Press Conference - Bairnsdale, VIC

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03 Jan 2020
Prime Minister

THE HON. DARREN CHESTER MP, MINISTER FOR VETERANS AND DEFENCE PERSONNEL: Thanks, everyone, for coming out today. We really do appreciate your interest in our region. It's a really difficult time for the whole East Gippsland community. I'm obviously here with the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and it's terrific to have you, Prime Minister in East Gippsland. We'd rather have you under other circumstances, but it is good to have you boss, and showing your support to our community. I've got Tim Bull here, the Member for Gippsland East and the Mayor, Councillor John White a state member of parliament as well. And members of the Australian Defence Force who have been so instrumental in our recovery and relief operations. I’ve got to say, having been OUT on the fire ground today and meeting with people who've lost everything, their spirit and their determination is simply magnificent. The support they're receiving from family and friends is critical. The way our community's rallying together is quite amazing. But to have the professional people here in the incident control centre, to have the volunteers out on the ground, to see them all working so well to make sure that we absolutely minimise the risk to people during these bushfires, but support them as they get through into the recovery stage of the operation - we're in for some pretty tough times again over the next 36 hours. We’ve just received briefings again about the risk, and the number one consideration of us all is the safety of our community. So again, thanks for being here today and to get the message out to our constituents, our people, our families right across the region. It's great to let them know that help is available to them. The Prime Minister will talk, I'm sure, about the extraordinary effort of the Australian Defence Force here in East Gippsland. And I certainly welcome your ongoing support for our community in a very desperate time. Thank you so much. Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Darren. To you and state colleagues as well, and to Brigadier Laidlaw, and to Rob Cameron from Emergency Management Australia, it has been a gruelling period of time here, obviously, in recent days, and there are some gruelling days ahead, as you all know. What I have been pleased to see here has been the absolute integration of the local efforts together with the state efforts and the efforts of the Australian Defence Force. On arriving in Victoria earlier today and being briefed at Sale, there are three very clear focuses of tasking that has been provided to the ADF, and that they are following through in exemplary fashion.

The first of those is to assist with the evacuations that are taking place as we speak now, down in Mallacoota. I report that 57 have already left on the MV Sycamore - they're already on their way - and we expect that, that by 5:00pm this afternoon, the Choules will also be leaving as you know they can take around 900 on that vessel. So around about 1,000 people should have been evacuated out of that area this afternoon. Also I should stress that, in addition to the evacuation effort – and in this evacuation effort, as the Premier said yesterday - it being done in a very coordinated way and a very calm way, reduces the risk of injury and threatening people's safety. And I was pleased to see today, even as we were coming in today, the orderly way in which people are leaving the area - being patient in the queues, whether it's at the service stations or elsewhere. I think that's extraordinarily helpful. But people getting to places of safety right now is incredibly important because, in about 24 hours from now, or even less, the situation will be far more dangerous and, when people are trying to move in those circumstances, then they're obviously putting themselves at great risk and potentially others as well. So that evacuation effort today is extremely important and it's had a very big focus from the Commonwealth.

A second part of the ADF's tasking has been providing the support to isolated communities. Of course, Mallacoota indeed is receiving 12,000 litres of fuel each and every day to ensure that the centre of that town remain operational. That is being done principally through aerial support. And that will continue. Providing this contact into a lot of the isolated communities that you see throughout the East Gippsland area is one of the great challenges, and many of those who are still unaccounted for in this part of the fire grounds are because they are in a lot of those remote communities, and it's very difficult to get to them. But the air support to provide communications in these areas and to provide continuing supplies is a very important part of what the ADF is being tasked to do here, and they are working hand in glove here with the local incident control centre as well as plugging into the broader state-wide effort.

The third area where the ADF is very focused at present is in ensuring that we can keep and we can open up road access to the various parts of the district that have been closed off. And that has been done through the engineers and they are working in with the State Emergency Service, who are doing a tremendous job as well, to ensure that we can get some of these key roads open. But that is a big challenge, and that will particularly be a big challenge in the days ahead when we're confronted with such significant weather conditions and fire threats.

