Press Conference - Australian Parliament House, ACT

23 Oct 2020
Parliament House, Canberra
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Well, good afternoon everyone. Today in Sydney the friends and family, colleagues have gathered to farewell Susan Ryan. We thank her for her amazing service to this country. In remembrance of her today, because of National Cabinet, I was represented there today by the Deputy Prime Minister and I thank him for representing the Government and for all those who’ve gathered, a remarkable and wonderful Australian, and we thank her greatly for her service to our country.

Also, just moments ago, 161 Australians touched down from London, in Darwin as part of a series of flights that the government has been organising to support other changes in cap arrangements, which is steadily and surely ensuring that more and more Australians are getting home. And I'll come back to that in reporting on the outcomes of National Cabinet. And, of course, the acting Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly will report on the usual matters.

At National Cabinet today. We agreed in principle, given that we had a number of jurisdictions today who are in caretaker arrangements, that constrains a bit of what they can do at each meeting, even here in the ACT. While the outcome there was fairly clear they are still not finalised in those arrangements so technically in the ACT, they were still in caretaker. But we agreed in principle, again, - with the exception of Western Australia and their reservations were outlined on a previous occasion - with the reopening framework for Australia by Christmas. And this is the plan and it sets it out. It'd be very familiar, I think, to many, the reopening plan to get Australia open by Christmas of this year. Importantly, this plan not only details the opening of various activities within our economy and within our community and society. An important part of this plan is that it includes the necessary actions and that are needed on a public health response to support that plan. And the work that Alan Finkel has been doing, in particular, the work that has been done on hotel quarantine and improvements in all of those areas are vital and essential to the achievement of that goal by the end of this year. Premiers and Chief Ministers reiterated their support for that goal today. And we have made further progress and that will come back again to National Cabinet when it next meets on the 13th of November. And indeed, where things can be progressed before that, they will be. But over that time, we will also have further actions coming from the Finkel work that has been done around tracing mechanisms around the country. As I’d indicated after our last meeting.

We also agreed the recommendations of the hotel quarantine review that was undertaken by Jane Halton. And that report will be released after this media conference. It was also agreed to develop a risk stratification approach, as it is known, to international arrivals and their quarantining arrangements. Now, one of the great challenges, as we discussed today, particularly early on in the pandemic, was there were many things that had to be done extremely quickly to respond. And what we want to be, is in a position as we go forward and when we're in a position to make decisions down the track, not today, but down the track when it comes to other types of international arrivals that may be able to come to Australia again when we're in a position where we can reopen some of those arrangements, particularly in relation to things like international students and migration, these types of things, then we want to be sure that we've worked the options well, we’ve trialled and tested them so we can give Australians great confidence that we're in, when we're in a position to do that we have worked through those. So whether that's quarantining in home, on farm, in camp, at a mining camp, on campus or any of these options - we'll be looking at, and working together with states and territories to both identify and trial some of these options. So when we're in a position to make further decisions on arrivals to Australia, then they will be well worked through and we can have a great degree of confidence about their implementation when that occurs. 

We agreed to increase caps again for a number of jurisdictions, which will further assist Australians coming back from overseas, an additional 140 next month in Western Australia, another 150 in Queensland. But we've also got continued support out of South Australia at the ACT and we have the arrangement in Northern Territory that I announced last week. Tasmania stands ready to assist. I want to be very clear, but as they don't yet have an international airport and those systems in place, if we need to stand that up in order to achieve what we've set out, then we will certainly do that. They are our further standby option. I want to thank Premier Gutwein for his working together with us to achieve that and it would be on very similar arrangements to what we've done in the Northern Territory. But of course, we're continuing with our work together Premier Gutwein and I, as part of the Hobart City deal to stand up the international airport in Hobart, and we will be having further discussions on that in the weeks ahead. 

