Press Conference - Australian Parliament House, ACT

Transcript
06 Jan 2020
Prime Minister
E&OE

PRIME MINISTER: Good afternoon everyone. I want to provide a general overview of the situation as we understand it today and the status of operations of particularly our ADF forces, as well as outlining some of the key decisions that were made today at Cabinet and the National Security Committee.

But before I do that, 24 fatalities have been reported across the country. 18 of those in New South Wales, three in Victoria, three in South Australia. Two people are missing in New South Wales. And none, we believe, are now missing in Victoria. For all of those who have lost loved ones, for all of those who have lost everything, their homes, their livelihoods, once again as a Government and as a nation we extend our deepest sympathies to you, and we make this commitment to all Australians - that that we will be there for you during this immediate response, and we will be there for the rebuilding and the recovery. Today in Cabinet we have made a number of decisions to support that recovery effort, to do whatever it takes, to do whatever it costs to meet those needs, to build our resilience for the future and to enable Australians, wherever they are, all across the country, to be able to go forward in confidence for their futures.

In New South Wales there are no total fire bans declared for today. Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and IGA have commenced resupply of stores in the far south coast. 3,872 head of livestock have been euthanised or confirmed deceased. 400 tonnes of fodder is in transit with distribution points finalised for Cooma, Bega, Moruya and Milton which will be set up once fireground activity eases. And the ADF will assist with distributing of isolated and cut-off properties. In Victoria, there are no total fire bans declared for today. Smoke is, though, interfering with further aerial evacuations in Mallacoota. Victoria has established a permanent standing Bushfire Recovery Agency and with funding I understand of some $50 million. In the ACT, there are no total fire bans declared for today. In Western Australia, total fire bans are declared for today for the Kalgoorlie, Boulder, Coolgardie and Dundas districts and partial closures of the Coolgardie Esperance, Eyre and Goldfields Highways. In  South Australia, a fire ban is declared for Kangaroo Island for the today. In Queensland, there are no total fire bans declared for today. There are no further updates to the situation in Tasmania from what I have a previously reported, and there are also no total fire bans declared for the Northern Territory.

Disaster relief payments, as it stands, $111 million or thereabouts, over $100 million, which includes $25 million already out the door in disaster assistance payments and just over $100 million in total combined with that that have already been committed. Jointly, these payments are available in 46 local government areas in New South Wales. Those two in the East Gippsland area in Victoria, six in South Australia, one in Tasmania and 17 in Queensland and the Australian Government disaster recovery payments are available in 26 LGAs in New South Wales, two in Victoria, six in South Australia and eight in Queensland.

Turning to the ADF rollout, in New South Wales reconnaissance and liaison teams have gone in Wombeyan, Eden, Bega, Moruya, Narooma, Batemans Bay and Merimbula on the South Coast. Logistics support which includes providing water, food and critical fuel by road and air to Tarcutta, Tumbarumba, Adelong, Batlow and Gilmore in the Snowy Valley area. Engineering teams which are clearing fire breaks and opening roads in Maitland, Mudgee, Nowra and the Southern Highlands. Resupply of evacuation centres are occurring at Narooma, Batemans Bay, Bega and Moruya on the South Coast. Health support with medics, doctors, nurses and psychologists are ready to deploy into priority areas, which do include on the South Coast Batemans Bay, Moruya, Narooma and Bega Valley. In Victoria, 350 people were air evacuated out of Mallacoota yesterday. That also was supported with a generator move into Mallacoota to restore power to the Mallacoota Airport. Choules is unloading diesel and a fuel management team for generators is powering Mallacoota. We’ve supplied some 18,000 litres of fuel to the town of Omeo for generators for powering the town and contacting the 18 cut-off communities in Victoria currently. The majority of those have already been reached but I am advised they will all be reached by the end of the day, flying in emergency supplies as required. We are working with Vic Forestry and assistance to open access to major roads. In South Australia, we’re working with South Australia water to deploy a water purification system to supplement damaged infrastructure. That’s water for both human consumption and for stock we’re preparing to bring in bottled water as an interim measure. The teams are on Kangaroo Island and a veterinary officer to assist euthanising stock and wildlife. A critical issue going forward will be the disposal of carcasses which obviously presents very serious health issues as we’ve seen in other disasters. 

