Press Conference - Australian Parliament House, ACT

18 Dec 2020
Prime Minister

Prime Minister: Before I make some statements about the changes to Ministerial portfolios that has been brought on of course by the retirement of Mathias Cormann, a few quick words around the situation in New South Wales. 

As you all know, we have a reported total of 28 locally acquired COVID-19 cases that are linked to the Northern Beaches cluster. The two first cases reported on the 16th of December 2020, a total of 28 cases are currently associated with that cluster, including one case that was diagnosed in Queensland on 18 December of 2020. The majority of cases I'm advised and the New South Wales Premier would have already made reference to this I'm sure, they involved two venues, the Avalon RSL and the Avalon bowlo. And a number of cases are linked to one or both of those venues including the case diagnosed in Queensland and the Avalon RSL case is considered to be the source of the initial seeding of that cluster. All of those cases attended a number of venues whilst infectious, which have been part of a public health alert and most of the cases live in the Northern Beaches. 

New South Wales has dealt with many of these challenges over the course of recent months and over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, New South Wales have demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to deal with these challenges and I retain full confidence in their ability to do that. I was with the Premier for most of yesterday, in fact as you’d know when we were up in Northern New South Wales when this information was coming through and already their agencies were right onto it. They are working around the clock as you have seen, with the amount of detail and information they've been able to identify in such a short period of time. So our advice is to just take heed of the information that has been made available by the New South Wales authorities if you're in any of these areas then what you need to do is set out very clearly there. For those who are in other states then it's the same rule, follow the advice of your local health authorities. 

Of course, these things remind us that we are still in the midst of a global pandemic, the virus has not gone away, it is still there and as a result all the measures that we continuously take are necessary to continue to protect Australia. We have dealt with this before, we'll deal with it again, it's important that people just remain calm about these issues and follow the instructions that they're receiving from their local health authorities and I was in contact again with the Premier of New South Wales just before coming out here and she like I am very grateful to the cooperation of the public in responding to their requests and following the instructions that have been provided. 

I'm very grateful to the Australian people for the way they have always throughout the course of this pandemic just got on with it and made sure they’re taking the necessary precautions and being highly responsive to the requests that are being made of them. 

But today I'm here to announce changes to the Ministry which I propose to recommend to the Governor-General. The decisions that I have made reflect the very strong focus on stability in key portfolios, together with a commitment to bring forward some new talent as Australia continues its comeback from the COVID-19 pandemic. In a time of great uncertainty, stability and consistency is very much what is needed. And what I'm announcing today I think, very much continues that thread of what has been a constant in Australia over the course of this year. In a time of uncertainty, I think Australians have been able to look to their governments, plural and see the stability and certainty and constancy that is necessary for them as they navigate their own pathway through what has been a very challenging year. 

Key portfolios geared to Australia's prosperity and security they remain unchanged. Treasury, Finance, Employment, Skills, Small Business and Family Business, Foreign Affairs, Defence, Home Affairs, all key portfolios, remaining unchanged. 

There are no changes to the Nationals in the Ministry and associated policy responsibilities also remain unchanged under the leadership of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development, Mr McCormack. 

The Ministry also maintains its record representation of women in Cabinet. 

Following the appointment of Simon Birmingham as Minister for Finance, taking over from Australia's longest-serving Finance Minister, Mathias Cormann, in October, the Honourable Dan Tehan will be taking on the job as our new Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. Dan brings incredibly strong credentials to this role as a former officer in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as well as a keen sense of the particular interests of regional and rural Australia in open rules-based trading systems. 

The Aged Care portfolio will be elevated into Cabinet, with Greg Hunt as Health Minister taking on the additional responsibilities of Aged Care for the Government's response in particular to the Aged Care Royal Commission that will be handed down next year and the response that will be brought together as part of next year's Budget. The Honourable Richard Colbeck, Senator from Tasmania will retain responsibility for Aged Care Services and that includes the delivery of the Residential and Home Care packages, the Aged Care Sector regulation, as well as retaining his responsibilities for Senior Australians and as Minister for Sport. And I thank Richard for the great work he's been doing in what has been a very difficult year in this portfolio. Richard will continue to play a very important role in the response that the Government brings together in response to the Royal Commission and being able to maintain the continuity and the corporate knowledge that has been built up during a very challenging time I think will be incredibly important for the Government and myself and Minister Hunt as we bring that response to the Royal Commission and the broader strategies of reform together next year. 