The ADF is also working now with the state government on setting up evacuation centres and providing accommodation - not a tent city, but at a number of those locations that are available - Cerberus is likely to be selected for that task, as is Bandiana. The Sale base has a different role and that is a staging point for operations in assisting with all the things I’ve been referring to before. But all of this will continue to be considered carefully as the planning is put in place. What you can see here is the Australian Defence Force stepping up, along with the many other Commonwealth agencies - whether it's providing support through the payments - earlier today, when I had the opportunity to be with the Churchmans out in Sarsfield, as well as John Kinniburgh, and to see the devastation on their properties - the Churchmans' property, in particular, it is a reminder of the terrible economic impact in the destruction of these primary producers and these businesses. There will be a big rebuilding effort here in East Gippsland, as there has been, and there will need to be in many other parts of the country, as disasters have befallen them. The Commonwealth will play a key role in working together with state and in particular local authorities in building those businesses back up, in building the infrastructure again and ensuring that we can see a recovery of the area. Not just physically, but also economically, to provide those ongoing services that are necessary.

Our concerns are obviously now looking out over the next sort of 24 hour – 48 hour period, this is a ferocious fire that is still out there and the climactic conditions are going to be very difficult to contain that in the next 24 to 48 hours. That's why the evacuation messages are so incredibly important. These fires are at a scale that has been said, on many occasions now, unprecedented - particularly for this time of year, and the length of the fire season, and the absence of the dousing rain that can tend to see some of these larger fires getting under control under different circumstances. But that's not what’s present here.

But what is present here, as I saw out at Lucknow this morning, is the tremendous community spirit. The greatness of Australians in these times of great difficulty. And as a reminder today, this is a time to focus on the task in front of us and coming together and working closely together. I can assure you that is happening absolutely between the Commonwealth and the state government. The Premier here in Victoria and I are in constant contact, and those in New South Wales should know that that is also the case there in New South Wales. We're also standing up today – the volunteer firefighting payments, arrangements in South Australia and in Tasmania, I’ve been in contact with the Premiers there and we're continuing to talk about those arrangements here. That's a matter for the Victorian government. From here, I'll be returning to Melbourne, where I'll have the opportunity to be briefed at headquarters there on the broader state-wide efforts. But in particular here what I've been pleased to see is the community spirit, the community response, despite the terrible and devastating impacts of these fires - the resilience of those who've lost everything and taking great comfort of those who live around and about them as neighbours, as friends, as community members, and the way they've been able to support them at this great time of need. That, combined with the tremendous experience and professionalism of the people who are working out of this very building and the support they're being provided by the Australian Defence Force, providing every plane, every ship, every truck that is necessary to ensure we continue to supply these communities and support them in every possible way we can.

Happy to take some questions.

JOURNALIST: Your reception here was a lot warmer than in Cobargo. How would you respond to what happened there?

PRIME MINISTER: People are frustrated. People have suffered great loss. They're feeling very raw, particularly where I was yesterday. And that's the case in many parts of the country. And so I understand how people are feeling. And however they wish to respond is a matter for them. All I seek to do is to provide the support of the Commonwealth government and to assure them of everything we are doing to support them in this time of need, whether it's through direct assistance payments or whether it's the work of the Australian Defence Force or getting in behind the emergency services effort here, flying in fuel, flying in supplies, transporting firefighters - I understand there are more firefighters heading south from Queensland at the moment, and we welcome that. Prime Minister Ardern was in contact with me earlier today, and there are more firefighters coming from New Zealand. Prime Minister Marape from Papua New Guinea has also been sending very warm messages of support for his friends here in Australia. And so we're just there to support people in every way we can, however we find them, however they feel.

JOURNALIST: With all due respect, it didn't seem like you were supporting them - when a woman expressed her concerns, there was a bit of an awkward moment - you walked away. Is that really offering support?

PRIME MINISTER: I stood there with the same lady that you're referring to. We talked about what she was asking for, which was greater support for the firefighting effort in that part of New South Wales. So we talked about that.

JOURNALIST: Are you surprised that the attacks are personal, personally directed to you?

PRIME MINISTER: I don't take it personally. I just see it as a sense of frustration and hurt and loss and anger that is out there about what is the ferocity of these natural disasters. And I understand that, and we will seek to provide that comfort and support in whatever way we can.

JOURNALIST: About Andrew Constance on Sunrise this morning saying you got the welcome you deserved?

