Photo: AAP Image/Rob Blakers
THE HON WILL HODGMAN MP, PREMIER OF TASMANIA: I will just very briefly take the opportunity to welcome the Prime Minister and to also welcome back Senator Linda Reynolds to the Huon. There are a number of my parliamentary colleagues who are here today and a lot of community leaders who are wanting to come together and show a community that is under strain and under stress, that the government understands that and we’re coming together to provide support, assistance to show that we are listening and that we care about what’s happening in this community. We’ll do all we can to assist them through what could of course be something that impacts this community for a number of weeks yet. From the very start I’ve been in close contact with the Prime Minister and my federal colleagues to ensure that we’re working in sync and that our efforts are well-targeted so that the Commonwealth is fully aware of the situation on the ground here, particularly in the Huon and to also make sure that state resources are being well-applied to fight the fires and assist local government as well, in their efforts in the recovery process which is now already underway and which will go on for some time yet.
Our focus has always been about providing that support to these communities, not only to show we care, but to take actions that supports people through these difficult times. To protect people and property, to support our hard-working members of the fire service including our volunteer force, to welcome those who have come here in a truly national effort from every state and territory. We thank them and also the local government authority here under Mayor Bec Embers, who continues to do a great job.
Our focus and what we’ve spent our time on, is ensuring we’re working together, collaborating and to show that we are supportive of this community in it’s time of need. That’s why it’s fantastic to have the Prime Minister here today at short notice, a true demonstration that the Federal Government is very much similarly very keen to understand what’s happening here on the ground and also what we can do to support. Prime Minister?
PRIME MINISTER: Well thank you. First of all, can I thank you all for the opportunity to be here with you today and Assistant Minister Reynolds. Linda has been on the ground here for a couple of days now and as Will said, we've been keeping in close contact now for some time about what have been ferocious fires right across Tasmania as it's incinerated wilderness areas.
But I must admit that having received the briefing this morning, I want to tell Australians that here in Tasmania, they’ve done an extraordinary job in trying to mitigate and limit the impact of these fires. Not just when it comes to property and of course, most importantly, lives; and it is one of the points that is worth acknowledging, that despite the ferocity of these fires, that that property damage has been limited in relative terms. But also, we've had no lives lost. That is something that I think we can note today and be very appreciative of.
But there has also been a lot of work to try and protect the natural heritage here as well. Places like the Walls of Jerusalem, Cradle Mountain, all of these are unaffected by these fires. I want Australians to know that, please come to Tasmania again soon. Please come soon. This state will be looking to support - whether it's here in the Huon or elsewhere - communities around the state that have been affected by these fires and the way all Australians can help Tasmanians and those affected here is by coming and visiting and experiencing one of the great natural wonders of the world.
The people are just as friendly, if not more. The coffee is still just as good. The salmon is better than ever. All of this is fantastic. Tasmania is a wonderful place to come and visit. It's important that we get that message out about Tasmania and that we would encourage people to come and visit and stick with their plans to come and have a great time here in this wonderful state.
Of course while the Premier and I and Linda and my other ministers, will be working closely together with the State Government to ensure the rehabilitation and the recovery from these fires, both from a tourism business point of view and more broadly, we're enlisting, I suppose, Australians in that venture as well. We'll be looking forward to working closely with the Hodgeman Government as Tasmania, Huon and other parts of the state rebuild. And they will, they will.
Today marks 10 years since the Black Saturday fires in Victoria. Tonight there will be a memorial and commemoration of that event in Melbourne. It's a reminder that of the devastation of those times, did come a rebuilding, did come a recovery. As I've moved around the Recovery Centre here and I’ve spoken to people and down in the town, spoking to the chopper pilots, the firies and people from parks, what I hear back is the sense of the resilience and community that always comes to the fore in times like this.
I’ve got to say, we'll be seeing exactly the same thing up in Townsville and the surrounds at the moment. While Tasmania is gripped by fire presently, in Townsville, it's floods. And just as all Australians' hearts have gone out to people here in Tasmania, the same is very much with the people of Townsville and the surrounding districts up there in the floods at the moment where they're facing, as we speak, the biggest of challenges. So that's why today, in the same way that Linda announced here yesterday for the affected areas here in Tasmania, we've announced the emergency assistance arrangements for Townsville today, that's been announced up there.
