Photo: AAP Image/Joel Carrett
PRIME MINISTER: Well first of all, welcome to Kirribilli everyone, and particularly to the special guests who have joined me here today who know what it is like to deal with the lived experience of living with Multiple Sclerosis in its many different forms. For our own family, for Jenny and I and Garry and his family, we have some knowledge of this and obviously Garry has a very detailed knowledge of it. And as I said a couple of years ago after delivering a Budget, I don’t know a better bloke than this one. The courage and determination that he has shown over the course of his life since he was first diagnosed - about 20 years ago now, wasn’t it Gaz - has just been tremendous. And the family that he has raised with Shell are just a tribute to the way that people living with Multiple Sclerosis can continue to just live their lives, make their own choices despite the limitation that this terrible disease puts on people.
We're joined by others today who have confronted that in different forms of relapsing and remitting MS. Since we were first elected back in 2013, our Government has invested $10 billion in Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme-listed medicines. These are medicines that change the lives of Australians and give them opportunities that they otherwise wouldn't have. I mean, of all of Australia's achievements, going back over a long period of time, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, I think, is one of the crowning achievements of our society. The fact that we can invest in affordable medicines, whether it is what we're talking about today, or the many other forms of treatments that we've announced, particularly in recent months, but over the last five years. That is, I think, a real credit to Australians that we're able to do that.
Now we know we're only able to do that because we can run a strong economy, we can run a strong Budget, which means today that we can announce that we are listing Mavenclad, which is an important drug that supports people with relapsing and remitting MS. This is going to benefit just over 6,000 people in Australia. It's going to ensure that what was previously costing over $50,000 a year will now be a script of around $40. Now that is a massive turnaround. It makes a huge difference. And Carol who is here, who has competed as a paralympian, whose competed at the highest level, has been on this drug before. She's back on it now. She knows firsthand the experience of what this drug can mean to people living with relapsing, remitting MS.
But this isn't the only thing we're doing on MS. Earlier this year we listed another drug on the PBS affecting thousands also. We continue to invest in research on MS, some three-quarters of a million we have put extra into research for MS just this year. We're going to continue to invest in research when it comes to MS. I mean, all of us will know - even my age - going back to when we were at primary school, the MS readathon. 50 years ago. We didn't know the answer then. We still don’t know it now. But particularly with Roy and Carol through the Trish Foundation and the many other foundations that support research into MS, they are looking for that cure. You know, one day we're going to wake up - as I was just talking to Roy and Carol - and we're going to have the answer. It's not going to happen by accident. It's going to come as a result of the determination and the continued funding of the incredible intelligence and determination of the researchers who research into MS, seeking every single day to find that cure. And I believe one day they will. I have no doubt about it. But they won't find it unless we continue to keep the tension in the cord. If we don't continue to fight this, and continue to apply ourselves each and every day to find that cure.
But in the meantime, we’re going to list drugs like Mavenclad, we’re going to list drugs that actually change the lives of those of those who are dealing with the lived experience of MS every single day. The roadmap for MS, which I was pleasured to be at the launch of just a few months ago, that's providing a way forward. We're working with MS Australia on that roadmap and this is, I think, an important day for those who deal with MS each and every day and their families. This is a Christmas a few days early for those who live with MS. But it's a gift from the Australian people, but it's a gift that is absolutely deserved. All Australians should be able to rely on their fellow Australians to ensure that we can do things like this. I just hope with the lifting of Mavenclad, that Christmas will just be that little bit better for those who are living with MS this year and their families. And so on behalf of those who live with the condition, I want to say thank you to all the Australians who by going out and going to work every day, paying their taxes, making the economy strong, means this can be achieved and this can be done today. So if there’s… unless anyone would like to say something? Dr Livingstone? Carol? Anyone? Yes, please, come through.
STUART ALLAN: Hi, my name is Stuart. I'm from Melbourne. I've had MS for 11 years now. I would just like to say one thing. I think as far as MS treatment goes, we really are the lucky country. We have some 15 treatments now available. The vast majority of those are listed on the PBS. I know people in other countries where they only have a couple of drugs to choose from. So, I would like to thank the Prime Minister and the Government for listing drugs like this. It's made a massive difference for my life, to the point now where I can nearly forget that I've got MS. And that's something that… that's a feeling that's hard to put into words really. I just can't thank everyone enough.
