PRIME MINISTER: Good afternoon everyone, I’m joined by the Minister for Defence and the Chief of Defence Force, and the Head of Emergency Management Australia.
This is a very difficult day for Australia and I want to start by extending my sincere condolences and sympathies once again to all of those Australians and families who've lost loved ones during the course of these devastating bushfires. 23 confirmed deaths to date and we are facing another extremely difficult next 24 hours. This is taking a very heavy toll with more than 1,500 homes already lost throughout the course of this fire season, which has been running since September of this year. From those first fires that I visited up in Canungra all those months ago, through to most recently now. So our condolences to those who continue to suffer and many of those who are left in absolutely disastrous situations as we speak.
I also want to acknowledge the outstanding work that is being done by all of those who've been turning out and responding to these natural disasters, not just in the states currently impacted most dreadfully, in New South Wales and Victoria today, but also up in Queensland, across in Western Australia, down in Tasmania, even today South Australia. This has been touching the entire country.
The responses that have been led by our states has been extraordinary and I want to commend all of the state Premiers for their very close engagement with the Commonwealth and particularly the Premiers I want to thank for the close liaison they've had with me personally as we've been addressing the many issues that they are attending to as they lead those responses in each of their respective states. I also want to thank the various fire commissioners who have been working closely together, and particularly working closely with Rob Cameron from the EMA, coordinating the responses across all the states and all the territories. They have been providing a constant stream of advice, not just now during the course of these fires but, as they do each and every day, 365 days a year, which is their job, to continually provide that advice, both on preparations and planning and, of course, now when we're in the very heat of the fire season itself.
A State of Disaster was declared and commenced yesterday in Victoria and as well there being a state of emergency declared in New South Wales with very serious fires in South Australia with confirmed loss of life there just this morning and as well as in Tasmania, there being serious fires there, fires have also been in WA and, of course, in Queensland where they continue to burn. In recent times, and particularly over the course of the balance of this week, we have seen this disaster escalate to an entirely new level. This length of season is, of course, in many senses, unprecedented, but the ferocity and the absence of dousing rains that would normally bring a season like this under greater control is nowhere in sight and so that means a much longer season is planned for. When I was in Victoria yesterday, one of the key points that was made to me, that the most difficult part of their season is typically usually ahead of them at this point going through February and so there is still a very long way to go. As a result of the lengthy nature of this season and the longer way to go, and the comprehensive application of these disasters in so many states, we have traditionally always acted on the posture of respond to request, in relation to the Commonwealth's action. That is what we've been doing throughout the course of many months now, whether it's been the work that the Australian Defence Force were doing in Canungra all those months ago through to most recently, the reactions we've had to income support, income loss payments that were made at the request of the New South Wales government and the many other requests for assistance with road clearing or, indeed, the response that was made with the evacuation yesterday afternoon. We have been responding in relation to the requests that have been made by those state and territory governments.
We now must move our posture as a Commonwealth as we’ve agreed at the National Security Committee this morning from a posture of respond to request, to move forward and to integrate with the local response. This has been the very clear message that I have received on the many fire grounds in the many affected communities that I've visited now over some months but I particularly must say over the last couple of weeks. The scale of the fires is stretching resources on the ground and there are clearly communities that need additional help and in response to that, we must move forward first as a Commonwealth, particularly with the work of our Defence Force, and then integrate with the local operations that are in place in those local communities. So today we are making a number of announcements in terms of what we will be doing to move into that move forward posturing.
First of all, just around half an hour ago, the Governor-General signed off on the call-out of the Australian Defence Force Reserve to surge and bring every possible capability to bear by deploying Army Reserve brigades to fire affected communities across Australia. I want to stress that the Australian Defence Force have already been out there as you saw in great measure yesterday in particular through the evacuation work that you have seen through the work of the Choules, but I would say as I've seen in many places, whether it's been on search and rescue, whether it’s been surveying the fire front, providing the planning and coordination information, whether it’s been providing catering and accommodation support, clearing roads, our defence force have been out there for many, many months. And what this means is we will deploying those more on a move forward basis and taking on these additional reserves which are being called out as a result of the decision we've taken and authorised by the Governor-General today.
A two-star emergency ADF national support co-ordinator, Major General Justin Ellwood, will have national authority over the ADF joint taskforces in each of the affected states working in co-operation to support state emergency authorities. We already have two such taskforces established in New South Wales and in Victoria, a third will be stood up for South Australia, but particularly focusing on Kangaroo Island at present, as well as to support what is occurring in Tasmania, and if further are needed then further will be established based on what we believe to be the requirement on a move forward basis in other states.