It is always a pleasure to see Australia at its best. Here in the Huon, we're seeing Australia at its best. I want to commend everyone for the volunteer effort they've put in, those who've opened up their homes. Those who have volunteered, to support those who are out fighting the fires. I particularly thank those firefighters who've come from interstate as well, not just the volunteers here who've been turning up, those who've come from across the ditch, the specialist firefighters who've come across from New Zealand. We've had around 1,500 firefighters rotate through this fire and there will be more to come in the weeks ahead. It’s not over yet. That's a tremendous coordinated effort and I saw that in Hobart this morning when I had my briefing on how that is all coming together. They have a good handle on what the risks are. They’ve got a great plan for dealing with it Will and I think it’s a real tribute to the leadership of the Fire Service here as to how they’re staying on top of it and seeking to manage the impacts as best they can. So look, I’m happy to take some questions on those issues broadly, one last thing. I want to thank the business owners who are supporting the volunteers who are here. I want to ask them to continue to provide that support. There are people here whose kids are going back to school and they’ll feel the need obviously and will have need to go back to work. I want to thank the employers who are allowing their firefighters to come and volunteer here and be here. Those firefighters are serviing, you’re service too, by allowing them to be here. I want to thank the business community and other employers who are out there, lending that support by making them available.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister Greens Senator Nick McKim says the fires have been made worse by your love of coal and you should be on your knees apologising to residents. Will you be doing that today?
PRIME MINISTER: I find that a pretty offensive suggestion and he might want to focus on just caring for the community, than making cheap shots.
JOURNALIST: Why has it taken two weeks to get here?
PRIME MINISTER: I’ve been keeping closely updated with what’s occurring here and I’m very pleased to be here today.
JOURNALIST: How much money is the federal Government willing to contribute to Tasmania’s firefighting effort?
PRIME MINISTER: We have a standing arrangement in terms of what is done in terms of in situations like this. We’re following those and Linda you might want to comment on how those arrangements are working. But look, I see this in all these types of events; the states and territories work very closely together with the Commonwealth and there are standing arrangements that kick in.
JOURNALIST: But is there a figure?
PRIME MINISTER: I’ll let Linda make a comment on that.
SENATOR THE HON LINDA REYNOLDS CSC, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS: Thank you Prime Minister. As I mentioned to you yesterday, there is no cap, but there are a number of programmes that we’ve enacted in consultation with the Tasmanian Government. So initially the support we’re providing is that needed immediately by the Tasmanian authorities to fight fires and also for the evacuees and other people in the community who need that emergency relief and shelter. So as I announced yesterday with the Premier the Disaster Recovery Allowance has been activated and so people who have had the income affected because they can’t get to work, their sole business for example – we talked to Fiona today who’s café down at Geeveston which I recommend everybody go and visit – so we’re providing that sort of support. It is uncapped, it is by need. As we move forward over the months and years probably to come, given the scale of this disaster, I’ll be working still with the Premier, with Michael Ferguson, your state Minister and the Commonwealth will be providing all the required resources to go through the recovery and reconstruction phase. So there is no cap, it’s as needed and as per our agreement.
PRIME MINISTER: I just want to make a point on top of that; there are other supports. There’s the Building Better Regions Fund which actually can support tourism businesses and that fund is available. I mean the aerial assets that you’re seeing in place, the communications arrangements, these are all joint-funded initiatives that are pout together as part of the standing arrangements to deal with disasters right across Australia. So, these things kick in. So how much? As much as is needed, as much as is asked for under those arrangements and the Commonwealth will just continue to meet all of our responsibilities here enthusiastically, leaning forward into it, working in close partnership.
JOURNALIST: Do you have any idea about how many people may be affected and need that funding?
PRIME MINISTER: Not at this stage and the funding is there to support the demand. It’s a demand-driven programme, so as many as need it will be given it.
JOURNALIST: What are you doing to ensure Tasmania’s wilderness World Heritage areas are being protected in these fires?
