Press Conference - Melbourne, VIC

  • Transcript, E&OE

PRIME MINISTER: Good afternoon everyone. In the past two weeks it has been a terrible ordeal for those more than 200 Australians and so many other passengers who have been on the Diamond Princess in Yokohama. The National Security Committee of Cabinet has met again today, as we did over the weekend, to consider how we might be able to best support those Australians who have been caught up in this very difficult situation. We want to thank the Japanese government for the great care and support and assistance they’ve provided to those Australians who have been onboard that vessel, many of them, some quite elderly. And we want to thank them for that great care they have shown. What we have agreed to do today is to take action, by providing a direct assistance to those who are on that vessel by providing for an assisted departure flight from Japan to Australia on this Wednesday. This flight will be made possible by Qantas and we want to thank Qantas once again for answering the call of the Australian people and for those who will be supporting that flight, going up to Japan and bringing Australians home, we want to thank you very much for your great cooperation and to Alan Joyce and the entire team at Qantas, we thank you very much for your tremendous support in assisting Australians at this time of great need. 

We are taking this action on the clear advice, once again, of our medical experts, in particular, the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Brendan Murphy, who joins me again here today, along with the Foreign Minister and the Health Minister. But as well, Professor Paul Armstrong. Professor Paul Armstrong is in Yokohama. He was sent there to assess the situation and to provide us advice in terms of decisions that we needed to make to provide this assisted departure back to Australia. At this stage, it is not clear how further cases of infection have occurred onboard that vessel and Dr Murphy will be able to take you through in more detail the situation on board that vessel. But because of the nature of the quarantine not being able to be assured, for those more than 200 Australians who will be returning to Australia we are going to have to require a further 14 day quarantine period to be put in place on their return to Darwin, where they will be accommodated at the Howard Springs facility. Now, I understand that those who are onboard will feel very frustrated about this, as will their family members. Indeed, I'm very frustrated about it. I wish it were not possible. But our first responsibility is, I'm sure all Australians would agree, is that we have to protect the health and safety of Australians here in Australia. And today, we have Australians who are leaving Christmas Island, having been part of that initial quarantine period of 14 days, returning back home, including returning back home here to Melbourne. I was at Box Hill today with members of the Chinese Australian community, and they're looking forward to welcoming some of their family back here later this evening. It's frustrating and it's unfortunate, but it is absolutely necessary to ensure that we put the measures in place that have been so effective in containing the spread of this virus and ensuring that Australians here can go about their lives on a daily basis without any concern about the impact of this virus on their health. And this has been made possible by the strong and very clear and very early measures that the Government took to protect Australians from the impact of this virus. 

So we greatly appreciate, again, the support and cooperation of the Japanese government who we have been working with to ensure that they are able to facilitate this assisted departure. I also need to make it very clear that the decision that has been taken by the National Security Committee that any person who was on board that ship, regardless of their nationality, if they seek to enter Australia within the next 14 days, they won't be granted entry to Australia. And that arrangement will be also put in place with airlines as well. So we are making direct contact with all the passengers on board that ship now. We'll also be providing spaces on our flight to New Zealanders and I have been in contact with Prime Minister Ardern and they welcome that arrangement as well. New Zealand passengers will be transferred from Darwin back to their quarantine arrangements in New Zealand and the balance of those passengers who will be Australians and Australian residents will be accommodated at the Howard Springs facility. 

So to those who are on board, we’re with you, we're doing everything we can to support you, as you know, our consular support to you on board that vessel over the last two weeks, as you know, has been constant. We're very concerned, obviously, for your welfare. And the best thing we can do to help you is to bring you home. And so we're going to bring you home, ensure that you're cared for on your return and through that quarantine period. We want to get you home to your family and your friends as quickly as we possibly can with the best care possible and to ensure at the same time we preserve and maintain the strong mechanisms and arrangements we've put in place to protect the broader health of Australians in response to the Coronavirus. So with that, I'm going to pass on to Marise and then to Greg and then to Brendan.

SENATOR THE HON. MARISE PAYNE, MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Thank you very much, Prime Minister and Professor Murphy and Minister Hunt. I particularly want to thank the government of Japan for what has been a very constructive and cooperative approach to this issue. We've been consulting closely with them as we've worked carefully and methodically through this process. In fact, our deputy head of mission in Tokyo yesterday advised the government of Japan that we were considering options to assist Australians to return home from the Diamond Princess. I think it shows our ability to work smoothly together. It's reflective of the close partnership that we enjoy between Australia and Japan. I also want to commend the efforts of the government of Japan and of the cruise operator, Carnival, to manage what has been a very clearly challenging situation with quarantine of more than 3,000 passengers and crew on board the Diamond Princess and also to thank Japan for the care that Japanese hospitals have been providing to the over 20 Australians who tested positive for Coronavirus from the Diamond Princess, with further potential hospitalisations in that context. Our embassy in Tokyo has been working full-time on this matter and they've been in contact with Australians on board the vessel. We have reassured them, as the Prime Minister has said, that we're very focused on their welfare. And I particularly want to acknowledge the work of our consular staff in Canberra. It has been relentless over recent weeks, indeed, and also in Tokyo for the support of the people on the Diamond Princess. 