Internationally, three helicopters and an engineer company from New Zealand will arrive at RAAF Richmond and deploy to the South Coast region. We thank very much the New Zealand government and Prime Minister Ardern who has been in regular contact with me. I also want to thank Prime Minister Lee. Two Singapore Chinooks are preparing to deploy from Northern Australia to East Sale which is our forward staging point in Victoria for those operations. Last night, I spoke at length to President Macron who extended his deep condolences and sympathies and full support for Australia as a great friend and we are working with his government, as we are with many around the world at the moment, who have made very generous and kind offers of assistance. In the case, as President Macron has already noted, that has included firefighter assistance as well as other engineering and environmental support as well. Integrating all ADF teams visiting towns with a person from the relevant state agency when they are there, which is either the RFS, the SES or police. This move forward in integration has been under command locally of what’s happening there and the New South Wales Assistant Commissioner Willing from the New South Wales police is assigned to a joint task force to ensure that integration. The running total of Reservists as called out now is 497. 

Today, in Cabinet, we approved the arrangements that flow from the establishment of the National Bushfire Recovery Agency which is being led by the former AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin. As I said yesterday, Andrew is already at work. He is already working now and chairing an inter-departmental committee across every single government department in the Commonwealth, which is bringing forward proposals to assist the recovery effort and to feed in to the response effort also. Today we agreed that we would support the National Bushfire Recovery Agency by establishing a National Bushfire Recovery Fund which will be administered by that agency led by Mr Colvin. The Commonwealth is committing an additional and initial $2 billion over the next two calendar years, starting right now, to support all of the efforts of recovery right across the country. This is not just in those areas that are experiencing fires now. They are in those areas that have already experienced fires, particularly up in Queensland and Northern New South Wales and, sadly, as there are many months still to go into this fire season, those parts of the country which still may yet face great risk of fire impact in the future. The Recovery Agency and this funding is in addition to the NDRA category A, B and C assistance which is provided under those national arrangements. To give you a bit of an idea of the scale of that, when it came to Cyclone Yasi and the Brisbane floods over a period of some six years, I’m advised by EMA that there was $5.6 billion paid out in disaster recovery arrangements, the overwhelming majority of that was actually for A, B and C payments. There was some $365 million, I think it was, that was in category D assistance and things like the River Walk that was reconstructed and the commitment made to that infrastructure.

So the $2 billion commitment is an additional commitment, it is in additional cost, an initial commitment and if further funds are required, further funds will be provided. What we are focusing on here is the human cost and the rebuilding cost for people's lives. We are not focused on the financial cost, we are focused on the human cost and ensuring we can do everything we can, as quickly as we can, to support that recovery effort. The indicative priorities at this point, as they are being worked through and we have discussed in Cabinet this morning, primary producer grants for restocking, replanting and fencing, additional support for small businesses and grants to help them initially, as we saw so successfully in parts of northern Queensland with the funds that were provided particularly under category D assistance. Direct grants to local governments to support them in their immediate rebuilding works, to support local infrastructure and local services, supporting mental health programs that will be going in, working closely with state and territories and I stress that will include mental health support for those who have been first responders in relation to these bushfires.

