Press Conference

02 Jan 2020
Sydney, NSW
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Earlier today at the invitation of the family, Jenny and I attended the funeral and memorial service for Geoff Keaton. To be there with his partner and his parents and his broader family, it was important to be able to honour his great sacrifice and his tremendous service. Sadly, we will be attending two more of these services in the not too distant future. It was also tremendous to be there with the men and women of the Horsley Park Rural Fire Service Brigade as they provided their guard of honour for their mate. So from all of the nation to Jess and the family, we extend our deepest sympathies and to those who will be gathering together for similar services in the near future, we extend that to them also.

The priority today is fighting fires and evacuating, getting people to safety. What is incredibly important is that we continue to maintain the focus on these very important tasks. Those tasks are being well led and run by our State authorities, both in Victoria and in New South Wales and I am in constant contact with Premiers of both of those States. I am also mindful, though, of the emerging situation in South Australia and even in Tasmania and we will continue to work closely with those States, where the need arises.

At a Commonwealth level, our task has been to fully support and provide whatever assistance is necessary through all the various agencies of the Commonwealth. Now, that in order has gone from the provision of disaster payments that have now exceeded some more than $21 million in New South Wales alone and we expect more of that to continue in Victoria as the full devastation of the fires there becomes more evident and the damage assessments and people are able to make claims on those funds. But that has been an important task for the Commonwealth, working with the States, where the assistance has been triggered to get those payments to people as quickly as possible and I want to thank all of those and Services Australia who have been working to be able to deliver those payments and support but also I should say the State Government agencies who have directly are involved in the administering of those payments.

There is also the work that is being done through Emergency Management Australia. It is so important, particularly as we are going through what can be the very dangerous exercise of evacuations and getting people to safety, as the Premier of Victoria Dan Andrews was just saying a few moments ago, that this be done in a very coordinated and safe way and so it is important, as we work through those evacuations, that people continue to remain patient and remain calm and to follow instructions. For those places where there is still stores and other assistance to be provided, it is on its way. I have just now come off the phone speaking to the CDF, General Houston - Campbell I should say, to ensure that all of that effort is being deployed right around the country, as it is needed. The other important assistance that is being provided by the Commonwealth is of course the support provided by the defence forces themselves as I have just noted. As you know, we have deployed naval efforts which we moved earlier this week and there are other assets that have been identified and are awaiting tasking. All of these assets, I should stress, whether it is the Black Hawks or any of the other things that are being made available, that is being done to, A) get it in readiness to deploy and then, secondly, it is then activated at the request of the State agencies. What you cannot have in these situations is Governments stepping over the top of each other in responding to a natural disaster like this. It must follow a clear chain of command. It must follow the headquarters model which is in place and which Commonwealth authorities are embedded in, both in New South Wales and in Victoria. In both New South Wales and Victoria, there are joint task forces which have been stood up by Defence which are coordinating the Defence engagement in each of those responses and they are fully plugged in to the headquarters in both New South Wales and in Victoria.

With the roads now open out up the Cooma Road but also up to Sydney, we know that people are making their way back to Sydney or other places where they have come from, where they were holidaying down the south coast. I would continue to just ask people to be patient. I know you can have kids in the car and that there is anxiety and there is stress and the traffic is not moving quickly but the best thing to do - the best thing that helps those out there volunteering, out there trying to restore some order to these situations is for everyone just to be patient. That help will arrive. There are parts of both obviously Victoria and New South Wales which have been completely devastated, with a loss of power and the loss of communications. Every absolute effort is in train to ensure that those things can be stood up as soon as possible. In some cases, we have been able to get tankers in to restore fuel supplies, that is now greatly assisting. There are other places which are still too difficult to get these supplies into now but we will be able to do that as soon as we possibly can.

Defence has been assisting in providing advice to the communications companies to assist in getting communications restored as soon as possible and the same things are being done when it comes to standing up energy supplies. In particular, down in Cobargo and places like that, where we know, where dairies have been milking and they simply have to pour the milk down the hill because of the lack of power to those areas at this time. That is the tragedy of what is occurring as a result of these disasters. But I really do want to commend the State agencies and their leaders, both within the fire services and other emergency management agencies that are coordinating this response and leading it both in Victoria and in New South Wales.