The priority of this deployment is to assist ensuring the safety of life, to support the evacuation of affected people, particularly in isolated communities and to provide assistance to isolated communities and support state-managed evacuation centres. It is to move in and to move forward, particularly in areas that have been devastated by fire to support the immediate response needs there and the recovery that will also follow. The ADF surge includes the deployment of up to 3,000 designated ADF Reserve forces, and I will ask both MINDEF and the CDF to go into details of where they will be placed.
Secondly, the HMAS Adelaide, the navy's largest amphibious ship has been readied to join the HMAS Choules and the MV Sycamore, in supporting the evacuation of citizens from fire affected areas along our coastline. The HMAS Adelaide will sail from Sydney this afternoon. I initiated that process earlier this week at the same time that we initiated the process with the Choules to do what they did so successfully yesterday. They will sail this afternoon, they will be located offshore from the fire affected areas from tomorrow afternoon and the Adelaide is fully equipped and I should say, down in the border area between New South Wales and Victoria. The Adelaide is fully equipped for disaster relief and humanitarian aid, is able to operate all ADF helicopters, 400 crew including medical staff, as well as 300 tonnes which have been loaded up in recent days of emergency relief supplies. The Government has also ordered relevant ADF airlift and reconnaissance capacity to preposition at the RAAF East Sale base which will remain the central hub for Defence Response in the Southern areas.
From tomorrow an additional three Chinook helicopters from Townsville will be deployed over the coming week to support a range of resupply, evacuation, and transport tasks, across the breadth of the affected areas, an additional C-17 Globemaster, 2 C-130 Hercules and 3 C-27 Spartans will also be prepositioned to East Sale. And for people in short-term evacuation distress, defence force bases from Brisbane to Adelaide will provide temporary transit accommodation and support arrangements.
The third area that was considered by the ADF today and by the NSC this morning was that following a request from the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council which was made at 8:00pm last evening, for 1 additional water bombing aircraft, today we have committed up to $20 million to lease 4 extra planes to fulfil that request and to meet any anticipated future requests. That will include two long range fixed wings DC-10s with 36,000 litres capacity and two medium range fixed wings large air tankers with an 11,000 litre capacity. The Commonwealth will fully fund the leasing costs with operational costs to be shared with state and territories as usual as they seek to use those assets. They asked for 1, we’ve given them 4. The Government has already processed, I would note, some 20,600 claims for assistance this bushfire season, and delivered nearly $25 million in Australian government disaster recovery payment and Disaster Recovery Allowances as well as deployed mobile service centres and extended Centrelink phone hours including opening this weekend. As with the floods and the drought we can and will ensure that communities and businesses have the help they need.
I’ll be making further announcements, the Government will standing up a national recovery agency along the lines of what we already established for drought and for the response to the North Queensland floods and I’ll have more to say about that in the next few days about those arrangements.
Today it is about ensuring that we deal with the urgent crisis that is existing across fire grounds in four states in particular, to ensure that we are giving everything that is needed on the ground without being asked, we will be turning up and we will be integrating particularly through the amazing work of our Defence Force coming under an integrated command which will be based here out at JOC as it has been now for some time for their other operations.
I want to end again by thanking the state Premiers for their close co-operation and their support. I know where their focus is. My focus is in the same place. We are communicating regularly and constantly and the fire chiefs and the other emergency services leaders are doing an outstanding job, but today it's about keeping safe, putting yourself in a position of safety, wherever you can, following the instructions that are being provided to you, being patient and being understanding of the difficult situation that the country finds itself in in responding at this time, given the absolutely comprehensive nature of this fire disaster, and to know that each and every hour of each and every day governments of both state and federal levels as well as the local level are working hand in hand to ensure we can deliver the support and the resource that that is needed to alleviate your very difficult situation. I will ask MINDEF to make some comments, and also the CDF.
SENATOR THE HON. LINDA REYNOLDS, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Prime Minister, thank you very much.
I would like to begin also by extending my condolences to all of those that have been impacted by these catastrophic fires. For those who have lost loved ones, for those who lost their livelihood, their homes and their pets, I extend my condolences. I also want to add my thanks and my admiration to the amazing men and women of the bushfire services and also all other emergency services who are providing enormous service and sacrifice to our nation.