I have been in so many of these communities over many months now and it isn’t just the disastrous impact of the fire on the physical buildings and the physical communities and people's physical well-being, but the mental impact, the mental health impact of what has occurred is going to take a significant toll and we are prioritising the provision of mental health support as part of the recovery project. There will also be funds for infrastructure projects to support economic and community recovery and resilience, particularly essential infrastructure. This will not be done on the basis of matched funding from the states and territories, as I said yesterday. The states and territories will be, I have no doubt, making significant financial commitments in their areas of responsibility on infrastructure and roads and bridges and schools and hospitals and all of these things. And as part of this Fund, through the normal course of arrangements, we'll be looking to support those where appropriate. State governments, local governments, the Commonwealth government, will all be making significant and massive financial commitments. These are investments in the hope of our country and to provide and support that hope that on the other side of this disaster, there is a rebuilt future and a strong positive reason to move forward into that future.

In addition, also today, we agreed there would be rollout of 20 Service Australia pop ups. They’ll be actually working in with the ADF as they go into communities. That will be there to ensure that people know what Commonwealth's resources and payments and services are available. We will be streamlining wherever possible, wherever we’re getting the feedback, access to these payments and any of the administrative issues that raise with this. We've already taken a number of decisions in this area to streamline those payments. It's important that cash gets in people's hands as soon as possible. We are suspending debt recovery and mutual obligation requirements for those in bushfire affected areas or those affected by bushfires for an initial two months and that will be reviewed again in the future as we continue to assess the impact of this fire season. And similar arrangements have been put in place by the Australian Taxation Office.

Today's Cabinet was one of great resolve. It was one where we stood together and said whatever it takes, whatever it costs, we will ensure the resilience and future of this country and we will do it by investing in the work that needs to be done and we will do it by investing in the greatest asset this country has ever had and it is its people, Australians. We will be investing in them and their future to give them the support they need as we all work together to rebuild after these terrible disasters. Michael?

THE HON. MICHAEL MCCORMACK MP, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Prime Minister, and for those hundreds and hundreds of Australians, indeed thousands, who have lost everything, we stand with you today, we will stand with you tomorrow, next week, the months and the years ahead. We will help you rebuild your communities. We will help you rebuild your homes. We will help you rebuild those towns, which in many cases have lost almost half their buildings. Cabramurra, I know Batlow and  Adelong and Tumbarumba have been severely impacted in the Snowy Mountains and they’re just a few of the communities just near my electorate in the east of the Riverina, let alone the communities in Queensland, which we have not forgotten about. The mid-north coast and north coast of New South Wales, which we certainly have not forgotten about, but also in Victoria, those places in South Australia, of course, Kangaroo Island, Western Australia and also Tasmania. There's not too many parts of the country which have not been impacted and there's many, many Australians, indeed, all of Australians, who have felt the full effects of this dreadful crisis.

The National Bushfire Recovery Fund will help restore, rebuild, reconstruct. It will help restock and replant. And for regional Australians, as the Prime Minister has just said, they are a very resilient bunch. They are full of hope and we will give them that hope. We will give them those funds, whatever it takes. We will be there to help those regional Australians and others besides. And when I talk about Tumut, the pine plantations in and around that town, 70 per cent of the economy of Tumut and Tumbarumba are underpinned by forestry. And of course, in many cases, they've lost almost all of their pine plantations. We look at Batlow, where surrounding Batlow are apple orchards. Of course, Batlow is a town famous for its apples, and many, if not most of their orchards have been incinerated, and so it takes five years to rebuild, to replant, to regrow an orchard. In the case of the pine plantations and the forestry resource that we've lost, up to 20 years. So for those people who've not only have the risk and assessments are being done today, not only have many people have lost their homes, but they've also lost their jobs. And when there's no pine plantation, when there's no orchard to go back to, that does provide them with little hope. They've not got a house, they've not got a livelihood. But we will be there for them. We will help them through this fund, through the agency that Andrew Colvin is now heeding. Sugar Pine Walk, one of the Riverina’s most iconic, most photographed tourism spots, planted in 1928, has been almost totally destroyed. That is heartbreaking and I've just got off the phone from James Hayes, the Mayor of Snowy Valleys Council, and he's hopeful for the future. He said to me, you know what, we'll get through this because we're resilient. We thank you for the support that you've given. We thank the state authorities and particularly those brave men and women who wear yellow and orange uniforms, indeed, whatever uniform colour they are. They've been out there. They've been fighting the fires. They've protected thousands upon thousands of homes. Yes, we've lost more than 1,600 homes, but we've also saved, those brave people have saved thousands of homes, thousands of livelihoods. So we thank them again. We can't thank them enough.