All jurisdictions, though, have offered their support, particularly to provide flexibility around caps to enable us to get the most vulnerable of Australians home. Now, I can confirm when we made our commitment on the 18th of September. There were registered, some 26,200 Australians. 4,100 of those were vulnerable. So far, 1,278 of that vulnerable cohort have come home. That doesn't include those who've just arrived in Darwin and 4,591 have otherwise returned out of that cohort of 26,200. So we continue to make good progress towards returning Australians home. And we want to do that as effectively and quickly, as safely as possible. And we'll continue to work with all state and territory jurisdictions to facilitate that wherever we can. And I thank them for their cooperation to date.

We adopted the very important report of the Conran review. Now, you recall some months ago up in the committee room upstairs, I made the announcement of the National Cabinet and the new framework for federal-state relations. Well, at that time, as you would have recalled, there was a large number of various committees and forums and ministerial groups which had built up over time under the old COAG process. And we asked former Cabinet Secretary Peter Conran, who'd attended his first AG’s State Ministerial meeting back in 1982. And his first COAG meeting as an official in 1992. So he knows a bit about how all of these systems work. And he's made recommendations which we will release in his report, which were adopted, all 33 recommendations of that report today, which basically streamline how we work together as a federation. Importantly, in that, we'll be elevating one particular area of work, the National Federation Reform Council, that will meet at the end of this year on the 11th of December. That will be its first meeting in its new format. And that meeting will establish a Veteran's wellbeing taskforce. Now, the purpose of the National Federation Reform Council is really to deal with those whole of government broader societal challenges. There are already task forces that deal with indigenous affairs, indigenous Australians, one that deals with women's safety. And we agreed today on my recommendation that we should be also establishing ones for veterans wellbeing so we can look at how government right across federal, state, local is dealing with the challenges that veterans face in our community. And I think that's a very good step, which had the unanimous and enthusiastic support of all Premiers and Chief Ministers. So we will release that report today, which basically streamlines further the federal state relations process and ensures that the National Cabinet imperative, which is leaders making decisions, leaders providing direction into the system about what we want to see achieved in so many areas gets the focus, not the accretion of bureaucratic agendas, which slows everything down. And I think all the Premiers and Chief Ministers for the support of these very important changes. And in that mode, we also established the National Cabinet Reform Committee on Health, which was one of the small number of subgroups of National Cabinet that we had agreed to appoint some months ago. That National Committee will be focussing on the COVID health response, but it'll also be focused on the reforms needed to improve mental health and suicide prevention. The work that has been done by the Productivity Commission, the work been done by the National Suicide Prevention Adviser to me, and as well as things like the Mental Health Royal Commission in Victoria. So that will provide a strong group to be able to take those issues forward, as well as working together on a national response to the Aged Care Royal Commission. So aged care, mental health, suicide prevention and the COVID health response will be the focus of that group's work and that will report into the National Cabinet. 

And with that, I'll ask the acting Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly to provide his report. 

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, ACTING CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: Thanks, PM. So just a few numbers first. So as of today, 27,476 cases in Australia, an extra 10 so far today. There's a couple of states that haven't quite reported yet, but that's where we are at the moment at midday. No new deaths so far reported today, 905 therefore, total since the beginning. We've got only just over 200 active cases in Australia now, only 19 in hospital and nobody, nobody in intensive care. We haven't had a new aged care resident diagnosed with COVID-19 since the 28 of September. So the second week in a row on the common operating picture that we have where we have had no new cases of aged care residents. 

So we're doing remarkably well. In the last seven days, only 109 new cases, of those, almost 80 per cent are actually overseas acquired. So that's back to that first wave. You may remember early on in the pandemic where most of our cases are coming from overseas, very few local cases. In fact, the 14-day rolling average now in Victoria is continuing to decrease. It's now 5.8 cases per day and 3.1 cases per day in New South Wales. And that's stable and no other locally acquired cases elsewhere in the country. 

