Press Conference - Canberra, ACT

09 Sep 2021
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Well, before I start can I just remind everybody today it’s RUOK? Day, and the question we have to one another, not just this day but everyday, particularly as we go through the very challenging times of the pandemic, especially those states and territories that are in lockdown and the impact that that has on the wellbeing of Australians right around this country. Let's look out for each other, let's ask each other RUOK?, and let's be prepared to have the conversation that follows from those questions.

There are so many areas, agencies, organisations that can support people in these situations. We’ve significantly increased the funding to support them, particularly during the pandemic. I was just speaking to John Brogden, the Chair of Lifeline, this week, where we’ve provided an additional $1.5 million to support Lifeline in direct response to John’s request. Very happy to do it as quickly as possible. They’re doing a tremendous job. To all of those who are on the other end of those phone lines today - who are taking those calls, dealing with people in distress - thank you for the tremendous job you’re doing. We’ll continue to support you so you can continue to do the fabulous job that you’re doing for Australians all around the country.

RU OK? - a very important initiative, a very Australian initiative, a very Australian initiative. And, we remember it today and all of those who haven't been ok on a day like today, and doing everything we can to support them.

The purpose for me speaking to you today is to advise that our evacuations from the Al Minhad Base have now been completed. The last flight to Australia landed in Darwin last night. More than 3,500 people have now been evacuated from AMAB to Australia, and that includes over 100 who have been evacuated from other locations after leaving Afghanistan. I said to you here that we would now move into the next phase of our program, our humanitarian program, to bring people to Australia under that set of measures that we have put in place, and so we have been able to conduct one flight that has brought people directly from that region to AMAB. They have been joined by others who were evacuated by other countries over the course of those very difficult few weeks when we were all engaged in the evacuation program. We have been able to identify those individuals who our partners were able to evacuate. They were brought to AMAB and they have now been brought to Australia. More than, or around about 3,500 of the 4,000, over 4,100 people who were evacuated, and now those additional, who have been brought to Australia. Of those 3,500, some 2,500 are women and children, in one of the most desperate and dangerous parts in the world.

That evacuation initiative and effort that was undertaken by our ADF, together with the Department of Home Affairs and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, was one of their finest moments, and I want to thank everybody again who has been involved. Some 32 flights from Kabul over that period.

Now, we are continuing to work with our Coalition partners now on the next phase of that program. A Special Representative Daniel Sloper has been appointed to address those issues regarding Afghanistan, when it comes to making arrangements to support the humanitarian program in partnership with our other allies and partners in the region, and Chargé Richard Rodgers, who is based in Doha, is our Chargé to Afghanistan, and they are working closely.

The 250 ADF personnel who were tasked to AMAB and then so many of whom actually were there on the tarmac at HKIA in Kabul, they are now, have been, sorry I should say, they have been progressively returning to Australia, and the bulk of them will arrive back in Australia over the next few days, and the arrangements have been put in place to ensure they can go through their quarantine.

I note also today that the, I would normally be joined by certainly the Foreign Minister and the Defence Minister, but they now have embarked on a series of international engagements. They are in Jakarta today for their 2+2, with their Indonesian counterparts. Indonesia being such an important part of ASEAN, and which is at the centre of our Indo-Pacific vision. They will be in New Delhi on the 11 September for 2+2s there with their counterparts, Seoul on the 13 September, and then of course in Washington for AUSMIN on the 16th of September.

We are expecting for the next face-to-face meeting of the Quad to be held in Washington later this month and we’re still awaiting final details of that and I’ll look forward to be in Washington to be part of those discussions with my counterparts from India, Japan and the United States.

On the issue of COVID, an important day today. We’ve gone past the halfway mark - 40 per cent double dosed over 16s here in Australia, 40 per cent. And, the vast bulk of that has been achieved just in the last couple of months. Ninety per cent of Australians aged over 70 have had their first dose, and this week, two in three Australians, two in three Australians right around the country aged over 16, would have had their first dose. And, that continues to be driven by the strong take up and the supply of the vaccines that are supporting the high rates of vaccination - well over 300,000 again in the most recent numbers, and we expect that to continue as these vaccination rates continue to climb.

