Press Conference - Sydney, NSW

16 Oct 2020
Prime Minister

Prime Minister: Good afternoon everyone it’s good to be back here in Sydney, also been tremendous to be up, right across Queensland, moving from the Gold Coast all the way up to Cairns, and to return to Sydney today for some very important matters. Unfortunate of course, that we were unable to have the National Cabinet meeting today that will be held next Friday. There was a mechanical difficulty with the BBJ which prevented my return to Sydney yesterday and so National Cabinet has been rescheduled for next Friday.

But importantly today, the National Security Committee of Cabinet has met today which I was able to return for and there we were able to finalise arrangements for our agreement with the Northern Territory Government, I will be meeting with the Chief Minister this afternoon to work through these and many other issues, as an important bilateral discussion with the Chief Minister for the use of the Howard Springs facility, which, under the agreement as referred to as the Northern Territory Centre for National Resilience. This agreement will extend out, on this arrangement until the end of March with both the opportunity to extend that agreement and expand that agreement should additional capacity become available at that facility. That would give us roughly, over that period of time, given the two week quarantine period plus the cleansing of the facility in between groups coming through of around about 5,000 people over that period of time. This arrangement is intended to supplement the more significant arrangements that we have in continually lifting the caps at our major ports of entry into Australia which is now, as a result of the changes we put in place at the last National Cabinet, at just over 5,500 weekly slots, sorry, weekly capacity of people coming into each of those areas and going into hotel quarantine. Which means we're getting more and more and more Australians home every week. Now we're also being able to supplement that with this additional facility, which initially will be used to take in groups as a result of supported flights coming out of three locations. Firstly, out of the United Kingdom but there are also flights being arranged out of India and out of South Africa. Not all of those will necessarily go to Howard Springs but those flights, which are being done by Qantas, particularly the UK flight, they are, the seats on those flights are being sold by Qantas. But Qantas has the priority list of vulnerable passengers who are in the UK that get the first opportunity at those seats on those flights and our High Commission there is contacting all of those individuals and giving them the opportunity through Qantas, to be on those flights so they can return.

But the good news is, of the around about just over 4,000 Australians who were identified and DFAT identified as vulnerable on 18th of September, just over a quarter of those have now been able to return to Australia and we're making very good progress on ensuring that more and more Australians are getting home. And as those places continue to open up at our major points of entry, when we can get in particular Melbourne back online, that will make a big difference and we look forward to that happening as soon as that can. I've obviously raised that with the Premier some weeks ago but there remain challenges there at this point in time, but we look forward to being able to pick that up again.

Now, at Howard Springs, at that centre, those who come through will obviously in the same way that others are paying for their quarantine arrangements, that will be the case there at Howard Springs and that's at $2,500 for an individual and $5,000 for a family. Today we also, as a NSC, a National Security Committee of Cabinet, further discussed how we may be able to progress in a number of other areas, that is travel from safe countries into Australia. We're many many months still off this. But the medical expert panel is already considering various options about that, how that can be achieved using a traffic light system for the various countries. It does involve looking at the many other quarantine options that could be made available from home isolation to corporates who are returning various workers from various parts of the world and being able to put in place their own corporate arrangements for quarantine that would meet standards that would need to be in place, that would be at least equivalent to what is done in the publicly-run facilities or supported, I should say, through the hotel quarantine arrangements for returning Australian citizens. And so that means that we can work to try and get back to a new kind of normal for Australia, as much as getting Australians home is our top priority when it comes to utilising these quarantine arrangements, our other priority is to get Australia back to a safe level of engaging with the rest of the world and in priority areas. That of course is in areas like students and business visitors to Australia, and the like. And potentially other visitors.

Now, today, we have already welcomed our first Kiwis back to Australia for a holiday. That's fantastic. Some 230, I understand, were on the flight this morning that has arrived, and I think is just going through customs now as we speak, and there are others who will be coming. And we welcome those Kiwis, Kia Ora to those Kiwis who've joined us today, I hope you enjoy your holiday in New South Wales or the Northern Territory or the ACT and tell your friends and we’re looking forward to seeing more of you, we’ve got a few Australians in New Zealand at the moment for the Bledisloe on the weekend. There'll be a few Kiwis heading this way for the Bledisloe return matches here in Australia in a few more weeks’ time.