The Cabinet remains, will remain where it currently is now at 22 members and so there is a realignment of other portfolios to take account of the departure of Mathias Cormann and the appointment of Dan Tehan as Trade Minister. 

The Education, and what will become the Education and Youth portfolio that will be assigned to Alan Tudge with a clear brief of improving education outcomes and in particular helping younger Australians navigate challenges in a rapidly changing world. He will be supported by an Assistant Minister for Youth and also Employment Services supporting Minister Cash, and that will be taken up by Luke Howarth who will take on that role from Queensland. 

Paul Fletcher will take on broader responsibilities in addition to Communications and the Arts, he will also take back on the roles of Urban Infrastructure and Cities all of which together sit within the Infrastructure Department. 

The Honourable David Coleman will be returning both to the Parliament and to the Executive and as a clear indication of what is a very significant priority for me he will be taking on the role of Assistant Minister to me as Prime Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention. This is a critical focus of the Government. As you know, we have provided a National Suicide Prevention Adviser to the Government and to me as Prime Minister and integrating that with the broader reforms that we're continuing to make in the mental health area. This has been highlighted as recently again as last Friday at the Federation Reform Council and the meeting of the National Cabinet. This will be a key area of collaboration, Federation reform, to deal with the many challenges that exist within mental health and suicide prevention. He joins me as an Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister because dealing with these issues is just not a challenge of the mental health portfolio within Health, it is a broader whole-of-government and, I'd say, whole-of-governments challenge, in dealing with mental health and suicide prevention. This is a matter that is very dear to my heart and I'm very pleased that David after a very difficult year for him personally is now in a position to be able to resume his responsibilities in the Parliament as a Member, as well as taking on a continuing role in the Executive. He stands down from where he previously was as a Minister in the government and takes on this very important role and on that note, I do want to thank the Leader of the Opposition, in particular, for his cooperation and support in enabling David over the past year to deal with those issues and now he is returning we thank them for the way that they handled that matter. 

Strengthening the economic team, and in recognition of the growing importance of digital technology and the digital economy to Australia's economic future, Senator the Honourable Jane Hume will be promoted to the Ministry, and she will take on the expanded responsibilities from Superannuation and Financial Services, which she's been working on now since the last election and she will now take on the role as Digital Economy Minister. The Digital Transformation Package was a key component of the most recent Budget. It was something that I highlighted last year as one of the key areas of our job-making economic plan for Australia and has become even more important as we emerge from the COVID-19 recession. 

Building on the success of the Government's housing policies, particularly in maintaining those residential construction jobs during the COVID pandemic, I am integrating the roles of Housing Minister, which is held by Michael Sukkar and also to include in his responsibilities swearing in him also to the Social Services Department portfolios as Minister for Homelessness, Social and Community Housing, and combining all aspects of the Housing Policy challenge under one Minister. 

To further drive Australia's pursuit of new economic opportunities and challenges in a new global economy a post-COVID economy, Senator the Honourable Jonathon Duniam will become Assistant Minister for Industry Development. He will retain his Assistant Minister roles for Forestry and Fishing. Now Jono will be working across both the Industry and the Agriculture portfolio assisting his senior Ministers in Minister Littleproud and Karen Andrews to particularly look at the challenges facing Australian industry on the global trade front, ensuring that the diversification challenges and adjustments that they're making we can support, and he'll be working to those Ministers, and obviously work closely with the new Minister for Trade. 

A portfolio which has always been close to my experience and so I don't hand this one out lightly, the Honourable Alex Hawke will take on the job of Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs. Australia has yet again proven in 2020 that we are the most successful immigrant and multicultural nation on earth and we have demonstrated that again and I know Alex will do an outstanding job in this area. He has previously worked as an Assistant Minister in this area and he has deep connections, particularly in the New South Wales community in this area, and is very conscious of the migration needs and migrant services support needs that are needed in that sector. 

