Doorstop Interview

08 Jan 2020
Kanagaro Island, SA
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: I’m very pleased to be joined here today by my good friend Premier Marshall, ministers who are joining me, Mayor Pengilly, it’s great to have you here, Assistant Minister Ben Moreton, obviously Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister. He is assisting me, particularly as we’re working through the many issues that are relevant to the bushfire response and the recovery programme we’re already engaged in. Senator Ruston, it’s great to have you here, not only as a Senator for South Australia but because of the important role you're playing as Minister for Families and Social Services. And of course, we have General Ellwood who is joining us and he will provide an operational update for you in just a few minutes. Of course, there's the usual operational update that's been provided each and every day out of Russell. 

Before I go to the matters of the bushfire today, can I just quickly address, importantly, the matters in Iraq and then I will turn to the issues here. I've been advised and have been in regular contact today with the CDF General Campbell about the rocket attacks that have occurred in Iraq. This is a matter, and in terms of the situation in Iraq, that the National Security Committee has been monitoring and watching very closely now since the events of a few days ago. But the status of issues in Iraq and safety is something that we are constantly assessing. The CDF has been able to confirm to me at this point that all Australian diplomatic personnel and all ADF personnel are safe, but it is obviously a very fluid situation and this is something I'm receiving regular reports on, together with the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, we have all been in contact with our counterparts on these arrangements. I, through the Secretary of State, and the Minister for Defence, through the Defence Secretary in the United States, seeking to ensure that we continue to be updated and we're working closely together to protect the safety of Australians. The CDF, I gave authority this morning, to do what was necessary and to take what actions and decisions were necessary to protect ADF personnel and diplomatic staff in Baghdad and this is something that I will be returning to Canberra later today and meeting both with the defence chiefs as well as our key ministers and there is the scheduled meeting for the NSC in the morning to take further decisions. I know particularly for ADF personnel, whether they're reservists or otherwise who are here today, they will be pleased to know that their colleagues that they fight alongside and they serve alongside with, at this point, are safe and we're doing everything to ensure their continued safety. 

Here at Kangaroo Island, we are also seeing the best of Australians, whether it's those reservists who are here and over 100 now, and they will be scaling up to around 600 and the work they're doing is incredibly important. Whether it's in engineering works, road clearing, providing support to the community, filling in holes, the disposal of stock - all of these issues are incredibly important to the recovery and response operation that's occurring here in South Australia. I want to commend the South Australian Government for the efforts that they have been leading across not only here in South Australia, but also in the Adelaide Hills. We have been working closely together, as I'm sure you know, and today we are announcing together the provision of category C assistance in both the Adelaide Hills local government areas and here on Kangaroo Island, which includes payments of up to $10,000 for small businesses as immediate assistance and payments of up to $15,000 for farmers, graziers, primary producers, to provide some immediate relief and assistance. There will be further announcements made in the coming days and weeks as the National Bushfire Recovery Agency looks at further category D payments and classifications and support to local governments and we will have more to say about that. 

Here at Kangaroo Island, what you see come together are the two most impacted, I would argue, sectors of our community. These fires, whether it be here in South Australia, in New South Wales, Victoria, certainly earlier in Queensland, the tourism industry and our agriculture sector have been very much in the front-line of the impact. With estimates of some 100,000 stock lost here on Kangaroo Island, this is a catastrophic event here for that sector. The rebuilding of those sectors will be incredibly important for these local economies, to rebuild the livelihoods. It's very important as part of the recovery that we rebuild the local economies as much as we rebuild the local infrastructure. That means supporting communities and getting in behind them to do just that. They know what they need to do. Defence forces are here and the state emergency services are here to help them do that and the income support assistance and the infrastructure assistance, which I know will come from the State Government as well, will be designed to deliver on those key needs.

