SENATOR SAM MCMAHON: It gives me great pleasure to be able to have the Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison here at Robertson Barracks. And thank you very much to Brigadier Ash Collingburn for hosting and facilitating this visit and to Michael Sitzler, managing Director of Sitzler, who are the major contractor who will oversee the work that is going to go on in this base and the other three bases over the next five years. It is a fantastic announcement. $747 million of work that is going to be done in the Territory, Territory jobs, and Territory economic boost and developing these fantastic facilities to make them absolutely world-class.
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Sam, thanks for having us here today and to Brigadier Collingburn, I want to thank you very much for hosting us here today and to Colonel Banning from the United States. And to all of those who are here and joining us from our great friends and allies, the United States, it is tremendous to have you here with us. And Michael Sitzler, it is great to be here with you. You’re going to be very busy over the next five years.
Before I come to that announcement, though, I just would like to acknowledge that it is 25 years today since the Port Arthur shootings. Some 35 souls lost on that day and some 23 who were injured. We think of Walter Mikac, in particular, and the Foundation that was then established in memory of his children and the work that that has done ever since, is a reminder I think, of the selfless spirit of those who have often been hit by such terrible tragedies. And as Australians, we grieve again today. That is a day that is etched in infamy in Australia's history. And it is one that our leaders at the time, Prime Minister Howard and now late Tim Fischer, the Deputy Prime Minister and I also acknowledge the then Leader of the Opposition Kim Beazley, who came together and introduced gun law reform in this country which put us in another class around the world and has been keeping Australians safe ever since. But to all the victims’ families, our thoughts still remain with you and our love and care is sent to you on this most difficult of days 25 years later.
I'm very pleased to be here today at Robertson because this is another significant step forward in the steps we're taking as a Government to ensure that our Defence Forces are always ready and that they have access to the best training facilities of anywhere in the world and that they can work with our allies and partners, as we are here with the United States Marines, to ensure that together, as always, the United States and Australia will be a combination that pursues peace. Our objective here in this part of the world is a free and open Indo-Pacific. Our objective here is to ensure a peaceful region but one that at the same time Australia is in a position to always protect its interests, always advance our national interests, always support a global world order that favours freedom and that is something that we share very deeply with our American friends and allies. And to see what is on display here today, as you've had the opportunity to also do, to see people who have come from both countries, from all four corners of those countries, and be here at these training facilities here working together to hone their skills, to ensure that they are testing each other, and putting our Defence Forces together in a very strong position.
$747 million is a significant investment and I want to show you the areas which we're talking about here in the Territory. At Robertson Barracks, of course where we are here today and in Kangaroo Flats about an hour's travel from here, Mount Bundey Training Area, a larger area still and then, of course, the Bradshaw Field training area. These facilities, and particularly Bradshaw, will be significantly enhanced because of the investments we are making as part of these investments. Essential upgrades made to these four key military training areas. Simulation for battle space, the use of new technology, and medical facilities particularly at Bradshaw which will enable that world-class facility to be the best in the southern hemisphere and providing the training opportunities that our Defence Forces need to be at the top of their game, which is what we expect of them but more importantly it's what they expect of themselves and I want to thank all of them who are here for their service. Both the Australian forces who are here and of course the US Marines who are here serving in the same cause and we thank them very much for that. So it's a significant investment. It's an investment that not only keeps Australians safe and advances and protects our national interests in what is a very uncertain world and can be a very uncertain region, a region in which there are many pressures. What this means is Australia will be able to continue to play a very significant role. Australia has agency in our region, positive agency, we work right across the government in all the areas that we have that opportunity, diplomatic and other channels, to work with partners in the region to ensure that our region is safe, that it is stable and that there is a balance that favours freedom ultimately, which is in the interests of all of those who live in the region.
The other part of this is, of course, the $747 million which is going to be spent here and right across the Territory as a major boost to the Northern Territory economy. What this means is 98 per cent, 98 per cent, of the contracts that will be as part of this program, which will go to Australian companies. And in fact they'll go to predominantly almost entirely Northern Territory-based companies and they'll certainly go to northern Australian companies and that's because these companies have got the wherewithal to get this job done. And it's very pleasing that when the Government makes these decisions, we made this decision yesterday. I chaired the National Security Committee meeting in Sydney yesterday. This is a project that was first scoped out some years ago on its first pass, and since then has been upgraded and adapted to deal with the new force posture and strategic update that I outlined last year. And that means this plan now can meet the demands of that plan and that's why the investment has been significantly upgraded to $747 million. But that's going to be creating jobs here in the Territory. That's going to be supporting the development of new skills, new apprentices, others working in sectors on challenging tasks. One of the reasons why we're so supportive of our Defence investments and Defence industry capability development is if you can get it right on a Defence contract, then you can pretty much tackle any job and that's what we want out of our industry. I know this is going to be a very challenging task for Sitzler, and I know that they will be up to it and they'll be working with contractors right across the Northern Territory to get this job done.