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Stewart. Thank you, very, very much.
JOURNALIST: Stuart, can we get your last name please?
STUART ALLAN: Allan.
JOURNALIST: Can I just ask how you’ve managed to… have you been using this drug but had to pay for it out-of-pocket?
STUART ALLAN: Yes. I paid for this one out-of-pocket myself. I was actually the first person in the world to be prescribed it in 2010. And yes, since then it's made such a massive difference for me. I struggled on some of the other drugs and MS is one of the day ceases that's very individual. It's different in every patient and the drugs all work a little bit differently. So it's important that we have the choice. That choice can be the difference between one person having MS and then not, almost. So it's really important.
JOURNALIST: How difficult has it been to come up with the funds yourself?
STUART ALLAN: You just do what you need to do. Because, for me it made so much difference. The difference between working and not working. I work full-time and I love my job. I don't want to give that up. I don't think any of us should give that up. I think we have come to the point now where the science has progressed enough where we should be looking past even stopping the disease. We should be looking to have drugs that have no side effects or take for a longer period of time to get rid of that daily burden and I would like to encourage everyone who has MS just to keep checking with their neurologist. There might be newer drugs available, like this one, that might suit them better.
JOURNALIST: How much will you save now that this has been listed?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, the drug for a year cost $54,000. It comes from $54,000 to a $40 script. But I mean Carol, maybe you would like to share some of your story? You have been on the drug before and are back on it again.
CAROL COOKE: I'm like Stewart. I started Mavenclad in 2010, and I was on it for a year, which changed my life. You know? I had no side effects whatsoever. I have been on about eight other drugs, which caused a lot of side effects. And when it was taken off the market, I had to go to something else. Which did the job. But I started back at the end of May on a program and it again changed my life. As a Paralympian I travel the world to compete. And so, not having to carry, you know, three months' worth of drugs on this drug is just incredible. It does - I'm like Stewart - you almost forget that you have MS. I mean, other than little things that I live with constantly, but they have become a norm in my life. But to not go through a relapse and - or to have small little changes but then they go away makes all the difference in the world.
JOURNALIST: How much of a financial burden has now been lifted from you?
CAROL COOKE: Sorry?
JOURNALIST: How much of a financial burden has now been lifted from you?
CAROL COOKE: For me, I was lucky in that I was on a program and was given the drug by my neurologist at the start of May. So, you know, I haven't had the burden that Stewart has and thank goodness. Because unfortunately, with MS, I had to leave full-time employment back in 2001 and, you know, we all define ourselves by what we do in life. And to not have a full-time job, it was almost like what am I going to tell people I do? But I'm - but you know I found another life as a Paralympian and I look at that as a full-time job right now. And as a speaker in the corporate world, and... But just having this drug on board has just changed the way I feel about myself, and the way I feel about MS, and it allows me to continue doing what I'm doing.
PRIME MINISTER: Why don't you come share a bit more about the drug itself and what this means from a clinical perspective?
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR SUE HODGKINSON: Yes. So I actually was part of the program in 2010-11, when we first had access to it. Now… and at that time I found it to be quite a remarkably useful addition to what we've got. We've had - we are, I would agree with Stewart - we are very fortunate in this country that we have access to every one of the available medications in the best, really the best possible way in the world. Now we have got it - access to it again - I think a lot of people will find it a very useful extra thing that they can... that their neurologist can consider. It has... it's a very easy drug to take, which is a major advantage, and the... many of the side effects are relatively mild, if they exist. Yeah.
PRIME MINISTER: Roy and Carol, why don't you - they have been running...
JOURNALIST: Could we get your full name please and your position as far as MS treatment is concerned?
ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR SUE HODGKINSON: Ok. So, my name is Associate Professor Sue Hodgkinson. I'm at Liverpool Hospital and I have been treating Multiple Sclerosis for many, many years. A long time.
JOURNALIST: Thank you.
