Press Conference - Kirribilli, NSW

08 Jul 2021
Kirribilli, NSW
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Good afternoon. There are two matters, two important matters, that I'd like to raise this afternoon. First of those involves the establishment of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veterans Suicide, following approval by the Governor-General earlier today. And the second, obviously, is to deal with the emergency situation with the COVID outbreak here in Sydney. I'll deal with both of those by way of statement and then happy to take questions on both of those matters. 

Today, I formally announce a Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide to be undertaken following approval by the Governor-General earlier today. We recognise as a Government and I think, as all Australians, the contribution and sacrifice of the men and women who have served our country. And the death of any Australian Defence Force member or veteran is a terrible tragedy that is deeply felt by all Australians, but particularly those who served alongside them and their families. As a government, we are committed to addressing the ongoing impact of service, and that view is shared not just by my Ministers, but it is shared in particular by those who lead our Defence Forces and are involved in all the agencies of government. I believe that both at a federal level and at a state level, doing all we can to support our veterans as they struggle with the demands of their service. The death of any veteran is a great tragedy, and we remain committed to addressing the ongoing impact of service, including preventing future deaths by suicide and providing opportunities for healing. 

The inquiry will be led by Mr Nick Kaldas APM, former Deputy Commissioner of the New South Wales Police Force, where he commanded around 14,000 staff members and a budget of more than $2 billion. Mr Kaldas has extensive international experience in law enforcement and peacekeeping, including as Director of Internal Oversight Services for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and as Chief of Investigations for the United Nations Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in Syria. Mr Kaldas will be supported by the Honourable James Douglas QC, an esteemed former judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland and respected member of the legal community, and Dr Peggy Brown AO, a consultant psychiatrist and national leader in mental health policy with extensive experience in health and mental health service planning, governance and administration. 

The Royal Commission will inquire into systemic issues and common themes related to defence and veteran death by suicide, including the possible contribution of pre-service, transition, separation and post service issues and other matters believed by the Royal Commission to be relevant to its inquiry, which is the normal practise in these types of royal commissions. The Royal Commission will be able to inquire into any previous death by suicide, including suspected suicide. It will be conducted independently of government, including the Departments of Defence and Veterans Affairs. In making recommendations on systemic issues, the Royal Commission will be informed by the individual experience of defence members, veterans and their families and support networks. The Royal Commission will conduct its inquiries in a trauma informed way, and private sessions will be available to those who wish to share their story in private. Legal financial assistance scheme will be available to people called as witnesses to the Royal Commission. An independent legal advisory service, counselling and support services will also be made available to people engaging with the Royal Commission. The terms of reference has been informed by feedback received during an extensive public consultation process, including reviews provided specifically by states and territories who joined with letters patent. Over 3,000 submissions were received during the consultation on the themes for this Royal Commission. The National Commissioner for Defence and Veterans Suicide Prevention Bill, currently before the Parliament, will be amended to ensure that the National Commissioner will complement and not duplicate the Royal Commission's important work. The National Commission will be the permanent body responsible for implementing the Royal Commission's recommendations on these landmark measures, which will together reduce deaths by suicide of defence members and veterans. The Royal Commission is due to provide an interim report on 11 August 2022 and a final report on 15 June 2023.

As is always the case with the Royal Commission, we will work closely with the Commissioners to ensure that the Royal Commission is undertaken comprehensively and extensively, and for further information, including terms of reference information, that is available at the website. The Australian Government is committed to supporting the health and wellbeing of those who have served in our Defence Forces. Some $11.7 billion in federal funds supports more than 325,000 veterans and their families each and every year. 

I do want to encourage media to report the other services that are online. For announcements like this, I know will have an impact on individual veterans and their families and those services, Lifeline, open arms, the ADF mental health all hours support services, Safe Zone Support. All of these numbers, and I particularly refer to the lifeline 13 11 14 and also the Safe Zone Support 1800 142 072. I want to thank all of those who participated in bringing this terms of reference together. It's now time for Commissioner Kaldas and his fellow Commissioners to get on with that job of that Commission. And I look forward to receiving their report in the future, in particular their interim report.

