Press Conference - Sydney, NSW

27 Jul 2020
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: ...National COVID Commission and its re-formation as a Prime Minister's advisory body, an advisory board. But before I do that, I just wanted to make a number of comments in relation to the COVID-19 situation, updating on my statements after the National Cabinet meeting on Friday. Over the weekend, and today, the emergency response centre has been stood up in relation to aged care. That brings together all of the key agencies involved in supporting the aged care sector at a state and at a federal level and that’s being headed up by the National Chief Nurse Alison McMillan and we thank them for the work they have been doing, particularly over the weekend. The situation in Victoria, of course, the Premier will be updating Victorians and the country more broadly on those matters in his regular press conference, but just to suffice to say that the Federal Government continues to provide every support. The increasing deployment of ADF personnel across a broad range of tasks including as foreshadowed the door-to-door operations, right through to the tracing supports, logistic command support, supporting testing centres and that will continue.

It is important to understand that the challenges, and they are significant in the aged care sector, are a reminder that when community transmission occurs with COVID-19, the aged care sector will always be impacted. That is certainly the experience we have seen in other countries. When you have problems in aged care, it is a function of the community transmission. Now, this is an important point to note because it involves all of us, if you want to protect the most vulnerable in our community. That is why it is so important that those of us who may be in a less vulnerable position are continuing to follow the advice, performing the safe distancing and other practices about getting tested and remaining isolated when you are a close contact. All of this is incredibly important because when community transmission takes place, it is inevitable that it will find its way into the more vulnerable parts of our community and the aged care community is certainly one of those. Now, one of the key things being done in the aged care sector currently is transferring people who have contracted COVID into hospital facilities and we are making use of the private hospitals agreement that we put in place some months ago to free up beds in the private hospital area so we can transfer people out of those facilities into those beds and we are working closely with the Victorian state government about that process. I was in contact earlier today with the Premier on those issues. The other part of it is ensuring that the infection control management in aged care facilities is being closely monitored. We have already put 1.5 million masks into aged care facilities and about that number and a bit more are also further going into aged care facilities. That is part of a broader provision of personal protective equipment that has been deployed in Victoria. I should stress that the Commonwealth is not the only level of government that provides PPE material into the health system. Of course, the state governments also do that and, in fact, are the primary providers of that equipment into healthcare facilities in their jurisdiction but the national stockpile is being drawn upon to support their efforts to ensure that is in place. It is vital that in those aged care facilities that those infection control procedures are being followed. The Commonwealth put in place training for infection control in relation to COVID-19 in recent months and it is a matter now of ensuring that those infection control procedures are being adhered to strictly in those facilities. Because, obviously, in aged-care facilities you are dealing with the most vulnerable members of our community and that is where you see the most awful of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. That is where the loss of life, in particular, occurs, far more significantly than any other part of the community. Although it is true to say that others who are younger can be susceptible and it can prove fatal in some circumstances, as we have already seen.

So all effort is being deployed to ensure that we are doing what is necessary in the aged care sector. We’re also working closely with families. I note that the Federal Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck last night was on a Zoom call with one of the facilities and family members from those facilities. There is a single person which is identified for each family who is the contact person and I am advised that they are being kept up-to-date on a daily basis. That single-family contact member, obviously, who then rely on that family member to update other members of the family and that is what is put in place across, not just there, but all parts of the country, is my advice. So we will continue today to focus our efforts, particularly as we have been now for some time, on providing whatever support is necessary in the aged care sector.

The news in New South Wales is better, a lot better, and the work that is being done to trace cases to known sources has been very effective that gives us, obviously, a lot more cause for confidence in New South Wales. In Victoria, there is still a long way to go. We are still seeing case numbers at elevated levels and so, as we have seen from other jurisdictions, when you get community-based transmission, it does take some time to get that down. We saw that in the UK. We saw it in Europe. We have seen it in other places that have gone through sustained lockdowns and it does take some time. So, we just ask for the continued cooperation and goodwill of the people of Melbourne and Victoria more broadly to ensure that we can get on top of this and everyone will continue to work together to that end.