Senator the Honourable Zed Seselja will be promoted to the ministry and he will take on Alex's former portfolio as Minister for International Development and the Pacific. The Government's demonstrated commitment to our Pacific family very real, even right now, as cyclones go through Fiji I was in contact yesterday morning with Prime Minister Bainimarama assuring him of our steadfast support to be there for them in their time of need which he greatly appreciated. Our Step Up to our Pacific family is felt very deeply by our Pacific family and friends and this is a matter that is critically important to the Government. Zed has a great experience in the Parliament. He's served in a number of Assistant Minister roles and I think that brings great added benefit, particularly to our Senate team, which is combining with Senator Hume, creating two new Ministries for Senators which will boost those ranks within the Senate amongst our Ministers. There is also the work that we announced most recently at the ASEAN and East Asia Summits where we have upped our level of investment in the ASEAN region, particularly in many of the development projects which sit in the Mekong Delta. This is also important to Australia's engagement with the region and that has been incredibly well received. He will also play a key role in ensuring that we roll out the vaccine in our Pacific family into the new year. Being an ACT Senator situates him also very well with all the various embassies and missions that are here in the ACT, which enables him to work well with those development partners as part of those roles. 

Every Prime Minister needs an outstanding Assistant Minister, and I've had a tremendous one in Ben Morton and he will continue in that role as Assistant Minister to me and the Cabinet, and he will take on additional responsibilities both in taking on the public service role formally which was being done by Greg Hunt with him taking on Aged Care, Ben will take on that role, which he has now been doing for some time during the pandemic unofficially under my direction and in addition to that, he will take on the role of Assistant Minister for Electoral Matters. 

Bringing in new talent to the Executive, I'm delighted to announce that Senator the Honourable Amanda Stoker will become Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General. There is no harder-working Minister in the Government than the Attorney-General and the Minister for Industrial Relations, and the Leader of the Government in the House and Amanda Stoker is well-credentialed, extremely talented. As senator for Queensland, I'm pleased to see another Queenslander in the Executive, which lifts that representation for Queensland in our Executive and I think she's going to do an absolutely sensational job. 

I also want to thank Steve Irons. Steve, there would be few people as the media, I suspect might know who are closer to me than Steve Irons. We have, we came into this Parliament together in 2007, and we are deeply close and personal friends and I've been so pleased that Steve has been able to serve in the Assistant Ministry, and I thank him for his great passion. Steve is the ultimate team player and Steve has always promoted younger people throughout his entire life. And Steve wanted to make way for another great Western Australian to be able to come into our Executive at this time, someone who's also done a great job not only in his local electorate, but has served our country admirably. And so I say to Steve and to Cheryl, I want to thank you, Steve. You've been doing a fantastic job, and I know you'll continue to do a fantastic job. We'll be working through new areas for Steve to be working, but he has stood aside from the Executive, which makes the way available for me to appoint Andrew Hastie as the Assistant Minister for Defence. No one possibly could question what Andrew can bring to this role at this very important time. It's something that the Minister for Defence and I felt very strongly about. We're very pleased that Andrew can join us in that team and I think he'll do an extraordinary job. His service is already on public record in uniform and what he's done here in this Parliament, and particularly as Chair of the PJCIS Committee has been exemplary. That means that because of the new entries to the Executive, there will be a number of committee and other roles that now will become freed up, and we'll look closely at those. 

As you can see, there is only two members who have come into the Executive, so this is on the scale of changes, as Mark and other senior members of the gallery will know, this is not a large-scale change this is a modest set of changes and I think that is important at this time. To have that stability and to have that certainty and to have that constancy. That's what Australians are relying on and that's made possible because I have an outstanding team who are doing an outstanding job and I will continue to commend them on the work they're doing and rely on them as all of the Australian people are.

So with that, I'm happy to take questions.

