Press Conference - Sydney

22 Dec 2017
Prime Minister
Flinders Street attack; Australian forces in the Middle East; Snowy Hydro 2.0


Good morning. Like every Australian I was deeply shocked by last night’s terrible events in Melbourne.

Australians, visitors from other countries, going about their daily life - last-minute Christmas shopping, heading home - to be attacked like this, in the middle of one of our great cities, is a shocking event, a shocking crime.

Of course we know that only 11 months ago, Melbourne suffered a terrifying attack in which a car was used to kill and injure innocent civilians in the Bourke Street Mall.

Now I have been in close touch with the Premier of Victoria Daniel Andrews overnight and again this morning. I’ve just completed telephone conference with the Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, the Minister for Law Enforcement and Cyber-Security Angus Taylor, the Federal Police Commissioner, the Commonwealth Coordinator of Counter Terrorism and the Acting Director-General of ASIO.

I can confirm that there have been 19 people that have been admitted to hospital. Four were on the critical list, in a critical condition. The Premier has just advised me that there are now three on the critical list.

Our thoughts and our prayers are with all of the victims, especially those critically injured, for a speedy recovery. Nine of the victims are foreign nationals and our consular officials are working hard to get in touch with their families and make sure that they are aware of what’s happened to their loved ones.

Now, I want to say that this attack, while horrifying, shows the courage and resilience of the people of Melbourne once again.

Once again, we saw a courageous response from an off-duty police officer, who hauled the driver of the vehicle from the car without any consideration for his own life, his own safety.

The way in which everyday Australians rushed to the aid of those that had been injured, just as they always do.

We are a nation that looks after each other. Mateship, solidarity, that degree of mutual respect and love that we always show when times are tough, was brought out in sharp relief in Melbourne.

So again, we send our prayers to all of those who have been injured in this attack. We wish them a speedy recovery. I want to also thank the emergency, police and indeed hospital and ambulance teams, who responded so quickly to the event. They rushed to the aid of the victims and are now treating them and ensuring that they will do everything they can to bring them all back to good health.

Now, I want to say something about the offender.

He is, as you know, a 32-year-old Australian citizen of Afghan descent. He came to Australia as a refugee. He did not come with a people smuggler, he came through the appropriate refugee, the normal refugee programs. He has a history of serious mental illness and drug abuse. He has said in a number of what the police are describing as “utterings”, he has said that he attributes his actions to perceived mistreatment of Muslims. But at this stage, I want to say – and I emphasise, at this stage, because investigations are continuing - apart from that statement, there are no known links to any political issues or certainly any links to extremist groups. Therefore, the position I am advised of at the moment is that no terrorism link has been identified at this stage. But I want to stress, there is a mass of material that is being investigated and nothing should be ruled out. Nothing should be ruled out.

Now, whatever the motivation, this was a despicable and cowardly act.

But I want to reassure all Australians that this is an isolated incident. We should continue to go about our daily lives in the way we always do. That means spending time together with family and friends in public spaces, on the streets of our cities, at sporting stadiums, in parks, going out and doing our Christmas shopping, that is a fundamental part of our lives.  It’s one of the many things that makes us such a great nation.

We should always be cautious, but we're not going to be cowed or intimidated by cowardly acts of individuals who seek to do us harm in public spaces, like this.

Now, I want to say something about safety in public spaces. After the truck attack in Nice last year, I tasked the counterterrorism coordinator, the Commonwealth Counter Terrorism Coordinator to review the challenge of protecting places of mass gathering, or crowded places. While the review found that Australia had largely robust protections in place, it was also clear that more work was required. So the National Strategy for Protecting Crowded Places, and places of mass gathering was put in place. Considerable work has been done and is happening now with the local government, state government, shopping centre owners, stadium owners, anyone that has authority or control over a place of mass assembly.

I want to say, we also note that the response that we have to keeping Australians safe is very dynamic. There’s no room for complacency in the area of national security and as you know, we have set up a new Department of Home Affairs headed by Peter Dutton, which will for the first time bring our domestic security agencies under one roof and one minister. The value of this decision was very clear last night. Peter and I were in touch constantly through the night, as I was with the Victorian Premier. There was seamless coordination in the response of all the federal agencies working together with the Victorian police. I want to assure Australians that our agencies are working more closely together than ever. That is the key. That is how we keep Australians safe on our streets or abroad.