So we're making progress in all of those areas. It's important that we look ahead. Yes, we need to deal with the here and now when it comes to COVID-safe travel and behaviour and quarantine, and returning Australians. But with or without a vaccine, we need to be in a different place next year to where we are this year. And we need to be planning for that now, and we are, just as we've been planning around these Howard Springs arrangements now for some period of time. Howard Springs has actually been used in recent months, particularly to enable people on their way through the Northern Territory to ensure they complied with other border arrangements in other states and territories, in particular in Queensland. It's been used for inbound, those arrivals into the Northern Territory. It has also been used for seasonal workers that have been coming through for important areas in our horticultural industry in the north. And so now, as we move into this next phase, we'll be able to use this facility to support the far greater capacity, which has always been our first priority, of 
opening up those ports of entry.

So it's excellent to be in a position that we've got our first visitors, our first international visitors, coming to Australia. That's a real turning point from where we were just over six months ago. And here we are, already, before the end of the year, getting at least to some new point of normal when it comes to COVID-safe travel. But it has to be done safely. And in putting these arrangements in place where we have AUSMAT experts who will be in place at Howard Springs to ensure those arrangements are done well, there will also be a regular external audit of infection control practices at Howard Springs and that will be advising directly through to the Chief Medical Officer.

Now before I move to a couple of other items, and to your questions, I also want to announce today that Nick Warner AO PSM will be retiring when he concludes his current term as the first-ever Director-General of the Office of National Intelligence. He'll be stepping down and retiring in December. I've known Nick for many years, as many of those who have worked at a senior level across government, have for a very long time. He has served in this role as my principal intelligence adviser and the head of the national intelligence community since December of 2017. Nick has an extremely long and distinguished career serving Australia's interests and defending and protecting Australia's interests. He's a great Australian, who has done an outstanding job, spanning some four decades in areas from national security and foreign policy and so many other areas. And so, we thank you, Nick, on behalf of a grateful nation for keeping Australia safe and keeping Australians safe. You've done a superb job. And obviously we look forward to continuing to work with you over the balance of your term, and we wish you all the best in your retirement, but I have no doubt that Nick will still be in a position to be supporting us in any number of other arrangements on a less formal basis going forward into the future. His expertise, his experience, his knowledge of these areas is, I would say, without peer and we have indeed been well-served by him in his time, both in this role as the Director-General of the Office of National Intelligence but also as Director-General of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service. Prior to that he held a range of senior positions, including Secretary of the Department of Defence and a senior international advisor to Prime Minister John Howard. He has served many Prime Ministers and he's served them extremely well. And without fear or favour, I can assure you, as I'm sure my predecessors will also attest. Overseas, he served as the High Commissioner to Papua New Guinea, a special coordinator of the regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, RAMSI which was a tremendous success. And so I have no doubt he will continue to serve Australia well, but perhaps not at quite the frenetic pace he's done so, for four decades.

I also want to welcome, the announcement by Naval Group that they have commenced, put out expressions of interest for 23 major items of equipment for the new Attack-class submarines. This work has been assessed by Naval Group as being worth up to $900 million across the 12 submarine fleet. Manufacturing such as essential pieces of equipment in Australia will support Australian jobs while building confidence in the Australian defence manufacturing industry and we're working with Naval Group to maximise opportunities for Australians, and Australian industry, including through this announcement today. Naval Group has committed to maximising Australian industry involvement with at least 60 per cent Australian industry capability.