I also want to welcome the New South Wales plan to reopen. This plan keeps the deal, keeps the faith with the people of Australia and the people of New South Wales, set out in the national plan. This plan supports the initiatives that are there, being driven by the safe process of opening, underwritten by the Doherty modelling, and supported by the national plan. It is a careful and a safe plan, and consistent with everything set out in the national plan, and I commend the New South Wales Government for following through. The discussions I have been having with the Victorian Premier and others over some weeks now - both states in strong lockdowns - moving forward on the basis of the national plan and increasing levels of vaccination in both states.

I can also tell you that I'm advised by General Frewen that by mid-October we will have had sufficient supplies delivered to Australia that would have enabled first and second doses for the Australian eligible population. Now, you'll recall that it had been our original plan that we would have achieved that by October. That was set back many months, and, in fact, about four months or thereabouts. I was then able to say that we believed we could then having with the, with the changes we put in place in the program, we would have been able to bring that forward to before the end of the year. Well, we’ve continued to catch up the ground by securing those additional supplies, and we will now be in a position that we will, we will meet that mark next month, and we'll meet it around the middle of next month. And, so, it really is now up for all of us, operating in a non-constrained environment on supply, to be able to go out there and get those vaccinations, and we're seeing that occur each and every day.

And, I particularly want to thank all of those, particularly our older population who has done the majority of the vaccinations because that's where the vaccines were first available. We started with those most vulnerable, and it means as we go into these higher levels of vaccination, those most vulnerable, amongst our elderly in the community, are those with the highest level of vaccinations, and I'm sure they will be particularly pleased - those who are living in New South Wales - to see the plan which says if you go out and keep your side of the deal, if you go out there and you get vaccinated, you get your two doses, then you can expect to be living with the virus in a way that you would hope to live with the virus. No one freedom day or anything like that. It's not what the national plan does. It's safely, has a soft opening, easing of restrictions, and taking us back to where we want to be. New South Wales has made a great, great big step on that today, and I commend them for the way that they’ve done it. We’ll continue to work closely with them, as we do with all states and territories. Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, what explanation has Greg Hunt given you, what explanation, Prime Minister, has Greg Hunt given you for not, for declining an invitation to talk to Pfizer's global executives, given that if he had taken up that invitation we might really have been at the front of the queue?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I don't accept the premise of the latter part of your question, because as we learned in Japan, who signed an agreement of intention to purchase in July, their doses arrived three days before ours did. And, if we look at, say, the situation in the United States, they went forward with an intention to purchase. They started their vaccination in December of last year, and right now, on first doses, we're a couple of weeks behind them. And, so, I think there are a lot of heroes of hindsight at the moment out there, but when you actually look at the achievements of the program and the challenges that we faced, and how we've overcome them and where we are now, and where, more importantly, we're getting to, then the way we've been able to proceed with the program has put us in a place right now where I think Australians can look forward to the balance of the year a lot more optimistically.