I also want to thank in particular our brilliant ADF for the work that they've been doing for the past two months. Over 2,000 regular and reserve members have been out across Australia supporting a wide variety of activities. We've had men and women from the army, air force and navy. They've been doing everything from damage assessment to fire surveillance and mapping, helicopter support, providing base support, catering, logistics, transport, accommodation, and a wide variety of support. So for that, I'm very grateful and I thank them for their efforts.
Three joint taskforces are now operating in New South Wales, Victoria, as well as now in South Australia and Tasmania as of today to provide command and control of ADF assets in those areas in this difficult time. As the Prime Minister said, they will be led by Two Star Major General, Major General Jake Ellwood who will be located at JOC in Bungendore with all the appropriate authorities.
So what does this mean for the ADF? It means that as we ramp up further in support, our personnel and our military assets can be deployed in a timely manner, and also as the Prime Minister has said in a very forward-leaning arrangement with state and territories. But it also allows the ADF to remain agile and as events unfold, particularly as we see how events today and into the next few days occur, we can respond as quickly and agilely as possible. Also to support evacuees leaving fire zones, Defence is providing temporary accommodation at bases as the Prime Minister said, between Brisbane and Adelaide. That will continue.
The most significant announcement today is the call-out of the army reserves. At the Prime Minister's request early this morning, I signed an instrument requesting the Governor-General call out designated army reserve forces. This includes the 4th Brigade from Victoria, the 5th Brigade from New South Wales and now the 9th Brigade from both South Australia and Tasmania. As well as reserve logistic elements from 17 Brigade which is headquartered in New South Wales. Can I say the Government has not taken this decision lightly. In fact, it is the first time that reserves have been called out in this way in living memory and, in fact, I believe for the first time in our nation's history. In November last year, I requested that the Governor-General authorise a much smaller call-out of 20 reserve personnel for service in Queensland and this was undertaken as a validation exercise in the event that we would need a much larger call-out in this bushfire season, which sadly now has come to pass. So with the Governor-General's concurrence in the last hour, the compulsory call-out will give the CDF the authority to direct reservists to perform continual full-time service, to provide civil aid, humanitarian, medical, civil emergency and also disaster assistance. This will be enhanced with specialist ADF personnel with wide ranging skills, including engineering, medical, logistics and also transport support.
So, building up over time, from the next few days and weeks, as required, up to 3,000 reservists will increase Defence's foot-print and they will reach out to all fire affected areas in coming days. The CDF's four key priorities for reservists under this call-out, are firstly, to provide isolated communities with life-saving supplies for immediate relief. Secondly, to provide evacuation to vulnerable people in isolated communities. Thirdly, assisting with assessment and reopening of vital roads and fourthly, to assist fire services with preparation of fire breaks away from the fire fronts themselves. As I have previously said, at this stage we do have sufficient personnel between full-time and reservists who have been called for that are currently deployed. I've got to say as a reservist myself, our nation's proud history of service, reservists have always performed a critical part in these call-outs for national disasters here in Australia and overseas but it has always been on a voluntary or called-for basis.
From today, reservists who are called out be will be placed on compulsory continuous full-time service for the duration of the call-out order. Which will remain in place until it is no longer needed. This means they will be supported in the same way as their permanent force colleagues and their civilian employment or their day jobs will be protected under legislation. Many of our ADF reserves are already engaged in responding to these fires in many different ways. I also need to make it very clear, particularly to the reservists out there today, who are looking at this action – is that for those reservists who are already engaged in the current emergency response, will be exempt from this call-out. So that includes reservists who are already providing service in voluntary fire services state fire and rescue, state and Federal Police, ambulance, and emergency repair of power and communication company support. Also, ancillary support to the Red Cross. Also any reservists who find themselves, their family or property under threat from fires, of course, will also be exempt from this call-out.
Finally, on the call-out, any business that employs reservists, subject to the call-out orders are eligible for financial remuneration under the employer support payment scheme if specific conditions are met. For those who have any questions on this today, there is a number that you can call. It is 1800 DEFENCE.