Journalist: [Inaudible] Minister Tehan could bring to the Trade portfolio perhaps try something a bit different or do you see him just basically taking over from where Simon Birmingham left over?

Prime Minister: I think very much what you’ve just said then, Australia's position on these issues are very clear, and I think constancy and consistency in those matters is just as important. We've made our position very clear and we will continue to seek engagement at both Ministerial, and Dan will seek those opportunities as I continue to at a leader level. But our position is very clear. There are matters that are now being brought forward to the WTO. But I also want to stress as important as those issues are with China, there is also a very big agenda to be pursued next year with the EU and the UK and Minister Birmingham has been doing an outstanding job in those areas and in recent months, I've had the opportunity to talk to most European leaders and of course to Prime Minister Johnson on several occasions and we both share this as a big ambition for next year. Ursula von der Leyen and I and President Michel from the European Union, this was a big factor in our discussion while I was in isolation. So Dan will be picking up that. What Dan brings I think as I said in my remarks, he has a technical expertise in this area having served in a trade role as an officer for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade nut also, I think, he brings an important rural and regional focus to this issue and I think that's very welcome.

Journalist: Prime Minister, many people will see Alan Tudge moving to Education as a promotion. Do you think that passes the pub test given the revelations that came out about him just several months ago?

Prime Minister: Well, first of all this is a reassignment of portfolios and there are no changes to the order of precedence. So to couch it in those terms I wouldn't, and neither does Alan take it in that context. But you raise the issue so let's talk about it. Alan's judgement of some years ago in his own personal life that pre-dated my Prime Ministership, he has served as Cabinet Minister for many years and, indeed, was put into the Ministry and to the Cabinet by my predecessor and he has continued in those roles and he's served very well as a Minister in the Government. Alan's decisions in his own personal life he has taken full personal responsibility for and no one has paid a greater price for those things than his family and those that they affected and himself. What has impressed me about Alan is he's dealt with these issues honestly. They relate to things that happened some years ago, many years ago now actually and for them to be now re-presented at this time as if they're fresh revelations, or anything that go to his current conduct I think would be very unfair, Lanai. And as a result he continues to do a great job. But as Alan Tudge who for the past 12 months has taken on two Ministerial portfolios while David Coleman has been unable to perform those roles, and he's done that with great application and at the same time dealing more recently with the issues that were raised in the Four Corners report. So I think the timing here needs to be understood. The issues that were raised in regard to Alan Tudge happened some years ago. He's accepted responsibility for his own personal conduct. He's had to deal with that in seeking to restore relationships in his own personal life and his own family and so I would ask that that is the main issue where that needs to be addressed and there are no matters that are before me in terms of Alan Tudge's conduct as a Cabinet Minister in my Government that could in any way, preclude him to continue to serve in these roles.

Journalist: You said that Richard Colbeck had done a good job in Aged Care but taking primary responsibility for his portfolio away from him and giving it to a Senior Minister would seem like a strange way of recognising that. How could that be seen as anything other than a demotion for Colbeck?

Prime Minister: This is about elevating Aged Care into the Cabinet. That's the decision I've made and that is important that we elevate Aged Care into the Cabinet because of the seriousness of this issue, the size and scale of the reform program that will need to be implemented post the Royal Commission report. So I'm preparing for that by ensuring that the Aged Care portfolio is held at the highest level it can be and that's by the Health Minister Greg Hunt, who I'm sure people agree has done an amazing job over the course of the pandemic. What I'm doing is putting more grunt, more resource, more capacity into dealing with the challenges in aged care. One of the things that I think happen, often, when there are reshuffles is there is tendency to look at these things always in personal terms and the internal politics and to be honest what matters is aged care and the care of elderly Australians. And what I want to ensure is as we frame our response to the Royal Commission that we have more effort, more application, and more senior-level engagement with that while continuing to draw on the experience that Richard has had in that portfolio. So this is about more focus on aged care not less and that's all it's about. Jono?

