Auckland press conference

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Whakaari / White Island update.
17 December 2019

Marise Payne:

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and thank you very much for joining us here in Auckland. Let me start by saying that I'm here in New Zealand, first and foremost, to say thank you. Thank you to the New Zealand Government, to the many first responders, to the extraordinary medical staff who have gone above and beyond in caring for the victims and provided extraordinary support to their families in the face of this enormous tragedy that has happened one week and one day ago today. From what I have heard, there is no doubt in my mind that the quick action by all of these people, as well as those extraordinarily courageous members of the community who responded has, indeed, saved lives. I also want to thank our High Commissioner in New Zealand, Patricia Forsythe, our Consul-General here in Auckland, Craig Knowles, and their teams, who have done very, very hard yards in the last week in supporting Australians impacted by these events. perThey have also been working extremely hard, including sending multiple consular officers here to support our teams on the ground in both Auckland and in Wellington.

Yesterday in Wellington, and today in Auckland, I've had the opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Ardern, with Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Winston Peters, to convey directly to them Australia's deep appreciation for the efforts that have been made to support those Australians impacted, for everything that this country has done, for victims and families of course from Australia, but also to understand that we have citizens of the United States, of China, of Malaysia, of Germany and of Britain who are also affected by this tragedy. In the last two days, I have visited Hutt Hospital and Middlemore Hospital here today to convey Australia's thanks for the superlative care provided to Australians who’ve been injured in these events and importantly also to their families.

I have spoken with our Australian consular officials who’ve been supporting families and I've also met today with members of the Australian Disaster Victim Identification teams from the Australian Federal Police and from state police in Queensland and New South Wales. Unfortunately, all of those people have extraordinary experience in this work and they have, in the last week, worked incredibly closely with their counterparts here in New Zealand to make sure that that process was robust, that it has integrity, that it satisfies coronial requirements, and they have done that every single step of the way. They're returning to Australia this afternoon and I convey my sincere thanks to them for what they have done to support this process. I've also acknowledged and thanked members of the Ngati Awa here in New Zealand for their great sensitivity at a time when they are also grieving. If you have seen some of the statements issued by families, you will know how much they have appreciated that very important cultural underpinning in the days since last Monday.

As I discussed with Prime Minister Ardern yesterday, I regard this as truly an ANZ effort – no delineation. Every single person I’ve spoken to has used the word seamless, and in a time of crisis, in a time of tragedy, that says a great deal. The repatriation process, the medical evacuations of 12 Australians, proceeded so well that it is like we were moving from just one hospital to the next, not across countries, not across the Tasman Sea, but in an absolutely powerful way. So we’ve pulled together. We’ve worked together at this time of enormous tragedy. In terms of Australian citizens – and we know that the identification process was finalised yesterday – we know that we have 10 deceased Australians who’ve been formally identified and one Australian listed as officially missing and presumed dead; one Australian who passed away here in hospital in New Zealand; 12 Australians who were medically evacuated. One of those Australians has very sadly passed away in a hospital in Sydney. We also have three Australian permanent residents who have died here in hospital in New Zealand and one who has been medically evacuated to Australia.

I’ll conclude my remarks today by saying I don’t think any one of us can begin to imagine what those families are facing in the coming weeks and months. Here in places like Auckland, in Sydney, we’re surrounded by Christmas and celebration, but they face tragedy and devastation and our hearts and thoughts are with them every step of the way.

Thank you.

Journalist:

The two people who remain unaccounted for, one has been identified as an Australian, Winona Langford, who sadly lost both her parents. Her brother was also injured in the eruption. From the advice you have received, are police confident of being able to locate her body?

Marise Payne:

I know that every effort is being made by police, and I believe Defence members, to locate the two missing people from White Island. They will make every single effort they are able to, I know, and they have in past days. Weather is currently again conspiring against them and that is a very dangerous environment in which they are working. We know how difficult the retrieval itself was on Friday and weather is compounding it. The nature of volcanic eruption, the toxicity that goes with that, is compounding it. But they will do everything they can. We are assured of that. There are major operational undertakings in place for this work and I will wait to hear from New Zealand authorities as to next steps.

Journalist:

When you spoke to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, did you ask questions around how on Earth this could happen? Obviously, so many Australians have been lost as a result of this.

