Photo: AAP Image/Peter Rae
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you for coming along. I wanted to provide you with an update on our actions in relation to the terrible floods we’re seeing in North Queensland. Earlier today and prior to coming here to provide this briefing I have spoken again with the Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk. We have been in close contact as we’ve ensured coordination and concurrence in the action we’re taking to provide support. We have all seen, I think, the images, the devastating scenes, of what's occurring in North Queensland. This is a very significant flood event. We are expecting hundreds of thousands in terms of stock losses. This will be heartbreaking to these communities, that have been experiencing years of drought, only to see that turn into a torrential inundation, which threatens now their very livelihoods in the complete other direction.
Already, as you will know, there has been work that is being done to support these communities through fodder drops, and through the supply of particularly gas to ensure that the fodder can be distributed from local community distribution places. The situation on the ground is very disparate. It's different in different shires, and so it's very important that the distribution of the fodder, and how it is done, and with what craft, is very much determined on the local level. And to that end, this morning, I convened a teleconference with all the key local shire mayors, together with Emergency Management Australia, Defence Force, the CDF, and particularly the Emergency Management Minister, Linda Reynolds, and the Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, the Defence Minister, myself, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Finance Minister, to review how this distribution process was proceeding. It's very clear from that, and my discussions with the Queensland Premier, that the ground-up model of ensuring that we're getting this right is the way to continue to achieve this. The local shire mayors are in very close contact with the station owners and those running those stations, and they're in the best position to say where the feed should go, how it should get there, and how it should proceed.
In the short term, we have asked specifically about the supplies to those towns in terms of their current food stocks, and in the short term that is not an issue that they're raising. But we're obviously talking with them every day, and should that be a necessity, then we can obviously take decisions to support airlifts to that end, as the roads are cut off to those communities. Yesterday, we announced that we were moving to Category C recovery grants, together with the Queensland Government, in response to their request. That means that up to $25,000 can be provided in grants for a range of purposes - hiring, leasing of equipment or materials to clean premises, removing and disposing of debris, damaged goods, materials, purchasing fodder, salvaging crops or feed or stock, repairing or conditioning essential plant and equipment. Now, that was put in place in seven shires, local government areas: Burdekin, Cloncurry, Douglas, Hinchinbrook, McKinlay, Richmond and Townsville. That was extended today to Winton and Flinders.
I'm announcing today that, after further discussions with the Queensland Premier, together we are moving all of those local government areas to Category D. That will mean those payments of $25,000 will be available to $75,000. Our initial estimate of this cost will be $100 million from the Commonwealth's share perspective. But as we've seen in other disasters, whether it's Cyclone Yasi, that cost could end up being far greater than that. But the Government has been unhesitating in moving to ensure that the level of assistance that is needed will be provided, and that we will stand with these communities every step in the way, and stand in very close contact.
And what I'm also announcing today is that we will be providing $3 million in additional support to complement the measures already being put in place by the Queensland Government to support mental health services. Through a surge response team to support health professionals in north, central and western Queensland, including workers on the ground to work with those who are impacted. It will be a very, very difficult time. And while there are services in towns, those who are out in stations, those who are out dealing on the ground with their stock, who are dying in some of the most horrific circumstances, they will need our support. And they will need significant mental health support. And I would urge all of them to reach out for that support. It will be provided and it will be done by people who know how to help you in these circumstances.
We've seen the best of our communities in recent times, as they've supported each other through fires and through floods. And it's very important that we not only provide those services, but those who need them reach out for them. We are there to help you and to support you. Also in the call this morning, we were asked to raise with the banks, seeking their support to assist their customers through this period of time. The Finance Minister got in immediate contact with all the major banks, as well as Rabobank, who is a significant rural lender. All of those banks are in direct contact with their customers in these areas, and their clients. We have already in place the drought task force, where we're working with the banks, dealing with similar issues but from a very different weather context. And so that has enabled us to ensure that they'll be able to have ways of supporting their clients in those circumstances. They already have a range of policies in place which can deal with everything from deferral of interest and relaxing of interest, and putting those mechanisms in place for each of the clients' specific circumstances. So, I would encourage those affected to deal directly with their bank, and we will continue to work closely with them to ensure that they are doing the right thing in these circumstances, to relieve any possible anxiety or burden that might come from that commercial relationship, because right now we all need to be there for them.
So, those decisions have been taken today, through the National Security Committee of Cabinet, which I have just left now, to brief you. And so our prayers and support are with everybody up there in North Queensland. Not to forget, though, the disasters that have been occurring in other areas. The fires in Tasmania, where I was earlier this week. You know, there have been fires in Western Australia, in Victoria. It is a difficult time of the year, and we're seeing some difficult conditions. But particularly for those floods up in North Queensland, we will continue to do everything we can. Linda Reynolds, who is the Assistant Minister, she is on the ground up there in Townsville and working very closely with the local authorities. But what you are seeing is governments at all levels working closely together to support those most in need. Happy to take a few questions, but then I will have to leave.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, The Rocky Hill thermal coal mine planned for New South Wales Hunter Valley...
PRIME MINISTER: Can we talk about the floods, please?
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, in terms of fodder, we're getting anecdotal evidence relayed to us from individual farmers - and I appreciate you're coordinating with the shire mayors - that fodder drops are useless to them at the moment because they get wet and there's nowhere for aircraft to land. So how effective is that at the moment?
PRIME MINISTER: That's the feedback we have also been getting and that's why we've changed the practices to work through the local communities. In some cases, they want us to hold back on some of those fodder drops until, particularly in the black soil area, it dries, which they're hoping might occur by later in the weekend. The great risk is when you've got livestock that are in mud and they seek to move, they can do even more damage to themselves and of course, then you have the issues of where the fodder is and what happens to it. We also have to be careful that some of the bio risks about where we bring the fodder in from.
