Interview with David Speers, ABC Insiders

Transcript
12 Jan 2020
Prime Minister
E&OE

DAVID SPEERS: Prime Minister, welcome.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you David.

SPEERS: You have acknowledged the anger directed towards you during this bushfire crisis, you have not yet acknowledged any fault though on your part, will you take this opportunity now to accept that you could have done more to heed the warnings and prepare for this?

PRIME MINISTER: Well let me start off David by saying this national crisis has seen the loss of 28 lives and another confirmed overnight in Victoria which is terribly sad. The response that has been provided to these fires and led by our state governments has been absolutely extraordinary, I have no doubt that without their preparations and the support they were provided in those preparations, going into this unprecedented season as it’s been described, we would have seen even further losses, as tragic as the ones that we’ve had. Over 2,000 homes, but again I suspect that because of the amazing response that has been provided on the ground at these fires, many many more homes would have been lost and I think it’s important to acknowledge that the response to these fires that has been led by our state agencies because that’s the way this is done, has been exemplary and I want to thank all those volunteers. And for all of those leaders who have been involved in those processes from the local bushfire captain all the way through. The other thing that I think that has come through David as we’ve seen as I’ve been on the ground, there- the sheer sense of loss, pain, hurt, grief, frustration, fear indeed, particularly well away from the fires where we’ve seen also that terrible loss of the young girl as the result of an asthma attack. This has I think, created an environment where people for the first time I think, arguably, have wanted to see a more direct involvement of the Federal Government in responding to these national disasters. Now that’s relatively new and you could argue it was new. And that was not something that was recommended going into this fire season. That there’d be any change to the Federal Government’s direct role in responding to a national disaster. But I will happily concede that having gone through these recent weeks, that I think there is a very new appetite, a very new expectation for that to occur. Now I think that raises some other issues and that is, well on what basis, under what rules, how does it happen? The defence force’s engagement from- in the fire response and particularly recovery and support since September has been strong, when I was up with them in Canungra in September. That has flowed all the way through. But the other thing David I’d say is, there are things that I could have handled on the ground much better. These are very raw emotional environments and I’ve got to say, 95 per cent or there about of the responses I’ve had in these cases have been very positive and very appreciative. But David these are sensitive environments, they are very emotional environments. Prime Ministers’ are flesh and blood too and how they engage with people. But when I went in to these places, I went there in the good faith and with Jenny on occasions, to provide what comfort and consolation I could. But they were very strained environments and I think we need to think a little harder about how we do those, I mean I’ve had many I think very effective visits where we’ve been away from the cameras as well, I think that makes people a lot more able to engage with you. And look you know, there have been some things we’d do differently and you’d learn from every event. But the most important thing is the action we have now taken and the steps we are now taking to recovery.

SPEERS: Well I want to, we’ll come back to some of that, but what I’m asking about here is, you say there is no recommendation for the federal government to do more ahead of this season, but as our national leader, should you have seen some of the warnings that were there and done more?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, David, the thing about things that are unprecedented is exactly that - they're unprecedented. I mean, the scale of these events and particularly as they've only emerged in the last few weeks when we had a state of natural disaster for the first time declared only just over a week ago...

SPEERS: But I'm talking about the warnings that were there - let's go through some of them.

PRIME MINISTER: Sure.

SPEERS: For most of last year this group of former fire chiefs were warning this would be a catastrophic season, they were calling for more resources, they were trying to get meetings with you. Should you have met with them?

PRIME MINISTER: Well David, I was, we were taking the advice of the current fire chiefs...

SPEERS: Well the current...

PRIME MINISTER: And the current fire chiefs were recommending the same thing. And the recommendations that were put up which required additional resources for the water-bombers, which were provided both last year and this year, and we’ve provided an additional $20 million just of last Saturday - sorry, last Monday, and that was in response to a request that was made the night before. What we have done and this included briefings to Cabinet, through Emergency Management Australia, they came and briefed our Cabinet going into this fire season, and whether it was this season or last season, there was the view that we're living in longer, hotter, dryer summers. This is obviously affected by the broader changes in climate. There is no lack of acknowledgment of that. You'll find that in all the Government's policy statements. And so the response though that has been coordinated and resourced and supported at the state level as I said in response to your first question, I think we have to acknowledge how exemplary it has been in response to what has been the scale of fire.

