Q&A, National Press Club - National Press Club, ACT

29 Jan 2020
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Before we go to questions, Riles, as a separate note on behalf of Jenny and I, and my whole family, could I just think all of you who have extended such kind condolences to me and my family in recent times. My brother and my mother and I very much appreciate it. I mean, the outpouring has been quite overwhelming, frankly. Thousands and thousands of people. We’ll remember him tomorrow and I'm not going to say any more than that, because I’ll lose it.

SABRA LANE: Thank you, Prime Minister, for the speech. Given that there's going to be a lot of assessment of what should have been done to better prepare Australia for the last couple of months that we have experienced and we are not yet through, have you had some time to look back at your own performance over the past two months and assess your own performance and judgments? And if you had your time again, what would you have done differently?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, prime ministers are never free of character assessments, particularly from those who have so cheerily joined me today and they will always be made. And what I tend to do is focus on the tasks that I need to do each and every day. What I'm focused on right now is obviously responding to a series of crises, not just when it comes to the issues of the bushfires, which have been so devastating, the drought we have not for a second - can I assure those Australians in drought declared areas right across - that we have not forgotten you for a second. You have been so much in the middle of our thoughts and our plans as a government, as we were just yesterday meeting with Shane Stone’s Flood and Drought Recovery Agency and going through what more we can do there. Same with those back up in North Queensland, up in the ‘curry and across the Hughenden and Julia Creek and all through that area, which was so devastated a year ago. I haven't forgotten that for a day. I can still remember the smell of those rotting carcases on those properties and it reminds me each and every day. I still can remember, and it sticks with me every day, you ask me what I've reflected on, the quiet, eerie silence of the bushfire zones that Jenny and I toured, including in Cobargo. It wasn't so much the noise there. It was the quiet, still, eerie feeling of isolation that people felt in that. And you know what? At that precise time, we were in the throes of putting together the compulsory call out for our defence forces. Several days before, I'd been speaking to the Chief of the Defence Force to start mobilising the Adelaide. And when I went to these communities, what was reinforced to me is that Australians have suffered so many things through these disasters. And I wish I could change all of the experiences that they've had and the devastation they've felt. But the one thing I'd never want any Australian to feel like when they go through a situation like that is that they are alone and that they are isolated. And that's what our Defence Force reservists and team have done probably more than anything else. Showing up, showing that those who are affected so terribly were not alone and that Australians were with them.

When I was out in Blayney yesterday, the local mayor, Scotty said, you know, these projects that you've got with the drought recovery program, they reminded everybody out here that we weren't alone as we went through this. And I know as those $75,000 grants went through the pastoralists and graziers up there in north Queensland after the devastating floods, it said to them ‘you're not alone. Australians are standing with you’. Every day I reflect on how I can better service my country in this role, which frankly, we should all do.

SABRA LANE: Mark Riley.

MARK RILEY: Mark Riley, Prime Minister, from the Seven Network. Thanks very much for your speech, and I think I can presume to speak on behalf of my press gallery colleagues to convey our deepest condolences to you and to Jenny and the girls over the loss of your father [inaudible] terrible time.


RILEY: Prime Minister, I was here reporting during Labor’s sports rorts scandal, the Ros Kelly affair was a shocker, but this is one of those rare things, a bit like Godfather 2, where the sequel is bigger and badder than the original. I mean, really, the recommendations of an independent expert authority overlooked, swept aside for political expediency. Lists of marginality of seats drawn up. Colour-coded seats, Prime Minister, of marginality. Now, I know you're not going to answer questions about the Minister's future until Mr Gaetjens report is issued to you. But I want to talk about your responsibilities and get a response from you, please, on two matters. First, can you say categorically that your office had nothing to do with this? No involvement in the construction of this rort? And secondly, what will you do as Prime Minister to ensure the integrity of the expenditure of taxpayers funds in this scheme but in so many others across government, where there is such broad ministerial discretion on decision making to ensure that money goes to worthwhile - I'm not saying these projects weren’t worthwhile - but the most worthwhile on merit and on need and not on what best secures a marginal victory for a government?

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Mark, and thank you for your kind words and those of your colleagues. I'm glad to see the one question rule is off to a good start, Sabra.