PRIME MINISTER: I've known Andrew for a long time, and I've reached out to him today. Andrew, like so many in that part of New South Wales – I mean, his neighbour lost his own property there, and he's been defending his own property there. He's deeply part of that community. So I can understand how Andrew would be feeling at the moment. So I've reached out to him today, and offered that apology to him. I was under the understanding that we had made contact with him. That wasn't the case and that's regretted. But I assumed that he was otherwise occupied on that day, which would be completely understandable. But Andrew's been through a terrible, terrible experience and ordeal, and so I totally understand how he'd be feeling.

JOURNALIST: Do you understand that this isn't just anger about what people have lost, but also just anger directed at your leadership, which is what people are saying?

PRIME MINISTER: People are angry. I understand it. People have suffered great loss. People are hurting. People are raw. That's what happens in natural disasters. And we will continue to stay focused on exerting all of our effort to deliver all of the resource and all of the support to ensure that all of these communities can come through.

JOURNALIST: But you don't believe that that actually means people are angry at your leadership?

PRIME MINISTER: People are angry, and they will, if people want to direct that at me, that is up to them. It's not something that will distract me. It is something that I will empathise with. It is something that I understand. It's not something for me to take personally. My job is to stay focused on ensuring that we have the maximum coordination of effort across many states.

JOURNALIST: These criticisms have come from your own party.

PRIME MINISTER: It's the same answer.

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] evacuation efforts in other areas apart from Mallacoota? I’m thinking particularly of the Corryong fire, where there’s I think the ADF is quite involved, I was wondering if you or anybody else can provide some information about that today?

PRIME MINISTER: Brigadier, did you want to say anything on that one?

BRIGADIER DOUG LAIDLAW, ADF commander of the East Gippsland fires joint taskforce: Thank you. At this stage, the task that we have before us to support an evacuation effort is really to look at where short-term crisis accommodation might be made available for those folk leaving those areas. We have a number of plans which are being worked up at the moment, and that will involve preparation of Defence establishments that the Prime Minister has talked about. We may also remain agile as to whether we have to look at other centres to be constructed to support whatever might unfold over the weekend. We are making preparations to see that we've got those necessary people and equipment available to do that. But we've got to remain agile to see how things unfold over this high-risk period over the next couple of days.

JOURNALIST: There was talk of, correct me if I’m wrong, of a road convoy to get people out of the Corryong area at some stage today. Can you elaborate?

BRIGADIER LAIDLAW: I can't give any further detail on that, no, sorry.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, have you received any more requests for assistance or resources from New South Wales or Victoria over the last couple of days?

PRIME MINISTER: These requests are in real-time and they are flowing through by our embedding in the headquarters both in Homebush in New South Wales and here in Melbourne. As the Premier has already outlined to you here in Victoria, every single request, every single proposal that's been put forward, we have been meeting. And we will continue to do that. The same is true in New South Wales. But I've got to tell you, we're going beyond that. What we are doing now, as these fires continue to rage across a larger and larger area, is I tasked earlier this week the Defence Force to be forward-leaning in both to identify additional supports that they can be providing at a local level and at a state level, and that included, obviously, positioning of naval assets, and we're still working on those things at the moment. But our Defence Forces and all of our other agencies are not just waiting for requests - they are seeking to pre-position before receiving them and, in other cases, just to move forward and provide that support. One of those areas where I'm particularly focused at the moment is the support that will be required on the other side - what we should see, or what we may see, over the next couple of days, where you have communities which may again be isolated and the support that will be needed there for supplies. In particular, whether they be the most basic of supplies in terms of food and water in some of these isolated communities and other potential evacuations that might need to be undertaken. And so these are the things that we're doing. These are the things that we're doing. These are the things that need to be done. And the government is just getting on with that job, working closely with our state counterparts and ensuring that this is done in a very coordinated way.

JOURNALIST: You said on radio this morning that at this stage you’re still open to going to India in nine days. Is that still the case? If it is, is it really appropriate to leave the country when it's in so much desperation?

PRIME MINISTER: The National Security Committee is going to hook up actually in the morning on this. I'm inclined not to proceed with that visit. There are some issues that I need to resolve formally, through what you’d expect when you make a decision of that nature. To work though those issues with the other Ministers. But that is my inclination at this point, I’ll make a further announcement on that and we’ll make the arrangements accordingly.