SPEERS: I will come back to the climate change issue but there was also yesterday The Financial Review reporting that a national disaster risk reduction framework had been prepared in Home Affairs, your Home Affairs department 18 months ago and then sat collecting dust so apparently...

PRIME MINISTER: That's not true, David.

SPEERS: That's not true?

PRIME MINISTER: No, that’s not true. In the last Budget we put $130 million in to establish this risk framework. It has gone to The Emergency Minister’s Council, and was supported by them only in June of this year and now they're working through the details with local governments to put this in place. This is a longer term risk framework model which deals with one of the big issues in response to climate changing and that is the resilience and the adaption that we need in our community right across the country to deal with longer, hotter, dryer seasons that increase the risk of bushfire. So I think that report took that out of context and I'm not being critical. I'm saying we put $130 million in the Budget to deal with exactly what you're talking about, which I think is one of the many other important responses to climate change.

SPEERS: So you're saying there was no sign to you before this season that the Federal Government needed to do more?

PRIME MINISTER: The recommendations that were put to us were acted upon.

SPEERS: And there were no recommendations that you should be looking at mobilising defence, working with the states, civilian authorities, to prepare for this?

PRIME MINISTER: Not in terms of what had been done in previous seasons and the arrangements that we’ve had where we respond to the requests of the states. Those responses to the requests from the states were significant, as I said going back to Canungra in September...

SPEERS: You're talking about responding to requests. I'm suggesting here that given you had these fire chiefs, current fire chiefs warning that this was an above normal fire potential for this season, you had the Home Affairs department warning too that there was an unimagined scale of the threat to natural disasters, that you shouldn’t have taken initiative?

PRIME MINISTER: There was no advice that said that the ADF should be able to act unilaterally and to deploy on its own initiative in response to any fire event. No, there was none of that advice. But what we did do - I authorised with the Defence Minister for a trial run of a national callout of the reserves. That was approved by the Governor-General. That was done in November. So when it came to the decision that we ultimately took early this, in the New Year, it was being worked through on the 1st and 2nd of January of this year. Then the callout which required the approval of the Governor-General on the Saturday. Now that was the first time, ever, that there has been a call-out of our reservists to respond to a bushfire disaster, to the best of our knowledge. That is an unprecedented action of a Commonwealth Government. It has been in response to an unprecedented set of actions that were happening on the ground. Even a week before that decision was taken, there had still not been a natural state of disaster declared in Victoria. There were certainly the response needed in New South Wales. And as that was occurring, going into December 31, I was already talking to the Chief of the Defence Force, the Choules was already on its way to support a potential evacuation. Also, we were also dealing with the readiness of the HMAS Adelaide which I instructed the CDF to get ready to move in the event that it would be required. That was preceded, David, by my visits into areas like Ilford, where I spoke to people on the ground and I could see we needed a greater connection between what the defence forces were able to do and getting an understanding of what was happening on the local level. The coordination was happening at state headquarters' level. And so after that...

SPEERS: Are you seeing there is a problem with this? Though, the way the states interact with the Commonwealth in situations like this?

PRIME MINISTER: I think we have got to prepare for a new normal. And  the new normal, I think there is a community expectation now that there be a more direct ability for the Commonwealth, particularly through the Australian Defence Forces to be able to take action. See what happened…

SPEERS: What do you mean by that?

PRIME MINISTER: What happened last Saturday, this was the change, the big change, historic change, it moved from a respond to request posture, to a move and integrate posture. Which means the defence force moving in and then coming in and working with the local effort without requests, without any instigation at a state level, now…

SPEERS: You still need state permission to do that though?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we are acting under what I'd call a very agreeable environment but these arrangements have pushed, I think, the constitutional authorities for us to act to its very edge. And that's why people talk about this being something you can just do - I mean, we required the authority of the Governor-General and we received very clear legal advice before taking the step...

SPEERS: You had to take constitutional advice on this?

PRIME MINISTER: Of course we did. This requires the call-out of Reservists and the CDF- Chief of the Defence Force actually putting people into zones and disaster areas to provide responses.

