrison can collaborate on a book?

(Laughs) Sounds good to me. And we can support one of the local Indian charities.

We have a deal on the table, then.

Done.

It appears Mrs Morrison has a good sari collection – have you helped her select these?

She looks gorgeous in a sari. She loves wearing them, she just loves the colours and the fabrics. She’s in love with India. She’s been there on a couple of occasions with a small business that she’s involved with. She loves the colour, the culture; it’s so vibrant and every time she comes back she’s just had an absolute ball.

An Indian personality who has made an impression?

Narendra Modi. He’s quite an impressive man, very devoted to his country, and with a very clear sense of India’s independence. I think that’s why he’s had such strong support. India is a very difficult country manage – I think he knows that better than anyone else. But he’s shown great leadership for India, and has been a very positive leader in the world more generally. I think he’s seen and respected in that way by other world leaders, including myself.

PM Scott Morrison 4.Indian Link

I’d love to see him back in Australia. I know the Indian community would love to see him too. Last time he was out he was a rockstar. He’s a very charismatic guy, and a very humble man. I sat with him at a dinner at the MCG once, and it was just the two of us. There were obviously a lot of people there that night but we were at a table together and we talked about everything. Including curries, I gotta say.