Press Conference - Australian Parliament House

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05 Jan 2020
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: … While the weather conditions have improved as you would have heard, as reported from New South Wales and Victoria, there are still many fires that are raging and there's a very significant firefighting effort which is continuing. The better conditions today will obviously assist, but it's important to stress, as I've been advised, that the nature of those fires is still very strong and it will take some time and that will require a considerable amount of effort and we absolutely understand that is where the primary focus is, particularly of the fire commissioners as they are addressing that very urgent task.

Today I wanted to provide you with an update on the work of the ADF, both yesterday and what their focus is today and I'm joined by the Minister for Defence and I’m also joined by Minister Littleproud and later today, the Minister for Defence will be joined by members of the Australian Defence Force to commence what will be a regular operational briefing conducted at Russell by those who are operationally responsible for those matters, of course, which you will be invited to attend and they can provide a lot more of the detail than I'll be providing here today, because it's appropriate for that to be done on that basis and you can direct any quite specific questions to them, later today I will be joining the Premier of New South Wales and the RFS Commissioner Fitzsimmons, in New South Wales to look at that particular effort that is being undertaken by the Australian Defence Force. What I can tell you is that the focus of the ADF today is to be making assessments of the need, and to work with the various state agencies as to how best they can now move forward and meet those needs in the critical areas. In the last 24 hours, in Victoria, Navy support that has of course included Navy ships evacuating some 1,100 isolated persons from Mallacoota and the MV Sycamore arrived in Western Port this morning on the Mornington Peninsula with 61 evacuees and pets. The HMAS Choules arrived in Western Port, that was on Saturday, I should say, some 1100 evacuees. As we said yesterday, that is in addition to what can normally be taken on board that vessel. Those 2 vessels are returning to Mallacoota and I understand that the Sycamore is already there, the Choules has been re- provisioned and will be making its way there also. Blackhawk helicopter support has been provided and based out of RAAF base East Sale and has been involved in transporting firefighters from Bairnsdale to Mallacoota and transporting the injured and vulnerable from Mallacoota to East Sale to receive medical treatment by emergency services. Three Chinook helicopters are operating also from the RAAF base at East Sale to provide support to those firefighting operations. These were already involved in evacuating people from remote townships in eastern Victoria and ADF helicopters evacuated 42 people from Omeo last night, and you would have seen some of the footage of that. Another three Chinooks are preparing to deploy south from Townsville and the first of those will depart today. Mobility operations, the JTF, the joint task force, is providing engineering personnel and equipment to support state capabilities, to clear and reopen roads. Now that includes moving forward some heavy engineering equipment up to East Sale so they can be operating in those parts of East Gippsland. I should stress that when they are seeking to clear those roads, it isn't just a matter of moving the debris, as I'm sure you are probably aware, off the road themselves, and I see Phil here and he has probably experienced that first hand over the last couple of days, it is also being aware of the assessment of falling trees that are adjacent to the roads and there needs to be a technical assessment made of those things as well. So I just make that point, just because you can see the road clear, and it may still be closed, there are very serious reasons why people will be taking great care to ensure those roads are safe before people can move through them. ADF will also be engaged with damage assessments, as they've been doing for some time now. As you heard from both Victoria and New South Wales this morning, we won't know the full impact of the devastating fires last night until there's been an opportunity for those teams and we always prepare ourselves for difficult information once those assessment teams start to move through the areas as they get access to them. As you were reporting yourselves last night, it was difficult to get eyes on many parts of the fire because of the heavy smoke, which we can physically see outside of this building today, and in those parts was even more extreme, and so that was very difficult last night to see where they were going but they did an extraordinary job and their predictive technology proved to be very accurate. What we need to note is that now those assessment teams go through, they will be able to inspect what damage has been incurred in those places and then that will assist in terms of the support that will now be needed in those communities.

Air traffic controllers are also providing services at Bairnsdale Airport and a P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft is conducting reconnaissance from Sale to Mallacoota to assess the engineering requirement. The HMAS Adelaide has on board heavy engineering equipment which can be used to support road clearing from the other side, where you can get equipment in from the land side, there is the potential for that to be done on the sea side through landing that engineering equipment and those, of course, assessments will be made about the most appropriate way to do that, and that will be done under the direction of the State agencies.

In New South Wales, the engineering support, there are crews from our engineering operations as well as our logistics operations going into a number of areas, working closely with the New South Wales government to assess what capabilities and needs will be needed in those areas. That will also include the deployment where needed of medical teams, and these can be quite small medical teams which can deal with a first sort of level of assistance to people in these areas. The HMAS Adelaide, which is down around about where Eden is, presently means there is a potential to supply from that point, not just medical support but also other essentials that may be necessary in those areas, but again this will be done in close coordination with the state authorities as we assess that need. There are 400 personnel on the Adelaide, and there is 300 tons of relief supplies on the Adelaide, and it is in position, just as the Choules will be soon, back on the south-eastern coast, and the other vessels are already there. In terms of helicopter support, Army and Navy are providing maximum capacity operations through the combination of the Taipan, Seahawks and the EC-135 helicopters for fire mapping, surveillance and search-and-rescue support operations supporting New South Wales fire service throughout the Hunter, greater Sydney, Illawarra and southern regions.

