Press Conference

  • Joint transcript, E&OE
  • Senator the Hon Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Minister for Women
  • The Hon David Littleproud MP, Minister for Water Resources, Drought, Rural Finance, Natural Disaster and Emergency Management
Bushfire recovery; NewsPoll; climate change; HMAS Toowoomba deployment.
13 January 2020

David Littleproud:

Can I say this is above politics, this is about people, this is about a recovery of one of the biggest fire-events in our nation’s written history, and right here Gospers Mountain is in the record books now as largest forest fire in the world’s history, started by one ignition point. That’s not something that we’re proud of, but we’re proud of those men and women that fought it bravely and fought it bravely to the point that they saved countless lives and countless homes because of the professionalism, the meticulous planning but also in terms of the fighting, the bravery of those men and women, out there on the front line and are still there today, although the fire is contained. The work that they have done in saving so many lives and so many homes, and we should be profoundly proud of them. And day 79 for them. The fatigue of these men and women, but to keep on turning up says a lot about them. It says a lot about our country. Can I say that obviously the announcement yesterday around mental health is important. Around the trauma that a lot of these men and women have seen. Not only the firefighters, but those out in the community that have been touched by this. There is a lot of hurt and there is a lot of grief, but their nation grieves with them and they will help them recover.

This is not a recovery just about infrastructure. This is a recovery about lives, and we’ll continue to do that and make sure that that over $70 million is targeted at a local level. We’ve said from the start this wasn't going to be a Canberra-led recovery, this was going to be a local-led recovery. Our primary health networks will play an important part of that. They’ll make sure that we get targeted solutions at a local level, that they’ll be the ones that decide the programs predicated off the community, what will best work for them because what works here may not work in Victoria or Kangaroo Island and we need to understand that and appreciate that. We’ve got the money. Money is not the issue. People is the issue. So we’ll continue to work through that and we’ll make sure that those men and women on the frontline are also targeted not only in the here and now, but in the post-sense. The PTSD part is one element of this that we’ll be looking at and working with emergency personnel to make sure we get it right, because some of that hurt will come down the track. And we need to make sure we’re working with them, not only the full-time firefighters, but also the volunteers to make sure it’s targeted to them in making sure that their lives that have been touched by this disastrous event are suitably looked after.

It’s also, as we just heard before, about the environment and today we've made significant investment, first investment, in the environment. And that's about emergency management and of making sure those species out there, those native species are looked after, those that have been hurt by these fires are being protected and their lives are being repaired and as quickly as we possibly can. That’s the first tranche. There’s a long tranche around the actual habitat recovery and there’s opportunity and Andrew and I have been talking about this as how do we tie that in with making sure that our tourism sector recovers? Because that’s one of our national assets that we need to help recover, repair and be part of the recovery story. And also the small business element of this. Those small businesses that predicate a lot of their business model on tourism and our environment, how do we tie all that in?

And so, this isn’t going to be something that we’re kicking down the road. In the next couple of days there will be further announcements. In fact, tomorrow Andrew and I will be with the National Security Committee putting towards further programs that we’ll be announcing very soon. And we’ve done that in a methodical way working with industry groups because, again, we want this to be locally-led and not Canberra-led and making sure the money that we put out – Australian taxpayers' money that we put out – is targeted where it needs to and hits the mark. So this will be a comprehensive plan, but it’s more than infrastructure. It’s rebuilding the lives of our strong nation. We’re a proud nation and we’ll get through this because we’ll stick together and we’ll work together.

Marise, did you want to say something?

Marise Payne:

Very briefly, if I may. Thank you very much. I want to thank both David and Andrew, particularly, for coming to our part of the world here this week with Robyn and Barry and Susan. We know that we represent very resilient communities, but resilient communities still feel the pressure of extraordinary fires of this nature in a very deep way. And the initiatives that we are taking across government to address some of those pressures are very important ones. But they are the beginning of the process and I will be relying strongly on feedback from local leadership in these communities to make sure that where there are pressure points and where there are gaps, we are able to address those.