Now, moving to the purpose of today's announcement, I am pleased to announce that the COVID Coordination Commission, as it was known when it was first set up, was set up to assist and be an important channel of advice and channel of action to help the Commonwealth Government deal with difficult problem-solving tasks that were arising because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That extended in everything from ensuring that we had production capabilities for PPE and getting access to testing equipment, through to practical issues about ensuring that we were getting supplies to regional stores and things of that nature. And, at the time, I appointed Nev Power to head up that group and they have done a fantastic job working across so many different sectors and keeping me and keeping my Cabinet informed and up-to-date about what was happening on the ground. We believe that the Commission needs to now move into a new gear, as we have sort of moved through a lot of the early problem-solving tasks and as a result I have decided to re-establish it as an advisory board to myself as Prime Minister to work across the full spectrum of our JobMaker plan. Our JobMaker plan is designed to look at the post-COVID recovery and to set us up for that post-COVID recovery. The work we are doing in deregulation and approvals, on skills formation and skills support, on industrial relations, on infrastructure and transport, on energy, on taxation - all of these areas and key reforms of how we make our Federation work better. This is the JobMaker plan that is designed to get Australians in jobs to keep Australians in jobs and for those who have been unfortunately put out of a job because of COVID-19, to get them into a position where they can get back into work. It is all about the recovery process and you need changes and initiatives across a broad range of supply side elements of the economy.

Now, we draw our advice from many sources over the course of the pandemic. We have been careful to listen and to listen carefully. We obviously have listened to the health advice, but also and equally we have been listening to the economic advice, whether it be from the official institutions such as the Treasury or the Reserve Bank or it’s been listening to those in the industry sectors, the unions and others who we have drawn advice from, through the various processes we have had. But equally, we have been listening carefully to those in the economy who have had tremendous experience in many different sectors. And that has come through the COVID Coordination Commission. And so today, as I said, we are re-establishing that Commission and drawing together some new members who we believe will give it a broader spectrum of experience and expertise. So, Nev Power will continue on, in the role of Chairman of the COVID Commission Advisory Board, joined by the Deputy Chair David Thodey. Paul Little and Jane Halton, who have all been serving on it until now, and they will be joined by Mike Hirst. As you know, Mike was formerly head of Bendigo Bank and has a very good understanding of regional economies. Samantha Hogg from Tasmania who has been very active in the resources and the infrastructure sector and advised on and played roles in many government, as well as private sector, boards. Su McClusky is well respected in regional Australia and in the agricultural sector. She will be joined by Bao Hoang who has been very successful as founder and group CEO of the Roll’d Australia Proprietary Limited Organisation, working as a franchised outfit and working with small businesses across the country. Paul Howes, I have invited to join the group. I have known Paul for many years. We certainly haven't always agreed on everything, as he and I can attest to, but what this is about is getting people to work together. Paul can bring his experience in superannuation, workforce and workplace relations, to assist the work of the Commission and I thank him for agreeing to join. Laura Berry, who works in Indigenous business and Indigenous business procurement, will be joining the COVID Commission.

This is just about ensuring that we continue to listen and get the best advice, that experience to draw on and the expertise that is there. It is not to replace or supplant any other channel of advice I am drawing together - the industry bodies, the union organisations, all of those will continue through their formal channels to be putting their input into the Government as we continue to roll out our JobMaker plan and add further additions to that plan as we move forward into the Budget. The COVID Commission will work within government. It won't be an external agency. It will work within government and can form part of the Cabinet deliberative processes, which is an important innovation. So, as with work through particular submissions, we can be drawing on the expertise and the experience of the COVID Commission as with fashion those plans, as they make their way through the Expenditure Review Committee process, the Cabinet process and the decisions that are taken there and what is ultimately placed in this year's Budget and other decisions that are made.