But let me deal with a couple of the points that you've raised, Mark. First of all, this is a serious matter. I'm taking it seriously. That's why we're acting on the recommendations of the Auditor General's report and are and that process is already underway and that's being implemented. In relation to the issues that you've raised in terms of the management of this issue, as you rightly say, I took that action last Friday week, I think it was, to refer that matter for the application of the ministerial standards to the Secretary, which is important because these interpretation of these standards needs to be done consistently over time. And I have full confidence that the Secretary will undertake those responsibilities, as you would all expect him to, and that will lead him to his recommendations and I'll deal with those. You've been around this place for a long time, Mark, and one of the things that you'll recall is that Ros Kelly and indeed Catherine King were both involved in programs that gave money to ineligible projects. The Auditor-General found that that did not occur, did not occur. So I think there's quite a significant comparison there between those two. That's not to suggest that I'm not taking the broader observations and findings of the Auditor-General seriously. Of course I am. But I think history is important. I think facts are important. And I think it's important to note that the Auditor-General did not find there were any ineligible projects that were funded under this scheme, and nor did he say that rules had been broken. There was a ministerial authority to make decisions in this matter, and that's what was exercised. Now, observations and commentary has been provided about how that was exercised, and that's a matter that's under review. But equally for all of those, well, let's talk about the program. For all of those hardworking local community sporting organisations that have been benefited by this program, as you said yourself, all projects were worthy and in any grants program, whether they're administered by departments solely or otherwise, there will always be criticisms that are made about the decisions that are taken. What matters on the ground is whether the projects are making a difference to local communities and the feedback I've had from those communities all around the country as we were putting this investment in, and let's remember why we were doing it, because we didn't want to see girls changing in cars or out the back of the sheds rather than having their own changing facilities. That's why we did it. We wanted to make sure because we understand that local community sporting organisations are the heart of the communities and no more have we seen that demonstrated than through these recent crises. It's the gatherings and the connections that people made around their sporting clubs that in so many cases have been the foundation for their resilience and working together in response to crises. So the purpose of the fund, the purpose of the initiative, the $100 million we've invested in building in what is not just sporting infrastructure, but it's community bonding infrastructure, I think is highly worthy. But the issues that have been raised in the Auditor-General’s report will be addressed by the government and we will continue to proceed to ensure that communities get the support they need. I mean, there is no end of these projects that you could support and there are many other projects that you would like to support, and the Treasurer and I will consider that as we go forward.

RILEY: And your office?

PRIME MINISTER: Sorry, on that matter. What prime ministers have always done is supported their colleagues and when matters are raised with them. And that has been done since time immemorial with prime ministers to relay those positions on to the relevant ministers in those programs. And that's the role that my office played.

RILEY: So your office was involved?

PRIME MINISTER: All we did was provide information based on the representations made to us as every prime minister has always done. As a veteran of the gallery, you'll understand.

SABRA LANE: Sarah Martin.

SARAH MARTIN: Prime Minister, Sarah Martin from The Guardian. Can I just clarify from your answer to Mark there? Are you suggesting that there was nothing wrong as a matter of principle in using public funds for your own private political interests and the entrenchment of your government's power?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I just reject the premise of the question. That's not why we did it.

MARTIN: So why did you do it?

PRIME MINISTER: To support local communities and the sporting infrastructure that they need to to bond together, to be cohesive and ensure that girls didn't have to change out the back of the shed. That's why we did it. You can have an editorial on it if you like and you're welcome to that. But that's not why I did it. And that's not why the government did it.

MARTIN: The question, as a matter of principle, do you accept that it's wrong to use public funds for your own private and political benefit?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's not what the government has done.

MARTIN:  I'm asking if, as a matter of principle, if you accept that.

PRIME MINISTER: Of course. I mean, that's like, you know, do I believe the sun should rise tomorrow? Yes, I do. And it will.

SABRA LANE: Our next question, Andrew Probyn.

