Press Conference - Parliament House

06 Feb 2020
Parliament House, Canberra
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Good morning everyone. The Liberals and Nationals have always enjoyed a wonderful relationship. Indeed it’s been the Coalition of Liberals and Nationals that has formed the governments that have been able to deliver for Australians to provide that stability, to keep our economy strong, to keep the focus on national security, to keep our borders secure. But most importantly, the heart of the relationship between the Liberals and the Nationals is our deep passion and conviction for supporting the needs of rural and regional Australians and our belief in the future of rural and regional Australia. And at its heart, that's what the Coalition is about. That's why we have come together so willingly over such a long period of time. Nationals celebrating their centenary and of course, the Liberal Party well advanced in our 75th year. And that partnership between the two parties will continue to provide the stability. It will continue to provide the leadership. It will continue to provide the focus on the issues of such great concern to rural and regional Australians. And we know that now people in rural and regional Australia for some time, with the drought extending over many years, with the calamity of the devastating floods in north Queensland this time last year, the bushfires. The impacts indeed even of this virus as it impacts on rural and regional communities and the response we need on the ground to that and the measures that we are taking, all of these issues highlight, again, the importance of the wonderful relationship and coalition that we have between the Liberals and Nationals in government, in government. 

Now, I've accepted the recommendations of the leader of the Nationals following their meeting earlier this week, and I want to run through and announce those arrangements to you. In doing that, I want to stress two points. What I'm about to announce to you underlines two points. The first one I've already made, and that is ensuring a continuity of our focus on the recovery operations and the rebuilding operations that are necessary in response to the terrible disasters that rural and regional Australians face in terms of bushfire, in terms of drought, in terms of flood and maintaining that solid focus and especially the commitments we've made in the agricultural sector to our 2030 plan and keeping the strength, the focus there. The second one is maintaining and I'd say elevating our commitment to veterans in Australia. I won't go over again what I announced yesterday but there has been such great progress, but so much more to do when it comes to the care and well-being of our veterans. And we're going to keep the focus on that and we're going to keep the continuity on that. And the Minister there has been doing an outstanding job. 

So let me run through, obviously, the leader of the Nationals will continue on in his current portfolios, and that will also include a very big focus on the water grid and ensuring that Australia has the water infrastructure it needs for a resilient future. David Littleproud will continue to serve in cabinet, he will take on the portfolios of Minister for Agriculture, and that will combine with his other portfolios of drought and emergency management. The issue of natural disasters is one that encompasses all portfolios of government and obviously as Minister for Emergency Management that will have particular responsibilities for him. But when it comes to dealing with natural disasters and our broader resilience to the environment and the climate we're living in, as I outlined at the Press Club last week, I believe this goes across every single portfolio of government. Darren Chester will be entering Cabinet, but he will continue to do the wonderful and outstanding job he's been doing as Minister for Veterans Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel. I'm advised that this is the first time Veteran Affairs has been back in Cabinet since the late Ben Humphreys in 1993. And I think that sends a strong message about our commitment to veterans in this government. Keith Pitt will take on the role and enter Cabinet as Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia, highlighting again the importance of all of those portfolio matters and their presence around the Cabinet table. Mark Coulton will continue to serve as a Minister, as Minister for Regional Health, Regional Communications and Local Government. Andrew Gee will come into the Ministry as Minister for Regional Education, Decentralisation and Minister assisting the Minister for Trade and Investment. Michelle Landry will continue to serve as an Assistant Minister for Children and Families and will also serve as Assistant Minister for Northern Australia. And you won't find a stronger champion than Michelle Landry other than Keith Pitt, for northern Australia, when it comes to ensuring the needs of northern Australia are addressed. And Kevin Hogan will come into the assistant ministry where he will be the Assistant Minister to the Deputy Prime Minister. 

Can I congratulate all of those Ministers and particularly those who are entering Cabinet. I look forward to working with them all. Can I also think and put on record my thanks to Bridget McKenzie, as I did here on the weekend, for the great work that she did for rural and regional Australians in particular when it comes to the drought. And can I also thank Matt Canavan for his service to our Cabinet, as you know, Matt elected to leave the cabinet, and I want to thank him for the great work he has done in the resources portfolio and the northern Australian portfolio and I appreciate the way he engaged on those issues so passionately for that time of service. 

I'll hand you over to the leader of the Nationals and Deputy Prime Minister. 