And we want to ensure, of course, today that for those areas that have been burnt out just since New Year's Eve, not to forget those areas burnt previously in Queensland, right up to Michelle Landry's electorate of Capricornia through David Littleproud’s electorate of Maranoa. And I really want to pay special tribute to David Littleproud for the job that he's done, not just not just on the drought front. And, of course, many of these communities so affected now by fires have also been dealing with drought. So it's a double whammy for them. But they will, as James Hayes, the Mayor of Snowy Valleys Council said, they will get through this because they're such a resilient bunch. And with the regional development funding that we are making available today, we will rebuild. We will put put back in place those roads that have been badly affected. I've spoken to each and every one of the state ministers. I've just got off the phone from the Victorian minister, Jacinta Allan. We will work together, as we've done very successfully, Prime Minister and Treasurer, to help in that reconstruction phase. Of course, with agriculture, there's a big, big impact on livestock. Priority access for farmers is, of course, getting back to their properties so they can assess the damage. Many of them can't even get back to their own properties, but to the provision of emergency livestock, fodder and water. We thank those people who've done hay runs. We thank those people who've made donations. The coordination of donations and offers of assistance are very, very greatly appreciated. The provision of generators and diesel for generators and large farm equipment also that effort is being coordinated and we thank those people for that.

But what I also do say is for people driving on our roads, roads that have been shut by this fire disaster, please take care, drive with your lights on. But also many, many fences have been burnt out and that leads to wandering stock. So please be mindful of that as you traverse up and down those regional areas. Of course, animal welfare, we've put a hundred veterinarians into the field and we want to make sure that the disposal of carcases is done in a very efficient and very quick fashion. And that is that is happening with state authorities. But we also want to make sure that we've got for those animals that can be saved, that we're there for them. And we've put a hundred Commonwealth vets and others into the field. And we want to make sure we get to those farms and help those farmers out, because, of course, not only is livestock very, very important, but so are our farmers. They've lost so much with the drought. And those hardy few who've managed to get their stock through the drought are now faced with this crisis as well. And, of course, the mental health of farmers is so, so important. And I know the Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, has made some important announcements today. And of course, we're going to keep monitoring that process as well.

We will rebuild farm infrastructure, whether it's fences, yards, water tanks, whatever the case might be. We will do that in conjunction with our state authorities. We will be monitoring animal health. We will be making sure that we get the fodder and the assistance there. Agriculture is such a key component of our economy and we want to make sure that we are there to help and support our farmers through this crisis. I know Bridget McKenzie is doing a fantastic job, she’s been all over as a Senator from Victoria, all over that state, as well as NSW. And her and I and others of course will be making important visits over the coming days, weeks and months to make sure that everybody understands and knows that the Federal Government is there for them. This national bushfire recovery fund and agency are going to play such a pivotal part in the rebuilding effort. Thank you to all of those who have helped out. The firies, just Mr and Mrs Average, just the kids who have done so much to raise funds to help put out fires, to rebuild regional Australia and indeed our nation, thank you so much, we will as a Federal Government be there supporting you all the way, shoulder to shoulder and putting our arm around our wonderful people who have been through so much. We are not out of the situation yet but we will be there now and into the future.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you.