ANDREW PROBYN: Prime Minister, Andrew Probyn from the ABC. Your ministerial colleague Darren Chester said today the biggest deficit in Australia was one of trust and it’s in the spirit of that question that I present you what was referred to before by Mark Riley, which looks very much like a politically corrupted government scheme here. What do you say to the hundreds of community groups, not for profits, councils, who spent a lot of time putting together their grant applications did so thinking that the process would be one of going to be devised by merit as opposed to political advantage and what will you do and can you promise that you will ensure that future slush funds aren't treated in such a fashion?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, Andrew, I’ll put your editorial to one side and your commentary on it. That's your view and that's what you've put forward. What the government was doing was supporting local community infrastructure projects and I know that all of which were eligible under the program, all of which will make a difference in the community and there are always many more. I've served as a minister in a number of portfolios. I remember when I was the Minister for Social Services and the Department of Social Services grants, which is about an $800 million program. And we'd put in place an arrangement where all of those decisions were made solely by the Department. And after those decisions were taken, you know what’d happened? Wonderful community organisations that have been providing emergency cash relief and local playgroups and all these things were all defunded. It was just stripped away from them. And so as Social Services Minister, I worked with the prime minister at the time to ensure that we could go back and ensure that they got the support. On other occasions, departments have made decisions which had stripped money from Foodbank, and I've had to reverse those decisions. You know, politicians, ministers, members of Parliament, we’re part of our community. We know what's happening in our community. We're in touch with our community. We know the things that can make a difference in our community. And it's important because we're accountable to those people in our communities for getting stuff done that's going to make a difference in their communities. Now, in my answer to Mark, I said this - there are many, many, many more worthy projects in this area. I agree with that. And I will work with the Treasurer to see how we can better support even more projects in the future. But on any grants program, however, it's done, there will always be many applicants whose projects are very worthy and they're unable to be accommodated by the budget that we've set. We're a responsible government that manages public money carefully. That's why we've been able to put $2 billion like that, like that, without a tax, without a levy, to support those most deeply affected by this bushfire crisis. And so our reputation and track record when it comes to responsible financial management speaks for itself.

SABRA LANE: Colleagues, please, one question per person, because you’re going to deprive one another asking a question later on. Phil Coorey.

PHIL COOREY: Phil Coorey from the AFR. Just on your message on climate change. You said given the emissions that are already in the air, that this is going to be the sort of the new normal, if you like, the situation we're going to have to learn to live with. This summer alone has made a massive whack on your budget situation. If this, as the scientists tell us and the national park rangers and the fireman tell us are going to happen nearly every year, every other year, how sustainable do you think is going to be economically on the nation? The cost of climate change and trying to get your budget in surplus and keep it there?

PRIME MINISTER: It’s a good question and it's obviously one that is the great challenge of managing the Budget and why you have to be so careful with your financial management. That's why, Phil, today I very much seek to cast this in the same context as our national security decisions. I think it very much falls within the scope of that, particularly when it comes to resilience and adaptation measures. And, you know, the thing about resilience and adaptation measures they’re as true for government as they are for a farmer. So if you put the investment in upfront to build your resilience, then you're more likely to get through and the overall cost will ultimately be lesser for you on the preparedness that you make. It's taking out insurance for the climate in which we're living. And so I'd probably maybe take- come at it from a different perspective and to say it's a wise investment, you know, 2 per cent of your economy being invested in Defence is a wise investment because it keeps Australia's strategic interests secure and safe. The investments we put into our- our security agencies, our border protection agency, our biosecurity, all of these things are incredibly important because the cost of not doing so when it comes to those issues falling over become very significant. That's not to say you can you know, you can prevent the impacts of any and all disasters. Of course you can’t. We all understand that. But what I am saying is that we really need now to lay down the longer term investments, whether it's in how technology is being undertaken, the systems and practices we have in place to manage the risk down, to ensure that as we continue to live in this climate, that we are able to better cope and respond to what comes our way, which in turn makes the Budget more sustainable because it's not hit with the bigger impacts of avoidable situations. So I see it very much as part of responsible budget management, of responsible fiscal management, and importantly part of the national security agenda.

SABRA LANE: Kieran Gilbert.

