Photo: AAP Image/Dave Acree
PRIME MINISTER: Well, there are many privileges to being Prime Minister but the greatest of those is to meet Australians when they’re facing some of their greatest challenges and seeing their true mettle. This is on display here again today in Townsville.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to see it down in Tasmania and today I see exactly the same spirit, exactly the same courage, exactly the same care and compassion for each other. It is a great privilege to see this in our country. It is who we are and I want to thank everyone here in Townsville for all the incredible work they’re doing. We are here at the Ignatius College evacuation centre, run by the Red Cross. I want to thank the Red Cross for the tremendous work they've been doing here. I'm joined, of course, by Linda Reynolds the Assistant Minister, by Phillip Thompson, the LNP candidate here in Herbert who has been out there filling bags, helping people, getting them off roofs and being part of the general effort just as a member of the community and former Defence Force person here in Townsville. We've got George here as well, as you know, our local member and Ian Macdonald who has been here for 30 years in Townsville. I'm most glad that both Ian and George can join me here today as we've gone around and have been getting our briefings.
As the waters recede here and we start to move from the response phase to the recovery phase, there will be big shocks for the community. As we've seen this morning, as they return to their homes, as they assess the damage to their homes; yes, there’s the physical loss, but there is also the mental shock and just coming to terms with it. We saw that firsthand this morning. I'm pleased that we were able to provide some comfort, but I really want to thank the Defence Forces and emergency services personnel, QPOL and everybody for the work they’re doing here. The gratitude from the people from the surrounding areas is sensational and it comes naturally, because they've seen what people have done. I mean to hear stories of how people were evacuated in the middle of the night - floodwaters, dark, with kids - the fact that we've had in that, the loss of life, I'm aware of a couple of reports which aren’t confirmed, but the fact that people are safe today here in Townsville I think is an extraordinary achievement and is something that I think the people of Townsville can pat themselves on the back on. They've held together and they've kept each other safe. As you go through evacuation centre here and you talk to people in other places, the homes that they've been put up in, there is going to be a lot more of that. Over the next few weeks there is going to be a lot more of that.
On Monday as you know, here in Townsville I announced that the emergency disaster payment was available straight away. That's as of Monday and the disaster allowance also kicked in from Monday. I will ask Linda to talk a about it more about that. So for those eligible for those payments - and there will be a large number here in Townsville - I would encourage them to get in touch with Human Services, Centrelink, to make sure they're accessing those immediate payments. There will be tens of millions spent here in Townsville to support the local community get back up on their feet, just in those cash assistance payments alone, income support payments. Then of course there is the work that will be done, Category 3 assistance. I understand the Premier has announced that she is requesting that, in her statement at a media conference just a few minutes ago. Of course we’re happy to provide that. Every request that has been made of us, our answer is; “Yes and quickly”. We also initiated last night, I gave the instruction for the Defence Forces to support airlifts. There is one that will be getting off the ground very soon and that is going into Cairns. We need those shelves stocked and to the extent that the grocers and the food retailers need further support, that will be available to them to make sure we keep the shelves stocked and that people can have the basic necessities looked after.
So it is a matter of thanking all of those who have planned, who have prepared. I mean, here alone in Townsville, about 5,500 serving men and women and they’re serving their own local community right now. They are out there, many of whom - hundreds of them - their own homes are affected and they have been out there helping others. I think that's a tribute to our serving men and women, but to all of those who are putting in at the moment, on behalf of a very grateful nation, thank you for being great Australians.
Linda, why don’t you talk a bit more about those payments and the immediate next step?
SENATOR THE HON LINDA REYNOLDS, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS: Thank you very much, Prime Minister. Well as the Assistant Minister for Home Affairs, I'm responsible to ensure that all Commonwealth agencies are coordinated and providing all possible assistance to the Queensland authorities and of course to the local communities here. So for anybody here in Townsville or in surrounding areas who have been impacted, please contact Centrelink straight away. Payments will be able to be applied for as soon as today. So if your income has been affected, if you can't get to work, if you can't get your primary produce out to market, if you are a sole trader and your business is closed, please contact Centrelink. Because you can apply for the Disaster Recovery Allowance. So please do that. If you are in emergency need and you have had water in your house for example, you can also ask for the Disaster Relief Payment and that's up to $1,000 right away to help you over the next few days and weeks.