THE HON. JOSH FRYDENBERG MP, TREASURER: Thank you Prime Minister, thank you Deputy Prime Minister. My first thoughts today are with those communities who are still battling these horrific fires. A big thank you to the brave men and women who are volunteer firefighters who are working as emergency service personnel, and in the Australian Defence Force who are putting their lives on the line to save others. A very big thank you. As the Prime Minister has announced we will be making an initial, additional contribution of $2 billion to the national bushfire recovery fund. This is on top of money that is already flowing under existing payments and allowances. This money will go towards supporting small businesses, to supporting local councils, to providing mental health support, investment in social and economic infrastructure, as well as providing environmental protection and important protection for native wildlife which has been so badly hit by these tragic fires. It is important to understand that this money will help rebuild lives and restore livelihoods. This money will help communities get back on their feet after these devastating fires. In addition to this announcement today, the Australian Tax Office has also taken steps to ensure that people have a 2-month deferral with the lodgement of payments and other obligations for those who are in the fire affected areas. People should not be concerned about their tax affairs at this time. The ATO has set up a hotline where people can get individual support. That is 1800 806 218. When it comes to insurance companies they will be absolutely critical as part of the recovery, rebuild, and resilience task ahead. There has been some 6,000 claims that have already been made totalling nearly $400 million. And the insurance companies have put assesses and recovery specialists out into the field already where it is safe to do so and tomorrow I will be meeting with the insurance Council, the regulators and CEOs to see what can be done to get that money back into people's pockets as quickly as possible. When it comes to the banks they have also taken steps to assist those who are in the fire affected areas, loan and interest payment deferrals, additional finance to help cover cash flow shortages, waiving fees and charges so the banks will continue to take action to support those communities. When it comes to charity, we know the Australian community is enormously generous and we have seen this generosity already, many people want to know how they can help, and where to send the money to. The new agency will be putting a list of leading charities like Red Cross, Salvation Army, the Rural Fire Services’, and others, their details are going up on the website for people to see, and to access. The ACNC, the charities commission together with the ATO will be providing advice and assistance to those who are seeking to establish charities to respond to the bushfire emergency. And the ACCC will be establishing a hotline where people can report any scams or unscrupulous activity from those who may seek to profit out of other people's misery. So there are a number of steps that have been taken to support the Australian community at this very difficult time.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, we’ll take questions.

JOURNALIST: How quickly do you think this money can hit the ground, would you consider, is it something like a stimulus for some of these hard-hit areas, and do you think there are some small employers in these areas which are losing money right now, in the holiday season, is there anything else that can be done for them?

PRIME MINISTER: That is exactly what this money is for. Amongst many other reasons. What we saw particularly when we were responding into the North Queensland Flood crisis was the support that needed to go in quickly for small businesses and particularly the primary producers in those areas. And that is what this is designed to do. We will be doing that in concert with those locally who are on the ground, those in local administrations, those who have so much of the information that we need to best direct and target these payments. We obviously want it to move as quickly as possible, and I'll be looking forward to making announcements about local governments in the not-too-distant future. We're working through some of those details now and we will consult closely with the state governments. There are coordinators as you know in recovery agencies as I said before that have been set up in Victoria today, as well as already in NSW and northern NSW for some time. In Rapville and places like that which were devastated, and now in Southern NSW and in Queensland they have had a similar arrangement. We will be working in with them to ensure that that support gets where it needs to go.

JOURNALIST: In weeks? Is weeks too optimistic or is that?

PRIME MINISTER:  No it is not too optimistic in terms of when we can get that to those council administrations and things like that. Already, the disaster recovery payments that are under category A B and C where those areas have been declared, those payments are already flowing right now for example, if you’re in an affected area that’s under those relevant classifications, then you’ve got a position of lost income because you might be in an area where there is literally nobody where there should have been a lot of people this time of year. You can claim up to 13 weeks and ongoing support under what is effectively the welfare payments that would otherwise be in place. That happens very, very quickly. That is available in many areas now, and they are triggered by the state governments and we turn that around immediately, and those payments flow. So the national scheme, the NDRA scheme that has been set up has been designed to get a lot of those initial payments out. What we're particularly also talking about here is not just the initial payment but the long-term investment. I said yesterday that the new agency will run for we envisage at this moment, for two years. It may well run longer than that. But we will ensure that they have got $2 billion initially to work with over that two calendar year period. That obviously spans across three financial years over the forwards. That is there to be either brought forward if more needs to be done earlier, and then we can consider what other additional support is needed and the budget is not too many months away, and we will have a better picture of the damage assessments and what the need is on the ground. So it is all of those things and more.

