Press Conference - Australian Parliament House, ACT

09 Jan 2020
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Good afternoon everyone. I’m going to start by addressing the series of issues in Iraq and then move on to some announcements in relation to the National Bushfire Recovery Agency and response initiative. First of all, let me say that early today, the National Security Committee met, yesterday afternoon when I returned to Canberra I also met with the Chief of the Defence Force and other senior defence and intelligence officials to be briefed on the situation and the events in Iraq.

That was then presented with further advice this morning by the Chief of Defence Force and those officials. Our goal remains a united and stable Iraq and the focus of our efforts is in countering Daesh and its support network. This is the mission that we have been part of, as part of a broad coalition, and that remains our mission and we remain tasked to that mission as our people there in the Middle East are pursuing. So we remain committed to carrying on this important work. As I said yesterday, our priority right now is the safety and security of Australians and, along with all other coalition personnel, there were no casualties or losses that were suffered there yesterday. The Chief of the Defence Force and the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade advised that every precaution is being taken to ensure that Australian military and diplomatic personnel are safe. As I have said before, Australia wants to see and has encouraged restraint and de-escalation and I welcome President Trump's statement overnight. We remain in close contact with the United States and our other partners, indeed this morning I was in discussions with the Canadian Prime Minister, Mr Trudeau, where we discussed this matter. I have been in contact also today with the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and we will speak again later today about these issues. There has been much contact between us and our coalition partners in the United States. It is very clear that our intent remains that the safety and security of our people has been maintained throughout these events and we will continue to monitor these situations very, very closely and remain as committed to the task that we have in front of us there as so many, particularly of our defence force personnel and our diplomatic personnel, they have been so tasked and so passionate in their deployment over many years now and they have achieved a great deal, particularly in raising up and training efforts that have been particularly implemented out there in Taji and they have done great work and they will continue to do great work.

Let me move to an operational update on the issues of the bushfire disaster around the country and the work of the recovery agency and the deployment of the recovery fund which I announced earlier this week. Firstly, operationally, there are 27 confirmed fatalities and there have been, on this morning's reports to us, 2,131 homes lost but I am sure over the course of the day, as further damage assessments have been undertaken, particularly in Victoria, the numbers will continue to sadly change and they will continue to escalate. Fire weather is increasing in the south and east today and it will spike along the east coast tomorrow. Over 1,600 defence reservists are currently assigned to bushfire operations around the country. In New South Wales and ACT, the focus is on re-establishing power to blacked out communities and there have been thousands of homes and customers who have been reconnected just in recent days but there are still many without power. It is also about getting emergency support to impacted areas and tackling the damage and risk to key infrastructure, such as transmission lines, generators and there has been a particular effort through the defence force of supporting what is occurring at the Eden woodchip mill. Naval assets remain off the south coast of New South Wales, supporting reconnaissance and prepared to assist with evacuations and ADF medical personnel have been provided to Tumut Hospital and Batemans Bay. I should stress with the positioning of these assets, particularly the HMAS Adelaide and the Choules, that we are a long way from the end of this crisis and this disaster. Their prepositioning along the coast is very important. These are significant assets with significant capabilities and provide a staging post to render any amount of assistance as required. As we go into some difficult days, as we are already seeing in South Australia today and we expect to see on the east coast tomorrow, those assets being in place, those ships being in place and what is on those ships with everything from helicopters and engineering equipment and fully-staffed medical facilities will prove vital in the event they need to be called on at a moment's notice.

The Department of Human Services have put additional resources into all service centres and established pop-up service centres in key locations to ensure quick access to relief payments. There are eight mobile teams out currently. There are two buses and over the course of the next week, this will be rolling out to more communities. That is going to be done in concert with the ADF and the support that they can provide in these communities but also working closely with organisations in New South Wales, such as Services New South Wales, so there can be a whole of government, at Commonwealth and State level, response to community members in these affected areas. In Victoria, the Government has extended their state of disaster declaration for the six LGAs impacted by fires in the east of the State. The focus remains there on establishing access to isolated communities and getting emergency supplies and assistance to them. This is also including the important work, as we have seen also in South Australia, of the disposal and burial of livestock carcasses to avoid health and water quality impacts. That work is actually undergoing support from the ADF on Kangaroo Island now. I have been in discussions with both the New South Wales and Queensland governments about the support that is needed in those areas. Particularly in Victoria, one of the challenges is there are many isolated communities and there are still many roads that are cut off. Getting access into these areas to undertake those important functions can be very difficult but that is what our teams are very focused on.

