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  • Written by Peta Credlin


PETA CREDLIN: Thank you for your time tonight, PM I know you've got a lot on your plate. I'll get to the issue of bushfires in just a moment, but I can't let it go unremarked that with Australia Day almost upon us, this is about the time ever January that prime ministers usually take to the National Press Club to lay out their priorities for the year ahead. Now, I know a lot of thought goes into these speeches and if you're prepared to look at them carefully, you'll see a strategic plan for the next 12 months that usually is laid out. Tell us what's on your agenda for 2020.

 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, you're right, Peta, and I'll be doing that next week at the National Press Club. But the first thing always that is most important is we have to continue to work to keep our economy strong and our finances strong so we can guarantee the essentials that all Australians rely on, on particularly the ability to provide their responses to the sort of crises we're seeing right now. And to keep our economy strong then you've got to keep your trade up, you've got to ensure that those trade barriers are coming down, you need to ensure that you're building the infrastructure that Australia needs. And you'll know from last year as we went into the half year update, we put an extra almost $4 billion into bringing projects forward to ensure that we were driving our economy forward this year. The skills agenda will be a big one for us this year and parents and those who are being trained and those who are learning over their lifetime need to know that they can access the skills training they need to get the skills that employers need in their businesses and for them to have a future. This is absolutely critical for us this year. We had a major report last year, which we are now acting on, and the Skills Minister Michaelia Cash will be advancing that with the states. But then there's our national security and our national security, keeping Australians safe, depends on a stable and secure region, the Indo-Pacific region. It's unfortunate that I was unable to go to India and Japan last week for the obvious reasons, but I'm looking forward to taking up those visits again in the first half of this year is the plan to pursue a lot of those important security issues that we're working on with both of those countries. We’ll hit 2 per cent of GDP, which you'll remember was a big commitment we made back in 2013 and we're going to hit it ahead of time and that's important. And what Australians have seen with our defence forces out on the ground, particularly helping at home, is an important reminder of how important keeping up the defence capability is. But when it comes to keeping people safe, it's also about our resilience, our resilience to the environment, the climate we're going to live in in the next 10 years. And I'm sure we'll have a bit of a chat about that tonight. But that resilience, too, whether it's ensuring that our roads are built the right way so they don't get shut down when there are bushfires or ensuring we're addressing hazard reduction as much as we're addressing emissions reduction. I think these are important priorities. But when it comes to services, we've made big promises and we're going to keep them on the National Disability Insurance Scheme and making sure we continue to bring down those response times and also on mental health and attacking our issue of going towards zero on suicide. This is something Christine Morgan has been tasked with and she's given me the first of her interim reports and we're moving quickly to respond to those mental health issues that can be so important to so many Australians. But the agenda is far and wide. It touches the environment. It touches our security, and importantly, it touches our economy. Because without a strong economy, without strong finances, then the government is not in a position to be able to provide the responses that people are seeing right now.

 

CREDLIN: I want to get into some of the responses, particularly on the bushfire crisis that the government's done, pretty much for the first time for a federal government to be involved in some of these areas. We'll get into the politics of the last few weeks as well. But just on that point you made there about economic security. How much risk do you think the surplus will be after what's been a pretty catastrophic summer?

 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, we've allocated $2 billion over these next two calendar years. $500 million has been profiled for this financial year, and I've got to say of the $2 billion we've announced, we've already made commitments of more than a half a billion dollars. And the overwhelming majority, almost all of that, will occur before the 30th of June this year because it goes into the tourism payments and others, which I can go through. But the Budget will reconcile what that all means for the surplus at that time of the year and we'll wait for that time to do that update. There are other things that obviously impact on the Budget, general consumption levels, how the economy's tracking. But I was pleased by some of the numbers we were seeing late last year. I mean, retail sales in November are up, we've seen better improvement on building approvals. We also have seen, although it's early, a nice tick up in confidence this week in response to, I think, some of the rains we've seen, but also the response, I think, of getting out there and reacting and responding to the fires and ensuring that we've got a recovery plan in place. As you know, when there's a crisis, people just need to know there's a plan and I can assure them there is one and it's being rolled out at record levels and an unprecedented scale.