We are about creating jobs. Jobs is the way out economically for Australia. This is an Australian plan, based on Australian values, based on Australian challenges and Australian solutions and that will continue to guide our efforts, practically dealing with the problems that we face, bringing the best minds together, bringing the country together to get behind the effort to ensure this we recover strongly from the COVID pandemic. We are still very much in the midst of it. We are still very much in the fight over it, against this pandemic and the impact it is having. But we also have a very strong plan to see us recover strongly on the other side. And with that, I'll ask Nev to make a few comments and then happy to take broader questions.

NEV POWER, CHAIR OF THE NATIONAL COVID-19 COMMISSION: Thank you very much, Prime Minister. Thanks, everyone. Good morning.

First, I would like to acknowledge the great work that all Australians have done across community and business in helping manage with the coronavirus and maximise the amount of business activity and jobs that we can sustain during the pandemic. As the Prime Minister said, we are in a transition now to focus much more specifically on creating jobs and accelerating the return of our economic activity, so that we can restore as many people’s lives and livelihoods black to where they were or as close to as we possibly can.

The Commission's really gone through three phases. The first was that problem solving, fixing phase that the PM mentioned. That was about the procurement and manufacture of PPE, was keeping material flowing through our ports and solving industrial relations issues that came up there, about ensuring supply to remote supermarkets and more recently supply out of the distribution centres that were impacted by the Melbourne outbreaks and looking for and developing alternative means to supply people in those suburbs. In addition to that, we have also worked to connect displaced people into areas of priority, to help work with health workers, to resolve issues in those areas. As part of this work, we have developed four task forces, which are working in addition to the commissioners and these are in energy, advanced manufacturing, not-for-profit and industrial relations and they are also providing an extended field of advice back into the commission to help us provide the best solutions that we can.

As we move into this third phase, we are very much focused around the recovery of the economy, but of course there will still be problems to solve and commissioners at various times will continue to do specific tasks. For example, Jane Halton’s task at the moment, looking at hotel quarantine nationally. We also recognise that as we come out of the virus, or as we learn to live with the virus, parts of the economy are going to be impacted for longer than other parts of the economy. So we need to focus on helping those people, but also on growing and accelerating those parts of the economy that can grow as fast as we can to create as many new jobs as we can as well as restoring old ones.

Clearly, the health and safety of all Australians is the number one priority. In parallel with that, we will be looking at how we can create as many jobs, get as many people back into work as possible and learn to live with the restrictions of the coronavirus, of physical distancing, personal hygiene and quick response to outbreaks in businesses across Australia, whether they are in hospitality or mining or infrastructure development or housing construction.

So, I would like to add my welcome to the new Commissioners. It gives us a very broad range of experience and networks across Australian business and, in particular, the addition of deepening skills in small-to-medium-sized businesses, agriculture and regional Australia. I would also like to acknowledge and thank the great work of our existing Commissioners and the people working on the commission and thank them for their continued effort, as we all try to do our very best to get people back to work and to restore as much of our economy to normal as we can.

Thank you.

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks Nev. Just hang on, on that note, can I also particularly thank Cath Tanna who is standing- not going to the next stage. Cath obviously has a very specific role within Energy Australia. And we need to manage conflicts going forward and Cath has done a great job up until now. We thank her very much for that. Greg Combet as well. Greg stood down about a month ago, I think it was now, about three weeks ago. Greg is still working with the Attorney and Industrial Relations Minister as working with the government representing the industry fund sector and we thank Greg very much for the work that he's done, both as a member of the Commission, but also the very practical work that he is doing as part of the other process that the Attorney is working through at present.

But Andrew, go ahead, mate. You are all fired up ready to go.

JOURNALIST: More than 500 cases today in Victoria. Are you concerned about the ability of the Victorian government to get on, be on top of this outbreak? We are hearing stories of people taking up to 9 days to get their test results back, particularly in regional Victoria. That makes contact tracing difficult. When you set up the bushfires royal commission, one of the terms of reference was when the Federal Government can intervene in terms of an emergency response. Are we heading that way here, first of all? And second of all, does Victoria need to go even harder lockdown?