SPEERS: So does this need to change? I mean, you shouldn't surely need to get constitutional advice, see the Governor General, all these steps- before you can send in the resources?

PRIME MINISTER: This is I think going to be one of the important lessons going forward. As I said, this is the first time where I think the Federal Government has ever been in a position where we had to take this action. To ensure that in the future it can be done in a way that I think is in a more pre-emptive posture, that we can do that I think more seamlessly. Now one of the things…

SPEERS: You want the power to deploy defence assets when you think you need to?

PRIME MINISTER: Where the Chief of the Defence Force believes there is a risk to life and safety and can support...

SPEERS: We're talking about state-run national parks and so on aren't we, to deploy them into?

PRIME MINISTER: We're talking about state Crown land, we’re talking about any area and it would have been done under the legal authorities of the state governments. The point I'm making is I think the states have worked closely with our ADF and there is no criticism by me of that at all. Or any criticism of the state efforts, I think they’ve been outstanding. What I am saying though, particularly we’ve seen and I think Australians have seen it, in the way we've been dropping fodder, getting contact to remote communities, undertaking evacuations, road clearing, proving a route, at least for heavy vehicles, military vehicles through to Mallacoota, the work that has been done by the ADF has massively supplemented and boosted and amplified what the states have been able to do on the ground and I think there's been a lot of lessons learned there.

SPEERS: So just to be clear, this will be a priority when Parliament is back. Will it require legislation to give defence this power?

PRIME MINISTER: Well the first step I think - look, I think there is obviously a need for a national review of the response and let's not forget…

SPEERS: A royal commission, is that what you're talking about?

PRIME MINISTER: I think that is what would be necessary and I'll be taking a proposal through Cabinet to that end but it must be done...

SPEERS: For a national royal commission?

PRIME MINISTER: But it must be done in consultation with the states and territories. I think Australians have a reasonable expectation that any commission of inquiry, royal commission, would need to cover the full gambit of issues. I think there are three to those. There is obviously the operational response which would normally be looked at. And I have no doubt the states will undertake their own operational reviews of their own exercise during and post this event.

SPEERS: The royal commission might run for a year. You can act in the interim?

PRIME MINISTER: Let me say, there are two other issues that it would need to address. The second one would be this federal issue of how the states and the territories and the new role, potentially, of the Commonwealth and that needs to be fully assessed. And the third one, David, I think, is it has to be done in the acknowledgment, not to seek an answer to, but in the acknowledgment, of the climate we now live in and how that - and how climate change has affected that. That is not an issue of dispute. That is an issue of acknowledgment.

SPEERS: So you're open to having all that looked at...

PRIME MINISTER: Of course I am.

SPEERS: And whether Australia needs to do more on climate change?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I think, the climate change response has three elements. The first one, which is most talked about, is emissions reduction. And Australia is taking action on emissions reduction, we are a signatory to the Paris agreement, and I can come back to that. The second one, is our climate change action in relation to resilience. Our emissions reduction targets can be higher or lower but the fact is the next ten years, and beyond- we are going to be living in a very different climate and we need to improve our resilience in our response to that on the ground in a range of measures which have both state and federal responsibilities. The third is the climate change adaption. These are the areas of climate change action that I think need greater attention because they're the things that are practically affecting people's daily lives here in Australia, where we can do practical things that will make us more resilient and ensure that we're safer.

SPEERS: OK. Let's talk about climate change now as you've raised this. So you are willing to have this dealt with at a royal commission and you are willing to change your position on climate change?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, what we will do is, on emissions - I've talked about the other two areas of resilience and adaption and I think they need to be very – and that includes our water infrastructure in responding to drought. I mean it isn't just restricted to bushfires. It deals with floods, it deals with cyclones, it deals with the drought which is affected by these broader issues. Adaption and resilience is key to that. Building dams is key to that. Native vegetation management is key to that. Land clearing is key to that. Where you can build homes, is key to that. And that is as much a climate change response as emissions reduction. But to talk of emissions reduction, we have, and will meet, our 2020 target and many countries like ours won't and so that's important.

SPEERS: Let's just talk about that...

PRIME MINISTER: Sure.

