ANDREW WALLACE MP, MEMBER FOR FISHER: A very, very warm Sunshine Coast welcome to the Prime Minister. It’s wonderful to have you here, Prime Minister, on this winter’s day on the Sunshine Coast. Every day is just like this on the Sunshine Coast. On behalf of my colleague Ted O’Brien I want to welcome you to the Sunshine Coast. It’s absolutely fantastic to have you here. Today is a great day but also a sad day. We know that many of our southern cousins are doing it tough down in Victoria and our hearts go out to them. Our hearts and thoughts and prayers go out to them. On the Sunshine Coast here, we’re not immune from that. Whilst we haven’t experienced the same extent of this crisis from a health perspective, we’re certainly experiencing the troubles that are flowing from the economic consequences. Now, there’s 20,400 businesses on the Sunshine Coast that employ tens of thousands of Sunshine Coast locals that are doing it tough. And those 20,400 businesses are getting JobKeeper and almost every day, when I go out and talk to businesses throughout the electorate, they all say one thing, PM, and that is thank you so much for JobKeeper. Because but for JobKeeper, they wouldn’t have businesses today. If they didn’t have businesses today, the tens of thousands of employees that they keep in work would be unemployed. So on behalf of those 20,400 employers, PM, on behalf of all those employees, I say thank you. And many of them have expressed to me and said please tell the PM how grateful we are for the assistance that we have provided as a government. So thank you for your leadership PM, thank you for the leadership of the Treasurer. It’s been a difficult time but Sunshine Coast locals are resilient, they are tough. Just like all Australians, we will get through this together. PM, welcome to the Sunny Coast, it’s great to have you here.
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you Andrew and Ted and thank you, particularly, to Heidi and Pavo. It’s great to be here at Walker Seafoods. I’d like to make a few comments, though, before I talk about the reason for us being here today, about the situation in Victoria.
Each day I’ve been, obviously, connecting with the Aged Care Minister, the Health Care Minister, I’ve been in contact with Premier Andrews, the Secretary of the Health Department, the Chief Medical Officer, the Acting Chief Medical Officer, who has been working closely with their counterparts in Victoria. The situation remains very concerning and particularly in relation to the aged care situation in Victoria. We have just over 80 facilities out of just over 430 in Victoria which have been affected. Not all severely, but some of those cases have been far more severe. And I'll be returning to Canberra later this morning to engage directly again. Over the course of this week, I had been planning to be in Queensland for the next few days. Because we really are dealing with a health crisis and we are dealing with an economic crisis and here we are today to be highlighting the important steps we're taking to support the Australian economy through the economic crisis, the COVID recession, and Walker Seafoods is a great example of businesses that are taking advantage of the supports that are there, to ensure that they can keep people in work and they can look forward and see their business recover, and move forward into the future with confidence.
In relation to Victoria and aged care, the Victorian Aged Care Response Centre has been stood up now for several days. That brings together the Commonwealth officers, both in emergency management and the Federal Department of Health with their counterparts in Victoria. Now, the situation in Victoria aged care is very complex. You have a combination of the community transmission, which is widespread in Melbourne, finding its way into many facilities and in particular it has found its way into the aged care workforce. Now, the standing-down, necessarily, of many in that workforce has had a very significant disruption to the provision of care in those facilities. The Commonwealth has been working, including with other states, to ensure that we can plug those gaps wherever we possibly can. But I want to be up-front with you - it's very difficult and it's very hard to get people into those positions, particularly given the complexity and difficulty of the situations they're facing. And last night, in particular, we had ADF officers, nurses, being put into a night shift in a Melbourne facility and we were able to arrange that quite late in the evening, about 11:00pm. And so there is no effort being spared to ensure that we can get the people to the places they need to be.
An important part of the process that we have been following has been to transfer those who have COVID, in particular, out of aged care facilities into both public and private hospitals. This is a very important part of the plan that is being implemented that relieves the stress on those facilities where there are patients - I should say residents - who are able to be accommodated in those facilities in single rooms, in appropriate facilities. There has been significant PPE that has been provided to the aged care sector in Victoria, both leading up to this time over many weeks, and more is being provided. The training was provided but it's important, with the leadership in these facilities, that that is being adhered to and further steps are being taken to ensure that that is taking place. The disruption to the workforce, which has included the disruption of the management workforce in those facilities, means that you have significant problems ensuring a continuity of communication with families. And I know that must be terribly heartbreaking for those families, and incredibly difficult, and Richard Colbeck, the Minister for Aged Care, I have tasked specifically to be focusing on ensuring that we do everything we can to fill those holes when it comes to communications with families. There is disruption and we would ask for patience. But I understand that that patience is very hard to come by when you're talking about a loved one who's been affected by COVID and what's been occurring in these facilities.