Can I turn now to the serious situation that is evolving here in New South Wales, and I do want to stress this is a very serious situation and it's particularly escalated over the course of recent days. I've been in very regular contact with the New South Wales Premier, particularly over the last 48 hours, as we've been brought further up to date with information that they're also seeing at a state level. The Premier and I had quite a lengthy meeting yesterday, together with the Treasurer of New South Wales and Treasurer Frydenberg, to work through these issues. The National Security Committee of Cabinet has been meeting up until about an hour ago as we've been working through these issues, and I've spoken again on several occasions today with the New South Wales Premier.

What I would first say to my fellow Sydneysiders, in particular, is compliance with the orders that have been put in place by the New South Wales Government could not be more critical. In particular, we are having issues with compliance when it comes to casual contact between households. You just can't go from one house to the next - birthday parties, family gatherings, these sorts of things are just not ok, for people to go to each other's houses at this time. I understand why people would wish to do that, that's natural. It's understandable. And I also understand how frustrating it is that you can't do those things. But, this is an absolutely critical time. It isn't just about where people are organising large parties in particular places - and they've had much publicity, and the appropriate attention and actions have been taken in relation to those matters - but whether it's a party of footballers or just a simple family gathering, coming together, it can both have exactly the same consequences. The virus doesn't move by itself. It moves from person to person. People carry it from one to another. And, so I'd just underscore the request by the New South Wales Government, which I urge you as Prime Minister to follow, and ensure that we all keep a check on each other to do just that here in Sydney, to ensure that we can suppress this latest outbreak.

To support that initiative, there are a number of things as the lockdown goes into a third week in New South Wales - in Sydney in particular, I should stress - that takes us into a phase beyond what we've recently seen in Victoria. And, what I'm announcing today, particularly in relation to financial supports, would apply to other states and territories who found themselves in a similar situation where they're going into the third week of a lockdown in a Commonwealth defined hotspot area. And, the first of those is the liquid assets test, which is currently applied to that individual payment of $325 and $500 will be waived for access to those payments, as people go into that third week. So, that is for those in those first areas that were affected - the eighth of this month - and for the broader Sydney metropolitan area - the 11th of that month. You can access that payment by calling 180 22 66. What does that mean - the liquid assets test waiver - it doesn't matter what funds you've got available to you otherwise in your bank account or that you can readily convert to cash. Recognising that we're not just dealing with a one-week period or two-week period here, that this is now going into a third week, and with further decisions to be taken. The Commonwealth recognises that, and the liquid assets test will not apply to access to those payments. The second thing we'll be doing is extending the mutual obligation waiver that applies in the Sydney metropolitan area in relation to welfare supports of payment, social security payments.

In addition, after discussion with the Premier, the Federal Government will be providing, bringing forward an additional 300,000 extra doses, and particularly to see those targeted towards the areas of outbreak, and that is especially in South Western Sydney, and to target particularly those who are most vulnerable in the community. That 300,000 comprises equal components of both the AstraZeneca vaccine and the Pfizer vaccine into those areas. In that area, I note from the most recent figures we have in the three local government areas most particularly affected, you have first dose vaccination rates of, for over 70s, of between 48 and 51 per cent. And, so we would also be encouraging the eight to 12-week second dose to be done at the earlier part of that eight to 12-week period. That is consistent with medical advice - the TGA approval does sit, and ATAGI advice, on eight to 12 weeks. And, given the risks to people of the outbreak in that area, we believe it's important that they get that second dose of AstraZeneca as soon as possible. That is the community that is most at risk in these circumstances. So, that'll be 300,000 additional doses that will be brought forward and provided next week. We have had some success in recent days of accessing additional doses, which I can't go into the commercial arrangements for. This means that these additional doses going into Sydney, in particular, will not come at the expense of the ongoing allocations that are being made to other states and territories.