I will ask General Ellwood to go over more of an operational update of things that are happening more broadly, but in addition to the announcement I have just made about category C assistance here in South Australia, a couple of points of feedback that we're picking up from around the country. First of all, I want to thank all Australians for their incredible generosity, for the donations and the other offers of support that they have been provided to Australians affected all around the bushfire-impacted areas. But I would make this one plea on behalf of those who are seeking to deliver and provide that support - and from this point on, we would encourage you to be providing your donations and support in direct financial donations. There is a list of the approved donations that are available of those charitable sites and there are others I know others are supporting. That is fine, but let's just make sure you're putting cash in because that's what they need. Talking to the Salvos, in particular, we’ve just been up there to chat to them and that's what they need. To mobilise their efforts, they need that cash support. So if you're looking to help, the best way you can help, if you're not in a fire-affected zone and not volunteering because of your other arrangements or where you happen to be, the best way you can help is to provide that direct financial support. 

The second thing I would say, in relation to the tourism sector, which at this time of year would be expecting to be having one of the best parts of its season and obviously in the bushfire affected areas, that is absolutely having a dreadful impact. First thing is to say is that whether it's here domestically in Australia, or, indeed, overseas - because I have spoken to many leaders, particularly in the last 24 hours - that Australia is open, Australia is still a wonderful place to come and bring your family and enjoy your holidays. I just have been at the Salvos with the volunteers and we've got two tourists from Belgium who are there in the Salvos volunteering to support. But even here on Kangaroo Island, where a third of the island has obviously been decimated - two-thirds of it is open and ready for business. It's important to keep these local economies vibrant at these times. So I would ask you, if you have already made those plans and otherwise can't change them, then, by all means, follow through, because I'm sure the local tourism businesses, whether here in South Australia, or other places where they're able to continue to take visitors, that you would proceed. 

Can I also offer a request on behalf of tourism operators that have been affected - if you booked accommodation and you're now seeking a refund, can you cut them a break? In terms of at the very least on the timing about when you might expect to receive a refund. These businesses have been hit very hard and their cash flow positions are not going to be in a position where they're going to be able to meet every request. I would particularly ask the international tourism trade industry to be mindful of that when they're dealing with customers. For Australians in particular, you want to help in these regions? Then cut these local tourism operators a break when it comes to what you might like to do. Even better - why not, if you're in a position to do so - I know not everyone is - but if you're in a position to do so, then why not even let them keep it or, indeed, arrange for another time when you can take it up and come back and visit, whether it's Kangaroo Island or anywhere else. They need that help at the moment. They're trying to keep their businesses on foot. To large businesses that have small businesses that are affected, I thank them for the support they're providing and I would ask them also as the banks have already done, to give quite a period of grace and to give people in the bushfire affected areas plenty of opportunities to deal with what their immediate needs are, rather than having to deal with other things. The Australian Government has done that, whether it's through the tax office or the Social Services Department and Human Services and Government Services Australia. 

So with those, one last announcement I’ll make today is the Treasurer and I have agreed that we will be bringing forward legislation to ensure that the disaster payments that people receive will be non-taxable in the same way that we've extended in the case of previous disasters, in particular, most recently in relation to the North Queensland floods, just to provide some clarity on those issues as well. So with that, I'm going to hand over to the Premier and then we will hear from General Ellwood.

THE HON. STEVEN MARSHALL MP, PREMIER OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA: Thank you very much, Prime Minister. It's great to have you back in South Australia, especially at such a very busy time for you. This is your second visit to South Australia in the last two weeks and we genuinely appreciate your ongoing interest. We particularly appreciate the Federal Government and the State Government getting together to authorise those category C payments, a 50/50 payment between the State and Federal Government. This will really enable us to back those businesses, small businesses and primary producers, to get back on their feet as quickly as possible. We're absolutely delighted with your announcement that you will be proceeding now making sure the payments are not going to be taxed. That is absolutely fantastic news. It's a big relief for people in South Australia. 