 

CREDLIN: All right, let's get into some of that, because as I introduced you tonight, I played some of the vision of yesterday's press conference where you announced a whole new package of measures for small businesses impacted by the fires. Now, what struck me watching this press conference was how hard it was to get out your message and to tell people what was on offer, those desperately needing help, because a lot of the Canberra gallery insider types, well, they were focused on international climate change agreements and skirmishes between you and Matt Kean, the Environment Minister in New South Wales. Now, whatever might be in these agreements, none of these agreements are going to help people on the ground today and tomorrow and I think more broadly on the issue of bushfire resilience. How do you get the debate back onto the issues that matter? You know, fuel loads in national parks, who has responsibility for what? Because I think some of those lines we've seen over the summer are grey. And what exactly are you doing on the ground for individuals affected? Because that's what people want to hear about, not all the argy bargy about climate change.

 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think that’s exactly right. We're focusing on what people need right now, their immediate needs. I mean, today and the last 24 hours, $10 million has gone out to over 20,000 children and families as a result of the additional $400 payment that we've done through the disaster recovery payment. Now, that brings to some $60 million or thereabouts to some 50,000 people that we've ensured that we've been getting these payments to so they can get cash in their hand. We're working closely with the charities when we've given those charities an additional $40 million to supplement with cash assistance in these communities for emergency relief. One of the first things we did of that $2 billion is we put $60 million with $43 million out the door within a day to go to those councils so they could be responding to those urgent needs on the ground without having to worry about how they were going to pick up the tab because we'd already put the cheque in their bank accounts. The $76 million we announced on the weekend for the tourism recovery package is absolutely vital because this is an area of the impact of these bushfires that goes well beyond the burned areas. We were seeing dropping in bookings in places like Uluru and other parts around the country because of the impact of the media around the bushfires in Australia. And so a $76 million package, which is focused on domestic tourism, getting Australians to travel to all of the areas around the country, but particularly those have been most dramatically affected by the bushfires. International marketing campaigns, bringing travel operators to Australia so they can see everything's fine and they can be booking their clients to come to Australia. This is a very important part of the economic recovery. Now, in terms of small business and agriculture, primary producers, farmers and graziers, we've got $50,000 grants for those small businesses that have been directly impacted by the fires. $75,000 for farmers and primary producers, which can include oyster [inaudible] and people like this where we have a lot of those down the south coast of New South Wales, and that's to help them rebuild from the damage of the fire itself. But then we have the $500,000, two year nothing to pay interest free loans. Now, this is for all businesses in affected areas that are small businesses, less than 20 employees. What this does is give them the working capital to be able to keep their businesses going because 50, 60 per cent of their income often comes at this time of the year. They need to get to next year and they need to ensure that we've got their back so they can keep their businesses operating and be there and build up again to next season and then they can get on their feet again and they can move forward. And we've also put a very big mental health package in place, Peta, this was one of the first things we did. As I toured so many of these areas, I saw the raw emotional scars that have been created by these fires and that is occurring from young kids who would have seen it holidaying in these areas, those who live there, through to the most elderly of residents. And this package, including for first responders, is helping to heal the scars, the non-physical scars of these terrible fires. And then we've got $50 million going in to support the wildlife recovery effort. I was on Kangaroo Island, and it's heartbreaking to see what has happened to our wildlife there as it has all across the forested areas of New South Wales and Victoria. And there have been so many wonderful volunteers who have been getting there and helping rescue and recover a lot of our wildlife and $50 million as an initial contribution to go and support those initiatives. So what you can see from all that, Peta, is we're dealing with the business issues, we're dealing with the immediate needs of people and the relief efforts that are necessary, the economic rebuild and recovery from the ground up. We've also provided the states we’ll be committing over $100 million, so on every single person's site that would need to be cleared so they can rebuild, the government is meeting that cost. And so that's on commercial and residential properties. We're sharing those costs with the states and so that means whatever insurance you've got, it's going to go further because you won't have to pay the demolition costs on your site. Now, that was done, I think, after the Black Saturday fires and we've committed to that.

