THE HON. ANDREW GEE MP, MEMBER FOR CALARE: G’day folks, thanks for joining us here in Mudgee. It’s a pleasure to have the Prime Minister here with us today and also the Mayor of the Mid-Western Regional Council, Des Kennedy. We would have loved to have welcomed the PM here under better circumstances and easier circumstances for our region but we’re very grateful that you’re here, PM, to see firsthand what’s happening in our area and also to support our hardworking volunteers, our firies and emergency services personnel who are out there on the frontline and have been for weeks and in some cases months. It is a huge fire that we have burning right throughout this area. I was up in the air yesterday and there are fires all through the back of Ilford and Running Stream and through the Capertee, the Gardens of Stone. The back of Capertee is in danger so there is a whole lot of work that is going on around the clock and I just want to pay tribute to our hard-working volunteers and emergency services personnel. Everyone out there is very tired and very weary, everyone wants it to rain so that we can all go home but until that does happen, we’re going to stick with our firies and volunteers and our communities and together we are going to get through this. So, PM, thank you very much for joining us and I’ll throw over to you and Des after that.
PRIME MINISTER: Well, thank you, Andrew, and thank you for your leadership on the ground here and you Des, thank you also for the great work that is being done by the local council. Mudgee is a great town and it’s sad that I'm back here under these circumstances. But seeing the bustling little town here today and the spirit of people here and the way they're supporting each other, I think is just very inspirational. We came here today as we flew across the range and up the Bells Line and out through Wollemi and we saw what is the absolute incineration of such large tracts of land and to see the homes decimated. And then to move from that, as we came out across and onto the plains here and where you saw the two great disasters that our country is facing now joined into one and that is the drought and that is these fires. And they come together here as a double whammy on these communities, whether it's here or Ilford or other places that have been mentioned. And so that makes this task even tougher. Those dealing with their properties and then out fighting fires and volunteering in the centres here, it once again shows the great community spirit and the incredible scale of the response that we're seeing here.
It was also good to meet up with some of those who've been out here from the United States and Canada who are stationed here and it'll be their first Aussie Christmas, maybe not under the circumstances we would have preferred, and it's wonderful to have them here. And I had the opportunity to thank them yesterday when I was out at the headquarters and two of them who are stationed here were at the headquarters yesterday. Others have been out for a couple of weeks and in chatting to them it's clear once again, wherever I go and have been over the last several months as part of these fires that have been running through since September, the scale, coordination and the level of professionalism of the response nationally to this disaster is extraordinary. It is world-class. It is world-leading and Australians should feel very reassured. I know whether it's the haze that sits on Sydney or whether it's the smoke that we can see further afield or whether you're right in front of the fire line itself. I spoke to one family down there in Mudgee today where the fire went right up to the back steps and now they sit there having got through the first wave, worrying about the weather turning and the fire coming back to their property as well. And so wherever you are, be reassured that the effort and the coordination is extraordinary. That level of detail, whether it's in the headquarters or whether it's in the incident response centres like we are here in Mudgee, is extraordinary. They have the tools, they're applying them, they have their challenges. Not everything always goes right and never does. But the way they respond and work as a team is truly inspirational. The teams are tied here like they are in so many other parts around the country and so we'll continue to work with everybody to ensure that they get the support they need.
I was speaking again to the South Australian Premier, Premier Marshall again this morning about the terrible situation which has emerged there and we're keeping a close eye on things there, as we are in Victoria and as things continue in Queensland. The weather might help for a little while, but the weather will turn from friend to enemy very quickly in these fires as we see and the great planning work that's been done in these areas and ensuring the crews and the aerial firefighting is in place to mitigate and prevent and strategising that goes ahead and is then executed is extraordinary. So I want to thank everybody for the work they're doing now.