Journalist: A quick ring-around shows there's nobody in the country on a ventilator in regards to having COVID. Do Premiers need to take that into consideration, considering some of the rules or the lockdowns they're now enforcing on people coming from the Northern Beaches, the fact that there's nobody on a ventilator with COVID in the country. And if this is the measure that we're now going to see from Premiers, do you need to think about fast-tracking the rolling out of the vaccination program across the country, rather than delaying it until March and having as you said a ringside seat to the rest of the world?

Prime Minister: I don't take hasty decisions on people's health and I don't think Premiers also seek to take hasty or ill-informed decisions about Australians' health. The vaccine is critically important to the country and we will be making sure that when it finally receives approval from the Therapeutic Goods Administration by Professor Skerritt, it'll be done in accordance with all the requirements that he and his group require. That way I can say to Australians that if he gives it the tick you can get the jab and that is incredibly important. And so I tend not to be distracted by the events of the day when it comes to ensuring that we maintain the discipline of that path of getting to that important approval of the vaccine for all Australians. In terms of what Premiers are choosing to do, well, they have always been responsible and accountable for the decisions that they're making within their jurisdictions. Premiers and state governments, and I think this is one thing that perhaps has become better understood this year, is the responsibilities of state and territory governments. State governments are responsible for public health within their jurisdictions and they have the authority to make decisions to protect the public health within their jurisdictions. So they're going to do their job, I'm going to do my job and together we will continue to ensure that Australia has one of the best records in the world of both managing the impact of COVID-19 during this pandemic globally, as well as ensuring that the economic comeback that has begun in Australia continues to move at pace.

Journalist: Prime Minister, just in relation to what you're hearing most recently about the spread of the virus. You told people you want them to celebrate Christmas together, but how many Australians now have to steel themselves that's very unlikely they'll be able to move around and actually do that?

Prime Minister: Well, there'll be some constraints because of the events of the last 24 hours. But as we've often seen with those events those limitations also can be eased once further information is known and that will be a matter for the Premiers. They will follow the local health advice and they'll make their decisions accordingly and in the best interests of their own health and the broader community health.

Journalist: Prime Minister, there's a pattern in the way that these things are unfolding. We've seen this morning people panicking in the Sydney Airport and trying to flee before they feel like they'll be locked down or blocked from other states. Given what we saw last month in SA, what we're seeing now in Sydney do you think that it's time to revisit some kind of national standard and framework to give Australians more confidence in what they can and can't do accepting that there will be outbreaks until we have that vaccine rolled out?

Prime Minister: Well again a national standard on hotspots is not something that Premiers and Chief Ministers have agreed to. That's something they do not want to do. The Commonwealth has no authority to impose any such national definition on states and territories. That is not a power the Commonwealth Government has. That would have to be done by agreement with states and territories, and that is not something states and territories have agreed to put in place. They have their own rules that they are putting in place and they're seeking to protect the health and safety of people in their own jurisdictions. My message to the public more broadly is to remain calm and follow that advice. That's what Australians have done, by and large throughout the course of the year. And yes there has been some behaviour along the lines that you've described, but I would say more broadly that Australians as usual have responded in a calm and an effective manner and have been very cooperative with the requirements and the information that has been provided by authorities and I'd simply say to them to continue to do that. The pandemic has not gone away. It hasn't gone away. So these types of uncertainties and these disruptions will continue to occur and there is no magic formula that just makes the pandemic go away. So the states will continue to manage it as they are working right now to track down all the sources and tracing of those cases to protect public health.

Journalist: You mentioned the economic comeback. Obviously MYEFO updated assumptions yesterday that all the state borders would stay open in 2021. Obviously two weeks away from kicking over into 2021 and that's probably not going to happen given from what we've seen in the past. How concerned are you about the potential for this sort of outbreak to have a serious impact on that economic recovery?