 

CREDLIN: I think PM, a lot of people at home are watching this and hearing this for the first time because one of the difficulties you've had over this summer, I think, it's the calamity at the start with a trip to Hawaii and other things, is the inability or the difficulty in getting out the messages from the Commonwealth. And, you know, much of this in responsibility terms, constitutionally and under all the statutes in the country, they all rest with the state government. But people wanted to see throughout this crisis the national leader take charge. 

 

Now, I want to get into the issue of a Royal Commission, because you've said you're open to one and there's two parts to that. One part, obviously, is how we prevent this sort of disaster going forward and the other one is lines of responsibility. I'll deal with that in the second part. But let's start with the Royal Commission, because I need to be convinced and here's your chance to convince me we should have one, because we've had dozens and dozens of fire inquiries. And I said to viewers last night, I've gone through now and read the five volumes of Victoria's 2009 Royal Commission. Pretty much all of them say we've got to have greater management of fire risk, fuel loads and hazard reduction burns and pretty much every state government says, yep, we'll adopt them in full. And then years on, they're not doing what they said they would do and Victoria is a case in point. So what's the point of yet another inquiry? It'll take months to report. It'll cost us all millions only to tell us what we already know. Why don't we just get on and do it?

 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I’m more optimistic about that, and there are some specific things that I would want any inquiry to do. The first one is I don't want it to flick about. I don't think it needs to go for 12 months. I don't think it needs to go for more than half that period of time and I will want answers to ensure that we're prepared as we go into the next fire season, because you're absolutely right. You know, there's been 100 inquiries or thereabouts since the Ash Wednesday fires all those years ago and there's a lot of commonality and we'd need to do a very quick audit and there have been agencies that have already done a lot of this work that reconciles what are the recommendations that have been made and what's actually being done. Now, one of the positive things about that is we've gone into this fire season and I think, particularly on evacuation plans. I mean, what we've learned on evacuation plans has saved, I think, hundreds of lives in these fires and the decisions people have been taking in the planning they've done themselves for if the fire hits. And I think they’re good lessons. I mean, there are lessons about the communications we've learnt from previous fires, which I think has also saved lives and I think that's very welcome. But what we have to get to the from the federal government's point of view is a couple of key issues. The first one is at what point should the Commonwealth Government be taking the initiative, which we currently don't have the authority to do, to actually move in and actually put a force on the ground to respond to what's happening-

 

CREDLIN: So you're talking about the military being involved in civilian disasters, and this wouldn't just be bushfires, this would be floods, this would be an outbreak like SARS. Is that what you're saying, you need clarity on the Commonwealth’s powers? 

 

PRIME MINISTER: Yes, cyclones, all of these natural disasters. What we saw in December, we had 890 ADF personnel deployed and that was operating under the respond to request instructions. Earlier this month, I changed that to a move and integrate and we're now at over 6,500 and that has provided amazing support and that's been done in cooperation with the states. So, you know, I don't think this has created any rubs here that were difficult to manage. What it meant, though, was that the ADF were moving on its initiative, working in closely, getting the boots on the ground and it's made an enormous difference to almost every single task, from evacuations to road clearing to wildlife rescue, to dropping supplies, to getting communications in place, you know, airlifting people to infrastructure, particularly comms infrastructure to get it restored. They have been everywhere doing everything and this is a massive resource the country has. And all through December people were saying to me ‘why aren’t you calling out the defence forces?’ Well, we had, the defence forces were engaged. But in January, we took the initiative for the first time ever to move to a move and integrate posture. We had a compulsory call out of the reserves, never been done before, in relation to a bushfire-

 

CREDLIN: That’s right, and I agree with you there, PM, but this is the lack of clarity that I think is in the current arrangements. So are you saying tonight that will be part of a Royal Commission?