Our focus as a State Government now is to do everything we can to extinguish the fires that still exist in our state but very soon moving to full recovery mode. We're standing shoulder to shoulder with communities right across this state who are affected, in particular, the Adelaide Hills and here on Kangaroo Island. The Prime Minister's 100 per cent right - we've got to be doing everything we can to support these communities, particularly the things that people sitting in metropolitan areas or other parts of the states can be doing is booking holidays on Kangaroo Island or in the Adelaide Hills, buying their fantastic wine or produce. These are the things that will be able to keep the economies in these areas ticking over, people employed and making sure that we don't add compounding issues to the communities that have been hit so hard since the 20th December last year. So again, great thanks to the Federal Government. I would particularly also like to at this point very much thank the ADF. They are integrating extraordinarily well with the other personnel here, with the CFS, the MFS, the State Emergency Service - they are doing a great job fitting in. I think they've been welcomed here on Kangaroo Island almost like heroes. This is a very large landmass - 4,500 square kilometres. It's a big area. There's no way the locals can do all of the work themselves. So we're very grateful to General Ellwood and Brigadier Cantwell and all the ADF personnel who have come on to Kangaroo Island at the moment. I am going to take questions at this point. Then I think we're moving on to General Ellwood. Are there any questions for me?

JOURNALIST: Premier, just quickly on tourism, we've seen so many booking cancellations from visitors around the world, months ahead. Is there a real risk that this Island’s economy will just keel over?

THE HON. STEVEN MARSHALL MP, PREMIER OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA: Look, we've got to be careful on Kangaroo Island. There are two major sectors here, ag and tourism. They've both been really kicked in the guts in recent days. That's why the State Government is moving into recovery as quickly as possible. We will be announcing things in the coming days which are really going to put a focus on making sure that we keep the economy moving in the right direction. 4,500 square kilometres - 2,500 square kilometres of pristine island completely and utterly untouched. So if you want to do the people of Kangaroo Island a favour, book a holiday, get over to this island. There's still plenty to see.

JOURNALIST: The Mayor behind you is calling for cash assistance. Is that going to be coming from the state? 

THE HON. STEVEN MARSHALL MP, PREMIER OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA: We've already put out, I think, as of Monday morning, 1,600 emergency payments have been made, totalling almost $1 million. I think we have already sailed past the million-dollar figure there. The Feds have put their emergency money on the table. And of course today the payments that we’re talking about in excess of $11 million to go to these people that are affected by bushfires, is 50/50 between the state and the Federal Government. And you've just heard it straight from the Prime Minister's mouth that they're going to be making sure that people that receive those will not be paying tax on those. That’s a great, great announcement today from the Prime Minister. Thank you very much.

JOURNALIST: Premier, is it the case though that as generous as it might seem, and under the circumstances it probably is, it’s just a drop in the bucket. It’s not going to get these people back on their feet.

THE HON. STEVEN MARSHALL MP, PREMIER OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA: There is plenty more to come from all levels of government, whether it be local government, State Government, Federal Government and of course, a lot of the NGOs. We will have to be wrapping our arms around the people of the Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island and other parts of the state as well for a long period of time. But we're in it for the long haul. We're going to be doing everything we possibly can to get these economies back on track as quickly as possible.

JOURNALIST: Premier, is one of the things you’ll be considering subsidising the ferry trip across? I know a lot of people want to come over and help out. Will you be looking at that?

THE HON. STEVEN MARSHALL MP, PREMIER OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA: Look, can I just say every single solitary thing is on the table at the moment. We've appointed our local recovery coordinator, Mike Williams, he's in place, he's been on the island since Monday morning. We're looking through all of the options. We're prioritising those. When we can make announcements, we do. We're delighted today to be announcing the $11.5 million between the State and Federal Governments and now it's tax-free as well. So a great announcement today but plenty more support that will be required in South Australia. Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER: I might ask Brigadier Campbell and General Ellwood if you could step up and just provide an operational update, particularly as it relates to South Australia.