So in conclusion - to the families of our defence force personnel as well as all of those emergency services men and women fighting these fires, I thank you all very much for your service and also for those of you in the communities who are supporting our ADF men and women out in the community. Particularly for families, your support for your loved ones in uniform makes their service possible. But I’d also like to thank the Prime Minister for his incredible leadership during this difficult time for our country and also to Minister Littleproud. This has been a whole-of-government effort from the very start. The co-operation at all levels of government, both federally and with state, has been outstanding. We are not out of this yet. But I want to assure all of you that this is what the ADF does best - they get on with the job and they do it really well. All Australians can be assured that the ADF is doing all it can to support our communities in this time of need and I’d end on this point, to say I'm incredibly proud to be the Minister of our ADF and see and know what they're doing. There's probably no prouder Minister for Defence anywhere in the world today. Thank you.
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Linda. Angus? Would you like to add further comments?
General Angus J. Campbell, AO, DSC, Chief of the Defence Force: Prime Minister and Minister, I thank you very much for both of your comments. Could I echo the acknowledgement, the respect and admiration that I and the ADF and colleagues in the Commonwealth feel for the efforts of emergency services, fire services and the leadership of states and territories throughout this bushfire crisis.
The announcements today see a lift in our naval on-water presence with HMAS Adelaide joining Choules and Sycamore, an increase in the number of aircraft and helicopters operating in affected areas involving Chinook helicopters, multirole helicopters, light liaison helicopters, as well as P-8 surveillance aircraft, C-17, C-130 and C-27-J transport and lift aircraft. Importantly, the approach of welcoming and opening for temporary transit and support, our bases from Brisbane through to Adelaide is to assist those who have evacuating affected areas to return to home and loved ones where they can.
The Minister and the Prime Minister have offered in some detail the call-out orders that have been issued. Major General Ellwood will command three joint taskforces and others if they are required centred on New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia-Tasmania. His role through those joint taskforces will be to coordinate, engage and work in complement to the direction and intent of states and territory authorities and to utilise the enhanced capabilities of our call-out reserve elements and those specialist elements of the permanent force that will be put together and working in integrated self-contained and self-sustaining teams able to move into areas in coordination with state authorities to assist those isolated communities, to assist persons seeking to evacuate, to support state established evacuation centres and to work with fire agencies, with regard to the cutting of fire breaks or the clearing of roads and any other activity that might assist those isolated communities in terms of resilience, support, care to our people and I emphasise - it's our people. It's your Defence Force and we are here to serve you. And it's an incredible privilege to find myself leading that Defence Force at this time and we are moving out and moving forward to work with state and territory colleagues to do everything we possibly can to assist Australia. Thank you.
PRIME MINISTER: Thanks you Angus. And today's decision puts more boots on the ground, puts more planes in the sky, puts more ships at sea, and puts more trucks to roll in to support affected communities. Today I will also note that the national security committee also considered the events that have taken place very recently in Iraq and I can deal with those matters also by question if you’d like. Let's move to questions.
JOURNALIST: Just in relation to those water bombers, the RFS Chief in New South Wales Shane Fitzsimmons has said today that the Federal Government rejected the business case a couple of years ago for more of those water bombers. Was that a mistake and how quickly will they be able to actually be tackling the fires in Australia if you are leasing them?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, two points - first of all, in response to that business case, the Government responded with two separate decisions of $11 million which brought it up to the same level of capacity as was sought by that business case. There was a first decision which I announced just over a year ago and Linda was the Emergency Management Minister at the time and more recently just before this Christmas, there was a second supplementary investment of $11 million which supported the same business case proposition. That ongoing support will be there at that level in the Budget and going forward. So that business case was addressed through a different method,
JOURNALIST: Was is a mistake not to actually just get the planes though?
PRIME MINISTER: Well what happened was we put the resources in to provide the support for those assets and we have over 147 in fact, and we've just added an additional set of four very large assets to that mix. So we have provided those resources, we will continue to provide those resources. I note that last night at 8:00pm we were asked for 1 by those same agencies and we have provided 4. And so whenever asked, we are responding. But as I said now, we are moving past responding, we're not waiting to be asked, we're moving forward and integrating with what is happening on the round.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister where are the water bombers actually coming from and which world leaders have you called to ask for water bombing assistance?