Now, on the issue of our engagement with Pfizer, yes, those engagements had started before then. And, they, those discussions were already underway, but it was very clear from those discussions that the focus was not on Australia, the focus was on where people were dying in their thousands, tens of thousands, in the Northern Hemisphere. And, it was very clear to us that what we would have to do is ensure that we had a home manufactured vaccine. And, so, we were applying our efforts to ensure that we had the sovereign capability to produce vaccines here in Australia, and not be reliant on what would be very uncertain supplies from overseas. And, so, we went to the arrangements that we entered into with AstraZeneca to make it here in Australia. Over, well over 10 million of those vaccines have now been administered here in Australia. Had we not done that, then you would have seen the vaccination rates in Australia half what they are today. And, you would have seen those, particularly elderly Australians, not as protected as they have been, as particularly we've gone into these, this latest waves of the Delta strain of the virus. Those other countries went through emergency, emergency approval procedures for their vaccines. Australia didn't do that. We followed the normal process because we wanted to assure Australians that the vaccines that we were asking them to take were safe, in accordance with all the other vaccine programs that the country runs. So, we had been engaging with them at the time, but what is very clear is that what was necessary was for us to establish our own sovereign vaccine manufacturing capability, which we did. And, that has been an important and significant part of our vaccination program, and that has kept thousands, if not millions, of Australians safe from the virus.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, are you disappointed, are you disappointed that Mark McGowan’s April deadline for reopening will mean families can't be together for Christmas, as you hoped?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think he's underselling Western Australians. What I mean by that is, I think they'll get vaccinated sooner than that. I mean, he's making assumptions that WA won't be able to get vaccinated into some time in January. I don't think Western Australians will be that complacent. I don’t, I have a bigger confidence in Western Australians about their wanting to re-engage with the rest of the country and with the rest of the world. Western Australians look out, they don't look in. And, I know that Western Australians will be keen to move on and get on. That's the Western Australian spirit, and I believe that they'll be able to achieve those vaccination rates well before. I can understand that the Premier would be having a conservative estimate, I understand that, that's, that’s prudent. But, at the same time, I believe they'll be able to achieve well beyond that, and it's very important that our country lives with this virus. The next stage will be hard. We're about to see that in New South Wales and we're about to see it in Victoria. As they ease up, both states know hospitals will come under pressure, we'll see case numbers rise, and that will be challenging. They understand that. We understand that. That's why the planning is being done for them to pass through what will be a challenging time, as they manage moving from Phase B to Phase C. That comes with additional pressure on the hospital system. That's understood. That is inevitable. If you want to live with the virus, you inevitably have to pass down that tunnel, and that will be true in every single state and territory in the country. It will be true for Western Australia. So, my advice to Western Australia is get vaccinated and get ready - get your hospital system ready, get your health system ready, and push through, and we can all reconnect and be one again. Chris.

JOURNALIST: How important will it be for Premiers to hold their nerve through that phase as many call on them to turn back?

PRIME MINISTER: Oh, I think it's very important. I think it's very important for many reasons. The first of which is to, you know, prepare your state, prepare our population, prepare the country to understand that getting to the point where you live with the virus isn't easy and you need to be determined and push through. You need to prepare your hospital systems, which indeed I know New South Wales in particular are. They understand where they expect the peaks to come and they are addressing the workforce issues that are necessary. And we're working with them to help them achieve that, as we will with every state and territory. So it is important to keep the nerve. Have your plan ready. Push through, get to the other side, be in the place we want to be.

But the other point is this. For the country to have its strong recovery from COVID-19, particularly Delta. It's not just lockdowns. It's the fear of future lockdowns. We need to be able to move forward and know that they can keep moving forward and that gives people confidence to invest, to employ, to move on. And so it is important to push through and hold your nerve through that process. And that's what the national plan does. That's what it sets out. And it makes that deal with Australians. Says you do what you need to do. We'll do what we need to do. And together, that means we can get Australia to where we want to be. Kath.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, your Government signed and ratified the Paris Agreement. You say that the Government will implement it. It intends to conform. So why would we ask the British Government to remove references in the text to temperature goals in the Paris Agreement in the free trade deal?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, it was about trade. It wasn't a climate agreement, it was a trade agreement. And I do trade agreements and in trade agreements, I deal with trade issues. In climate agreements, I deal with climate issues. We're pursuing agreements on clean energy technology with a vast number of countries, and we'll have agreements about that. And, but the key agreement we've made is when we signed up to Paris and the commitments that we made to achieve those. Those commitments are clear. And we'll not only meet them, we'll beat them just like we did Kyoto.

JOURNALIST: Will Australia resist signing up to a global agreement that would limit temperatures to 1.5 degrees higher than pre-industrial levels rather than the current agreement of well below 2 degrees? And will Australia resist or argue against any global agreement to put a limit, a time, date and expiration date on the coal industry?

PRIME MINISTER: Two answers to the two questions. We have signed up to our commitments under the Paris Agreement. We will meet them. We will beat them. Just like we did with Kyoto. We're already 20 per cent down on emissions, which outstrips ...

JOURNALIST: [inaudible].