More broadly, I note that yesterday it was reported another record day of vaccinations - some 165,000 doses, some 140,000 today, 8.7 million in total, a million doses in just over a week - in eight days. And, we are not far from hitting that seven day million dose target that we've been working to for some time now. Speaking to Lieutenant General Frewen earlier today, 72 per cent of those over 70 have had their first dose, 55.29 per cent over 50 have had their first dose, 31.8 per cent over 16, getting to almost one in three eligible Australians now having had received their first dose. And, we now note that more than one in ten aged over 16 have now had both doses.

I want to stress again the importance of aged care workers, and particularly those aged over 70, going and having their vaccinations. Those vaccinations for over 70s have been available now for some time. And, while we've been, as I've just noted, we've got a pretty high level now of those aged over 70 - over 70 per cent have had that first dose - now go and get your second dose if it's been at least eight weeks for you to receive that. But, equally, with aged care workers, we'll be continuing working with the states and territories again, both tonight amongst health ministers, and premiers tomorrow to implement the decision of National Cabinet to ensure that that's a mandatory scheme. Lieutenant General Frewen has been working with the states as well on how we can put in place more effective in-reach services to ensure that we're vaccinating as many of those aged care workers as possible and ensure that the priority lane, priority access for aged care workers is being afforded both through the GP arrangements, and remembering now we have a much greater level of GPs - higher number, I should say - GPs now having access to the Pfizer vaccine, and I expect that to be seen as a priority for those workers.

Just before I go to questions, I also note a congratulations to Patty Mills and Cate Campbell on being appointed as our flag bearers at the forthcoming Olympics. For both of them it's their fourth Olympics. That's an extraordinary achievement for any athlete to get to one Olympics, but to go to four and to represent the country in this way, and particularly as an Indigenous Australian for Patty Mills, I think that will be a very special moment for all Australians. So, I wish them all the best in Tokyo and congratulate them on that achievement, and also note that Ash Barty's playing Angelique Kerber tonight and I'm sure there'll be a few Australians watching that later tonight. With that, let's go to questions.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the Premier says that this lockdown is being extended because there simply is not enough vaccines. You've announced an extra 300,000 to go to New South Wales today. That simply isn't going to cut it. So, is this lockdown on you now?

PRIME MINISTER: At no stage at any time in the last 12 months has there been any suggestion that Australia would have reached a level of vaccination at the level we now see in the UK, which I note is not even yet at 65 per cent for two doses at this time. The national vaccination plan that was adopted last year and all of the targets, even on their most optimistic scenarios, which haven't been realised, none of them put Australia in a position where a suppression strategy could have been lifted at any time, at least by the end of October. So, the suggestion that somehow there was a vaccination rate that would have put us in a different position right now to what was planned last year is simply not true. There was never a 65 per cent opportunity for Australia at this time of year ...

JOURNALIST: Why not? Why wasn't there ever?

PRIME MINISTER: I mean, the vaccines themselves were not approved by the TGA until the earlier part of this year. Secondly, the AstraZeneca vaccine, as we know, has been subject in this country, in this country, to ATAGI advice which had a significant impact on the use of that vaccine in Australia. We would have had considerable more doses available to Australians in the absence of those ATAGI rulings. Let's not forget that 44 million UK residents have been successfully vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine. The UK has not been vaccinated by Pfizer or Moderna, they've [mostly] been vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine, and the availability of that vaccine under the medical advice in this country has been very different to that overseas. Now, undoubtedly that has had a big impact on the rates of vaccination that we've been able to achieve to this point. The countries that produce, produce, manufacture the mRNA vaccines - the United Kingdom, in Europe - they had first access to all of those vaccines and Australia did not, nor did other countries, at the volumes that would have been necessary to achieve a higher rate of vaccination by this stage. That's why we focused on AstraZeneca, because we could make it here and we could get it in the volumes which would have accelerated our vaccination rate beyond where we are now. Right now, we are catching up considerable time. At the rates we're now achieving -  at some a million vaccinations almost a week - that will ensure if we can keep that pace up, and the supply lines hold, and the supply lines are firming, not weakening, then every Australian who wishes to have a vaccine by the end of the year, it is our intention, based on the advice of Lieutenant General Frewen, that that will be possible. And, I think that's where we need to be. That would only put us two months back from where we would have otherwise hoped to have been, and so the vaccination rate that you're seeing right now, and what might otherwise been the case at this time, would have still required a suppression strategy right now. And, to suggest otherwise is just completely and utterly false. 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, so many of the United States' close allies have been able to secure additional doses from the US surplus - not from Pfizer, but from the surplus, 80 million last month. They went to places like Canada, Mexico, South Korea, Taiwan. Why hasn't Australia been able to leverage its so-called special relationship with the US to secure some of those surplus doses?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, in a number of those cases they're subject to the agreements that they already have with those countries, particularly Mexico and Canada. And, I would note that in those countries also you were seeing a rate of death from COVID, which was very different to Australia's.