PRIME MINISTER: These arrangements are done through the arrangement of NAFC. I can ask Rob to comment further on this, but what we need are water bombers that meet the technical and specific requirements of the deployment in Australia. It's not a matter of just trying to hustle up some planes from somewhere around the world. What you need is the precise asset to deal with the situation in Australia. And NAFC is an organisation we work through to source and locate the specific aircraft that we need and meet those payments. Now, two of those will be available within seven days and the other will be available within 14 days is my advice. We received the request at 8:00pm last night and we have actioned it today.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, as of 1.00pm today, there are three emergency warnings, 16 watch and acts in NSW alone, resources are stretched, as you acknowledged - how concerned are you about what we're likely to see at the end of the day?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, over the last many months and particularly in recent weeks, I have had the opportunity to engage directly with people and understand their fear, their concern, their frustration, their anxiety and their anger. When I listen to that carefully, and I understand it, and feel it with them, the response that is required is what I have announced today. The response that is required is to get the boots on the ground, to get the planes in the air, to get the ships out to sea, to ensure the trucks are ready to roll in with the supplies, not just in advance or to support or to try to make contact with these isolated communities which has involved everything from dropping in supplies, I mean out at Mallacoota we've been delivering 12,000 litres of fuel every day. Over 1,000 people were evacuated yesterday, getting contact into those very remote areas. It's also been about what happens after. What I saw particularly last week is what happens after the fire has gone through and how isolated and alone people feel. I experienced that first hand. That has been a key factor in what has led to today's decision.
JOURNALIST: …I want to confirm that you will stay in Australia for the rest of the month?
PRIME MINISTER: Yes, I should have mentioned also, it's already been reported, but I was able to speak to the Prime Minister of India last night. I made it I think pretty clear yesterday that my intention about the upcoming visit to India and Japan but of course the first people to hear about that should be those who had invited us to those meetings. That's why I took the time to be able to make contact directly with the Japanese ambassador last night and I spoke directly to Prime Minister Modi. Both, and Prime Minister Abe was able to relay it to me through his ambassador, their sincerest wishes and deep sympathies to Australia, as did Prime Minister Modi directly. These events they're very aware of and they completely understand. I should stress that both of those scheduled meetings are postponed and we will be moving quickly to identify another opportunity, preferably earlier this year, where our arrangements can align and we look forward to that. There was a lot of work we were looking forward to doing at those meetings, both of those meetings. We were at an advanced stage when it came to our Defence, intelligence and security arrangements with both India and Japan and we were looking to progress those as well as well as broader trade discussions but they both understand that right now the ongoing nature of these crises and also the fact that we will move as the fires roll on, there is a recovery then to be initiated. And the Commonwealth agencies will also play a very significant and often lead role when it comes to things like income support, and disaster relief, and rebuilding businesses and rebuilding infrastructure, which we will do also in concert with the states. I will have more to say about that in the next few days. That will be a very significant focus of my efforts, particularly over the course of this month but also continuing to go out and listen to those who are on the ground and provide what other comfort we can through making those visits.
JOURNALIST: Can we clarify the numbers involved in this extraordinary call-out of reserves. Minister Reynolds I think you said up to 3,000, then you outlined exemptions, does that mean it's 3,000 less those who are exempt or is there a bigger catchment group of 4,000, 5,000, from which you can and will draw?
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Ultimately it will be as many as is required. We are starting the logistics of the call-out today. The processes to contact and identify people and get them enlisted. So that they come under the continuous full-time service requirements. It won't be, we won't be calling out entire brigades. What we will be doing is that the brigades are now already standing up and the taskforces, but we will go through and identify those people that we need, people that have got the trades and skills we need for tasks to undertake. So we've said we've estimated up to about 3,000, but again, it might be less, it depends on what's actually required as we go forward. Because at the moment this is open-ended. So we haven't got an end date for this. So the numbers will ebb and flow. But ultimately we will be there as long as we are needed, until communities are able to sustain a lot of the local logistics themselves through local businesses in particular.
PRIME MINISTER: If we need to call out more, we will. I think that is important. Going across all the announcements we have made today, as you heard, the Minister for Defence had already effectively drilled this exercise earlier to ensure that we were in a position to make this very decision. The decisions that were made in relation to the deployment of the Choules and Sycamore and indeed the Adelaide had been made earlier this week. The loading up of stores and the dealing with getting the Adelaide ready for deployment had been happening now for some days and equally the work we've been able to do to move on the aerial, the water bombers, as I indicated yesterday at the press conference, this is something that Emergency Management Australia working together with the states and territories have been prepositioning for, which means, enables us to move as quickly as we are.
JOURNALIST: Have you spoke on the states about this and have any expressed reservation about this, about you potentially tripping over each other, which is what you said at your press conference?