So a lot on the agenda today. That was the key focus today. I look forward to the National Cabinet meeting being held next week. There were no pressing matters that National Cabinet, that we were anticipating significant announcements or decisions on today. It was a meeting that was continuing to review a number of proposals and get status reports on that, and provide them with further direction. And we will deal with those formally next Friday. I note also what has been a pleasing set of numbers out of Victoria when it comes to case numbers today. I agree with the Premier, this is important news, but especially for Victorians. You know, Victorians have kept up their side of the bargain. Victorians and, in particular, Melbournians, have done their bit to see this second wave that occurred in Victoria be brought under control, to arrest it. And that has come with great sacrifice. Some 70,000 jobs have been lost in Victoria over the last two months. The impact on the mental health and anxiety of Melbournians, and Victorians more broadly, has been significant. We've worked together with the Victorian government to provide the support through additional mental health support and services, and to work closely with them with the deployment of the ADF and so many others to assist Victoria as they've gone through this difficult period. But at some time you've got to step off the shore and you’ve got to start moving forward again. We've been in contact, of course I spoke to the Premier the other day, we're working with him as he prepares his next stage. They are all matters and decisions for the Victorian Premier but I know Victorians are really hoping that on the weekend they can see some significant relief to the significant impositions that have been there, that have been put in place by the Victorian government to get this second wave under control. We cannot be complacent about this. We see what is happening in Europe at the moment, devastating results there, further restrictions coming in, curfews in major European cities. And Melbourne has been going through that. And we don't want to see Melbourne or Victoria go back into that situation again. But the Premier has made it clear that they have improved their tracing capability and it's time to ensure that we can now move forward and give Victorians and Melbournians the opportunity to build back, to recover what has been so terribly lost over these recent, very difficult months and I'm looking forward to those announcements on the weekend, and I'm sure Victorians are. They'll be, along with the rest of the country, urging the Premier to move as far as he possibly can go, because Victorians have earned it. They've done the right thing. They've kept their side of the bargain and now it's time, I think, for them to be able to move further forward. We look forward to those announcements on the weekend.

Happy to take some questions.

Journalist: Prime Minister, did you attend a Liberal Party function last night?

Prime Minister: No.

Journalist: Why wasn't there another plane sent for you?

Prime Minister: There was. It arrived this morning and we got on it and flew back this morning.

Journalist: Could it have come earlier?

Prime Minister: Not to get us back in Sydney at a reasonable time, no.

Journalist: There wasn't a security facility in Townsville…

Prime Minister: Not for the purpose of this meeting. The National Cabinet is not just me on the end of the phone. There's the Secretary of the Prime Minister and Cabinet's Department, there is the Chief Medical Officer, who was flying up to Sydney for that event. We can't help mechanical failures of planes. They happen from time to time. When that happens we reschedule arrangements. It’s as simple as that.

Journalist: Prime Minister, you mentioned Nick Warner's retirement,

Prime Minister: Yeah.

Journalist:  Given the reports that came out in the ASIO report this week, the thwarted attempts to influence Australian intelligence, what is the current threat to Australia from foreign agents?

Prime Minister: Well we have strong protections in place to deal with those things at all times. I think the report just reflects how successful our intelligence agencies have been. But I'm not about to go into a commentary about their capabilities or how they do their work. All I know is they're very effective at doing it. And Nick Warner has been an architect of our capacity for a very long time.

Journalist: Senator Abetz in estimates this week was asking Chinese-Australians to denounce the communist party. Do we need to make a pledge like this for foreign-born Australians?

Prime Minister: There is only one pledge that any Australian citizen should take and that's the pledge they take when they become an Australian citizen.

Journalist: What do you make of Senator Abetz then asking Chinese-Australians to do that [Inaudible]?

Prime Minister: I just said the normal practices should be observed.

Journalist: Prime Minister, you prioritised vulnerable people, what classifies a stranded Australian as vulnerable? Is it their age, their health condition, and who assesses that?

Prime Minister: The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade assess that, based on their consular experience. And so those, they make, and it’s a whole range of issues, I mean people can be medically in a situation where they’re vulnerable, there may be family circumstance, there may be issues of economic need, it’s a broad cross section of issues that could place someone in a vulnerable position. Their ongoing accommodation arrangements where they may be. There is a range of different issues that DFAT uses to make those bespoke assessments on each and every case. And the numbers do move around based on changing people's circumstances as well. And so, but we are prioritising those who they've identified, our consular officials have identified as being the most vulnerable and they have the priority allotment for those flights.