COVID is a difficult beast to manage, and it means that there will be difficult tasks, and there will be hard times, and there will be complex solutions that are necessary. But the way we get on top of it is the way we're acting, by working together. The Victorian and the Federal Government are working together. Whether it's on the issues that the state government have been pursuing, whether it's on their testing or tracing regime, as I said in previous press conferences, we've got over 1,400 ADF personnel on the ground and many hundreds more of Commonwealth officers who are available to support that work. And that includes now in getting nursing workforces into aged care facilities. That is a key task at the moment and I want to thank, particularly, the South Australian government. I spoke yesterday with the Premier to seek his support in getting additional nursing care resources into Victoria and we're working through those issues and where other states are able to assist and in a position to do so, then we will be welcoming that as well.
So, I'll be returning to Canberra, obviously, to work closely with our Department of Health and Minister Hunt, as well as Minister Colbeck, to ensure we're doing everything we can to address that situation in Victoria, particularly in relation to aged care and we will provide further updates. Minister Hunt will be standing up later today. I have been in constant contact with him, as well as the regular briefings that we have on a daily basis and after discussing the matter with him earlier today, I thought it was best that, as much as there are some tremendous things and I wanted to hear from up here in Queensland over the next few days, I think the urgency of the situation requires me to return to Canberra.
But to come back to the reason we're here today and to be joining Walker Seafoods. What is encouraging about Walker Seafoods' story is, despite the challenges of COVID and as Andrew said, while Queensland has been spared the worst of the health circumstances of the COVID crisis, they have not been immune to the economic impacts. But what I have been inspired by, by businesses all around the country, whether it's been in my own electorate in Southern Sydney, or here, or over in Western Australia, or the Northern Territory, has been the determination of Australian businesses, particularly small and medium-sized businesses, to find their way through, to look at the assets and the resources they have. Whether it's the fishing vessel we see there, whether it's the equipment we see behind us, the people and the staff that they have and how they can adapt to find their way through. And with the support of the instant asset write-off to get the blast freezer, with the support of JobKeeper, which has kept 13 employees out of a staff of 50 on the tools here at Walker Seafoods, and the cash flow support, and the subsidies of freight flights, which has enabled them to get their tuna to Japan and to the Americas, I should particularly say, means they have been able to find their way through. And after taking an extremely heavy hit, they're building their business back up and that's the way out for Australia. This is a business which has not let its head drop. This is a business that has kept its eyes forward and looking at their opportunities and how they can adapt. That is the way through and that is why we've put in place the measures that we have, whether it's what I've already referred to, with the instant asset write-off, with JobKeeper, with the cash flow support, which continues. Or, on top of that, it's the work we've done in the construction sector or entertainment sector. Or up at Australia Zoo, not too far from here, more than $3 million of support in JobKeeper, in support through our grants program to help them feed their animals and keep the zoo running. All of these businesses we have been taking a very micro view on to see how we can help them and support their plans. They're leading it. We're supporting them. And that's what my Government will continue to do to ensure we not only address the very real health crisis that we face, but that we address the economic crisis as well, and we keep Australians in jobs, and we emerge more strongly.
Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, would you be expecting more help from Queensland to help with resources in the Victorian situation?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, we appreciate the support the Queensland government has already been providing. All states and territories have come to the aid of Victoria, and I know Premier Andrews is also very grateful for that, as am I. And there is largely a standing offer from all states and territories where they can. It's a matter of matching what they have available to the need that's there. But through the National Cabinet, it's been a very transparent process, needs have been openly shared, and support has been very forthcoming. So, I would have no doubt that if we sought something from Queensland that they were able to assist us with, they'd move very quickly to help.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, given the risk of cross infection in aged care homes has been known since March, why has it taken so long until this week to prevent workers working in those homes to stay within one facility?
