Press Conference - Australian Parliament House, ACT

12 Jun 2020
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Good afternoon everyone. Just a reminder, today’s briefing with Question Time upon us this afternoon, I don’t intend for this to be a particularly long press conference compared to ones we've previously had, so just to flag that at the start. Apologies to those if we've broken into their midday movie for today's media conference following another very constructive meeting of the National Cabinet today. Many issues on the table today and I welcome, of course, the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, to this press conference again this afternoon.

We received an economic briefing from Dr Kennedy, which is becoming a standing item now of our regular meetings of the National Cabinet. He was able to take us through the work that he's been briefing the Federal Government on in terms of the impact of the economy, particularly on issues of unemployment and affected sectors, and that's been very helpful as the National Cabinet has continued to consider issues of restrictions and planning for the road ahead. The National Cabinet, as you know when I presented following the decision to abandon and abolish COAG and to establish the National Cabinet and the National Federation Reform Council, I noted there would be a series of National Cabinet subcommittees that would be established to drive a national jobs agenda, to drive a national agenda to generate jobs. As we look forward over the next 12 months, and beyond, our efforts, policy level at a federal and state level have to be about creating jobs. And we confirmed six National Cabinet subcommittees that will be established which will be driven by the leaders at National Cabinet and to set out the tasking for those subcommittees on rural and regional, skills, infrastructure and transport, population and migration, energy, and health. The leaders that sit around the National Cabinet table are very keen to set very clear expectations and tasking to those National Cabinet subcommittees to ensure they progress a very rapid jobs agenda.

In addition to that, the Council of Federal Financial Relations, which is the meeting of state Treasurers, together with the Federal Treasurer which is chaired by Minister Frydenberg, has also been tasked, as we flagged, to do work that will report at the end of August on consolidating and rationalising the National Partnership Agreements. In addition to that, they will take forward the issues on tax reform and on deregulation.

Also today, I provided an update to all premiers and chief ministers on our progress on Closing The Gap, and pleased to report on that front that we're making excellent progress when it comes to the Closing The Gap initiative and the new targets that are to be established. We anticipate that they'll be in place next month. That work has, of course, involved the Council of Indigenous Peaks and they will be considering those new goals over the course of this month, as will the Federal Cabinet, and states and territories will also be involved in that process and we would hope that they would all be agreed next month. That's great work that's taking place there. This is the first time that the Closing The Gap targets will have been set with Indigenous Australians, not for Indigenous Australians, which is a significant change.

Also today, we reaffirmed our commitment to the three-step process to ensure that we are on track for concluding the third step of that three-step process in July. On top of that, we also confirmed that it is the national strategy which brings together all the states and territories to pursue a policy of suppression. If we're able to achieve elimination or eradication as a byproduct, well, that's well and good. But we are not going to have our policies trapped by the goal of eradication. It's important to note that there being cases and there being the odd outbreak here or there, is something that is anticipated and the system has been built to deal with. But the emergence of cases is not something that will necessarily require the three-step process and the opening up of the economy to be halted. But that will always be subject to the medical advice from the medical expert panel of the AHPPC.

We are on track for the three-step process to be completed in July. Today we made some important decisions to change elements of that third step. The first of those is, as you look across the third step, you will note a series of caps for indoor gatherings of 100, and that can be anything from funerals through to the number of people who can be in a premises, or even in a room such as this. That 100 cap for step three across all of those areas will be removed and it will be replaced by a four-square metre rule application to those premises. So depending on how large your premise is, and that four-square metre rule applies to each room within that premise. You'll note that around this building, you’ll certainly note that in my office, the number of people who are allowed to be in that room at any one time based on the four-square metre rule. Now, that will mean obviously for much larger premises that will provide much greater scope. This is not happening immediately. This is part of step three. So states and territories who are making decisions about when they're moving to that step three, they will now be moving based on the policy of four square metres being applied and those caps of 100 for a particular building, they won't be in place. It'll be determined on that basis. The four-square metre rule by room. Now, the four-square metre rule continues to be reviewed by the AHPPC - the medical expert panel - and further work is being done on that, particularly for much smaller premises.