Of course over the coming weeks we will continue to work very closely with the Premier and the Queensland Government. We are expecting a request today from the Premier to start the next phase for the Category C payments. We’ll work through with the Queensland Government to actually assist small businesses and communities on the road to recovery.
I think given the extent of the disaster that the Prime Minister and I have seen here today, we will be working very closely with the local community, the local members and also a lot of the civil society organisations here, who have been doing such an outstanding job.
Can I just say, as an Army officer myself I could not have been any prouder of the work that the Army forces have done here. We met many people today who are in there briefing the Prime Minister, who have been out there since 3:00 in the morning, saving others in their houses, when their own house has been inundated and their families were in evacuation centres. So, personally, to all of the military forces and to the RAF crews who are now en route to Cairns delivering much-needed food, thank you very much from the bottom of my heart. We have every right to be very proud of you. That of course goes to the emergency services personnel that the Prime Minister and I have met. Again, they have been out there supporting others in the community, saving lives and we've heard the most extraordinary stories. But the thing that sticks with me now as the federal Minister responsible is the stories of courage and resilience from the local communities we visited this morning, and just how quickly these floodwaters came up and how quickly people needed to be evacuated. So as federal Minister, again that's the sort of thing we will be working with the community in the longer-term to see if there are ways that we can make some of our suburbs and communities more resilient to these once in 100 year floods. Thank you, Prime Minister.
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Linda and good on you 3rd Brigade, very proud of you, very proud. Insurance companies as well, they will be stepping up. I will be expecting them to step up and that's what I believe they will do. We will make sure that they do so, but I have no reason to think that they won't. So we will be looking for them to be here and doing what you’d expect of them in these circumstances as well.
So, happy to take some questions on the issues here and then as usual happy once we've done that to extend to other matters of the day.
JOURNALIST: We've seen a lot of emotional scenes, you spoke about what you’ve seen there. What was it like for you going through those streets today?
PRIME MINISTER: Look, it was frankly quite overwhelming. I think people are in shock. I think the kids are amazingly resilient, but for mums and dads as they look at their kids and they think about, you know, just how tight things got trying to get out the other night and I think they are very grateful that - while there have been property losses and damage - they just look at each other and say: "Thank goodness we've got each other." You can replace things, but you can't replace loved ones. But the real shock the community we were in this morning. Some people hadn't been there that long, you know, it’s a lot of young families, they've worked so hard to get themselves into these homes. To see them just damaged so badly, it must just be heartbreaking and it clearly was. So to provide some comfort, of course, that was our pleasure to do today, but the real work is to make sure that they can get through the clean-up and rebuild their lives. We know that's what's happens, it's just going to be tough. It’s going to be tough for a while.
ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS: One of the things perhaps, what we saw this morning that stuck with me, is that with many of the people we talked to, they didn't have any insurance at all or were very underinsured. So I think for the local community, one of the things moving forward to today is really to work with local agencies and supporting those who don't have any furniture to go back to and don’t have any means to clean-up their property.
PRIME MINISTER: There are a lot of not-for-profits who can help with that, too.
ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS: Yes.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, are you confident that places should be built on flood plains? Like, do you think some of these shouldn’t have been built in places like that?
PRIME MINISTER: Look, I'm not going to get into those issues today. I mean I'm here today to lend my support and the country's support to the people of Townsville. With all natural disasters, there is always work that is done following that, to learn the lessons and they are really matters for the State Government and the local authorities, I think, to determine. I'm sure they will work through those issue. Right now, my priority is making sure we get the emergency assistance payments to people. That people know that they are there and that they can take advantage of those and that can help them deal with the most immediate needs that they have today.