MAJOR GENERAL JAKE ELLWOOD DSC: So as you know, you will get a detailed operational update from General Bilton at 1430 in Canberra. I will talk about the broader operations and then I will get Brigadier Cantwell to talk about specific operations here. Look, firstly I would say that the connections between the emergency services and the ADF continue to go particularly well, great communications, making sure that we are leaning in where the emergency services and, indeed, the community require us. You would have seen yesterday that we had Choules undertake evacuation operations from Mallacoota. We have Adelaide based off Eden and it is preparing, if it hasn't already started to, disembark elements to go and assist inland. In terms of aircraft, you would note that we've had an increase in aircraft. The Singaporeans have provided kindly two Chinooks that should be serviceable or working, I should say, from tomorrow. The New Zealand Defence Force has provided helicopters for support and also fixed-wing support and we have also brought additional helicopters down ourselves from Townsville, so that will have a significant and positive impact. In terms of our troops, you will see out on the ground, we are moving more and more into isolated communities, to make sure that we have boots on the ground to understand what the needs are of the communities so we can either make sure we inform appropriate elements or, indeed, provide the support ourselves and I think over the coming days, that will pay dividends. I have directed that we will have two elements that will be capable of air mobile operations, based out of New South Wales and also Victoria, to make sure that they can launch at very short notice to provide multidisciplinary teams that can provide support or make assessments and then provide that support as it's required. Everyone is moving out hard. You would have seen the numbers in terms of reservists have increased significantly. We've doubled our numbers, certainly, over the thousand, I’m not sure what the exact figure is. I'm sure you will get that figure from General Bilton at 1430 hours. But I must say, having yesterday been at Eden and Merimbula and having been here today, you can't help but be impressed with our emergency management services, volunteers, and, of course, our ADF are doing us proud as they always do. I’ll now hand over Brigadier Campbell who might like to talk specifically about operations here.

BRIGADIER DAMIAN CANTWELL: My role is to lead and coordinate the effort across South Australia and, indeed, Tasmania if required. But right now, the focus is clearly on Kangaroo Island. I've positioned forward here on Kangaroo Island for a couple of days a team of about 120 people. The immediate task that they are working with the state emergency authorities here on the Island include such things as the provision of water to the community, both for drinking and also for farming and livestock purposes, also provision of engineering assets and sheer manpower to help deal with the pressing issue, both with the farmers, and also to get access along the roads of the dead livestock and wildlife that have tragically been killed also in these fires. Also, bring a whole range of other capabilities. We're leaning forward with the other state emergency service agencies across the space here to see where we can help. I've got a whole raft of people also behind me in this effort. I'm building up what will be about a 600-person group here on the Island over the next two days. They will be made up of both high-readiness units from across the Australian Defence Force, but also immediately after that, so we can be here for the long run, the contingent of reservists behind them to sustain the ADF effort. I'm buoyed by the confidence and the freedom of action that the ADF leadership has imparted to me as commander here, to ensure that I can bring any resource required to aid the community and the emergency services in the job on the ground right here today.

JOURNALIST: Brigadier Cantwell, just quickly on the water unit, does that now mean that locals now have enough water for non-essential use? They have been rationing for weeks. Can they splurge a little bit more now?

BRIGADIER DAMIAN CANTWELL: Yes. We will work with the authorities from SA Water. I'm not the person to give authorisations about water dispensation from their perspective, but I can assure you the ADF has now provided sufficient quantities to meet the immediate demand that was expressed to us. Today we will have a water filtration and purification unit established which I had flown in by Air Force assets from Brisbane overnight and trucked onto the Island as we speak. That has got a capacity of 250,000 litres of fresh drinking water available per 24 hours, as well as the 150,000 litres of water we've provided already. So we're working with SA Water to make sure the community has got what they need.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, can we ask about the situation in Iraq. When you say you’ve spoken to the CDF and you have authorised him to do what is necessary to protect Australians, does that include the withdrawal of Australian troops and can you also confirm whether the Taji base has been attacked?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we're receiving further updates at this point of the precise location of where the strikes have been are still being verified. What I have been advised by the CDF directly is that all Australian personnel at Taji, but as well as the other locations we have there as well as our diplomatic personnel at this point are safe and we will continue to get reports from our people, whether it's in Taji, Baghdad, or otherwise, to ensure that we're kept updated on that. One of the obvious... what I'm talking about with protect and defend, he has those clear authorities. We will continue to assess the situation. That's what I will be returning to Canberra in the not too distant future to do, with the CDF and ministers this afternoon as well, as we visit all of these issues again in the morning and what further developments there have been. But at this stage, it is a matter of protecting and defending those Australians where they are, and working closely with our partners in the region.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, it's not unsurprising after the assassination of the Iranian commander and President Trump appears to be very pleased with himself over that, this missile attack would come as no surprise, would it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the United States have taken the action that they have to address what's been intelligence that they say they received which was putting their interests at risk and under threat and they have been clear about that. I should also stress that the Australian Government has said following that attack that the individual we're talking about here as well as more broadly, there have been concerns about their operations in the region for some time. So the United States has taken that action. We will work continually closely with them. It was a matter I did discuss with the President yesterday when we spoke. Obviously, we also talked quite extensively about the bushfire situation here. I note that there have been many, many calls of support. The Polish Prime Minister last night, the Japanese Prime Minister, the European Council President, the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea - a long list of calls were made last night. The President of Sri Lanka - there was support that Australians are receiving from around the world and it is very heart-warming. We thank them for that. There have been lots of offers of very practical support. As always, we will take up those offers where they can be practically integrated with our own effort but we thank them nonetheless for the great offers.