Also, for outdoor events, for outdoor organised events, sporting, cultural; we will be moving, as part of step three, for events in stadia or other venues of that nature with a capacity of 40,000 or less to enable attendance at those events which are ticketed and are seated, and all the social distancing rules apply, for up to 25 per cent of the capacity of those venues to take patrons. Now, there will be further work done over the next fortnight. This is not something that's happening straightaway. This is something that would be happening as part of step three, where states and territories choose to move to that, and it will require a bit more work. So that's in July. But we have to give venues and others time to prepare for that sort of change. I think that will be welcomed. Issues that have to be then addressed is access to the wet areas of those stadia, the bars and so on, and I have no doubt there will be some view about restrictions on those because they tend to be the areas where people would congregate and gather and that obviously presents risk, but when we're talking about people who have bought a ticket - so we know who's bought a ticket, we know where they're seated - then that enables those sorts of gatherings to take place in that structured way. Now, that of course would extend to outdoor festivals where they are ticketed and where they are seated. So if we're talking about sort of large folk festivals where people sort of roam around from tent to tent, and gathering to gathering, that is not something that is being talked about here. It would have to be a large, open area. There would need to be seats at the appropriate distance. It would need to be ticketed, and so people would be able to understand who was in attendance at that event. It's important to note that for venues greater than 40,000, that is an entirely separate issue. That will require further work because it's not just the number of people who are in the venue when you're up above 40,000, you've got more than 10,000 people going to a gathering, that has implications for the egress and access off and to those premises, public transport crushes, all those sorts of things, and that will require much more significant work, and I know that's work that both the medical expert panel and those states and territories that have those larger venues are keen to work on, but I wouldn’t want to raise expectations there. I think that will require a fair bit of work. But for those sort of mid-tier venues and below, up to 25 per cent is something that can be done in step three. So venues and state and territories can now move to plan around that, together with sporting codes and cultural performances and organisers, and I'm sure that will be very welcome.

When I noted, I stress, the 100-person cap on indoor being removed and being replaced by the four-square metre rule, that includes funerals. It also includes funerals for outdoor areas as well. So this, as you know, is an issue as you know that has caused great heartache across the community and I think we’ve all shared that and I think that will be a very welcome change. So if they're larger venues, then obviously they can have larger attendees and if they’re outdoor venues, then obviously properly seated and properly arranged, they will be able to accommodate larger gatherings and I’m sure everyone will be looking forward to that. That also applies to places of worship, of course, and things like that, depending on the size of the venue and how they're arranged. I’m sure people are looking forward to that. I know I am.

In terms of nightclubs though, that is not on the agenda. We've seen overseas that has been one of the areas of failure when nightclubs have opened and Michal Gunner, the Chief Minister in the Northern Territory, they noted that even though it is not prohibited, the application rule of 1.5-metre distancing means that venues have not opened there because it is not commercially practical to do so. So I wouldn't anticipate those venues opening any time soon or as I said, those larger mass gathering festivals and events that take place.

Finally, on international students. On international students, we'll be working closely with states and territories, firstly on a pilot basis and to enable, in a very controlled setting, for international students to be able to come to Australia but only on pre-approved plans for particular institutions worked up between federal authorities and state and territory authorities. I'm not suggesting this is going to happen soon. There's still a lot of work to do and that needs to get in place. We've received some very, I think, well thought-through proposals from states as to how this can be done, particularly here in the ACT. This is something that I'm sure we would all welcome happening again, but it has to be done with the appropriate quarantine entry arrangements and biosecurity and all of those matters being addressed. That's something that I know Border Force is working on. Our Federal Cabinet has been considering that now for some time. We're still a little way away before being able to advance on those proposals. But I made one thing very clear to the states and territories today, if you can't come to your state from Sydney, then no one is coming to your state from Singapore. If your borders open for international students, then you have to open up borders for Australians. I welcome the decision which I understand was made after National Cabinet today by the Queensland Government to nominate a date for the opening of that border in Queensland. That is welcome. We had a very open discussion about those issues today. The three-step process is very clear. It was a very constructive discussion. I anticipate states will be working through those decisions in the next few weeks. And they'll come to their own conclusions, but what is important, whatever date that is, that it is nominated as soon as possible because that will enable the travel and tourism and hospitality industry to plan for that time. So that is a matter for the states but I welcome the decision in Queensland and we look forward to other decisions being made soon and for that to enable those jobs and those businesses to be able to be realised.