JOURNALIST: Is it time for more Federal Government infrastructure spending to protect North Queenslanders and North Queensland communities, Prime Minister?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, last time I was here I was announcing $100 billion for water infrastructure here in Townsville. So there’s been no shortage of our commitment to infrastructure here in North Queensland. We have been investing heavily here and we will continue to do that. I know Phil Thompson has been a great advocate for that and we’re happy to back him and George and Ian in on those projects. So I think our record here speaks for itself on those things.
JOURNALIST: What about funding for the upgrade of the Inland Road so these communities can be supplied when the coastal routes are cut?
PRIME MINISTER: Well lessons will be taken from these events and there is a State responsibility here as well. We will work with state governments, but our commitment in the hundreds of millions that we've committed here in North Queensland and more, I think speaks for itself.
JOURNALIST: So the road maybe?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think I've answered your question.
ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS: Just one thing on that too. Once we've got through this initial period - because as the Prime Minister said, this is all about assisting people now, getting through the next few days and weeks - but one of the issues we need further advice from the Queensland Government on, is it’s not just the quantum of money that’s spent on infrastructure, it’s actually its suitability to deal with floods and natural disasters. So there is certainly an issue in terms of the quality and type of infrastructure we have here in Far North Queensland as we rebuild.
PRIME MINISTER: George, you want to comment?
GEORGE CHRISTENSEN MP, MEMBER FOR MACKAY: There’s a several kilometre section south of here that everyone knows; the Haughton River Bridge which has flooded. That's really where the southern access to Townsville has been cut off mainly. Within a few weeks actually, we’re starting a rebuild, an upgrade of that project on the Bruce Highway with about half a billion dollars from the Federal Government going into it. So these things are being done.
PRIME MINISTER: Any others? We can have a one-on-one interview, but I’m happy to share it around a bit.
PRIME MINISTER: Okay let's stay on Townsville, we are in Townsville.
JOURNALIST: There has been a record number of weather events in North Queensland in recent years, cyclones, floods. Does it make you think of climate change, does it affect your thinking on it?
PRIME MINISTER: My thinking right now is about the people of Townsville and making sure they get the emergency support they need. I'm not engaging in broader policy debates today, I'm engaging in today is the needs of people here on the ground, people in evacuation centres, with some trepidation going back into their homes and finding what they're going to find. That's what I'm focused on today, not politics.
JOURNALIST: PM, if we can move on?
PRIME MINISTER: If you’d like to move to other issues, we can do that.
JOURNALIST: On the Phelps refugee transfer bill, can you ever see yourself supporting that?
PRIME MINISTER: No.
JOURNALIST: Would you consider changing your proposal to get McGowan’s support?
PRIME MINISTER: I've set out what we propose to do. I won't compromise our border protection system. If the Labor Party want to support the Phelps bill and the boats start again, it's on their head.
JOURNALIST: On the Royal Commission, Labor say it would agree to extending Parliament to implement some of those recommendation. Are you open to changing the sitting schedule?
PRIME MINISTER: We are going to take action on all 76 recommendations coming from the Royal Commission. I want to commend the Treasurer and his team for ensuring that the Government was able to put out a full response to the Royal Commission's report which we did over the weekend and took that through the normal process. That means that markets both had certainty yesterday and today, I should say, which has been very important.
We've been taking action when it comes to the financial sector now for years. The Banking Executive Accountability Regime, the Australian Financial Complaints Authority, $176 million extra for resources for enforcement and now we’re moving forward on the compensation schemes and through the industry to ensure that people get their right of hearing when it comes to the matters they are concerned about. They are important recommendations. We've considered them carefully. We’re taking action on all 76.
The Labor Party might want to engage in all sorts of politics on this. We are just getting on with it, because we've been getting on with it for years now. In fact, our actions have already gone beyond what the royal commission has actually recommended, because we've been taking action on this issue for years.
JOURNALIST: Malcolm Turnbull has been talking about [inaudible]…
JOURNALIST: [Inaudible]…will the Government apologise for not calling this Royal Commission sooner?