 

PRIME MINISTER: I want to know where the trigger line is. I want to know where the authority that is established for the Prime Minister, for the Federal Government, to be able to take the initiative and to move and in and direct getting these resources in place where we believe life and property is under threat and we believe we can play a constructive role. Now that’s no criticism of the state governments, I want to make this very, very clear. They have done an amazing job and particularly in fighting the fires that they have done has saved countless lives, saving countless properties, they have been extraordinary. We have a capacity here which I think has been demonstrated but the Constitution, the laws of our country, are very clear about what the Commonwealth can and can’t do. And I think Australians have an expectation which isn’t currently met by what the current laws are. And so an inquiry will outline all that very clearly.

 

CREDLIN: I think that’s very true. It was sheeted home to you personally a lot of this angst and you’re right, it is constitutional ambiguity, but also I think that another issue that's unclear and fire doesn’t respect state boundaries is that we don't appear to have a national fire risk management plan or a fuel reduction strategy. For my mind, if you now look at what the states said they would do and have not done, why isn't there something that's transparently tabled in the Parliament, let's say, that we all in the media and elsewhere can look at, can assess and, you know, name and shame those states who are not doing what they said they would do. How about that?

 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think these are very constructive suggestions. We're thinking along very similar lines. The other part of what I think an inquiry would look at is how we're performing when it comes to reducing the risk of- as we face these fires and hotter, drier and longer summers. Now, that's, you know, you talk about action on climate change - that's what that is. Hazard reduction is action to take account of the climate we're living in and which is a more challenging environment over the next decade and beyond. And hazard reduction is as important as emissions reduction and many would argue, I think, even more so because it has even more direct practical impact on the safety of a person going into a bushfire season. And so there are clear rules and transparency arrangements, I mean, we report all the time on what our emissions reductions are. But across the country, there is not a national system of reporting to track how hazard reduction is progressing. There are a range of other issues which go to land clearing laws around properties and on people's private property, how native vegetation is managed, how national parks are managed, whether you can have grazing in national parks, and how that can reduce fuel loads in particular areas. Now, these are all responsibilities of the states and I'm not making any argument for the Federal government to be intervening in any of these areas. But these are, I think, a very reasonable expectation people have that there are national standards, that there is a transparency around how this is being achieved, because whether it's the resilience of building a road and having clearing around it, which means it's less likely to be cut off in a bushfire, or the way you build a bridge in a particular area so it could not be compromised because of natural disasters, what the building standards and codes are. One of the good things is we have much better building standards now for bushfires and one of the great things that came out of the Master Builders last week when we had our roundtable is they're going to be running workshops with their builders, many of whom have not built in bushfire affected areas. They need to come up to speed on those new codes so when we build back and we're going to build back, that we build back better. You know, in response to disasters, it's not about replacement. It's about building back better with better resilience for the future. So you're absolutely right. There's been plenty of chat about emissions reduction, and that's fine. Hazard reduction, though, is the thing that is going to take a more practical effect on how safe people are in future fire seasons.

 

CREDLIN: PM, you're getting a lot of free advice from all quarters on the issue of climate change and indeed from a lot of countries overseas who are nowhere near as progressed as Australia is in terms of meeting and exceeding targets. You've got some free advice from a predecessor, I might add that the current and your immediate predecessor - not the one that I used to work for - because the one thing I might add, the policy that the government has in relation to climate change now is the policy that Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop and others took to Paris a couple of years ago. How do you manage back the issue of climate change? I would have said at last May's election, Australians were very clear where they sat on the issue and I think you had their full support. Has this issue now been overtaken by the fires? Are you now fighting a political battle that you thought perhaps was put away?