JOURNALIST: On a related issue, is the funding for this new agency separate from the funding that is going out through the category A B and C grants.

PRIME MINISTER: Yes.

JOURNALIST: Is the funding separate actual kind of, projects or will there be some overlap in the kinds of projects that are funded by each fund?

PRIME MINISTER: A B and C assistance works with category D assistance. Category D assistance is a discretionary level of assistance and it is quite targeted to the conditions you may find at any particular time. That will draw from this new fund, but category A B and C assistance will run as it has now for many years. And as it is rolled out.

JOURNALIST: But is there an overlap there between the two?

PRIME MINISTER: No I wouldn't see why they would be. It would be a supplement to, I wouldn't describe it in those terms.

JOURNALIST: A very distinct programme?

PRIME MINISTER: If for example if you are a small business and you haven't been able to access under category C assistance a $15,000 immediate grant to get you through the next two weeks with your employees or trying to get your business open again or something like that you may well be eligible for new payments that we would do under category D or even beyond that. Of up to as we saw in North Queensland of up to $75,000. Those payments to those primary producers there were lifesavers. And they moved very, very quickly. Now I should stress yesterday, that Andrew Colvin met with Shane Stone, as you know Shane led the North Queensland agency and also now leads the drought recovery agency and so we have already been through this in terms of standing up these arrangements. And so those lessons are being very quickly transferred across to the agency which is being led by Andrew. Another important role that the agency plays is helping people in these circumstances know what support is available. Communications about that support, so you know what is there is not only great for morale but it is very practical, and we need to get it through as quickly as possible.

JOURNALIST: Just so I understand- so the new agency then is like a category D grants?

PRIME MINISTER: Category D plus! It get everything else and beyond. For example where there may be mental health packages that are needed, support in some areas around education, there may be need to support tourism promotion for particular areas down the track. All of these funds are designed for these purposes and as Josh just said a few minutes ago, support for wildlife preservation and restoration in these areas, and I will have a bit more to say about that in not too many days time.

JOURNALIST: I know it is early days but do have an estimate of what the damage bill may be, and are you worried that these fires are going to have a major impact on economic growth and are you still confident you will reach the surplus?

PRIME MINISTER: The surplus is of no focus for me, what matters to me is the human cost and meeting whatever cost we need to meet. But I can tell you this: being in the position of strength that we are now, enables us to give what is one of the most significant, if not the most significant response to a crisis of this kind the country has seen. I mean if I go back over most recent times, we saw at Mallacoota one of the biggest evacuations using military resources that this country has seen. The only one that would have been bigger would have been Cyclone Tracy all those years ago. And I should stress that these funds that we are putting as part of this effort are separate to the ongoing support of those defence operations and many other government activities that are funded through the Budget. And I suspect we will also face higher costs and they will be reflected in the estimates variations that flow through the Budget in May. And it will be all be totalled up and will be reconciled then.

JOURNALIST: But you must have some sort of indication of the financial cost so far, maybe Treasury does some analysis, rules of thumb on how this does affect,

PRIME MINISTER: The fires are still burning and they will be burning for months to come. And so that is why I outlined today that this is an initial and additional investment of $2 billion. If more is needed and the cost is higher then more will be provided but I give you that reference point, that over six years, over six years, and that was the category A B and C payments predominantly, it was a cost of some of $5.6 billion over six years to respond to Cyclone Yasi and the Brisbane floods. So what we're seeing , the comparative figure I suppose to the $2 billion here is during that emergency, there was around about $365 million which was in the order of category D assistance that was provided in response to that. I mean we’ve set aside $2 billion here for those types of payments and many other levels of support.

