Just a complete train wreck: Transcript of Part 2 of the #transitzone interview with Malcom Turnbull

Margo Kingston

Margo Kingston

Co-publisher and editor-in-chief at No Fibs
Margo Kingston is a retired Australian journalist and climate change activist. She is best known for her work at The Sydney Morning Herald and her weblog, Webdiary. Since 2012, Kingston has been a citizen journalist, reporting and commenting on Australian politics via Twitter and No Fibs.
Margo Kingston
- 22 mins ago
Margo Kingston
Malcolm Turnbull. Photo: Twitter

Peter Clarke: Let’s get back to the elephant in the room. Mr Turnbull, recently you said you can’t think of “a bigger black and white failure of public administration” than the Morrison government’s failures in procuring covid vaccines and their design and execution of the vaccination rollout. Now, as you well know, we in Australia have some of the best, smartest epidemiologists and public health scientists in the world. That’s one of our strengths in Australia. Top quality advice aplenty. Now, how do you analyse what’s gone so drastically wrong with vaccination in Australia.

Malcolm Turnbull: It’s about two months ago I said what you just quoted me as saying. I remember as I was saying it I thought to myself, “Gosh, that’s probably a bit harsh.” Then I thought, “No it’s fair.” You know, if you walked out into the street and repeated that today, people would look at you and say, “Oh yes. So you’re going to tell me the Pope’s a Catholic too?” I mean what other penetrating glimpses of the obvious have you got to share with me. It is it is just a complete train wreck. I mean, I can’t explain it. I do not understand how we could have got to the point where we don’t have enough vaccines. I mean, it’s just absolutely inexplicable and unforgivable. I mean obviously you don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Obviously, you get as many vaccines as you can. And if you end up with twice as many as you need, you give the ones you don’t need to the Pacific or to PNG. Or to Indonesia. Or take your pick. It’s just incredible. We would not have most of Australia locked down today if Morrison had bought enough vaccines. The roll-out of the vaccination, the big mistake there was that the Commonwealth decided they were going to do the vaccine rollout. And that was purely political. That was because Scott wanted to get all the credit for saving everyone from Covid. Now again, that was just crazy hubris. The States have been running, their public health agencies have been running vaccinations forever. I suspect for 100 years probably. And why you would not just say to each of the States, okay, here are the vaccines, go for it and let them get on with it is beyond, utterly beyond me. The other thing, that is also extraordinary is the failure on quarantine.
Now, you know, as several people have pointed out, quarantine is actually listed as one of the responsibilities of the Commonwealth Parliament in Section 51 of the Constitution. So this is not one of those vague, ambiguous areas. Jane Halton, who was Secretary of Finance, Secretary of Health, a very distinguished public servant, Jane recommended, must be nearly a year ago now…-

Margo Kingston: November.

Malcolm Turnbull: It is a year ago. She recommended that there should be special cabin-style quarantine centres set up to avoid the aerosol cross-infection that you get in hotels. But nothing’s been done apart from Howard Springs. It was built as a construction camp I think by the Japanese developers of some of the big gas projects in the Northern Territory. So Howard Springs, they’ve taken advantage of. That’s good. I gather they’ve added some additional cabins to it. But this should have been done last year and could be done quite quickly because this cabin-style accommodation is modular. I would think you could get something very serviceable, stood up swiftly. The criticism that the government had two jobs – vaccines and quarantine – and they flunked both of them is fair, but the vaccines is by far the worst because that is literally, that is just inexplicable. I mean it’s obvious when you’ve got new vaccines that you would not put all your eggs in one basket. You would want to make sure that you got a lot. When I say a lot. I mean several times what you need in supply from a number of vaccine providers and we didn’t and other countries did. I was talking another leader. Australia’s failure on vaccination has astounded the world.
So there it is and that’s why we’re locked up at the moment.