From the Commonwealth's point of view, whether it's our Defence Force, whether it's those administering the disaster recovery payments and getting those out there, whether it's the work being done by Emergency Management Australia as they brought together our own council this morning to meet and to continue to plan. And what will happen after these fires is we'll plan to do it even better next time. The premiers will meet with me in March. There are already options and proposals that are being worked on now for us to consider. I've already been talking to the Premiers about those, but what we don't want to do is distract from the here and now operational requirements and that's where we need the focus of our chiefs right now. There'll be plenty of issues to review, everything from how hazard management is dealt with in national park areas. I mean, in so many of the area areas that we've seen incinerated, that has happened through dry lightning strikes or in carelessness on some occasions. That's why communications are so important or in worst cases, arson. All of those things are things that will be looked at and taken into account, but it will be through the Premiers and through the state governments that we’ll be seeking to provide our support and our response. The Premiers and the state governments are the ones who run the agencies that run the response to these fires, and it's important that we work closely with them to achieve what we need to. So I want to thank everyone again and to you, Andrew, and I'll hand over to Des. But everyone down there at Club Mudgee at the moment, thank you very much for that. Wherever our service clubs are, they are doing a great job in standing up these evacuation centres and giving people a real sense of comfort when they need it most. Des.
DES KENNEDY, MAYOR OF MID-WESTERN REGIONAL COUNCIL: Thank you, Prime Minister, and thank you, Andrew, for visiting our wonderful region. Not so wonderful this time of the year with these fires and drought. From a community point of view, I would just really like to reiterate the words from Andrew and the Prime Minister that the work these people do, these volunteer fire people and just the general community. I walked into a coffee shop this morning to get a coffee, and here’s a lady I’ve known for 30 years since I've been here, gathering goodies from volunteers to take to the people of Ilford that are in the hall there. Bags of biscuits and coffee and bread and milk, all the essentials. So just from a thank you point of view from the, you know, from the community of this whole region, particularly the people that live in town that are a bit oblivious to how bad the fires are out there. I think we've lost five homes in the Ilford/Razorback/Running Stream area at the moment. Luckily, no fatalities, no loss of life or bad injuries. So that's one good thing. So just thank you to the community, the RFS and just anybody at all that's involved in these horrific conditions we’re in, you know, not only drought as the Prime Minister… we've got the worst of both worlds just at the moment. So I don't know whether you're religious or not, but if you have got a slight bit of religion in you, say something to somebody to make it rain and we'll be all happy. Thank you.
PRIME MINISTER: Very good point, Des. Very good point. Happy to take some questions.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, why are you at odds with Michael McCormack over the need for stronger action on climate change?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, we're not. I mean, what we're both talking about is the Government's policies, which for some time now we've said we'll continue to be addressing the challenge of climate change and our policies already, already have ensured that we can continue to make further improvements to what we're doing. I've said ourselves that we want not only to just meet but beat our commitments that we've made for Paris in 2030. Angus Taylor himself was saying the same thing several months ago. So when I say that we're sticking with our policies, our policies actually address the need to continue to address this challenge. So I know people want to play word games and look for conflict where there isn't any and there's not here. We have a clear policy on these things and we'll continue to pursue it.
JOURNALIST: You say you're saying the same thing. He argued a few days ago... agreed a few days ago that more action, stronger action...
PRIME MINISTER: Because he understands that our policies include more action. That's how I can say it. I understand what the policies are and I understand that people want to try and create conflict where there's none. There isn't any.
JOURNALIST: Do you think the sentiment in the community has changed since you outlined those policies when you brought them to the election? Do you think people in the community have now changed their view on climate change or think more needs to be done?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, what I know is that the need to take action on climate change hasn't changed. You don't run government on sentiment. You run government on the facts and you run government on what you need to do to protect our environment and it's sustainability for the future, to protect our economy and the jobs and the livelihoods that Australians depend on. What you run government on and the decisions you take are based on those important facts and the facts when it comes to addressing climate change and the facts on when it comes to ensuring we have a strong economy which provides people with the livelihoods that they depend on. They remain the same. And so we will remain very focused on those policies and implementing them in the way we promised at the last election, which was only six months ago. And those policies will see us meet and beat our commitments when it comes to Kyoto and I believe it will achieve the same when it comes to Paris because our policies embrace taking additional actions and that's been set out for some time.
JOURNALIST: The Opposition has called for COAG to be held in…
PRIME MINISTER: We might just move it around.
JOURNALIST: The Opposition has called for COAG to be held earlier than March to consider the likes of compensation for volunteer firefighters. Would you consider holding it earlier? It is four months away.
PRIME MINISTER: It's important to do the work properly and it's important to properly consult with the state premiers and chief ministers and that's what I'm doing right now and have been.