From this point on, what the Commonwealth will continue to do is to support those operational efforts. We will also be there to support the recovery efforts and they will start coming into being in the weeks ahead and months ahead indeed and I have already had a number of discussions about the various payments and forms of assistance that go to small businesses that have been impacted and the category C assistance which is already available in so many local government areas around the country, in these affected areas. That support will be very important and there are other levels of assistance that we can move to as we saw was so effective up in response to the North Queensland floods. Making sure that support flows quickly and effectively is so important to get the recovery effort up and running after these fires. But unlike a flood, where the water will recede, in a fire like this, it goes on and it will continue to go on as those in the agencies have advised us, until we can get some decent rain that can deal with some of these fires that have been burning now for many, many months.

So my simple request is to be patient. To have confidence in the State agencies that are leading the operational response on the ground. If you are in a position where you can get yourself to safety, then please do that and follow the instructions that are available to you. If you are in a position where you have to hold and wait, then know that there is support that will get to you. It is already on its way and in those places where it has already been able to be delivered, we thank those who were able to get that support through to where it is needed. The stores will then be built up again, particularly using the assets and support of the ADF. There is a major evacuation, I have already alluded to it and what is happening in Victoria at the moment with the [HMAS] Choules assisting with that. There has been no request from New South Wales of a similar ADF support for an evacuation of that nature on the south coast given that the roads are open. So if you are able to get yourself in your vehicle and drive back to Sydney or Canberra or where ever you have come from, then that is the advice you are receiving to follow that local instruction. I might leave it there for now. We will take some other questions. And I will ask David to make any further comments as minister responsible.

THE HON. DAVID LITTLEPROUD MP, MINISTER FOR WATER RESOURCES, DROUGHT, RURAL FINANCE, NATURAL DISASTER AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Thanks PM, can I firstly acknowledge and congratulate the exemplary efforts of our States in the way that they have led their agencies through these fire legacy that started back in September in Queensland. Every jurisdiction has stood up and they do that not only for their own States but we work together in a coordinated way. Their peak body AFAC is working constantly in making sure that we share resources around the country to make sure that everything that can be done is being done and also work through the Commonwealth in making sure we bring in those international firefighters that are here from the United States and Canada and New Zealand as we have reciprocated for them in their hour of need. Obviously, we will continue to work with AFAC and the States as they put further requests in. The States are doing everything they humanly possibly can and so too is the Commonwealth. Let me just say to those people that are frustrated waiting for whether it be supplies or electricity or even fuel, can we just say to them, please be patient. Everything that humanly possibly can be done is being done. We understand the situation you are in. We cannot put more Australians in harm's way in trying to deliver these services as quickly as some would like it. So we are getting there as quickly as we can. Obviously some of the decisions in restoring some of those services just take time and that is why the Australian Defence Force, with the assets they have, have been called upon to bring those in where it is possible and where it is safe. But that will continue to happen but we just say to every Australian in those fire zones, it is also important now that you listen to the direction of those emergency management personnel on the ground. Those men and women are putting their lives on the line. We have already had too many fatalities in these fires and, sadly, we have had three brave Australians who were serving their community and their country who have made the ultimate sacrifice. So out of respect to them, it is your responsibility to listen to those emergency service personnel, to do what they tell you but to be prepared and to act now. This is not "She will be right" sort of moment. This is a serious situation as we get into the weekend. It is imperative, it is imperative that you look after yourselves. There is a responsibility to look after yourselves and your families and you owe it to the men and women who are fighting the fires to keep you safe, to do exactly what they say.

JOURNALIST:  Prime Minister you keep saying don't panic, I am not panicking, be patient, have confidence, but when you look at all the deaths and all the people unaccounted for, all the homes lost, at what point should we start to worry or panic or be concerned that firefighters can't or authorities can't do anything to stop the sort of weather we are having and the sort of bushfire seasons we are having and that we’ve got a real long term crisis starting to begin here?