So we're doing extraordinarily well, continuing to do testing where that's required, and particularly in those geographic areas where cases have been found or wastewater or sewerage testing has shown that there may be cases. And so, again, an appeal to the Australian population. When you're asked to get a test, please get a test. This is the way we'll know where we have problems. So we're doing remarkably well. We are part of a global pandemic, yet the international situation is completely different. So when you consider what has happened in the last week in the UK, over 100,000 cases in the UK alone, 2.4 million new cases worldwide and 36,000 deaths in the last week. There are literally millions of people, active cases of COVID right now in the world. In many parts of Europe, the intensive care units are full. The hospitals are overflowing and lockdowns are being introduced or planned in many countries. In fact, other than the Western Pacific region of which we're part of in terms of the World Health Organisation regions everywhere else is doing it tough. And I think that's something we should remind ourselves of how well Australia has done to now and also how important the issues that the Prime Minister's mentioned about that risk stratification approach to overseas arrivals that we really take into account where those issues are in the rest of the world. 

I think I'll leave it there PM. 

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you. Well, let’s just deal with National Cabinet first, and I'm sure there're other issues you'd like to go to.

Brett, yep?

JOURNALIST: PM just on repatriation, you mentioned there's still about 2,800 vulnerable travellers overseas. Are there extra steps being taken to get them home? And on a particular case in Lao. There's around 40 vulnerable Australians who've been unable to get home. They've attempted to hire their own plane they were given approval to land that plane in Cairns. They bought tickets and late yesterday they were told that that had been cancelled. Can you update us on that charter flight, please? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that is something you'd need to raise with the Queensland government, because I understand that's the issue that ultimately prevented that flight from coming to Australia. I understand it was supposed to land in Cairns. And so you would have to raise those matters, it had other clearances already in place. So you'd have to raise that matter with the Queensland government. But you're right, there are still remaining, a number of Australians, quite a number, who still want to come back home. And this is the first of some 8 charter flights, which I mentioned last week that have been arranged and they'll be taking place and where there's a need to further supplement the commercial flights that are available to Australia to get people back to Australia. Well the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is working with its officers around the world to facilitate that. 

So it's good to see 161 Australians coming home. Welcome home. Is my message to you as you come into Darwin and as you go off to Howard Springs, where you'll get great care and I'm sure your families will be looking forward to you coming back to your home cities when you're able to do that in a few weeks time. 


JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, given that the plan to open by Christmas and things getting under control in Victoria. And we're coming to a period now where we're not going to have any election, state or federal, for a while. Was there any indication out of the National Cabinet today about more willing or better preparedness to adopt a national hotspot definition rather than resort to border closures again, in the future, should there be more outbreaks?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the focus of the discussion, I think, was moving more towards the public health capability to ensure that you wouldn't need those sorts of closures in the future. I mean, where Victoria has been able to get to now, and I'm sure Paul will agree. We're very pleased that those numbers are now where they are. And obviously that provides the opportunity to open up again. And I'm sure all Victorians, and particularly those in Melbourne, would like to see that occur. And I understand the Premier will make some further announcements this weekend. That’s a matter for him to do, as he regularly does each weekend. And so we're obviously keen to see that opening up, whether it be in the hospitality sector or other parts of the economy. The shut down in Melbourne that has had obviously a terrible impact on Victorians, on their mental health, on their economy. The Premier knows that. And so we continue to encourage him and his government to move forward with reopening there. But what will prevent a further set of measures having to be put in place in Australia, is this the strength of the public health system to respond to any outbreaks. And that's why the work of Dr Finkel is so important because that stress testing and match fitness of the tracing regime, I mean, it will be a good problem to have we hope, that our contact tracers will have no sort of live experience in the weeks and months ahead. But the work that we're doing with those tracing regimes is to ensure that they remain match fit, that they do the desktop exercises, they do the stress testing. And so if things were to occur, if there is an outbreak somewhere, through whatever risk that may present, then we can have confidence that we can move quickly, as indeed New South Wales has done on so many occasions, to ensure that that outbreak can be contained. So I look forward to the continuing opening up of the country. Western Australia, we understand there are some special circumstances there. I've made that very clear in Western Australia. The nature of their economy and how it works and the Premier continues to maintain his position on that. That's a matter for him. But around the rest of the country, they have their timetables and we look forward to that opening and the commitment by Christmas of this year. Certainly seven out of the eight states and territories will be open and that'll be a great day for Australia. You never know, there might be eight.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, on the repatriation issue, officials from your Department said the other day that there were discussions going on with Melbourne about reaccepting international flights and that that would be a game changer. You mentioned just now that you might, we might see something happening with Tasmania in coming weeks. How close is Melbourne to reaccepting?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, what I said about Tasmania is they are a reserve option because there is not an international flight capacity reception arrangements in Tasmania. But I just wanted to be clear that there was no lack of willingness on the Tasmanians part to be part of that process. They're very, very willing and I spoke separately to Premier Gutwein earlier today. Yes, I have had these discussions with Premier Dan Andrews and we are hoping that they'll be able to make a move on being able to receive international arrivals. That day isn't here yet, but I know that it's a priority for the Premier because he wants to see Victorians come home. These are Victorians who are overseas. Many of those who are seeking to come back from around the world are from Victoria and the ability to come and quarantine in their home city I think would be very welcome to them. So we look forward. I think that will give a great boost. If we can get Victoria opened up again in the weeks ahead, preferably, or hopefully not longer than that, then that will really, really give us a bit more pace in getting people back before Christmas. Of those 26,000, as I said before, we want to get them home by Christmas and that's what we're working to achieve. 

