It’s never easy to interview the Prime Minister when the country’s watching but Lateline’s Tony Jones took the bait last night and went for it, asking Malcolm Turnbull questions that left him looking quite uncomfortable.
After a week of criticism, it was clear there were some things the PM wanted to get off his chest in the tense interview.
It was Turnbull’s first time on Lateline since becoming PM, and judging by his reaction, perhaps it might be his last.
Jones got right down to business, starting the interview by asking, “Belgium’s Prime Minister says that your claim that Belgium’s using the refugee crisis to send operatives into Europe was dangerous and he says it’s exactly what ISIS wants – confusion between terrorism and migrants. Did you go too far in that speech?”
“No. My job as Prime Minister of Australia is to explain these events to Australians and in particular to explain the context, to explain where there are similarities and where there are differences”, said Turnbull.
Jones asked if the PM stood by his claim that recent intelligence suggested that ISIS was infiltrating people to Europe among the refugees and the PM quipped back, “Well, I don’t think anyone would seriously doubt what I said”.
The host then prodded about the reasoning behind only allowing 26 Syrian refugees into Australia despite saying 12,000 were going to be coming in.
“Well we are taking great care. We take security and border protection very seriously. And our agencies are checking all of the security details, the antecedents and so forth, of the Syrian intake. We are expecting to take 12,000 additional refugees in addition to … our recurrent humanitarian intake, our regular intake”.
“Sure but specifically on that question is the fear which you expressed that ISIS is infiltrating terrorists in the refugee flow?”, asked Jones
“Can I tell you it’s not a fear? It’s not a fear. It is a, it is a…We are not afeared. We look at this in a very clear-eyed way and we protect the security of Australians diligently and in a very realistic and pragmatic way.
“And we make no apology for that. My job as Prime Minister of Australia, first and foremost, is to keep Australians safe”.
Jones then moved on to the PM’s routine of using slogans: “Are you going to change your slogan “continuity and change” now that you’ve realised how silly it is?”
“Well it’s not, it’s not a slogan and I’m not into slogans”, replied the PM.
They then argued about what a slogan was before Turnbull said, “No I’ve not used that slogan. I’ve subsequently learned that there was a slogan used in the American sitcom “Veep” – change with continuity or continuity with change”.
“Which they chose incidentally because it was the most meaningless election slogan they could think of”, quipped Jones.
He pressed further: “So does this reflect on your own choices?”
“It really reflects on your choices that we’ve spent so little time on national security and now we’re talking about an American sitcom. But let me just…”
“Actually as a matter of fact you raised the American sitcom”, Jones fired back.
“Yeah well, that was where you were heading. Let me just make this point Tony: the point that I made was in respect of questions about Mr Abbott and myself. And I made the point that when there is a change of prime minister, and in fact this applies even when there’s a change of government from one party to another, there are policies that continue, so there is continuity and there are policies that change.
And that is a fact. It is not a slogan it is a fact”.
They then discussed Tony Abbott’s involvement in Turnbull’s prime ministership.
“In a long campaign how are you going to deal with the ghost of governments passed?”, Jones asked.
“Well, I think Australians are not very interested, other than yourself of course, in the ghost of governments passed. What they’re interested in are the prospects of the future government. What they want to know is who is best able to manage Australia’s economy”.
Tony Jones responded: “But in any election campaign there’s tremendous interest in what happens behind the scenes, and not only behind the scenes, but on television when Tony Abbott came forward and said what he said. It raised the question whether he’s in a sense playing Kevin Rudd to your Julia Gillard, whether you could end up facing that same kind of psycho-drama that played out during the 2010 election, whether he could undermine your support over a period of time. Isn’t that a concern?”
“No. The Australian people are concerned about who can best ensure that their children and grandchildren will have great, well-paid jobs in the future. They’re concerned about the choice between me and Bill Shorten. That’s the choice that will face Australians at the election”, said the PM.
Jones asked, “Have you got an assurance yet from Tony Abbott that he won’t interfere in the campaign since he’s already done it on day one?”
The PM shook off the question and said, “Tony, my focus is on leadership, on economic leadership in this context”.