PRIME MINISTER: Let me pick up on the last point first. The Premier also has been pretty clear about that. We are several weeks in, now to a six-week lockdown period in Victoria. The advice to me is it is premature at this point to be making those calls, but it’s also important to keep all of the options on the table. I heard the Premier say over the weekend that effectively mandatory masks indicated a whole other level and I would agree with him about that. He will take advice and make assessments, I would think, over the next week or so about what further may be required at the end of the period that he's set out. But, I stress again what I said in my earlier comments, and that is, we need to be patient. There has been significant community transmission in Victoria. That will take some time to get on top of and that is what the actions are directed to addressing right at this very moment. On the broader issues the Federal Government has just one job and that is to support the Victorian government in all of these initiatives. That is why there’s more than 1,400 ADF personnel in Victoria right now, supporting across a whole range of tasks, to give Victoria every effort, resource that they need to get on top of this. Tracing is clearly a challenge and that is why so much of the effort and resource has been put into that area. It is vital that the marks that are set, and that is - and I welcome the fact that particularly in recent days they have been able to seek to make contact with every positive case and then there is the further task of beyond that, of making that contact and then identifying any further contacts of those cases and trying to do that within that first 48 hours. They are the metrics that we set out last Friday at National Cabinet and that is what the goal clearly is. So, the Royal Commission that you make reference to is looking at a very similar issue when you are involved in national crises and I'll let the Royal Commission do their work on that. Whether that has broader application to circumstances like this, I am sure people will form judgements about that at the time but I’m certainly not going to pre-judge that. The royal commission is looking at that in the case of natural disasters and pandemics and natural disasters are, can be one and the same thing and, if not, they are very close cousins, that is for sure. I think there will always be lessons out of all of this. But right now, I just have one job and that is to give Dan Andrews and the Victorian government every support I can to help him, help Victorians and that is certainly what we are doing as a federal government.

JOURNALIST: What would your message be to the New South Wales community and indeed communities in other states? Watching, anxious now (inaudible)?

PRIME MINISTER: To stay alert. We have got to keep the tension in  the cord in all the other states and territories. The virus is still out there. It hasn't left the country. It is still here. It is not going to go anywhere. And our only defence against it is to ensure that our testing, tracing and outbreak containment capabilities are at the highest possible standard and, for that to be effective, there are certainly things that governments need to do and are doing. What we have seen in New South Wales has been a very effective tracing operation. Despite the threats and challenges that we have seen, they have been able to get on top of that, but they would be the first to tell you they are not out of the woods yet and there is still a bit of distance to travel. Those cases are still less than about 20 at the moment each day, but they could raise higher than that. That’s not out of the question, but the fact that they have been able to get on top of that so quickly is important. So governments need to do what they need to do, but equally for the rest of the country it is just a matter of continuing to practise the discipline, to stay in the habit about contacts and about keeping distances and about washing hands and downloading the app and doing all of these things. We must keep doing that until there is a vaccine and that vaccine has been introduced into the community to establish the immunity that is necessary. That is still some time away. But you have to do that while keeping your economy going, while keeping people in jobs, and the way you do all of that and protect the most vulnerable in your community is by following the very straight forward and disciplined steps that I have outlined.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the organisers of tomorrow’s Black Lives Matter rally in Sydney say they will go ahead even if they lose an appeal in the Supreme Court today. How would you describe that decision?

PRIME MINISTER: The decision of Black Lives Matter or the decision of the court?

JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] to go ahead with the rally even if they lose in court?

PRIME MINISTER: I would describe it as breaking the law. That is what I would describe it as. That is what it is. We are all subject to the law. So I would encourage everybody to follow the law.

Sorry we might - there are five journalists here. I was happy to go around and get a question from everybody then come back to you.