I want to acknowledge Karen and her team for what they have done over the last 79 days, but honestly, much longer in advance of that as well in ensuring that so much of this part of an iconic part of Australia was protected in the way that it was. So many homes, so many businesses, so many lives saved. For those who have experienced the most catastrophic losses – and we’ll be meeting some of them later this morning – we acknowledge and understand the extraordinarily traumatic experience that that is and we want to support you. We want to help you. We want to work with you as you recover from that experience. So Andrew, David, thank you very much for being here in our part of the world and we look forward to working with you in the coming months and I suspect years as well to make sure that this area recovers and is once again on the world stage as an iconic part of Australia's natural heritage.

Andrew Colvin:

Ah look, thank you. Good morning everybody, I’ll be brief. Firstly, to the ministers, our local members, the mayor, it’s wonderful to be here today. Of course, we all wish it was under different circumstances, but to hear directly from Karen and her deputy controller, Andrew, about the incredible job that they’ve done here today just galvanises what is already in my mind about the short-term needs of the community, what we have to do now, but also those long-term needs that you’ve heard Minister Littleproud talk about.

Today will be a difficult day for us. It will be a difficult day for those community members who are going to share their stories with us, but it’s an important day because we need to hear that. We need to hear what will work at the local level. We need to make sure that we have a very local focus in what we're doing here, but also that we have a long-term focus. This isn't about rebuilding now. This is about rebuilding for the future as well. So, we will visit a number of communities, a number of small businesses, hear from them directly and that's all a part of the process of listening to make sure that what we do is sustainable and is what they need. So thank you very much to everybody who has hosted us today. I look forward to coming back and hearing a little bit more in the future days, weeks and months and I really do wish that you and your teams get a bit of a break, and congratulations on the status of the fire being now contained. Thank you.

David Littleproud:

Questions?

Question:

Minister Littleproud, I know you being from Queensland and a proud Queenslander, there’s been a few of your LNP colleagues who are a bit disappointed at the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday that he wants to do a bit more on climate change. Do you think that coal has a place in Australia in the short term?

David Littleproud:

Yes, and in fact what the Prime Minister said was we’d made an international commitment and we’re going to live up to that. In fact, we should proudly celebrate that we’re one of the few countries that lived up to the first international commitment at Kyoto. You know, we knock ourselves a lot in this nation, but you know what, we’re one of the world leaders in that. We were the first ones to get up and say we were going to commit to Kyoto and we delivered it, plus some and we’ve made international commitment. We’ve got the runs on the board. We will do it in a responsible way that doesn’t wreck the economy, that does it in a sensible way that protects jobs and reduces emissions but we need the rest of the world to come with us. We’ll lead by example, by our actions and our commitments. We’re a fair nation. We’re an honest nation. Everything we’ve said to the international community we’ve lived up to. Let’s be proud of that and let’s continue to work towards achieving that.

Question:

Mr Morrison’s approval rating’s dropped by eight points. Do you think that this a reaction to his handling of the bushfire crisis and how do you think he’s handled it?

David Littleproud:

Well, let me say since I entered Parliament just over three years ago, I made a self-imposed rule never to comment on polls because polls go up and they go down …

Question:

How do you think he’s handled the bushfire crisis?

David Littleproud:

I think the Prime Minister’s done everything he possibly humanly could with respect to these fires. Obviously community expectation has changed around where Federal Government involvement interplays with these disasters. This has been meticulously planned around responsibilities between state and federal governments and we have worked to that to the letter. In fact, I’ve had over 50 tasking requests from state governments since these fires started in September for Defence Force assets to be used. All of those have been approved within minutes of receiving them. So we have been working collaboratively with the states and I have to congratulate the state agencies for the way that they have handled this. We’ve just heard about the number of lives that have been saved. This is the largest fire event in our nation’s written history.

And the fact that while tragically we’ve lost 28 lives, 28 Australians, four of those emergency services personnel, this could have been so much more worse had we not meticulously planned. And I have to say, our fire commissioners are world-leading because they have thought about this, they have understood this and they’ve planned for this. Obviously there is a community expectation with respect to recovery where the Australian Defence Force becomes involved. We took a forward-leaning approach and the Prime Minister wasn’t going to wait for us to be asked, we were going to be prepared to act as soon as it was required and he took a forward-leaning approach with the Defence Minister. We modelled it in November. We’ve done all the work. We’ve meticulously planned as well and we will continue to make sure that the state agencies lead this, but we’ll have a mature conversation when we’ve put the fires out and in the cold, hard light of day we can work together to continue to keep more Australians safe.