JOURNALIST: But you’re saying the surplus is not top of mind right now? I mean that’s a shift in rhetoric. You have just had an election where you said the surplus would be back in black in this financial year. Can you guarantee that you will be back in black, you will have to involve cuts, you’ve rules out a bushfire levy yesterday, are you going to have to cut in other areas?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I don’t envisage any of those things, what I envisage is guaranteeing to the Australian people at this time of crisis that we will meet every cost that needs to be met, make every investment that needs to be made, both to assist the response to this crisis and the recovery needs that follow. That is clearly the priority now and, the point I would make, and I am sure the Treasurer would, is the reason we are in a position to do this is we have been so careful with our financial management. I’ve always said, the reason you strengthen your financial management is to build the resilience of the country to deal with these types of crises which can often be unforeseen at this level, so that strength enables us to make the commitments we are now making.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister we are hearing cries from the ground for basic human [inaudible], one woman in Batemans Bay who, she won’t be paid for a week. She will not have electricity for a week. She says she’s getting frantic, because she has reached out to government agencies including Centrelink and they can’t help her because her house has not burnt down. So in this announcement today, this funding, exactly what out of that will help people immediately in those sorts of situations and, is that being communicated?

PRIME MINISTER:  Well we’ll work closely with the states and their levels of support I mean, many states and NSW would have this would be be emergency cash assistance through the Department of Social Services also there are emergency cash assistance arrangements that are in place right across the country and those are administered through the Department of Social Services and the various contracted suppliers which provide those grants for immediate cash assistance. And by getting in contact as she has I know, that is one of the reasons why we are putting in these pop-up squads of the Services Australia teams that are going and with the ADF into these towns and you will see more of that as the days progress which will enable people in a lot of these communities to be able to go there and sit down with someone and start working through these issues. I mean disasters of this measure throw up any number of extraordinary challenges and some of them are very difficult to deal with, others are more straightforward. The disaster recovery payments are arrangements that have been in place for many years, are designed to address many of these needs. And so that is why the recovery agency and the other work that is being done by state and the Commonwealth governments and local governments for that matter are there to help people in immediate point of need.

JOURNALIST: Treasurer, as the PM alluded to, said the $2 billion will be spread out effectively over 3 financial years, the 2 calendar years. What is the initial part of the initial $2 billion, in the 6 months left of this financial year? And have you had to offset that elsewhere in the Budget or is this come straight off the bottom of the surplus?

TREASURER: No, we haven’t sought to offset that. The indicative numbers and that is the key word here, they’re indicative, because obviously we’re going to try and get the money out as soon as possible. And to work through the new agency would be $500 million in 19-20, $1 billion in 20-21 and $500 million in 21-22 but $2 billion over the two calendar years. This is an initial and an additional commitment. Our bottom line is getting support to the Australian people. That’s our bottom line, and this is unprecedented. What we're seeing across the country. And what we're doing now is, as you heard from the Prime Minister, we have galvanised the resources of the ADF, we have all the other agencies, Emergency Management Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology, we had all the ministers today contributing in their portfolios and they have been given one task by the Prime Minister, to get out there and get support to those communities in need, we are now coordinating it through this recovery agency under the leadership of Andrew Colvin.

JOURNALIST: Julie Bishop said today that Australia needs to show global leadership on climate change. You yourself have said it’s a global problem, we need a global effort, will Australia have another look, under your leadership, at its climate change policies? Is there any room for a rethink perhaps on the Kyoto carryover credits or adjusting the targets or any other measures do you think to show greater leadership on climate change?