JOURNALIST: On the economy, the Federal Government is spending $2.5 billion on a contract for detention, asylum seeker detention centres in Australia. How do you justify that level of spending, given there are only just over 1,000 people in detention centres onshore and we are facing the worst financial crisis in 100 years?

PRIME MINISTER: The detention network is an important part of a comprehensive Border Protection regime that has been the most successful in the world, in countering illegal entry into Australia. That is how I justify it.

JOURNALIST: Mr Power, actually, how heavily focused will you be on IR reforms as your remit shifts to creating jobs?

NEV POWER, CHAIR OF THE NATIONAL COVID-19 COMMISSION:  Our focus is primarily around workplace trends and workforce trends and how they are going to be impacted and particular focus around transitioning skills and helping people upskill and re-skill into the roles that are created and are restored in the economy. The Attorney-General has a specific group looking at the industrial relations reforms. So, we may have an opportunity to input to that, but it is not our primary focus.

JOURNALIST: Do you concede the Victorian government has let this get out of control? That the Victorian government is responsible for the fact they haven't done the contact tracing and testing quick enough on top of the hotel quarantine debacle?

PRIME MINISTER: I’m going to respond the same way I did to the earlier question, Andrew. It is my job to support Victoria, to help Victoria and that is what I am going to do.

JOURNALIST: 532 cases though Prime Minister, just how worried does that make you?

PRIME MINISTER: It is concerning, and of course we're concerned and that's why we're putting so much effort into it, but there nothing to be gained by the Federal Government engaging in some sort of commentary about this. People don't want commentary from their Prime Minister. They want action and the action we're putting on the ground is to give the Victorian Government every resource and support they need to get on top of this. And I know that's greatly appreciated by the Premier and I greatly appreciate the support that's been provided by other states and territories who we're working with closely to address the resource needs in Victoria. This has been a national effort. I think one of the things that has really marked Australia's response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been the way the states and territories and the Federation has worked together like never before. Now, it's not perfect, we all know that, but as someone who's been around public life for some time, I have never seen the Federation work this well together and in such a constructive way. What we're announcing today with the COVID Commission is we want to keep that going. States and territories working together with the Commonwealth in the national interest, that's what's needed right now and that's what's happening right now, I believe, and we're seeing that work in the worst of cases like in Victoria, but equally in some of the best of cases as well to ensure that they can continue on in that vein and so I'll continue to lead a process that brings people together whether it's the advice that we're drawing from those in our economy, small business people, in the workplaces, those representing employees, those representing employers, investors, whether here or overseas, listening to our health professionals, our medical professionals. You’ve got to draw all this advice together when you're making these decisions and we're doing that as an Australian Government in our National Cabinet that draws together all the states and territories, and in our federal Cabinet which is the Government I lead.

JOURNALIST: Do you think the Treasurer's comments about a Reagan and Thatcher-style approach, do you agree with that? Is that the sort of approach you're after in terms of the recovery?

PRIME MINISTER: Well we're leading an Australian response to this. A uniquely Australian response and that Australian response requires us to address the supply side issues in our economy. And I've gone through them. And this is why the COVID commission today is so important. Already, it was a few weeks ago- a few months ago, I talked about the need to move on deregulation and approvals, and we've already seen action on that. We announced that all states and territories moving towards a single touch process on environmental planning and assessment, on skills I said we needed to do more there. And we now have seven states and territories signed up to a billion dollar programme to create 340,000 training places. Within weeks of me announcing that, I've said we need to take action when it comes to keeping flexibility in our workplaces. Now, we've had that flexibility under the JobKeeper arrangements, and I believe it is very important that in the next phase of JobKeeper, which runs out till the end of March, that it is very necessary for those firms that have been on JobKeeper, to continue to have access to those flexible arrangements. Now, I'm not proposing that as a permanent arrangement. I'm proposing that as a temporary arrangement to deal with the next phase of JobKeeper, because there will be firms who have been on JobKeeper, who have graduated out of it, but will still benefit greatly from having that flexibility. And what that will do, as we've already seen, is it will keep people in jobs. It's jobs that drive the Australian plan. Nothing else. Nothing else. What will create a job? What will keep people in a job? And this is why I've turned to people like Nev Power and the others who sit on the advisory board, as well as so many others right across the country to ensure that that is our focus.