JOURNALIST: But those people aren't going to be earning any money potentially for the next few months.
PRIME MINISTER: If there is the need and fire commissioners and chiefs and state premiers wish to raise issues before then, and I've been talking to them and they are not, they are very comfortable with the arrangements we have.
Ministers that are responsible for these issues have already been meeting. They met just only a couple of weeks ago, they will fully review what's happening in response to these fires and for future management of these issues, and if there is a need to address things urgently and before that time, then there are existing processes to make that happen. I think we need to be clear here. It's important that we all keep working together. I know some will seek to take political opportunity in these events. I don't think that's very helpful. What's really helpful is focusing on what the fire commissioners and the premiers are talking to me about on a daily basis now that I've come back - and it was happening before I went away - to ensure that we get the resources where they need to be. This is an incredibly well-coordinated response to these fires. I think there has been an under-appreciation of just how much preparation goes into a fire season like this. Fires are not new in Australia. Fires are by no means new. And our fire services are responding to this fire better than last time and the next time, it'll be better still with the resources and the technology and the other things we can put in place. So there's no need for knee jerk responses. There's no need, I think, for doing anything other than sticking to the plans that have been set out and the preparations that have been made and making sure they're implemented. The challenge is that the duration of these fires during the season and this matter was only dealt with yesterday by Commissioner Fitzsimmons at a press conference similar to this. So I'll just refer to what he said yesterday. He wants to stay focused on the job and what's directly before him and he has my full support.
JOURNALIST: Today, Prime Minister, you’ve indicated that you think there’s a problem with how we manage fuel loads. You stepped up the rhetoric, specifically identifying that is an area where the laws might need to be changed. What’s informed your opinion to the extent of now potentially calling on the states to change how they manage those loads?
PRIME MINISTER: All I simply said is when you go through a fire season like this, you need to look at everything, absolutely everything and, of course, that includes how you're managing fuel loads in national parks. Of course, it means how are you dealing with native vegetation clearing regulations and laws that exist. That means that you need to look at how you're listening to what, you know, Indigenous practices are in containing and dealing with fire risk in the community. I've simply said that all of these things, all of the factors that can contribute to these fires and contribute to how you can better manage these fires when they occur, all of these things have to be considered. All options have to be on the table and they will be on the table and they will be on the table as premiers and chief ministers meet and until that time, the various governments will be working together to come up with the best possible options. That's how you run good government. You don't do it in a panicked, knee jerk political mode. You do it by just getting the information right, making good decisions together, consulting strongly with the premiers and chief ministers to make sure you can make it work across all of these jurisdictions. Because at the end of the day, they have to run the agencies and they have to run the operations which make the response to these fires.
JOURNALIST: You’ve acknowledged the intersection here of the drought and the fires, particularly damaging conditions, places like Stony Creek have been dry for four years. Is that not something that we had time to maybe prepare for and look at things like land clearing or management if that was an issue?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, if that is one of the issues that have particularly contributed here, then I'm sure that will be identified in the reviews that have taken place. It's important that they are the questions that are asked, like many questions will be. Because the reason Australia leads the world in response to fire disasters like this is because we ask those hard questions after every single event and we improve the processes every single time. That's how we have become the world's best in these responses and that's why Australians who are anxious at this time when they see the impact of these fires, whether it's on the air quality that they are breathing in the cities or the fire literally on the back steps, they can have greater confidence during this fire because of all the work that has been done in preparation for this season and from all the lessons that have been learned over a long period of time.
JOURNALIST: Is it fair that the communities who are facing bushfires today would have to wait until after March for any decisions from state and federal government?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, the presumption of your question is wrong.
JOURNALIST: But you've just said policies won’t change, you’re sticking to them.
PRIME MINISTER: Are you talking about climate change or are you talking about…?
JOURNALIST: I’m talking about the approach to the fires and climate change.