PRIME MINISTER: Will might want to comment on that as well, but one of the impressive things I’ve seen here is the way the Parks Services here have been taking those precautionary steps. Linda was just reminding me this morning of some of the work they’ve been doing in terms of the sprinkler system that were put as defensive lines against some of the more sensitive parts of the wilderness assets that are here. So I think it’s a very forward looking, innovative, technology-driven approach and these are responsibilities that sit primarily obviously, with state governments but we’re always keen to support these things where we think we can lend a role. But I’ve got to say Tasmania is right on top of it Will.
PREMIER OF TASMANIA: Yeah and look, I’d just make some observations about what we’ve been doing to prevent bushfires, wildfires, as best we can across a very expansive natural estate. As reticent as I am to, myself, engage in any political arguments, it has been the Greens and environmentalists who in the past have been critical of us undertaking fuel reduction burns. We’ve put about $55 million in and considerably increased our effort to reduce fuel loads across the state for times such as this. It’s been attributed to preventing a broader-scale fire activity on the west coast fires that are currently underway. So we’ve been taking preventative action to reduce fuel loads and to ensure that those communities most at risk – and they’re right across the state – have less of the fuel-load threat to them.
ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS: Can I just add to that. In the briefings that I’ve had over the last couple of days, I’ve been extraordinarily impressed with the Parks and Wildlife Services’ approach. You’re doing things here in Tasmania that I don’t think any other state or territory is doing. As the Prime Minister has said, it’s the sprinklers in the areas of most natural importance and heritage significance. But it’s also, I saw yesterday firsthand that you’re actually making sure you know where all the raptor nests are, you know where all the beehives are and so it’s not just the trees, but it’s also that they’re doing an extraordinary job making sure that after lives and property, that your natural heritage and those businesses were protected. So it’s certainly something that I’m going to take back to the Ministerial Council and also highlight to other states and territories. Because they’ve done an extraordinary job.
JOURNALIST: Just on other matters [inaudible]?
PRIME MINISTER: Before we go to other matters, I might make a comment about some other matters and then I’m happy to take some questions on those things. But are there any other questions on issues relating to - ?
PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, please. I’m very happy to, this is why I’m here.
JOURNALIST: Would you consider calling in international resources to help with water bombing in remote alpine areas, either Premier or Prime Minister?
PRIME MINISTER: Well these arrangements are already being met by the aerial assets programmes we already have in place. We already have around - what was it – I think around 25 kiwis who are here who are part of a specialist firefighting unit. I mean they’re literally like firefighting commandos. They get dropped in to these quite remote areas and they have highly specialised skills. There are Australian firefighters who also have those skills and they’re working together in what is quite an elite team and the coordination of that is, I think, quite impressive. So that need is already being met.
ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS: Just on that, the Federal Government has committed an extra $11 million this year to the National Aerial Firefighting Centre and it’s done an extraordinary job. So there will be a lot of lessons learned for us nationally again out of this programme. So as the Prime Minister was briefed this morning, Tasmania has seven aerial assets based here on the east coast mostly, in Tasmania. That has been seamlessly supplemented by up to another 30 aerial assets, everything from additional helicopters to fixed wing aircraft, to the very large bombing assets. I think this is going to be one of the as yet untold, great stories to come out of these protracted fires.
PRIME MINISTER: Most pilots who have come – we were chatting with the pilots – there was one here from Brisbane, there was one here from Canada too – so he’s a boot.
ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS: Yes, so they’ve done an extraordinary job. The very large tankers have been flying in on rotation from Avalon Airfield in Melbourne, so have a talk to them, they’re fantastic.
PRIME MINISTER: The need is being met with our standing arrangements. Anything else on those matters? I particularly want to say that Senator Abetz and Senator Colbeck are here with us as well today and I want to thank you guys for the work you’ve been doing. This is your home as it is Will’s and I’m told he’s run around this park a few times maybe a few years ago maybe not too many and he’s very much a part of this community. So I want to thank you Will for your welcome to your home here today and to Tasmania. I’m here just to stand with the people of the Huon and the people of Tasmania, I want to thank them for their great spirit as I’ve moved around and chatted, that humble resilience that we see in Australian communities all across our country and it’s very much on display here. While this is a difficult time, you always see things to celebrate and the nature of the people and their resilience and their generosity and their grace I think is extraordinary. I thank them and commend them.
JOURNALIST: Just one more on the fires again?
PRIME MINISTER: Sure.
