Joint press conference

  • Transcript, E&OE

JULIE BISHOP: Thank you for being here. I, along with my colleague the Minister for Health Sussan Ley will be providing an update on our support and assistance to Vanuatu in the wake of tropical Cyclone Pam.

Today we are announcing that Australia will provide an additional medical assistance and urban search and rescue capability in response to the devastation caused by tropical Cyclone Pam, which passed through Vanuatu late on Friday the 13th of March and Saturday the 14th of March.

We have been carrying out aerial reconnaissance and these flights have taken place over Vanuatu, particularly yesterday, so that we can assess the damage across Vanuatu and particularly to the islands in the south where the eye of the cyclone almost went straight over that.

In response to the aerial reconnaissance, we know that we need more medical and urban search and rescue teams. The ADF have been carrying out further assessments over the last 36 hours which have shown that the Port Vila hospital has been significantly damaged and as a result is unable to meet the increasing medical demands following the cyclone. So, specifically, the aerial reconnaissance flights confirmed significant damage in the southern islands, particularly Tanna Island, where it appears that more than 80 per cent of houses and buildings have been partially or completely destroyed.

Now, in terms of Defence planes, three left Australia on Sunday with personnel and humanitarian supplies. Two planes left yesterday with more personnel, more supplies, and three more will be heading to Port Vila today.

To date we have deployed an initial five-person medical and urban research and rescue assessment team and an additional initial medical team of two doctors and two nurses, and Minister Ley will expand on the additional team shortly.

We expect that an additional Australian urban search and rescue team of 54 personnel will arrive in Port Vila today and they will start the clean-up and repair work for the Port Vila hospital complex, and we believe that establishing this critical infrastructure after the cyclone is essential to getting healthcare to those injured as a result of the cyclone.

This urban search and rescue team will also provide assistance to the Government of Vanuatu to assess damage and potential recovery needs of other major infrastructure in Port Vila that's been damaged by the cyclone. So this will bring the total number of Australian urban search and rescue personnel to 56. In addition to the Australian medical assistance team that Minister Ley will speak about, an additional 4 government personnel will also deploy today, which brings our total of Australian Government personnel to 30 - that includes consular and other humanitarian expertise.

I want to thank the State Governments of NSW, Victoria and the Territory Government in the Northern Territory, for supporting these critical deployments. We will also continue to work closely with Australia's NGOs to mobilise additional support to Vanuatu as the needs become clearer. So the additional medical assistance and urban search and rescue capability announced today is in addition to the initial package of assistance from Australia, which, as you will be aware, included $5 million in funding to Australian Non-Government Organisations, the Red Cross and some of our UN partners.

The initial deployment of humanitarian supplies from Australia to assist up to 5,000 people that was water, sanitation and shelter kits, the deployment of the initial Australian medical team, the initial urban search and rescue assessment team, the deployment of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade crisis response team, and the deployment of an Australian disaster expert to the United Nations disaster assessment and coordination team and we assisted with the travel arrangements of that United Nations team.

Also we stand ready to provide further emergency relief supplies as and when we are advised that they are needed, and we are certainly working very closely with the Government of Vanuatu to continue to monitor the situation in Vanuatu and we'll consider what further assistance is needed, subject to our ongoing assessments.

In relation to the death toll, we know that there have been a number of casualties, but at this point, I don't intend to put a figure on it, because the numbers are still fluid and I don't want to confirm a number at this point because we anticipate that number will increase as we are able to access some of the islands, particularly in the south, some of the provinces where communications have been down. So we continue to work very closely with the Vanuatu national disaster management office on this issue.

At this stage, we have seen two Australian Government assisted departures from Vanuatu via our military aircraft, all told 190 people have been returned to Australia on military aircraft, 166 of that number were known to be Australians, and we stand ready to provide that assistance, but I can confirm that commercial flights are now flying in and out of Port Vila. So we don't expect there will be much demand for further flights, although we have a plane on standby for Australians today. We are certainly giving priority to those most in need, the elderly, the sick, pregnant women and children.

We understand the Vanuatun President, President Londsale and his delegation, will be returning to Port Vila. They will be taken on an Australian C-130 out of Richmond today so that the President will be able to return to Vanuatu.

As I said yesterday, I have spoken to Foreign Minister Kilman, the Prime Minister has spoken to the Prime Minister of Vanuatu and we remain in contact through our High Commission.

Minister Ley on the medical side of things?

SUSSAN LEY: Thank you very much Foreign Minister and obviously our thoughts and sympathies go out to those who have been affected.

In natural disasters such as this, protecting the health of the population becomes a critical part of the response and recovery effort. On Sunday, seven health professionals including a three-person rapid assessment team, two doctors and two nurses were deployed to Port Vila as part of the initial DFAT crisis response team. Today we announce that an additional 20 Australian Medical Assistance Team, known as AUSMAT personnel, will be deployed to Vanuatu to work with local health professionals to provide emergency support and care at the damaged Port Vila Hospital.

