Press Conference - New South Wales Rural Fire Service headquarters, NSW

22 Dec 2019
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Good morning everyone. I want to thank first of all the 3,000 men and women who are out there today here in New South Wales who were out there yesterday, the thousands of men and women around Australia, not just here in New South Wales, up in Queensland, down in South Australia where it's also been a difficult week, down in Victoria, all those that have come from other states - Tassie, the West, the ACT, up in the Territory. I want to thank those who have come from overseas - the Americans, the Canadians, our Kiwi cousins, those who have come to support us in this hour of need. I particularly want to thank Commissioner Fitzsimmons and the amazing team he leads here in New South Wales and for the opportunity to be briefed this morning. I want to commend the Premier, who I have been speaking to over the course of the last week, and for the tremendous job she's been doing with her team here in New South Wales to respond to this disaster, this threat, that is ongoing and has been going for many, many months now. A few months ago I was up in Canungra when the first of these dreadful fires started to appear. It continued down through Rappville as the Premier and I stood together in that devastated community. When we got out to Wilberforce just a few weeks ago, up in Queensland and here we are again today following the terrible tragedy that occurred earlier this week. Andrew O'Dwyer and Geoff Keaton. Their families, Melissa and their little daughter Charlotte, 19 months. Jessica and their 19-month-old son, Harvey. When our volunteers go out there, they do it for so many reasons, but I can't help but thinking that one of the most important things that inspires them is their love of family - family is community and they were out there defending their community on that fateful night. And Jenny and I, our heart broke when he heard of their terrible loss and their great sacrifice and I just want to extend to them our great sympathies, our love and support. They're getting tremendous support from their Rural Fire Service family out there at Horsley Park and from the broader families of the firefighting communities around the country. What we, the rest of us, can offer them is our honour, our acknowledgment, and our respect for what they have done for all of us. There are over 100 fires active in New South Wales today and many of those are quite serious, but I do remind people that there are also severe fires in South Australia and in Victoria. I spoke to the South Australian Premier last night when I arrived back in Australia to get an update and there's been loss of life there and there are fears for others. We have heard further news this morning of people missing, an individual missing out in Lithgow where the fires also have raged overnight. No-one wants to be out there fighting these fires, no-one wants these fires to be happening at this time. But when those fires do occur, as they have for a very long time in this country, then those who have - there's over 200,000 of them in Australia - who have signed up and said, put their hand up to be there to defend their communities, then they go out and they do this work and they do it on behalf of all of us and they're getting tired and they're getting fatigued because this has been going for a very long time and this is one of the key issues I have been in discussion with the Commissioner about this morning and also with the Premier and I know that Minister Littleproud, who joins me here and I thank him for that, David, and the work you have been doing, and the Deputy Prime Minister during my absence, we will continue to look at all of these issues as we go forward. The New South Wales Rural Fire Service and all the fire services across Australia will continue to get everything they need from the Commonwealth. As you know, the operational response to these disasters is delivered and is run at a state level, but with great Commonwealth support. In talking to the Commissioner, I want to acknowledge what he has acknowledged - and that is as we face these fires at the moment, I want to assure Australians of this because I know people are anxious and I know people in some places are rightly fearful of what is literally at their door, and the haze and the smoke and all of these things heighten that anxiety as you think about your kids and your family and you can see the red tinge at night if you're close enough, but our fire services in Australia are the best in the world. The response to these disasters, these fires, is the best in the world. This is a time when Australia should be very, very proud that we have the best-resourced, most-coordinated, best-equipped fire services of any nation on earth to deal with this. And that's because as a country, we're used to dealing with fires - admittedly and very rightly this season is much more lengthened and started a lot earlier and there isn't the respite rains that we can that we can expect any time soon and that is making this season harder than many we have seen in a long time. But it is also true that after every fire, we sit down, we learn the lessons and we make sure we're better prepared next time and that's what's happened on this occasion. The coordination is seamless between not only the states and the Commonwealth, but between the states and overseas jurisdictions as well. Our defence forces are deploying wherever they're called upon and particularly now as you look at the burnt-out vast territories across particularly here in New South Wales, but in other states as well, there is wreckage to clear, there are trees to remove, there is access that needs to be provided to people's properties and businesses and homes, and that's the work that our defences force can, are and will continue to play and they have been doing it since September - airlifting, ensuring they're providing night flights for recognisance, and providing that heavy support that is needed, that is backing in and complementing the amazing work of our firefighters. There's some 70,000 registered firefighters here in New South Wales alone. That's bigger than the entire size of our defence forces and reserves. So we're talking about an enormous force that has drawn together here in New South Wales and that's about a third of the national force. So they will continue to get everything that they need and I have run through some matters this morning with the Commissioner and I have been speaking to the Premier as well - there will be a COAG meeting in March and at that meeting, as always, I have already put on the agenda the response capabilities for future disasters and lessons, of course, will be learned by these responses but I do know that the response you're seeing right now is informed by how this