JOURNALIST: We’ve seen so many resources called in from interstate and overseas, is there a need for more funding and more resources based in Tasmania, just to nip things in the bud before they get to this point?
PRIME MINISTER: Well look – Will may want to comment on that but this is the whole point of our national approach to managing the assets that are available. It is meant to be able to actually move and be flexible to bring those assets to bear where they’re needed, to anywhere around the country. So there are assets that are present in the state and there are others that can be called in at very short notice. I think that’s what we’ve seen here today and I think what we’re seeing is that programme and those standing arrangements are working. We’re always boosting those resources and funding.
PREMIER OF TASMANIA: Yeah and it’s something obviously that once this event passes, we will of course take the opportunity to talk with other jurisdictions in the Commonwealth about how we best coordinate our effort. One of the first questions I’ve asked and my minister has asked from day one, is whether or not we have satisfactory capability here in Tasmania and whether with supplementation from forces from interstate, that’s adequate to meet the fire challenge we face. The answer has been unequivocally yes. We do have that capability. It does not mean that there wont be lessons we learn from this experience, there will of course be an opportunity to again revisit this once the event passes. But the most important thing that Tasmanians can be assured of – and this comes from experts, true experts, not those who are in the game of offering political advice and gratuitous advice, this comes from our experts that are fighting the fires, whether it be our aerial capability or on the ground, supplemented by those who have come from other places, which we are so grateful for – we have the capability to fight the fires.
ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS: Just one final note on that is, again reminds, the question is that these are very important assets. The aerial assets are very, very important and they’ve made a very significant difference here, but still, it is still the men and women on the ground from the Tasmanian fire service that have done an extraordinary job over the last week fighting these fires. The aerial assets are important but they assist the men and the women on the ground. What they have done is they’ve used them in very clever ways, each different aircraft, to actually assist those on the ground to get in and actually fight some of these fire fronts. So they’re an important tool but it never replaces the men and women on the ground.
PRIME MINISTER: Any other questions? Okay, well let me make a couple of comments about other issues. I don’t plan to be making any comments, obviously, on the Royal Commission at this press conference, there is a process in place for that. There is a lockup that is going on this afternoon and the Treasurer will be releasing the Government’s response to the royal commission later today and that’s the appropriate time for any comments on that matter, particularly given that markets are open at the moment. We have a very careful process for managing the release of this very significant report and the Government’s response.
On the second, I just want to confirm again, what the Minister for Immigration has announced this morning. That is, that the Government must remain in control of our border protection regime. It cannot be subcontracted out to anybody, anybody at all. So what we’ve announced today is the Government will be ensuring, solidifying the fact that the Government remains in control of our border protection framework. What we’re doing is we’re putting in place an independent panel to be appointed by the government, by Cabinet, no one else. The Government will appoint those members. This is a process of transparency and assurance over the processes that we have in place to manage medical issues in relation to services and support that are available in Nauru and Manus. We are not taking away the decisions one bit, from those officials and clinical professionals that are currently making those decisions, but I believe it is an improvement to the system, to ensure that there is a review process for those clinical decisions. That where that review process suggests that particular clinical matters should be reconsidered, that can be done. That would be done through the Home Affairs Department but the final decision will remain with the Home Affairs Department and there will be a biannual reporting process for the purpose of transparency, back to the Parliament, through the Joint Standing Committee on Migration. These are improvements to, I believe our border protection framework. Because it gives Australians the assurance and that transparency that no longer will we have a place where people can go and make all sorts of outrageous allegations against those who are providing medical care in these places, there will be the assurance of an independent panel that will report to the Parliament. I think that will provide that certainty and that guarantee but the process will remain as it is and this provides, I think, the right type of assurance for Australians who - like we are all – are concerned about the welfare of any individuals. So what the Parliament does next week is a matter for them. But I do know this and I’m writing to the Leader of the Opposition today, it’s a pretty clear message and I made it very clear yesterday; with the last four of the children who were on Nauru, with their bags packed and ready to go to the United States, we will have gotten all the children off Nauru. That’s what we’ve achieved as a Government and we’ve done it without compromising our border protection framework. Secondly these new transparency and assurance arrangements for the delivery of health services which includes additional mental health services in Papua New Guinea, will mean that Australians can be very confident about the way that those services are being delivered. The bill that Labor currently supports would see offshore processing regional processing abolished as we know it. It would basically render it useless in our border protection framework because it would subcontract out those decisions from the Government, to any two clinicians on Skype. There wouldn’t even have to be, wouldn’t even have to be an understood treatment requirement only the need to be able to see the patient in person. These patients are being seen in person by clinicians in each of these countries and the independent process with the panel will give Australians the assurance that will now be oversighted. So there is no reason whatsoever for Labor to abolish offshore processing as we know it and I would urge the Leader of the Opposition to change their position on this. Because what will happen, the advice we have received from our security agencies is, that this will see detention centres reopened in Australia, hundreds of people being transferred from regional processing locations to Australia within weeks and months. This will come at great cost and then we will see the boats start again. There is no reason to support these amendments other than cheap politics of trying to pull on a vote in the House of Representatives next week. So that’s what that issue is about. Bill Shorten should reconsider his position and put the national interest first.