JOURNALIST: Would you take a question on another subject? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's a matter for your colleagues. 

JOURNALIST: Will Australia move from a system of compulsory hotel quarantine to allowing quarantine in other settings? What will be the benchmark for that shift? And how many of the Australians stranded overseas are you committing to bring home by Christmas? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I just answered the last question. It's our goal to get those 26,000 Australians home that were registered by Christmas. Now, whether we achieve that or not is going to be dependent on many factors. It's going to be dependent on the flights. It's going to be dependent on the continued cooperation of the states and territories. It's disappointing to hear about the arrangement that has occurred up there in Cairns. But as I said, I'll leave that to the Queensland government. We've had good cooperation from the Queensland government on these other caps. So that's what we're doing there. In terms of other forms of quarantine, that's the very questions you're asking are the same questions we're asking. And that's why we've set up the group today to go and do that work, identify what these other quarantine options are and how they can be used for different areas. I mean, we're already doing that when it comes to seasonal workers who are coming under the seasonal workers programme. That's happening right now. That's been happening at Howard Springs. We're already doing it in Queensland, which I think is a very innovative on-farm quarantine arrangement when it comes to some of these seasonal workers as well. That's a good initiative. I know there's a lot of interest from universities to look at on-campus quarantine. I know that with large corporates, there's a strong interest in the National Coordination Commission under Nev Power’s chairmanship has been looking at how corporates themselves can set up their own quarantine facilities under strict guidelines and standards, obviously overseen and accredited by state health authorities. But the more of these options we can identify, the more of the other capacity it frees up and the more we can move back to sort of more normal arrangements. But we’re in… there is no undue haste here. There are risks here. And so what we agreed today is before we make any of those decisions, we want to know what the options are. We want to know whether they work. And we want to know whether they're safe. So, you know, you don't want to build that aeroplane in the sky. You want to build it before it takes off. And that's exactly what we're doing.

JOURNALIST: Just on mental health today…

PRIME MINISTER: I'm still dealing with National Cabinet, so if you could just..