THE HON. MICHAEL MCCORMACK MP, DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Prime Minister. And and I too acknowledge the work and the role, particularly for regional Australians, that both Bridget and Matthew have done, thank them for their service to the nation, thank them for their service, particularly to regional Australians. But these new portfolio positions represent experience. They represent new talent. And I know that for those who've been elevated, Keith Pitt will do an outstanding job. Keith Pitt's focus since he entered Parliament has been on making sure that there are skills and jobs, particularly for young Australians. And I know how passionate he is about Queensland. I know how passionate he is about regional Australia. And as a former, former technical engineer, he has the depth of knowledge, he has the experience to do the job required in resources, in water, and certainly for northern Australia. And I'm delighted that Michelle Landry is going to assist him in those efforts for northern Australia. We are the first government has had a Minister for northern Australia. And we've promoted, we've pushed, we know the exciting potential that northern Australia has for our country. And I'm very, very delighted too that Kevin Hogan has been elevated into the Ministry. Sure and stable government. And certainly after the summer that we've had and we still endure, these positions are going to be so crucial to help with the bushfire recovery and relief efforts, to help with addressing all the issues that are involving regional Australia, which has had such an impact against it this summer. Delighted that David Littleproud is going to be the Agriculture Minister. He's had experience of this before. He knows, he knows full well about our 2030 plan. He knows the impacts that the summer has had on our regional areas and particularly our farmers, our small businesses. He has a good relationship, of course, with the National Farmers Federation and Fiona Simpson, I'm sure, is delighted at this appointment. And and, of course, continuing with the drought measures that he has taken, with the emergency management. He has been largely with Andrew Colvin, one of the one of the faces out there, putting his arm around supporting our regional communities, which have been so badly affected by the fires. Darren Chester, I know he's done so much important work for Mallacoota for the East Gippsland area through the fires this summer. But whilst he was doing that, whilst he was encouraging and supporting and making sure that there was the necessary assistance given for his fire affected Gippsland community, he was also making sure that our veterans were never, ever forgotten. And and certainly yesterday, with the measures that we announced with a virtually a standing ongoing royal commission into, into our veterans with, with the appointments made yesterday and the decisions announced yesterday. This is going to be so important for Veterans Affairs as a former Veterans Affairs Minister myself. I know how important these people are to our community and I know how important it is for him to be serving and continuing to provide that continuity, but now in Cabinet, now in Cabinet, around the cabinet table, ensuring that the important decisions are taken and made there. And I congratulate too Mark and Andrew G. For their ongoing advocacy for regional Australia, of course. Michelle Landry, doing a grand and outstanding job with families and children couldn't be an import- more important thing to do. But she's adding, of course the northern Australia position with that. I know she'll serve our needs and wants and expectations there, as I say again. It's a, it's a blend of experience, of course, with new talent and I'm looking forward to getting those members sworn in this afternoon. Very, very exciting. Onwards and upwards from here. 

PRIME MINISTER: So just on that, there'll be a swearing in this afternoon, this evening, about 5.30 out at Government House and those arrangements you’ll be made aware of. Mark. 

JOURNALIST: You’ve invested a lot of faith in Keith Pitt, that's a pretty big portfolio for an entry into Cabinet but he’s also a well known supporter of nuclear energy, as resources minister, won't that increase pressure on the government to change its policy on nukes? 

PRIME MINISTER: Keith has been involved in an important inquiry that was undertaken by the House Committee on Energy. The findings of that report were released over the break. What we're always looking for, Mark, into the future is what those alternative fuel sources will be. The arrangements around nuclear are well known and the government's policy has been clear there about the need for there to be bipartisanship, to be able to move forward. But nothing will ever stop us from looking over the horizon. I mean, the work we're doing on hydrogen, for example, I met a very senior business level delegation from Japan yesterday, who I met with their Chamber of Commerce and the investment we're making in partnership both commercially and the government levels in the development of hydrogen as an energy source, incredibly important. So into the future, we're going to have to be looking at all, all opportunities to ensure our energy future. But the policy on nuclear is very clearly set. 

JOURNALIST: Keith Pitt will now be running water resources and mining, where there's often huge tensions, isn’t he going to face a lot of conflicts of interest in having to deal with two completely opposed issues at the same time, is the mining industry potentially just going to win out here?

PRIME MINISTER: No because the authorities the Minister has when it comes to water resources, that will be advised by a separate department. Now that remains where it sits and that will continue and the Minister will acquit himself across those responsibilities. I mean, we all have difficult matters that we must arbitrate on. And I have no doubt that Keith will be able to ensure that he can manage those interests.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Keith is very capable. Keith is very, very capable and has the ability to, yes, advocate for a position very, very strongly. But Keith, as I say, has a wide range of experience. He's been in business, a technical engineer, qualified. I know I've got every confidence that he'll do a great job in this.