 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, certainly not within the government, as some have suggested. That's not the case at all. The government is very united on the policy we took to the election and let's just sort of recount what that was. We are signatories to that agreement. We do have an emissions reduction target of 26 per cent. We are going to meet the Kyoto emissions reduction target for this year and not just going to meet it, we're going to beat it by 411 million tonnes. Emissions today under our government since 2013 are 50 million tonnes, or just under that, on average a year less than they were under the previous government. Where we're meeting and beating targets, many other developed countries are not. I mean, there's a lot of misinformation going around. I heard someone say the other day, I think it was Professor Garnaut, who said that we, you know, were the low bar on emissions reduction targets. Well, Japan has a lower target than us. Korea has a lower target than us. Ours is around the same vicinity of New Zealand and Canada and, you know, we're actually tracking better on meeting our targets than many of these other countries. So Australia's carrying its weight, but our climate policies are sensible, balanced policies that also understand the need that is we're not going to put a tax on people to meet these targets with a carbon tax. We settled that one fairly and clearly years ago. We're not going to put up people’s electricity prices to do it. And we're not going to wipe out resource industries in the country of which the country depends and millions of Australians, particularly in regional areas, depend upon for their living. I was asked yesterday about a 2050 target. I mean, 2050, it's a long way away. But the point is, no one who is committing to that is telling Australians what that will cost them-

 

CREDLIN: No, no. It’s the cost of inaction, PM. 

 

PRIME MINISTER: It was the same thing in the election campaign. I mean, you've got to tell people what the cost is. At the election, I said it was 26 per cent. I said how are we going to meet it. I said we had the $2 billion Climate Solutions Fund and the various other projects we had to meet that target. I was very transparent about it. And so we'll keep to a balanced approach. We'll meet and beat our targets. People said we wouldn't beat, you’ll remember Peta, years ago when we said with direct action and so on, we're going to meet Kyoto and they all said, ‘no you won’t, it will never happen. You need to put a tax on, et cetera, et cetera’. We got rid of the tax and we've met the target. The technology continues to improve and we got there and we're going to get there again. So we just calmly get about it and not destroy the economy because of the calls of others who are intent on putting a tax on Australians.

 

CREDLIN: PM, look, we're just about out of time, but I want to grab you while I can because this afternoon we’ve heard in breaking news that a man recently returned from China has been tested for a new strain of the Coronavirus. Now, I know people at home will be concerned, this is sort of SARS-like symptoms. What's being put in place at a national level in relation to airports and people who might be arriving into Australia?

 

PRIME MINISTER: Well, I've met with the Chief Medical Officer today, and he's given a press conference today and I should stress that his advice has been that this virus is not at the sort of extreme level of what the SARS virus has. So I think he's put that in a very different context and it's important to note that even those in Wuhan who have been treated in their homes. So it's a different level of gravity in terms of this, but it's still early days. The necessary precautions are being taken at airports with information being provided to those who are coming from affected areas. And there are the medical procedures in place for people to get that treatment and be identified if they're arriving with any symptoms and to seek that medical attention. There's an incident response group that has already been stood up here nationally to monitor this very, very closely and I'm getting daily updates along with the Health Minister to ensure that we're all over this. 

So, you know, there's a few things going on at the moment and this is another one. But I would caution people, I think, to remain very calm about this. At this stage, it is not something that our advice says is at the level of danger of something like SARS, which I'm advised had about a 50 percent mortality rate, that's nothing like this in these occasions. There's only been a small number of fatalities in China related to this outbreak and it's being monitored very closely and the World Health Organization is also very plugged in to what we're doing here and we're listening to them very carefully as well. So a very comprehensive response and the Chief Medical Officer is doing a great job.

 

CREDLIN: I'll have to leave it there, PM, no shortage of issues on that desk. I'll let you get back to them tonight. But I know my viewers have very much enjoyed having you on the show tonight, really getting into some of those issues. I think they've gone a bit unremarked over the summer, at least in terms of detail. Thank you very much for your time and good luck for 2020.

 

PRIME MINISTER: Thanks a lot, Peta, all the best. 

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