The ADF has transported doctors and other medical professionals by helicopter to Mallacoota, while another evacuation by sea was completed by HMAS Choules. All those who have been registered for evacuation of Mallacoota have now been evacuated out of Mallacoota. Our defence personnel are also assisting in reopening the Great Alpine Road and are working with state road crews to reopen other major roads. In South Australia and Tasmania, where Brigadier Cantwell is leading the joint task force in both those areas. He is in Tasmania today. The focus there, particularly on KI as I saw yesterday, was on securing water supplies and helping state authorities to strengthen fire breaks and containment lines. As we have seen with the difficult fire weather today on Kangaroo Island, one of those containment lines has been broken. Army personnel are also assisting in the construction of that SES camp and rescuing injured wildlife and distributing bottled and bulk water to Kingscote Airport. In Western Australia - let's not forget this is not on the east coast - the Coolgardie Esperance Highway has been reopened and the Eyre Highway at the WA and SA border is still closed to all incoming and west-bound traffic. Emergency services are optimistic that the Eyre Highway on the WA and SA border will be open within 48 hours, provided conditions remain favourable. So that is the status update on where things are at as the Commonwealth has been advised as we speak.

The National Security Committee met today to consider a series of proposals which have been brought together by ministers in their respective portfolio areas. We are prioritising our focus on a number of matters and I will make an announcement on one of those in particular today. But providing that immediate and urgent cash assistance and injection into local communities to meet those most urgent and critical needs as we speak, we must also have a keen focus in the areas of tourism, small business, agriculture, forestry and fishing. The environmental rehabilitation and habitat restoration, not just in the immediate effect in terms of providing first aid assistance to wildlife but the longer-term plan so they have a habitat to return to. And of course the health needs and I will make further announcements on the health front in the course of the next few days.

But turning in particular to the urgent and initial cash injection that we will be providing into local government areas, we have agreed we will be paying $60 million into local government areas that are most affected. That will involve a million dollars as a base initial payment going into 42 local government areas and they are the ones that are either at category C assistance level now or we have been in discussions with the state governments about going into a category C assistance, even if that hasn't been fully formalised yet. We expect that to occur with two local government areas in Victoria, the largest of those being East Gippsland, which is a very large council area. Two in South Australia, which includes Kangaroo Island, which is another large area. There are five in Queensland, with one to be added to that - sorry, that includes one to be added to that with Livingston and there are 33 in New South Wales. Now, those of you who have done the maths, that comes to 42. There is $18 million in addition to that which, at the discretion of the coordinator, Mr Colvin, who is with me here today, and the Minister, they will be adding supplementary payments into those most affected group of councils over and above that initial $1 million payment. That will be done on the basis of assessed need, talking with those on the ground in those areas and particularly the state emergency services and other agencies that are working in those areas, as well as liaising with our ADF teams in place. It is also to recognise that not all councils have the same population, not all councils have the same area. When you look at East Gippsland and you compare that to some of the smaller north coast councils in New South Wales, for example, there is a big difference. So the coordinator will be ensuring that there is additional support and that can be many times what is provided in that base payment, to ensure councils have what they need. What I want to happen is if you're a Mayor in one of those areas today, if you are out in your community, seeing needs that you know need to be met right now and people are asking you to meet them, I want to give them the confidence and support by providing this cash assistance right now so they can say, "Yes, we can do that, yes the council can move in and do that. The Commonwealth is supporting us to go and make these immediate decisions which can provide immediate relief. This can go to supplementing the work that has been done to support the rehabilitation of local infrastructure, it can be on local roads, it can be on restoration of facilities, it can be providing staff and services support in their local areas to assist with whatever the need may be. Our local governments are the governments on the ground when it comes to trying to respond to these types of crises. They need that immediate cash injection to ensure that they can move confidently and start to respond to what is happening. This is coming out of the recovery fund which I announced earlier and this is a small but very significant initial payment. I said the money would be flowing immediately and those million dollar payments will be sitting in the state government's bank accounts tomorrow so they can immediately start distributing those out to those council areas so they can get on with the sorts of things they need to do. But as they go into the next few days and particularly as they face what they will see tomorrow, they can have great confidence that they will be in a position to respond and the resources will be there to back them up.