Prime Minister: No, I don't have a serious concern about that. You're talking about something that happened 24 hours ago and making the assumption that's going to be the case for the next 12 months. I don't think that's the case. We will take all these things in our stride as we always have, and I'm quite certain that as we move into next year and remember next year, subject to the TGA will see the vaccine come to Australia, we'll see the comeback continue. I understand that there's some uncertainty and some anxiety at this very moment but as we've seen in the past as saw in South Australia, as we've seen in New South Wales on multiple occasions now, they'll work through it. They're getting on top of it. That's been the case all the way through. I think we can have great confidence in the public officials that are working very hard right now to try and restore things to COVID-normal as quickly as possible. The best thing Australians can do to help them do that is just to go about their daily lives as best they can subject to the restrictions that have been put in place.

Journalist: Prime Minister, we've seen two very different responses from the states towards the Northern Beaches outbreak. WA has shut its border to the entire state. Queensland and others have taken a more localised response. What's your preference? What do you prefer? And have you received any medical advice? Has your Government received any medical advice that borders should close to New South Wales or Sydney at this point?

Prime Minister: No, I haven't had that advice, but that advice goes to states and territories because they make the decisions on those issues. And my preference is to work with the states and territories to support them to do their job and their job is to protect the public safety. Their job is to protect public safety within their jurisdictions. It's not my job to go around second-guessing other people's decisions. It's my job to support them and to ensure that as a country we continue to work together in the face of the biggest global pandemic we've seen in 100 years. And so the sooner we're able to move through these decisions over the next few days, I believe the sooner we'll get to a point I hope that the early concerns we hope may be alleviated, but it's still too early to say and I think the states are doing what they've done throughout the course of this pandemic. They're making judgements based on the health advice that has been provided to them.

Journalist: Prime Minister, are you concerned that by promoting Andrew Hastie you'll add to the perception amongst the backbench that the most aggressive stance towards China will be rewarded? And could I please clarify will Amanda Stoker be assisting the Attorney-General in the Industrial Relations portfolio as well?

Prime Minister: In answer to your first question, no. In answer to your second question, she is Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General, not the Minister for Industrial Relations. They are two separate portfolios.

Journalist: Why aren’t you concerned that will add to the perception?

Prime Minister: Because I think it's rubbish. Any other questions? No? Well Merry Christmas everyone. Sorry, yes.

Journalist: On Mr Colbeck, you sort of dismissed the question about it being a demotion but how can it be anything but a demotion when he wanted to remain Aged Care Minister? Did he mishandle the issue during the pandemic?

Prime Minister: No and as I said before, this is about elevating aged care and our response to the Royal Commission into Cabinet. It's not about the individuals. It's about the care being provided to elderly Australians. It's not about politics, it's about people and ensuring that we have the biggest and best resource, response to the aged care challenges that are very, very serious. This is about putting more hands to the wheel not less and continuing to use the experience that is there to inform what will be a very important response for older Australians. It's one of those times I'd say to you that what matters here is the policy and the need and I'm putting the best people in the roles to support addressing that need. Whether it's the comeback from COVID-19, whether it's keeping Australians safe, keeping Australians together, or keeping our economy strong, they remain my objectives as I set them out when I became Prime Minister. We are making great progress on all of those despite challenges that our country has faced, particularly over the last 12 months but longer than that and we continue to make great progress. And the people I thank most for that are the Australian people. I thank them for their resilience. I thank them for their tenacity. I thank them for their patience. I thank them for their sacrifice. And even now in the course of these last 24 hours when anxiety levels have been raised by the cases that we've seen in the Northern Beaches, we too will overcome that just as we have before and as best as we possibly can and frankly far better than so many other countries around the world, Australians will enjoy in a Christmas this year that, in so many other places they will not and I think we can be thankful for that.

On that note, can I wish you all a very, very, Merry Christmas, a very happy new year, we're going to really mean that this year. And I'm looking forward after the new year and into January, I'll be taking a bit of time with my family, and the Deputy Prime Minister will step up at that time and we'll release further details on that. But I will be here and not far away should any other events. I was pleased to be up in Northern New South Wales yesterday to see firsthand our response to those flooding events up in Northern New South Wales. There was also the serious situation in Queensland. We'll be monitoring those closely. And I would ask everyone to stay as safe as they possibly can and when you're driving up that Pacific Highway on that dual carriageway all the way from Hexham up to the Queensland border, that is great news. Thanks, everyone.