This team is made up of doctors, nurses, paramedics, a radiographer, pharmacist and all together will take our total health deployment to 27. The team will work within the new wing of the existing hospital and with local staff to provide general practice and emergency care shifts.

Pending further assessment a temporary ward will be established in the car park of the existing hospital and that will treat up to 40 patients. So AUSMAT is expected to depart from Darwin tomorrow, Wednesday 18th March, and the deployment will be for an initial 14 days.

As you know Australia's deployment of Medical Assistance Teams first occurred following the first Bali bombing in 2002 and helped treat over 2700 patients as part Australia's response to Typhoon Haiyan that struck the Philippines in 2013.

It's a collaborative effort and I would like to thank the effort of all involved in putting together this significant logistical framework to assist the people of Vanuatu – our friends and partners.

JOURNALIST: Ms Bishop, can you paint more of a picture for us of what our reconnaissance planes have seen in the south, I think you mentioned about 80 per cent of houses have been damaged, is that widespread, what about roads, bridges, infrastructure?

JULIE BISHOP: We understand that the reconnaissance imagery shows widespread devastation, not only buildings flattened, but palm plantations, trees, it's quite a devastating sight. The imagery is clearly being shared with the Government of Vanuatu so we can assess what the needs will be. We are seeking to land our planes on some of these islands, and that assessment is being undertaken at present.

We are also working with our partner in New Zealand to get access to the islands. Some have functioning airstrips, others not so and so we will be working closely with New Zealand. France has also assisted us in some of the reconnaissance missions, so there is a collaborative effort to ensure that we can get as full a picture as possible. That's why I'm being very cautious about casualties, the death toll. We just don't know until we can actually land planes with personnel, search and rescue teams and other experts on these outlying islands. It wouldn't be responsible for me to guesstimate in relation to casualties. But we are working as rapidly as we can. We are responding as quickly as we can, and assisting the Government of Vanuatu in this time of great need.

JOURNALIST: On Australians in Vanuatu, do you have any information on that, in particular Ally Trueman, she's a South Australian woman that is missing over there?

JULIE BISHOP: We are aware of unconfirmed reports and we are trying very hard to verify them as soon as possible. The challenge for us is that communications have been down. We are working through our High Commission, most of the information that we are getting is coming through our High Commission in Port Vila, but now that we have more personnel on the ground we'll have more mobile phone contact with them and we'll be able to make better assessments as time goes on, but we are desperately trying to verify those unconfirmed reports.

JOURNALIST: Minister, there are concerns about asbestos in the rubble in a lot of the devastated houses. Is there any expertise in the Australian relief package?

JULIE BISHOP: Our urban search and rescue teams are highly experienced. Tragically they have had a lot of experience in this kind of work and they are the kind of issues that their expertise will focus upon. So our interest is in ensuring that the immediate humanitarian needs are met, that lifesaving measures are put in place and at the same time we are then focusing on the clean-up effort. They are the kinds of issues that our qualified and expert teams from Australia will address.

JOURNALIST: Are there any plans to send any Navy vessels equipped with medical facilities to the region

JULIE BISHOP: That is under consideration, but you would be aware that it takes quite some time for a Navy ship to leave Australia and to get to Vanuatu, something like five, seven days. So our immediate concern is to get the AUSMAT teams in so that they can commence work immediately in Port Vila and within the hospital complex.

JOURNALIST: Minister Ley, just on the threat of water-borne diseases, a lot of the aid groups are saying the lack of clean water is one of the key concerns. Is the Australian medical team doing anything specifically when it comes to disease control or disease prevention?


JULIE BISHOP: Water and sanitation equipment and supplies have been brought in since Sunday and will continue to be taken into Port Vila as the demands are assessed.

JOURNALIST: Foreign Minister there have been some reports that you have told the party room that Labor is blocking some budget savings which could be affecting the foreign aid budget. Have you in fact cut your foreign aid budget to Vanuatu or are any of Labor's positions affecting how much you can send over there in the wake of this cyclone?

JULIE BISHOP: The projected expenditure in the Vanuatu bilateral aid program is precisely identical to that spent under Labor in its final year in Government. So the bilateral aid program for 2014-15 is precisely what it was under Labor in its final year. But in addition to that, I have announced $5 million in support on Sunday. Our additional contribution to date is in excess of $8.5 million and of course Vanuatu is also the recipient of aid through regional programs and United Nations programs, NGO programs and the like.

Vanuatu is also a recipient of our Seasonal Workers Program and Defence Cooperation Program through the Pacific patrol boat program. So Vanuatu is the recipient of Australian support in a number of ways.


JOURNALIST: On another matter, and wearing your hat as Deputy Leader of the Federal Liberal Party, how important is the second Federal Budget to the Coalition in terms of reviving your political fortunes, and secondly, what would you like the economic narrative to be?

JULIE BISHOP: Every budget is important for every Government because of course the Budget sets the economic framework for the following years, and this year we have had the benefit of another Intergenerational Report, which certainly sets the scenario for the Budgets that we will need to hand down in the future.