I also want to stress this is initial and urgent. There will be more and that will be assessed but we are going to be disciplined and careful and consultative in the way we make sure that additional support is rendered into these communities. We want to ensure we do that in a proper and coordinated way that enables the support to get to the places that need it most. This will be commenced this afternoon with the Government being in contact with all of those 42 councils to be communicating this decision directly to them and obviously to deal with any questions or issues that they would like to raise. That will be another important opportunity to be getting information directly from the ground to further inform our response. There already has been contact with the Premier’s department and the Australian Local Government association and this will mean work can get underway. I want to stress, particularly using local businesses and local contractors to undertake this work where that is what is needed.

There will be further announcements that I will be making in the days ahead before the National Security Committee meets again to consider further proposals next Tuesday and between now and then, we will be unfolding some of those further announcements while we work with the stakeholders that are particularly engaged in the decisions that we have made today. I want to thank Minister Littleproud for the work he has been doing with all of the other ministers and all my ministers who have been feeding in their response, whether it is in health, education, the environment, agriculture, tourism, in Treasury, understanding the economic impacts, all of this is undergoing right now and the proposals continue to come forward. The establishment of the Bushfire Disaster Recovery Fund means we are able to move incredibly quickly to get the resources out and on the ground. Minister?

THE HON. DAVID LITTLEPROUD MP, MINISTER FOR WATER RESOURCES, DROUGHT, RURAL FINANCE, NATURAL DISASTER AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Thank you Prime Minister. And what we said from the start was we said this was going to be a locally-led recovery, not a Canberra-led recovery and empowering our local councils to go and lead that at a community level is so important. They are the ones that know how to rebuild their community and help rebuild the lives of those Australians impacted by this devastating fire. We have got to understand this is the first tranche but what those councils can understand today is the cheque is cut. It is ready to roll. Get on with the job in the comfort of knowing that the Australian Government is standing shoulder to shoulder with you to make sure what you need is there. And we will continue to make sure that AJ and I are out there around the tables of those shire halls talking to the mayors and understanding and listening to your concerns. This is the first part of a comprehensive plan, a whole of government plan in making sure that we not just support the individuals and the communities but we support the industries that underpin them. That is why we can't rush in with huge announcements straight away, particularly while we are still in operational management. We have a very serious situation unfolding again tomorrow and we need to engage those experts in the comfort, in a time when there is clear air for them to be able to put their energy and their ideas into making sure that the Federal Government's response is as comprehensive as we want it to be. But that doesn't mean we are kicking it down the road. This is going to happen in weeks, not months and we will make sure...


THE HON. DAVID LITTLEPROUD MP, MINISTER FOR WATER RESOURCES, DROUGHT, RURAL FINANCE, NATURAL DISASTER AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: In days, exactly, we are going to be there to make sure that every step of this is done comprehensively. It is encouraging to see that the New South Wales Government's also announced a package today. It is important to understand that we will work hand in hand with the state governments, as we have done during this whole disaster. There has not been one request that any state government has asked, in the operational management of these fires, that I have not approved. Some I have approved within a matter of minutes. We have understood the gravity of this situation from the start and we are continuing to understand the gravity of the recovery in all these communities and lives. Particularly when we talk about the infrastructure, it is important that the underlying ethos that both State and Federal and local Governments should be is that we build back better. This is a unique opportunity to actually better the infrastructure we put in, to build the resilience of our communities, as we face further natural disasters into the future. This should be an underpinning principle and I will be writing to the States that they work with us on that. Because out of this, we should be able to take with us a stronger nation that's better prepared for future disasters.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Coordinator Colvin is here to respond to any questions as well. Happy to take your questions. If you would like to deal with the Middle East issues first? We could perhaps do that and then move to the bushfires.