JOURNALIST: Mr McCormack, some of your colleagues are upset at this idea of a two third majority rule in the Nats party room for a spill, why do you think the rule is necessary? Isn't that just about shoring up your leadership for the rest of this parliament? 

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well, it's a matter for the party and the party's management as to whether this goes forward. The, both of the other major parties have a similar sort of rule in place. The fact is, we want to make sure that the member who brought this up and raised it wants to end the speculation about the leadership. And I think that's probably an important thing.

JOURNALIST: PM on the coronavirus, we know it’s affecting the live fish exports, now it's affecting tourism, higher education,


JOURNALIST: What's your view of the affect it's going to have on the economy? 

PRIME MINISTER: You will be aware that the Treasurer has written out to the state and territory Premiers and Chief Ministers and that the Treasury Secretary is undertaking some rather extensive work on economic scenarios around this. The challenge here, I mean, undoubtedly it'll have a significant impact. And the Governor of the Reserve Bank, as you know, has made some comments on that, has referred to previous events and, for example, I mean, what we saw previously was SARs emerge, I think was an 11 per cent fall in international tourism visitation in one quarter, backed up by 16 per cent increase in the next quarter. But to suggest that Australia's economic engagement with China today is what it was then would not be right. So that's why we took none of these decisions lightly and because we knew it would obviously have these impacts. We also need to be clear that the full extent of the virus and how much further it will spread, the success of containment measures in other jurisdictions, that is not known. And that's why I think a scenario analysis is really important and that's being done. 

That's being done now. But clearly, the global effect of all of this, let alone the domestic, will combine, I think, to put a real weight on the economy. I've always been upfront with Australians. I've always said that we are facing global uncertainty and challenges and this event proves the uncertainty because it was not known. But that's why we've always focused as a government on resilience of our finances. And the fact, as I said in the House yesterday, that we've been able to face this, the bushfires, the drought and all of this, and to go in it with a level of financial confidence and an ability to make decisions that can deploy this support so extensively, I think is a matter of assurance for Australia. So, yes, there will be an economic hit because of the Coronavirus, just as there will be as a result of the bushfires. But there will also be a recovery and there will be a recovery to the bushfires with the extensive works that will be undertaken with rebuilding and equally you can expect down the track. When? Hard to know because there are so many unknowns about the duration of this virus and you would have heard from Dr. Murphy that they've been preparing a lot of work for the government on what the various scenarios are at a global level and how that might impact domestically. So a lot of work to be done, but we're being very transparent about that with state and territories and we intend to be also with the Australian people. But we expect a hit particularly in this quarter on the Coronavirus and how much more it extends beyond that really does depend on how this virus continues to play out at a global level. Phil?

JOURNALIST: Last week at the Press Club you outlined a transition towards cleaner, reliable energy and said we couldn’t (inaudible) our coal assets any longer and be there for too much longer. 

PRIME MINISTER: We couldn't just rely on it.

JOURNALIST: We need to transition from using gas as the transition fuel. How do you reconcile that with calls from Matt Canavan and Barnaby Joyce and others that we need to build coal fired power around the country? Do you think they missed your message last week? 

PRIME MINISTER: The Government's policy is what we took to the last election and that's what saw our members returned right across the country. Whether it was from north Queensland to northern Tasmania. And that position is a common sense position. It's a common sense position that recognises that the reliability of our energy system, our electricity system, depends on those stations. And that's why those assets will be (inaudible) for as long as possible. And you'll know that in the arrangement that we came to with the New South Wales Government just the other week, it just didn't deliver another 70 petajoules a year of gas, it also required the removal of obstacles that would see the resource get to the Mount Piper coal fired power plant as well. Why? Because that's necessary to meet the dual objectives of reliability in the system, which keeps power prices down, but also enables you to move over time to what the market is clearly already recognising and acting upon. So our policy is a commonsense one. It gets the balance right. It understands the need for the maintenance and sweating of those assets which are providing reliability to the system and where those types of assets in the future can be developed in the way that would be required under the environmental standards, then that's not ruled out either. So it's common sense. It's a common sense, well balanced policy. And I think that embraces everybody, not just in the Liberal Party room, but right across the Coalition. 

JOURNALIST: Just on coal fired power stations, are you talking about retrofitting existing coal fired power stations to reduce emissions when you say adapt to environmental standards?

