Press Conference - Australian Parliament House, ACT

25 Mar 2020
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Good morning everyone. Last night, I had to announce on behalf of the National Cabinet some very difficult changes that we have asked Australians to make and in many cases in relation to the operation of businesses, some very difficult changes which means that they will need to close their doors. And that also means that their staff will no longer be able to turn up to work and have employment. These are very difficult changes that we're asking Australians to make. I want to assure all Australians again that these decisions are not being made by Premiers and Chief Ministers and myself lightly. We are very mindful of the impact. We are also very mindful that you are receiving a lot of information and we are moving as quickly as we can, but also seeking to be understanding of the need for Australians to be able to absorb this information and make the changes in their daily lives and to talk to their family and friends and their employers and others about that. So this is a time of significant change and I want to thank all Australians for the spirit in which they're receiving this information and working hard to ensure that they can adapt that to their daily routines and their daily lives. I've said all throughout this that there'll be many months ahead of this and we are seeking to do things that are in, that are sustainable so we can keep doing them, not just now, not just for a week or two, but that we keep doing them month after month after month to ensure that we can all get through this together.

So again, I want to thank the Premiers and Chief Ministers who have all been out this morning and been providing further explanation to the points and announcements that I made last night. We are very conscious of the great cost of these measures and the impact on the daily lives of Australians and we are there with you and we will continue to be to explain these as best as we can and the states and territories will be seeking to do everything they can to ensure they're followed, because when we do these things, we save lives, we do these things, we can save more livelihoods, we do these things and it sets us up even better to get on this bridge to the other side of the recovery and to be able to make sure that that's as strong as it possibly can be.

Now National Cabinet is meeting again this evening. It is meeting to pick up on the items that we were unable to get to last night. I am not planning at this point to be holding any media conference this evening after that meeting, as it is largely dealing with matters that are in process, are in train. And so tonight, it is not our intention to be making any further announcements about those types of issues that we addressed last night. It was a very lengthy discussion, as you can imagine, and we thought it was important that we break the meeting to ensure that I could convey the decisions on those important behavioural changes and particularly the issues of closure of premises in all of the categories that I announced.

There are many challenges we are facing now, which we've already discussed. But there are going to be many more and some of them yet haven't even revealed themselves as to what the nature of those challenges are going to be. What as a government we've been seeking to do is put in place the right advice, the right structures, the right disciplines, the right processes, to ensure that we can make the best possible decisions that can stick and will ensure that we can best manage this crisis. As I described it last night, a twin crisis, a crisis on a health front, which is also causing a crisis in the economy as well. And both of them can be equally as deadly, both in terms of the lives of Australians and their livelihoods. The purpose is to have these structures enable us to save lives and livelihoods, to cushion the impact, to build a bridge to the other side and get everyone across that bridge together. The National Security Committee task force on Covid-19, which meets very regularly to make decisions about what the federal government needs to do. For example, the ban on people travelling overseas, which will be in place as I understand by midday today. The National Cabinet, Premiers, Chief Ministers, doing all they can to work together like I have never, ever seen before with states and territories. And sure, there may be the odd time where there might be a bit of difference at the edge. But I can tell you in my entire working life, in public life, I have never seen the states and territories work together like they are working together right now and I thank them for that. The National Cabinet is an essential gathering and it is all of our preference to keep that consistency and common action together as much as is possible. But we also need to recognise that in some places, states and territories are in different situations to other parts of the country. A very good example of that is the Northern Territory. It is a very unique set of circumstances in the Northern Territory, particularly as it relates to remote communities, indigenous communities. So while we seek to get consistency across the country, there will always be exceptions or differences based on those circumstances in those states and territories.

We also have the economic advice that comes through to us from the Reserve Bank and from Treasury and other members of the Council of Financial Regulators, ASIC and APRA. Those bodies which are feeding up information, and advice to us in all of these bodies. The National Cabinet, the Expenditure Review Committee, our Cabinet and the and the National Security Taskforce. That work has been important to define the economic responses. And of course, there is the medical expert panel, you keep hearing it referred to as the AHPPC. It is the panel of medical experts, doctors who work in public health in all the states and territories and the Commonwealth, who are providing the expert medical advice together to the national cabinet and to our respective governments.