work has gone on each and everyday since the last fire. I mean, Emergency Management Australia which is the Commonwealth agency responsible for our engagement, both in drawing in the ADF and the other systems of support, including the important income support, later today I'll be announcing with the Premier further disaster assistance payments into new areas of affected areas as these payments have been rolling out. So you have members of government services Australia who are out there making sure people get their payments and their support. That will continue to rollout and we - Emergency Management Australia does this job 365 days of the year. I appreciate that when things get as anxious as they have become, then people will think, you know, what's been prepared? Is anything happening? Or have they thought of this? I understand that those anxieties are positively meant and are natural. But I want to reassure you that these - our officials, our commissioners, our firefighters, both those professionals who are paid and those who are unpaid, they are doing this year-round to prepare for events just like this. And that is why this response is something where we're seeing the best of Australia, not the contrary. Following on from that public anxiety, there is also been other issues that have been raised, not just about the response and the resources which I think I have addressed, but also around issues of climate policy. It has always been the case - our Government has always and I have always acknowledged the connection between these weather events and these broader fire events and the impacts globally of climate change. It's one of many factors as I have said. The drought conditions have certainly been a big contributor in terms of the dryness of the fuel load. There are also many other issues as you would be well aware and they'll all come under scrutiny as we prepare for what needs to happen next time - issues of management in national parks of fuel loads, issues of back-burning and managing native vegetation and building codes and all of these sorts of things, ensuring that our communications programs are important. I mean, there are some fires that have been started by just carelessness. Others sadly have been the result of direct arson. Many have been created by dry lightning strikes. And understanding all of that it will be important as we move through to the next phase. There is no argument, in my view and the government’s view, and any government in the country, about the links between broader issues of global climate change and weather events around the world but I'm sure people would equally acknowledge the direct connection to any single fire event is not a credible suggestion to make that link. We must take action on climate change and we are taking action on climate change. At the last election I said we would, I said we would meet and beat our Kyoto targets, I said we would meet our Paris commitments in a canter and we will. We welcome the record investment in renewable energy technologies and at the same time we welcome the fact we are pursuing our climate policies while getting electricity prices down as the ACCC noted today with a $65 reduction as a direct result of the policies we put in place to get power bills under control in this country. And we will do it without destroying the economy or job destroying reckless targets. We will do it with sensible target to get the balance right. That is what I promised Australians when we went to the last election and that is what I am committed to doing. Two other points. I have obviously returned from leave and I know that has caused some great anxiety in Australia and Jenny and I acknowledge that. If you had your time over again and the benefit of hindsight we would have made different decisions. I am sure Australians are fair-minded and understand that when you make a promise to your kids you try and keep it but as Prime Minister you have other responsibilities and I accept that and I accept the criticism and that is why Jenny and I agreed it was important that I returned, particularly after the terrible tragedies we saw late this week. I get it that people would have been upset to know that I was holidaying with my family while their families were under great stress. They know that I’m not going stand there and hold a hose. I am not a trained firefighter nor am I an expert like those in the next room doing such an amazing job. But I am comforted by the fact that Australians would like me to be here simply so I can be here alongside them as they’re going through this terrible time. And I say to those Australians who I caused upset to, and I apologise for that. It is important I think when you confronted with these things you front up and are honest with people and that is what I am seeking to do now. The time for that discussion is over. We need to focus on what is going out there today. Let me finish by saying this, and I apologise for the lengthy nature of my remarks this morning, it is time to be kind to each other. This is not a time for division, it is not a time for argument, it is not a time for partisanship, it is not a time for point scoring. It is a time to support people who have an important job to do, to give them the space and time, to give them the support they need. If people have something they want to contribute, that is fantastic and I want to thank all those who turned up to fire stations and made donations and you may want to think of dropping off some toys for the kids of the firefighters who may not have had time to go out and buy some this Christmas because they have been too busy. These are things that people can do constructively. Australians, we need to rally together. The time for argument is not now. That is not to say there is no time to talk about important issues like climate change, of course there is and we are talking about it. But let's do it in a way that does not distract from the very immediate need of protecting people's lives, protecting their property, honouring those who are out there doing everything they can. And so I simply ask people, particularly this Christmas time, to reflect on that, to come together to support each other and to focus on the things we need to do now and on the other side of these fires, Australia will prevail. We always have. Australia is the most amazing country on earth. How do I know that? Because I see what is happening out there right now on those fire fronts and in the communities that have suffered terrible loss. That is why Australia is the best country in the world and that is the country I am proud to lead. That’s the country I know we all support and that’s the cause to which we all rally now and focus on supporting efforts of Australians.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister where have you been and why was it a secret?