Journalist: If someone cannot pay for their flight or their accommodation, how can a stranded Australian in need take advantage of this?

Prime Minister: We awarded to the Department of Finance, Foreign Affairs and Trade some months ago $65 million to support the work of DFAT for those who might be in a difficult situation. There are a range of arrangements they put in place. Zero interest loans which can be paid back over a longer period of time. There's emergency cash assistance in some occasions can be provided. That's all done at the discretion of the Australian consular officials. Australia's consular corps are extraordinary. I mean, this year, more than any, they've been doing an amazing job. Over the course of the last, over the COVID period, there have been 29,100 Australian citizens who have been assisted by DFAT to get them home. Over 29,000. That's what they've been able to achieve. And that work continues. They do it each and every day. And you know, that included getting Australians out of Beirut after it was blasted. They did that while the windows were shattered in their own offices, working with the most basic of communications facilities and they got those Australians home. So I think our consular corps in our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, they're brave, they are smart, they work incredibly hard, they're amazingly compassionate and they deal with people at their most vulnerable when they're away from home. And I think they're amazing. I think they do a tremendous job.

Sorry, up the back?

Journalist: Just how damaging is the scandal involving the New South Wales Premier to your Coalition's re-election chances?

Prime Minister: I've already made my remarks about the Premier, I’ve worked with the Premier for many years, many, many years. And there’s an inquiry going on and that’s appropriate. But Gladys Berejiklian is the Premier that New South Wales needs in these difficult times. She has been an extraordinary leader, particularly setting, I think the right bar, the gold standard, as I've called it, when it comes to contact tracing and testing arrangements here, and outbreak containment. Keeping New South Wales open while keeping New South Wales safe. It has been an extraordinary effort. And like all the Premiers, Chief Ministers, myself, as we've gone through COVID it has been a very uncertain time. We've had to make adjustments along the way, learn what we've needed to learn and make the changes to our programs. And no-one has done that, I think, better than Premier Berejiklian and she has very strong support, obviously, from the Deputy Premier and the many members of her team. The Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, Dominic Perrottet, they are a team just focused on keeping New South Wales safe when it comes to COVID-19 but also keeping New South Wales open.

Journalist: Should WA's borders come down now given that the Chief Health Officer has said travel bubbles between states should be fine?

Prime Minister: That's a matter for the Western Australian Government. Again, I've had no quibble with the Western Australian Government about the decisions they've made. They should be made on health advice. Where there are borders, domestically, in this country they should only be there for as long as they need to be and they should come off as soon as the medical advice permits that. And that's the only reason why those borders should be in place. And the Western Australian Premier has always said that those borders have been there for those reasons. And I'll leave it to others to make judgements about what has been said by the Health Minister and the Chief Health Officer in WA. They also need to be done on a consistent basis and there can't be double-standards about it, and there needs to be common-sense applied to ensure that the wheels of commerce continue and that - borders, of course, can provide some further protection, they are no substitute, though, for a world-class contact tracing system. They are no substitute for a world-class testing regime. They're no substitute for ensuring COVID-safe behaviours and practices. Sometimes people can get a bit more confident when the borders are up and ignore some of those practices, and that actually puts everybody at great risk. You may forget the virus but, I can tell you, the virus won't forget you. We need to continue to manage our COVID response on that basis. There's no vaccine at this point. I was enormously encouraged when I went to the University of Queensland last week during the course of this week, I should say, and to see the remarkable progress they're making. But that's not in place yet. We have a long way to go. We've got to continue to build back. We've cushioned the economic blow of COVID-19. Our health results are among the best in the world. Our economic results in cushioning that blow are amongst the best in the world. But now we have to recover those jobs. And we’re seeing that happening everywhere else except for Victoria. And we want to see those Victorian jobs come back and that's why we're looking forward to some positive news this weekend. But then it’s about building back for the future which is what our Budget was all about, it’s been incredibly well received. I was so pleased to see how well it was received up in Queensland over the course of this week, visiting so many businesses seeing their optimism. I made one assumption in this Budget and that was in the strength and resilience of Australians and I think that’s a very safe assumption.

Thank you very much.