Finally, and I’ll allow the Chief Medical Officer to speak more on this matter, and that is on the rallies and protests that are planned for this weekend. The medical advice hasn't changed. The medical advice is that this is an unsafe thing to do. It puts not only your own health at risk, but it puts other people's lives at risk. It puts the, in economic terms because of the potential risk of a way that could come from these events, it puts the livelihoods of other Australians at risk, people's businesses. It puts the progress we have been able to make at risk and the very clear message is that people should not attend those events because it is against the health advice to do so. And so I would strongly encourage people to exercise that responsibility by not attending those events and to respect their fellow Australians by exercising that responsibility and on the views they wish to express, that they seek to express those in another way. This is not about the issue that people are raising, this is about people's health and welfare and I would urge Australians to respect that by not attending those events. State and territory governments are responsible for law and order in their jurisdictions and they will be taking the decisions about what is done in relation to those gatherings, but we would simply urge you to do it. I don't believe there should be a double standard. There shouldn’t be a double standard when it comes to this. Australians have made great sacrifices to get us to where we are today and everyone has had very significant personal issues about which they have great feeling and if they can accommodate that in the actions they are taking and showing the discipline and respecting the restrictions that have been put in place, then so should everybody else. There should be no two sets of rules in this country when it comes to this.

Thank you, Brendan.


So we are one month now into the easing of restrictions and I was able to present to National Cabinet today an update on our pandemic health intelligence plan, which shows that we are in a good place. We've only had 38 new cases over the last week, more than half of them are overseas returned travellers. And we will continue to get cases from overseas returned to travellers for the foreseeable future, because the rest of the world is not in the same good place that we are in Australia. In fact, we have only had community transmission in the last few weeks in one state and only a tiny amount of that. New South Wales has now had no cases of community transmission confirmed in the last fortnight and the other states have had very, very few reports in the recent months.

But as the Prime Minister said, our strategy across the nation has been one of suppression. It is fantastic that we have effectively achieved elimination at this time in many parts of the country, but that's not our goal, because we know we’ll have return travellers coming, we know our quarantine arrangements are not going to be 100 per cent perfectly safe all the time. We know that there may be small pockets of community transmission of this virus in many parts of the country and they may appear and they will probably appear as we get more and more active and more and more interactions. So if there are small numbers of cases, small outbreaks anywhere in the country, we are well prepared. National Cabinet was not going to let us relax restrictions until our public health system was in a state of very strong preparedness. We know that we can test, we are testing a lot of people and we have got to keep that testing up. Everyone with a respiratory illness, everyone with a cough and cold needs to be tested, but if we get outbreaks, we are in a good position to respond, small outbreaks.

Because we've done so well, you've noticed from what the Prime Minister has said, that National Cabinet has become more confident about relaxing restrictions in phase three and that is absolutely fantastic that we are in that position. But we do need to be patient with all of these steps and that leads me to the issue of protests and I absolutely agree with the Prime Minister that those sort of events where you have a large number of people who don't know each other and who we can't contact trace easily or track, one of the highest risk events. We saw in Victoria that one of the people who was at the event potentially could have been infectious. We won't know, we won’t know for another week or so whether that has led to any spike in cases in that state, but these sort of events really are dangerous and the AHPPC, all these state chief health offices and our experts, released a statement yesterday pleading with the population to not attend those uncontrolled mass events. You cannot make them safe. Despite all the attempts of organisers to try and make them safe, those sort of events where people are crowded together and where you can't, we don't know who is there, are inherently unsafe. Please express your genuine concerns about issues in other ways.

Thank you, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you. Lanai?

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, are you still confident that all interstate borders will be open by July, as was the original plan, and particularly when it comes to Western Australia, was there any indication given by Premier Mark McGowan that that would be the case?

PRIME MINISTER: Well the plan was not by July, the plan was in July. And I think the only state or territory that is unlikely to fall out of that is still possibly Western Australia, but there is a commitment from the Premier to continue to look at this issue, I mean the Premier in Western Australia will make the argument that containing the borders of Western Australia has enabled them to move, they are effectively on step three now with the exception of that one item. But he also understands the importance of the growth of the national economy and Western Australia has been a very good partner in all of the things we have done. I have never claimed, through the National Cabinet process, there’s going to be 100% agreement on every single issue. I could almost nominate in each and every state and territory that they have all taken a different path on one or the other issue. But I think the Premier has always sought to engage constructively with the National Cabinet process, but at the end of the day they have got to make their own calls. National Cabinet has never sanctioned internal borders. Never. So it is not a National Cabinet position that has been followed by Western Australia on that issue or any of the other states, that is a matter they have chosen to do unilaterally and it is for them to make their explanations on those issues. But I can assure you when we are framing our fiscal and economic policies over the next 12 months, the assumption the Treasury will be making is that we are all on step three in July.