In terms of going forward, fire trail clearance is already- will be undertaken from the 6 January to the 10 January out in Mudgee. In terms of transport and logistics and expansion of the ground transport and logistics tasks is already supported in five new locations, from Tamworth, Mudgee, Nowra, Maitland, and Queanbeyan. In recovery operations, the ADF is providing personnel and equipment to undertake initial recovery tasks as identified and these tasks will be in Tamworth, Wollondilly, Nowra, Mudgee, Maitland, and Wingecarribee and they will commence from the 6th [January]. There’s special logistics, as I mentioned, moving into areas to make those assessments about what is needed, and the transport of firefighters will continue, as has been happening for some time and the ADF is currently engaging with the New Zealand Defence Force and the Singapore Armed Forces to identify options for the kind offers of military support and they have generously put forward, and the Papua New Guinea government has also made similar offers through the Prime Minister to me directly, which has been passed on to the ADF for them to progress.

Before I pass on to the Minister for Defence, I referred yesterday that the- to the fact that the government will be standing up a recovery agency to support the recovery effort. The National Bushfire Recovery Agency was considered yesterday at the National Security Committee and it will be stood up and it will be led by the former AFP Commissioner, Andrew Colvin, who has accepted that role, and he will be there today and it will be established within PM&C and it will be modelling its operations very closely on the successful response that was provided to the North Queensland floods, where we stood up the agency in that situation, which was led by Shane Stone. That organisation worked extremely closely and extremely well with the Queensland government. That agency will be drawing on a series of support measures, they will be particularly in the area of income supports, and I will have more to say about that tomorrow after Cabinet considers further issues on this, but in those floods and also in the drought response that has been going now for some time, there have been a range of payments that have been made to support small businesses. There have been payments made to support councils with the re-establishing of critical infrastructure and in some cases, particularly after those floods, and it's the same case in many rural areas, there’s fences to be rebuilt and there is carcasses to be removed of animals who have been caught in these fires, and that is a fairly grizzly operation but that’s an operation that needs to be done and it needs to be done as soon as you possibly can. So that agency, which will report to Minister Littleproud, established within PM&C will work right across government, this will include dealing with things like coordinating mental-health support into particular areas. Those of you who have been in some of these areas will know that this fire and the haze and the fear and the quite extreme conditions would have had a profound impact on the mental health and well-being of people in communities, not just in those areas where people are resident but people who would have been there during the course of these fires. So it's important we are addressing the mental health needs as well as the many other health needs that will need to be addressed. This organisation will be stood up for at least two years and we will be able to talk more about its funding arrangements in the not-too-distant future after Cabinet considers the formal proposals, which are coming forward and have already been considered by the National Security Committee. But it's important that agency work closely, as it will, as similar agencies have in the past, with what the states and territories are doing. I will not be seeking matching funding from states and territories for what the Commonwealth will be providing. I have no doubt they will have a long list of recovery tasks that they will be performing, as we saw in Queensland. Rebuilding of bridges, rebuilding of roads and other critical infrastructure and we will just work hand in glove, as we have in response to previous crises, to ensure the recovery commences and is undertaken in a timely way and getting that support, particularly to small businesses, the number of small business people- I met a fellow down in Bega who just said, Mate, my business is gone. My business is gone. So it's important that they can start to think and have options about how they are going to be able to get through, particularly the next few months and beyond, and then to work closely with the recovery support that's available to then make decisions and plan for their future. That agency will be tasked with ensuring that those forms of income support are in place for those arrangements.

So with those two, the update on our defence operations as well as the announcement of the national bushfire recovery agency, I will hand over to the Minister for Defence and then David to make a few comments.

SENATOR THE HON. LINDA REYNOLDS, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Prime Minister, thank you very much. As the bushfire escalates both in scale and time, so too is the ADF’s response. For the past two months, we have had 2,000 defence personnel from Army, Airforce and Navy on the ground supporting civilian emergency services. As the Prime Minister has said, that has escalated significantly and as we announced yesterday, we have raised that again so my job over the next few days and weeks is to ensure that Defence provides all possible support to initially the humanitarian assistance and also disaster relief activities across all bushfire affected areas.

So the main activities for the next, in moving forward for the next week is as the Prime Minister has said, we are moving more helicopter assets, both from Australia and now looking to source additional helicopter support from allies overseas. We're also making some significant movements into the affected states of army assets, particularly vehicles and engineering support. We are working with the state and federal Health Department to look at what more we can do together in providing medical assistance. Not only on our, the HMS Adelaide and Choules but also deploying medical teams out to remote communities who need that support. We now have three naval vessels on-call as the Prime Minister has said, HMAS Adelaide steamed from Sydney yesterday with 400 personnel, 300 tonnes of relief supplies, a hospital on-board, and so that is now rendezvousing with the Choules and also the Sycamore which have dropped their 1,100 evacuees off at Western Port in Victoria. So in relation to what those naval vessels do next, we are liaising with the Victorian and New South Wales government to ensure we make best use of those naval assets over coming days.