The only other point I wanted to make in talking to you today is later I'll be joining Chief Minister Gunner. We'll be touring the Howard Springs facility, that is the national resilience facility for our COVID-19 quarantine. This is the facility that was recommended by the Halton Review which said there needed to be a national resilience facility. The Commonwealth has invested some half a billion dollars in ensuring we can put this in place and operate it together with the Northern Territory Government. It's been an excellent partnership with the Northern Territory Government to make this happen. Where we will be today is to be looking at those elements of the facility which are being expanded. We have it currently operating at an 800 bed capacity. This will go to 2,000 capacity over the course of the next month. What that means is we'll be able to continue to bring our charter aircraft for our repatriation flights back into Australia from all around the world. For the next couple of weeks, as you know, we've had to suspend those flights out of India but we'll be returning to those flights. We'll be restarting those flights in several weeks’ time, we hope, and that means that the facility will be ready to take those returning Australians and we'll be continuing to move as many Australians from all around the world back to Australia as safely as we possibly can. We have now clipped over half a million Australians, half a million, who have returned to Australia during the course of COVID. We've been facilitating those flights, we have been directly running charters to get Australian home and that is the number of Australians that have come back during the course of COVID.
Final point. Two million Australians have now been vaccinated, more than half of those have been vaccinated by their GPs. The vaccination program continues to roll out, focusing on those most vulnerable Australians and those in the front lines of our health workforce and we will soon move on the 3rd of May the bring forward of the over 50s vaccinations with AstraZeneca through the GP respiratory clinics and the state and territory-related facilities and two weeks after that we will move to over 50s, I should say, more broadly for the GP rollout all around the country. So with that I'm going to pass you on to Michael. He's going to talk to you a bit about the project and, of course, the Brigadier is available to answer any detailed questions on elements of the training facilities. Michael.
MICHAEL SITZLER, DIRECTOR OF SITZLER: Thanks very much, Prime Minister. I'm Michael Sitzler. Sitzler is really, really delighted to be appointed the managing contractor for this terrific project. It's going to be a huge boost to the Territory economy. We estimate that in excess of 2,000 jobs will be created over the life of the project, and as the Prime Minister mentioned, 98 per cent of this project will be done by Australian companies with a very high proportion of that, close to 98 per cent, being done by northern Australian and Northern Territory businesses. We're just really delighted to be involved and that's pretty much, that's it from me.
PRIME MINISTER: Good on you, Michael. This is $747 million, that's out of an $8 billion commitment to these types of projects across the Territory over the next 10 years. This project goes over five years, and there are still some processes to go through, through the Parliament, but we don't expect any issues there and we'll be able to get construction boots on the ground as they're required as soon as possible.
JOURNALIST: Is it correct to say this was announced as a $500 million project back in 2019?
PRIME MINISTER: It was less than that actually. It was less than that.
JOURNALIST: So how much is new money?
PRIME MINISTER: It's now $747 million so it's been significantly upgraded and the reason for that is that all of our major Defence projects go through a two pass project. There is initial scoping and the Defence budget all sits in what is called the integrated investment plan. That's the allocations that sit to the Defence Department that encapsulate our 2 per cent of GDP and in fact we're over that now. That is then deployed against projects and it goes through a very disciplined project of a first pass and second pass. Since the first pass approval, that was part of our National Security Committee at the time, it was scoped at a particular level but the strategic environment and the other capabilities that have come forward mean that we could significantly ramp up and upgrade that project to what it is now. So hundreds of millions more as a result of its final approval which was yesterday.
JOURNALIST: Was the decision to ramp it up because of concerns about rising tensions in this region?
PRIME MINISTER: It goes back to the strategic update that I provided last year and of course the environment in which we're operating has been changing. That's well set out and that strategic update that is already available. So, it's the capabilities, the joint capabilities, the training facilities, the ability to simulate which involves bringing more people into the training arrangements that is necessary to meet the need. And the need changes and the plan changes and that's what this has done.
JOURNALIST: Does the build up in the north contribute to your objective of pursuing peace or is it sending a message to China that you're preparing for war, like some of the other ministers have said?