JOURNALIST: What about Taiwan and South Korea?

PRIME MINISTER: Taiwan also more recently has seen a very rapid escalation in their case numbers, as I'm sure you're aware, and South Korea always had more fatalities than Australia, and we have been accessing additional doses. It's true. We have. We've been able to do that through our relationship with Pfizer, the additional doses out of Moderna, and we're accessing those. But, equally, the focus of the United States and indeed Japan and India and others, and particularly through the Quad initiative and the G7 initiative, is increasingly focusing on developing countries. I mean, we're seeing death on our doorstep in Indonesia right now, and we've just reached out further again. I was in contact with President Widodo yesterday. Australia, working with other countries, will continue to support developing countries whose challenge is the most extreme. People are dying in Indonesia. People are still dying in the United Kingdom. People are still dying in the United States. I mean, there were more cases yesterday in the United Kingdom than we've had in total in 18 months.

JOURNALIST: Have you tried, though, with the US?

PRIME MINISTER: Of course we have.

JOURNALIST: Was the answer no?

PRIME MINISTER: We've been accessing vaccines.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the Commonwealth was prepared to go it 50-50 with the states in terms of the economic support provided to individuals and to business. If you were prepared to go 50-50 with the states, why aren't you prepared to go 50-50 now, considering that the New South Wales Treasurer says he's tipping in $1.4 billion in business support? If you were prepared to go 50-50 then, why not now?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I took a proposal to National Cabinet, and I'm acting in accordance with the decision of the National Cabinet, which is that we will cover the household assistance, which I've said today we are easing the restrictions on. And, so we're going further on that for the third week, and that is the same rule that I'll apply to every other state and territory. The states agreed, including New South Wales, I stress, ultimately to be part of that National Cabinet decision, that states would look after business support and that the, and the Commonwealth would look after household support. And, what I have said though to the Premier and the Treasurer today is that given the circumstances we're now seeing unfolding in New South Wales, that we will work very closely with them to ensure that there is appropriate economic support should the conditions in New South Wales require further restrictions. So, we are having that discussion with New South Wales. This is an iterative process, there are shifting sands when it comes to the evolution of this issue. And, we're working very cooperatively and positively together because, let me be clear, what is happening in Sydney just doesn't have implications for Sydney. What is happening in Sydney has very serious implications not only for the health of Sydneysiders, but also for the economy of Sydney, but also the economy of New South Wales, and indeed the national economy. And, that's why it's absolutely imperative that in this phase we're in now, the suppression phase, that we work together to ensure that we can suppress this latest outbreak as effectively as we possibly can. And, we will work with the New South Wales Government to give effect to that, both economically and from a health point of view.

JOURNALIST: How many people do you expect will benefit from what you've announced today, and how much is that going to cost the Federal Government? $500 in Sydney is not going to go very far.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, first of all, the payments are set, particularly the $500, is exactly where JobKeeper was when JobKeeper was withdrawn at the end of March. So, we're going back to JobKeeper level payments, same payments that were helping people at, through JobKeeper in that final phase, are the same payments that are being made available to people. I think the last data I saw was some 67,000 Sydneysiders had already accessed the payments here, that were affected by the lockdown to date. I expect that number to increase. It's a disaster payment, so it's demand driven. We'll pay whatever the demand is on those payments. So, there aren't estimates on what that is likely to be. But, we will meet those payments.

JOURNALIST: So, why is New South Wales now the special place to enact this, because some would say, well, you need to win New South Wales to win the next election. That's just politicking.