JOURNALIST: ...Clarification on the easing of crowd limits. For stadiums with larger than 40,000 capacity like the MCG, Docklands, Adelaide Oval, will they still be allowed to have 10,000 people, like smaller stadiums?

PRIME MINISTER: This is going to be looked at over the next few weeks. So what we're saying right now, right now, is if it is a smaller stadiums, less than 40,000, in step three, which would mean, I am not anticipating any such stadium to be doing this month, it would be sometime in July, I would expect, that that would apply to those. For the larger ones I would venture that it would be the subject of a discrete approval for each venue, that would be worked up with the Chief health Officer in each state or territory. So by the time you get into July there may be that type of opportunity for the rules that apply to those under 40,000 to just carry over to those above 40,000, but that is not a decision that has been taken yet. I mean these will be practical, commonsense issues, they’ll be worked through by the medical expert panel over the next few weeks and I think that will give it greater instruction. The purpose of me flagging this today is so sporting codes, venues, state and territory governments, can engage in that appropriate discussion, know broadly what the parameters are which the National Cabinet has set, so it means that people will be able to watch the games, not as cardboard cutouts, but in person, should they be fortunate enough to get one of those seats.

JOURNALIST: You mentioned before not wanting people to attend crowds in such large numbers at these protests, this morning the Finance Minister, Mathias Cormann, suggested looking at removing JobSeeker for those who do attend and break these social distancing guidelines, you agree with that, would you consider taking away those welfare payments?

PRIME MINISTER: We won't be doing that.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just on Closing The Gap…

PRIME MINISTER: And the reason is, enforcement of these matters is for the state and territory governments. And so they will apply their fines and their laws on these issues in those jurisdictions. They are dealing with those gatherings and those state laws and state restrictions are a matter for state and territory governments, not the Federal Government.


JOURNALIST: Just on Closing The Gap, there has been a lot of frustration from First Nations people this week about the lack of tangible progress in achieving those measures. How committed are you to closing the gaps, there are many of them, and just in terms of your comments yesterday about Australia not having had slavery, do you regret those comments and do you accept that we have seen those actions here in Australia that first Nations Australians have been very upset to hear you make those remarks?

PRIME MINISTER: I think anyone who has seen my commentary from the very first speech I made in this place, I have had an enduring and committed passion to closing the gap. One of the most important things that I have had the opportunity to participate in as a Member of Parliament was in those first few weeks when I was able to stand for the National Apology. And this is the point about Australia. In Australia, we know we have had problems in our past. We have acknowledged those and, indeed, in our Federal Parliament we have acknowledged those. I've always said we need to look at our history. The comments I was referring to was to how the New South Wales settlement was first established and the views that were communicated at the time, informing the New South Wales colony, and if you go back to people like William Wilberforce and others, they were very involved in that first fleet expedition and one of the principles was to be that Australia or in that case, New South Wales, was not to have lawful slavery. And that was indeed the case. There was not the laws that have ever approved of slavery in this country.

So I don't intend to get into the history wars, my comments were not intended to give offence and if they did I deeply regret that and apologise for that. This is not about getting into the history wars. I was simply trying to make the point that Australia, yes, we have had issues in our history. We have acknowledged them. I have acknowledged them. And we need to address them and, particularly those who I work closely within this area, would know that, personally, I have been heavily invested in these issues. And I will continue to be heavily invested in these issues and I pay tribute to my predecessors as Prime Minister because, you know, when you are Prime Minister you know this is a responsibility that you have, together with your Minister for Indigenous Australians, and that has always been the case, from either side of politics, and I genuinely don't believe there are large divisions when it comes to the issue of acknowledging the treatment of Indigenous Australians in this country. But I will tell you what there is an even bigger passion for, and that is to ensure that the passage of reconciliation, the process of improving the lives and outcomes of Indigenous Australians, is foremost in our minds and I think all Australians of goodwill and good faith are endeavouring to achieve that and I will continue to seek to achieve that.