JOURNALIST: Have you reached out to world leaders to see if you can use their aircraft? In France and Canada, they’re sitting dormant, it’s winter. Can we borrow that?

PRIME MINISTER: These are things that our emergency management authorities and our chiefs and other work through all the time to locate where potential other assets are. As you know just over a couple of weeks ago, before Christmas, we increased the amount of funding for the firefighting fleet - our aircraft - by $11 million. That was on top of the $15 million we already had in. We're also now looking at what additional requests - it has been now quite a few days now where we have been looking at the options available to us to source other aircraft.

JOURNALIST: Is that looking likely?

PRIME MINISTER: We’ll be able to respond to the requests that we have from the states.

JOURNALIST: There have been further requests made since that $11 million?

PRIME MINISTER: There is a request that has only just very, very recently came through, but we are I think well pre-positioned to be able to respond to that.

JOURNALIST: Is that in terms of funding for the aircraft or aircraft themselves?

PRIME MINISTER: It follows the normal arrangements we have between the states, and the territories and the Commonwealth. We all have a cost-funding sharing arrangement, and we'll be meeting our obligations and more, if needed.

JOURNALIST: The Premier confirmed yesterday that the state would be rebuilding the Clifton Creek Primary School. Are there any such specific promises that the federal government can make?

PRIME MINISTER: To work shoulder to shoulder with the state government. I mean the Commonwealth government also as I’ve said to a number of those whose businesses were affected today, provides cash grant support to small businesses, particularly in the short-term. There are other forms of cash-grant assistance that we'll be looking very carefully at for the rebuilding effort. We want to ensure that that rebuilding effort uses as much of the local resources as is possible and to support the local economy. Our minds have already turned to that recovery, reconstruction effort and ensuring that we have the right grants and paperwork to make sure it's as seamless as possible. This proved very essential when we responded to the North Queensland flood crisis earlier in the year getting those payments out quickly. We'll be looking to follow a very similar path.

JOURNALIST: The New South Wales fire chief Greg Mullins, he has compared the way you’re handling these bushfires to the way Trump has handled the mass shootings. How did you feel about those comments?

PRIME MINISTER: I really just remain focused on the job that I have to do, this isn’t about any one individual – certainly not me or anyone else. We all have to do the job that we have to do. I'm going to keep focused on doing that job, I’m going to keep turning up in places that need our support, and our assistance and our encouragement, and I'll continue to do that each and every day while working - what we need to work back in Canberra with the support of the agencies and the coordination of the Australian Defence Forces. The role of the Australian Defence Force will become greater and greater in the days ahead, particularly when the things that they do - the airlifting, the evacuations, the engineering support, the accommodation, the evacuation centres - all of this become more and more required as these fires get larger and larger. And so we'll be running that on a daily basis, on a very close watch. And I think Australians can be confident of that being the case.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister do you regret not listening to Greg Mullins advice earlier this year and the other former emergency leaders that you needed to have more preparations in place for this summer fire season?

PRIME MINISTER: As I said at the time, we took the advice of the fire commissioners. And the fire commissioners' advice were the same as that which is being provided. So we've acted on that advice. We have acted on the advice of the fire commissioners who are there right now and who were preparing us for this season. And that preparation included - in particular - ensuring we had a larger aerial/aviation firefighting fleet in place, and they were one of the many things that we did to get us to where we were going into these fires. I want to be really clear that the response that has been made by our firefighting agencies, our emergency services, our Australian Defence Forces has prevented the loss of many lives and many properties and so no-one went into this fire season thinking that we weren't facing a very big challenge. We indeed thought we would be facing a very similar challenge last year. Over the course of the last 12 months what has made it even more difficult has obviously been the dryness, the last time I was here in East Gippsland, was with Darren, we were looking at the issues of the drought here. So to be here today talking about fires and the response to fires brings those two great disasters that have been impacting our country together. And so these are things that our State agencies, our Federal agencies, our Defence Force have been preparing for. Had they not been able to do that, then I think, although what we have seen has been terribly tragic, particularly with so many still unaccounted for, compared to previous events, they have done an outstanding job and I commend them for their great efforts and in particular for their preparations. Thank you very much.