PRIME MINISTER: All of our objectives here through the activities of our Defence Forces are designed to pursue peace. That is the objective of our Government. That is the path that we are pursuing but to do that, in a region as uncertain as this, you need to ensure that you have the Defence capability that enables you to protect and defend Australia's interests in that region and this enables us to ensure there's an appropriate balance. And particularly in partnership with our United States allies to ensure we can promote an environment where peace will be the outcome.
JOURNALIST: Mike Pezzullo’s comments have made the front page of The Times in London. Did he overstep the mark and should he have run those comments past you?
PRIME MINISTER: I have just set out what the Government's policy is. I'll let others commentate on others.
JOURNALIST: You have members of your Cabinet though now making these drums of war type comments as well. I mean, Peter Dutton's comments on Saturday were very similar to those of Mr Pezzullo’s. Is it time for people to stop making comments that could be seen as inflammatory or whipping up or sabre rattling?
PRIME MINISTER: I wouldn't draw the same conclusions you have. I think I have set out what the Government's purposes and I know that's strongly supported by both the Defence Minister, who has simply made the point about ensuring we have appropriate capability and that's the Defence Minister's job, to ensure we have that capacity to deal with any matter of scenarios and that’s what these training environments provide for. That's why you invest $747 million to ensure that your Defence Forces have the best training environments possible to build their capabilities to keep Australians safe.
JOURNALIST: Given Mike Pezzullo’s recent comments and also the uncertainty that you just mentioned in the region, do you think that the spending should expand beyond the 2 per cent level that you just mentioned?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, it already has.
JOURNALIST: How much further do you think it should go?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, we, in our Government, we will always do what is necessary to ensure Australia has the capability it needs to protect and defend its interests. That has been our approach. When we came to government in 2013, Defence spending as a share of our economy had fallen to pre-Second World War levels. That was a disgrace. It was shameful that we would leave our Defence Forces in Australia in such a state of lack of support. We have worked hard over these last seven years to ensure that we have raised that to 2 per cent and in fact we will now start exceeding that. So 2 per cent is a floor, it's not a ceiling, and that is going to continue to be done to ensure that we can protect and defend Australia's interests. But we will do it also in a way that builds Australia's sovereign capability in our defence industries and Minister Price is doing an outstanding job there. It's not just about getting the kit, it's not just about getting the capability but it's ensuring that Australia has the ability to produce it and that's what we're seeing here in the Northern Territory, that's what we're seeing in Western Australia, South Australia, New South Wales, right across to country, and this has been a job-generating investment. As I say, 2,000 jobs estimated here alone by our contractors and as I said part of an $8 billion investment over 10 years here in the Territory.
JOURNALIST: What about the lease of Darwin Port, is that still in the national interest? It’s got 90 years still to run with Landbridge Group. Is that one of the deals your Government is going to be looking at?
PRIME MINISTER: As you know, the lease of that Port was undertaken by the former Territory Government and it was not a lease that was approved by the Federal Government, it was not. That was not something that was subject to Federal laws at that time and indeed as Treasurer I made sure that in the future that such transactions would be subject to Federal approvals, and sought and received agreement from all the state and territory treasurers at the time. If there is advice from the Defence Department or our security agencies that change their view about the national security implications of any piece of critical infrastructure. We have legislation now which is dealing with critical infrastructure. Then you could expect me as Prime Minister to take that advice very seriously and act accordingly.
JOURNALIST: Have you got that advice yet?
PRIME MINISTER: No.
JOURNALIST: DFAT’s previously said that it falls outside the scope of that legislation. Are you looking at other alternatives for...
PRIME MINISTER: No, I was talking about critical infrastructure legislation which is different to the foreign. They're different pieces of legislation.
JOURNALIST: If I can just finish my question. I just wondered if the Government is looking at alternatives, for example, looking at clauses in the current contract so see if perhaps it could be voided without the financial implications...
PRIME MINISTER: That presupposes a piece of advice from our defence and intelligence agencies.
JOURNALIST: Is that what they're looking at?
PRIME MINISTER: I'm just saying that’s what it presupposes and there is not anything before the Government that would make that recommendation.
JOURNALIST: The NT Government has requested to take control of the Howard Springs facility and that has created quite a bit of anxiety in the local community. Do you have confidence in the NT Government being able to manage the facility and contain a potential outbreak of COVID beyond the facility?