PRIME MINISTER: There is no doubt natural disasters are termed that way, Andrew because that is what they are. They are natural disasters. They wreak this sort of havoc when they affect our country as they have for a very long time and the scale and length of this bushfire season is something I have referred to now on many occasions. The first fire incident that I attended with Jenny was back in Canungra back in September and these fires have ranged through Queensland, South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and there were concerns in Western Australia. That is all true. The best way to respond is the way that Australians have always responded to these events and that is to put our confidence in those who are fighting these fires and who are experienced and know what they are doing, the agencies that prepare 24/7, seven days a week, that is what their job is. Emergency Management Australia at a Commonwealth level, its task is to ensure that in times like this, there is a fully coordinated response between the Commonwealth and the States and even at the local level and the payments are appropriate and they are triggered and they are actioned and that is what is occurring. What we are saying is we cannot control the natural disaster but what we can do is control our response, what we can do is support those who are out there putting themselves at risk by showing the patience and the calm that is necessary, that enables them to do their job and we need to do that for as long as it takes and it will cost whatever it costs to ensure that we can continue to deploy this very well coordinated response. In the midst of the disaster, I understand the anxiety and I understand the fear that is there for many and I understand the frustration but this is a natural disaster. Natural disasters are best dealt with through the methodical, well-coordinated response that we are seeing today. If it were not for that response over these many months - and you're right Andrew, we have seen far too many lost and as the Premier in Victoria has just indicated, still many unaccounted for in a lot of these small communities in East Gippsland and it will be some time before we are able to know where they are and if they are well or indeed they have been lost. The way to ensure we do that job, whether it is an evacuation or the med-evacs that are occurring as we speak, is to continue to do it in the responsible and well-coordinated way that we are doing. Had we not done that, many more would have been lost and many more properties will be lost.

JOURNALIST: On that response Prime Minister, Lake Conjola, Ron Coote and his wife lost their home and they haven't had a drink of water, there is families there who haven’t got nappies for their children. This is 48 hours since the fire ripped through. They are saying the response has been completely inadequate and they are just desperate for some help.

PRIME MINISTER: I can understand their frustration and that’s why we say in these circumstances some of these parts of the country are very difficult for State authorities and agencies to be able to get the support into. This is a fire front that was running pretty much all the way up the New South Wales border, all the way up to the upper reaches of the South Coast and Lake Conjola sits in the middle of that. I know the area very well. So there are many areas that are in that situation right now. That is why it is important to allow the response to just roll out and do it as effectively and quickly and safely as possible.

JOURNALIST: With respect though Prime Minister, do you understand the frustration of people when you keep saying this is a State issue, this is the State agencies in control of this? Because we have fires raging all around the country and you're the Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER: That is why the Defence Forces are out there, that’s why our agencies are providing for the payments. That’s why our agencies are coordinating responses between Commonwealth resources and State resources. That is what the Commonwealth does in these situations and that is what the Commonwealth will continue to do and what we won't allow to happen is for Governments to be tripping over each other in order to somehow outbid each other in the response. What is needed is the coordinated response that these agencies planned for in circumstances like this. I understand the frustration, I understand the anxiety. I understand the fear but what I also understand is the need to allow the professionals and the experts who plan and then operationalise these responses to do their job and to give them every support and every resource, from the Prime Minister to the Premier, to the Mayor.

JOURNALIST: You’ve talked a lot about anxiety and fear and terror in the community and you talked about operational issues today. What about the long-term threat? All the experts say this event is turbo-charged by climate change and a lot of people would say your Government is not doing enough about climate change. What about the long-term threat and what is your Government doing to allay those fears and anxieties?

PRIME MINISTER: I've always acknowledged the link, as has the Minister, between the broader issues of global climate change and what that means for the world's weather and the dryness of conditions in many places. But I am sure you would also agree that no response by any one government anywhere in the world can be linked to any one fire event and I don't think you're suggesting that here in New South Wales, Victoria or anywhere else. The Government’s plans on climate change are very clear and the achievements we are making we have set out well. This year, 2020, is the year we beat the Kyoto 2020 commitment. We don't just beat it by a bit, we beat it by a lot. We are one of the few countries that can actually say that. We have the policies and plans to ensure that we will meet and I believe beat our 2030 commitments and we will continue to manage those issues responsibly. Right now though, as I said, my focus right now to deal with the anxiety in the community is the anxiety about getting the support and supplies and getting people to safety and ensuring that our firefighters have every support they need and, as I said, I am in constant contact with the Premiers in terms of what, if any, other additional assistance they need to get the job done on the ground. When I speak to the firefighters, when I speak to those who are involved in the operational effort, that is what they want from us. They want support for what they need to do and that is what we are giving them.

