Interview with Leila McKinnon, A Current Affair

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03 Jan 2020
Prime Minister

LEILA MCKINNON: Prime Minister, thank you for coming on the show this evening. People didn't even want to shake your hand out there, do you fear that you have lost the respect of Australians?

PRIME MINISTER: People are really hurting Leila, and I’ve been in many of these fire zones now I mean these fires have been burning since up in Queensland in September, and I’ve been to a lot of these places and there's a lot of different receptions wherever you go. But I do know particularly where I was yesterday, people were hurting very much, they’re very raw, and they're very angry and I don't take any of that personally. We just went, Jenny and I went to comfort people and some did and some didn’t want to.

LEILA MCKINNON: That could be read as a little bit dismissive, but perhaps they have genuine cause to be angry. Do you regret walking away and not listening to people like Zoe McDermott? The woman that you spoke to yesterday?

PRIME MINISTER: Well Zoe and I did speak, actually, and she did raise the issue of her concerns about the level of support for the local brigade that was there. That was the matter that she raised with me. And I said I'd pass that on to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.

MCKINNON: When you look back at that video and you see the way that you compelled people to shake your hand, does that look odd to you? Do you have any regrets?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, look you seek to try to provide some comfort in these places. And people are feeling in very different ways. When, in all of these situations, some want to reach out and give you a big hug, others are feeling a little more stand-offish. And look I understand that, I mean, it is a very emotional time. You seek to try and respect that, every gesture is offered in good faith and in goodwill. That's why Jenny and I went there yesterday. We were keen to get down the south coast of New South Wales, where the fires had just been ravaging.

MCKINNON: You been criticised for saying that people will be encouraged or inspired by the cricket players. Do you really think that people in those situations will find any comfort in the cricket?

PRIME MINISTER: Look Leila I think that's been taken a bit out of context. I mean, it was at an event where we had both of those teams together and both the captain, Tim and I had made some very strong comments in support of those who were out fighting the fires. And that the test will be played against the backdrop of these terrible events. And I won't be getting to that match, as you'd expect, because of the other things I'm doing.

MCKINNON: Well, there's no doubt that you've got a bit of a PR problem coming out of these fires with your leadership, given time to reflect, were there things that you wish that you'd done differently?

PRIME MINISTER: You know Leila it’s not about me. It's not about those problems. It's not about any of those issues. It's about the people who need the support on the ground. And that's what I'm focussed on. My biggest focus at the moment is continuing to roll out the support of the Australian Defence Force. We had 12,000 litres of fuel, which has been dropped into the town there to ensure that it can stand up, and continue to support the people who are there. But about 1,000 of those have been evacuated today because of the great work of our Defence Force. That's what I'm focussed on. I'm not focussed on those other issues. That's for others to Twitter about.

MCKINNON: Well, that is very encouraging to see the Defence Force out like that. Do we need to look in future at a more national approach to a crisis, of better coordination and more use of the Defence Force, should we have other fire seasons like this, or as this one continues?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, after every fire season, these things are reviewed but there already is a very strong coordination, and the Defence Force, I should stress, has been out there since September and they'll play a very big effort in the recovery that follows these fires.

MCKINNON: Well, we are hearing from fire chiefs, former fire chiefs, that they tried to warn you that this was going to be the kind of catastrophic, catastrophic fire season we are having and that you didn't heed those warnings. Do you have regrets there?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that just simply isn't true. I listen to the fire chiefs that are in their jobs now and those fire chiefs provided those exact same warnings and prepared our services to deal with the situation we find ourselves in now. Now, because of the drought, now because of the fact that there's been no quenching rains following these fires starting, that means this season is running longer and it's presenting even more difficult challenges.

MCKINNON: But what could we have done better?

PRIME MINISTER: We will learn those lessons. But I've got to say, the coordination as I've gone into incident response centres in small towns, in larger towns, and as I've done now over many, many months in many states, the coordination has been excellent. But as we go into this weekend, it's going to be a very difficult Saturday

MCKINNON: In this situation, you can never do enough. And there are firefighters who are going out there knowing that they could be leaving children behind like Harvey Keaton.


MCKINNON: How can we do more to help them? Is that your one number one priority every night as you retire for the day?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I was there with Geoff Keaton's family at the funeral with Jenny just yesterday, which is where I was before I went down to Cobargo and Bega yesterday. And it was heartbreaking. Absolutely heartbreaking. And what I've been impressed by in this fire season, is the predictive fire technology and the planning tools and the technology that is being used that has been put in place with the support of all of the agencies. So in more and more occasions, we aren't putting our fire volunteers in harm's way, but they're dangerous fire grounds there and you can never avoid those. That's why these men and women are so brave.

MCKINNON: Have you been working the phones, trying to get more resources from overseas, more people, more planes?


MCKINNON: And can we expect any more planes coming?


MCKINNON: When will we see them? That is very good news this evening that we’re going to get more resources.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it is. But as, Leila, this is what we do, as things escalate. We put an extra $11 million dollars to enhance the firefighting fleet that we had in the air, going into this season. We had $15 million in and we put a further $11 million in which we announced, that was well before Christmas. And so this is the way that you continue to respond as states and territories. So, you know, we continue to meet the need and anticipate it and get in front of it. But now a lot of my effort is focussing on the recovery, that will be necessary on the other side.

MCKINNON: Prime Minister, thank you for your time.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks a lot Leila, it was good to be with you.