PRIME MINISTER: We have worked carefully through these arrangements with the Northern Territory Government and we have had a great partnership with the Northern Territory Government. I have often referred to the Northern Territory Government as being the model jurisdiction in the way they have managed COVID here in the Territory and the hot spot arrangements they've put in place I have commended as the model for the rest of the country. Not always taken up, I should stress, but I do think the way they flexibly and been very adaptive in the way they've managed things here, we have worked together to establish this Howard Springs facility. And I think one of the great jobs that was done by the Government here was with the way they did engage with the community right from the outset in getting this right. So as they take on new responsibilities under these arrangements as the national resilience centre expands then we wouldn't have entered into those arrangements were our expert advisers and medical experts not comfortable with those arrangements.
JOURNALIST: Can you confirm that you’ve abandoned the aged care levy and that the Treasurer was opposed to the idea?
PRIME MINISTER: The Budget is in May. So all decisions taken by the Government are taken together and I can assure you that the Treasurer and I always move as one.
JOURNALIST: In terms of AstraZeneca, given the small risk of serious side effects from AstraZeneca, isn't your job to balance up the risk-adverse advice from ATAGI and keep Australians confident in the vaccine?
PRIME MINISTER: I'll leave the matters that relate to the medical advice to the medical experts and the work of ATAGI has been doing its job in terms of keeping Australians well advised. When we were advised of things by ATAGI, I and the Health Ministers or the Chief Health Officer or the Secretary of Health have been very quick to report these matters to the public and to ensure if there is any discrepancies that they're reconciled as quick as possible between the various expert bodies that are making any recommendations. I think that's what's important for there to be confidence. I think our medical experts and medical advisers, I think, have been very transparent and I think as clear as they possibly can be. I think the daily release of information on the vaccination program, the regular updates that are provided by the Commodore but as well as those running the logistics but also on the medical side of things through the Chief Medical Officer have been very helpful.
JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] stop flights into Howard Springs because it doesn't appear to have been the medical staff in there. They already are dealing with lots of people from flights from India with COVID positive?
PRIME MINISTER: It was based on our own medical advice.
JOURNALIST: From your Committee that you have, your Federal committee?
PRIME MINISTER: It was based on the advice of the Chief Health Officer.
JOURNALIST: Wouldn't he take the advice from the people running facilities about whether they can deal with the cases coming in?
PRIME MINISTER: At the end of the day, I look to my Chief Medical Officer at a Federal level to advise the Cabinet on these decisions.
JOURNALIST: Just on that topic, the Territory Government did say it urged for this to happen because of the…
PRIME MINISTER: The Northern Territory Government were very supportive of the decision that we took.
JOURNALIST: Because of feedback from local health professionals and the pressure being placed.
PRIME MINISTER: What basically had happened is we had a very significant increase in the ratio of positive cases in the Howard Springs facility, particularly tied to the recent repatriation flights out of India.
JOURNALIST: How much under pressure was the Territory's whole system?
PRIME MINISTER: And what that means is that put it into a red level where no other states were in that situation and that means that in that situation you have to revise the potential flow of cases into that facility. That would be true in any state and territory were that occurring. So the Chief Health Officer and other medical advisers have clear parameters that they use to assess this risk and where steps need to be taken. We listened to that medical advice and we followed it.
JOURNALIST: Last week the Chief Minister said no flights in May and now that appears to have changed, from the 15th of May we could possibly have flights. Was that pressure from the Federal Government and the fact that you're paying the Northern Territory half a billion dollars have anything to do with that?
PRIME MINISTER: No, I think you're reading a bit too much into that. What we agreed yesterday as a National Security Committee of Cabinet was that we would suspend those flights into the Northern Territory as well as into New South Wales where the direct flights occur until the 15th of May and then we would review the situation prior to that and make any further decisions at that time. I need to stress that we've worked very, very closely with the Northern Territory Government here, and I appreciate that working relationship that we have with the Chief Minister. We're in quite regular contact with each other. We have been over the course of this past year and longer. As I am with the other premiers and chief ministers. Australians quite rightly expect me to work very closely with the premiers and the chief ministers and that's exactly what we're doing here, and this national resilience facility that we've been able to establish here with the support of the Northern Territory Government, half a billion investment from the Commonwealth, means that we have a well-equipped facility to bring Australians home. It will expand from 800 to 2,000. It is within close distance of a major capital city airport and tertiary hospital. These are the key criteria that you look for when establishing a facility of this kind and we decided to expand the facility here because of its success to date. You can't be complacent about these things. It's true that there has not been a single breach from the Howard Springs facility. But that said, across the network, the success rate of containing breaches in the hotel quarantine network is 99.99 per cent. Now, I'd say that's a pretty impressive stat, and we're looking to keeping that in place. Here in Howard Springs, it's been 100 per cent. But, you know, we've got to stay very careful, and we've got to stay on it to ensure that we maintain that level. So thanks very much everyone. Appreciate your time. Thank you.