Peter Clarke: Most of the outbreaks came out of these leaky tourist hotel quarantines and you mentioned Howard Springs; as far as I know and I’ve tried checking this, Howard Springs hasn’t had any “escapes” and hasn’t had any internal infections which all the other quarantine facilities around Australia have. Now, early on, of course, as the emergency hit early 2020 ,Morrison induced the states to take on the stop-gap measure of hotel quarantine. What do you think has driven his reluctance even recalcitrance since then to take up the burden and the responsibility federally.

Malcolm Turnbull: I don’t know. He … it’s getting back to … “I don’t hold the hose mate.” When real leadership and responsibility is called for, he doesn’t seem to step up. I don’t understand why he didn’t buy ample supplies of vaccines from three or four suppliers. I do not understand that. There is just no rational explanation for that. It’s bonkers, because obviously, things go wrong, right? Everyone knows. Little kids. I mean, I’m sure my grandchildren would know, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” It’s pretty basic. So I don’t understand that. And on quarantine? I guess the reality is, I suppose he thought there’s always going to be problems with quarantine. You know, he’d rather they be blamed on somebody else other than him.

Margo Kingston: That’s harsh, Malcolm

Malcolm Turnbull: Well, I’m trying to find an explanation. Margo. I don’t get it. What I particularly don’t understand is, when by the middle of last year, it was obvious that this virus was spread by aerosols. So what that meant was that anywhere where there was air space that was shared, whether it was common air-conditioning or corridors or lobbies, you had potential problems of cross-infection. And of course, that’s all gone up to the nth degree with the hyper contagious Delta variant. But let’s say we weren’t aware of that. Nonetheless, that’s why Jane recommended that these cabin-style quarantine centres be established. Now the Commonwealth didn’t have to build them themselves. The Commonwealth should have simply said, okay, here’s Jane’s report. It’s clearly right. We want to have half a dozen of these around the country.
Let’s get on with it and just make sure it happens. But you know, ultimately, things don’t happen. I mean, the government is not doing a very good job at governing. I’ll give you another example. The thing that baffles me too. There were too big renewable energy projects that I got underway. One was snowy-hydro 2.0, which, thankfully, is under construction. That was too far advanced for it to be side-tracked. But the other one was the “Battery of the Nation”. This is the big idea. It was my idea: to combine Tasmania’s great wind resource with their very old but, you know, effective hydro scheme. You generate lots of renewable energy with the wind turbines, you pump water uphill when it’s very windy and to store the electricity, you have an additional interconnector – battery of the nation. Read all about it in my book. That was a good idea. As good an idea as Snowy 2.0 but a more complex one. It was more than four years ago that I set out the “Battery of the Nation” idea as I did Snowy 2.0. Snowy 2.0 is at least being built. What’s happening with “Battery of the Nation”?, They’re still talking about it. So nothing has happened. And you know, this is getting back to the issue of climate change. One of the things we have to have for the energy transition is long-duration storage and that requires planning. You can build a wind farm, let alone a solar farm very quickly. But if you want to build a pump-storage scheme to store that electricity when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining, that’s going to take you some years because you’ve got a lot of civil works, you’ve got environmental permitting etc. So you’ve got to get on with it.
The only big pump-storage scheme being built in Australia is Snowy 2.0, the one I started. Literally nothing else has been done. So for all this talk about technology, not taxes, what exactly is being done? Where is the actual output? And it’s like going out and thinking that when you do the press conference, write the press release, get the headline in the Telegraph, that that’s it. That’s not governing, that’s marketing. What you’ve actually got to do is, sure, make the announcement, then you’ve got to go on and do something and build something. What is there?

Margo Kingston: I don’t know if you’d be into this analysis, but one reason I think that they’re not able to govern anymore is that they don’t really want a public service with history and experience and expertise to put out options and everything. They basically, at the top, want people to say, right, I’ll do it. There seems to be something more in play in this collapse of governance than just, Morrison’s an announcer, not a planner.