PRIME MINISTER: No, I heard your question. Which outstrips many who are claiming to be able to achieve any number of things now. Well, I know what we've already achieved and that beat so many of those who are seeking to make other commitments. Now, Australia's doing it. Australians are doing it. Australian businesses are doing it. Our resources industry, our energy sector, all of them, they're getting on with it. They're making it happen. They're developing new technology, they're putting hydrogen in mining trucks up there in the Pilbara. They're getting it done. They're getting on with it. And that's the story that we can tell to the rest of the world. Australians, we just get on with it and we are. And the way we're going to achieve it is by ensuring that we're not only developing the technology, but we're applying the technology and that we're meeting the goals that we're setting. We're not going to talk it. We're going to do it. And we're going to keep doing it. And our record shows that that's what we always do. So our commitments have been made and we will meet those commitments as we go forward.

On the other issue that you raised regarding the mining sector. This is critical to Australia's future, absolutely critical to Australia's future. And we'll keep on mining. Of course we'll keep on mining.


PRIME MINISTER: We will keep mining the resources that we're able to sell on the world market. Now, we obviously anticipate that over time, world demand for these things may change. But I'll tell you, the other thing we'll do is, and that is ensure we'll work, particularly with developing countries, to ensure that they are able to engage in a positive transition of their own energy economies. And they will continue, as the current agreements already provide for, to be using the resources that Australia has exported for a long time and will continue to, well into the future. But they will be able to use those resources and I think in a far more climate friendly way, and we will partner with them to help them achieve that, because we actually are quite passionate about the economic success of countries in our region. We want them to grow. We want them to develop. We want them to have trained and skilled workers. We want them to have industries which support the wellbeing of their of their population, both for their own sake, but frankly, it's in our interests too. And so we want to help them make that transition over the next 20, 30 years by being a technology partner with those developing economies. It's not a matter of just sending developing economies a cheque and asking them to sit down. That's not a plan for developing economies. That's not a plan for them at all, while the rest of the world goes on with what it wants to do. Developing economies deserve an economic future and Australia will partner with those developing economies to ensure that technology which will transform our own energy economy, can transform theirs, too. And they will find us to be a very trustworthy partner.

JOURNALIST: On the Quad meeting and Indo-Pacific. Do you believe that the continued Chinese ownership of the Port of Darwin is an inhibiting factor to the growth of Darwin as a military presence for the US forces up there? And do you share the concerns and reservations of some of your colleagues that terminating the lease would invite a very firm response from China?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's a matter that's the subject of a review being conducted by the Department of Defence. And I'll wait to hear their advice.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just on an answer, [inaudible] Japan. What about Singapore? The country has had similar experience [inaudible] with COVID. It signed a deal much earlier, it got Pfizer shipments in December last year. Doesn't that show it was possible for us to be earlier in the queue?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Singapore has gone down a different path. We went down the path of establishing a sovereign vaccine manufacturing capability that has seen more than ten million doses of the AZ vaccine into the arms of Australians and is significantly underwritten that vaccination programme. I mean, our vaccination rates would be half what they were today were it not for our decision to put in place the sovereign manufacturing capability here in Australia for AstraZeneca. What was very clear, when the world was in crisis and the northern hemisphere was seeing millions of people die, hundreds of thousands, you know, on a weekly basis, that that's where the focus of those companies was. We need to deal with our own challenges and have our own Australian solutions to them to make our own Australian way. And that's exactly what we did.

The other one we were engaged with at the time, you'll remember, was the University of Queensland vaccine. And I'm sure, had that proved successful, well, that would have been a great cause for celebration. It didn't. It didn't. At that time last year, there were many, many different vaccine options and none of them had any guarantee of certainty. And anyone who, today, wants to pretend that back then that certainty existed, well, that just simply would not be realistic. And so we pursued sovereign manufacturing vaccine options for Australia. That was the priority that was recommended to us, of course, by our health advisers. And they were the opportunities that we pursued. And having that home-grown advantage, we believe, would give us greater protection.

JOURNALIST: When did you or the Health Minister personally meet with, or have a phone call with, representatives from Pfizer?

PRIME MINISTER: That was back in the first half of last year when the Health Minister was engaging ...

JOURNALIST: When did you have a phone call or a meeting, not write a letter to, when did you first actually speak to ...