So again, our thoughts and prayers are with those that have been injured by this attack and with their families, anyone affected can contact the victims support helpline on 1800 819 817, that’s 1800 819 817.

This is terrible attack, a shocking incident to occur just on the eve of Christmas.

But we will not be cowed by it.

We will not be intimidated by it.

We will continue to go about our lives in our normal way, enjoying our cities, enjoying our public spaces, doing our Christmas shopping, enjoying the peace and the love and the time with family and friends that this wonderful season brings.

I’m happy to take some questions.


How concerned are you that innocent people are so easily targeted?


It is a matter of real concern, protecting people in crowded places. As you will have seen, a number of steps have been taken including in Sydney, to protect crowded places, Martin Place, for example. Melbourne has some special challenges though. Daniel Andrews and I were talking about this just a few minutes ago and it’s been the subject of considerable discussion between us for some time now.

Melbourne is a beautiful city, a planned city. It’s got big wide streets, wide footpaths and of course, it has trams. The tramways enable a driver - as this driver did - to pull out of stopped traffic, get into the tramway and then make an attack. This is an issue for protecting, for example, the Bourke Street Mall. There are a lot of technical solutions that can be done, retractable bollards for example in places of very high traffic, but it is not going to be possible to protect every street crossing on every corner in Melbourne. So that presents some real challenges. The Premier is very alert to this and we have talked about it.

I think it is vital to ensure that wherever we can, we build protections into the design. I’d encourage you to have a look at the Crowded Places Toolkit that is on our website and you can see advice and suggestions for how, as those new areas and precincts are designed or renovated, they can have elements built into them that will prevent people getting access with vehicles. Because a car, a light van, as you saw in London recently, can be a means of committing murder and killing and injuring a very large number of people.


This is twice within a space of 12 months in this area. How concerned are you that we are seeing so many innocent people targeted so easily like this?


This is the point I’ve just made. This is a matter of high priority, from the moment of the Nice attack- this is back in August 2016 - I recognised that there was a risk that there would be copycat incidents and there have been in Australia and indeed around the world. That’s why I got our agencies working on a Crowded Places Strategy, but we cannot protect every crowded place, from every vehicle, every street crossing for example. So it is a real challenge for our cities and design and of course, we have here somebody with a history of mental illness, but a person who was - so I am advised by the Premier - was complying with the requirements of his treatment, he was making his appointments and so forth.

So it is a serious issue in the design of our cities but equally, we have to be able to move around them freely in the normal way we live our lives.


You talked about the attacker’s background, you talked about the police assessment of his motivations and background at this stage. But knowing what you know about the attacker and about what’s happened here, does something like this qualify inevitably as an act of terror?


Well terrorism is politically motivated violence. That’s what it is. At this stage, the police are not satisfied that they can describe it as that, although he has made a reference to the perceived mistreatment of Muslims as a justification for his actions.

Now, he has not been formally interviewed yet and there is no known connection between him and any extremist group. So it may well be that it is ultimately classified as a terrorist attack, as a single act terrorist attack. But we have got to wait for a thorough investigation. That’s being handled by the agencies, state and federal, that are working on the issue right now even as we speak.


Prime Minister, when will troops be withdrawn from Iraq and Syria, not just aircraft?


Okay let me deal with that. As you know, earlier this month on the 9th of December in fact, the Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi announced the liberation of Iraq from the control of Daesh, the areas that Daesh or ISIS had controlled. As I said at the time, I congratulate Iraqi security forces on this important achievement. Now, this means that our contribution comes to a transition point; after more than three years of air operations, the number of Coalition airstrike missions have steadily declined since the last major population centre controlled by Daesh, Hawija was captured in October.

So during that time our Super Hornets have conducted 2700 sorties.  They have played a really important role, a vitally important role, in liberating Iraq from Daesh. They have played a very important role as well in the battle against Daesh in Syria. 