JOURNALIST: So you have total faith in President Trump’s judgement on this?

PRIME MINISTER: The Australian Government is working closely in partnership with all our partners in the region. I discussed this matter with president Macron the other day as we will with all of our partners. My focus now is on Australia's interest, my focus is on those Australians who are in Baghdad and in Taji presently. They are getting all the authority they need to ensure that their position is put in the best possible place.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, what were some of the things locals asked you for today or that the community needed when you were on Kangaroo Island?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, number one was a rural financial counsellor, and between visiting them this morning and driving back here, the Premier and I have already put that in motion. I've already touched on a number of them in terms of local tourism operators just asking for some, at the very least, some patience when it comes to any cancelled accommodation or any work with local tourism operators. I would repeat that message. The other feedback is the longer-term arrangements that will need to be in place. I mean, there's stock, there are stock disposal issues here. The stock losses here are just at 100,000 for an area such as this, quite staggering. The process of having those stock buried is very important from a health point of view and the ADF are assisting with that tasking, but I have to say the other thing that we will need to do and is already in train is the delivery of mental health support, not just in this community, but in bushfire-affected communities all around the country. That has a very high priority. I touched on that when I announced the National Bushfire Recovery Agency a few days ago and the Health Minister has been working up a package to that end. But there was appreciation for being here, there was appreciation for the men and women you see standing around you, whether they're from the emergency services or the defence forces, reservists or otherwise, there's great appreciation for that presence here. I think that presence is providing much needed practical support but I think much needed moral support as well.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you didn't go very far into the fire grounds today, just saw the tip of the iceberg. You didn't the most destroyed properties, you didn’t see the animal carcasses, destroyed forests. Will you be making plans to come back and see the true scale of what happened here with your own eyes?

PRIME MINISTER: Today and particularly given the events in Iraq, that was on the way here, was going to constrain particularly how long I could stay, as I'm sure you would understand. But with the Premier today, he's got a very big photostream and was showing me during the drive out there this morning those particularly decimated areas. These are areas I visited many years ago as a private tourist here on Kangaroo Island, so I'm quite familiar with how spectacular the place is and particularly down there towards Admiral's Arch and places like that. I’ve seen the moonscape in the images shared by the Premier. So you can rest assured that I'm in no doubt about the level of devastation on that part of the island.

JOURNALIST: You said you spoke to the US last night, have you spoken to the US this morning?

PRIME MINISTER: I have been in contact with the US this morning, as has the Minister for Defence by the way.

JOURNALIST: Given you’ve spoken about global financial support, given Chinese interests here are substantial and Chinese interests throughout Australia, shouldn’t the Chinese Government be doing something to assist this? 

PRIME MINISTER: Look, I’m focused on what the Australian Government is doing.

JOURNALIST: Can I just ask about the deployment of reservists? There was obviously some concern about how they would be integrated and deployed. Are you confident that everything is running smoothly with the reservist force?

