Transcript of press conference, Canberra
WED 23 FEBRUARY 2011
Subject(s): New Zealand earthquake; Libya; Flood levy
PM: Good morning.
As Australians are starting to go about their day this morning I know that their thoughts are with the people of New Zealand as they grapple with this enormous tragedy in Christchurch.
It’s obviously been a harrowing night in Christchurch for people. There have been aftershocks, and search and rescue efforts are underway to deal with people who are trapped in buildings. There are media reports that there are around 100 people trapped in buildings and search and rescue efforts are trying to get to them.
I’ve been briefed this morning by the Australian officials who are coordinating the Australian response. Sadly, it seems that a long-term Australian resident of New Zealand origin has lost his life in this disaster. Reports are sketchy and we are still working through the details, but it appears that this person was a family man and our condolences go to his family, who would be struggling with this news.
It also appears that he was assisted by a passer-by in the last hours of his life. Our thanks would go to that stranger and I think that’s an emblem of the kind of spirit that we’re seeing in Christchurch as people get together to help each other in such difficult circumstances, and I’m sure many Australians have watched with a great deal of admiration as they’ve seen New Zealanders get about the task of search and rescue, with people just doing everything that they can to help.
In these conditions we are still working through to confirm that Australians are safe. At the present time, the hotline that we set up for anxious family and friends to ring has received - let me just check - more than 5,000 calls, and we have through that process registered 1,511 Australians as being in Christchurch. We continue to estimate there were more than 8,000 in the broader Canterbury region. Through this registration process and through the work of our consular officials, we’ve been able to confirm the safety of 417 of those Australians and we are still seeking to confirm the status of 1,094 Australians.
As I advised yesterday, we have three consular staff on the ground. We are sending in more consular staff. A further seven officials from our embassy in Wellington and our consulate in Auckland will reach Christchurch today. We are also sending in six officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade here in Canberra to bolster our consulate presence on the ground so that they can be working through to confirm the status of Australians. This is going to take some time. We are dealing with large numbers and we are dealing with very, very difficult conditions, so I am going to ask Australians for patience about the thing that it’s almost impossible to be patient about, and that is trying to get news of your loved ones and confirm that they are safe, but we are sending in extra officials and they will be working as hard as they can to confirm the status of Australians in Christchurch.
We are also sending over four Centrelink social workers. This has clearly been a traumatic experience and we want people to be able to get that kind of assistance and support.
I understand that the Christchurch airport will be open today and commercial flights will resume. Both Qantas and Air New Zealand are going to put on extra capacity, so our consular team, as well as ascertaining the safety of Australians, will be assisting people to make arrangements to travel from Christchurch and return home.
Our efforts to assist New Zealand continue and there is of course a lot to do. Two New South Wales search and rescue teams will be on the ground today; that’s a team of 36 and a team of 34. They will be joined by a team of 70 from Queensland which are also a trained search and rescue team. These people will be working alongside their New Zealand counterparts to go through the damaged buildings and to look for people who are still lying in those buildings.
As people would be aware from media reports and as I’ve been briefed this morning, there are people making telephone calls and sending texts messages from those buildings to alert people to the fact that they are there, so the search rescue teams will be working through to try and get assistance to those trapped people.
An Australian medical assistance team will also deploy today to provide further assistance to New Zealand.
New Zealand has also asked us, at a police-to-police level, particularly to the New South Wales Police, for a contingent of police officers to go over and help relieve the very hard-pressed local forces. My understanding is that New South Wales is working to respond to this request and we will be able to make additional police officers available.
This is a very, very difficult time for the people of New Zealand. It’s also a very difficult time for Australians who are waiting for news.
I think from the images people are seeing on their TV screens, they can get some understand of the conditions in Christchurch. There’s a lot of damage. There’s a lot of uncertainty about where people are in buildings. There are very dedicated search and rescue efforts underway to get to people.
The people of New Zealand and Christchurch are pulling together to look after each other in evacuation centres, and certainly our officials are there to assist Australians and to get them through in these difficult and trying circumstances.
We will be doing everything we can to work with our New Zealand family, with Prime Minister Key and his emergency services personnel, his military officers, his medical people, his search and rescue teams. We will be working alongside them to give as much relief and assistance to New Zealand as we possibly can.
When we have more information we will certainly make it available. I know there are many, many Australians very hungry for information about what is happening in Christchurch, and as soon as we’ve got more information we’ll make sure it’s released.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, have you spoken to John Key since you spoke to him yesterday? Also, do you know how many police officers have been requested, and where are we likely to see further requests to assistance, for help from the Defence Force, for help with supply issues?
PM: The numbers of the police requested, the only information I have is that they’ve asked for a contingent of police officers, so I don’t have the numbers, but it makes sense that their very hard-pressed police would need some relief at this stage.
On further requests, we anticipate that we may receive requests for things like Australian Federal Police assistance with victim identification. That’s a request that may come in. We may get requests for practical assistance like water purification, the ability to provide tents and habitat to people who need to be sheltered and can’t stay where they normally stay. There are a large number of people in evacuation centres that have been put together very, very quickly. We may receive further requests for medical assistance, even for medical evacuation and if that is necessary then we will respond to those requests, and as they move from this stage to clearing the rubble and mess that you are seeing throughout Christchurch, then if they need assistance with equipment at that stage, then we would certainly provide it.
So my message to Prime Minister Key has just been ‘please ask, and we’ll do everything we can.’ I haven’t spoken directly to Prime Minister Key since our conversation yesterday. I do anticipate that during the course of today I will speak to him, and as people know, he has been on the ground in Christchurch.