JOURNALIST: Qantas has brought home 161 Australians today. At their annual general meeting today they've flagged that they want to be able to do COVIDSafe travel to Japan, places in South-East Asia and had some very strong words about the border closures in Western Australia and Queensland, blaming them for $100 million losses. Do you share those views on the borders and how far off would travel bubbles be with Japan and South-East Asian nations? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I couldn't put a timetable on international and the airlines understand that. They know that. We've already moved on New Zealand and that's gone well, I'm pleased with how that is proceeding. There were no issues raised about that today. So that's good. And I think we'll just keep moving ahead with those arrangements. I think the quarantine issues that we've just, that's the first thing you've got to resolve. How would people quarantine if they're coming and in what arrangements and what are the commercial arrangements for that as well? So that's the work we'll do now. I think what's important is what we're signalling to the community and whether it's airlines or others and all those who work in airlines who depend on it for their jobs is where we're already moving forward to try and solve these problems so we can be proactive about this. Early on in the pandemic, of course, there were many challenges and we had to be very responsive and reactive at those times. But now, once we've got Australia, once again, after this Victorian wave to get the cases again under control, we can be planning for that next step. And that's exactly what National Cabinet was doing today. I mean, you all remember the early meetings of National Cabinet. It was, you know, a phone book of announcements on almost every second or third night. Now, we're well past that. We know a lot more about the pandemic and how it works and the economic issues and we've learnt a great deal and our officials have too. So it enables us to plan for this. So on issues of borders, the states and territories have already, with the exception of Western Australia, already indicated what they're doing there and that's welcome. The states will make their own decisions on those and I've never disrespected that. But I've also made it very clear that borders don't come without costs. They're there to do a job as the premiers have outlined and they can only ever be justified on health advice, on no other grounds. But they do come at a cost. They do cost jobs. They do impact businesses. And that cost has to be weighed up with the benefits and Premiers have to explain that trade-off. 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the Productivity Commission review into mental health has not yet been released. Why has it not yet been released and when can we expect to see this come out?

PRIME MINISTER: Before the end of the year. 

JOURNALIST: Victorian officials have speculated potentially looking at using ankle bracelets for returning travellers so they could isolate at home. How comfortable would you be with that being part of the framework going forward? 

PRIME MINISTER: Look, I'm just going to let those experts who are going to work on these options do their job. It's not for me to do a running commentary on every thought that someone has about this or speculates in the press. Let them just do their job, let them do their work, let them work out what will be most effective and can best facilitate us getting back to us to a COVID normal in the future with these arrangements. But I expect them to be innovative. I expect them to think about new ways of doing things and they'll bring that back to the National Cabinet, the AHPPC, Paul, which you lead, will be heavily involved in this process to ensure that the health elements of this are not compromised in any way, shape or form. That is a strong view of the National Cabinet that that input is necessary. I mean, there's a spectrum. Of course, Western Australia and it has expressed great reservations about it any time having those international arrivals. I understand their position. Other states, New South Wales is already receiving a large number. So, look, there's a spectrum of, I think, of caution when it comes to these things. So let's just get the systems right first, and that will lead to better decisions when they are ultimately taken. 

JOURNALIST: Just in relation to Australia Post…

PRIME MINISTER: I'm still on National Cabinet, Sam, so I will come back to you. Yep?

JOURNALIST: Professor Kelly, obviously good news today about the aged care cases. But a month ago, the Aged Care Royal Commission handed down a report about COVID in aged care and I quote, ‘Measures implemented by the Australian Government on advice from the AHPPC were in some respects insufficient to ensure preparedness of the aged care sector.’ It also said that there were no aged care specialists on the Committee. Was this something that was discussed today? What have you done in response to better that Committee and what are we doing to protect our elderly now? 

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, ACTING CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: So there's a Royal Commission, as we know, and the counsel assisting has been reporting on his views in the last couple of days. There was, as you say, that interim specific list of recommendations. I believe there were six about COVID. And the Government is taking those on board. The first recommendation was to report by the 1st of December. So we will report.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible]

PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, ACTING CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: We've got an advisory committee that's been set up under the auspices of the AHPPC in relation very specifically to aged care, which has a range of aged care specialists, practitioners, geriatricians and so forth. They're meeting three times a week. So they are really very active and giving us information and advice. 

JOURNALIST: And that was discussed today at the meeting?

PRIME MINISTER: Aged care was discussed today and, as I noted, the National Reform Committee of Cabinet, the subcommittees of health, they will be taking on those issues and reporting back up to the National Cabinet and that's where the carriage of that will be from a state-federal basis. But all the recommendations that were provided by the Royal Commission have been adopted and are being implemented by the Government. 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, I think we've moved on from National Cabinet? Unless… yes.