SPEERS: Because that requires the use of the so-called carryover credits for 2030 from the Kyoto period where we were allowed, Australia negotiated a deal to increase its emissions. We are the only country that has committed to use these carryover credits. Others are thinking about it, a few others are thinking about it. But is that really leading the world when it comes to this issue?

PRIME MINISTER: Let's deal with first principles, let's deal with right now because the fires are right now. And the environment in which these fires are taking place is an environment where Australia is one of the few countries that has met and will beat its 2020 Kyoto emissions targets. Now other countries have used carry forward credits to meet those, I mean New Zealand has done that from Kyoto one so that’s not an uncommon practice…

SPEERS: The problem is, Prime Minister, we need to reduce our emissions?

PRIME MINISTER: I understand that. And we are reducing emissions. Emissions today are 50 million tonnes less on average each year under our government than under the previous government. We meet our 2020 and beat them 411 million tonnes...

SPEERS: Well your own department...

PRIME MINISTER: Let me finish the answer David, by 2030 we have a 26 per cent reduction target. It is my intention, and this is the key point, to meet and beat that target...

SPEERS: Thanks to these carryover credits?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, if we're in the position where we don't need them and we're able to continue to reduce our emissions and use the technology and make the investments and continue to evolve our policy to ensure that we can reduce our emissions within the policy framework that I took to the last election, which was without putting a tax on people's living, without increasing people's electricity prices, without writing off $70 billion-dollar industries on which regional Australians depend on for their livelihood, and I believe we can achieve all of that. We have the highest level of renewable investment in Australia on record...

SPEERS: OK, but we also...

PRIME MINISTER: And we are doubling per capita what we’re investing. We have 1 in 5 homes with solar panels on their roofs. Few countries can boast that.

SPEERS: What matters here is emissions right? How much is being emitted. This year, 2020- according to your environment and energy department, Australia is going to emit 534 mega-tonnes of CO2 equivalent. In 2030, the projection is 511 mega-tonnes. Doesn't sound like a big reduction in actual emissions does it.

PRIME MINISTER: Well we’re 1.23 per cent of the world’s global emissions. So Australia…

SPEERS: This argument…

PRIME MINISTER: No no, I’m just I'm putting this in context. We could close down every single power generation facility in the country and those emissions would be taken up by China in about nine days. So I think we need to understand that global emissions don't have an accent, they come from many countries and we need to look at a global solution that deals with…

SPEERS: Don't you think we should encourage other bigger emitters like China, like the US, like India...

PRIME MINISTER: That's why you should meet and beat your targets…

SPEERS: Should we use these carryover credits, we’re opening the doors for others to do so?

PRIME MINISTER: What I'm saying to you, is that in the years ahead we are going to continue to evolve our policy in this area, to reduce emissions even further, and we’re going to do it without a carbon tax, without putting up electricity prices...

SPEERS: So if you can do it without a carbon tax, and putting up prices, are you willing to…

PRIME MINISTER: ...without shutting down traditional industries upon which regional Australians depend for their very livelihood. That’s what I took to the Australian people.

SPEERS: They do. But are you willing to use this crisis now as a reason to increase that target, set by Tony Abbott?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the Cabinet and the government will continue to evolve our policies to meet our targets and to beat them. That's what I'm saying.

SPEERS: But you are opening to moving the target?

PRIME MINISTER: What I'm saying is I'm not going to put someone's job at risk, a region’s, town's future at risk, I’m not going to put up electricity prices to do it, I’m not going to put a tax on them to do it. I’m going to achieve it in the way we’ve met our Kyoto 2020 targets, meet and beat, and we’ve done that through better technology, through the policies we’ve put through the emissions reduction fund, and we’re going to continue to do that because it is really important.

SPEERS: I appreciate that but I think everyone watching this would note you are leaving open here, pending inquiries and so on, the option of increasing that target?

PRIME MINISTER: What I'm saying is we want to reduce emissions and do the best job we possibly can and get better and better and better at it. And I want to do that within a balanced policy which recognises Australia's broader national economic interests and social interest.