PRIME MINISTER: I was in Hawaii, with my family, a trip I planned some six weeks ago - seven weeks ago in fact and when I take family leave, it is a private family time.

JOURNALIST: But you’re sorry for taking leave- though you knew about these catastrophic fire conditions that were coming, we’ve known about them for a couple of weeks now. Are you sorry to the residents in those areas?

PRIME MINISTER: I already said that.

JOURNALIST: You are sorry?

PRIME MINISTER: I already said it.

JOURNALIST: Do you accept that the release of the information about this was handled poorly and the public deserved to know who was leading the country?

PRIME MINISTER: The Deputy Prime Minister was the Acting Prime Minister and on each time I have taken private family leave as Prime Minister I followed exactly the same process. There was no change. On my earlier leaves no statement was issued when I took private family leave and no objections were raised by the press on those occasions but it is certainly something we will rectify for next time.

JOURNALIST: Why were the Deputy Prime Minister’s office referring questions to your office about who was in charge, why couldn't they simply say I’m acting?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I’ll leave those matters for others to deal with, these are not the matters I am focused on now, I don’t think they’re things that Australians are worried about, they’re worried about what’s happening in the fires and the support necessary to support those out there today. I understand there is media interest in the engagement of briefings between my office and the gallery and those sorts of things, I get that. There have been lessons learned this week and they will be employed for next time.

JOURNALIST: You were critical of the Victorian Police Commissioner when she went to dinner during the Black Friday disaster, should you not be held to the same standard?

PRIME MINISTER: I have already made a number of comments today, as you know, where I think I have held myself to that same standard. Equally I would note that I am not the operational leader of an emergency service or police force. I am the Prime Minister. And as Prime Minister I was kept regularly - and sought to be kept regularly updated on the events. The Acting Prime Minister was in full control of what was occurring ably supported I must say by Minister Littleproud. The Premier was leading, obviously the governance of the operational response here in New South Wales, and I have been in contact with the Premier and so all of these arrangements were in place to ensure that I could continue to do and fulfil my responsibilities, but I understand and the reason I have returned is out of a deep respect and sympathy for those Australians who were tragically killed a few nights ago. That demanded my attendance here, I believe, out of simply a respect and sympathy for them and what they were going through and that is why I have been very pleased to return. That is a decision that Jenny and I took together and we told the kids about it, but I think Australians are fair-minded about this. They know at the end of a difficult year people go on leave and they know that when dad makes a promise to their kids they like to keep it. And I think where events were late last week was not where they were today so I think it would be unfair to say the events in very recent days where the same is as a week or so ago. Nevertheless, I understand the anxiety and why people have been upset by this and that is why I am pleased to be back and front up.

JOURNALIST: Just on the issue of climate change, the Government has been criticised for using carryover credit. You personally have been accused of making light of the issue by bringing the lump of coal into parliament. Going forward after these fires can we see a change of tack from your Government, a more genuine commitment I guess to making Australia a responsible global actor in its commitment to reducing carbon emissions?

PRIME MINISTER: Well people can expect my Government to do what it promised to do, what we took to the last election. I know there are some who tried to make political points and score points over these issues in the midst of these disasters and that is disappointing. I will do what I said I would do because that is how I am with the Australian people. I said we will meet our 26 per cent emission reduction target. Emissions per year today under our Government are on average 50 million tons a year less than they were under the previous government. Emissions have fallen the last two years. Emissions are lower than at any time they were under the previous Government. We have had record investment in renewables in Australia and now, thankfully, as a result of policies the Government has put in place we are also getting electricity prices down, some $65 a year. And on top of that we’ve been doing it without embracing the reckless job destroying and economy crunching targets that others are seeking to force upon us. I don't think that is a balanced approach. We will continue to take a responsible approach to taking action on climate change. We are taking action and we will continue to take action. We are part of a global action and the commitments we have made, we are meeting. We are meeting and we are beating. So I don’t accept the suggestion that Australia is not carrying its weight. We are carrying our weight. We are meeting and beating our targets and there are very few countries who can say that.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you said you have learned some lessons from this past week. What are those lessons?

