Interview with Michael Rowland, ABC 7.30

09 Jan 2020
Prime Minister

MICHAEL ROWLAND: I spoke to the Prime Minister earlier.  Prime Minister, thanks for joining us.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you Michael.

ROWLAND: You have flagged in a teleconference with  coalition MPs today, the prospect of a royal commission into the bushfires. Will there be a royal  commission?

PRIME MINISTER: This is something I've said we would be consulting closely with our state colleagues on. I  mean, so many of the factors that  are relevant to these inquiries that will need to be undertaken fall within the states’ jurisdiction, and there are matters that fall within the Commonwealth. So I mean there will be a time, I think, to ensure that we work with the states and territories to get to the proper inquiry in place. It needs to be comprehensive, it needs to deal with contributing factors which is everything from hazard reduction to climate  change through to the response issues, the national coordination matters  and, of course, resilience and  planning for the future. But right now, the states and territories and ourselves are very focused on responding to these fires and the immediate recovery operations. So we will work together to ensure that there's an appropriate inquiry that addresses the broad gamut of issues that must be considered, as we come out of what has been a, just an awful natural disaster.

ROWLAND: Any royal Commission or inquiry will obviously as you say, examine the responses by all levels of government, do you concede Prime Minister that you should have recognised this was a national emergency much earlier than you did? And stepped in much earlier with firm national leadership?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's just – to summarise the national response we've had - we've had the single biggest response which has included the call-out of the Reserves - some 3,000 - that's never happened before. The establishment of the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, and $2 billion of initial and additional funding to support that. Prior to us instigating that move-forward and integrate posture, we were operating under what has been the standing arrangements with states and territories for many, many years - that is, we respond to requests and we work in with them as they direct us. Now what became clear on New Year's Day, in particular, as we had moved from catastrophic fires, particularly in one state, to across two states in particular, and emerging threats in South Australia and other places, is that had gone well beyond, and at an unprecedented level of an event required an unprecedented response from the Commonwealth. So even just a week before that, the conditions were quite different. They were certainly disastrous in New South Wales, as  they had been in Queensland and other places. But in terms of the overwhelming capacity of resource that could be brought to bear, that needed a different posture from the federal government, and that's what we took the initiative to do at that time - because it had escalated to that level.

ROWLAND: But it took you a few days, that was New Year’s Day, it wasn't until the weekend - the  Saturday, if my memory serves me  correct - that you announced the Army was going in. You’d spent a few days before hand saying, using your words, you didn’t want to have different levels of government tripping over each other. Surely you should have seen much sooner that this is something that you needed to be much more involved much more quickly?

PRIME MINISTER: Well Michael you don’t call out the Reservists, some 3,000 of them overnight. That takes a few days to start moving into place. That's exactly what we were doing at that time and indeed earlier that week, we had started moving into this posture by making sure we were moving vessels into place, and particularly the Choules, and that was taking place - that's the big navy vessel that was involved in the evacuations out of south-east Victoria. And so, these initiatives were already moving at that time. We had already been preparing some contingencies around this and, in particular, the Reserve call-out was trialled back in November in the case that we might have to activate it. And so we were working under the arrangements that governments had been working under for many, many years. We've seen big disasters before in Australia that have not led to the call-out of Reserves and a national response like we have now seen. But such was the comprehensive scale across many borders, many  jurisdictions, that it required us to take that additional supportive step. Now that wasn't to reflect, in any way, any lack of response at the state level. It was to reflect the scale of the intensity of the disaster that elevated over the  course of that week.

ROWLAND: You’ve been visiting fire grounds over the last week and a half or so. You have been receiving warmly by some but also, Prime Minister, we've all seen the pictures of fire victims and the firefighter refusing to shake your hand, pictures of you being heckled by fire victims, and yesterday you forgetting that two people had died on Kangaroo Island. It hasn't been your finest week, has it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well Michael I’ve got to correct you there. I mean, even in that last question that you've just put to me – no that's not true. I was referring to lost volunteer firefighters when I made that remark on Kangaroo Island. That was pointed out to the ABC. So I'm disappointed that you'd raise that in that way. Look, I've been out there on fire grounds and meeting people since September. These fires were started back in Queensland when I was up there in Canungra meeting those who'd been affected. You're right - there's a broad variety of responses you get in relation to these events. They're very emotionally raw. People have lost everything. And I obviously don't take any of that personally –

ROWLAND: But why why the hostile – excuse the interruption – directed at you- why do you see there has been such a hostile reception for you, in particular?