PRIME MINISTER: Well, if there are decisions, any decisions... I mean, the Premier and I made decisions yesterday when it came to financial support for affected communities. The Premier and I made decisions yesterday about further Defence Force assistance. Decisions are being made every single day and that will continue to happen. That's what governments working with each other do. That's what the coordinating mechanisms through COAG actually achieve. This is how it's done. This is how the support is provided and it's how it will continue to be provided. I know the Labor Party is making a point about the timing of a meeting - we can make decisions and do make decisions every single day. When premiers and chief ministers come together as part of a COAG process, they'll be considering longer-term and mid-term responses and other issues that deal with our capacity in the future. When it comes to making these other decisions in the short term, they are made every single day. The commissioners of all the fire agencies all around the country meet on a regular basis. The ministers themselves have only met recently and that is assisted greatly in a lot of the things that are happening right now on the ground. So I just simply don't accept the proposition that there has to be a meeting of COAG earlier for anything to get done. Things get done every single day and will continue to get done every single day and I think people should leave the politics out of it.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, in terms of compensation, there’s been talk of raising taxes to try and pay the RFS volunteers or tax exemptions. What would compensation look like to you?
PRIME MINISTER: I don't know if compensation is the right word to use. What's important is that we give our fire commissioners the tools they need to best support and raise that volunteer force as it's needed…
JOURNALIST: We’re talking money.
PRIME MINISTER: ...over across the fire grounds and where they need to meet that need. So these are issues that will continue to be worked up together between states and territories. I talk to the Premiers all the time about these things. I've been talking to them in recent days, talking about them ever since these fires have been raging in terms of the operational response over this season. And so we will continue to do that.
JOURNALIST: If compensation is not the right word, then what would be?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, it’s what I just said. It's the resources that enable the commissioners to be able to turn out the volunteer force. I mean, we need to understand that whether it is fighting fires or patrolling our beaches or supporting Meals on Wheels or any volunteer SES arrangement which supports during floods or storms, Australia's system all around the country has always and will always depend on having a large volunteer force to deal with these issues. And when people join these organisations, they do it to protect their communities and they do it out of a sense of great service and we rightly celebrate that. What is particularly taxing during this fire season is the length and that's why I'm taking advice from fire commissioners on what is best needed to continue to support access to that important volunteer force that is out there. And so I'll take my lead from them. I'll take my lead from talking to the premiers who have the responsibility for leading and resourcing those agencies and the Commonwealth obviously plays a big role in supporting their efforts and we will continue to do that.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you talk about resourcing. Take Mudgee, for example. The locals here have been putting up RFS volunteers for free. Are you saying that they have to rely on private charity to be able to get access to the resources they need?
PRIME MINISTER: No, I'm not saying that and I think that would be incorrect of you to suggest that. When you have a national disaster, there are a range of responses that come in and people's generosity are part of that. This is why Australia is such an amazing country, because of the generosity of spirit, which has enabled us to deal with these types of disasters for a very, very long time. That is an important asset for Australia. I met a young family today who just came along to offer their accommodation support to anyone who might need it. Now, that's just an act of generosity and kindness. That's what Australia is all about and that will continue to be helpful with every disaster we face. These acts of kindness and support, the donations that are provided, the toys that are even provided for children of firies who won't have the time to go out and buy presents for their kids this Christmas. That is a big part of why Australia is so strong in responding to these sorts of issues and that is part of the way we manage this.
JOURNALIST: If the government is able to be making the decisions that you've said as you’ve been going speaking to the Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, and making decisions about supporting communities, then why can't the government make the same types of decisions about support for these volunteer firefighters?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, there are no recommendations coming to us from fire chiefs about those issues at this time. That is not an issue that is being managed with us by those who are leading the fire response effort. I know it's a matter being raised by political leaders, but it is not a matter that is being raised directly as a matter for a decision right now by Premiers or myself.
So, I mean, it is constantly said that political leaders such as myself, premiers and chief ministers, should be listening to the advice of those who are running the agencies that are leading this response. And we are listening to them, and that's who my ears are glued to when it comes to what they need and where they say they need something then we've moved very quickly to respond to those needs and we will continue to do that. So that's where... my focus is where those who are actually leading this stuff on the ground operationally in every state. My focus is where their focus is and they're setting out to me what the priorities are and what the decisions that are needed and they are the decisions that we're taking.