Question:

The Prime Minister said climate change policy would continue to evolve. What will that mean and how can it evolve if you don’t change your emissions reduction targets?

David Littleproud:

Well, it’s how we achieve and the way in which we achieve it. We invest in technology. We’re a smart nation. We’re a world-leading nation. We should back ourselves with new technologies to continue to reduce our emissions. We’ve got $3.5 billion set aside for the Climate Solutions Fund to empower our industries to look at how they can reduce emissions, making it industry lead rather than a big government approach. Making sure that we continue to invest in technologies, even in coal, to ensure that we continue to reduce emissions. This is about us backing ourselves as one of the smartest nations in the world and that’s about empowering its people, not by big-arm government. They know better and they’ll do better.

Question:

One element of this drought is obviously the bushfires. Another is water supply. We’re here in Sydney, Warragamba dam is running dry. You’ve said in the past the states aren’t doing enough to keep up with population. What do you make of the efforts New South Wales has undergone to keep water flowing in Sydney?

David Littleproud:

Well, at least they’ve started. Some states are still on the back foot on this. We’ve had money, over $3 billion, ready for a state to take our hand to build water infrastructure. Since 2003, there have been 20 dams built in this country. Sixteen of those have been in Tasmania and we’ve said we’ll pay because it is illegal for me to pick a shovel up in any state and start digging a hole to build a dam because our forefathers gave the constitutional ownership to our states. But we asked them to give us the approval. We’ll help pay for it because this is imperative. It's imperative not just in fighting fires, it's imperative in making sure we continue to develop our country and have a sustainable water supply, not just to rural areas but to metropolitan areas. There'll be a 37 per cent reduction in storage capacity per person per mega-litre by 2030 because of population increase, unless the states decide let's dig some holes. We're ready to dig holes. We're investing in infrastructure. It's time to get on the job and the Environment Minister Susan Lee has said that she'll make sure that the red tape is cut so that we can get it done. I think people are fatigued on this. All they want to do is see bulldozers and excavators moving and get something moving.

Question:

Does Sydney need a new dam and have you had any talks with New South Wales government about this?

David Littleproud:

Well, that's a decision for the states around where their water needs are. Obviously we've created the National Water Grid to also complement them with some real science from scientists and hydrologists. There's a lot of bush hydrologists out there at the moment and what we need is the real science, the real hydrology about where our water needs are and how we develop our country further with water because that's the source of all life. So we'll complement the states but we expect them to be forward-leaning on this and lead the way and tell us where they see their water needs appearing, not only domestically but also for the development of our nation.

Question:

You’ve been all around the country with this bushfire recovery process. Are you hearing a lot about land clearing from people in these bushfire affected places?

David Littleproud:

Well obviously there's a conversation that needs to happen around land management, land use, even building standards and that's what the Prime Minister quite maturely has flagged but in consultation with the states and the states own that. But what we want them to do is take ownership of that, to make sure …

Question:

[Interrupts] Are you hearing the frustration?

David Littleproud:

Oh definitely, and in some parts of the country we're hearing not only from farmers and landowners, but also from rural firefighters themselves, frustrated by the fact that there has been impediments for them. Now, you've got to understand it's not as simple as just throwing a punch. There's some complications in that and that's why we take the advice of the fire commissioners. But, you know, we need to have a solid conversation about what that looks like and how do we do better. We shouldn't be afraid to have that conversation in a mature way at all levels and hold ourselves to account. No one is above reproach on this. We need to continue to work together but there needs to be some serious questions asked about how we manage fuel loads into the future.

Question:

And that- with all respect to Barry, Hawkesbury Council especially around up near Bilpin, they're blaming Hawkesbury Council for being culpable for the fact that they just can’t manage what's on their land and now they've lost their homes.

David Littleproud:

Well that's where a mature conversation has to come in and I’m not going speak for any particular council and Barry’s more than welcome to add to it, but you know, this is where the emotion, we need to work through. We need to get through the grief process and then with cool heads, calm heads talk about what we can do better, both local, state and federal. We can do that. We're a smart country but we've got to do that in the right environment, create the right environment for that conversation to happen so that you get the right outcomes, not emotional outcomes. But there definitely is concern, not only here but right across the country, people have raised these concerns with us and we'll continue to hear that and that's why the Prime Minister hasn't put away the opportunity of looking at a Royal Commission. But we need the states to be with us on that because this is and that needs to be a nationally coordinated approach to one.