PRIME MINISTER: I’d just refer to what I said to you last year, I expressed last year my own regret as Treasurer when it came to being very focused on the issues of financial system stability, but I expressed my own regret at some of the human factors that needed greater consideration in terms of calling the Royal Commission. But let me be frank; I called the Royal Commission. I introduced the Banking Executive Accountability Regime. We introduced the Australian Financial Complaints Authority. We introduced the additional resources and support for ASIC. We acted on the Financial Systems Inquiry that we implemented when we came to Government in 2013.
As a government, we have been taking action on this issue from the day we were first elected. Labor were in Government for 6 years; Storm Financial, financial crisis after financial crisis. Bill Shorten was the Financial Services Minister for goodness sake. Did he call a Royal Commission then? No. Did he take action then? No.
Our government has taken action from the day we were elected on these issues. I expressed my regret last year and I meant it, but we just got on with it. Australians know it's about the action that you take, so I initiated the Royal Commission. I've responded to the Royal Commission as Prime Minister, with the Treasurer and our entire team. We are taking action on all 76 recommendations.
I noted Malcolm's comments earlier and I think they’re in line with what I've just said to you now.
JOURNALIST: Can I just clarify, is that the Government saying sorry that it didn’t call this 18 months before?
PRIME MINISTER: I refer you to my comments last year, I said I regretted that last year.
JOURNALIST: Why do you think you failed to call it earlier? What was blocking you being able to do that?
PRIME MINISTER: As Treasurer you’re always going to be focused and you are going to be careful about what the potential impacts are on a financial system on which everybody's livelihoods depend. Your mortgage, your loan, everything goes through the financial system. I was being very careful. You could accuse me of being overly cautious and I was concerned in particular about what it would mean for credit restrictions in the economy and how that could slow the economy down.
Now we know that that has been one of the things that actually has happened. That has impacted on the economy. But we've called it, we've done it, it was done, I think in a very timely and thorough way and I want to thank particularly Justice Hayne and all of his team for the very thorough job that they did. Over 10,000 cases, submissions that they carefully considered which have informed the recommendations that they've put forward. So we've just got on with it. The politics of this - who cares? It’s not about the politics, it’s about those who are impacted by the egregious behaviour of the banks and the policies of those banks. They’re the ones who the Royal Commissioner has called out and he in particular has said - just as I did when the Laker Inquiry came down from APRA when I was Treasurer - he called out the boards of those banks, the boards of these big public companies and he has laid the blame fairly at their feet. That’s exactly where it should be.
JOURNALIST: Donations by banks to political parties, creates a fairly obvious conflict of interest. Should that be stopped?
PRIME MINISTER: I don’t believe there is a conflict of interest, I mean I called a Royal Commission on the banks. I think that speaks for itself. I also introduced the bank levy you might remember. They didn’t like that too much either.
JOURNALIST: But you received thousands of dollars from banks and you took so long to call a Royal Commission. That, in people’s minds [inaudible]?
PRIME MINISTER: That would be a false impression. I mean the fact that I instituted the bank levy I think shows very clearly that on every occasion I’ve always acted on behalf of the Australian customer. What we’re going to be very careful of as we take action on all of these 76 recommendations is that we’re going to be very careful we don’t unwittingly put even more power in the hands of the banks.
JOURNALIST: Retail trade figures are down 0.4 of a per cent, is that a concern?
PRIME MINISTER: Yeah it was a difficult period coming into the back end of the year and you know I want to see the economy strengthen. But that’s a reminder of the tough headwinds we’re facing. It’s a reminder of why you need people who know what they’re doing when it comes to managing a Budget and ensuring that we have good economic policies in place. I mean at the beginning of last week I was up here in Queensland again and I was down in Brisbane. I released the second iteration of our economic plan; getting taxes down, supporting small and family businesses, investing in the infrastructure that Australians need, our defence procurement policies, expanding our markets. All of this is designed to ensure that our economy is more resilience and stronger.