KEIRAN GILBERT: Kieran from Sky News. Prime Minister, thanks so much. You said in your speech that, and rightly, that we only are 1.3 per cent of emissions globally. But when you look at every nation with a similar carbon footprint, it amounts to 40 per cent of global emissions- and nations with a carbon footprint-

PRIME MINISTER: How did we get from 1.3 to 40 per cent?

KEIRAN GILBERT: I’m saying of all the nations together with a similar carbon footprint, but the point I’m making is, as a proud nation, a middle power. We've made contributions- punched above our weight in so many different areas in terms of the Middle East and so on. Right now our troops are there patrolling with other nations. The point I'm getting at is, do you believe there's scope within you as a leader, within this nation to step up our role and advocate? Because, as you say, climate emissions don't have an accent, but you can advocate as a leader, our nation can advocate. Is there scope to do that?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, let me tell you what the Australian accent is saying about emissions reduction, right now. Meeting and beating our Kyoto targets. And then we're going to meet and beat our Paris targets. That's what the Australian accent is saying under our government. The Australian accent is saying we've got record levels of renewable investment. The Australian accent is saying that we're going to reduce our per capita emissions by half. The Australian accent is saying we're investing in technologies which will see us transition to alternative fuel sources and that we're going to lead the way in technology and science and partner with others to do that. See, the Australian accent is there and I'll seek to amplify that every opportunity I get. There are plenty who want to silence that accent, many from our own country, for whatever purposes they're seeking to do that for. But I'll keep speaking it strongly and loudly, that Australia, as I did at the United Nations last year, Australia is carrying its load and more. We are doing what you'd expect a country like Australia to do. But what I won't do is this. I'm not going to sell out Australians. I'm not going to sell out Australians based on the calls from some to put higher taxes on them or to push up their electricity prices or to abandon their jobs and their industries and tell them that they're just collateral damage of a global movement. I'm not going to do that.

SABRA LANE: Greg Brown.

GREG BROWN: Greg Brown from The Australian. Prime Minister with the coronavirus issue countries, there have been nations who already have received permission from China to evacuate their citizens. South Korea is doing it tomorrow. Japan's doing it Tuesday. Why did it take your government until this morning to decide that you'd ask the question to China? And have- has your government been too slow to respond?

PRIME MINISTER: No, we haven't. And the- what I announced this morning was already in train from several days ago Greg. And we've been acting on the basis of the advice of our medical advisers consistently throughout this most recent event when it comes to the coronavirus. The issues in getting access to our citizens in Wuhan is different to a lot of the other countries, in particular the United States and others that are involved. And I should stress, as I said today, the United States has only provided assisted departures for those who are in their consular corp and their families. So the United States has not been providing any further assisted departure for more broadly, for their citizens in that area. And they had quite an established presence, as is the United Kingdom and others who were in that region. Now, we didn't have that, and that's why we started moving earlier this week to get Australian consular officials in place. And that's why we've been working closely with the New Zealand government who were in a similar situation in not having a presence there. And so what we've announced today, and I have no doubt we'll get a very good hearing and good support from the Chinese government to work through this as other countries have, the arrangements to source commercial carriers to support in this. That was in place and that was being worked on, you know, for several days, well before this, and so we're working patiently, we'll get the job done. We've been doing so in accordance with the best medical advice available to us. I've also been very conscious that I'm very keen to protect the safety and, health and well-being of Australians in Australia and to ensure that we have the appropriate arrangements in place, that if we're successful in being able to provide an assisted departure for what I stress are the isolated and the vulnerable in these places, that that they would be quarantined at Christmas Island for what we would believe to be 14 days. And if that changes well that would only change on the basis of medical advice. And that's protecting Australians here. So my job is to support people, Australian citizens, who find themselves in an isolated and vulnerable position. We're doing that. And my job is also to protect the health and wellbeing of Australians here at home. And we're doing that.

SABRA LANE: Shane Wright.

SHANE WRIGHT: PM, Shane Wright from The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. I just want to go to something that Phil mentioned, and also in your speech, and that's about adaption and resilience to deal with climate change. And you reference, say, housing standards in bushfire areas. Are you- and Moody's today has said, the New South Wales government is perhaps the most exposed from a zip by the spending that's going to be necessary on adaption and resilience? Do you acknowledge that outside of budget cost there will be an economic cost from having to spend more money on adaption and resilience? It might be making your home more fire resistant if you're going to be building into an area which you may have to spend even more on insurance, for instance. Have- do you recognise that there may be a cost going down that adaption and resilience path? And is that something that you're going to consider as you go forward?