PRIME MINISTER: The difficulty is the nature of the workforce and the necessity to keep a workforce in place to provide care to residents. Otherwise, those residents would be abandoned and the infiltration of the community spread of the virus through staff has been of particular concern, and it has happened very, very quickly. So managing the aged care workforce has been very difficult in Victoria. It's not a simple issue. It would be nice to say that there are simple solutions to these complex problems, but there are not and there are no fail-safe or foolproof solutions that you can put in place. All we can do is what we are doing, and that is working together and being very transparent and up-front with people. I established the Aged Care Royal Commission and the Aged Care Royal Commission is already looking at issues relating to COVID in terms of what occurred in New South Wales and I would expect them to be looking at what has occurred in Victoria as well. We're very open to that. You can expect me to be very open with the Australian people about the challenges we face there and how we're dealing with them.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, given that aged care is a federal responsibility and this coronavirus crisis in Victoria has been unfolding for some weeks, why today has it hit crisis level for you?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, today we had planned to be here over several days, but the escalation of the workforce challenges necessitates me to return. It is a shared responsibility with Victoria in the following sense - that when a public health issue arises, obviously public health is a matter for state governments, and whether there's a public health issue in a school or an aged care facility or a museum or a workplace or anything like that, the state governments have public health responsibility for those things. For the regulation of aged care facilities, of course, that's a matter for the Federal Government. So there are shared responsibilities there and that's why the Victorian Aged Care Response Centre has been set up, bringing together all of those who work on these problems. The workforce issues are very challenging and that's why it's important that the workforce, the nursing workforce in both private and public hospitals, is available to support those needs. Now, that can be with the direct transfer of residents who have become patients into those facilities, or otherwise freeing up those nursing staff availabilities to support in those aged care centres.
JOURNALIST: What do you make of the State Government's handling up here of the crisis? There's been a lot of criticism with closing borders, but given what's happening in Victoria, what do you think of the State Government's handling here?
PRIME MINISTER: Look, the Queensland Government have worked closely as part of the National Cabinet process. We've all worked together. I’ve worked closely with the Queensland Premier on numerous items and I thank her for the way she's engaged in such good faith, as I do all the premiers. That's been the way we've sought to handle this crisis. We haven't been running a commentary on each other. There's plenty in the media to do that. What we’ve done is just simply tried to work with each other and help each other. There are disagreements from time to time. That's to be expected, but it is important that we get the resources to where they need to go and that we take the health advice, which we have been doing, and the principal source of health advice for the National Cabinet is the national expert medical panel, which has representatives of all the chief health officers of all the states and territories, together with the Chief Medical Officer, and we have been following their advice together as a group now since the inception of this crisis.
JOURNALIST: What would you say to those people, given the gravity of the situation, those people that have tried to turn the public response into a civil rights issue? Are they hampering our ability to be able to respond to the crisis?
PRIME MINISTER: Look, it's important that we follow health advice. That's important for your own personal health. It's important for your public health. There is no agenda behind public health advice. They are simply trying to give us as leaders the best possible expert opinion on how we can keep Australians safe. And it's important that together, collectively, we share the responsibility in doing the right thing by each other. Now, governments are looking to keep people safe. It's our first responsibility. Governments are working to try and keep people in jobs, to ensure that people do not get into hardship. And we've been able to ensure that hundreds of thousands, if not more than that, have been supported through this COVID recession, and will continue to be, so that economic hardship doesn't wreak even worse outcomes on Australians. So I think it's important for people to remain practical, to leave all the politics and everything else aside. That's what we're doing as premiers and prime ministers and chief ministers, we’re just leaving all that to one side and we're just focusing on the problems and seeking to solve them together.
JOURNALIST: The United States has flagged ambitious and coordinated defence initiatives with Australia. What would that look like here and is it necessary?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, Australia makes its decisions based on our own national interests and our own timings and our own assessments of what decisions we make. We have the greatest of alliances and friendships with the United States and our Minister for Defence and Foreign Affairs is in Washington as we speak and having the regular AUSMIN dialogue. And so we work closely together in seeking to secure peace and stability in our region. That's what's good for Australia. And where our actions together contribute to peace and stability in our region, then that is very much in Australia's national interests. But we make those decisions as a National Security Committee, and as a Cabinet, based on the merits of each and every call.
JOURNALIST: What risk does that potentially pose to Australia from China?
PRIME MINISTER: I don't believe it poses a risk when we're acting to secure the peace and stability of the region. The peace and stability of the region is in the interests of everybody in our region, and that would include China.