Malcolm Turnbull: Yeah. Well, I don’t understand it. If you look at the things that I got underway, I was PM for just under three years. The Snowy 2.0, I mentioned that. That’s being built. I got the NBN completed. I know people disagree about the technology mix but at least it was finished. If we’d stuck to Labor’s plan, it would have been half done when the pandemic hit and then we would have been really screwed. So the pandemic sort of ex post facto justified the approach we took if nothing else. But the Western Sydney airport? Talked about for what, 30 years, 40 years? I got it underway. Made the decision that the Commonwealth would build it. Made sure we had the land for the aerotropolis, which I got back from the Defence Department. It’s being built. Hopefully, it’ll be finished by 2026. I don’t know whether it’s running a bit behind with the pandemic. But, but the thing is you’ve got to actually get in and do things. I know Gladys is sort of under siege at the moment, but you’ve got to give the state government here credit. They’re actually getting on and doing things. Some of their Labor predecessors were better at publishing plans and making announcements than actually doing stuff. So that’s the problem. The spin-cycle approach to politics may win you a few elections, but ultimately you end up with nothing to show for it.

Peter Clarke: Mr Turnbull before we leave Covid, how do you see the Federation playing out now? We’re almost “pre-federation” with states around Australia shutting their borders to New South Wales and big, high numbers again today with the Delta covid virus in New South Wales. And of course, we saw the National Cabinet replace COAG. We saw interesting power shifts back and forth between the Prime Minister and the various state premiers. What’s your snapshot of the Federation and Federalism at the moment?

Malcolm Turnbull: Well, I think it’s been the revival of the States, frankly. When you go back to the early days of the pandemic, the Prime Minister was I think more sanguine or more relaxed about the risks. You know, we certainly remember when he assured everyone he was going to the footy and a lot of people gasped when he said that. But, frankly, it was Gladys Berejiklian and Dan Andrews who really compelled the tougher approach. I think initially Palaszczuk in Queensland and McGowan in Western Australia were very tough on borders and were rewarded mightily for that in their state elections. So there’s no doubt people want to be protected. I think that the states have basically taken the lead on all of the public health aspects of this, on the quarantining because the Feds washed their hands of it. The states did the quarantine stuff, even though it was in the constitution as a federal responsibility. They obviously have done the testing. And they’ve done, in fact, local pandemic management. They have now been brought back into the vaccination program because the federal government realized they couldn’t do it themselves. But that’s one of the things that’s made the roll-out of it uncoordinated, shambolic in some respects. You know, I mean, you’ve got people here in Sydney turning up with very long-standing appointments to get Pfizer and being told, sorry, you can’t have Pfizer. It’s Astra or nothing. That’s not very admirable, I think the states have also, Peter, taken the lead on energy.
The political impasse in Canberra means that energy policy is being more and more driven by state governments, particularly the intersection of climate and energy policy. That’s not really satisfactory; better than nothing, I suppose. But I think the states are more potent now, today, than they were a decade ago, that’s for sure.

Margo Kingston: China: very interested in this topic. And it struck me when you’re talking about Morrison that, maybe, the West, they lost the capacity for long-term planning because of social media and all those factors and we’re being outgunned big time by an authoritarian state that has 30 year plans and actually does it. Just wondering where you’re at with the emerging Cold War. And do you think the West led by America has the capacity for it to be a fair fight?

