Photo: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas
PRIME MINISTER: Well, it’s great to be out here today with Assistant Minister Reynolds and also the Commissioners from the New South Wales and the ACT Rural Fire Service. Doctor Fiona Kotvojs is the Liberal Candidate for Eden Monaro and it’s great to be here catching up with our firefighters from the Brigade here and all around these districts who’ve been up fighting fires in Queensland. It has been some relief to see the reports come in over the last few days, Linda has been up in Queensland last weekend and to see that those warning levels have come down and the worst of those events are now behind us. But we still remain active, there are still almost 90 fires still burning in Queensland but those alert levels have come down. But whether it was at Deepwater or other parts where we’ve had firefighters who have been up there supporting that effort. I want to thank them all very much for their service, their volunteer service, I stress, and the promptness in the way the NSW and the ACT Brigades responded to the call from the Queensland Government and to ensure we were able to deploy and address what was an incredibly serious situation. While there have been tragedies in Queensland at the same time what was able to be achieved and the risk that we’re able to mitigate, as Linda saw first-hand, was quite an extraordinary effort.
We're facing another very difficult season, right around the country in those conditions. We need Australians to focus on this. Yes, coming into Christmas we're thinking about holidays, our kids are finishing up school and there's a lot going on. But we need to be thinking as communities, as families, as individuals, about our state of preparedness for the fire season that is ahead. It will be a very difficult one and so the Minister and I are very keen to raise the awareness of these threats that are before us coming over the summer season.
It also means we need to be able to respond and we need to be able to continue to invest in the capability and that’s why I’m pleased today that we are investing $26 million in improving the capability nationally to fight these fires, but also in the systems and preparedness and communications backing that enables us to address this threat as well. So $11 million of that $26 million is going into the National Area Firefighting Centre, delivering more specialist large firefighting air tankers to communities across Australia. They’re the big tankers that were being used to drop on those fires up in Queensland and this is increasing the amount of capability we have in that area, to ensure that can be deployed. There’s also $2 million to support the national emergency SMS system and there is work being done, almost $6 million, for the National Fire Danger Rating System and Linda can take you through greater detail on that. $5 million to establish the Prepared Communities Fund, that’s to support high-priority state and territory initiatives that improve community preparedness, which is exactly what we’re wanting people to be doing as we’re going into the season and hopefully they already have. There’s $1.5 million to support the Public Safety Mobile Broadband trial and $750,000 to review new and emerging telephone-based emergency warning technologies.
So, we want to use all the assets and resources at our disposal to keep Australians safe. Our priorities as a Government; keep our economy strong, absolutely, that enables us to make these investments. To keep Australians safe and whether it’s safe from bushfires or safe from terrorism or safe from organised crime or any of these things, that is our objective and that is our mission as a Government. We do that with the volunteers that are represented here, the professional agencies around the country and one of the most rewarding things that we saw in responding to the Queensland fires was the teamwork. The teamwork between Commonwealth and state and territory agencies right around the country. So, I want to commend the Commissioners, particularly, for their leadership in coordinating that support and delivering that support.
Linda, I’ll ask you to make a few comments and then I’ll ask the Commissioners also.
SENATOR THE HON LINDA REYNOLDS, ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR HOME AFFAIRS: Thank you very much, Prime Minister. What we saw in Queensland on the weekend is the absolute best of all Australians. When nature throws its worst at us, we always see the best in Australians and what has happened in Queensland is no different. I’d also like to extend my thanks to all of the 500 volunteers from around the country including some of the men and women here from the ACT and New South Wales who have just returned from Queensland.
But up in Queensland with the Deputy Prime Minister, we saw first-hand the importance of these programs. I’ll never forget the stories and seeing the look on the faces of people in Eungella whose homes and town was saved by the NSW 737 flying over and stopping the flames roaring up the mountain, the rainforest mountain. So these programs are very important. We’ve had 40 of our national aerial assets in Queensland ranging from helicopters through to the new 737. So as part of this package the Commonwealth will be providing $11 million to enhance the availability of aircraft around the country. We’re also providing $6 million for the National Fire Rating System which was developed in the 1960s and we’ve seen from the extreme bushfires again in Queensland that we do need to rethink our ratings systems so that will be a priority. We’re also putting money into communications, SMS and broadband messaging systems to make the best use of current technology and to make sure that we can get out as many messages as possible. We’ve got $5 million of that for local programs, priority programs for facilities like this here in Wamboin, for priority projects. So one stands in mind as an example – up at Eungella, we met the Queensland Remote Area Tracking Service. Two men had set up this organization to help and build telecommunications that can cope in emergencies in the mountainous area. So what we want to do is provide opportunities for local volunteer firefighters and also SES staff to get the equipment and the services that they need.