THE HON. ANDREW GEE MP, MEMBER FOR CALARE: And just on the issue of fuel loads, it's my hope that when these fires are eventually put out and the rain does come that we actually talk to the brigade members on the ground. Because I've been spending a lot of time with them recently and they've got a lot of things to say. And for example, up here out in the Ilford area, they've been telling me that they've been out in these parks and forests and in some cases they've been wading through leaf litter which is knee-high. So these are the folks on the ground who are putting in the hard yards and knocking themselves out around the clock. They've got a lot to say and they want to be heard and so I think it's really important once we get through this emergency that we go through a process of sitting down with our volunteers and talking to them and let us hear what they've got to say and hear their experiences, because I've heard some stories which would make folks out there just shake their heads. But now is not the time to go into it. Let's get through this first and then let's sit down with all of the relevant people, but most importantly, the people who've been out there on the frontline day in, day out, knocking themselves out for us.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, Greta Thunberg has tweeted her 3.7 million followers videos from the Australian fires criticising the lack of political action on climate change. What do you think of her comments?
PRIME MINISTER: Australia and the Australian Government will set our policies based on Australia's national interests. On what Australia needs to do. That's where I keep my focus. It's not for me to to make commentaries on what those outside of Australia think Australia should do. We’ll do in Australia what we think is right for Australia and that has always been my guiding principle. I'm not here to try and impress people overseas. I'm here to do the right job for Australians and putting them first and that means putting the environment in which we live at the top of that agenda, along with the economy in which people live at the top of that agenda and making sure we've got responsible plans that balance these issues to ensure that people have what they need going into the future and they can be confident about their future. And I believe they can. I think they can be very confident. I mean, right now, particularly here in Mudgee, where you've got the double blow of drought and fires, you talk to people and what they talk to you about is their hope and they talk to you about their future.
JOURNALIST: On a separate matter, there are reports that you were in New York to help open a new church or be there for the opening of a new church.
PRIME MINISTER: Where?
JOURNALIST: With Brian Houston in New York. Is that correct?
PRIME MINISTER: That's rubbish.
JOURNALIST: Were you in New York in the past month?
PRIME MINISTER: No.
JOURNALIST: Were you… have you been in contact with Brian Houston in the past month?
PRIME MINISTER: No.
JOURNALIST: So you can categorically rule out being in New York and being at the church?
PRIME MINISTER: Who is suggesting I was in New York?
JOURNALIST: There are reports.
PRIME MINISTER: By who?
JOURNALIST: Media. News media reports.
PRIME MINISTER: What media?
JOURNALIST: Daily Mail.
PRIME MINISTER: What would they know?
JOURNALIST: I’m asking you.
PRIME MINISTER: Well, if you're going to ask me a question about something specific as that you might want to actually tell me the source of what it's based on. I haven't. So someone somewhere has started some rumour about apparently me being in New York and we're going to ask about that in the middle of the bushfires? I mean, seriously, I think they’re...
JOURNALIST: So that's no?
PRIME MINISTER: I haven't been anywhere near New York since I was there early this year when I was there as part of the visit to the United Nations.
JOURNALIST: So is the opening of the church a complete fake?
PRIME MINISTER: I've got no idea. I've got nothing to do with it.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, on the Queensland and Victoria gas plants…
PRIME MINISTER: Sorry, that was the very definition of a left-field question.
JOURNALIST: Just quickly, how will the new gas plants you’re opening in Queensland and Victoria bring down power prices?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, as we've already seen, the ACCC has shown a $65 annually for poor power prices as a result of the policy we have taken, particularly with the large energy companies. What these programmes do, whether it's down in the Dandenongs or up in Queensland, is it ensures that we get to an underwriting of reliable power into the system. And that's particularly needed in Victoria, as we know, and so these projects have gone through a very extensive evaluation and that was taking place for some time. There'll be more projects which we'll be announcing, but this is all about getting the reliability into the system and when you get reliable power and when you get access to that gas and you can make sure that's flowing into the grid, well, that helps you get both reliable power that keeps the lights on and more affordable power. That's the objective of our policies. Whether it's, you know, we want sustainable action on climate change which also gets electricity prices down and that's what we're achieving. You know, emissions in Australia are 50 million tonnes a year on average less under our government than our predecessors. We're going to beat our Kyoto targets. We're going to beat, I believe, our Paris targets, and we're going to do that with the welcomed increased investment in renewable technologies, but also getting power prices down. That's what we were elected to do and that's what we're doing. Thank you very much.