Malcolm Turnbull: Well, there’s a lot of questions there. This is like a whole many hours discussion. So I think, in summary, the United States is the leader of the Western world or the democratic world. I don’t think that’s going to change in any time soon. We have to live with China. China has to live with us. We can’t change China, China can’t change us or shouldn’t change us. We have to stand up for our values. We’ve got to be realistic about our ability to influence affairs within China, and use such leverage as we have, effectively. The idea is not to be grandstanding and making great statements, I mean, Kevin (Rudd) and I were talking about this yesterday on a talk with La Trobe Uni. You’ve got to recognize that subtlety, nuance and fine distinctions have their role and make sure that your diplomacy is calculated to deliver outcomes as opposed to just headlines in the local media. I think we need to do whatever we can to influence China to not persecute people, its citizens or some of its citizens, as is happening in Xinjiang but recognize the limits of our influence in terms of our own position. Obviously, you can’t give into bullying or coercion and where other smaller and medium sized countries like Australia are being bullied, we’ve got to show them solidarity. I think the Chinese campaign of coercion against Australia has demonstrably failed. And I think in a way that’s turned out to be for the good because it’s demonstrated to the world and to Beijing that this sort of crude bullying is very counterproductive. I told the Chinese leaders this for a long time, including here at home in Sydney.
It’s just very counterproductive. Rudd and I both agreed on that. It’s obvious. So hopefully there will be a rethink in Beijing before too long and we can have a more civil and constructive relationship, There will always be areas where we don’t trust each other, but that’s okay. There are areas we don’t trust every other person the same anyway. I mean there are things you tell your wife or your husband that you wouldn’t tell people you work with and there are things you tell people you work with that you wouldn’t tell people who work for a rival firm. So we’ve just got to establish what are the boundaries of trust, work out how we can collaborate within them. I think there’s plenty of scope for that. And above all resume a civil and constructive dialogue. But the freezer that Beijing’s put Australia in obviously has not worked.

Margo Kingston: The whole world’s got to come together for Glasgow, right and left and authoritarian, democracy. Do you do you have high hopes for that? Do you think that all this weather and horror might come together and we really get somewhere?

Malcolm Turnbull: Well, I have high hopes. I’m not close enough to the debate between the US and China to really be certain about it. And I have discussed it with John Kerry, recently. Obviously, I haven’t spoken to his Chinese counterpart at all. Certainly not anyone from Beijing recently. Look, Boris Johnson is very committed to it as the host. Alex Sharma, the Glasgow COP26 Minister, the president of COP26, who’s a British cabinet minister, is very committed and I’ve spent some time with him. Look, I think there’s every prospect that it could work. There’s every prospect that it could be as least as good if not better than Paris and hopefully not as catastrophic as Copenhagen. But people are saying to me, why will China bother to do anything about it? Well, the reality is, China is 20% of the world’s population and, however much they may dislike the Australian government or the American government, we’re all on the same planet. So if the planet fries, we’re all going to get fried, we’re all in the same fry-pan. We haven’t got an alternative. So I think you’ve just got to hope that rational self-interest will prevail and that we will get concerted action. And China’s sort of argument that it used to have, “Oh we’re just a poor developing country.”
I mean, please. Sure there’s still there’s still quite a lot of poor people in China, but to describe China as a developing country, and put it in the same category as well, frankly, even India? China is a highly developed, technologically sophisticated, advanced economy, which still has quite a lot of poor people living within its borders. There’s not much that the Americans and the west can do any longer that China cannot do as well, if not better.

Peter Clarke: I watched that discussion between you and Kevin (Rudd) last night, the Latrobe University online discussion and it was very interesting. But what you left me unsatisfied about was Taiwan, You referenced ANZUS and you’ve spent some time with Xi Jinping and it’s very clear after Hong Kong, we’ve seen what happened there, that he is really going to move to integrate Taiwan back into the Motherland.

Malcolm Turnbull: Yeah, he may. It’s a big call. It is no doubt, it’s a huge aspiration and you can understand why he would want to do it. Look, here’s the thing. If you go back to the years, say the latter part of the 20th century, China was and remains an authoritarian regime, presided over by the Communist Party that believes China’s capital is Beijing and Taiwan is a province of China. Taiwan was presided over by an authoritarian political party, the Kuomintang, which believed that China’s capital was Beijing, Taiwan was a province of China but regrettably the wrong people were in charge in Beijing. Everyone agreed except for a minor detail.

Peter Clarke: But that’s changed.