JOURNALIST: In Queensland, we’ve seen the state become somewhat of a home away from home for major industries and sporting teams. How else can the state help keeping key industries going and do you have any ideas?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, what I welcome from the states is where they add to the initiatives that the Commonwealth is putting in place and the Commonwealth, in economic support, has already committed some $290 billion. Now, the states have added about $40 billion in support on top of that collectively and we welcome that. But I think where states can go that extra yard, where they can deal with a specific issue that is very germane to their state and seek to create opportunities, then we encourage that. In my home state, they just made an announcement yesterday about stamp duty. Now, I'm not saying Queensland should do that. What I'm saying is that states will make an assessment of what they consider is going to build on the economic platform that the Federal Government has provided and we would welcome that. We already are doing quite a lot together on the infrastructure side, on roads and many important projects, which we brought forward. Almost $10 billion worth of projects around the country were brought forward with the support of the state governments. Queensland were one of the first to come on board with our skills initiative. We put half a billion dollars down and Queensland have come on board with that. Queensland have also indicated they will be supporting moving to single-touch approvals on the EPBC Act. We welcome that as well. So we've got to get the cost of doing business down. And Olivia and Pavo were telling me about some of that today and a few things we can think about on that front. But equally, the regulation, whether at the local government level or state level, we've got to reduce the time delays in getting new investments going so businesses can invest. We can't continue to have confidence about jobs unless we continue to do the things that will support businesses to make investments and, you know, a $60,000 investment in a blast freezer here at Walker Seafoods is supporting the 50 jobs that are here because it means that Pavo can go and catch different fish because he can freeze them in the blast furnace and send it to a different market, which Heidi has been able to identify. So that's how businesses will make their way, and where the state governments can add to what we're doing, then we appreciate that effort.
JOURNALIST: How frustrating is it that there's a project on the Darling Downs ready to go, the New Acland coal mine, but the State Government won't let it go ahead? How frustrating is that with jobs ready to go?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's a matter for the State Government and, you know, it's about walking the talk.
JOURNALIST: The Queensland Premier says she won't hesitate to slam the border shut again should the situation get worse, say, in New South Wales. Do you think that's a good approach? Do you see a situation where we might have to close the borders down?
PRIME MINISTER: The approach we've taken as a Commonwealth Government is we're one country, but there are parts of the country which need to be contained from other parts of the country, and Victoria is clearly in that situation. And when the New South Wales-Victorian border was hardened, that was done after the New South Wales Premier, the Victorian Premier and I met and agreed to do that and then put the resources in behind how that would be managed. For example, now we have the New South Wales government doing tracing on cases along the border towns as part of that border management operation between New South Wales and Victoria and that is hopefully ensuring even better management of how the borders are working. States are making their own decisions about when they decide to put up borders or not. They assert their right to do that and I'm not getting into that conversation. But I follow the health advice. I certainly would agree that where there are parts of the country, whether there are outbreak zones in Sydney which the New South Wales government is well on top of or certainly across Victoria, or if, for example, it were to occur in Brisbane or the Sunshine Coast, then clearly it would be the right thing to do to prevent movement out of those areas into any part of Australia, into any part of Queensland, let alone the rest of the country. So dealing with outbreaks is going to continue until we have a vaccine. We're making unprecedented investments in securing a vaccine and working through many international forums to ensure we're supporting the development of a vaccine and ensuring that we can both manufacture and distribute a vaccine to ensure we have the licensing arrangements that Commonwealth CSL will be in a position to manufacture it and get it to Australia. We're making big steps there.
So until we get to that point, we have to manage outbreaks in a way which doesn't shut the economy down and I think New South Wales right now are demonstrating this very well. There are some concerning outbreaks in New South Wales but they're getting on top of them extremely quickly and containing them and they're able to keep their economy open and they're able to get on top of an outbreak and it is in Australia's national interests that they be successful. It's important that they can demonstrate that success as we right the situation in Victoria which, in concluding, I stress again to all of those, particularly those with families in aged care facilities, I want to assure you this has my number one focus. That's why I'm returning to Canberra and to work closely with Minister Hunt and Minister Colbeck, Brendan Murphy, the Secretary of the Department of Health, continue working closely with Premier Andrews and his government and his ministers, emergency management Australia, Lieutenant-General Frewen and Commodore Hill, who are heading up the Defence Force operations, both nationally and in the state of Victoria. There is a considerable and significant resource that is being applied and senior-level decision-making to ensure we do everything we can to get on top of this.
But I don't want to kid Australians. It's not easy. And there will be setbacks. And there are heartbreaks and there will be heartbreaks and we want to do everything we can to prevent that. But the only way we will succeed is by focusing on the job at hand, focusing on working together and just working methodically through these very difficult challenges, but I don't want anyone to underestimate how serious those challenges are. Thank you, all, very much and thank you, Heidi and Pavo for being able to join you here today. It's a tremendous commendation to you and the business that you've built that it showed the resilience it has through these very difficult times. They're a great example to the rest of the country. Thank you all very much.