PRIME MINISTER: Yeah I spoke this morning particularly to those states directly affected, and I spoke to Premier Andrews and Premier Berejiklian and Premier Marshall and Premier Hodgman, all of whom welcomed the initiative. As I made clear and as both Linda and the CDF has said, move forward and integrate. That is the order, that is the direction. Which means to work under the control and command and direction of those local authorities. Now, it was about two weeks ago or thereabouts, after I was out in Ilford and out in Mudgee, what became clear to me at that point and what was a very helpful outcome of that visit and the Defence Minister and I spoke afterwards is that we needed to get Defence liaison officers not just into the headquarters, in Brisbane and in Sydney and in Melbourne, we needed them actually in the incident response centre, whether it was in Bairnsdale, or whether it was in Mudgee or whether it was in Wilberforce or any of these other places, to ensure that we had eyes on the need at a local level and this will be one of the key mechanisms through which Defence can task the brigades that have been called out. We will know what is coming through by our direct liaison in those incident response centres. I was in Bega the other day and speaking to our Defence people there. They know what is happening on the ground. They can relay that up in parallel to the joint taskforce commanders and indeed the two-star and that will mean we will know to move forward and how best to integrate.
JOURNALIST: The RFS Commissioner's business plan that you mentioned before, you have pointed to the one-off funding payments, he said it is hard to plan for the long-term without a dedicated ongoing funding boost, are you going to commit to that?
PRIME MINISTER: Well I just did.
JOURNALIST: So as ongoing [inaudible] money every year or what does that mean?
PRIME MINISTER: As Prime Minister, when I became Prime Minister, this is one of the early decisions I made, was to put that $11 million in, in that year, in response to this need. That has been repeated this year. And as I indicated earlier that will be going into this year's Budget on an ongoing basis.
JOURNALIST: Just in relation to any Commonwealth public health warnings in relation to the smoke. The first instance is fires and people that are injured but there are babies being born in smoke-filled birthing suites, there are parents that are worried about long-term warnings for cancer, pregnant women giving birth to premature babies. What is your advice to families and parents in relation to the long-term health effects of this smoke? Has the National Security Committee received any briefing on this? Are you going to commission any research or do you have any advice to families in relation to that smoke?
PRIME MINISTER: There is an existing process between the States and Territories, and the Health Minister has been directly involved in this as well, which is examining that if the response capability and these health effects. And the advice we have received is that the response that is available to support those health needs at present is working well and there is no requirement for additional support whether it be through hospitals or things of that nature. My advice to those parents – and I completely agree with you about their sense of anxiety about that, and that would also go to elderly people, one of the key actions that is being taken in a lot of the areas, in leave zones, and I saw it yesterday, I saw it down in the South Coast earlier in the week, is moving people out of the affected areas so they can get to places where it is a little less smokey, the haze will come and it will go, as Canberra residents know, as well as Sydney residents know, and everyone else knows depending on which way the wind is blowing but the local health response, your local health providers, your local GP, your local medical services are the ones best placed to advise you. The advice we have received is that capability is very strong and is holding up well.
JOURNALIST: Just in relation to that anger on the ground, I know you have dealt with this issue to some extent but Zoey Salucci-McDermott in Cobargo says you turned your back on her. We've all seen the video. I've watched it, you pat her on the arm and turn around within three seconds. You said twice, both at a press conference yesterday and on A Current Affair, that you talked to this woman. She said you didn't.
PRIME MINISTER: What she spoke to me about was the need for more local fire brigade support. That's what she raised with me when I was talking to her and I went on to meet a number of other people,
JOURNALIST: Why did you walk away from her, do you regret that?
PRIME MINISTER: There were a number of other people there and other people wanting to talk with me as well which is what I went and did. She raised her point with me. I understand her anger. As I said before, Sam, my response to that - I mean I was the first senior leader to go into Cobargo and I understand the first person who is going to walk into that town was going to feel the anger and the fury and the frustration and the loss and the fear that was evident in that community. Now in that community, as others who I met with on that day have said, there was a mixed response. Some were incredibly pleased. Some I embraced, some others didn't wish to, some wanted to shake hands, some didn’t.
JOURNALIST: So are getting your office to follow up with her?