Malcolm Turnbull: But now we’re in a position where Taiwan is and has been for quite some years now, for all intents an independent country. It doesn’t have that recognition or status, however. But it is a democracy. It is a thorough going democracy. Now, the aspiration, probably naive I think on the part of the West, was that as China liberalised economically, it would become more liberal politically and as it became more liberal it would move closer to democratic values. People were saying it might start to look more like Singapore. And therefore, Taiwanese people would say, Oh well, we can do a one country, two systems type of thing: that’s OK. Well, that’s all out the window. The problem that the West faces, and America faces in particular, is, are you prepared to allow the people’s Republic of China to use sheer military force to integrate, against its will, a democratic country of 25 million people? It’s about the same size as Australia. And I think the answer to that is no. I think if China decided to invade Taiwan, it would result in a war with the United States, with all of the catastrophic consequences for all concerned.

Margo Kingston: And that means we would go to war too?

Malcolm Turnbull: Well look we have an ancestry, Margo, I know some people will try to quibble but I don’t think we were under any obligation to go to war in Iraq or Afghanistan by the way and certainly we weren’t under ANZUS, but you know the ANZUS Treaty talks about American forces being attacked in the Pacific and that’s the area, the ambit of that alliance. And I think Japan would be would be drawn in as well. So, I think if Xi Jinping were too seek to use military force to annex Taiwan against the will of the Taiwanese people, I don’t see how you get out of a very big war. It might be over quickly of course, but be terrible.

Peter Clarke: Final quick question Mr Turnbull. we’ve been talking about the United States being just off to the side of this conversation in many ways. You’ve been in the United States a lot, you’ve met Donald Trump, you have observed everything that we have observed. We’re now seeing muscular voter suppression. We’ve got the Big Lie. We’ve got hyper-partisanship, not even able to address the insurrection in the Capitol and many other things as well. We’ve got gerrymandering and all that. Is the United States still an authentic democracy or is it something more like a Potemkin democracy now?

Malcolm Turnbull: Well, no, I think it’s I think it’s an authentic … it’s an imperfect democracy, but … yes, I spoke about this issue in the Ditchley Foundation Lecture I gave recently. The sort of anti-democratic initiatives being undertaken by Republican state legislatures are really shocking, but there’s a whole history of racism there, you know, as I mentioned. There’s that dreadful movie from 1915, Birth of a Nation, (D.W Griffith) which is worth looking at. It’s pretty gruesome. It’s a very pro-southern, pro-lost-cause account of the Civil War, the end of the Civil War and how the stalwart, Christian, white heroes of the south are taken over by brutish U Union soldiers, including many black men, and how it shows black people, the freed slaves, being elected to the southern legislatures in one shocking scene, which depicts the black legislators basically behaving like apes. It’s terrible stuff. But here’s the thing, the moment of triumph in the movie, at the end, is when the hero, this southern confederate soldier, together with his comrades, ride up, dressed as Klansmen in their white hoods, he having founded the Klan or that’s the story of the movie, and intimidate the freed slaves from going to the polling booth to vote. So voter-suppression, a moment of voter-suppression by force is the hurrah moment of the movie as far as the makers were concerned.
I have to say to give us little Aussie Battlers credit and, you know, there’s never been any shortage of skullduggery in Australia in politics, but, I think that an overwhelming majority of Australians absolutely believe that every adult citizen should be on the electoral roll and they should vote. There are some people who are libertarians and say you shouldn’t be compelled to vote, but I think the vast majority of people agree with that. And certainly we’ve had our electoral boundaries drawn independent of politicians for many, many years. I think at the federal level, it used to be drawn by the public service and then, for at least 50 years it’s been done by the Electoral Commission.

Turnbull takes to liberalism’s lifeboat as LNP ‘broad church’ blows up: Margo Kingston reports on #IndependentsDay

Transcript of interview by Peter Clarke and Margo Kingston with former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recorded August 11, 2012, lightly edited for clarity and succinctness. Part 1

Turnbull reads Scotty’s COVID report card: Peter Clarke’s view from ‘the bunker’


Support an independent media voice. Support No Fibs Citizen Journalism.
Monthly Donation