Press Conference - Australian Parliament House, ACT

19 Mar 2020
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Good afternoon, everyone. I'm pleased to be joined by the Treasurer.

Our plan is to ensure that over the next six months, or as long as it then takes, that we can effectively build a bridge to ensure that Australians, Australian businesses, those that are impacted, we can bring them across that bridge and get them to the other side. Which is where on that side the economy is rebounding, Australians health has been rebounding and Australian life can go back to what it was. As a result, there are a range of measures that we continue to put in place. Measures that address both the health issues, matters in our aged care, as I addressed earlier this week. And importantly, there are measures that we have to put in place in relation to our economy and the Treasurer will speak to some of those. As you know, the Reserve Bank has made some important decisions about this this afternoon. The Reserve Bank Governor and the Deputy Governor met with myself and the Treasurer yesterday afternoon. And this notion of the bridge is what we discussed. It was described in these ways by the Reserve Bank Governor, and he's absolutely right. Because there is a period through which we will have to move. That will be difficult. And the best way to get there is the measures that we're putting in place on a sustainable and staged basis. So that we can do them and scale them up as necessary to ensure we bring as many people as possible with us and to ensure that we minimise the impact on their lives. But as I said, there will be impacts and we'll be seeking also to cushion those impacts along that journey. The Treasurer and I will be making further announcements about that in the next few days, and we've had another important day as we've worked through some of those more specific things that the Government will be able to do that will cushion the impact for as many as we possibly can as a result of the economic impacts of what we're seeing with the coronavirus. But let me just announce a number of other measures that we’ll be moving on and then I'll hand over to the Treasurer to deal with the issues that we've already issued a statement on regarding the office of the Australian Office of Financial Management.

After further consultation with the National Security Committee this afternoon, tonight we will be resolving to move to a position where a travel ban will be placed on all non-residents, not Australian citizens, coming to Australia. And that will be in place from 9:00 pm tomorrow evening. We have already seen a very significant reduction in the travel to Australia by non-citizens and residents. It's about a third of what it normally would be at this time of the year. And we've seen reductions, even in the last few days when we put in place the bans which required people to self isolate for 14 days. And so as a result of that decision, we've seen that the traffic reduce quite significantly. And we believe it is essential now to take that further step to ensure that we now no longer will be allowing anyone unless they're a citizen or a resident or a direct family member in those cases, as is applied to all the other travel bans we've put in place previously. Now, this is a measure that I've been consulting also with the New Zealand Prime Minister on. We've been seeking to align our arrangements across the Tasman and I appreciate the consultation that I've had with Prime Minister Ardern over these many months when it deals with these issues.

This arrangement will enable, over the next 24 hours or so, for people to make other arrangements if they were intending to come to Australia. We won't have people then and the vast majority of cases who will find themselves on planes en route here, unless they are going along a rather protracted route, and that means they will be able to make other arrangements. Now for Australians, of course, they will be able to return and they will be subject, as they already are, to 14 day isolation upon arrival back in Australia. Now, the reason for this decision is consistent with the decisions we've already made on this issue, and that is we now have around 80 percent of the cases we have in Australia, that either are a result of someone who has contracted the virus overseas or someone who has had a direct contact with someone who has returned from overseas. So the overwhelming proportion of cases in Australia have been imported and the measures we've put in place has obviously had an impact on that. And this is a further measure now that will ensure that that can be further enhanced. I want to thank Qantas also who are offering to work with us to ensure that they maintain flights from particular parts of the world that can assist Australians to return to Australia. And we'll be working closely with them and those Australians who are overseas. We've been encouraging them to return to Australia. Those that are in more remote parts of the world that could prove more challenging. But for those who are in other places, then it is our intention to ensure that we can maintain flights to enable them to come home as soon as possible.

Now, there are other measures that were announced today by the Deputy Chief Medical Officer to reduce panic purchasing of medicines at community pharmacies. Specifically, what is being provided there is that pharmacists enforce new limits on dispensing and sales of prescription and over-the-counter medicines. I won't go through those measures again. You've heard the Deputy Chief Medical Officer outlined them to you earlier today.

I also want to say to Australians that there are no issues with Australia's food supply. What there is an issue with is the behaviour of Australians at supermarkets. That is what is causing the stress and the strain. The food supply in Australia, from the meetings that we continue to hold, is something that I think we can feel quite confident about. And if Australians can respond to that in a responsible way, then that won't lead to the sort of shortages that they've seen on shelves. And it will mean that all Australians will be able to get access to the things they need when they need it. And I would ask Australians for their cooperation on those issues.