PRIME MINISTER: Well with the build back better for the future principle in some ways, particularly for those places that are building again from scratch. It's not 100 per cent clear whether that might provide the opportunity to actually do it more efficiently. And you can never underestimate as many of you know, before coming into politics many years ago, I worked in the property industry. I mean, this is an area where there's been rapid technological development of building materials and design principles. And one of the encouraging things is that when we had the- when I assembled about 30 peak national groups in Canberra several weeks ago in a week, that we brought all organisations, charitable sector, the wildlife protection sector, the transport sector, the energy providers, we pulled them all together and we started to work through our recovery plans. And Denita Wawn made the point, from Master Builders, about how we do have new building standards for bushfire affected areas and they are much improved. So that is an area where I think there's been a good initiative for these building standards and Denita made a really practical and helpful point. And that was, the Master Builders are going to be conducting education workshops and getting materials out to builders who have probably never built in a bushfire affected area before, but will need to know how to do so in accordance with the new standards. Now, that's- that is what the recovery's about, common sense, practical initiatives, thinking about what happens on the ground, which is a builder who's been contracted by a homeowner that have lost their home. And they need to build it back. It needs to be the standards. They need to know how much it's going to cost so they can make decisions about how they build back better for the future. But these standards, I think, are very important. It's not a question of if, it's when and how, and that's what will happen. The economic impact of that could well prove to be positive. Who knows? But what matters is that it has to be done. The economic cost of not building back better....I mean, if you build back better and more resilient, then you're obviously going to reduce the potential insurance cost. You would hope. That is the whole point of where you build, and how you build. But it's not just about what you build, Shane. It is also about the things that go around your property, and clearing around your property, which is prevented with so many homeowners and landowners under various regulations. They can be council, they can be state, native vegetation management, hazard reduction burns, all of these things. I mean, on the ABC, you’ll probably remember- there was that the protest against the Nowa Nowa backburns that mysteriously disappeared, that report. But that was an example of the tensions that exist, I think in local communities, in bushfire affected areas, more and more people have moved into these bushfire affected zones and thinking you can sort of live there like you do in a suburb of Sydney. There are different risks, there are different challenges and there are differing understandings. And particularly when I've been in some affected communities, those have been around a lot longer in a lot of these communities understand a lot of these issues and there's been actually a lot of tension in some of those communities, now I'm not being critical of that. I'm just saying it exists. And that's what the future looks like. And those tensions have to be resolved. And what has to win out is common sense and practicality, not ideology.

SABRA LANE: Prime Minister, your speech went a little bit over time. You happy to take a couple more questions?

PRIME MINISTER: Oh please. I was hoping you were going to say that Sabra.

SABRA LANE: Excellent. Good, good.

PRIME MINISTER: Because Michelle is chomping at the bit.

SABRA LANE: Michelle Grattan.

MICHELLE GRATTAN: Michelle Grattan from The Conversation. Prime Minister, can I take you back to your remarks about politicians being more in touch with community feelings? Do you think in general bureaucrats are less in touch with community needs and priorities when it comes to schemes like the sports grants one? And therefore, do you believe that the bureaucrats who made the initial rankings were wrong in those rankings and that the Minister was likely to have a better view, leaving aside the marginal seats issue, a better view of community needs?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, let me first of all say, that I absolutely respect the professionalism and the expertise and the skills of Australia's public service. I've always done so and I greatly value the contribution they make in the work of our government, particularly in times like this, before I just acknowledge the work of Andrew Colvin. But I could equally talk about Frances Adamson at the moment, who is assisting us so greatly when it comes to the issues of dealing with the coronavirus. And of course, Brendan Murphy so ably assisting as the Chief Medical Officer, there is Alan Finkel- we've got great public servants in this country. They do a marvellous job. And I appreciate the advice that they give us on so many issues, I’ve just seen Christine Morgan over here as well, doing an incredible job, amazing job when it comes to addressing the mental health challenges. And we'll have a lot more to say about the great work that she's been doing very, very soon. But at the end of the day, politicians, members of parliament are elected. We face our electors. We are part of our communities. We live in them. We engage there every day. If there's one thing that I am finding a little hard to let go of, is that prior to coming into this role, I loved being in my community all the time. This role, obviously, and my community is very understanding of that, that it's hard to spend as much time there as I used to. But I still get there on game days, Josh, and on many other occasions. But it's where you live and breathe and you can- it's not a question of either or Michelle. It's a question of the two working together. And my best experience as a Minister and a Prime Minister is where you just worked together closely with your public officials and you make decisions.