We are also now standing up our three new taskforces. For the first one based out of Victoria, based in 4 brigade in Melbourne, that is going progressing very well, we’ve also stood up a joint task force based out of the 5th Brigade headquarters in Sydney and also now out of 9th brigade in Adelaide and Tasmania. We have activated these brigades through the callout to ensure that we have the maximum possible trained personnel available to support the efforts in their States. We have also activated army reserve elements from 17 brigade, which again is headquartered in New South Wales for their specialist logistics support so as we said yesterday, we are making sure that we have the maximum possible specialist people, aircraft, naval vessels and other equipment out forward, so that we can respond very quickly to emerging requirements at the community level. The implementation of the callout which we initiated yesterday, we requested from the Governor General yesterday, is now under way. If anybody who is watching or listening would like further information about the callout, they can contact 1800-DEFENCE to provide further information. And from tomorrow the major newspapers will also contain information on the callout and its implication for the personnel involved, for their families and also their employers.

In addition to this additional support we continue to provide as the Prime Minister had just gone through in some detail, all of the support that we have been doing for the past two months. Doing surveillance, reconnaissance, flying firefighters, overseas firefighters and Australian firefighters to where they’re needed across the country, we have been doing emergency engineering work, we have been feeding hundreds of firefighters and accommodating them across the country and we are now also making bases available for evacuees who need accommodation and healthcare. So please be assured that the defence forces are doing everything that they possibly can to assist Australians across the country who are in need.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you again Linda, David?

THE HON. DAVID LITTLEPROUD MP, Minister for Water Resources, Drought, Rural Finance, Natural Disaster and Emergency Management: Thanks PM. And I think it is important for Australians to understand while conditions have abated, we are still in a severe fire season and conditions can turn in the coming days and weeks that mean people will still be in harm’s way. So I say to every Australian, you must have your plan, you must enact on that plan, you must listen to those brave men and women, those emergency service personnel when they give you direction. Do it. You owe it to them, you owe it to those brave three Australians who serve the community and their nation and lost their lives serving us. It is not a she'll be right situation yet, and we've got to make sure that we work as a nation and we have those plans enacted and ready to move on them. Obviously announcing Andrew Colvin in this agency is an important step in the recovery and we’ve already committed over $100 million already in direct payments to those that have been impacted but also to the NSW government in the recovery of these fires. This is about making sure that we don't just have a Canberra solution to this. This has to be a localised solution whether it be in Kangaroo Island, whether it be Mallacoota or whether it be in Stanfield. We need to make sure that the recovery is tailored to those the local communities to get them up back up on their feet. This is not just about the building infrastructure, rebuilding the infrastructure, is also the huge numbers of native species that we've lost through these fires. But also this is about rebuilding the lives of those Australians that have been hurt by these devastating fires. We are not just going to build the infrastructure, we are going to rebuild the lives. It's important that as they go through this grief of this disastrous event, they understand that their nation is with them. They share that grief and together we will rebuild their lives and get them back up to where they were before. We are a proud nation, we are a rich nation and we don't intend to leave any stone unturned. We owe it to our fellow Australians who have been impacted by these severe fires.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks you David so to conclude the opening statements, can I again thank all of the State premiers, can I think again all the fire commissioners for the extraordinary work they have been doing in integrating and coordinating with each other and with the Commonwealth, can I thank all those who have been out there in incredibly difficult conditions overnight. Like many of you, I was observing last night those individuals who are gathering together down on the Eden wharf, I can understand the great sense of anxiety as some of them now as they left their homes, at some point they will be able to go back and check on what has happened to their properties but the calmness and the order and the stability in which people responded last night and followed the messages I thought was extraordinary and I think greatly assisted the authorities as they went about the task they had to go through last night. But to all of those, thank you so much for the way you have been responding and the Commonwealth, states, local government will continue to provide the support and response coordination needed. Chris?

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, how do you respond to the NSW rural fire service chief’s statement that he was disappointed and surprised by being blindsided by your announcement yesterday and that when the call did go to Gladys Berejiklian it came 5 minutes before your announcement which some in the New South Wales government are saying shows a fundamental lack of professional courtesy.