PRIME MINISTER: We will be responding to the need in Cobargo. Her need as she outlined to me on that day was to ensure there was greater RFS support and I have already relayed that on to the RFS. That was the key issue she raised with me. Others I offered to talk to, they didn't want to talk to me and they had some other advice they gave to me - colourfully. I understand that too. I was the first leader to walk into that town. As a result, I anticipated some would feel that way. But I was prepared to go and Jenny and I were prepared to listen and were prepared to offer what comfort we could but the key,
JOURNALIST: And your wife did hug that fireman in Cobargo as well, who was very grateful for that. But as a leader, after that experience and the experience of the firie in the Quaama shed that didn't want to talk to you because he lost his house, what have you learnt as a leader from these last couple of days?
PRIME MINISTER: In all of these incidents, Sam, as you would know because you've been covering these things for a long time, people in these situations have a mix of emotions. These arms have given a lot of hugs in the last three months, in fact they’ve given a lot of hugs over almost the last year and a half in which I have been Prime Minister. Whether it has been comforting the victims of the drought in north Queensland or elderly residents up in Taree. On some occasions people are looking for that. On other occasions they frankly just want to keep their distance. With the brigade captain at Cobargo, he was exhausted. I could see he was exhausted and he just wanted to get back to the shed and have a rest. I was keen for him to have that. There is a lot of criticism and commentary that comes on these things by a capture of a small moment and what you simply seek to do in these circumstances, and you know for Jenny, it's amazing to have her with me when I do this, you try and respect people's space but you know it is a very emotional situation and you have just got to try to manage it as best you can. What I must do is what I'm doing today. The best response I can provide to people who are feeling angry and people who are feeling isolated, for people who are fearful and afraid is to do what I'm doing today.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister do you concede that people aren't just angry about your leadership over these bushfires, they're also angry at what they perceive is a lack of action on climate change by your government? Yesterday you did say you would pursue policies leading up to 2030 that would equate to taking real action on climate change. What does that mean and are you going to be announcing new policies this year?
PRIME MINISTER: We will continue to announce policies in this area as I said at the last election and we will continue to take action on climate change. There is no disagreement at a political level in this country about the need to take action on climate change between the government and Opposition. There is no disagreement about that at all. That was very made very clear at the last election. There is a need, in my view, in my government's view, to pursue a responsible and balanced policy in this area and that is exactly what we are doing. But I've got to tell you, as I’ve toured fire grounds and as I've sat with the victims of these fires, the most constant issue that has been raised with me has been the issue of managing fuel loads in national parks. That has been, particularly where I was in Gippsland, the most common issue raised with me. You raise an important point and a right point about our changing environment and our changing climate. What that means is events such as we've been seeing - and it is the culmination of both the savage drought together with many other impacts, not least being the impacts of arson, and the number of arsonists we have seen through this fire season - is understanding all of those and ensuring that we've got regulations and policies in place that enable us to deal with these longer seasons that don't often come, sometimes with dousing rains. That means you’ve got to deal with hazard management in national parks. As is often the case, those who on one hand say they are seeking those actions on climate change, which we're delivering, can on the same hand, also be those who don't share the same urgency of dealing with hazard reduction. These are difficult issues to balance and resolve and this, of course, will be one of the things that we will consider when Premiers come together after they've been dealing with the fires and that's where they want to be at the moment. I have spoken to Premiers about this. They don't want to be coming to meetings, they want to be dealing with the fires, which is exactly where they are and they'll continue to do that. It is one of many issues but I’ve got to tell you that the issue that is needed today is boots on the ground, planes in the air, ships at sea and trucks rolling into communities that have been impacted. Thank you all very much.
JOURNALIST: Just one on Iraq and Iran,
PRIME MINISTER: Iraq? Ok,
JOURNALIST: Just one on Iraq, the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, you said the National Security Committee discussed it. What did they discuss? Did the US give advance notice and where does it leave the force protection for Australia's maritime security construct element?
PRIME MINISTER: Let me deal with a couple of things on this. I obviously won't go into the sensitive details of things that are discussed in the National Security Committee, and you wouldn't expect me to. But I will say that what we are urging and are in constant contact with our partners is exercising restraint and pursuing de-escalation when it comes to these issues. Our goal remains a united and stable Iraq, which is what also the Canadian government have said and we echo the sentiments that they have expressed. We are very mindful and have spent a lot of effort focusing on those Australians who find themselves in the Middle East at this point and particularly in Iraq and also in diplomatic posts in the region and assuring ourselves of the protections that are in place and support that is there for those individuals and we are monitoring that situation incredibly closely. I would also say that we have been aware of the concerns that the United States have had in relation to some practices by the Iranians for some time and I will leave it to them to talk to what their actions are. But we've been aware of their strong views about those things for many years and I think that speaks for itself. But what we are pursuing is a restraint and a de-escalation of the situation and staying in constant contact with our partners over this issue as well as ensuring the protection of those Australians who find themselves in that region. You mentioned the construct, the Toowoomba hasn't yet left but it will be making its way firstly to Mumbai, I understand, and it will be steaming towards there in a few days' time. We will continue to monitor that situation very closely.