JOURNALIST: The HMAS Toowoomba is due to leave on Monday, what can you tell us about that mission, the significance now has that changed at all and has there been any change in the rules of engagement?

PRIME MINISTER: No. No, it is tasked and it is shipping out, as you have said, it’s first port will be in Mumbai, as I have outlined and it will be there undertaking a number of tasks there for a period of time and we will continue to assess the situation but it’s tasking remains as I have previously outlined.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, should Australian troops be withdrawn from Iraq?

PRIME MINISTER: That is not the decision we have taken.


PRIME MINISTER: Because the situation overnight has stabilised, that is a very relative term in the Middle East, and the cessation of those immediate hostilities that we saw yesterday and the nature of the statement also issued by the President today, as well as the intelligence that we have, means that we are in a position to continue to undertake the mission that we have set for ourselves in the Middle East and we remain committed to that, as do our other partners. As I said, I’ve been discussing those very same matters with the Canadian Prime Minister this morning, there is a strong uniformity of view about the partners and we remain together and working together to ensure not only the safety of our own people, but to also ensure that we are in a position to continue to build a stronger Iraq.

JOURNALIST: On the situation facing Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who is locked up in Iran? And have recent developments in the area affected what the Australian Government is doing to try to get her released?

PRIME MINISTER: The Australian Government continues to exercise all opportunities and all avenues available to us to secure her release and to provide her and her family every possible support we can. And her cause is not assisted by me or anyone else, for that matter, engaging in broader commentary on it.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister are you confident that Australians in Iran, like diplomatic staff, are safe?

PRIME MINISTER: That is our advice. And the appropriate precautions are undertaken and the necessary contingencies are in place, as they are for all of our missions in this place. And they are well-briefed and they are well aware of the environment in which they're operating. I must say, that right now, as I spoke to Prime Minister Trudeau this morning, through our mission in Tehran, then we are providing whatever support we can to the families of the Canadian citizens, or whatever other assistance Canada needs, because we are there with our mission. Canada doesn't have a mission there. And I expressed to Prime Minister Trudeau our deep sadness and condolences to the terrible loss - some 63 Canadians were lost when that plane went down. And that is a terrible blow to him and his country. And in the same way that he was ringing to extend his great sympathies to us with what we're going through, it was the same opportunity for me to extend that same sympathy and condolence in return. We have been blessed with the amount of support and assistance that is being provided to us from countries all around the world. And, one, obviously we have the existing standing arrangements with New Zealand, Canada and the United States - and I've gotta say it's been of great comfort as I've walked into incident response centres, whether it's in Mudgee or Albury, or where ever I have been around the country, and you can hear that Canadian accent, the US accent, the Kiwi accent that is there alongside the Aussie accents, just focusing on the tasks. But I tell you the one that's also been overwhelming has been the loving response from our Pacific family. The Vanuatu Government provided $250,000 Australian dollars, and it might not sound like a lot in terms of the tremendous assistance provided by many other countries, but from them, that was a gift from the heart. And the same has been true from Prime Minister Marape and Prime Minister Bainimarama and Prime Minister Sogavare. They have all been reaching out to Australia. They know how Australia has been faithful to them in all of their hours of need, and they just, in their own way, are trying to extend that in the best way they possibly can. We're very grateful for it.

JOURNALIST: President Trump has called upon the other signatures of the JCPOA and China as well to step up in dealing with Iran, take the threat seriously. Is there a role perhaps Australia could play in easing some of these tensions? Obviously we have our mission there, diplomatic relations going back 50 years, probably one of the better relationships for a Western country, comparative. We've had a high level of engagement with the Iranians over the years. Any role at all we could take on board with that?