PRIME MINISTER: I think I have already outlined them in my earlier remarks.

JOURNALIST: Michael McCormack said yesterday he believes the Government needs to do more on climate change, do you think he’s referring to what you’re referring to or do you think he is actually saying that separate target should be made?

PRIME MINISTER: He is not making that point at all, he’s making exactly the same point I make. The Kyoto targets that were set by the previous Labor government, when we came to government there was the projections were that we would miss those by some 700 million tons. Now we're going to beat them by 411 million tons. And I would hope that not only will we meet and I'm sure we will, our Paris commitments but we will beat them too. And there is a long time between now and 2030 and we will continue to refine our policies because we're serious about taking action. But what we will not do is act in a knee-jerk or crisis or panicked mode. A panic approach and response to anything does not help. It puts people at risk. Not just their livelihoods but if you walk out there into that control room you will not see people panicking, you will see people being very professional, very focused on the job they have, talking to each other in a very professional way and getting the job done. Government is the same thing. Whether it is taking action on climate change or it’s ensuring that, as the midyear economic statement shows, that the Government is on track to achieve a surplus or the further job creation that you saw in the past week. Over 100,000 jobs created since last election. You get these results by being calm and by being stable. And having clear goals and having the policies in place to achieve them. Whether that is on taking action on climate change or job creation or ensuring that we get our welfare system targeted to support those who need it most, or dealing with the environmental challenges of waste management and plastics and any of these issues. Mental health challenges, the Government is addressing. On all these issues the government has clear plans and a clear approach to deal with them and is doing it in a very patient and in a very applied and professional way.

JOURNALIST: Labor wants compensation for the volunteer firefighters. Is that something you will look in to?

PRIME MINISTER: I’m not aware what the specific proposal is that Labor are proposing or what costings they’ve prepared on that basis. I will take that where it is. But these are things that the Government has been considering, in the first instance of course these are matters for state governments, the Rural Fires Services and the fire services around Australia are run by state governments so it is not for the Commonwealth Government to step in and make decisions about that. But these are things that I think can be contemplated. But I very much want to do that in consultation with the state and territory governments. As I said to the Commissioner Fitzsimmons today, whatever they need, whatever they think they need to bolster support, sustain the operations that they are running, they simply need to ask. And they will get that support. I think there are immediate issues that need to be addressed there with the rural firefighters, particularly as they’re getting into areas of terrible fatigue now. Particularly when you go up to the mid north coast where I was in Taree, they have been fighting fires for a while now and they are still going. Thankfully, as I was briefed this morning, those parts of the state are more under control today than they were when I was there not that long ago. But these are the many issues that I think we need to understand. Let's not forget, there are 210,000 rural firefighters around the country and there are thousands of surf-lifesavers who will be patrolling our beaches, those who are volunteering on meals on wheels and carers and others. Australia is a magnificent country because it does have that volunteer spirit. And Australia relies on that volunteer spirit and we celebrate it and we rightly do so. And where there are ways that we can further support that volunteer effort then we are very open to considering this. Let me say one thing, all our firefighters are professionals. They are all professional at what they do. They are well-trained and they are very good at what they’re doing. One of the things we focused on this morning was ensuring how we can better supplement the clearing work and the other things that need to be done in those areas that have been ravaged by fires and ensuring that we can get even more prompt defence support into those arrangements. There has been defence liaisons here in these headquarters now for a long time as there has been in Queensland other places and ensuring that we can get that support to supplement what is done at a local level as well through the state government. The defence forces are deployed, are being deployed, those defence force members who are firefighters are out there fighting fires, just like any other employee would be. They are not in their platoons, they are in their brigades.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, with so many crises affecting different states in Australia at the moment, do you think you have shown the leadership the Australian public expect of you during this bushfire crisis?

PRIME MINISTER: This has been going on for a long time, this has been going on since September and on each occasion I have been here, whether it is up in Rappville, or whether it’s been in Wauchope, or it’s been in Taree or Canungra or out at Wilberforce just a couple of weeks ago. Not on all occasions have I gone and been there with a travelling media team. I have been there on occasions just in a low-key way talking to those who are in incident control rooms and it would seem that whether it’s myself or others there will always been criticism made but what I have confidence in, and I will always have confidence in is in the fair-mindedness of the Australian people and as I said before, I take responsibility for my own decisions and I take responsibility for those I’ve made in relation to my family and more broadly in terms of my leadership responsibilities for the nation and that’s why I’m here. Thank you all very much.