And I have made the point publicly before that the first Intergenerational Report that the Howard-Costello Government handed down in the 2002-03 Budget set out the precise challenge that this current Intergenerational Report reaffirms. So we know that the changing demographic in Australia is going to put pressure on subsequent Budgets, and unless we set our Budget in the right direction, then the pressure will continue to grow on future generations.

That is why the Howard Government were spurred on to reduce debt and to put the Budget back into surplus and save money to alleviate the burden of, for example, public expenditure on future generations. That's what drove the Howard Government.


So that's the challenge that we have. And I believe that the Intergenerational Report will set that framework. We need to live within our means. We need to ensure that everyone who can work gets an opportunity to work, because we need to increase workforce participation.

The figures in the Intergenerational Report spell out the challenge. In 1975 there were over seven, almost eight people of working age for every person over 65 in Australia. Today, it's under five. By 2055 it will be under three. So we need to encourage workforce participation across all cohorts, and if we are to honour the social contract with the young people of today, that means we can honour the social contract with older Australians for generations to come.

JOURNALIST: That's the thing that you were talking about last night in the meeting before the industry...

JULIE BISHOP: I don't talk to the media, sorry, about discussions I have in the Ministry or in the party room, but clearly that's the theme of the intergenerational report. That's why Treasurer Hockey released the intergenerational report, so we can have this discussion in the lead-up to the Budget and beyond.

JOURNALIST: A photo appears to have emerged of Man Monis at a Hizv ut-Tahrir meeting, is the Government still committed to outlawing that particular group?

JULIE BISHOP: Clearly we act on the advice of our security agencies, and when we have advice that says we should seek to prescribe Hizb ut-Tahrir, then we will act on that advice. So I'm concerned to learn that this photograph exists, but it also adds another piece to the jigsaw puzzle about Mr Monis and what drove him to the events that led to the Martin Place siege.

JOURNALIST: Ms Bishop, the Irish Prime Minister has made some comments critical of Tony Abbott for his St Patrick's Day message around about maybe encouraging irresponsible consumption of alcohol on this most prestigious of days. I was wondering if the Ambassador...

JULIE BISHOP:Sorry, what's the question?

JOURNALIST: I was wondering if the Irish Ambassador has complained about Mr Abbott's statement?

JULIE BISHOP: I have not had the Irish Ambassador complain about a conspicuous consumption of alcohol.

JOURNALIST: Minister Ley, on closing the gap - the Government announced approximately $5 million in funding for free flu vaccinations for young Indigenous children. How does that close the gap? Because in the big scheme of things the flu isn't the most serious health risk for Indigenous people.<


Approximately five children, little children, Aboriginal children, die of the flu every year. And we need to make sure that our vaccination rates in Indigenous communities, for not just the flu, but all of the other vaccinations under the program, are as high in the Indigenous population as they are in the non-Indigenous population. And Aboriginal children have been identified as a group that is vulnerable to the flu and if you have the flu and you survive, you can have a lifetime of complications - chronic respiratory complications.

I'm very proud of this measure and I know that it's important that it be delivered in culturally appropriate and sensitive settings, so that we, so the difficult issue of having a needle jabbed in your arm, which everyone doesn't want to do, is managed in a way that supports the family and the community through our Aboriginal controlled health organisations.

JOURNALIST: Foreign Minister, has Australia made requests as to why it's been put on the list of countries that need visas to enter Indonesia?

JULIE BISHOP: I'm not aware of the request at this point, but that's a matter I'll certainly refer on to the Immigration Minister.

JOURNALIST: So you do intend to make a request?

JULIE BISHOP: Well, that's a matter for the Immigration Minister. Okay?

JOURNALIST: If I can ask you one further [indistinct], it's a slightly odd one there is a story around this morning that says two out of three Australians want smokers and others with unhealthy habits to pay more for health insurance. Is that something, an idea you would support?

SUSSAN LEY: I think it's really important we have a strong private health insurance sector. The number one message here is that if you're not happy with your private health insurance product, please shop around, there are many providers, there are many different products and there is a range of different options.

Everyone pays the same premium for the same type of product. My focus, when it comes to smoking, is to encourage more Australians to give up smoking, it's one of our key public health targets and I think it's an important one for the Federal Government. Thank you.

JULIE BISHOP: Last question if that is okay, we've got Question Time to get to.

JOURNALIST: The ABC understands that the Indonesian President has granted three murder clemencies this week, including one on the same day that Parliament passed its unanimous resolution calling for clemency to be granted to Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. How do you interpret the fact that these were given on that same day, at the same time?

JULIE BISHOP: I welcome the fact that the Indonesian President has granted clemency in some death row cases and we are aware that Indonesia seeks and is often granted clemency for Indonesian citizens who are on death row in countries overseas. So we are asking no more of the Indonesian President than the Indonesian President does himself, in granting clemency, or indeed that he asks of other countries in relation to Indonesian citizens who are on death row, including for drug offences overseas. Thank you.

Media enquiries