PRIME MINISTER: Well in terms of last point, I don't agree with that point, but what I would say is that this matter was dealt with at National Security Committee yesterday, I left that National Security Committee meeting and then went out and I contacted Premiers. And advised them of the decisions that we were taking and I want to stress the decisions that we took yesterday and enacted yesterday were a statement all about the scale of this crisis. It is in no way a statement on the performance of the state and territory agencies. I have been consistently complementary and remain absolutely complementary of their extraordinary work. And without their work, without their planning, without their preparations, then I fear what has really been a terrible tragedy would have been far worse. And so we have enjoyed as the Commissioner himself has said, a very strong working relationship. There was a breakdown in communications at the defence liaison level with the headquarters yesterday, that matter was addressed by the Minister for Defence yesterday and she made comment about that this morning, in the media. And so there has been a subsequent conversation between myself and the Premier, and the Minister in New South Wales and we have addressed any of those issues that arose from that. We communicated the decision as soon as it had been made. To all states and territories, particularly those who are affected today, last night, I mean South Australia, Kangaroo Island, I know the Premier is there today, attending to those issues. All of those Premiers who are directly affected were contacted and understand, I believe, that the nature of this support is to supplement, to support, to cut down any response times to ensure that

what we are all focused on, whether it is myself, the Premier, in New South Wales or any other state, or the Commissioner in New South Wales or anywhere else, is just trying to get as much support and coordinated effort in as quickly as possible.

JOURNALIST: You've announced more air tankers yesterday. You announced $11 million in

December, but there have been calls for a long time now for more capacity with aerial firefighting and more contributions from the Federal Government. Why wasn't more done by the Federal Government sooner to put in funding ahead of the bushfire season? Have you been putting in too little, too late?

PRIME MINISTER: Well David I addressed this yesterday at the press conference we had yesterday. The response that we made was to provide the additional funding last year of $11 million and this year of $11 million. Which brought it up to the level that was being sought in those years. And in this year's Budget, that will be provided again on an ongoing basis. And so after becoming Prime Minister they were matters we put in train with that additional funding and resource and as was noted yesterday, at 8.00pm the previous evening we received the request for an additional water bombing asset and we moved to provide four with an additional $20 million so when you look at that over the scheme over the last couple of years and the additional resource that has been provided on top of our standing commitment of $15 million, it means that the resources were delivered and now we will ensure they are there on an ongoing basis.

JOURNALIST: PM on the recovery and reconstruction arrangements you've announced today, the Black Saturday royal commission put the cost of those fires at $4.4 billion, its obviously early days but do you have an estimate of the cost of these fires and in terms of the financing arrangements, things like that, there will be a hit to agriculture and tourism from this. Are you looking at- can you fund the reconstruction from within the Budget or would you be looking at things like a levy or something like that to protect the surplus?

PRIME MINISTER: Well let me deal with those in turn. The cost- the fires are not over. The crisis is not over. There are months to go. And particularly in the southern states and speaking to Premier Hodgman, I mean in Tasmania and in Victoria, their more difficulties seasons usually come later in January and in February. So there is still a long way to go. And sadly there will still be more cost that will be incurred as a result of the devastating impacts. The recovery need is going to be great. Very great and that recovery, the rebuilding will be done. It'll be done, supported by the Commonwealth government, by the state governments by the local government. The Commonwealth will be acting across all those tiers, providing financial support, both directly whether its primary producers, to small businesses, to local councils and others to engage in that rebuilding effort. There will be no levy because have been assuring that we have been in a position to deal with matters such as this. And so, we will be committing everything that is needed and more as it is required. Cabinet will be considering the details of that but there is already a firm proposal that was considered by National Security committee yesterday about what the initial investment will be and I will make further announcements about that with the Treasurer, with the Treasurer tomorrow, and so we will be focusing on what the need is and ensuring that that is met.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER: Sorry? I will give further details about that tomorrow after it has been considered by Cabinet.

JOURNALIST: You’ve been heavily criticised for your handling of the fire situation, can Australians still have faith in your leadership and that you are able to lead them through this disaster?

PRIME MINISTER: I will continue to demonstrate what we are doing through our actions. Sure, there has been a lot of commentary, there has been plenty of criticism, and I’ve had the benefit of a lot of analysis on a lot of issues. But I can't be distracted by that. And the public, I know are not distracted by that. What they need us to focus on, all of us actually. All of us, focusing on the needs there in the communities in getting the support where it needs to go. That is very much where my focus is and that's where it will continue to be, working closely with the states and territories, working closely with my ministers and the agencies, the defence force, the new recovery agency, to be led by Mr Colvin and ensuring they have the support, resources and communications that they need.

JOURNALIST: What you say though to the criticism that the ADF announcement yesterday came too slow? Do you believe you could or should have announced it earlier, a week ago or before Christmas? And could that deployment, the use of the ADF and the assets have actually have helped in the fire crisis over the last couple of weeks?