PRIME MINISTER: We work with all the energy companies because we know that we don't want to force people's power prices up and we don't want to see a loss of capacity out of the system that is unnecessary. And so we take all of these decisions in the national interest.

JOURNALIST: So government funds could be used to do that?

PRIME MINISTER: Look, that's your speculation. That's not what I've said. That's not what I've said. 

JOURNALIST: I'm asking you. 

PRIME MINISTER: That's not what I've said. 

JOURNALIST: Just very briefly on coronavirus, could the Inpex Workers Village in the Northern Territory, it could house thousands, it’s currently being unused. Could that be a place where evacuees could eventually be taken if necessary? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the plan is to take those from the second flight and I can advise that the New Zealand flight, those who came under that arrangement with New Zealand, those Australians have now been transferred to Christmas Island and they're going through those processes now. 

The decision to go to a second flight based on the advice that that would be accommodated at Christmas Island, and that's the plan we are working to. But it is also true to say right from our initial decision on the first flight that Defence and other options would be considered for overflow facilities if they were required. And that sort of contingency planning you would expect the Government to do. See, right from the start, what the Government has sought to do when it comes to Coronavirus has to be ahead of the decisions that need to be made and that was demonstrated. Our border ban was actually, other than Singapore, the first to be actually enacted. The one in the United States didn't come in place for about another 24 hours or even more. So we have been acting well in advance of the World Health Organization. In fact, our Chief Medical Officer was calling for the decision of the WHO more than a week before, and we were acting on his advice. And so that advice tells you that this virus is moving quickly and to give Australians the assurance I believe they deserve then we have to be always moving to prepare contingency plans for what could happen next and those would only be enacted if those scenarios presented. But we are doing rather extensive scenario assessments and coming up with plans to deal with those assessments.

JOURNALIST: Have you heard from the states about expanding the terms of reference for the bushfire royal commission and what exactly will it look into and is six months an adequate time period for reporting? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I gave a commitment when I first flagged that we'd be holding a royal commission and I'd be taking a proposal through Cabinet that an important step in that process was to consult with the states and territories about the terms of that Royal Commission. And so I have provided that detailed terms of reference to them to provide comment back within about a fortnight period. There are no surprises in that terms of reference. I went into some detail at the Press Club last week about the issues that I believe it should address and the terms of reference follows the outline of what I provided last week and indeed what I provided in earlier interviews, including with David Speers some weeks ago. 

I've made it very clear that what I'm looking to understand is at what point can the Commonwealth seek to take the initiative and to be able to directly involve and engage its resources, its decisions, its authorities and its capabilities, whether that be the defence forces or otherwise, in circumstances of what would constitute a national emergency. That's important. I've also said that that Royal Commission needs to look at the preparedness and resilience in relation to these bushfire events and that means an understanding that needs to be done in a hotter, longer and drier summer and the impacts of climate change on that are acknowledged and understood. And so that means that we need to have a discussion not just about emissions reduction, which happens in the broad, but if you're talking about climate resilience, then hazard reduction is as important, if not more, for the direct safety of people affected by these fires than emissions reduction. The longer-term adaptation measures are also important. 

I'm not going to allow a confined, narrow debate when it comes to understanding what it means to live in the climate we're going to live in. It's not just about emissions reduction. That's important, but it's also about resilience and it's also about adaptation and our government is going to address all of these as we are. And the other matter which I have discussed in the terms of reference and also as with the recommended Commissioner, is the need to look quickly at all the recommendations of previous Royal Commissions and inquiries and to look at how they have been enacted. I think that's something that the public really does want to know the answer to. There's already been a lot of work done on that front, and I'm sure that that can be done quite readily. I also want it to be done promptly to ensure that we can have this in place as we go into the next bushfire season. As you know, these seasons are getting longer. So I don't think the Australian people want us to be flicking about this because we're not and they want a Royal Commission that's just going to get on with the job and focus on the things it needs to focus on and get it done as quickly as possible. And that's why Mark Binskin, I think, is an excellent recommendation to lead this job because as a Chief of our Defence Forces formally, he knows how to get things done. And I have no doubt he'll get things done. Thank you all very much. Thank you very much. Sorry?

JOURNALIST: Are you pleased to see President Trump acquitted in his impeachment trial?

PRIME MINISTER: We have a wonderful relationship with the United States and we have a stable relationship with the United States and that relationship is both at, obviously, the rapport that I've been able to enjoy with the President. But it is both the President's job and my job to make sure that our relationship is always on track and it is. And I have to go to a division. Thank you.