Now, finally, the other matter I'd respond to before throwing to Josh, and enabling others to ask questions, is the actions taken by the Reserve Bank today, I'd simply say we welcome. They are highly aligned, completely synchronised with the actions that we're taking as a Government and that increasingly state and territory governments are also acting to address the issues that we're finding in our economy. Their actions of over $90 billion to support credit within the financial sector in Australia, topped off by the additional $15 billion from the Commonwealth means that this is a very significant injection to support Australians, to support our economy, to support business, to support jobs, as we all go across on this bridge together to the other side, where on the other side we know that the Australian economy will be stronger, Australians will be healthier, and Australian life can return to what we knew it to be. Josh.

THE HON. JOSH FRYDENBERG MP, TREASURER: Thank you, Prime Minister. Well, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. And today, the Australian Government, together with the Reserve Bank, have injected more than $100 billion into Australia's financial system. It reflects our collective determination to do what it takes to support Australian jobs and Australian businesses. And acting in concert with the prudential regulator APRA, we are not only supporting Australian jobs and businesses, but we are doing what we can to lower the cost of credit and to increase the flow of credit.

Now today the Reserve Bank made four significant announcements. The first was to announce a reduction in the cash rate to a quarter of a percent. The second was to target the yield on three-year Treasury bonds to also a quarter of a percent. That is below what they have been trading at. The third is the $90 billion dollar term funding facility for the banking system, which will focus on lending to small and medium sized businesses across the economy. What the Reserve Bank has endeavoured to do here is not only to increase the flow of credit, but to incentivise the banks to even provide more money to the small and medium-sized businesses across the country. The hairdressers, the mechanics and all the other small businesses that form the backbone of the Australian economy. And finally, they are increasing the interest paid on exchange settlements. Now all of these measures, as I said, are designed to do two things. To decrease the cost of credit and to increase its flow. As the Prime Minister referred to today, the Government has also acted by allocating up to $15 billion to invest in residential mortgage backed securities as together with other asset backed securities. This action, again, in concert with the Reserve Bank of Australia, is totally complementary to what they are doing because it ensures that some of the non-bank lenders are getting support to provide extra finance to the SME sector. This is a very volatile time in global equity, debt and credit markets, but Australians can be reassured that our financial system remains well capitalised and strong. It was referred to today by the Reserve Bank Governor in his statement. The Australian financial system remains strong, but the measures announced by the Morrison Government today and the Reserve Bank and the Prudential Regulator will even enhance this strength further.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Josh.

JOURNALIST: Just to explain to the viewers, listeners, in easy terms to understand, if you’re say, Betty, a hairdresser, and people, your business dries up. No-one's coming, because they're scared of human-to-human contact or whatever happens in weeks ahead. Betty’s got no customers. How does this, how can she borrow money to pay the employees? How in practice would it work?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, let me make one point and then Josh I'm sure, will make further points. Now and already, what we decided over just over a week ago was through the measures that would enable small businesses to get access to up to $25,000 in grants that will support their small business cash flow. When in the case you're talking about, that business would certainly have eligibility when it comes to those payments and that always can assist. That's not going to cover all the bills. We understand that. But it is going to go some way to provide some assistance, because that payment is actually linked to how many people they employ, ultimately because it's done through the BAS. What today's announcements do, is actually making sure that the banks themselves are in a position to get access to money at a lower cost, which means they're going to be in a better position and stronger position to be supporting small and medium sized businesses in particular, around the country. What they've said today to the banks is we're going to let you get money at a much lower cost, and you know, if you go and help and support small business, you'll be able to get more money at a lower cost. When the banks can get it at a lower cost, then obviously that's good for those who are in a position to seek it. Now, not every business is going to be in that situation. And we will have more to say about the broader measures that we want to put in place to cushion the blow and to support small business and to support individuals directly impacted by the coronavirus’ economic impacts. Josh?