JOURNALIST: On tax reform, do you think it's the state's responsibility to come up with that? Or are you going to take leadership on that and sort of indicate to the states what taxes you'd like to see them get rid of?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, state taxes are a matter for state governments. And so it is important that if states wish to make changes in that area, that they form a common view about what they would like to see happen. Otherwise, you can distract yourself from other important priorities by going down a path that may lead absolutely nowhere. So I think it's important in the first instance for states and territories to be clear about what they want to do and how they would seek to make changes. When they've come to that, and that's what we've tasked through the National Cabinet process, the group of Treasurers known as the Council of Federal Financial Relations. It's for them to reconcile that amongst themselves. Last time around, when there was reform in this area, I think there was some scepticism that followed with the time it took for many of the state taxes to go when the GST was introduced. Now, I think that's an issue that needs to be addressed in the community. I think people would need some confidence that there would be change there. So that's the process. I'm very happy with that process. I've made that very clear to Premiers as well, that if there are changes they want to make, if their Treasurers want to make, well they need to get together and they need to sort that out and they need to present a united position that we could actually move forward on. But in the meantime, I won't be distracted from what we can do in our own budget, in our own tax system to ensure we can drive the investment that is necessary to create the jobs that are necessary.

JOURNALIST: What’s the risk of, what’s the risk of increasing tensions with China by sending two Ministers overseas for talks with the US during the height of this pandemic?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I don't think there's anything extraordinary about the Australian Foreign Minister and Defence Minister attending AUSMIN talks face-to-face with our US counterparts. I intend to visit Washington myself and should the G7-plus meeting go ahead, which will be held in Washington. These are important opportunities for Australia. It would be extraordinary if we didn't seek to attend these meetings. Our alliance with the United States is the bedrock of Australia's defence strategy. So would it be highly irregular for us not to seek to take every opportunity for those meetings to be held face to face and I'm very pleased that they are proceeding on that basis. This is a regular dialogue that we have with the United States and it's a timely opportunity for us to be talking about the many issues that are involved in our partnership right now, and not just defence issues. In the foreign foreign affairs space there are many issues that Australia has an active interest in at the moment and we are keen to pursue those with as many like-minded countries as we possibly can.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just on aged care, do you think the Federal and Victorian governments were too slow to intervene in the aged care workforces, given that we know that it was taking hold about three weeks ago?

PRIME MINISTER: No, we've been taking action on this for weeks now, for weeks and weeks. And I outline those actions to you, in particular, taking the initiative to train the workforces in aged care, particularly in infection control practises, to put in place the PPE equipment that was necessary in these aged care facilities and to move now as we are. The important thing, I think, to remember is we've just got to keep, got to keep learning. The Deputy Chief Medical Officer was making this point on the weekend that this is a virus that continues to throw up new challenges every single day. And you've got to take those learnings, you've got to share those learnings, and you've got to apply those learnings each and every day. The Australian people and the Australian governments all around the country are ensuring that Australia is arguably one of the most successful developed countries in the world in response to this coronavirus and that doesn't mean we're immune from challenges. Of course, we're going to face them each and every day. But when we face them, we need to bring together all the best minds, all the best will, and bring Australians together to confront those challenges. And that's why I've established the COVID commissioners, an advisory body to myself as Prime Minister, to ensure we're getting those perspectives, we're getting that feedback on all the decisions we're taking. We’ve got to make the right calls and we're putting every effort into making the right calls, which will keep Australians safe, which will keep as many Australians as possible in jobs, but most importantly, to keep keeping Australians together. Thank you all very much.