Question:

Yes, on that Royal Commission, how quickly could that happen to make sure any recommendations are in place before the next fire season?

David Littleproud:

Well look obviously we've got states that are still fighting fires. So I think the priority just in the very short term is about us putting out the fires and supporting our state agencies. They don't need a talk-fest at the moment. That's why we didn't support a meeting at COAG. I mean, why would you take premiers away from fighting fires and being at the forefront of the operational management of putting these fires out. You need to make sure that we allow due process to take place, and then the Prime Minister has clearly said that he wants to have that conversation with the states about what a royal commission could look like. But we wanted to be on the same page in what we were looking at and the outcomes that we needed as a nation and what role the Federal Government plays.

That's one of the issues that obviously the Prime Minister wants to know and get an understanding of, what are those trigger points that we as a Federal Government can simply say we're ready to go? Now we've done that by our own volition and this fire, we've pre-emptively pulled out the Defence Force before being asked to make sure that they are there in this recovery. But what are those trigger points and how can we make sure that in the future there's a more streamlined process and one that the community understands, because obviously the community doesn't really care who does the work, they just want it done. But there's been a lot of planning about roles and responsibilities and can we do that better and can we say as a Federal Government, we'll pull the trigger when we're ready and this what it should look like?

Question:

On a different subject, what do you make of Young Queensland Liberals yelling at drag queens during books for kids?

David Littleproud:

Well look, everyone's- everyone wants a cause these days and we all want to be angry, but let's show some respect to one another. I think those young people probably could have reached out to the Lord Mayor, who's an LNP Lord Mayor and made their views well and truly known. Let's show some respect as a country and as a nation. What we're more focused on at the moment is putting out these fires and supporting these brave men and women and those thousands of people who've lost their homes. I think that's more important at the moment.

Question:

Defence Minister, can I ask you about HMAS Toowoomba?

David Littleproud:

Foreign Minister.

Question:

Sorry, foreign, sorry. [Indistinct] well, may I ask you about HMAS Toowoomba has been sent. Are you concerned that Australia’s taking part in an escalating conflict between the United States and Iran?

Marise Payne:

Well, Australia is very focused on ensuring the safety and security of the men and women who represent us internationally in the ADF and certainly in my own Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the deployment of HMAS Toowoomba is no exception to that. We will be ensuring that they are carefully monitored, that they work very closely with the leadership of the Defence Force, with the Defence Minister, of course, the Prime Minister as we monitor that situation. But we are also very clear in saying that we are very committed to supporting in any way we can processes of de-escalation in the Middle East. That includes what has been a long term presence from Australia in the Combined Maritime Force and also of course our efforts in support of counter-terrorism activities, particularly in Iraq, the counter-Daesh activity remains our absolute priority in Iraq and we hope that we can continue to work with the international coalition in that regard. It has an impact on us internationally. It has an impact on us regionally and we know it's had an impact on our own shores here in Australia. So that remains our first priority.

Question:

Minister, the academic who is in a jail in Tehran at the moment, has this made it more difficult?

Marise Payne:

We work every day with our agencies here and with counterparts in Iran to endeavour to secure Dr Moore-Gilbert's release. We have had an opportunity for a consular visit towards the end of last year. We're very focused on working closely to make sure that our view which is that we don't accept the charges upon which she was detained, held, charged and convicted and we want to ensure the conditions in which she is held are appropriate every single day. That is part of my focus and I want to assure Australians that we are working very hard to secure her release.

Question:

Can I ask Mr Colvin a couple of things, I know that you’re going out to visit communities today, you have already been in some communities. Are you finding that there is a different, sort of, need between communities out there, and what are you finding the differences are?

Andrew Colvin:

Look, it’s early days in that engagement, this is only really the second opportunity that I’ve had to get out and see on the ground what the impact has been and talk to people. There is some common ground around our resilience, our ability in the community to work to understand how these fires affect us. There’s certainly common ground around the mental health impacts, the impacts on families, the longer-term impacts. But really at this stage I just want to stay and spend a little bit of time before I start making stronger comments about what those threads are. We’ve got a long way to go. It’s quite clear to me that as we’ve talked about many times, this is a massive undertaking, but it’s made complex because of the range of communities that are affected. I have no doubt in my mind that a community in Central Queensland will have very different impacts and very different needs to a community in East Gippsland or down the South Coast of New South Wales. So at this stage it’s about listening, it’s about learning, it’s about understanding, it’s about hearing those stories frankly.