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I reject that, I think that's an absurd suggestion. We're into the third week of a lockdown. We've provided exactly the same support that was provided in Victoria. Thankfully, the Victorian situation was able to be suppressed and contained. The New South Wales situation is not in that case. And, so you've got to respond to the evidence, and the evidence is there'll be a need for further support because this is going longer in Sydney than in Melbourne.

JOURNALIST: Is that what you're hearing from the Premier, that it will go longer?

PRIME MINISTER: I'll leave, the Premier can speak for herself. I'm working very closely with the Premier. But, if further effort is required on the Commonwealth's part to support the New South Wales Government to suppress this latest outbreak, then we will certainly be there, as we have been all throughout. Can I tell you, I mean, the Commonwealth Government, in New South Wales alone, not including health support, knowing that the health supports of all the states and territories has some $27 billion dollars, that's just on COVID health support. And, on top of that, you've got the economic supports, which all combined together is some $311 billion dollars of supports to the states and territories, which is more than double their combined investments on health and economic supports. In New South Wales alone, I think the economic support's around about $60 billion dollars so far, and you all understand what the impact of that has been on the Commonwealth's Budget. It's been significant, and it's going to be significant for a long time to come. Equally, I note the states and their financial position are in a stronger position than the Federal Government. Most of them are seeing surpluses return under their own budgets they've released over the next four or five years. That is not the Commonwealth's position. And Commonwealth and states are both in a position to access borrowed money to support the needs of their communities, and the New South Wales Government is equally in that position to do that. So, there'll be burden sharing here, as there has been all the way through.

But, what I want to encourage Australians is, on the vaccination programme, we are hitting those marks in terms of where we're almost at on a weekly vaccination, on daily vaccinations. These are the rates that we have to achieve in order to be where we want to be by the end of the year, and perhaps sooner. Where we are now and the pace of the rollout now, we maintain that, then we get to where we want to be by the end of the year, which would only see us about two months behind where we had initially hoped to have been, and that is being achieved when you compare that to overseas. There are two types of charts. There's the chart which shows the double doses of vaccination, and we all know where we are there, and we all know where we're going to go over the next few months. We will rocket up those charts in the months ahead. But, the chart that I do want to see us change on is deaths, deaths. Australia still has one of the lowest, if not the lowest death rate of COVID in the world today, and, you know, we won the first battle against COVID by saving the lives of over 30,000 Australians. Overseas, that wasn't the case. They lost that battle. You know, in the UK they lost more lives to COVID than they did during the blitz. Just to give it some perspective.

JOURNALIST: Just on that, 25 per cent of people in hospital with COVID in New South Wales now are under 35-years-old. Young people have carried the can on the economy, on social life, weddings, graduations, a lot. Now they're getting COVID. Should they be allowed to get the Pfizer vaccine? Should that be opened up for under 40s?

PRIME MINISTER: The medical evidence and advice will guide those decisions, as they should. The people most likely to die from COVID, of the highest vulnerability, are aged over 70. And, if you're talking about who has carried the biggest burden, well, the biggest burden is losing your life, and the Australians who've carried the biggest burden from COVID are those aged over 70 because they make up those who have died. And, that is a great tragedy and a great sadness, I think, for all of their families, young and old alike. And, so the medical situation is that what you've said is true. But, equally, the numbers of this stage of hospitalisations and ICUs are still very low by global standards. And, I think we're still going to have some news there in the days ahead. But, that said, that only underscores why the suppression approach that we need to keep applying at this point in time is so necessary to protect all lives. I mean, when I think about this issue, I don't, I think about all Australians as one, and that's how we have to approach it, and not set one group against another, one group being more deserving than another or even, frankly, one group being more impacted than another. All Australians are being impacted by this one way or another, different ways. We're seeking to be as sensitive to that as we possibly can.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you talk about the COVID crisis here, and I think it's probably a good time to talk about what is maybe not talked about, and that is the suicide rate. We see, you know, almost this Hunger Games like attitude - to steal a phrase from the New South Wales Health Minister - the vaccines you have, the businesses, people dobbing each other in for not doing the right thing. When you see that day in, day out, and hear about those suicide statistics, is there anything you can do about it now?