So the Super Hornets will come back to Australia. We will leave the surveillance and intelligence aircraft, the Wedgetail E7A will stay there, as will a refueller the KC-30. Our 300 trainers at Taji - this is the training group that is an Australian and New Zealand group - that is training both Iraqi defence forces and police forces as well. This is vitally important because once these areas are liberated, they need to make sure they’ve got the right police, well-trained to go in and keep the peace. Their police are like a gendarmerie, so they are close to having military skills and military capabilities in that environment, as you can imagine.

Of course, we have a special operations task group with 80 of our special forces there that will be again be providing support and training to the Iraqi elite counter-terrorism service.

So, those units will remain but the Super Hornets will be coming back. You’ve asked me how long will they remain, well, that will be a matter for discussion between our respective governments. But it’s really important now that ISIL has been moved out, driven out of the population centres it occupied, that it remains out. So it’s very important to maintain the peace that has been created by the Iraqi Government's courage and the Iraqi Defence Force’s courage.

I just want to add to that my thanks and I know the thanks of all Australians, to the members of the Australian Defence Force who’ve served in Iraq and Syria and have played such a critical role in eliminating Daesh control over these big population centres.

You know, for a time, it looked as though ISIL or Daesh was invincible. It swept across Syria and Iraq. You can remember, they were recruiting globally and saying it wouldn’t be long before they were going to stable their horses in the Vatican. That was a huge part of their propaganda.

Defeating them in the field in Syria and Iraq has been critically important, not just for Syria and Iraq, but for the whole world.

They had to be shown to be beaten. They had to be defeated and their so-called caliphate destroyed.

Of course, that’s why it was important that we provided the game-changing support that enabled the Philippines Armed Forces, to retake Marawi in the southern Philippines, which was again, a city that ISIL-backed insurgents took over.

We have to eliminate this terrorist organisation wherever it puts its head up. It’s critically important because it is a global threat to us.


A lot of people would hear the analysis you gave before of this offender and say that amounts to a political motivation. Why won’t you call it terrorism?


This is really a matter for our police and intelligence. I’m not being circumspect about this, it’s really a question of fact and it’s a matter for the police and the security agencies that are interviewing him.

They’ll come to a conclusion after they have all the facts. It’s important that the investigation is carried out and that’s their job.

So it’s not my role to jump to conclusions prior to all the evidence being collected. Just one last one, yeah.


As Prime Minister, do you have heightened concerns given the time of the year?


Yes I do.


A lot of people on the streets, perhaps you could just express that to us if you could, not just in Melbourne but in other areas? Sydney?


My concerns are always heightened as far as Australians’ safety is concerned. That is my most important, solemn responsibility; to keep Australians safe.

You can see that I never get complacent about it, I am constantly improving our ability to coordinate and operate to keep Australians safe. Whether that’s with the right financial and technological resources, whether it’s the legislative tools that our agencies need, we have to be absolutely rigorous and constantly focused on keeping Australians safe.

Now, this time of year when there are so many people obviously out and about, having fun, relaxing, that does provide, if you like, opportunities for those who seek to do is harm.

Remember last Christmas we foiled a plot to detonate an explosive device in the Federation Square area of Melbourne, not very far in fact from where this attack occurred yesterday.

So it's important that our agencies are very alert to this and they are, I can assure you.

This is a time when many Australians, most Australians have some time to relax and that's good. But our security, intelligence and police agencies are all on high alert because of the risks that this entails.

It’s important for Australians to be cautious, but not to be cowed or intimidated.

We should go about our lives in a normal way, but recognise that our police, our intelligence agencies, our security services, are all working overtime to keep us safe and that's our commitment.


Prime Minister, just one more?


Okay one more, this is definitely the last one.


There are reports the Snowy Hydro expansion could cost up to $12 million by the time it’s built. What price is -


Twelve million? It would be very cheap at that price. I think you mean - 


$12 billion sorry. What price is too much for your Government?


Let me explain, there's been a lot of misreporting of what's going on here.

Snowy Hydro 2.0 is a massive battery which will make renewables reliable. It will link two dams, two existing dams, Tantangara and Talbingo, which are about 20-25 kilometres apart and about 700 metres difference in elevation. There is a mountain between them, literally.