PRIME MINISTER: I'm very pleased with the level of integration between the reservists and the full-time complement of the Defence Force and how they're integrating, particularly under local priorities and direction, whether it's here in South Australia or in New South Wales. We've been in regular contact with Commissioner Fitzsimmons in New South Wales, for example, and in Victoria, it’s going extremely well there. I was only down there a few days ago in East Gippsland. I could see it for myself. I'm very appreciative also of the support coming out of Singapore, with the additional helicopters. There's more New Zealand support which is turning up those helicopters also turning up today, I understand General, but also there are the engineers support coming out of New Zealand and that is all working effectively under the local priorities and direction. When ADF, particularly reservists who are going into communities and setting up pop-ups together with Government Services Australia, that's been done in concert with local state police and others to ensure there's a very close working relationship at the local level but also at the state level and, indeed, well, today obviously I've been with the Premier and had quite a lengthy conversation with the Premier of New South Wales on the way here today about events there as well.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, fire brigade unions from every state have joined together to call for a Royal Commission into bushfires. They want to know what causes it and what can be done to prevent these disasters. Is that something your Government would support?

PRIME MINISTER: This is something that we're very open to me but as I said when this question was put to me the other day, I think this is something we have to work closely with the states on. There are state responsibilities here and state issues, there are federal responsibilities here and how they work together. That goes on everything from arson laws work when you have fires that go across state boundaries. It goes to the activation points for effort like the ones we're seeing here. I mean, in this natural disaster, these fires, this is the first time, the first time ever, we have seen the call-out, to the best of our knowledge, of reservists to be available to be deployed here in response to a bushfire crisis which runs over many states. Now, that has been backed up within days by the establishment of the National Bushfire Recovery Agency and a commitment of $2 billion initially to that effort. Let me stress by way of comparison, that $2 billion does not include the category A to C assistance that we've been talking about here today. If you go back and look at the Brisbane floods and Cyclone Yasi some years ago when a levy had to be struck, that total bill was about $5.6 billion over six years. And category A to C and like assistance which is exempted from our $2 billion was about $5.25 billion. So we're comparing there this financial recovery support that the Commonwealth Government is providing is absolutely significant, above and beyond what we've seen in a very long time, if ever. And if more is needed, more will be done. What I'm also heartened by is the fact that the state governments are doing exactly the same thing. We both have different tasks. We can provide income support. We can provide support to state government infrastructure works. The state governments will be taking the lead on those infrastructure works. Our commitment also doesn't include the deployment of what you see around and about you here through the defence forces and other agencies. So this has been one of, if not the biggest, responses by a Federal Government to a disaster of this nature we've seen in this country and you can expect that to continue.

JOURNALIST: You touched on arson laws in what you just said. Do you think that the current penalties across the states are sufficient or would you support harsher penalties?

PRIME MINISTER: I'm as disappointed by the disgusting behaviour of seeing arsonists active in a season like this as any other Australian. It just makes your skin crawl, frankly. State governments have been taking that up and have been arresting people. I know in my own community, this was some months ago, I want to thank the locals there who alerted police to some behaviour that they’d seen from some people going into a bush area and they were able to tip the local police off and they were able to turn up and deal with that. And Australians have been doing that all around the country. We’ve got to keep our eyes open because while we always see the best of Australians through events like this, we can also see the worst. That includes arsonists, it includes those trying to scam others who have been caught up in this disaster, it includes looters. What I will say is that's not Australia and that is certainly not the overwhelming comprehensive definition of Australia. What you see of the spirit of Australia is what I saw where those families I met with this morning, some of whom have lost their homes, some of whom have lost their properties, and have lost thousands and thousands of stock. But there they do, stand together, support each other and commit to rebuild. That's what we will build on. We will build on that spirit of Australians which is exemplified by all those amazing Australians going out there and doing what they're doing each and every day. There's some more difficult weather coming up in front of us over the next few days. Here in South Australia, particularly over the next two days I'm advised, and on the east coast particularly on Friday. So I would just encourage everyone to follow those instructions, make sure you're in a place of safety, look after each other and let's stay focused on the job we've got ahead and supporting each other to do just that job. Thank you all very much for your attention, thank you.