PRIME MINISTER: Well in the circumstance you referred to I was the first politician at a senior level to have walked in to that very affected community. And that wasn’t the universal response. As the pub owner from Cobargo and the bushfire captain Mark has made very clear. So look there's a myriad of responses you get in these environments and, when you choose to take the media along, they'll focus on some  elements and they won't focus on others. That's the decisions that others make. The decision I take to is to turn up, to show up. And if people are upset, then I'll listen to that upset. If people are looking for comfort, then I provide that comfort, and have been pleased to do so on so many occasions. I mean it was a  great privilege the other day to be with the Horsley Park Rural Fire Service as we honoured their two fallen. And Darren, the local captain there, was very pleased to extend, you know, his support. And I thank him for that. Because they understand the great sacrifices that are made, and they understand the true emotion and the true sense of loss which occurs. And so there are many different responses, Michael, and I think it would be unfair to  suggest that that's been uniform. It's mixed and people are - we're all human beings. We respond in different ways. It's my job to extend that comfort and support in whatever way I can but, most importantly, to ensure the biggest single ever response we've ever made in response to a bushfire disaster of this nature is being delivered  each and every day, as it is.

ROWLAND: You said at a media conference over the weekend that your government had always accepted the link between climate change and extreme weather including bushfires, but that is not the case, as you probably know your Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack in December said climate change was only the concern of, quoting him directly, “woke capital city greenies”, your Communications Minister Paul Fletcher on News Breakfast I had to ask him three times to accept the link between climate change and bushfires, he didn’t go there so why would you make that statement?

PRIME MINISTER: Because it’s true. Because, when Quentin Dempster asked me at the National  Press Club-

ROWLAND: [inaudible] saying otherwise...


ROWLAND: …excuse the interruption.

PRIME MINISTER: No I'm sorry, Michael, it is the policy of the government to acknowledge the link between these events at a global level. Of course, global changes in the environment  and the climate have a broader impact on the world's weather systems. What we've always said,  though, is you cannot link any individual single emissions reduction policy of a country - whether it's Australia or anyone else - to any specific fire event. I mean, that's just absurd. And to suggest that that is the case would be simply wrong. It is, and always has been, the policy of our government to understand the need to take action on climate change and the impact that has on the world's broader weather systems and climate systems. I think that’s what-

ROWLAND: Do you accept the need…

PRIME MINISTER: The disappointing thing – you can interrupt.

ROWLAND: Do you accept there’s a need given the disproportionate impact these fires are having on Australia compared to other countries, there a need for the government to do more in upping its emissions reductions target?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I think we should be meeting and beating our targets and that’s exactly what we are doing. I think that point is often lost. See, Michael, I think one of the unfortunate things of the last few weeks has been, I think, the attempt to deliberately create a polarisation on this issue. There  isn't one when it comes to the actions of the government. The government accepts the need to take action on climate change, and we are. Many have suggested that that's not the case. Well I'm sorry, the actions speak loudly in terms of the fact that emissions under our  government are 50 million tonnes a year less, on average, than they  were under the government that preceded us. They have fallen in the last two years. We will meet and beat our Kyoto targets this year by 411 million tonnes, and that is better than many other developed economies with similar economies to Australia who won't meet their targets. So Australia is doing its share. We are meeting our targets. And we are going to beat them. And we will continue to do that out to 2030. We remain a signatory to the Paris Agreement in 2030. That hasn't changed. Our 26% emissions reduction target, that has been the same for many years, and the policies to achieve that are in place to achieve it.

ROWLAND: Prime Minister before you go, if we can switch our attention to the Middle East, we have seen a, a pause in the tensions overnight between the US and Iran. If the conflict there was to escalate, would the Government, would the Australian Government, have serious reservations of following the United States into another Middle East war?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Michael, I don't think that's a very helpful question, because it begs a hypothetical response to events that have not occurred. What the government is doing is remaining committed to the mission that we've set ourselves - that is to combat Daesh through our involvement in a coalition based out of Iraq. That's what so many hundreds and thousands of Australians who've been part of that mission over many years have been so proud to participate in. I visited them and I saw personally, around about this time last year - and the Governor-General was only with them only a few weeks ago. Now the events of the last 48 hours and a bit longer than that have obviously been events that we've had to look at very closely, and the National  Security Committee has been meeting regularly on this issue, and the decision we've taken is that we can remain doing the job that we're doing, but we'll obviously continue to monitor events very closely with our partners in this important exercise. I was only speaking to Justin Trudeau today and Jacinda Ardern today, with whom we are equally there with them, and we are sharing very similar views about how we manage that over the next few  days and weeks and months ahead.

ROWLAND: You’ve urged restraint on both sides, and the US and Iran. Does that restraint in your view, or should that restraint, in your view, include the President's tweets?

PRIME MINISTER: I welcome the statement that the President said today in terms of how that indicates a de-escalation of what we’re seeing in the Middle East. And we will continue to work closely with our US partners and all coalition partners to stay focused on the job that we've set ourselves there. And I just really want to thank all those Defence Force men and women who have both served in  the Middle East - whether it's in Afghanistan or Iraq or other parts of the Middle East - for the great sacrifice you've made for the great values of our country, and we'll  continue to honour that in the way we make decisions to keep you safe and your colleagues safe now and into the future and, and to ensure we remain committed to what you’ve made that sacrifice to go and do.

ROWLAND: Prime Minister Scott Morrison, thank you very much for joining us tonight.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks very much, Michael.