PRIME MINISTER: Carol and Roy. They run the Trish Foundation. Maybe have a chat about research that we need and what you have been able to achieve with the Foundation.
JOURNALIST: Can we get your name?
CAROL LANGSFORD: Carol Langsford. I am Chair of the research foundation.
PRIME MINISTER: Maybe want to talk about today's announcement and what it means, you think, for MS and your Foundation.
CAROL LANGSFORD: Well, I'm absolutely thrilled that the Mavenclad has been made available because anything that gives people with MS the choice, just makes an enormous difference to their lives. If only it had been available for our daughter, Trish, who we lost back in 2002. But we established the Trish MS Research Foundation. We are very passionate about raising funds for research so that Australia's dedicated researchers can do their absolutely amazing work and find the cure so that all of the people living with MS won't have to worry anymore. But absolutely thrilled to see Mavenclad being available for people with MS because I know it will make an enormous difference to many people's lives.
PRIME MINISTER: Great.
JOURNALIST: Do you mind telling us a little bit about Trish?
CAROL LANGSFORD: She was an athlete. She actually captained the Australian women's cricket team, the youth team, before she was struck down with MS. So, she spent 4 and a half years in a nursing home. She was completely paralysed. She was having morphine. She understood everything we said but she couldn't communicate. It was just so sad. First, to laugh at her dad's crazy jokes, but couldn't communicate with us. That's why we're so passionate about raising funds for the researchers. Because no-one should have to go through that. No-one.
JOURNALIST: How old was she?
CAROL LANGSFORD: 23 when she got it and then she was 30 when lost her.
JOURNALIST: Do you think this drug would have helped her?
CAROL LANGSFORD: Yes. She did get one remission before she went downhill fast. I'm absolutely sure that we may even have her today if it had been available. Yep.
PRIME MINISTER: And finally just want to bring out Julie. She's been living with MS.
JOURNALIST: Julie can we get your full name please?
JULIE KENNEDY: I’m Julie Kennedy.
JOURNALIST: Thank you. Can you tell us how long you have had MS?
JULIE KENNEDY: I was diagnosed when I'm 23. I'm now 30. Seven years. I just had my daughter. She was six months when I was diagnosed with MS. Mavenclad has improved my life tremendously. It's improved my social scene. I'm able to go out, do things, not get dizzy. I couldn't sit is in restaurants before, couldn't go into shopping centres. So I'm really happy with the current medication at the moment. Yep.
JOURNALIST: What about the financial burden for you?
JULIE KENNEDY: I was lucky enough to get it through my neurologist so I didn't have to pay for it. So I'm really happy with that.
JOURNALIST: Do you know of others with MS who haven’t been so lucky in that way and they haven’t been able to access the drug?
JULIE KENNEDY: No, I don't. I only just met Stewart today. I'm the only person I know with MS.
PRIME MINISTER: One of the things we announced when we were down at COAG was also the $1.25 approximately we're putting into the community health and hospitals. One of the things that that is going to be funding is increased access to clinical trials across a whole range of drugs, and so that will mean that even where there are some programs which aren't listed on the PBS, there is an opportunity for more, as you have learnt today, some people can get that opportunity to participate in various programs, and so part of that $1.25 billion is going to the increased access to clinical trials. That said, this is an important announcement today. As you've heard from those who are living directly with MS and those who have lost loved ones as a result of their affliction with MS. This is another game changer. But it can’t happen unless we continue to ensure that our economy remains strong, our Budget is in a strong position. Because we know what has happened in the past when the Budget has fallen into disrepair that important life-saving medicines like this haven't been able to be listed. And that's not happening now. $10 billion worth of life-saving and life-improving medicines have been listed since we were elected in 2013. We will keep listing them. Every time they are recommended, we will keep listing them because we know the difference they make. But this one today, in particular, is a very important one to Jen and I, because we know something of it, but nothing - nothing - like what those who live with it directly and their direct families experience. So there is a very brave group of people here and I'm so pleased we are able to step up and do this today.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, making this announcement today - and you’ve got your brother in law Garry riding shotgun - what does it mean to you personally?