Marise Payne:

My absolute focus here is on the victims and their families. I know that New Zealand will pursue its own inquiries in relation to those sorts of matters. But here in Wellington and in Auckland today, my absolute focus is on victims and their families. I had a very valuable meeting with both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, to discuss the response, to discuss our engagement with New Zealand. Again the word seamless comes to the fore in that conversation and I also know, and said this to both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, that these are ongoing challenges. The health system in New Zealand, the burns system in particular, has surged above and beyond what anyone could have ever logically have expected. They have gone so far beyond in their support and their care, their professionalism, their compassion and frankly from the people that I have met in the last two days at Hutt Hospital and at Middlemore, the love that they have poured out in their work. They are exhausted – of course they are – and the Australians who have been supporting them are exhausted as well. But we will continue to work together and where Australia can provide continuing or more support we will do so.

Journalist:

Minister, now that the formal identification process has concluded do you have any information on how and when the bodies will be transported back to Australia?

Marise Payne:

No, and these are matters for family to make their own decisions around those processes. This is obviously an intensely difficult time, they are grieving and they will make decisions around those processes now the coronial matters have ceased and the Disaster Victim Identification has been concluded.

Journalist:

Minister, you mentioned that you visited the hospitals, have you personally visited any of the victims and if so how are they going?

Marise Payne:

I would never intrude on victims in a circumstance like this.

Journalist:

Minister, have you by any chance spoken to the Langford family in regards to Winona who is still missing?

Marise Payne:

No, not personally. I have a number of consular officials who are working with families. I think that time for political engagement and intervention is a matter for families – if they wish to reach out then of course that is a conversation I will have. But at this point in time their family networks and our support teams, and the support teams in Australia as well – can I say the New South Wales and Victorian health systems in particular have come together in a very, very effective way to ensure we were able to make those medical repatriations. I know from being at Middlemore Hospital today, there are senior and leading Queensland medical specialists who are giving their time. I've spoken to the Government of South Australia today about some further support that might be provided. So we are as close as we can be in this great adversity both as countries and for our families.

Journalist:

You said earlier that the families will be the ones to bring their loved ones back. Will the Government be helping that process financially in any way?

Marise Payne:

They'll be appropriately supported whether it's – however that is done, they'll be appropriately supported.

Journalist:

Yesterday the New Zealand Prime Minister at her post-cabinet press conference refused to commit to an inquiry. But the way that you spoke before it appears that she has committed to you that there'll be an official word in relation to this?

Marise Payne:

No I'm working from the Prime Minister's public comments. But as I said most importantly that these really are matters for New Zealand Government and my focus here has been entirely on the families and most particularly on the victims.

Journalist:

Would the Australian perspective though be- presumably you would obviously want an inquiry.

Marise Payne:

I'm not going to comment on that.

Journalist:

Minister can I ask, in terms of advice, has this incident changed the Government's view on the advice that Australians are given when they are tourists and do things like adventure tourism? There's a lot of questions about whether people were given accurate advice and whether they knew the real risks going onto that volcano.

Marise Payne:

So Norman, I'm not going to canvass the specifics of this event in the event that in the- if in the process it’s subject to inquiry it would not be helpful for me to be making gratuitous observations about that. But what I will say is that as a Government and as a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and particularly our team in the consular part of my department, we work very, very hard to inform and educate Australians about the steps that they can take to inform themselves, to equip themselves. I've lost count of the number of media appearances in which I am able to say, please have a look at Smartraveller. It is a very powerful tool for travelling Australians. We recently launched our consular report from the last calendar year and you're right, Australians do engage in adventure travel. They do have a range of views around how they approach their life as travellers but most importantly we encourage them to look at country by country, area by area, the assessments that we provide on Smartraveller and of course to be sensible.

Journalist:

Do you know were there assessments pertaining to White Island?

Marise Payne:

I don't have those details. We would not necessarily go in the breadth of advice like that to an individual site per se, when I think of other places around the world where individuals could go as intrepid travellers, that would be an extraordinary proposition actually. And of course the number of Australians travelling is increasing every year. I'm also able to say having just launched the State of Play for the consular service, that the number of Australians seeking help overseas has decreased while the number of travellers – of people travelling – has increased. So we have that equation as well.

Journalist:

Just, I'm wondering if you've been briefed on the compensation situation in New Zealand because of our unique ACC system here and what that might mean for Australians?