PRIME MINISTER: Well the question assumes the ADF wasn't present or doing anything and that's not the case as you know. The ADF has been present and involved significantly and heavily at the request of state agencies now for many months, going back to Canungra in September. And they have been deploying consistently since that time. The announcement we made yesterday was the first ever as we understand it, compulsory callout of reservists to provide support in relation to a domestic natural disaster. That is an unprecedented step. That step was taken as a consequence of the sheer scale that had moved beyond what is the reasonable expectation of any agency or state or territory authority. It is a statement of the scale of the need, not a statement of the response of any agencies up until that point in time. And it needed to be stepped up and as I said yesterday, this was something that we were building up to week, by week, by week. That commenced with deploying ADF liaison officers directly into local incident response centres. To ensure they were more quickly aware of needs on the ground that could be channelled up through their chain of command. And that could be raised at headquarters level to ensure that the needs were there and people were aware of what responses could be provided and that now will continue in a more proactive way. And so this was what was needed yesterday. This will be needed now for some period of time. I should stress whether it is the additional payments that are being made for income loss, for volunteer firefighters, or what was announced yesterday, this is the most significant. This is the most comprehensive, and the most dramatic in terms of escalation of response by a Commonwealth government that we’ve seen to disaster such as this. And I believe that is where we need to focus our attention and we are seeking obviously to communicate that directly to Australians to ensure they can have comfort, that the response is matching the need. Phil, Phil?

JOURNALIST: On the topic of climate change, you have stated several times in recent months that Australia's contribution to global emissions cannot be blamed for the climate changes driving this crisis. Given that, can you give a commitment to people in this country that Australia will use whatever diplomatic influence it can to pressure bigger allies like the United States and countries like China, the big polluters, given that we are now at the forefront of this, to do more? I mean, can you use your relationship with Donald Trump, for example, as fruitless as it may be, to pressure him to re-join Paris, given your own country is now at the forefront of the effects of climate change?

PRIME MINISTER: I should stress that there is no dispute in this country about the issue of climate change globally, and its effect on global weather patterns, and that includes how that impacts in Australia. Because I have to correct the record here. I have seen a number of people suggest that somehow the Government does not make this connection. The Government I lead has always made that connection and that has never been in dispute. What we are focused on is what our response is and we set that out very clearly and that response, as it always has, will continue to be upgraded to ensure we meet and beat the commitments that we have made. Now, I participate in these discussions globally all the time and if you look actually at what is occurring in the United States and you look what their emissions trajectory is currently, you will note that it is not increasing, as I am advised, and whether that is done and it is achieved in isolation as an individual country or how they choose to engage in an international agreement is ultimately a matter for sovereign governments to determine. Other governments are engaged in their commitments, but I am pleased to say Australia is one of the countries that can say that this year, as we face this crisis, as climate change has impacted on the world's weather patterns that has led to where we are here today to some extent, combined with many other factors, the drought being the most significant, that right now, Australia is beating the commitments that have been made in 2020, and there are very few countries that can make that claim. So in terms of our response, particularly what we have been able to do, which means our emissions per year are 50 million tonnes less on average each year then when we first came to government. This is something that has been achieved through many efforts but they included the efforts of the government as well to ensure we can be in that position and meet the targets we have. So we will continue to engage in those forums as we recently have, but most importantly, we will continue to carry our share of that burden and demonstrate that through the way that we are going to meet and beat our emissions reduction targets to ensure we can have the proper effect on global temperatures.

JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister has obviously copped a bit of belting for going to Hawaii during the bushfire crisis. Minister Reynolds, have you taken any leave during this period? Have you been out of the country at all?

SENATOR THE HON. LINDA REYNOLDS CSC, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Like many of my colleagues, I have certainly spent time with my family over Christmas. But throughout that time I can assure you that I have been regularly on the phone with the CDF, with the Prime Minister, with Minister Littleproud constantly. So...

JOURNALIST: So you haven't been out of the country?

SENATOR THE HON. LINDA REYNOLDS CSC, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: I have had a holiday with my family for a few days over Christmas, but again, I wasn’t on leave.

JOURNALIST: Was that in Bali?


JOURNALIST: Were you on holidays in Bali?

SENATOR THE HON. LINDA REYNOLDS CSC, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: I spent a few days with my family, yes. But again, I was in total contact with the Prime Minister and the Secretary and the CDF.

PRIME MINISTER: All the announcements that we have made, we have continued to work closely, as all Cabinet Ministers have worked together and directly with their state and territory counterparts.

JOURNALIST: Are you still confident you can bring down a budget surplus this financial year given the financial cost you face?

PRIME MINISTER: Based on my mid-year statement and my discussions with the Treasurer - the Treasurer is a member of the National Security Committee, as is the Minister for Finance, and we considered those matters yesterday and the commitments that we can make, particularly what are needed right now, we can meet within our budget requirements as they are currently assessed. Obviously, as you go into the Budget, there are other economic parameters which will impact on that ultimate outcome and I can't foreshadow those at this present point in time but based on the financial position that was outlined not that long ago in the mid-year statement, then that enables us particularly this year, to be in a position and next year to be able to provide significant support.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, Australia is a federation and states are primarily responsible for fighting fires, but what seems to be extraordinary about the circumstance this summer is they’re burning in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia.

PRIME MINISTER: All around the country.

JOURNALIST: Is it time for a national Royal Commission into this specific circumstance so that we can know what could have been done that might not have been done and how we proceed from here? Would you consider that?