PRIME MINISTER: Oh look, it's special. Because this is what it's about. We talk about a strong economy. I do that a lot. You have probably noticed. But it's - that's not the goal. The strong economy is a means to an end. The reason I want a strong economy is because I want to list Mavenclad, or Orkambi, or any of the other life-saving drugs. It’s because I want to invest in hospitals, because I want to invest in schools at record levels like we're doing. That's why I want a strong economy. That's why I want a strong Budget. That is why on the 2nd of April next year when we bring the Budget back into surplus for the first time in 12 years, the reason that's a good thing - without increasing taxes - the reason that's a good thing is it means we can do this. For my Government, that's what it's about. The strong economy and a Budget surplus isn't some trophy you put on the shelf and admire. It's a means to an end, which is helping people all across the country. Remote Indigenous housing in the Northern Territory, we're investing $550 million. That's what a strong economy is about. And to ensure that we can deliver that, that's why it is special for me today. In this particular case, this particular drug doesn't deal with Garry's particular form of MS. We know that. But we do know there are other whose can benefit from this, over 6,000 a year. And really, that is why we do these jobs.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, would you be Ok if we went to other matters?
PRIME MINISTER: We can go to other political issues, but to do that, I might excuse all of our friends here who are going to get a cup of tea or play with Buddy, who will be keen to muck about. And I’m happy to deal with any other political issues of the day. Thanks, guys.
JOURNALIST: Are you able to give us an update on Indonesia and whether you have been in touch with your counterparts?
PRIME MINISTER: I have only received some initial reports. We understand that at present there are no foreigners, let alone Australians, who have been impacted by this. But, again, this is a terrible blow for Indonesia. The last report I had was 42 people who had perished in what they are calling a high-wave event. This comes on top of what had happened in Sulawesi and so as always, we're available to support the Indonesian Government with these things, as requested. There have been no such requests. I'm not anticipating any on this occasion. But should they be present, then obviously we will work with the Indonesian Government as they request.
JOURNALIST: News Corp is reporting that the NBN is over budget and behind schedule. Are you confident though that that is not the case?
PRIME MINISTER: That report is wrong. All my advice says that is absolutely wrong. We are on track for 2020. We will remain on track.
JOURNALIST: Will the Government be making any changes to the rollout of the NBN?
PRIME MINISTER: We're just going to keep on with the plan that's working and rolling it out on time.
JOURNALIST: Do you think there might be any issues with it though?
PRIME MINISTER: It’s a big project. A very big project. And we've turned around the mess that we inherited from Labor on the NBN and we're getting it connected all around the country. It's a big job. It's like most of the things Labor left - half baked, underfunded. We've got about the job of fixing them and getting them delivered on the ground.
JOURNALIST: Can I ask about your reaction to the allegations about George Christensen and his travel to South-East Asia?
PRIME MINISTER: I think George made it pretty clear about what the nature of those events were. And I think it's disappointing that even as recently as yesterday the Labor Party seemed to be wanting to kick it along. I just thought it was pretty grubby. His explanation is very clear and it speaks for itself. For people to kick this along for political purposes, or - you know, fascination purposes, I think, is very unfortunate.
JOURNALIST: His explanation pointed to a former senior government MP. Does that go to the internal divisions within the party and it’s not just a Labor smear campaign?
PRIME MINISTER: No. I made my comment on that. I think George's statement speaks for itself.
JOURNALIST: But in his statement he specifically says that this former senior Government minister and ex senior staffer had sided with Labor in the smear campaign. So it implicates your side.
PRIME MINISTER: I'm not familiar with those situations.
JOURNALIST: Did you know the AFP was looking into...
PRIME MINISTER: I don't go into what I know and don't know about AFP investigations. I think that would be an unwise course of action for a Prime Minister to take.
JOURNALIST: Well he has implicated your side. Is this something that is going to drag on into the election campaign and cause the Coalition more damage?
PRIME MINISTER: No.
JOURNALIST: Why not?
PRIME MINISTER: Because I don't believe it will.
JOURNALIST: He's stated that the former Coalition minister and a senior staffer were so involved in a smear campaign.