But there is another area and I'm joined by Neville Power here today, Nev Power, as we know him, that we believe needs greater coordination. And that's why today I'm announcing the establishment of a national COVID-19 Coordination Commission. That Commission's job, put simply, is to solve problems. Problems that require the private sector working together with the private sector, CEOs, to talk to CEOs and to be engaged with by CEOs to ensure that the private to private effort is there solving problems in the national interest and it's being mobilised. It's about the private sector working together with the public sector. It's about better coordinating the efforts that are happening within the public sector and to do that we have been operating with what has been called the national coordinating mechanism, but that is essentially being done by governments between governments at a state and federal level. Whether it's repurposing manufacturing lines, whether it's re-tasking workforces, that one day were taking calls for travel companies, now taking calls at Centrelink and ensuring that we're repurposing the workforce effort. There will be many other problems that need to be solved. And Nev Power I have appointed as executive chairman of that Commission to help us solve those problems and work through them with all arms of government right across government, working with states and territories, some of whom have also put in place similar arrangements to ensure we can get these problems sorted. Whether it's ensuring we get food to supermarkets and we ensure the supply lines remain open there and the trucks can roll out when they need to roll out and we have enough of them to do that job at all the right times. These are the many challenges that we need to face.

Now, Nev Power was the former head of the Fortescue Metals Group. He has a great experience in doing just this task. You work in the mining sector, you need to know how to solve problems and big ones. There are only big issues in the mineral sector. And it's great that Neville, when I rang him the other day, I simply said, Nev, I need you to serve your country. And he quickly responded, in the same way that the Commissioner of our Bushfire Recovery Agency, AJ Colvin, I asked him the same question. I need you to serve your country, and he stepped up and that's what Nev’s agreed to do in leading this new Commission. There will be a board that will be appointed and we already have sitting on that board a number of eminent Australians who'll be working with Nev to help guide this problem-solving task and there'll be others who'll be added to this board. The other members of this board are Greg Combet, Jane Halton, who formerly... Greg Combet, who everyone will know, I think, quite well. Jane Halton, I'm sure many of you know but she now sits on a number of boards outside. She has previously served extensively within the Australian public service and in her last role as the head of the Finance Department. Mr Paul Little who used to head up Toll and has a great understanding of how to deal with the many logistical issues that will be present as we go forward. Katherine Tanner, who heads up Energy Australia, Kath also sits on the Reserve Bank of Australia board and is very experienced in the energy sector, but also has a very good handle on what's happening in the financial sector as well. And the deputy chair of the organisation will be Mr David Thodey. David also heads up as chair of the CSIRO. But of course, as former head of Telstra and a deep corporate experience means that together they will be able to reach out and into corporate Australia to solve problems on behalf of the nation, working together with the states and territories. Now, the board will be joined by Phil Gaetjens as the Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Secretary of the Home Affairs Department, Mike Pezullo, who is currently running the national coordinating mechanism. That will continue to function and it will plug straight into this new Commission to ensure we're getting the advice. They will come to us and say, Prime Minister, we need to do this. We need you to authorise this. We recommend that you take this action to get these problems sorted. And so I want to give Australians confidence that we've got the best people in this country working to solve the problems and the challenges that are going to confront us so we all get through to the other side. And I want to thank you, Nev, for taking on this role and all of the other members of the Commission's board and all of those who are going to be working with them and we'll be making further appointments, particularly in the not for profit sector, to see how we can mobilise that effort as well.

Before I throw to Nev I want to make a number of comments and we can take a few questions today. We had a lot of questions last night and we have a fairly busy agenda today. I also need to note another decision that we confirmed this morning amongst the Premiers and Chief Ministers, and that is that the national cabinet endorsed the advice of the medical expert panel, the AHPPC that from today midnight the 25th of March until further notice all elective surgery other than category 1 and urgent - I stress very urgent Category 2 cases - will be suspended. This will apply in both the public and the private hospital systems. Cancellation of elective surgery will allow the preservation of resources, including personal protective equipment, and allow health services, private and public, to prepare for their role in the Covid-19 outbreak. Now this had already largely been implemented for category 1 and category 2 and what this means is a further scaling back of those of those elective surgeries in Category 2. So with that, I'm going to hand you over to Nev and then we can take some further questions.