Question:

Can I ask you about the concert as well? Obviously Australians are desperate to do anything they can to help their fellow Australians. Is something like that, in your mind, a helpful initiative to kind of help show.

Andrew Colvin:

This is the concert?

Question:

Yeah the concert.

Andrew Colvin:

Yeah, I think anything we can do is part of the community spirit. I will encourage anything that I see as constructive and positive to helping rebuild community spirit. To help rebuild infrastructure is only part of this. In fact the larger part is redevelop that community spirit, helping people deal with the loss and the grief and making sure we don’t just see this for now, we don’t just look at this for the next six months. The agency’s been put up for two years but the Prime Minister’s made it very clear that we will do whatever we need. My own experience from this space and my background tells me that the impacts will be felt long down the track, six years, ten years, I’ll have that focus in mind as well.

Question:

Are you hearing residents talk to you about climate change a lot?

Andrew Colvin:

Not to me, not yet, but look I’m all ears for whatever the conversation that residents in those affected communities want to have.

Question:

Given your background in police and in counter terrorism and that sort of thing. If this was a terrorist event, this would have been a Commonwealth response from day dot. Have you sort of, used that experience thinking this is something we might need to do going forward?

Andrew Colvin:

Well look, the experience I have is dealing in federation. The reality of policing is no different to the reality of any emergency management, it’s a combined effort between the Commonwealth, the state and the local government. That’s what we see in terrorism and that’s what we see here in the bushfire response as we have seen in the drought response and the flood response and whatever natural disasters we’ve had to come to deal with. There are lessons that I can take away from my policing experience and certainly bring to this space but the biggest lesson here is this needs to be a joint effort.

Question:

Is there a balance between what you can get the defence force to do [indistinct] what you can get local businesses to do, i.e. you don’t want defence to steal [indistinct]?

Andrew Colvin:

There’s absolutely a balance and that’s a really good question. It’s a good point. The defence force are out there right now doing amazing work. Lifting the spirits of local communities everywhere the defence force goes you can feel the community lift. They’re doing work that needs to be done right now and it’s important work. But longer term we need that work to be done by the local contractors, we need that work to be done by the local small businesses, the local farmers because that is what will rebuild these communities for a long-term future. There is a balance and right now I think we’ve got that balance right because we need the defence force along with our state and territory partners out there on the ground, making life better for communities out there right now. Longer term this has to be a local rebuild.

Question:

Minister Payne, another Australian has died overnight from the White Island volcano tragedy. Do you have any update on conditions of other Australians being treated?

Marise Payne:

If I may say, the White Island tragedy inflicted some of the most extraordinary injuries on those who survived, both in New Zealand and those who have been repatriated to Australia. All of those individuals, no matter where they come from, are receiving the best possible care, but this is a very long road for every single one of them. For privacy reasons I’m not going to go into details of particular conditions, but I know, from being for example in the Middlemore Hospital in Auckland, in the Hutt Hospital in Wellington, that the level of sophistication that was brought to bear by initial responders, both those who were part of taking people, retrieving people, from the island and those who were initially treating people in hospitals with intensive surgeries, all that sort of thing – that was extraordinary. It saved a large number of lives and I think, as I’ve said before, we hope and we pray that those people survive these traumatic injuries. But we’ve been working very closely with New Zealand – the New South Wales Health Department, the Victorian Health Department, doing an extraordinary job for those who are in hospitals here. This is a response from both of our countries to what was a horrific event and we wish everyone the very, very best.

Question:

Senator, just back on the Iranian attacks, has the Government reduced its Australian personnel, either Defence or diplomatic, since that happened?

Marise Payne:

There’s been no change to our positioning in Iraq in relation to Australian Defence personnel, except to say they have taken every step that could possibly be required to ensure their own safety in such circumstances. We indicated last week that we had reduced our DFAT presence, our foreign affairs and trade presence, in Baghdad to the essential staff only in recognition of the uncertain environment. That continues and we review that on a regular basis.

Thank you everyone.

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