JOURNALIST: Did Cabinet approve this change?
PRIME MINISTER: Yeah it was approved by the National Security Committee of Cabinet.
JOURNALIST: Have you had any, regard from independent Cathy McGowan? Has she indicated to your Government whether she backs this change?
PRIME MINISTER: I’ve been in discussions with Cathy for months -
JOURNALIST: You said in December; “We’ve got a clear policy, it’s working it’s worked for five years.” What has actually changed between now and then?
PRIME MINISTER: Well nothing has changed, I’m simply providing a layer of assurance and transparency. I think we’re adding, adding to this. I mean I think these debates over the last few months have said that the public are looking for greater assurance. Now I don’t have a problem with that and I’m happy to provide it. But the border protection framework is unchanged, it is not compromised one inch. I would never compromise a border protection framework that I built.
JOURNALIST: So is it actually necessary, this kind of …?
PRIME MINISTER: I think it provides an assurance to the health services that are being provided, to Australians and it actually protects the border protection framework from I think, the spurious and unfair commentary that is made on the delivery of those services. So I think it improves public confidence in the integrity of the system.
JOURNALIST: Are you announcing this to avoid possible embarrassment next week when Phelps’ bill is debated in Parliament?
PRIME MINISTER: No, it is a decision of the Government that is proceeding, it is made in it’s own right. What I’m saying to Bill Shorten is, don’t blame the independents if you’re going to go and dismantle Australia’s border protection framework.
They’re already going to get rid of temporary protection visas and provide permanent visas to people who have illegally entered Australia.
They have already made that decision. Now they’ve already made a decision to abolish offshore processing and regional processing, by contracting out the powers over that to people other than the Government.
So two of the key planks are gone under Labor and Labor should reconsider their position. I’ve simply provided further assurance about the medical processes that are already in place. I think that adds to the system and I consider it a step up, not a step back.
JOURNALIST: But why announce it now, one week out?
PRIME MINISTER: Because I had to take it through Cabinet.
JOURNALIST: Are you confident in Ian Goodenough’s position?
PRIME MINISTER: Yes.
JOURNALIST: Can you guarantee he’s done nothing wrong?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, that’s a matter for the independent processes that have been set up to investigate any of those matters, so I’m not going to prejudice those, I’m not going to prejudice Ian either. I don’t think it’s a good thing to do to jump to any conclusions, there’s an independent process for that and I’m sure it will do its job and Ian, I know, will be very happy to work with that.
JOURNALIST: Are we close to getting a final signature on the Hobart City Deal?
PRIME MINISTER: Yes.
JOURNALIST: Any idea of the timeframe for that?
PRIME MINISTER: Soon.
JOURNALIST: We’ve been saying that since before Christmas.
PRIME MINISTER: Yeah well that means it’s even sooner.
Will knows, we’ve been working closely together on this. You know, it’s the first week of February and we’ve been working very closely on this. So has Eric and so has Richard and we’re very close on this front and I’m looking forward to that. But to be honest I didn’t come here today to as you know, to talk about Hobart city deals and other issues in Tasmania. The reason I’ve come today is to stand with the people of Huon and to stand with the people of Tasmania and let them know that all Australians are supporting them and backing them in.
Great, thanks very much.