I’d finish off, Prime Minister, by saying to all Australians that firefighting and disaster management and relief is a shared responsibility. State and territory governments always have the primary responsibility for responding to these disasters but the Commonwealth is doing everything it can to make sure we assist state and territory governments and I think what we’re seeing here in the Queensland response is the very best of all of us, states, territories and the Federal Government working together. But I’d say this too to Australians; that you also have a responsibility. We saw in Queensland that householders got very little notice in areas where they were not expecting to be subject to bushfires so it is absolutely critical that every family in the country makes sure that the first conversation you have about emergency evacuation is not when you’re doing it for real. So, Members of Parliament have been given more information about disaster relief arrangements in Australia but every family needs to discuss what you’re going to do. Do you stay, do you fight, do you understand what the alerts mean and do you know what you’ll take with you? Thank you.
COMMISSIONER FITZSIMMONS: Thank you, Prime Minister, and look, we certainly are most appreciative and very much welcome today’s announcement. We know particularly with the large air tankers that it’s a bit like insurance. We want to have them here and we hope that we don’t have to use them during the fire season but as we’ve seen in recent years and as we’ve seen only in recent weeks, we’ve seen four of the large air tankers out of New South Wales rapidly deployed to assist our colleagues in Queensland. The good thing is they’ve got a capability and a capacity unparalleled to our historical firefighting environment. They were able to leave Sydney in less than two hours, they were integrated, fully loaded into firefighting operations up on the coast around Rockhampton in Queensland. Working in partnership with the Commonwealth and our interstate colleagues, accessing military bases, accessing funding, accessing personnel and expertise is very much a manifestation of the sorts of initiatives being announced here today by the Prime Minister. And we know that this funding boost will give us surety, give us confidence that we can have these high capacity assets here for the duration of what is continuing to be a longer season, right from the beginning of the season, right through to the end of the season and having a concentrated capability in the middle of the season. Working in partnership with the ACT and our colleagues around the country just in the last couple of weeks, we’ve sent just over 600 people into Queensland to provide assistance. We’ve sent eight aircraft, we’ve sent 24 firefighting trucks, we’ve got a few hundred personnel rotating through again over the coming days. With the conditions easing, it looks like a number of our crews might be stood down into the weekend, but it is an example of how investment and how commitment can make a big difference particularly to those who are finding themselves exposed to risk, like we’ve seen in Queensland in the last couple of weeks.
The outlook for the coming months as the Prime Minister indicated, is for a difficult fire season and much of the eastern seaboard through New South Wales is expecting above normal fire conditions as we head into the balance of this season and we know with the sort of assets available, with the sort of commitments around and the capacity to draw on our neighbors from right around the country, we’re going to be confident that whatever comes up, we’ve got the best-trained, the best equipped, better equipped and better trained than ever before in our history, to help respond to what mother nature might offer this season.
COMMISSIONER LANE: Thanks very much, Prime Minister, just to echo Commissioner Fitzsimmons’ comments there, it’s been a very challenging season already, at the commencement in Queensland and we’re going to see that across the rest of the nation. While some parts of the country have received welcome rain over recent weeks, there are plenty that are still in dire drought conditions and that will cross over into bushfire conditions as we come south, as the season continues from Queensland through New South Wales and into Victoria over this coming summer. So this announcement by the Commonwealth today is very welcome. Traditional funding for aircraft capability is always very helpful but on top of that, the additional money to support the ongoing research into improving our National Fire Danger Ratings and enhancements to funding to allow for even better warnings and alert systems are also very critical to us as a nation. So these are the things we work together as states and territories with the Australian Government on. It’s a welcome announcement here today.
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you very much and we’re happy to take some questions on that and then deal with other matters if you’d like to but I won’t trouble the Commissioners with those questions. So questions? Well, it seems like we’ve been very comprehensive, that’s excellent, thank you very much, Commissioners. Happy to take other questions.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, on energy policy, your big stick policy is opposed by Labor, the cross bench and industry, what do you say to industry that is crying out for investment certainty?
PRIME MINISTER: What we’re delivering is a clear message which says electricity prices have to come down. We need to ensure that the laws balance things up for the consumer. We’re on the side of the customer and we want them to have lower electricity prices. And we believe that the laws and the powers should be in place so big electricity companies can’t do the wrong thing by them. That’s what this is about. We’re voting for it, Labor is voting against it. Labor’s voting against it. They’ve picked the side of the big electricity companies, we’ve picked the side of the consumer.
JOURNALIST: Are you confident the encryption laws will get done this week?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I hope so, I said that was a key priority and overnight we’ve been able to make a lot of progress and I’m pleased that Labor is coming to their senses on this. I’m frankly surprised it’s taken this long but if they have, good.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, are you concerned and perhaps embarrassed to learn that Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten have been discussing energy policy to, you know, discussing the NEG?
PRIME MINISTER: I’m not aware of the content of their conversations other than to the best of my knowledge some well wishes to Malcolm from Bill after Malcolm left the job as Prime Minister. And I wouldn’t find a conversation like that extraordinary, just a personal well wish. In terms of any other type of conversation, I haven’t seen any suggestion that there’s been anything other than that.