All our passengers are being contacted with a package of information by consular officials to make arrangements for their return to Australia and to ensure that they're fully informed about the options that the Prime Minister has set out. We do understand and appreciate that this has been a very difficult and stressful time for the passengers, of course, but also for their families here in Australia. This decision, as the Prime Minister has affirmed with all of our decisions, has been based on the very strong medical advice that we have been receiving as a Government and as a National Security Committee, prioritising the health and the welfare of Australians on board the ship as well as the safety of Australians here at home. 

I want to also acknowledge and thank Qantas for their willingness to once again consider another operation to help Australians. They have been demonstrating their professionalism, their capability in assisting us with two departures from Wuhan and this departure now from Japan and we are very grateful for their support. Indeed, it would not be possible without their assistance. So we thank them very much and we look forward to being able to assist those Australians to return in the coming days. 

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Marise. Greg?

THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thanks very much, Prime Minister, Marise and Brendan. In terms of the context of this decision, we know that the arc of the virus has now seen over 71,200 confirmed cases. So those numbers continued to grow. And sadly, we have 1,670 confirmed lives lost. Against that background we also know that the number of confirmed cases from the Diamond Princess alone has now reached 355, with 70 confirmed in the last 24 hours. So it's against that background that this decision has been made. It's been made on medical advice and recognising that within Australia, the actions that we've taken have helped contain the virus so far. We remain at 15 confirmed cases in Australia, eight of which have cleared the virus, two of which are in recovery phase. And so as a consequence, we've been able to provide reassurance and safety at home. And indeed, 242 passengers who came as part of the first relief flight from Wuhan are leaving Christmas Island today to return home. And that's a welcome case study of what we're seeking to do with the passengers from the Diamond Princess. It's a difficult time for all of the passengers. We care for them. But in doing this, we want to care for Australia and provide the best care and medical treatment for those who will be leaving the Diamond Princess. Professor Murphy?

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you. Brendan?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: Thank you Greg, thank you Prime Minister and ministers. I just want to address the specific issue of why we are requiring an additional period of quarantine. As the Prime Minister and ministers have said, there is evidence of ongoing transmission or cases on the Diamond Princess. The Australians who have been quarantined over the last 12 days, many of them have done everything that they've been asked to do and they're probably wondering why we're imposing this extra requirement. We're not quite sure why there have been ongoing infections. But given that there has been recent cases, we cannot be absolutely sure that any of the currently well people on the ship who are coming home on Wednesday are not carrying the virus. We can't be sure. And if we can't be sure, we have to take precautions. And that's why we're going to take them to the Howard Springs facility in Darwin, which Minister Hunt and I have visited. It's a very good quality accommodation facility and I can assure the families of those who are coming and those on the ship that it's a much nicer place to be for two weeks than being in a cabin where you’re not able to get out. So we are very confident that the health facilities there of the first rate, we've got 24 hour medical assistance from the Australian Medical Assistance Team and we'll be able to look after people well. So we do understand the frustration when people believe they've done everything right and yet, for the sake of protecting the community and everyone's families, we have to take this extra step. The same step has been taken by the US bringing their people from the ship home. The Canadians are planning to do the same thing with the people they're bringing home. And other countries have indicated that if they bring their citizens home, they will also require a 14 day quarantine period. It's best to be safe, to protect our community. At the moment we only have 15 cases in Australia and they are all from that original Wuhan associated area. We haven't had recent cases. Containment is still working and we want to try everything we can to hold that position. So we're asking for understanding from the people on the ship and their families. But we do understand and sympathise with them greatly. Thank you, Prime Minister.

PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Brendan. Questions on this matter?

JOURNALIST: Just to clarify, if you’re a passenger on that ship and you want to come back to Australia, your only option is to get on that Qantas flight?

PRIME MINISTER: Or to remain outside of Australia for 14 days.

JOURNALIST: Right. So people can stay out of Australia for 14 days and then come back by other means?