By linking them together, you’re able to generate water by running it downhill and then when energy is cheap and there's a lot of energy around - for example when windfarms are turning in the middle of the night - you use that electricity to pump the water uphill. So it's a pumped hydro scheme.

There’s already one in operation in the Snowy Mountain Scheme and it has been for a long time. This is not radical new technology, in fact it’s very, very proven.

The project is vitally important.  As we move to an energy mix in which we have more and more intermittent sources of energy, like sun, photovoltaics, solar and wind, you've got to have something to back it up when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn’t blowing. So storage of one kind or another, or firming power like gas is absolutely critical. So this is a very important part of it.

When I spoke at the Press Club in February this year, I set out the importance of pumped hydro as part of our energy future, the first time a Prime Minister had done that. The Snowy Hydro has had this project, it had been planned many years ago. But frankly they’d been gathering dust in the bottom drawer since the late 80s.

Now, what they've done is done a full feasibility on it. They’ve done a lot of geological exploration, a lot of core samples have been taken. They now have a very good handle on what it will cost and you’re right; it is higher than the figure that was initially estimated by Snowy Hydro, but that's the reality. If the rock is not what you expected, it’ll have consequences.

But the important thing is, as the company's Chief Executive Paul Broad has said, it is technically viable, in other words it can be built. There’s no question about that; it will work. They've got a very good handle on what it will cost and it is financially viable. It will deliver a good return to Snowy Hydro, which as Paul Broad has said can finance it off its own balance sheet.


What is the cost?


Well they’ve talked about a figure of between $3.8 and $4.5 billion for the total capital cost of the project.

So the figure you mentioned of $12 billion, I think is somebody adding that figure together with what the total cost of the Commonwealth buying out New South Wales and Victoria would be, if we proceeded to do that. I certainly would welcome that, but that's really two different transactions.

Snowy Hydro is a very valuable business, a very profitable business and Snowy Hydro 2.0 will enable it to continue to be an even bigger player in the electricity market.

But remember, for those people who say that I and my government are against renewables, this is the biggest renewables project built in Australia since Snowy Hydro 1. So this is a huge game-changer, because what it does is, it makes renewables reliable. It will put downward pressure on energy prices, because what it does, by having that huge battery there enables you to take a lot of the volatility out of the price of electricity.

Now, in terms of scale the battery that has been purchased in South Australia, the Elon Musk battery - which is great and I don't have any criticisms of that at all, as you know I love new technology - but the Snowy Hydro project, Snowy Hydro 2.0 project, will store 3,500 times as much energy as the South Australian battery.

So this is the point; if you look at Snowy’s video they've done to describe the scale of it, it is massive. Because you've got two big dams and it can generate, it would have the ability to generate 2,000 megawatts for 175 hours, not just for an hour or half an hour. So it's massive and it has the ability to expand into the future, many years hence, to go from 2,000 to 4,000 or even 6,000 megawatts. So it's a really big game-changing opportunity and it makes renewables reliable. Really important.


So no price is too high?


Well the price, the cost, has been taken into account by the company in determining that it delivers a positive return, a very solid and respectable internal rate of return. So that's the point, of course it’s an expensive project, but any big infrastructure project has a price tag.

The real question is, ‘do we want to ensure that Australians have affordable and reliable energy?’

Yes, that's the commitment that I've made.

‘Do we want to ensure that we can meet our emissions reduction obligations?’

Yes, that's why we have a National Energy Guarantee that brings those three together and of course, a big part of that is having the storage.

A project like this is something that takes some time to plan and build. If you want to have this kind of nation-building infrastructure, if you want to have the biggest renewable energy project since the Snowy Hydro Scheme was built, if you want to do that, you've got to make the commitment now, make the investment now, do the homework now, the studies and everything.

Once you are satisfied that it stacks up then you've got to build it. That requires a substantial investment but that's what governments have to do. You have to plan ahead. If you kick every problem off into the long grass and pretend it’s not there, you end up like South Australia, with the most expensive and the least reliable energy and having to make all sorts of last-minute acquisitions with a battery here and a decent power generator there.

This is a long-term project, it's exactly what we need to secure our affordable and reliable energy future and meet those emissions reduction commitments.

Thanks very much.