JOURNALIST: Malcolm Turnbull has urged you to revive the NEG considering that you did support it. Can you rule out, even after the election, trying to pursue that policy once more?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, the NEG is not being pursued by the Government and it wasn’t being pursued by the Government prior to the change of Prime Minister. This is what the NEG is. The NEG, as the former Prime Minister said, it’s just a mechanism. It’s like a glass. What matters is what you put in it. Now, if you put a 45 per cent emissions reduction target in the NEG, it puts power prices up. What Bill Shorten wants to do is have a legislated 45 per cent emissions reductions target, and that will put power prices up and we don’t support that. We don’t support legislating that commitment. We will meet our 26 per cent commitment, that hasn’t changed. None of that has changed. We will have met Kyoto 1, we will comfortably meet Kyoto 2, and we will be on track to meet our 2030 target as well. So we’re committed to emissions reductions, we’re committed to getting greater contracted reliable energy into the market and that is the exact same policy we’ve pursued previously with the reliability guarantee through the states and territories. But the NEG is not the deal. What matters is what the emissions reduction target is, and a 45 per cent emissions reduction target is a job-destroying, economy crunching, reckless target that will make our economy weaker. And that’s why we don’t support it.
JOURNALIST: But why can’t you keep your 26 per cent target and still consider reviving the NEG framework?
PRIME MINISTER: Because it’s not necessary, it’s not necessary. And we’re not pursuing it and it’s not our policy.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, what do you make of the Energy Council of Australia saying that your energy policy is trying to push prices up? What do you make of those comments?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I disagree with them. I’m not surprised that the energy sector would not be happy about the Government increasing the powers of the customer in the market which will hold them to account. I’m not surprised that the big energy companies are squealing because, as a Government, we’ve decided to stare them down. And that’s what I’m doing. That’s what our Government is doing, and the Labor Party is not standing up for customers. They want to line up with the big energy companies. Now, already as a result of staring the electricity companies down, around almost 500,000 Australians are getting a better deal. They’ve started to drop their prices. See, I think the laws are stacked against the customer in the energy market and that’s what has caused and allowed those prices to go up amongst many other factors. And I’m seeking to right that balance and to stand up for the customer, and if the Labor Party doesn’t want to support me, well, shame on them. Absolutely shame on them.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, why did you save Craig Kelly?
PRIME MINISTER: Good question. There were four incumbent members, four incumbent members that I believed it was important for the Party to re-endorse at the next election. As the leader of the Parliamentary Party, it is my job to maximise the Party’s chances and standing at the next election. And we’ve got four incumbent members, members who have been on the ground, members who are well respected by their communities. They present the best opportunity to ensure the re-election of the Government. And so as the Party Leader, I’ve made it pretty clear. I wanted them endorsed and I wanted them on the ground, fighting the next election, not getting distracted by anything else. That’s my main mission, that’s their mission, and as leader, I made a call, I said I want them endorsed and the Party backed me and I appreciate their support.
JOURNALIST: What about Jane Prentice and Jim Molan?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I wasn’t the Prime Minister at the time of Ms Prentice’s preselection. So I can’t make any comment about that, that matter was dealt with many, many months ago. What we’re talking about with the four members I sought their immediate re-endorsement is they were lower House members. They were contesting lower House seats. Like Dr Kotvojs here, she’s contesting a lower House seat. You form Government by having the best members and candidates on the ground in the House of Representatives and that’s where my focus is to ensure the re-election of the Government. I know one or two things about elections, I’ve run a lot of campaigns myself and what you need is to have the best people on the ground and an incumbent member of Parliament who has been doing a great job, which all of those four members were, and are, is the best opportunity and the best foot forward we have to put at the election and that’s why they have my backing and that’s why I made it very clear to the Party that I wanted to see them endorsed so that we can just get on with it.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just on submarine contracts quickly. Has Defence during negotiations offered the French submarine builder an extension on the time of the submarine project and also the cost of those submarines?
PRIME MINISTER: I discussed the SPA with President Macron when we were in the G20 and we are now very close to finalising those arrangements and so these things remain on track.
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’m not aware of that matter, only to say that I have been in direct discussion with the President of France, we are very close to finalising the SPA and those issues remain on track. I mean, there’s a report I understand on the ABC this morning. The Defence Minister will make a response to that and my understanding is that he has great concerns about the accuracy of that report.
JOURNALIST: There’s a group of student climate action protestors heading to Canberra today to try and meet with you. Will you meet with them?
PRIME MINISTER: I am. I’m meeting with some members from my own electorate, which you’d expect me to do, both as a local members and a Prime Minister. I’m always happy to listen. I respect everybody’s views. That’s the thing. We don’t always have to agree on everything, you know, but we do have to respect each other and we do have to take each other views seriously. And whether that’s talking about climate or whether it’s talking about energy or it’s talking about the other difficult issues we’re dealing with in the Parliament this week. You’ve got to respect everybody’s views. You can’t run their views down because they have them. And I do listen, but that doesn’t mean we always agree. But I always respect. Thanks very much.