PRIME MINISTER: Certainly. And it is something I would consider in concert with states and territories and these are matters that we are assessing right now. But right now, the message I have from state premiers and from fire commissioners, is we are fighting the fires now. We are dealing with the emergency response now. We are dealing with the coordination and delivery of resources right now, and there is a broad agreement about the need, as there always is after any natural disaster, for there to be a thorough and proper review of both the contributing factors and the response and improvements that can be made. And it has been that very process in the past that has led to so many improvements that have been on display as we have dealt with this current catastrophic season. So of course, Chris, what form that ultimately takes is something that I will work closely with the premiers on.

JOURNALIST: And strategically, as we all know, anyone who has travelled to any coastal town in Australia is there is one road in and one road out of every town in Australia. Again, do we have to look at the way our infrastructure is set up in terms of trying to remove people from harm’s way? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, there is not only that, there is matters I have referred to also around planning and building regulations and where people are allowed to build residences and in what circumstances and the land clearing arrangements, and of course hazard reduction has been a constant refrain as I have been on the ground. But I also acknowledge the drought conditions can make that very difficult on occasion but we also know there have been many occasions where the hazard reduction has been actively resisted and that is something that we will have to learn from as well. So I think they are all very valid points that you are making and they are certainly things that will be considered and brought together initially, in terms of initial lessons and immediate take outs for action when premiers rightly meet when there is the opportunity to do that as has been scheduled in March. I think that gives us the appropriate time to bring forward some immediate steps and for those to be considered by premiers before moving to broader scale reviews. There hasn't been a question at the back, I'm happy to move it around…

JOURNALIST: You’ve mentioned hazard reduction, there is a bit talk about out there on the ground as well about the Greens being blamed and environmentalists being blamed for the state of these bushfires. Do you buy into that at all?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, there has been a lot of blame being thrown around. And now is a time to focus on the response that is being made. Plenty of people have blamed me, people have blamed the Greens, people have blamed... who knows? Honestly, blame doesn't help anybody at this time, and over-analysis of those things I think is not a productive exercise. The appropriate exercise at the moment is coming together, as David was just saying. That is the other piece of feedback that I get in response to a lot of the noise and blame and commentary and analysis on particular issues that are a long way away from the main issue which we need to focus on, and there is a frustration in elements of the community that too much attention has been placed on that at the moment and there is a need for the community to want to come together, despite the great frustration, despite the heavy sense of loss and the heavy sense of grief and the fear. I mean, one part of this fire crisis and catastrophe across the country, which is not unprecedented in one way, but its extent I think is more extreme than we have seen, and that is the smoke and the haze that sits over this city now, that sits over my home city in Sydney, that sits in many places along the coast and the fire-affected areas, and that haze, that smoke, apart from its direct health effects, which are also of concern, really does, I think, impact on people's sense of well-being and that can have broader impacts about how people are feeling through these events. And despite all that, I have been so impressed by the calmness and the support that people have provided. And so I understand that, I really do. Jenny and I understand it, our kids are here, they breathe the smoke like anybody else and we have the same concerns that others do who would be in an area that is not impacted directly by fire but these things, it makes it very ever-present in people's minds. I can understand that, how that contributes to how people are feeling about this issue around the country, and so that is acknowledged. But what most importantly is needed is that we just keep working together, and we are. Premiers, commissioners, Prime Ministers, local mayors, local volunteer workers, police, emergency services, paramedics, rural fire service volunteers, emergency services, St John's Ambulance, the list is long. It is incredibly long. And then there are those other stories of incredible kindness, as people have gone to the checkout with a bag full of groceries or things that they have needed, and they have looked like they are in terrible distress, and the person before them paid for the groceries before they even showed up. I have heard that story many times and it is a touching story about what is the real spirit and Australia's real response to these disasters.

JOURNALIST: Just following up on Sam’s question about holidays, whether it's the decision to take a holiday or whether it's questions over the timing of the ADF deployment, the big question here is, has the government done enough soon enough? Australian elect leaders not just to respond to crisis but to anticipate and prepare for them. What do you say to that big question about whether you were sufficiently prepared, sufficiently took this seriously enough to deploy as much help ahead of time as possible? What is your response to that? 

PRIME MINISTER: The big question is the response that people need right now and will continue to need right now. But in terms of the broader question that you have raised, the government at  Commonwealth level, at state level, has responded based on the advice that was provided by  commissioners and others from Emergency Management Australia to prepare us for the current fire season and has taken the precautions in accordance with that advice. And I must say, that advice accords with a lot of the sort of more public commentary about other advice that has been reported on, and that is why the extra $11 million went in this year, why it went in last year. That's why a lot of the arrangements that have been undertaken have been put in place. As I have said on a number of occasions, we had similar fears going into last year's fire season and thankfully for that time, they were not realised. This year they have been realised and some. Well beyond, I think, even what the most severe predictions were and that is why the response that we have now escalated to has been lifted to that level. There are many views in hindsight, David, and that is why you have reviews to have the benefit of that hindsight to support you respond to future events, which no doubt will occur again in Australia but the response that you undertake, the things that you prepare for, like the callout, which was prepared for in November. The issues of income loss support. Options prepared well in advance of that decision as well and activated upon the request of the New South Wales State Government. The options constantly being prepared, even the stand-up of the Agency as we are talking through now, has already been through some significant earlier runs in our response to previous arrangements, which means we can put them in place very, very quickly. The scale of the disaster is enormous and it is a reminder of the terrible threat that nature provides in this country, and we will continue to seek to match that as best as human beings are able to do, working with everything that we have available to us. And my answer to Australians is yes, you can be confident that the government, the state governments, the local governments, all agencies, are putting everything they have into this and will continue to do to support their safety, to protect their homes, to protect their property and then to rebuild both their lives and their communities and their homes and their businesses and their services as quickly as possible on the other side. I had one question there who has been very patient and then I'm happy to take… I haven't got much to what I said on Iraq yesterday but...