JOURNALIST: There are reports in the UK though that thousands of British troops are there and they weren't told, they weren't given any warning of this action. Was Australia given any warning?
PRIME MINISTER: The United States took this action based on their own information and they took that action without discussing it with partners.
MINISTER REYNOLDS: Can I also just add in relation to force protection, for all of our 2,000 deployed personnel, force protection is always under constant reassessment and that is particularly so in the Middle East. We have personnel in Iraq in three separate locations and the CDF and his team are now doing a reassessment but we are making sure that they are as safe as we can make them.
PRIME MINISTER: And there is contact that is occurring, as I said before. The Defence Minister will speak to her counterpart this afternoon. The Foreign Minister has already spoken to the counterpart in the United States. So there is a constant engagement there and I will be undertaking whatever engagements I need to do at that level as well.
JOURNALIST: Are there any concerns for Australians in the Middle East that you have?
PRIME MINISTER: Well it's a dangerous area, it always has been. I was there with the CDF just over a year ago. The Governor-General was only just recently there, just before Christmas. It is a very dangerous area. We have people at Taji, we have people there at Baghdad airport, we have people in the headquarters there, in fact 280 Defence Force personnel who are there as we speak and let's not forget also the diplomatic personnel that are in these places. Our Embassy there in Baghdad has moved to a very heightened sense of security and is effectively in lockdown and that is the appropriate response I think given the security situation.
JOURNALIST: Has there also been any advice as to whether fuel here could sky rocket as a consequence of what happened?
PRIME MINISTER: Look no, there has been no advice on those things at present. I should also stress, given you’ve raised that issue, we will also be in contact today with AEMO given the risks to the Snowy Hydro assets and generation and capability and transmission lines there which have a fairly significant supply to especially Victoria. That's something that have been managed through AEMO. Our advice currently on that, is that obviously could have a big impact on electricity supplies but, in isolation of themselves, that can be managed but, obviously, given the extreme weather conditions we have at the moment, the loss of that transmission capability, combined with other high demands, could obviously put a very serious strain on the system. So the Energy Minister will be liaising closely with AEMO on those issues as well.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister there are already reports off the back of this press conference that one of the reasons you have decided to take control of this situation is you were frustrated that New South Wales was not accepting offers of assistance. Sharri Markson has been reporting that, has there been any issues or problems with you offering assistance and New South Wales offering a rosier position on the ground than actually was the case?
PRIME MINISTER: What we've been doing is we’ve been working closely with New South Wales. As I said up until now, we've been working to a respond to request posture and we believe, because of the escalation of the scale of what is occurring across now specifically - most significantly four states, that is really going to stretch resources now. I saw that on the ground when I visited communities, that it really does now require us to cut down the response time, for us to move first and move in and integrate under that local command to ensure that these gaps are closed. This is in no way any criticism of any state agency. As I started this press conference I complimented the states, I compliment Premier Berejiklian, I complement Shane Fitzsimmons who has been as always an outstanding leader. He is a fire chief that I think, together with other chiefs, who have done an amazing job both in preparing for this incredibly serious event and leading that response throughout this event.
MINISTER REYNOLDS: That's also one of the reasons why we have pushed out the liaison officers so that we have made it very clear through Rob Cameron’s organisation the EMA, that the states actually know what they can ask, because this is an unprecedented level of support. So part of it has been also for us to communicate early what we can do and for the states then to be in a position to feel comfortable to ask us.
PRIME MINISTER: So for all Australians today, stay safe, listen to the instructions, stay patient, be kind and support each other as I know Australians will. In crises and disasters like this, I always see the best of Australians and the best of Australians will be on display, particularly those very much in the face of that ferocious fire front. I want to thank all of those for everything they're doing today, every child they comfort, every service they render, in ensuring that we get through today and that we get into the rebuilding phase. I want to assure Australians about this: we will rebuild. At a Commonwealth level, we will be playing a significant role, as we have in response to previous disasters, to ensure we meet and beat this challenge as Australians always have. Thank you very much.