SPEERS: Is the problem for you though that within your party, you party room there are those who either don't accept the science of climate change or don't see it as a major factor here? George Christensen posted on social media overnight, "The cause of these fires is not man-made climate change but arson." Is he wrong?

PRIME MINISTER: The Government's policy is set by the Cabinet. My party room has a broad...

SPEERS: So we ignore George Christensen?

PRIME MINISTER: No, no, let me finish my answer. Our party room has a broad array of views just like the Australian community has a broad array of views. You have got to take everybody with you. Climate change, it is the Government's policy- has obviously impacted on the longer, hotter, dryer, summer seasons. That's the advice we've received. That is not contested. That is the position of the Government, OK, let there be no dispute about that, this is the point…

SPEERS: There has been dispute about this, not just backbenchers but your own Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, he said it was woke inner city greenies drawing this link. That didn’t sound like what you're saying today?

PRIME MINISTER: Look David, I've set out clearly what the Government’s policy is, in responding to your questions today about what we intend to do in the future - that is to reduce emissions, to prepare our resilience for the future and prepare our adaption. We've already announced those measures in Budgets and we’ve already put money towards those goals. That is the Government's policy. This is important, because there is a lot of division being created in our community based on a false premise. The false premise is about what the Government's actions and policies are. The government is a signatory to Paris. That hasn't changed. The Government's commitment to 26 per cent emissions reductions has not changed. The Government's commitments to take action have not changed and we'll continue to do it.

SPEERS: Your predecessor Malcolm Turnbull has written a piece in the Guardian this morning in which he says, quote, "If ever there was a crisis not to waste it is this one. Morrison has the chance now to reinstate the NEG, the National Energy Guarantee, with higher targets. Both he and Josh Frydenberg were among its strongest supporters when I was PM. They abandoned it in the lead up to an election to pacify the right wing of the Coalition that sabotaged it in the first place."

PRIME MINISTER: That's Malcolm's view.

SPEERS: Is he right?

PRIME MINISTER: What the Government has done is enacted the reliability guarantee which was the core of the National Energy Guarantee.

SPEERS: What was wrong with the National Energy Guarantee as designed? You advocated for it for a long time?

PRIME MINISTER: The key component of was the reliability guarantee. Which ensures that we got reliable power generation…

SPEERS: The other key part was the emissions guarantee?

PRIME MINISTER: And the emissions target has not changed, it, the 26 per cent emissions target, is the same target that the former Prime Minister signed up to for Paris, and the previous Prime Minister before him first recommended...

SPEERS: There is now no requirement on any emitters to reduce their emissions, is there?

PRIME MINISTER: It’s, there is a requirement on the Government to meet our 26 per cent emissions reduction target. What I'm telling you we're going to do, is we’re going to meet it and we're going to beat it and that's what we need to achieve.

SPEERS: Now just coming to your actions through all of this, correct me if I am wrong, but you do acknowledge that some of your interactions on the ground you could have handled better but beyond that, you're not accepting any fault, any mistakes on your part?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I've talked about what I think has been the change in community expectation, I think, around Federal Government involvement. And I think I've flagged to you I think areas where we need to learn from that and how to improve on that. That said, I’d say though let's look at what we've done in a very short period of time  when this crisis went to an unprecedented level, in particularly in  most recent times. The call-out of reserves, 3,000. First time ever done in response to a crisis. The establishment of a National Bushfire Recovery Agency with $2 billion on top of all disaster recovery payments, and assistance payments, payments with the states, $2 billion on top of that. Since then, money already on its way to…

SPEERS: Will that be enough though?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, if more is needed more will be provided. I haven't finished yet- because the response is very important. Today, more than $70 million going in to mental health support in communities which deals with everything from first responders to those needing immediate counselling on the ground right now, additional money going in to headspace areas in places affected, people…

SPEERS: It is all adding up. Before the election you told us you had delivered a surplus. What is that looking like now?