So, those things are being carefully considered in how we're doing it. You also can't go and land, you know, drop it with a Chinook in some of these places. I mean it blows buildings away and certainly isn't good for livestock in a very sensitive condition. That's why we're using local aviation providers and that's why getting the gas in is so important, so they can go out and do the fodder drops wherever they can get to. So, the shires are the right place to work through, because they're talking to the farmers all the time.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, there are MPs on your backbench arguing that these events - floods, fires - are building community support for your Government to take a new climate change policy to this election. Will you do such a thing? Will you have a new climate policy?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, we already have a significant policy on these issues and I'll be announcing more on that between now and the next election. But can we just focus on the recovery and the response to people who are in quite desperate situations in relation to the floods, please?
JOURNALIST: In terms of the funding and the mental health support, when can members of the public actually expect to receive that?
PRIME MINISTER: This is flowing pretty much immediately.
JOURNALIST: And what services, which providers are -?
PRIME MINISTER: We're providing that through the State Government's arrangements. The Queensland State Government has the infrastructure in place to deliver all of these services. Whether it's how we coordinate drought assistance and payments, or otherwise, and we'll work through their systems. The Queensland and the Commonwealth are working very closely together and the Premier and I are working very closely together.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, with full respect to the chaotic scenes that we are seeing up north, unfortunately there were some chaotic scenes as well at the franking credit inquiry in Chatswood today?
PRIME MINISTER: Can we please focus, how many times do I have to say it? There are people facing floods, I'm here to brief the country on what is happening to help them. They're worried about them, I'm worried about them. I'm happy to take questions on these issues, please. I'm going to take a question up the back here.
JOURNALIST: In terms of banking, banks right now. Right now banks are very much on the nose and farmers have the appreciation of the whole country. Are banks willing to do whatever it takes to help these people? We're also hearing evidence from farmers that they have lost three years' worth of income and there's no possible way they will be able to pay banks back for whatever lending in that time?
PRIME MINISTER: There's a very hard road ahead. The initial indications back from the banks, I think, are positive in terms of what they're prepared to do. I mean, they're basically locked into this process as well, with their clients. And in order to find a way through, there's going to have to be, I think, a lot of mediation done and remediation done to the financial position of these station holders. They need to get their breeding stock back in place. I mean, you can't pay off a loan if you don't have breeding stock. And what we've seen with the drought is that, where they have had to off-load, and where they've had to sell their livestock to actually stay ahead, or just keep their heads above the line, these are the stock that are now have been washed away or are dying, literally as we speak. And so they will need to be able to, to make these properties viable, get their breeding stock back in place. And so that's what we'll have to work closely with the entire sector, and with the State Government and the shires to ensure that North Queensland can get back up on its feet.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, has a foreign government breached the Parliament House computer network?
PRIME MINISTER: I might come back to that in one sec, unless there are any other questions on the floods. No? Okay look, that is a matter that we have been briefed on during the course of the day. I should stress that there is no suggestion that government departments or agencies have been the target of any such incursion. But on the other one, I don't propose to go into any sort of detailed commentary on the source or nature of this. Once further information is available, then we'll be in a position to provide further detail.
JOURNALIST: Can you describe what kind of data may have been - ?
PRIME MINISTER: No, we're not in a position to do that at this point.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, Bill Shorten has accepted agreement on the Phelps bill. Do you think he will listen to that advice and possibly vote against it?
PRIME MINISTER: I hope he does listen to the advice. It's taken him five days - five days - to actually agree to have a briefing on the impact of the Phelps bill. So you can draw your own conclusions, I mean, they voted in the Senate for what is effectively the Phelps bill without even having a briefing and wanted to see that all passed before the end of last year. What I know is this; we opposed that bill and we will oppose that bill. We will do everything we can to ensure that bill - which is acceptable in no form, no form - because it will undermine our border protection. We believe in having strong borders and we put in place the system which achieves that. This bill is an attempt to undermine that and anyone who is supporting this bill is not for stronger borders.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, how concerned are you by the Reserve Bank's revised economic growth figures? Do those lower growth figures undermine your economic argument going into the Budget and the election?
PRIME MINISTER: No, because they're now consistent with our Budget forecast.
JOURNALIST: Hakeem Al Araibi was granted refugee status by Australia. How concerned are you about his welfare?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I have been keeping in close contact with that issue. I've made two direct representations to the Prime Minister. It is within the executive authority of the Prime Minister, of the Government, to be able to have Hakeem return to Australia. We will continue to argue for the Thai Government to do that. We will continue to do it patiently, respectfully, because we want to see him get home. He has been granted protection here in Australia for very legitimate reasons and he should come home. And I think that's what the Australian people would absolutely want. So we will continue to press that case.
JOURNALIST: The thermal coal mine planned for New South Wales Hunter Valley has been rejected due to the "dire consequences of climate change" following a landmark ruling in the Environment Court. Do you think that this means that this is the end of coal, or new coal mines in this country? Because it's set a disturbing precedent. Will the Government intervene?
PRIME MINISTER: I haven't had the opportunity to review the case.
JOURNALIST: Should Ken Henry depart NAB immediately and is it appropriate he plays any role in choosing a successor?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I said the other day that the Royal Commissioner had some fairly sharp assessments to make and that people would reflect on those and they have. Thank you very much.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, were you warned about Scott Buchholz's behaviour on his defence trip before you promoted him?
PRIME MINISTER: No.