PRIME MINISTER: We wouldn't recommend that. We would recommend that they take up the option of being on that flight, which has been provided for by the Australian government, and that will ensure that their health and wellbeing is taken care of on their return to Australia, and then they can return home to their friends and their families as soon as possible after that.

JOURNALIST: If they do decide to take the Qantas flight, do they have to pay, you know are there any other [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER: No, the same arrangements as we had for the other flights.

JOURNALIST: Why won’t the government be taking the cruise passengers back to Christmas Island?

PRIME MINISTER: There are two issues. The first one is, is that we still have people there. Others are moving in a couple of days’ time. And that facility then would take anywhere up to seven days to clear if we were running any other operation. The second issue is, as I'm sure Brendan would be happy to comment on, and that is the group of people who are coming on this occasion is a much more elderly cohort, which requires a closer proximity to a major hospital. 

JOURNALIST: Do you know if there are any Australians on the MS Westerdam that recently docked at Cambodia?

PRIME MINISTER: This isn't an issue that is currently presenting for our consideration at this point, but what we do know is, as the virus and it's, as as it each day passes there are new challenges to face. And that's why we are meeting very regularly as a National Security Committee and taking regular advice from the Chief Medical Officer and the Minister of Health, and this is being done in close concert with the medical offices of all the states and territories, and I want to thank them, too, for their input into the process and arriving at the decision we arrived at today. So we will monitor that situation closely as we are monitoring many situations.

JOURNALIST: So just to clarify, there are...?

MINISTER PAYNE: Perhaps I could...

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, yeah, sure.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, yeah  so I’m just wondering if there are any Australians on the MS Westerdam?

MINISTER PAYNE: Not at all, there were some Australians on the vessel Westerdam. 39 of those have remained in Phnom Penh after the ship finally docked Sihanoukville. They've been provided with hotel accommodation in the capital and they're in the process of being tested by Cambodian authorities. We expect those tests to be returned within the next 48 hours. Ten Australians have remained on the ship itself as it is docked in Sihanoukville. The Cambodian government is making arrangements to test those people who remained on the ship. And there are as well, I think, another 200 or so passengers on board the vessel. That testing will occur over the next two to three days. And our Post in Cambodia are reaching out to those Australians to provide assistance to them and to do to establish when they'll be able to leave the cruise ship and to support any other issues that they may have.

JOURNALIST: If those Australians test negative, will they be able to fly back home to Australia immediately? Or would they have to be quarantined [inaudible]?

MINISTER PAYNE: That would be determined on medical advice, but I’ll let Professor Murphy respond to that.

DR. MURPHY: I think we'd have to take advice from the Cambodians. There's only been one confirmed case of a person on that ship that we know of. We would need to take advice from that. We do, there may be some who have already returned to Australia from that ship, and they have been contacted by their state health authorities and they will be isolated.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible]?


JOURNALIST: Will this impact the travel bans?


JOURNALIST: Just on another matter if I may? 

PRIME MINISTER: That’s alright, we might excuse Dr. Murphy, if we're moving to other issues, 

JOURNALIST: Yeah an open letter was written to yourself Prime Minister, I guess, urging more flights out of Wuhan, are you considering or has there been progress on sending another evacuation flight to Wuhan?

PRIME MINISTER: We have no plans to do that at this point, and I stress that at the time of making the first flight, we said there were no guarantees we'd be able to do more than one. We were able to do a second flight. I want to stress that these flights, including the one we've just announced here today, are not simple matters. They're quite complex, involving the crews that are involved and and the operations and the various permissions and so on. This is why we've been very careful not to make any promises that we can't keep here. And we're monitoring the situation very closely. But at the time when we undertook the first two flights we were very clear that we could not guarantee that there'd be any further flights. Now, we'll continue to look at this, but at this point, we have got no plans for further flight.

JOURNALIST: And on another matter...

PRIME MINISTER: Sure, thanks Brendan.

JOURNALIST: What’s your response to business calls for you to sign up to a target of zero net emissions by 2050? Is that a target you’d be prepared to look in to?

PRIME MINISTER: My response is the same one that I've given consistently, that I don't sign up to anything when I can't look Australians in the eye and tell them what it costs. How many jobs it's going to cost them. What it means for their industries. What it means for rural and regional parts of the country. Whether it means they'd have to pay higher taxes. And none of that information is before me that would enable me to give any such commitment, and I haven't. 