SABRA LANE: Laura Tingle.

LAURA TINGLE: Laura Tingle from 7.30, Prime Minister, I’d just like to take you up on some of those points. What's the point of having guidelines for a scheme if they're not followed? You say that the scheme, all the funds that were distributed were to eligible applications and that's fine.

PRIME MINISTER: That was the Auditor-General's finding.

LAURA TINGLE: Yes. And the Auditor-General also questioned the legality of the Minister's involvement in making those decisions. It also said that the guidelines weren't followed, which included the fact that schemes shouldn't have been started, or funding shouldn't have been given to applications where things had already been started. And that funding should have been completed by the 30th of June last year. So I'm wondering, when Federal Cabinet sat down on the 3rd of March to consider giving a further $42.5 million to the scheme, how did Cabinet think that that money was going to be distributed when you only had effectively three months for it to be spent on schemes that weren't supposed to be started? And you only had about five weeks before caretaker took precedence to distribute the money?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, as the Auditor-General found, the rules were followed. Guidelines are separate issues. The decisions were enabled for the Minister to make them and the other point I'd make is this, that the question of legality is one that I've referred to the Attorney and he's providing advice on that.

SABRA LANE: Our last question, Kirsten Lawson.

KIRSTEN LAWSON: Thank you. I'll shift tack since the last question with your indulgence, because it's an historic week in Canberra. On Friday, cannabis becomes legal to grow and consume here. I'm wondering if that happens…

PRIME MINISTER: I won't be partaking. Feel free to disclose though, at the table.

LAWSON: If that happens there’s very mixed messages, Prime Minister, to the federal police from the federal government and from the ACT government. The police are being told on the one hand that you want prosecutions. On the other hand, that it is legal in Canberra. Do you anticipate and expect the police to continue prosecuting in Canberra despite it being legal under ACT law? What are your feelings about this historic moment? And can I also ask whether you think it's the thin end of the wedge in terms of drug law reform in Canberra and we'll find other states really following suit?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, states have the legal authority over these matters and I've always been a federalist and states will make their own decisions according to their own priorities and complexion of their own governments and that's up to them. And I would expect federal law enforcement agencies to enforce the law. But we can take one more, if you’d like.

SABRA LANE: Oh, you'd like to take one more? Lanai Scarr.

PRIME MINISTER: She's from, well, she reports for the West. And we can't leave the West out ever, can we Michaelia and Mathias? 

LANAI SCARR: Thank you so much, Prime Minister. That's very kind of you. 

PRIME MINISTER: Return the favour. 

SCARR: I'm not sure I can do that. I won't ask you about cannabis, I can assure you that. Look, you've spoken today about getting defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP. One thing that will be required to be spent on will be the full cycle docking of Collins class submarines. Your Defence Minister said last year, Linda Reynolds, that that decision on whether to move that to Western Australia would be made before the end of last year and that's not occurred. So when is that decision going to occur? And why hasn't it been made yet? 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I wouldn't be going into the discussions of national security committees and you wouldn't expect me to be doing that. It is a very important decision. We've been weighing the advice and the recommendations as they're coming through and the NSC will deal with that matter when, you know, we've arrived at a decision. I'm not telecasting or forecasting any timetable around that. It's a very big, important decision. There are many issues at stake and we're weighing those up carefully. That's, I mean, that's how we always make those decisions. 

SCARR: But the Minister did say last year it would occur before the end of last year. So why did that not occur?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, the timetable has changed.

SABRA LANE: Everybody, please join me in thanking the Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, everyone.