TREASURER: Thanks, Prime Minister. Well, the interests of small business and the banks are aligned. The banks want their customers to be there on the other side of this and the small businesses want to survive and get through this and they want to continue to provide jobs to the millions of Australians that they employ. So the banks are working with their small business customers to ensure that that money is available. What today's announcement makes clear is more money will now be available to the banks to lend. And the best illustration of the significance of today's announcement is that the Commonwealth Bank has announced a reduction of a full percentage point in their small business lending rates, a full percentage point. Now, the bank, the Reserve Bank, has only reduced the cash rate, while significant, by a quarter of a percentage point. Commonwealth Bank has gone four times bigger than that today with small business lending, and that's a direct result out of the announcements today.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister can you ensure all COVID-19 pathology requests from GP’s are being processed and tested and that everyone who needs a test is getting one?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we've had some, we've had 85,000 tests that have been conducted, and I think that's a good indication of the answer to your question, because people are getting tested. Those presenting for tests who need tests are getting tested. And the Health Minister has been working with industry and others to ensure that the supplies continue to be made available for those who need tests. But I would say this to people, have a test where you need to have a test. And the rules for that, have been well set out, I think in recent times. And these testing resources are not ubiquitous, nor are they designed to be. They’re there for those who need them most. And so we would continue to encourage both the medical profession and others to use those testing kits where they are most needed. 

Phil. I’m going to Phil, thanks for your question, I’m going to Phil.

JOURNALIST: There's been speculation in the banking sector about the prospect of the government even possibly underwriting a proportion of existing small business loans, a bit like the Bank of England, is that something you were entertaining or that, have you drawn a line through that?

TREASURER: We are talking to the banks about a number of measures to continue to support their activity. No decisions have been taken. But what our focus is on, is supporting those small and medium-sized businesses, get through this health crisis, which is having a significant economic impact. So we continue to look at a range of measures. And as the Prime Minister has said, our second package will be substantially different to the first package. In fact, since that time, we have seen the economic impact globally as well as here in Australia become much more significant than was evident even just a week, or two weeks ago. And so our second package is designed to support, in the words of the Prime Minister, to cushion, you know, the challenges being faced by many Australians, to support them through this. And that includes backing small business.

JOURNALIST: I appreciate this is a work in progress and you will have more to say, but for the Qantas workers today they're probably worried about their incomes in future. So are you working on income support and Treasurer, obviously, are you talking to the banks about not foreclosing on people's mortgages?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the answer to both of those questions is yes. That's exactly the sort of thing we're working on. That's what cushioning the blow is all about. Now, my understanding of the arrangements that Qantas have gone into, when I was able to speak to Alan Joyce, there is a period still for many of these employees, about four weeks at the very least, in which their existing entitlements and things of that nature will mean that they'll be in a position, at least for that short period of time. For others, that can be up to three months. One of the things that Qantas, I understand is doing, is seeking to keep people on and connected to the company. Because they want to ensure that on the other side of this, that when the business returns and the flight's return, then they can quickly activate their workforce on the other side and that's very important. What we're seeing here, as I understand, as it's been explained to me, is the stand down of quite a number of staff simply for the obvious reason that Qantas planes aren’t flying anywhere. And what this means is for a period of time, they won't be drawing a salary from Qantas, for those who have exhausted their leave under their leave arrangements.

So what that has meant for the government is when we say we want to cushion the blow, we're looking at those issues around income support. We're looking at the issues around people's obligations and working really constructively, whether it's with the banks or whether it's with businesses or others, to ensure that we're putting them in a stronger position to look after people and where they're not in a position to be able to do that, then the government is stepping up where they can, to try and cushion that that impact as much as we responsibly can. Josh?

TREASURER: Well, thanks, PM. Chris, talking to the banks, day and night, about what can be done to bridge the circumstances that many Australians find them in, themselves in to that point of recovery, and that includes for the banks to be very generous towards their customers at this difficult time, because it's in the banks interests, it's in the economy's interest. It's in Australia's interests that the bank stand by their small business customers.

JOURNALIST: New Zealand's also announced it's closing its border to non-citizens. What does this mean for a million Kiwis living in Australia? And did you discuss this with Jacinda Ardern before you made this move today?

PRIME MINISTER: The New Zealand arrangement, in the same way as it has in the past, doesn't apply to Australians living in New Zealand as New Zealand residents and equally for New Zealanders who live in Australia as Australian residents. They are the same rules that have applied to all of those travel bans whether they were imposed for China or Iran or South Korea or Italy. These are the same rules that apply in both countries and we have worked today to align what we're doing. And I appreciate that openness. Sorry, just one for everyone if we can?

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister yesterday, you were as blunt as you could be about hoarding in supermarkets and you've said, you’ve shared your thoughts on this again today. I mean, this morning here in Canberra, we saw a huge queue of people waiting for Costco to open. Is it that people are just not heeding your message? Is this because of the lack of trust in democracy we've seen over the last couple of years? What more can you actually do?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think it's because people are anxious and we all need to work hard together to reduce people's anxieties. And I think we all need to sort of encourage all Australians to act responsibly. There are not supply issues that relate to these items and nor, as I said yesterday, is there a need to hoard them. That is just simply not necessary. And we will just each and every day, calmly go about the business of assuring people about these supplies. And what I'm very pleased about, though. And while I did have a few stern words to say - and my daughter said to me yesterday, it sounded like that's what you sometimes say to us, Dad. And it was a bit like that, I gotta say. 