NEVILLE POWER, CHAIR OF COVID-19 COORDINATION COMMISSION: Thank you very much, Prime Minister, and thanks, everyone. As the Prime Minister mentioned, I've stepped up to this role when he asked me to do it, because I think Australia right now, more than anything, needs to focus on minimising and mitigating the impact of the coronavirus on our businesses, on our communities, on our people. And that’s through the preservation of jobs, as much as we possibly can, given the constraints that we have around the restrictions from the coronavirus. So my role is going to be looking for those problems and looking for opportunities where we can join businesses together to solve two problems, where there is a workforce that has no longer gainfully employed and where there's a workforce that it is needed, where there's equipment that can be redeployed, where we need to intervene to protect our critical supply chains and our utilities. And also very importantly, looking to the future, because we know that this virus will come and go and we want to be well positioned to make sure that we restore people's jobs and livelihood as quickly as we possibly can afterwards. So our priority is to identify those areas and ask people for their help and look for coordination across all of those areas to minimise the impact of this virus.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Nev. Just before we come to that, also there is some important information I wanted to relay on testing. My morning brief this morning has Australia at 162,747 tests for Covid-19. Now, to put this in perspective, the tests by 100,000 population for Australia is five times, almost five times, 4.7 in fact, what it is in the United Kingdom, it is 25 times what it is in the United States. It is even higher now than in the Republic of Korea and puts Australia right at the top of that leaders board in terms of the amount of testing that we're undertaking in Australia. This is a very important statistic because it shows that those testing resources we are securing and we are continuing to deploy. The testing and the contact tracing is the most important jobs we have as governments to ensure that we can best manage this virus and to, supported by all the other measures, ensure we can reduce the peak impacts that we are so determined to do in managing the virus in the community. Andrew?

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you keep using the word scalable to talk about economic measures, surely now you can see the scale of the economic and societal problem from the lines outside Centrelink. Will you consider a scheme like Boris Johnson's where he provides money to distressed businesses so they can keep their workers on the bridge until we get to the other side?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, two things. We are already providing money to businesses through the BAS arrangements and one of the weaknesses of the system that you're advocating for is that it has to build an entirely new payment system for that to be achieved, which is never done quickly and is never done well. And that can put at great risk the sort of resources we're trying to get to people. The best way to get help to people is through the existing payment channels, through the existing tax system arrangements. That was the lesson from the GFC. Of all the money that went out in the GFC - and I'm not making a partisan point here - the key lesson was you must use existing channels for getting money to people because that is the most effective way for that to occur. To dream up other schemes can be very dangerous.

JOURNALIST: Even if that means more job losses, Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER: No, no, I don't accept that at all and that is not the advice of Treasury either. That is completely inconsistent with the advice of Treasury. See, what we're doing is keeping as many businesses as we possibly can open. And then what we're doing for those businesses that closed because of the many measures, in fact, that we're putting in place, we are ensuring a stronger safety net for all of those who are impacted by that. Businesses will close because of the restrictions we have put in place. There will be no jobs in those businesses. And so what we want to ensure is the Australians who are affected by that and the businesses indeed that are affected by that, that they can get a lifeline and a safety net that will help them through. Because if you lose your job and you earn $150,000, or if you lose your job and you earn $50,000 or your job is at risk on those two different levels, then I'm ensuring that both of those people get the same support.

This isn’t a one on one interview, Andrew.

JOURNALIST: Will you waive mutual obligations?

PRIME MINISTER: I addressed that last night.

JOURNALIST: Communications, logistics, transport will all be important. The Department of Defence does that very well. So what role do you envisage for the Department of Defence?

PRIME MINISTER: They’re already playing a role. They're already involved, particularly in logistics issues and the repurposing of supply chains on PPE masks and things of that nature. And I want to commend Minister Andrews, Karen Andrews, for the amazing job she's been doing around that effort, working together with the Minister for Defence. Defence personnel are already involved in contract tracing and surging workforce support into state governments to help them with those tasks. Logistic support from the military will also be available and the many other tasks that they can be involved in, which were on great display during the bushfire crisis. And all of those resources will be at the disposal of the National Coordination Commission for coronavirus, and they'll be plugging in heavily with this work with Nev.

JOURNALIST: You said in your opening remarks last night and again today that the situation is slightly different in some of the states. Is it conceivable that New South Wales and Victoria could move ahead to further restrictions at a faster pace than other states?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the preference of all states and territories is to ensure as much consistency as possible, because it is absolutely true that the situation in New South Wales is different to that in Victoria and to that of Western Australia and in particular the Northern Territory and Tasmania. And where possible, they are seeking to ensure a consistent approach. But the issue of hitting higher thresholds and other measures is a matter that is being discussed by the National Cabinet. But be assured that if additional measures are required for different parts of the country, there would be no resistance to that occurring. It would be hard, I think, for some Australians to get their heads around is why a particular measure might be introduced in Melbourne, but not in Adelaide and that could cause some confusion for people living in Adelaide. It could also mean that if some states were to go ahead and other states were forced to follow, then that could cause needless economic loss in those states as well. See we're managing two crises, an economic one and a health one, and they are impacting on our country in different ways across the country.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, last night you told Australians to stay home except for essential school work, grocery shopping, health or exercise. This morning the government texted people who are sick to stay home. While obviously it's more urgent that sick people get that message, don't you think that lack of detail this morning undermines the very clear advice you gave us last night?