PRIME MINISTER: I think President Trump has summarised well the status of the JCPOA. Australia is very committed to nuclear nonproliferation, and particularly when it can get to the position of being weaponised to the extent that it appears that they have been seeking to achieve. And so it's important that we counter that threat and we'll play whatever constructive role we can do to achieve that. And there are mechanisms within that arrangement for those parties that remain in it, that I know that they are seeking to pursue, particularly United Kingdom and France. But from where we're sitting, my own view is I think the President has summed up where it sits for now quite well.

JOURNALIST: On the bushfires Prime Minister, the million-dollar payment, will councils have to submit and tell you what they want to spend it on, like they do with the million-dollar drought payment? Or will you just be giving them the money and they can spend it as they see fit after they receive it?

PRIME MINISTER: We're getting them the cash in their bank accounts and they need to get on with it. That's what this disaster requires.

JOURNALIST: What do you expect local councils will be spending that money on? They're not exactly in charge of some of the responses that you would expect the state government to have?

PRIME MINISTER: I was discussing with Premier Berejiklian this morning, it's in order for them to respond to the immediate needs in their local communities. That can be everything from fixing a local government road, because many of the government roads in these areas are local government roads. It can be local facilities that need to be stood up. It can be from public amenity blocks, it can be any number of things which are presenting as challenges in their communities. They may keep some of it aside to redevelop local sporting facilities, if that's what they wish to do. But, see, this is the point, and Minister Littleproud I think has put this very well. This is a ground-up response that we're supporting. They're setting their priorities, they understand their needs. What they need from us is the financial backing to get on and meet those needs. I'm trusting those local governments, and I have a great reason to have trust in them, to know their local communities. I was with the local Mayor on Kangaroo Island yesterday. He knows what needs to happen, he just wants the backing to ensure he can get on with it and this will enable him to do just that.

JOURNALIST: Back to Iran just momentarily has previously responded to attacks on its proxies around the world...

PRIME MINISTER: Sorry, I couldn't quite hear you.

JOURNALIST: Iran has previously responded to attacks through its proxies around the world. Has this incident increased the risk for a terror attack?

PRIME MINISTER: Australia obviously, and our agencies, constantly monitor these issues and where there is any need to change any of our alert levels, then that is done. But this is something that is under regular assessment. The National Security Committee, while having been very focused, of course, on the national response to the bushfire disaster, we have at the same time, and now for some period of time, been considering these issues very carefully, for some time now.

JOURNALIST: Labor’s made some suggestions for mental health support for fire victims, including lifting the 10-visit cap for Medicare-funded services. Will the Government look at these options and look at adopting them as well?

PRIME MINISTER: The Government has already been looking at all of those matters. We'll be making our decisions and making our investments in accordance with the processes we've set down. I mean, the Government is setting that as a high priority. Mental health was something I flagged when I stood in this courtyard and announced the $2 billion dollars the other day. And these are things that we are addressing and we'll make further announcements on that, once those packages are finalised.

JOURNALIST: So, those Medicare-funded visits could be made freely available?

PRIME MINISTER: When the Government is in the position to make the announcement that we intend to make, and we've made some decisions on that this morning, and we'll be making those decisions. The Government is well aware, fully aware of the needs particularly in mental health. As I've gone into these communities, particularly those where the fire has just ripped through, and I've seen the desolation and the impact not only on the residents but on those who have been directly involved in fighting these fires, and the first responders, we are very aware of the needs that they have, and the medical update I have here on initial work that has been done - there's been 1.9 million P2 masks allocated to states and territories. Public health updates are provided on air quality by the Acting Chief Medical Officer. Five national critical care and trauma critical medical teams have been deployed to New South Wales and Victoria, working with the states and the ADF. Mobile examples of that include Wangaratta Hospital, Mallacoota, and Batemans Bay. The Acting Chief Medical Officer is in daily consultation and coordination with state health authorities. Initial counsellors are already in place when it comes to mental health with the DSS and ADF teams. And we've also tasked the Health Minister, as I said, he has brought forth a package which we have considered this morning. People can expect that sort of support to be rolling out in the very, very, very near future.