But what I am pleased about, some of you may have heard me make remarks on this in morning radio today. I'm also seeing amazing acts of generosity and kindness. And I'm hearing those stories and I would encourage media to, it's not a criticism, I just encourage you to tell more of those stories. You know, neighbours looking after elderly neighbours and making sure they've got things that they need, or if they need meals cooked for them, and that's being provided that wonderful story about the note in the lift; if you need help, call this number, I live on this level - I think it was something like that. These are the wonderful stories of Australians. 

Yeah there's some Australians who, frankly, aren't giving Australia a very good name at the moment with their behaviour. I understand they're anxious. I understand all that. But for the next six months at least, we need to work through this together. So we do need to moderate our behaviour. We do need to understand that things have changed. Things are different. Life is not like it was before. But the phones still work and they will, the power still goes on, the buses still run, the hospitals are open, the shops are open, the trucks are getting to the shops. All of that is there. What we're dealing with here is a virus, and the virus will slow the country down. It will mean people will have to self isolate. It will mean we’ll have to behave differently. And that will happen for quite a period of time. Six months, I believe, based on the advice I have, at least. So we can do it. I have no doubt we can do it. We just have to apply ourselves to it and encourage each other to do the right thing. Kath?

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister it's obvious from what the government's been saying for a couple of days and what, certainly what you’re saying today, that income support is on the table for the next tranche of economic support. I deduce from what you, the answer you gave me yesterday that it'll be delivered within existing programs, so for current beneficiaries, people who are currently on Newstart before this, before this crisis hit. Will, whatever the new arrangements are, also apply to current beneficiaries or only to a cohort of recipients who have lost their jobs temporarily as a consequence of this economic shock?

PRIME MINISTER: When we've completed the important work we're doing at the moment, and we're working through very carefully the design of these measures, what I know is that for those Australians who have been on what has been known as Newstart, going to the job seeker payment is that one of the things that has always been available previously in the economy with the very strong growth we've had in employment, is that the task of the government is to get people off the job seeker payment, off the Newstart payment and get them into a job where they are much better off. Now, we understand that certainly over the next six months, that is a very different looking economy. And when the facts change, when the circumstances change, you need to adjust your packages and the way you're delivering support in the community to reflect that. So we'll have a lot more to say about these things in the not too distant future. But just like last week, we're working hard to get the detail right. So when we say something is going to be done, it will be done and it can be done and it won't be attendant with lots of other different new forms and new processes and things that can go wrong. And we can ensure that the support and the cushioning impact of this can get to people in the best and the most effective way that is possible. But Josh did you want to add to that?

TREASURER: Well, obviously, the details of our package are being finalized right now. But as I said earlier, the situation has changed and it's got much more difficult across the economy since even two weeks ago. But our focus has always been on getting to the other side and getting Australians to the other side.

PRIME MINISTER: Last one here.

JOURNALIST: PM are you aware of the situation of Australians stuck in Peru and some other countries where there are local lockdowns?

PRIME MINISTER:  I have become aware of that issue. And there will be Australians in many places around the world who will find themselves finding a lot harder to get back to Australia than otherwise. The coronavirus has been a matter of public record now for several months, and many Australians have taken wise decisions to get back home sooner. In a number of occasions, Australia has had to put in place flights that have brought people back obviously from Wuhan but as well as from the Diamond Princess up in in Japan. We're working with Qantas to ensure that we continue to get a flow of flights and keep flights open for a period of time so Australians can make their way back. But those who find themselves in an, a more remote location than we're obviously going to have to work closely with them through our consular offices, like our very professional consular officials do on each and every day. So there are no specific responses on that matter just now. It was only brought to my attention very recently, but what our DFAT, wonderful DFAT team, has been doing, they will continue to do and they'll seek to assist Australians wherever they practically can.

But there are obviously limitations to what can be done. But we would hope they were safe and, but they are finding themselves around the world in circumstances that all people around the world are finding themselves. And I think people hopefully will be able to provide assistance in those, in those settings. But we're going to leave it at that because the Reserve Bank Governor, I understand, is making a further statement. I think he's made an outstanding point on us all getting to this bridge from here, where we are right now to the other side. Where on that side the economy comes back, people's health comes back, and Australia bounces back stronger than ever.

Thank you all very much.