JOURNALIST: So you said in your opening statement that other assets are identified and awaiting tasking and also that other levels of assistance that we can move to are there. Can you explain what both of those are?

PRIME MINISTER: At this stage, is still in a planning phase. We have a number of naval assets here in New South Wales that have been assessed for how they can be tasked and to put them in a state of readiness. They haven't been called upon by the states. The naval assets that, in particular, Victoria has requested they are in place. We are also tasking Spartans and C-130s to assist with any evacuation effort in Victoria but the weather conditions there are making that very difficult. Some of the other aviation efforts we have there are being used for medivac purposes in getting those who are particularly in need of support. And there has also been work done particularly over the last week to look at all the medical response capabilities, particularly in New South Wales and in Victoria, and the assessment there is very positive. Those services are not being overstretched at this point in time, in terms of the response that they need to provide and so that is a welcome piece of news. But this is what happens when you work through managing and coordinating the response to these disasters. You are dealing with everything from payments to medical supplies, to aviation assets and what may further be needed there. Whether other assets need to be leased or brought to bear but we have over 140 aerial firefighting assets in Australia as part of the coordinated group that we put together and only put an additional $11 million to just more recently as this fire season escalated.

JOURNALIST: Are you looking at leasing more?

PRIME MINISTER: We are considering every option because we know the fire season still has a long time to run and particularly now as we are calling in more ADF assets to deal with this, then what we are constantly doing, as we have been doing for months, is looking at what the contingencies are going forward. Those contingencies are also now being worked and the National Security Committee of Cabinet will be meeting on Monday to consider a number of those issues, as well as the longer-term response in relation to some of the issues we have already been identifying to consider amongst Premiers after the fires. And I have got to stress this, I’ll let David make the point, what the States are saying to us is "Let us deal with the fires now, let us focus on that, give us every support that you can to help us with that." And as you have heard the Victorian Premier Dan Andrews saying today he has complimented the role between the Commonwealth and the Victorian Government in what is happening with the evacuation even as we speak. That is the spirit in which we need to continue to engage this right now, right here. The longer-term issues are always being addressed. They are addressed after every single fire. One of the reasons I mean, more homes would have been lost, more lives would have been lost and it is a tragedy how many have already been lost in this season, had it not been for the coordination and planning that our agencies have learned and put in place because of their response to previous natural disasters. David?