PRIME MINISTER: We have poured significant resources into our mental health supports during this crisis. In fact, it has been one of the mainstays and standouts of Australia's COVID response compared to other countries. It was one of the things I discussed with Prime Minister Johnson when I was with him at Number 10 that long ago, not that long ago, and I was talking about the role particularly that headspace had played in Australia. But, so many other support services. Over the course of the COVID pandemic we haven't seen those statistics present as they have in so many other countries. And, that is down to the amazing work done by Lifeline and Beyond Blue and so many other agencies which the Commonwealth has poured billions into to support. I should say not billions, but tens of millions of dollars, and they've been very effective. And, while the presentation rates of those services have gone up very significantly, that has not converted, thankfully, into the sort of rate of death by suicide that you might expect in a crisis like this. Now, we will keep pouring the support in those agencies, whether it's into Lifeline or Beyond Blue or headspace, which the most recent Budget - there has never been a more significant investment in the mental health of Australians in a Budget than what we just handed down a few months ago. It is a very high priority of our Government and for national suicide prevention, death by suicide, prevention. So, it is a very high priority for my Government. The Minister, my Assistant Minister David Coleman particularly has responsibility for that, along with the Health Minister. And, so I would encourage Australians to continue to be kind to one another, continue to be supportive of one another, as we have. I know people are getting tired. I know they're getting frustrated. This is a virus that we're dealing with and it does tend to set its own rules, and we have come so far as a country over these last 18 months and now is the time to keep pressing forward. Now is not the time to give in to that frustration. Now is not the time to give in to the exasperation and the tiredness that I know comes from dealing with all of these issues, day after day, after day. The good news is that the vaccination rates are hitting their marks now. We've had our challenges but we've overcome them, and we're hitting our marks now, and we're going to keep hitting our marks. I need Australians who can, to go out and get their vaccination, to book in and do that, to go to the clinics, particularly if you're in those areas affected right now where the additional doses will be coming in to support a higher rate of vaccination in the most affected areas of Sydney. I need you to come and do that. The vaccine will not turn up at your doorstep. You have to go to it. Equally, the virus will make its way from one household to another if you carry it there, and that's why it's just so important for people to follow the important health advice that has been made available and put in place by the New South Wales Government. We've still got quite a way to go with this here in Sydney, and to all those other states and territories and people in other places, I know that they are relying on Sydney to be able to get on top of this, as we must continue to work to do over this next week, and potentially beyond. But, I can assure you that the Commonwealth Government and the State Government will work hand in glove to achieve that result, not just for Sydney, but for the entire country.

JOURNALIST: On veterans, the, you mentioned some of the supports that are there now that will be available for veterans during the Royal Commission. We know that only about one in 10 veterans access those, and veteran advocates want more proactive services. It'll be a particularly traumatic time for veterans during this period. Will there be anything more that will be put on during the Commission?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I've already mentioned some of the additional things that go with the Royal Commission to provide that support for people who are going through that exercise. But, we will be very open to the advice that would come back both from Commissioner Kaldas and others, the other Commissioners that are involved in the Royal Commission, and also the Department of Veterans' Affairs and listening closely to veterans groups about how they're coping with the Royal Commission. We've now gone through some very difficult royal commissions. Of course, there was the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse, and there were a lot of lessons learnt from that Royal Commission that are being employed with how this Royal Commission has been established. Similarly, on aged care and also for disabilities - different issues, granted - but at the same time, they're very sensitive issues that evoke quite a lot of feeling and bring a lot back. I understand that, that's why I was keen to stress the helpline supports that are available. But, we will keep a very open mind to ensure that we support veterans and their families and the community through what will be, I hope, at the end of the day, a very illuminating and positive process. But, saying that, I know it will also be a difficult process for so many.

JOURNALIST: Last one, sorry. Gladys has suggested a threshold of 80 per cent of people to be vaccinated before Sydney reopens. Do you think that's achievable or realistic?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the thresholds for the National Plan that I outlined last Friday will be informed by the work done by the Doherty Institute.