JOURNALIST: Just on your ad detailing the ADF assistance. The Australian Defence Association has been labelled it a clear breach of the non-partisanship convention applying to both the ADF and ministers. I just wanted your response on that?

PRIME MINISTER: I think this issue received a lot of attention. Let me just stress firstly that the postings that we've made in messages has been to inform the community about what the Commonwealth Government is doing. And that is what we must do. Wherever I've been, people have said, "What are you doing? What are you doing? What are you providing? What is the ADF doing? What payments are being made? Where are the aerial bombers?" All of these things, the questions that have been to me as Prime Minister and it’s important that I communicate what we are doing with the Australian people. As much as we'd all like to only rely on the reporting of the media to get those information out, I will also seek to carry that message directly to the Australian people to ensure they are aware of what we are doing. Now, this is the same format that has been used to communicate these messages now for months, including the sorts of images that you have referred to and no objection has previously been made when that has been done. There's been some talk of the authorisation that sits on the end of that video message. That is a requirement of Australian law. It is not something that I can post on my social media page without carrying that authorisation. That does not mean it is a political message in any way, shape or form. It is just complying with Australian law. As you know, the Opposition, the Labor Party and other parties have similar authorisations on the back of very similar types of messages that they have been conveying on their commentary about these events. So where that can be improved, I'm happy to take the helpful suggestions that have been made, that we've been acting in accordance with the same procedure we've had in place now for many, many months. But let me assure Australians, the purpose is to communicate as simply and helpfully as we possibly can about what the Government is doing to get resources, to get support, to those places that need it and it's important, I think, that over-analysis of these things can create unnecessary anxiety and we're simply seeking to help people know what we're doing. 

JOURNALIST: Isn’t there an Australian Government sponsored ad and a Liberal Party sponsored ad, the ad is in tomorrow’s papers…

PRIME MINISTER: It wasn't a Liberal Party sponsored ad. It was authorised me, I am the leader of the Liberal Party, and that’s the only authorisation I can post on something that is posted on my page. As you’d know, that is the same thing that applies to other politicians in Australia. It is simply complying with the requirements of Australian law and to infer from that, and to infer from that there was some other purpose in these communications, I reject absolutely, absolutely and the commentary on that along those lines, I think, is false. 

JOURNALIST: With these ads in tomorrow's papers explaining the rollout, is the taxpayers going to fund them or the Liberal Party? 

PRIME MINISTER: Those are being placed by the Australian Defence Forces directly under their own authority and under their own budgets for undertaking those and they’ve been done at their decision.

JOURNALIST: Did the Liberal Party pay for this ad?

PRIME MINISTER: It was on Facebook. It's put together by my own office. There are no real honest expenses that are of any significance that are attached to making a Facebook post. 

JOURNALIST: Can I just ask where the CDF’s assessment of the safety of Australian troops in Iraq is up to? Has there been a decision at this point to withdraw any troops from Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER: No, but as I said yesterday, these matters are under close observation and under continued review but there are no decisions or I'm not flagging any decisions that would be a decision that the Government will be taking but we will continue to take advice and assess the situation on the ground. 

JOURNALIST: Just back on David's question. We're likely to see this disaster continue every year. Do you think there is a need to handle it differently, say, next summer or the summer after?

PRIME MINISTER: Every summer we handle it differently and very summer we handle it better. Every summer, the response that is provided and the improved response that is provided undoubtedly ensures that we save more lives and we save more homes and we save more properties and we save more livelihoods. There's no doubt about that. After every event like this, we will all work together to do it even better next time. But I must say, as I said many months ago, our response to these calamitous bushfires is world-leading. Australia's firefighters, Australia’s emergency services, Australia's defence forces, are world leaders in responding to these events and that is on display out there now. And as much as there will always be frustrations when you cannot in all cases completely counteract the forces of nature, there will undoubtedly be shortfalls and frustrations, undoubtedly. But what you do is you identify them and you seek to improve on the way that you address those challenges again in the future. But one thing we can always rely on is that is the good nature and amazing spirit of the Australian people. That assists greatly in how we respond to these crises and keeping the focus amongst our authorities on the things that we need to focus on. There are a lot of distractions out there at the moment. There's a lot of commentary out there on issues that are a long way away from the things that matter most and that is getting help to the people who need it now. Phil. 