You know, when you’ve got a stronger economy, it means you can turn up here and ay we’re going to spend tens of millions providing disaster recovery. I cannot allow it to be said that the Government will not to everything and pay every bill to support people here in Townsville or in Tasmania. There can be no suggestion by anyone that the Commonwealth is not doing everything that we should be doing and I’d say even more.
JOURNALIST: How long are you staying up here in North Queensland in Townsville with the people affected by the flooding?
PRIME MINISTER: My plan is not to get in the way, my plan is to be here, show my support as I’ve done today and then get out of their hair and allow them to get back to what they’re doing. My team here will remain and they’ll continue to do things here in North Queensland but my purpose with coming today and It’s just today to show my support for the people of Townsville, just as I did for the people of Tasmania, particularly down in the Huon Valley. That’s why I’ve been here to see things firsthand. So as we go back to Parliament next week and as my Cabinet meets and as Ian and George in particular and Phil and Linda report back to us on further steps that we might take, I’ve seen it for myself.
JOURNALIST: Just on what we’ve seen on Four Corners last night? About Border Force targeting Saudi women travelling alone, are you comfortable that they’re denying them their rights to apply for asylum?
PRIME MINISTER: Australia has always, where people have come through the right method and made their applications for asylum in Australia, we are one of the most generous countries in the world. But we do insist that people go through a proper process for doing that and we’ll always insist on those proper processes. But you know, Australians, we’ve had the Women at Risk programme and I increased the numbers in the Women at Risk programme when I was Minister many years ago. That means thousands and thousands and thousands of women have come to Australia under that programme and I’m very pleased that as a Government, that’s been one of our real achievements. We have supported more women at risk through our refugee and humanitarian programme than previous governments. We upped the intake. We made sure we’ve been able to respond to that and we’ll continue to do that. Just recently in fact David Coleman further increased that intake for the Women at Risk programme. It’s been one of our most successful components of our refugee and humanitarian programme.
JOURNALIST: Do you condone that their basic human rights are being denied by not being able to apply for asylum?
PRIME MINISTER: Well they can apply for asylum.
JOURNALIST: Even if they’re being [inaudible]?
PRIME MINISTER: Well I haven’t seen that report, I was flying up here last night so I haven’t seen the report. But people can apply.
JOURNALIST: Would you be concerned if you heard that was what’s happening?
PRIME MINISTER: It hasn’t been established to me that it is what’s happening.
JOURNALIST: Will you recall Parliament for two extra weeks in March to ensure the banking royal commission –
PRIME MINISTER: I’ve already responded to that.
JOURNALIST: What about NAB? Your thoughts on the CEO who has been speaking about this, coming back?
PRIME MINISTER: Well you know Commissioner Hayne was pretty sharp in his assessment and I think that gives them a lot to reflect on.
JOURNALIST: What sort of reflection would you be doing if you were in his position?
PRIME MINISTER: I wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest, but I think Commissioner Hayne was pretty sharp.
JOURNALIST: Julia Banks. The former Prime Minister and colleague Malcolm Turnbull describing her as an outstanding candidate and also giving a bit of a lukewarm reception to the idea of you guys winning at the election. What are your thoughts on that? Bit of sniping?
PRIME MINISTER: I’m not a commentator. What I know is Greg Hunt has been serving his community since 2001 and he’s done an extraordinary job. He’s a great local member and he’s a fantastic Minister and I’m so pleased to have him in my team and that’s why he’ll be back as part of my team after the next election. It’s our intention to go to that election and to ensure that Australia can have the strong economy that it needs for the next decade. Now you don’t become a resilient nation by making your economy weaker. The Labor Party wants to put $200 billion worth of extra taxes on the economy. That will just drag our economy down. Self-funded retirees, all retirees, are not exempt. The arrogance that they have shown towards those retirees – and they’re here experiencing floods in Townsville – and they’ve got a $5 billion tax coming their way from Bill Shorten. The way that they have just arrogantly dismissed those people’s concerns I think speaks volumes. If they’re this arrogant to you before an election, imagine what Bill Shorten would be like if he actually won one. He thinks he’s already got it in the bag.