Prime Minister Scott Morrison has declined to name the price of common consumer items – including rapid COVID tests – and batted away allegations of explosive text messages during a bruising encounter.
Mr Morrison delivered a bold speech to the National Press Club in Canberra on Tuesday
It was his first major speech of the year, in which he attempted to frame the Coalition as sound economic managers and emphasised Australia’s recovery from the pandemic, ahead of a likely May election.
Mr Morrison also vowed to cut the jobless rate to something with a “three in front of it this year”, while keeping taxes low and cutting red tape to drive investment.
But, in questions after his speech, he was seemingly tripped up when he was quizzed about the cost of living and whether he had “lost touch with ordinary Australians”.
“Off the top of your head, can you tell me the price of a loaf of bread, a
litre of petrol and a rapid antigen test?” Sky News political editor Andrew Clennell asked.
The PM responded: “I’m not going to pretend to you that I go out each day and I buy a loaf of bread and I buy a litre of milk.
“I’ll leave those sort of things to you, mate. And you can run it. But the point is that I do my job every day to ensure that those things are affordable as they possibly can be for Australians every single day.”
Mr Morrison was also confronted by sensational allegations of text messages between former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian and a serving, but unnamed, Liberal cabinet minister. Ten Network political editor Peter van Onselen revealed the private exchange, which he said had been provided to him.
“In one she (Ms Berejiklian) describes you as, ‘a horrible, horrible person’, going on to say she did not trust you and you’re more concerned with politics than people,” he said.
“The minister is even more scathing, describing you as a ‘fraud’ and ‘a complete psycho’. Does this exchange surprise you? And what do you think that it tells us?”
Mr Morrison denied any knowledge of the messages, or the sentiment – and instead reeled off an answer about Labor and taxes.
“I obviously don’t agree with it. And I don’t think that’s my record,” he said.
“We want people to keep more of what they earn. They know that because they’re experiencing it. We said that we’d do that. And we’re doing it. They are receiving that now and they’re keeping more of what they earn.
“If you want taxes to remain low, then vote Liberal and National – don’t vote Labor. Because their taxes are the opposite.”
Mr Morrison had earlier faced a chilly welcome when he arrived at the NPC. Anti-vaccine protesters lined the streets and shouted chants at his car as he was driven in.
Inside, the first question after his speech came from NPC president and ABC journalist Laura Tingle. She asked Mr Morrison if he would “take this opportunity to actually say sorry for the mistakes you’ve made
as prime minister” – including in managing the pandemic and for his infamous holiday to Hawaii during Australia’s Black Summer bushfires.
“We’re all terribly sorry for what this pandemic has done to the world and to this country. These are the times in which we live,” Mr Morrison said.
“I’ve set out today, I think, very clearly, the challenges that we’ve faced. But I’m also very proud of Australians and what they’ve achieved in enabling us all to come through this despite the setbacks and the challenges that we have faced.”
He did, however, admit to some mistakes in his government’s handling of the pandemic – including that he might have raised expectations ahead of summer and the emergence of the Omicron variant.
“I think we were too optimistic, perhaps and we could have communicated more clearly about the risks and challenges that we still faced. And I think, in raising those expectations about the summer, that we heightened the great sense of disappointment that people felt,” Mr Morrison said.
“In our communications, we have to be clear about that. We can’t lift people’s hopes, then disappoint them. I think that’s what happened over the break.
“Secondly, on the vaccination program, if I had my time over, I would have put it under a military operation from the outset and not later in the year.”
But he said the ultra-contagious Omicron variant, which was first detected in South Africa in November and quickly spread around the world, had “completely turned things on its head”. Cases began to explode just as the national regulator finally approved rapid COVID tests.
“We moved quickly because we hadn’t anticipated that we would have a variant that resulted in the vaccine not being able to stop the
transmission,” Mr Morrison said.