JOURNALIST: Thanks, Prime Minister. Yesterday, you said he was shocked and appalled by the gifting of four Cartier watches to Aussie Post executives. Are you equally appalled that the head of the corporate watchdog, no less, should have pocketed $118,000 when he shouldn't have? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that is a matter which the Treasurer has already issued a statement on today. He may have actually already conducted a press conference. I'm not aware, I haven't been able to check that since I've come out today. And he is standing aside, the Chair, and the recommendations of the ANAO are being followed. 

JOURNALIST: Chirstine Holgate, the Collingwood football captain, president, I should say, Eddie McGuire said today that what he's watching is a pile-on, a beat up, an attack on one of the most impressive women that he's ever met by dullards. Are you, as he suggested, engaging in the politics of envy? And if $3,000 Cartier watches are so unacceptable, why are the bonuses that have been paid to these executives that are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars more Ok?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we are the shareholder on behalf of the taxpayers and not only the matter that you referred to, but the other matters that came forward in evidence yesterday, is sufficient to demand this investigation that we've put in place. And that investigation is not just into the management and the executive into all the matters you've raised, but into the conduct of the board as well. And I didn't pull any punches on that either. So, no, I don't agree with the assessment that Eddie has made. Eddie and I agree on some things. We don't agree on others. But no, I don't agree with his assessment on that. I don't think what we learnt yesterday would have passed any test with the Australian public when it comes to a company that is owned by the Government. Companies that are owned by the Government, they I believe, and through their board and their management executives, will be held to that standard. And I think I applied that very firmly yesterday. Mark?

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, in regards to the protection of taxpayers interests you just referred to there and Andrew's question, the statement that the Treasurer and ASIC have released makes plain that ASIC gave tacit approval for this arrangement, basically a blank cheque from the corporate regulator. And then we had this instance yesterday with Australia Post. There's a lot of community interests about the level of remuneration and bonuses that are paid in that organisation. Is it time to have a broad…

PRIME MINISTER: Australia Post?

JOURNALIST: Australia Post. But is it in those instances being current? Is it time to have a full investigation on audit of remuneration and tax arrangements and bonus arrangements for all these government appointees to see whether there's some sort of systemic issue and that taxpayers are being ripped off? 

PRIME MINISTER: I think it will be important to receive the recommendations of the reports and enquiries that have been initiated and it may well be that that comes forward. Let's wait and see. I'm very open to those recommendations. Let's see. Let's see. But I think there wouldn't be a board member of a government agency or a CEO of a government agency that didn't get my message  yesterday. I think they got it with a rocket. And so my advice to them, is to get it. 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, on that, would you say that there's a culture problem in the public sector under your watch? And do you think it's fair and reasonable that Christine Holgate will continue to be paid while the Government conducts its four week investigation? We estimate that would be more than $100,000.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the answer to the first question is no. On your second question, that is a matter upon which the Government has to take legal advice and that is what the Government has done. 

JOURNALIST: Just one follow up repatriation. You said that Hobart is ready and willing to assist if that becomes necessary. If not now, when there are thousands of Australians who want to get home now? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the issue with Hobart is that we can replicate those arrangements, whether in the Northern Territory, we could replicate them in Cairns. We can put them in South Australia, where there are existing Border Force and other international receiving arrangements then we will use those ports. And as I said, we have eight charters running now. One has just returned. And as more, if they become necessary, we have some coming out of India, we've got some coming from South Africa, we will use the ports where the facilities are there because that will be the most rapid way. But the most effective way we're getting through getting Australians home is by increasing these caps. And so I welcome the decision from the Queensland and Western Australian governments. As we keep increasing the caps, when we get Victoria on line as well, then I think that will only aid us as we continue along the path we are on, to get Australian open by Christmas and to get Australians home by Christmas. Thank you all very much.