THE HON. DAVID LITTLEPROUD MP, MINISTER FOR WATER RESOURCES, DROUGHT, RURAL FINANCE, NATURAL DISASTER AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: With respect to aerial firefighting equipment, we take our advice from AFAC, which is the peak body of Fire Commissions. They give us advice around the number of aircraft and it is not just one type, it is obviously a suite of planes that are required to fight fires. We take that advice from them. Obviously, we are in constant contact with them as they coordinate all the fire commissioners from around the country and give that advice. If further assets are required then obviously we will take that advice and work with those individual agencies to make sure they are available. But the states have again led in an exemplary way, not only now, but they plan for this. You just don't turn up on a Monday and lease an aircraft to fight fires. This is something that has to be strategically planned for many, many months and that is what our current Fire Commissioners have done and we should take great comfort and pride in the professionalism of our Fire Commissioners who have planned meticulously for this. They stand ready and the strategy, the strategic thinking around where we need to go if this campaign continues is being done constantly through AFAC.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, if you concede climate change is a factor - and, you know, I acknowledge what you're saying about global emissions and obviously China and India are much more of a problem than Australia - then can we just expect this, or worse, what has happened here in years to come? Is that what you're anticipating to deal with as a Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, one of the review issues we will obviously have to deal with is the many contributing factors to this particular fire season and we can't go beyond the drought. As David also has responsibilities in that area, I mean, one of the most striking things during this fire season was when I flew over the range and saw the two calamities our nation has faced come together just on the other side of the Great Dividing Range with the drought and bushfires. And obviously the drought has created a tinderbox around much of the country and that has, through various forms of ignition, has seen these fires run for long periods of time, particularly when there is no dousing rain that has normally followed now the longer-term impacts of what this means for fire seasons was what was looked at going into this season. There were many concerns that this type of fire season would have occurred last year. I remember those briefings very, very vividly and thankfully we were spared that last year but it has certainly hit us this year and that is the planning that was being put in place for last year, obviously, was going in place for this year. So an event of this scale, well, you may never know specifically where it may run over the course of the country. You know the various factors that are combining together and part of the review process will need to look at those issues about the length. That is why the payments which I initiated not that many days ago was recognising the longer time of service that we are seeing volunteer firefighters have to engage in and States in New South Wales and Queensland have now triggered those payments. They haven't been triggered in the other States at this point. But that is another factor which I think is assisting the Commissioner in New South Wales in terms of how he is deploying and being able to call up his resources. There is also the issues of fuel loads. That is very clear. That has been a constant source of feedback by those on the ground. Issues in national parks, issues of hazard reduction and how that has worked over a period of time, that needs to be looked at undoubtedly. But the suggestion that there is a single policy, whether it be climate or otherwise, can provide a complete insurance policy on fires in Australia, well, I don't think any Australian has ever understood that was the case in this country.

JOURNALIST: But that’s the question, really - will this be the norm, these sorts of fire seasons? Do you fear that as Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER: The season has been quite extraordinary in terms of the very lengthy drought that has preceded it. Now, let’s hope in the future and let’s certainly hope as we go through this year that we will see that drought end. That will, hopefully, ensure that we’ve got a different situation as we confront next year's fire season. But other issues of how you manage hazard reduction and things of that nature are important, because as you say, the impact more broadly of climate change and drought and these issues can have a pronounced effect, does have a pronounced effect on the length of the fire season. So that, equally, then has a need to address issues around hazard reduction in national parks, dealing with land-clearing laws, zoning laws and planning laws around people's properties and where they can be built in countries like Australia, up and down our coast. That being the case with the climatic effects of what we are seeing, then there have been many restrictions put around those issues that now, I think, would have to be reviewed on the basis of the impact of the broader climatic effect we are seeing in this country.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, a lot of those things you have mentioned are actually state issues, issues that the Federal Government would not normally intervene in. What about… what can you tell Australians about what your Government is doing to mitigate or to plan for the long-term economic and environmental impacts of climate change over the generation as our children grow up?

PRIME MINISTER: Meet and beat our international commitments to reduce our emissions because that is what a responsible country does...

JOURNALIST: Is that the only planning that the Federal Government is doing? Just the climate policy settings as they are?

PRIME MINISTER: Our climate policy settings are to meet and beat our emissions reduction targets. Emissions reduction under our Government is 50 million tonnes on average a year less than it was under the previous government and we want to see the emissions reductions continue in this country and we want to continue to better the achievements we have already made, with measures that achieve that. That is why our policies are constantly being improved and the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction has already outlined that. He has already flagged that additional measures, where they can be put in place will be put in place. Let me be clear to the Australian people - our emissions reductions policies will both protect our environment and seek to reduce the risks and hazards that we are seeing today and at the same time, it will seek to ensure sure the viability of people's jobs and their livelihoods all around the country. What we will do is ensure that our policies remain sensible, that they don't move towards either extreme and stay focused on what Australians need for a vibrant and viable economy, as well as a vibrant and sustainable environment. Getting the balance right is what Australia, I think, has always been able to achieve. But right now the focus, as I said at the outset, is to fight these fires and to get people to safety. That is what we are focused on, that is what state agencies are focused on, that is what the Commonwealth is doing through Defence Forces and many of our other agencies to lend everything that can be done to get that operational response in place, to get help to where it is needed, to get people to places of safety and sustain the firefighting effort. Thank you very much.