JOURNALIST: Just on that, if I can ask a logistical question on behalf of those out there in those fire areas. One of the biggest - apart from water - one of the scarcest commodities is fuel, especially diesel. 


JOURNALIST: And it's difficult, obviously. There's been runs on petrol stations and the fire trucks are using all the diesel down there, etc. Would it be logistically possible if necessary for these ADF members not to commandeer petrol stations but to start supervising the distribution and supply of fuel and the supply of fuel? There's instances where service stations were stocked but no-one turned up to open them because they were out fighting fires and queues down the streets. That hampered the evacuation the other day. Is that something and I know that's on the minds of people down there - is that something the army can do?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Phil, I know that was an experience you had most recently. I appreciate you relaying that to us at the time because that actually did factor into a lot of our thinking in recent days. Despite the amazing efforts of the New South Wales Government on what was a very, very difficult day in supporting the evacuations that were taking place, there are obviously places that were under considerable stress and experienced the exact things you talked about. That is why through the call-out, one of the things that is on offer and is available as is required is to support the, if you like, the civil order, of being able to facilitate those evacuations. That is a decision that obviously has to be taken with the support of the state government, but this highlighted to me personally when you raised that, of the need for a resource above and beyond what was reasonably expected to be able to be provided in every single corner of every single state affected by the fire. I want to stress this again - the scale of the deployment which is unprecedented in Australia and the federal response, whether it's in the payments we have made or the defence call-out and defence response, is an expression of the scale of the fires. That's what it is. Whether it's Commissioner Fitzsimmons or any of his colleagues, the state premiers, I have nothing but the highest praise for their efforts and every single one of those who serve under their command. It has been extraordinary. But, you know, there are no supernatural powers here. That means that everybody needs support and assistance and where the Commonwealth can step in and provide that in a proactive way, that's exactly what you're seeing, that's exactly what you will continue to see over many months still to come now, proactively, as we said. The Adelaide, sitting out there right now, out of Eden, able to move and will move with what it has available to it, whether it's the engineering equipment that is on board or the medical supplies or the other stores that are there, to be called in and employed in close consultation with the states, so that effort can be well delivered on the ground for the people who are there. So I thank you very much for your attention and there will be futher... sorry? 

JOURNALIST: On hazard reduction, you expressed some concern about hazard reduction being a factor here, or lack thereof, and that's borne out in some stats about perhaps not enough of it being done. Do you think that's an area where the Federal Government needs to take a stronger role or even have some kind of takeover of the responsibilities in parkland areas?

PRIME MINISTER: Let me be clear first about the comments I have made on hazard reduction. They've been in response to questions like yours just now and they have also reflected what I have been told on the ground, whether it's in East Gippsland or other parts of the country. So it would be no surprise to anyone who was closely associated with this, that that is a matter that I would say has been most commonly raised when I've been out and about. You're correct to say those issues are run and overseen entirely by state governments, as are many of the other issues that will come into play - whether it's planning and zoning laws and building codes and things of that nature. They are state responsibilities and what is important, I think, in the first instance, is to have a proper consideration of what the contribution of those factors are and what state and territory governments migh do in response to those. But what I have noticed in these disaster, which has been… and I was talking to Prime Minister Howard this morning, former Prime Minister Howard this morning, in comparison with things that we’ve dealt with in the past, there has always been I think a good understanding of the first-responder nature of state governments. But on this occasion, I think the scale of things has been calling for a more… the role of national agencies, which have been there as I have stressed, but how that flows onto these other questions of state responsibilities of hazard reduction and planning and development laws and things of that nature. I mean, that is fundamentally a discussion for the Federation. I think people like things to be as local as possible and that they want things to be delivered as locally as possible. That’s always been my inclination. But you can have no doubt that we will provide the national perspective on this and integration and coordination, using the authorities that we have. People want to see that, just as I think they wanted to see what we announced yesterday and that we’ve built up to now for several weeks. And so we will work together to do all those things, but that’s the key, David. We’ve got to work together and we are working together and we are working together incredibly well and that’s important, especially for the many months that we’ve still got to go on this issue. Anyway, I note again there will be an operational briefing by Defence which the Minister will be there for and that will provide more detail on the granularity of what the Defence response will be. That will be a daily briefing and that will be provided by those who will be operationally responsible. Thank you very much.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you have brought your family, you’re now basing yourself in Canberra with your family.


JOURNALIST: When did you decide to make that decision and why?

PRIME MINISTER: When we moved, obviously, to the announcement we made yesterday and that we have the fires now moving in a much higher level in multiple states, previously the primary state that was feeling the heaviest of the burden was in New South Wales. That was before the Victorian fires that escalated earlier this week. And we’re standing up, particularly, the response agency which I have announced today and the recovery agency, the Defence Force heightened operations on the new posture, it is better for me to be based here in Canberra than previously where I could get more quickly to the New South Wales headquarters and move around some of the challenges in New South Wales where I previously was. Thank you.