JOURNALIST: PM, do you think that blackbirding would be considered slavery? And a follow-up question on Indigenous policy, what has been the reason why there has been relatively slow progress on Indigenous incarceration targets, do the states need more funding, do they need more commitment in order to address it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well look on the first point, I acknowledge there have been all sorts of hideous practices that have taken place. And so I'm not denying any of that, okay? I'm not denying any of that. And I don't think it's helpful to go into an endless history wars discussion about this. It's all recorded. I acknowledge all of that, okay? The challenges of Indigenous incarceration go across so many different areas of public policy. Its health policy, its youth policy, it's suicide policy, it’s employment policy, its welfare policy, this is an incredibly complicated area and not all Indigenous experiences are the same. Indigenous Australians living in metropolitan areas have different life experiences to those living in regional areas and remote areas, and so to suggest that there is one set of issues that applies to the Indigenous population is obviously ridiculous. And we are aware of the heartbreaking stories within remote Indigenous communities, of abuse, of sexual violence, of alcoholism, of drug abuse. It's heartbreaking. But it's true. You want to have an honest discussion about what's happening in communities, you can't ignore those facts either and it’s chronic. And it is enough to bring any Australian to their knees in tears. And so this is a complex issue, David. There is no shortage of funds being thrown at this issue. But clearly the application of funds by governments over decades and decades and decades is not getting the results we want. I can assure you it's not through a lack of will, it's an admission of the complexity and the difficulty of the task.

JOURNALIST: On a modern extension of this issue we’re seeing of cancel culture with Gone with the Wind, Chris Lilley's projects for example being pulled from streaming services. Is that something you're worried about?

PRIME MINISTER: I'm worried about jobs. I'm worried about 800,000 Australians going on to JobSeeker in the last 3 months. I'm not interested in what they’re showing on streaming services. I'm interested in getting Australians back in to work. I'm not interested in the debate about what people want to tear down. I'm interested in what people want to build up, and what we need to build back up are businesses and jobs and we need to restore livelihoods and lives. Honestly people - let's focus on what's really happening. 800,000 extra people are on JobSeeker in the last few months. You want to know where my focus is? On them. And the businesses that have closed and the livelihoods that have been destroyed. What you're watching on television is your business. Not going to create one job. Let's focus on where Australians are hurting today. And they really are hurting. And I will not be distracted.

JOURNALIST: Just on international students, when do you expect that they might be allowed to re-enter Australia? And are you concerned at all that recent commentary from China could deter Chinese students from coming here to study?

PRIME MINISTER: No on the second question. On the first question, I would hope we would be in a position to be doing pilots next month.

JOURNALIST: How do you respond to China calling on Australia to do some soul-searching and face up to racism against Chinese nationals here? Is our Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with China working? And how is Australia going to repair it?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Australia has done nothing to injure it. What Australia will always do is act in our national interests in accordance with our values. We'll do so consistently and with constancy and we will respect that comprehensive strategic partnership. And I stress Australia has done nothing to injure that partnership, nothing at all, and when it comes to our record of multiculturalism, of freedom of religion, of liberty, treating everybody equally, I'm happy to stack Australia's record up all around the world. Now, there's one more question. I think that people want to ask a few questions of Brendan and then I'm going to have to go.

JOURNALIST: Professor Murphy, what social distancing should apply at airports and on flights? Are those requirements being observed for special purpose flights in and did you have to warn Alan Tudge and others that they weren't correctly social distancing on the most recent flight from Melbourne to Canberra?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: Social distancing is not possible in the same way in domestic flights. We have a domestic airline policy. Airlines, domestic airlines, certainly short haul airlines, present quite a low risk of transmission because of their air handling. We have not seen a clear case of transmission of the virus on a domestic flight in Australia. So whilst initially we were practising, the airlines were practising good distancing, they are now occupying their seats more fully and I know that's one of the circumstances where we think it's not an unreasonable choice if someone chooses to wear a mask. I certainly have not warned any politician about not practising social distancing. So airlines, and on the return flights from overseas, they have been at 80 per cent occupancy, so we're trying to get a bit of gap. But you can't get the full 1.5 metre on a flight. But as I said, there are special requirements for flights and they are not a very high risk environment.

PRIME MINISTER: I'm going to have to call it off there, but I do note that I think on every press conference I’ve attended, except in this room, that I've had to warn the media that they weren’t actually practising social distancing. Thank you very much.