PRIME MINISTER: I don't believe it will carry forward.
JOURNALIST: Donald Trump's been increasingly assertive with his language towards the Federal Reserve and particularly Jerome Powell. Are you concerned by that and the potential impacts that might happen in Australian markets come Monday? And on the independence of the central banks?
PRIME MINISTER: Well I know enough as a former Treasurer not to get into a running commentary on conversations between Fed Reserve Governors and Presidents. I don't intend to do that now.
JOURNALIST: Do you think it is naive for President Trump to think IS has been defeated in Syria?
PRIME MINISTER: I have just been to Iraq, as you know. I have taken a whole series of briefings while I was there. I met with senior colleagues in the security space and officials since returning. We have to be very conscious of the potential for a resilient and a resurgent IS. And Daesh. And our presence will remain. We will continue to do the very important job we're doing throughout the Middle East. We will work constructively and collaboratively with our allies, and particularly the United States. That's exactly what we're doing now. Ensuring we understand what their plans are and proposals are, and understanding what that means for our own presence, and how we continue to conduct those operations that we're involved in, and ensuring most importantly the safety and security of our own people in what they are doing in the Middle East. But, also, to ensure that we're protecting against threats such as returned foreign fighters, where there are risks in terms of people coming back into our region, out of Syria and other places, and so you can rest assured that the Government is keeping a very close watch on these events. We're in regular dialogue, we're engaging with the US about what their plans are, and to ensure there can be some alignment with both their thinking and planning.
JOURNALIST: Just on that, Prime Minister, the British press is reporting a resurgence of Al-Qaeda today in the Sunday newspapers. They are talking about al-Qaeda's ambitions to hit airliners and airports. How concerned are you about that? And are Australian officials concerned that the US pull-out from Syria and reduction of troops in Afghanistan will embolden groups like Al-Qaeda and IS?
PRIME MINISTER: Australia is never complacent and our Government is never complacent about the threat of radical extremist violent Islam. Never complacent about it. And we're always forward-leaning in keeping Australians safe and working with allies and partners around the world, whether it's in the Middle East or, indeed, in our own region. It was a topic of my bilateral discussions in the recent summit season, particularly with regional leaders and how we work together, particularly where we have already successfully been able to work in areas like the Philippines and others to support ensuring that we defend against and protect against these threats. So, whether it's Al-Qaeda or whether it's Daesh, or whether it's Jamar Islamiah or any other radical violent extremist Islamic groups that would seek to do Australia harm, then our Government can always be relied upon. Our Government will always lean forward into this. Our Government is the one that has always legislated, always taken the lead. Our Government is the one that has had to drag others with us on this because they haven't been there from the get-go. We are always there from the get go when it comes to protecting Australia from the threat of radical extremist violent Islam.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, quickly on Christmas. Retailers are saying they are struggling. They want to get Australians to shop more. Are you worried about sluggish retail numbers for the Budget down the track? What is your message to Australians?
PRIME MINISTER: We have released the strongest Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal update that we have seen in years. The Budget has been improving, the economy continues to perform strongly, particularly on a relative with like economies around the world. The Australian economy has shown a resilience that many others have not. And that should be a cause, I think, for comfort for Australians at this time. Obviously, I think people are worried about the flat housing market at the moment. That's why I'm particularly concerned about the radical plans that - tax plans - that the Labor Party have for the housing market. I mean, taking a sledgehammer to the housing market at a time of softness is exactly what they did with the mining tax and the mining industry all those years ago. They hit the Australian economy with a sledgehammer always at the worst possible time. Now, there is no doubt that the prospect of a Labor tax on housing would causing Australians to be concerned. That's why we have been rightly raising this concern for many years. Same for retirees who face a $5 billion a year retiree tax. They are Labor's tax plans. What we released was a midyear update which is one of the strongest we've seen in a very long time and it's been done without increased taxes and that's what you will get from our Government. When we run a strong economy, when you run a strong Budget, it means that we're able to announce the life-saving and life preserving drugs we have been able to announce today. I’ve got to go and join those who are guests today here at Kirribilli. Get shopping for Christmas! Have a great Christmas! Thank you very much.