PRIME MINISTER: Well right now, I got to say, my absolute focus is on deploying this $2 billion to support communities around the country and to address their most immediate needs and get the infrastructure and support in place to provide the platform recovery for these communities. Personally, physically, their livelihoods, their communities and getting them back on track and that will take considerable effort to get to that point and that will be the absolute focus across every single minister, every single department, brought together through a whole of government response. Which we are leading right now.

JOURNALIST: So there won’t be any [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I’m, no what I’m saying is that is what the government’s focus is. I have said on numerous occasions that the government will continue to work to meet and beat the commitments we have made for emissions reduction as we will this year and as I believe with the policies we will continue to put in place by 2030 to meet that commitment that I was pleased to be part of a Cabinet with Julie, together with the rest of us set and put in place the mechanisms to achieve it.

JOURNALIST: Who signed off on allowing the staff at the Department of Home Affairs to leave their air conditioned offices and work from their smoky homes in Canberra for the next two days?

PRIME MINISTER: I’d have to refer that matter to the Secretary.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister do you have numbers please for the number of people who will be eligible for the debt recovery and the mutual obligation suspension?

PRIME MINISTER: Not to hand. But we can work to provide that for you.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister can I just clarify, in relation to the Defence Minister, yesterday she said that she had taken what she described as a few days to spend time with her family and she said that she was not on leave. Now later your office and her office confirmed that she was actually on leave for 8 days with plans to be I think 9 days and Christian Porter was the acting Defence Minister. Given your criticism of other people in these situations in the past, what in relation to the Victorian former Christine Nixon what is not- business as usual about having the Defence Minister in her Bali holiday home, organising the evacuation of Mallacoota? Shouldn’t she have been back here, why did you sign off on that leave?

PRIME MINISTER: Well Sam I gave you the details of our response to that last night. It was a very full response and I think that addresses the situation. What I know has taken place in the last two weeks, over the time you been talking about, is we have called out up to 3,000 Defence Force reservists, we have put in place the biggest defence force to a national disaster since events such as the, of Cyclone Tracy. Not one decision has been hindered by any those arrangements, not one piece of information, not one authorisation, not one deployment, it has all continued to proceed and at the end of the day that is what matters to people Sam. Are things getting done on the ground? And when you get 1,100 people evacuated out of Mallacoota by the deployment of a Naval asset in the Choules, that was done during this period of time, I think what has happened on the ground speaks for itself and Australians are interested in the results that we're getting and the actions that we are taking.

JOURNALIST: Aside from the $2 billion you’ve set aside today, the additional cost for Defence forces that you’ve also flagged, other funding, do you anticipate there will be other economic impact costs on the budget as well and can you still pledge that the Budget is going to be in surplus as you did a month ago when the MYEFO came out?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I will let Josh speak to that specifically but as I said the final Budget outcome for this financial year is not what is driving the decisions that we have made today. What is driving the decisions that we have made today is to do what it takes, to pay what costs, to ensure that we can get Australians back up on their feet and the response in place. But I can tell you is that, because of the strong financial management of this government, it has put us in a position to do that without having to strike a levy, without having to make offsets in other places that we can as the Treasurer just said put the bottom line to work that we have sought to build up to build the financial resilience of this country. To ensure that it has been there this year. The first year we have returned to the position of strength that we have outlined now for some time, in 12 years. And that can be put straight to work to meet Australian's need in their hour of some of their greatest need. Josh?

THE HON. JOSH FRYDENBERG MP, TREASURER: Well thank you, PM. We have been consistently saying, a surplus is never an end in itself. It is all about getting money to the people who need it most and that is what we're doing today, as we were doing in light of the drought. The mid-year economic and fiscal outlook that was released at the end of last year did acknowledge and refer to the fires as well as the drought. It is too early to tell what the full economic impact will be but the key message today is there is $2 billion now put to work to help those communities to rebuild, to recover and to become more resilient in the future.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you all very much.