PRIME MINISTER: No, it doesn't, because it was consistent with the advice. The most urgent message that we're getting for people to stay home is to stay home if you're sick. That is the most important, urgent message. It is also important that people should stay home when they're in self isolation. And as I said last night, our preference and our instruction is more generally stay home unless you're going out for essentials. But the most dangerous thing you can do and we know of people who are sick and have sought to go to pharmacies and that is very dangerous. And so the most important part of the message that we're seeking to get out is that message. There will be more messages. I mean, just last night, you were criticising the government for not having a text messaging service. And here it is first thing this morning, and I knew that was taking place. So I'd ask the media to be patient. We're obviously getting to these issues. And I appreciate there'll be criticism from time to time. But that message is very clear. The message we gave last night was very clear. There will be more messages that come out using those sorts of mechanisms and we are further upgrading that capability.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, there are still some people today who are a little bit confused, parents saying do I send my kid to school do I know, some small businesses who don't fall very specifically into some of those categories?

PRIME MINISTER: Which categories are you referring to?

JOURNALIST: The categories in terms of I should close? So many, a small jeweller, or a nursery for plants. Some people are still confused about what to do. Would a, just a lockdown for a time be a good idea so that unequivocally it's clear we need to just all lock down, we need to control this now?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, you're suggesting I should close down businesses where there's no medical advice that they should. I don't understand why we would cause that harm to a business and all their workers and their livelihoods for the sake of some sort of message convenience. I think that would be quite reckless. What we're seeking to do is put in place measures on a scalable basis. Now, last night, I gave a very clear list of those businesses that were unable to continue in their premises because of the risk of the spread of coronavirus. Now, our advice is not to extend that more broadly within the retail sector. People can still go to car yards. They can still do those things, where It's necessary for them to do that. And those businesses are expected to put in place the arrangements I talked about last night, which is the four square meters per person. How many people can be in that premise. And what I was trying to stress last night is the government is taking these decisions together with the states and territories very seriously. We are not going to do things to a business or someone's job and livelihood where, at this stage, that may and is not necessary. And so when we do make those decisions and if we do make those decisions, you can have the confidence that it's not being done in some sort of cavalier way to just suit the convenience of messaging. That's not my priority. My priority is to protect Australian lives and protect their livelihoods and to make this information as clear as I can. Kath, last question.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just picking up from Phil’s question, the Victorian Premier this morning in his press conference said there would be stage three lockdowns, not today, but that they're coming. And he said that it was basically understood now in the National Cabinet that there were differences between the states. And his clear inference was that Victoria and New South Wales would move ahead of other states to implement stage 3 lockdowns. Is that your expectation and would, I think you said a minute ago, there wouldn't be resistance. But I'm just wanting to be clear. Is it your expectation that New South Wales and Victoria will move ahead of other states?

PRIME MINISTER: Ultimately, the National Cabinet is not a compulsory mechanism. That's not how our Federation is built. That's not what our constitution provides for. It is, I think, the preference of all the National Cabinet that wherever possible, they can move together and they can move together in a consistent way. But there is also an important discussion about where other states are under more extreme circumstances, that measures that may be required there more urgently may be less urgent in other parts of the country. So there is a real discussion about how those issues can be addressed. But I can assure everyone that no measure has been restrained from in any state or territory, if any state or territory felt they needed to take those more urgent actions than I know they would do it through the National Cabinet. And they would not seek to do it unilaterally, but they'd seek to do it in partnership, in cooperation with other states and territories. Now, on the issue of schools, I could say that this morning I had a very positive discussion with the National Education Union. We're working through those issues. And the points I'd make briefly about that to you is simply this - that we recognise absolutely just how important teachers are in dealing with this crisis. When I think about teachers, I'm thinking about them in the same way that I'm thinking about paramedics, about nurses, about doctors, about, frankly, those who are trying to upgrade the capabilities of Centrelink and things of that nature. These are critical people in our community at this time and it's very important that we work with teachers to ensure that their workplace health and safety is being addressed as we manage this very difficult issue. School is not as usual anymore. That's clear. We all accept that and school won't be as usual going into the future. That's important. But we must have an orderly transition that ensures that workers, and as I said last night, an essential worker is a worker with a job because I don't want any parent to have to choose between putting food on the table for their kids and for their kids getting an education. That is not a choice I want any parent in this country to have to make. And so we are working with the National Education Union. We will be having further discussions with them to work through these issues. I thank them for their cooperation today and the very good spirit that they and and many other unions around the country are working together with us. And I have no doubt, particularly working with Greg Combet and Nev as part of that process, they will be critical going forward as well.

Thank you very much for your time.