Marise Payne:

No I have not.

Journalist:

What assistance is Australia still providing on the grounds here now that the disaster victim identification personnel have retuned home?

Marise Payne:

So we still have a number of consular officers who are on the ground here. There are families who of course remain in New Zealand making the sorts of decisions that I discussed in my earlier remarks about their family members. Given the enormity of those decisions and given the grief that families are dealing with, we will provide support here in New Zealand for as long as we need to.

Journalist:

Would the Australian Government at all consider any sort of pursuit of Royal Caribbean for example? Because obviously they brought the many Australians into this situation, would they consider any sort of investigation into how they’ve done this?

Marise Payne:

Again, I'm not going to canvass those sorts of issues. I don't intend to prejudice any inquiries of any sort. What I would say in relation to Royal Caribbean here in New Zealand in the last week is that their senior officials have been working very closely with our representatives, with the High Commissioner and her team, the Consul-General and his team in Wellington and in Auckland, and I thank them for that. And other matters are matters for later I think.

Journalist:

You said that these- the victims of the- the families of these victims are- support is available for them. So are they keeping- are they regularly updated with the progress of how everything's going.

Marise Payne:

Yes, we are regularly in touch with them but of course, again, a number of families have also returned to Australia with those medical repatriations. They are supported in Australia through the state and territory systems as well. I know that we have a national approach to this in terms of a national crisis approach who work very, very closely with the health departments in the states and territories; work very, very closely with law enforcement in the states and territories and that is all part and parcel of endeavouring to support families as best as we are able at this very difficult time.

Journalist:

Just on another matter – if there are no further questions pertaining to White Island. The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has received some criticism for perhaps taking an overseas holiday, taking some time off while there are still so many bushfires raging in Australia. Are you able to set the record straight as to where the Prime Minister is?

Marise Payne:

Well where the Prime Minister is, is a matter for the Prime Minister and his family. I think the Prime Minister and anyone in an office of that nature is perfectly entitled to take a private family break. I'm here in New Zealand this week representing the Prime Minister and the Government and the people of Australia. Frankly, the Prime Minister runs a gruelling schedule day in and day out and I am testament to that. We are all working as hard as we can to make sure we keep up with that. He has a planned break with his family – his family who have no choice in the matter of when they are able to spend time with their husband and their father. His planned break is now, given he is making a state visit to India in January, a leaders’ visit to Japan in January and is unable to take any time with his family then. He has travelled across the east to multiple drought zones in the last few months. I know that he was with our exceptional commissioner in New South Wales, Shane Fitzsimmons, at Rural Fire Service headquarters in Wilberforce in western Sydney only a week ago, literally working through that process with emergency services officials, with the senior fire leadership in New South Wales. He is a person who has been very, very closely connected to all of these activities and I think that he and his family are entitled to a short break prior to his travel in January in an official capacity.

Journalist:

Do you think perhaps the Prime Minister, once he does return, could make a visit to New Zealand so that he can personally thank the first responders, hospital staff …

Marise Payne:

That will be a matter for the Prime Minister and of course, his discussions with Prime Minister Ardern. I know that they spoke every day since last Monday and I am in regular contact with him and his team while I am here in New Zealand. I would say that we will stay very close to the New Zealand Government in terms of any commemorative events or ceremonies that may be held and Australia will be represented at senior levels at those.

Journalist:

And Australia would be happy to help with the planning of such an event?

Marise Payne:

Well I think given the tragedy itself occurred here in New Zealand that is mostly a matter for the New Zealand Government. But we will support and participate in any way when asked.

Journalist:

Do you expect that- could you imagine a situation like Whakaari White Island happening in Australia in terms of your rules and in terms of the kind of situation there? I mean, we put people on an active volcano.

Marise Payne:

So I have been involved in national security roles for over four years and I have been in Parliament for significantly longer than that. I have seen Australia and Australians go through disasters that don't even bear contemplation. Tragic events happen, whether they are the sort of event that we're talking about now or those that we've seen happen in Australia at amusement venues that we've seen, as a result of other fires historically in Australia. Tragic accidents are, in my view, not grist for the political mill. And in this case, my focus is on the victims and their families and I'm representing Australia here to convey our thanks to the people of New Zealand, the Government of New Zealand, but most particularly those people who have worked around the clock, worked themselves to exhaustion to support those victims and their families.

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