JOURNALIST: We’re already dealing with the aftermath of the floods and cyclone in Queensland, floods in Victoria, of fires, is there any prospect that down the track as Christchurch gets into the recovery phase that resources across the Tasman may be stretched?
PM: When you look at everything that people have lived through this summer, with Christchurch coming on top of it, I’ve been concerned and I know Premiers have been concerned - particularly Premier Anna Bligh was very concerned - about fatigue factors for emergency services personnel and police officers who have just been asked to be stretched to their limit because of the circumstances we’ve faced.
Our emergency services personnel are well aware of that and are managing fatigue factors so that people do get some relief, so as we assist in New Zealand and as we deploy people into New Zealand that is being taken into account, so we are not pushing people beyond the limits that they can go.
But having met with some of these search and rescue workers in the past and having met with a lot of emergency services personnel this is what they train to do, this is what they live to do and this is what they want to go and do - use their skills to help others.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, do you have any confirmed reports of Australians missing in Christchurch?
PM: We’ve got, as I said to you yesterday we are working through. There are four people we’ve got concerns for and we are working through to ascertain where they are. As people would know from media reports we are concerned about the circumstances of Australians in the Pine Gould Building. There was one media outlet that was directly in contact with a woman who was in that building and trapped, but able to use her mobile phone. I haven’t been able to get any further details on the situation of that Australian woman who made contact with a media outlet, but there is search and rescue underway as we speak at the Pine Gould Building with a New Zealand urban search and rescue team doing everything they can because they do know that there are people in there.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, what have you been told about the state of medical facilities in Christchurch and you mentioned the possibility of evacuations - does that mean that you envisage there is a possibility that people would be brought to Australian hospitals for a time?
PM: Look, we’re not at that stage yet, but it stands to common sense and reason that there are large numbers of people who need medical assistance. New Zealand obviously has capacity in other parts of the country to assist people, in Auckland and Wellington and other parts of the country. What they’ve asked us for at this stage is for medical people to go there and how you move people with injuries and do that safely is a complex problem and you need to make judgements about the best way of assisting people.
But if we get to a stage that the best way of assisting people is to medically evacuate them and bring them here, then of course we will do that, but I don’t have advice that that’s the situation that we’re at yet.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, do you have any more information about the long-term Australian resident who has passed away? Do you know where in Australia he lived and whether his family are in New Zealand with him at the moment, or whether they’re in Australia?
PM: Look, the details are still being worked through and I’m not in a position to release details which may identify him at this point, but my understanding is his family are in Australia, that he is a Kiwi by birth, he’s a permanent Australian resident and he’s lived here a very long period of time with his family and that they are here in Australia.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, do you have an update on the situation in Libya and any further plans to evacuate Australians that might be in that country?
PM: The problems aren’t confined to Christchurch, you’re right. We also are concerned about the circumstances of Australians in Libya.
We are continuing, as a Government, to call on Colonel Gaddafi to end the violence that we’ve seen against protesters in Libya and we certainly are condemning the statements that he has made and that his son have made about effectively plunging Libya into a civil war. We are saying to Colonel Gaddafi that he must listen to the voice that is rising from his people on the streets of Libya and engage in dialogue about the country’s future. The future of the Libyan nation should be defined by the people of Libya.
For the Australians who are there, we are providing them with consular assistance. We are looking at evacuation options, not only by air but potentially by sea. As I indicated yesterday, the United Kingdom has made an offer to assist us with that, they too have got citizens in Libya and we will be working through with them on the best way of assisting Australians.
Our advice clearly remains do not travel to Libya - do not travel - and for the Australians who are there, stay in touch with our Consular people there, only travel if it’s safe to do so, and please work through with them on the best way of getting out of Libya.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, what about the status of Libyan officials in Australia? I know a UN delegation has split with its government. Do you have any advice on what’s happening there?
PM: There are some reports about statements made by the Ambassador here from Libya. I don’t have precise confirmation about his intentions, but we’ll be seeking to clarify that.
But if I can make a more general point, so this a point not specifically about what he might say about himself but more generally, around the world we are seeing a number of Libyan officials turn away from the Gaddafi regime and make that very public and visible in the countries in which they are and I think that is a further expression of the aspiration of the Libyan people for freedom and democracy and we’re seeing that on the streets and I think we’re now seeing it more broadly through the statements that are being made by Libyan officials.
JOURNALIST: Would you be prepared to grant them asylum of they do defect?
PM: I think we’ve got to take it a step at a time. It’s not for me to make a determination about an individual’s future. First and foremost we would need him to clarify his intentions.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister you said that there are about 100 Australians in Libya yesterday. Do we know if they are all still there, or have some managed to get out?
PM: I understand that people having been moving to leave Libya. I can’t give you updated numbers at this stage about how many have left, but certainly we believe people have been taking our advice and moving to get out of Libya and we’ll keep working through to assist Australians.
JOURNALIST: By air, or land, or–
PM: -We are looking at evacuation options that include moving both by air and by land and we are talking to the United Kingdom about that, given their offer of assistance.
JOURNALIST: And have we been able to confirm, I guess, the relative safety of all the Australians that are known to be in Libya?
PM: I’ve got no advice to me that would cause me to say that there’s a concern about someone’s safety at this point, but clearly the situation is a volatile and unpredictable one, and as was the kind of thing we said with the situation in Egypt, it is easy for people to get swept up in circumstances that are happening around them, which is why we’re being very clear with people: don’t go to Libya, and if you are in Libya work with our staff there and only travel if it’s safe to do so.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just on a domestic matter, where are you up to with negotiations on the flood levy (inaudible) and is progress being made?
PM: On domestic matters I’ll obviously continue to deal with them during the week, including the flood levy, but my purpose today and my focus today is on bringing assistance to New Zealand.
Thank you very much.