PRIME MINISTER: That will be assessed as we prepare the Budget for May of this year. But what I said very clearly the other day, the reason we're in a position to move and put $2 billion down as an initial and additional investment, is because we've managed our finances well. Now, if we had responded to previous calls to splash cash here and splash cash there, the Government wouldn't be in the position that we are in today to make the commitment I'm making to the Australian people. $2 billion down now. If more is needed, more will be provided. And that will be done without a disaster levy or taxing you more, or doing any of those things because that would only hurt the broader economy, which we need to continue to be strong. Most recently we saw those good retail figures come out in November. That's very encouraging. Obviously the disaster will have quite a significant impact particularly in the quarter we're now in. But that’s why the recovery and rebuild effort is now our focus, our focus now, the states have done an amazing job in fighting the fires and protecting life and property, our job particularly has been to support the immediate recovery operation on the ground through the defence forces, but now to start rebuilding these local economies and that is something we've set about our task. This week we'll have round tables with small business and we'll have round tables particularly on- with environmental groups, we'll have some announcements there as well in the not too distant future. Now is the recovery and rebuilding tasks. So when people, decimated by fire, small businesses who have been wiped out, know that the Commonwealth Government is working with the states to make sure that we can rebuild those local economies and communities.

SPEERS: PM, let me come to a point of criticism that lingers, that's your trip to Hawaii. Despite the warnings we talked about that came last year and came in recent weeks and as the fire season really started to pick up, you went on a family trip to Hawaii. Was that a mistake?

PRIME MINISTER: In hindsight, I would not have taken that trip knowing what I know now. One of the great difficulties in any job, as you know, David, is balancing your work and family responsibilities. It had been a very busy year. I'd made a promise to my kids and we'd taken forward that break, as I explained when I came back and I thought I was very up-front about my contrition on that.

SPEERS: You're a little defensive though at times. You called in to 2GB from Hawaii after the story broke, and you said, well hang on, I don't hold a hose mate. Did you not see the need for a national leader on the ground at that time?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I was on my way back at the time. I had already made the decision to come back and cut that short, to ensure I could be back here...

SPEERS: Why didn't you announce before you left that you were going, someone else was acting PM?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I’d actually, I texted Anthony Albanese on my way out the door so I wasn't being secretive about it...

SPEERS: Do we tell the media that someone else is now Acting PM?

PRIME MINISTER: I dealt with this I mean on the last two occasions when I’ve taken leave I've followed exactly the same practice. On this occasion that was raised and it won’t be done that way again. You learn from these things, but the office won't do that again.

SPEERS: As PM, you're a former tourism guy, what's wrong with holidaying in Australia?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the irony of all of this was my original intention was to holiday on the south coast for two weeks and I had to change that arrangement because I was supposed to be on my way to India for that visit to see Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister, and then Prime Minister Abe, and I had to bring forward my holiday with my family, and that was the reason for the change to that date. So it was a very unfortunate series of events that...

SPEERS: Will you be holidaying in Australia now?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I usually do, David and I suspect I will...

SPEERS: You had Fiji and Hawaii last year didn’t you?

PRIME MINISTER: David, I've holidayed on the south coast of NSW for almost all of my life with my family and my wife and I’ve always been an advocate for that...

SPEERS: A beautiful spot.

PRIME MINISTER: Occasionally like many other Australians I might take my family away for a holiday. I don't think Australians would think dimly of that on the odd occasion which happens.

SPEERS: PM, I know you do have to get back to it. But let me finally ask, what then are the lessons you have learnt as Prime Minister through all of this?

PRIME MINISTER: The first of all I think is we're really moving into this new normal about what the role of the Federal Government must be in a very proactive sense. That is very different to what every Prime Minister has previously done. That is obviously going to need to be assessed and what powers and authorities and arrangements will need to be made with the states to make that a practical arrangement into the future. How you do things on the ground differently, people want to see you on the ground - I understand that. That's why I went. I didn't go there with, you know, 10 months of media planning or anything like that. We walked into one of the most badly-hit areas of New South Wales and I expected people would be raw and upset. I was prepared to go and do that because I wanted to be there and listen and hear. And I heard support and I heard fury and I've heard frustration, I heard fear. And that's why I turned up. And I'll always endeavour to turn up. But I want to do it so I can learn and listen to people in these environments. There has been plenty of critics David, but there'll always be plenty of critics. The one thing I'll never do is I'll never allow distractions to take me from the task I have to keep Australians safe and to do everything I can to support that effort.

SPEERS: Prime Minister, thank you.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you very much David.