JOURNALIST: In regard to the million dollar payments to the councils, with the money going directly into their accounts, is there a risk that the money could be misspent or inappropriately spent? And is there any sort of oversight or mechanism to claw it back if they do the wrong thing?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, there is a relationship between the departments, both at state and federal level, when it comes to these issues. But to be honest, that's not what is concerning me right now. What concerns me right now is that they need the cash, not paperwork. They need the cash so they can get on and respond to the need on the ground, and that's what the NSC, and I as Prime Minister, have prioritised in getting this support out there.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, there was a $70 million donation today. Obviously, Mr Colvin is in charge of the relief effort. With all this money coming in, who's taking charge on the ground?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's a very good question. And can I start by acknowledging the tremendous generosity of so many Australians, whether it is James Packer or Anthony Pratt, or Andrew Forrest, or whoever it happens to be. I think there's been tremendous generosity expressed from those at that level of means down to boys and girls raising money in their local schools and passing that on to the Red Cross and to animal welfare groups, to support them and aid their recovery. So, the generosity of that response, I think, has been simply extraordinary. But you're right - it's important that we work hard to best channel and coordinate that support that is coming through into the areas of greatest need. Now, that is being done both at the Commonwealth level, and Commissioner Colvin - sorry, a force of habit, mate - Coordinator Colvin is addressing that in the same way that it was being addressed through the drought response, and in the North Queensland response. I'll let Andrew speak to that. And state governments are also working, I think, to best channel that. And if you are in a position where you have been raising money for the bushfires, and I thank you for that, first and foremost, and all of those who have supported you, then it is, I think, important to take advice from both the state and federal agencies about where you can best direct that support. Now, in the case of Mr Forrest's initiative, he's highlighted two areas where he's putting $20 million into. That is firstly related to immediate recovery in areas using the great experience and expertise of Western Australians to come to the aid of the eastern states that have been affected. And I'm sure he's pulling that out of mining communities or others, where he's had a great deal of experience. There's also the work that he's foreshadowed in supporting habitat reconstruction. And the Government is equally and working on its own plan in that area. And that requires a lot of consultation. I've gotta say, in the environment area, that is one of the particular areas where we need to get, I think, a great deal of alignment. There are a lot of organisation that do a lot of fantastic work, and we need to try and best align how they're all working together. So, my simple request to those who are expressing this amazing generosity is to, as far as possible, call it all in and let's get it aligned, let's all work together on this. That's the key. Whether it's working together with local government, working together with local environmental charities, working together with state governments, the ADF, our Defence Force is working with emergency services, it's about working together. But, Andrew, did you want to comment on that?

ANDREW COLVIN: PM, just to say that obviously the last thing we want is for Government and my agency to be a block to funds, support getting to the people in need. But clearly we're working with these organisations, we're working with these very generous people, who are giving time, money and effort, logistics, products, and we're trying to direct that to where we think it is best going to be utilised. On the ground, there's great coordination. Sure, there's lots of people doing really good work, but there's good coordination, that's a very local thing. As the Prime Minister has said, the message we have is let's make sure that what we give is tailored to the community who needs it. As I said before, across the fire-affected parts of Australia, there are vastly different community needs. So, we're gonna tailor this to the local areas. But we're talking to all of our[ [inaudible] We've spoken to Twiggy Forrest- very generous what he's put together. He's done this before. Last thing I'm gonna do is step in the way of that. [inaudible] I will make sure it's best utilised.

PRIME MINISTER: It's a busy time. We've got a lot of work to do. Tomorrow is gonna be a very difficult day on the eastern states. And so once again, I express my sincere condolences and sympathies to the families of all of those who have lost loved ones during the course of this terrible disaster. We will continue to remember them, but also their families in particular in what they need, in supporting them. But I would encourage all Australians to continue to follow the advice of authorities, to keep being kind to each other as the way you are. Thank you for your generosity and your support. All levels of government will keep working to ensure that we come through this together, by staying together. Thank you very much.