Australians deserve to know if people are going to sign up to things like that, what it's going to cost them. And I'm for jobs. I'm for rural and regional Australia. I'm for lower taxes. And if that is not consistent with that position, well, I think people know where our government stands on those issues. That said, the government will continue to do the work that we are doing. Record levels of investment in renewable technologies, beating our Kyoto emissions reduction target by 411 million tonnes. Now you might think, well, how much is that? That's about 80 per cent of our annual emissions. That's how much we're going to beat our Kyoto target by. That's an impressive performance. And I've got to acknowledge the former minister in that area who put a lot of those programs in place. But you combine that with a clear plan to how we're going to meet our 2030 targets. We are taking action, the necessary action. We're getting emissions down. We're down 12.8 per cent on 2005. Other countries not anywhere near us, particularly those with like-economies. I also note that other countries that have committed to this have put serious qualifications on it. For example, in New Zealand, they've completely omitted their entire agricultural sector, which is their largest source of emissions in their country. So, look, we're going to get on with the job with getting emissions down. That's what matters. We're going to get on with the job of ensuring there's ample investment in renewables, as well as sustainable baseload power to support our heavy industries and our jobs in our regions. But I'm not going to put on a tax. I'm not going to put up your electricity price by committing to these things. And I'm not going to wipe out industries that rural and regional Australians depend on.

JOURNALIST: What would have to happen in Syria for the Australian government to consider bringing back women and children back home from refugee camps?

PRIME MINISTER: Did you want to respond? I would simply say there is nothing that has presently happened which would change the government's policy on that.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, sorry do you - were you going to finish on that topic? Sorry do you just mind, on- Border Force deported Dustin Martin’s father this morning,


JOURNALIST: He tried to gain entry to the country based on last week’s high court ruling and Aboriginality, how concerned are you that people like him are testing this ruling already?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I find the ruling, as the Minister for Home Affairs has, I think, also observed, as one that starts setting up a pretty dangerous precedent in this country when it comes to having laws based on race. We should be getting rid of laws that are based on those sorts of things, not creating new ones. Now, I respect the high court and I respect their judgments and they're entitled to make their decisions. But equally, the government and the Parliament can make laws about these matters. And I think it's important that we carefully consider the implications of that judgment. And many of the issues that you've just highlighted. Now, the Border Force took swift action today and good for them for doing their job. And I'd expect them to continue to do their job. But as for the government, we will be carefully considering this most recent judgment and the implications. And what, if any, changes that we will need to make, I think, to ensure we preserve the integrity of a set of laws in Australia, which is blind to race.

JOURNALIST: Can I have Senator Payne just answer my question please?

MINISTER PAYNE: Which question sorry?

JOURNALIST: Just what would need to happen in Syria for the Australian government to consider bringing women and children home from the refugee camps?

MINISTER PAYNE: Well as the Prime Minister has indicated, and I don't have anything to add to the Prime Minister's response, of course it is the case that we have no plans to change our position on that.

JOURNALIST: What will change your position? Is there anything that would change [inaudible]?

PRIME MINISTER: Well we wouldn't we wouldn't hypothecate on that. That's not a sensible thing to do. The situation is such is that I will not put Australians at risk to proceed along that path. 

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, do you have a response to the Chinese ambassador’s comment today that the ban on Huawei is discriminatory and part of point scoring between our two countries?

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I don't share his view.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] Holden?


JOURNALIST: On the Holden announcement?

PRIME MINISTER: I'm disappointed, but not surprised, but I am angry like I think many Australians would be. Australian taxpayers put billions into this, into this multinational company and they let the brand just wither away on their watch. And now they're leaving it behind. And I think that's very disappointing, that over many years, more than $2 billion, I understand, was directly provided to General Motors for the Holden operations. 

I'll tell you what we'll do, though. We'll look after the workers who have been left behind we’ll, and will work with them to ensure that they can be able to move into new industries. As I've already seen in South Australia in particular, when similar decisions have been made by others, where we've seen them move into particularly in defence industries, which is very welcome. And as you know, the government has a expansive and significant defence industry investment program that is running around the country, particularly in South Australia, but also right around the country. So, of course, I'm disappointed, not surprised, but I think the fact that they they took money from Australian taxpayers for all those years just to let the Holden brand wither on their watch, I think is disappointing. And I think at the end of the day, it showed that throwing all that taxpayers money at them, at the end of the day, they were never going to respect it at the end of the day. And I think that's very disappointing. 

JOURNALIST: There were union leaders today who blamed the Holden decision on the decision of the Coalition government to stop giving those taxpayer subsidies, what’s your response to that?

PRIME MINISTER: I think what it shows- Well, I'm not surprised that the unions would say that about the government. But what I do know is, is that taxpayers were giving a multinational extra money year after year. And at the end of the day, they walked away. And I think that says everything you need to know about the success of those sorts of policies. 

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