PRIME MINISTER: Well, you'd have to speak to the Health Minister about that.

JOURNALIST: No, but when did you? There is discussion about these meetings in July of last year. When did you meet Pfizer? Did you ask Pfizer for instance ...

PRIME MINISTER: I would have been talking in the second half of last year.

JOURNALIST: And did you ever ask Pfizer could we get more than ten million doses? What efforts did you make to get more than those ten million?

PRIME MINISTER: Every effort that we could.

JOURNALIST: In what way?

PRIME MINISTER: No, I've answered the question.

JOURNALIST: Well and further to that we do have the benefit of hindsight now. But was Greg Hunt right not to take that meeting with the global executives of Pfizer in June or July last year?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I'll let others make those judgements. I simply say this. It was one of many engagements that we were having with vaccine companies around the world. And they were happening with Pfizer at the time. To suggest they weren't, would be false. There were many records of the engagement between the Government and Pfizer at the time. Our political opponents have highlighted one set of correspondence, but there are many others which highlight the connections and engagements that were taking place between Pfizer and the Government. And at the end of the day, we were able to secure the doses that we did. We were able to establish the sovereign vaccine manufacturing capability that we did with AstraZeneca. We've been able to secure, most recently, an additional five million Pfizer doses through our engagement, both with the Polish Government and the UK Government and a further half a million from Singapore. There are still some irons in the fire that I'm working on. And at the end of the day, what does this mean? In the plan that we set out last year which said that we would hope to be in a position by the end, by October, that we would have had enough doses to cover the population for two dose vaccinations, we now expect to achieve that in mid-October. So that is where all of these events have led us to. And I think when you come up against the challenges in a global crisis, you adapt, you overcome and you seek to make up the ground. And that's exactly what the government has done. And no one has put more effort into that task than the Minister for Health. No one has had more sleepless nights and lengthy hours than the Minister for Health in securing the best possible health outcome for every single Australian. And of course, there'll be critics in the middle of a crisis and there'll be lots of hindsight heroes and there'll be lots of others who said this could have been done or that could have been done. But, you know, if they want to focus on the past, that's fine. My Government is focusing on the future. The national plan is the future. The national plan says, let's get those jabs in those arms. Let's get Australia open again. Let's get Australia together again. Let's keep our deal with Australians and making sure that can be achieved. And that's exactly what the New South Wales Government has done today. Good on you, Gladys. I look forward to similar steps being taken by other premiers around the country, which no doubt they will. No doubt they will, because I know they want to keep that deal with Australians.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] Given that bureaucratic situation, is also happening at a time when the Taliban are ramping up, their search for western allies and others, what assurances can you give that Australia is doing all that it can, to get people out now while there's that window of opportunity, or have we truly moved to this next phase where it’s unlikely we’ll be bringing extra people on humanitarian visas in the next few months?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I started this press conference by highlighting the fact that since we completed the evacuation of Kabul, that we've already brought more than 100 people since then. Since HKIA was shut, and both the US and British troops left, we have already been able to lift up over 100 people and they're on their way to Australia and should be here very, very soon. The level of effort and coordination and dedication that was required by our immigration officials and the Department of Home Affairs to achieve that, as I said three and a half thousand people, including those we've only just lifted out of the region. And to get them back to AMAB and then to get them back to Australia and to deal with the many complex factors that go with that two and a half thousand of them and women and children, I think that tells you the dedication of our immigration people to trying to resolve these issues as quickly and as professionally and as safely as they possibly can. They're doing extraordinary work and they're saving lives, extraordinary work and saving lives. And they're going to keep saving lives. We're going to keep working through all those issues. It's very complex. There are many priorities to address. And Special Representative Sloper, I think, will really help us in coordinating with the other partners and allies there in the region. I've had a few text exchanges with President Macron in the last few days where this issue has arisen. It continues to be a matter of discussion between me and the British Prime Minister and, of course, with the President of the United States when we spoke last week. And no doubt they are things that will be taken up when I meet with him later this month. So we're very focused on this task. I'm very proud of the work that our Defence Forces have done, that our Home Affairs officials have been engaged in, our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade save a lot of lives. They've done Australia proud. Thank you very much.