PRIME MINISTER: Thank you very much Sabra, and thank you for all attending here today. I am particularly conscious, particularly in this city, where we have had this most recent, again, reminder of the terrible bushfire season we have had with the bushfires coming so close as they did last evening. And I extend all of my sincere empathies to those particularly around the capital today on what has been a difficult night.
Can I also acknowledge the many colleagues I have here today, too many to mention. It’s wonderful to see you all but particularly it’s wonderful to have my wife Jenny here and it’s great to see you here, love.
Can I begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people, their elders past, present, and particularly the future, those who are emerging.
To any veterans here today, and to our servicemen and women around the country, let me again say to you on behalf of a very grateful nation: ‘Thank you for your service’.
For the families who have lost loved ones through this terrible bushfire season, your sorrow hangs heavy on our nation’s heart.
And that heart is extended also to all those who now face the daunting task of rebuilding homes, livelihoods, businesses and local communities. We’ll be with you for the long haul.
Many Australians – as well as our loyal friends from overseas who are standing here with us – remain on those front-lines today, some 75 or so fires burning around the country today.
Our brave firefighters. Our emergency services workers. Our volunteers.
Our soldiers and reservists, our carers and mental health specialists, local community leaders and public servants, as well as the networks of civil society engaged in all manner of very practical, helpful, loving tasks – from delivering food to rescuing and supporting recovering wildlife.
Amidst this devastation, it has been humbling to see Australia at its best.
In recounting the stories of their selflessness, as I did on Australia Day, my message was very simple.
This is the greatness of Australia. This is the strength of Australia.
This is why as a people we always overcome and prevail.
Australia is strong but we must become even stronger.
We live in a world of increasing global uncertainty, which the current Coronavirus outbreak only serves to reinforce, which I have already addressed earlier today so I won’t be speaking on that topic in great detail today, but if you wish we can deal with those matters on further questions afterwards.
Strategic competition, technological change, a recasting of the global economy, pressures on global financial systems and escalating environmental challenges.
And at home, a growing and ageing population, a stubborn and devastating drought in a vast continent of increasing environmental extremes, an economy that is making the leap to the next phase of our prosperity, and any leap carries risks and challenges and a society where too many Australians take their own lives, symptomatic in so many ways of the pressures and corrosive forces present in so much of modern day life.
This year, our Government, we will continue to build an even stronger Australia.
By keeping our economy strong to guarantee the essentials, those services that Australians rely on, like the delivery of the National Disability Insurance Scheme and lifting our investment in aged care.
By keeping Australians safe, whether from strategic threats, keeping our borders secure, safeguarding their health and well-being, or protecting us from terrorist attacks and the impact of natural disasters.
And by keeping Australians together. Our most precious asset - as families, as individuals, as communities and as a nation. Respectful and tolerant of each other, our differences, committed to each other as stewards and custodians of our collective future.
These were the priorities I set out when I became Prime Minister. They remain lock-firm my priorities today and going forward.
Sound economic management puts you in a position to deal with long-term challenges and as well as dealing with crises when they hit.
While we don’t yet know the impact on economic activity of the bushfires let alone Coronavirus, nonetheless, the Government was quick to commit an additional $2 billion to support communities and individuals who have felt the impact. Initial and additional to the recovery assistance that goes on as normal course of events.
This includes not only emergency relief and grants for farmers and small businesses in affected areas, but importantly $76 million in practical assistance to support our tourism industry.
Our ability to do this is not straightforward and didn’t happen by accident. Our ability to do this without putting up taxes or levies as has occurred in the past and while retaining our AAA credit rating and our path to surplus, is the dividend of our Government’s enduring commitment to fiscal discipline. That’s what it’s about. That’s why we’ve been so obsessed. Because when the bad times hit and the crisis come, you must be prepared. And we have gone into this crisis in that way.
So while the response to the bushfire crisis is significant in scale, we have done it in a way that remains consistent with our medium term fiscal outlook, as the Treasurer has been reassuring people.
And while placing the priority, though, on the human cost rather than the fiscal cost. That’s been our focus.
The Budget position for 2019-20 will be updated in May and it will take into account, as usual, under the keen eye and stewardship of the Finance Minister and the Treasurer, it will take into account the additional expenditure that we’ve outlined since the mid-year statement, as well as the broader economic impacts of these disasters as best as they are known at that time.
Importantly, we’re not just focused on the immediate response, something I was quick to reassure people in the areas that I have toured and visited.
We are working with state and local governments, with businesses, the not-for-profit sector to develop and deliver locally-driven Economic Recovery Plans. Like rebuilding the livelihoods of orchardists in Batlow, where I was with the Deputy Prime Minister just the other day.
I want to particularly commend Minister Littleproud on the great work he has done leading our effort in response to the bushfire crisis and I particularly also recognise Andrew Colvin, called back into service, who is doing a tremendous job and we thank you, Andrew, for your commitment to our nation.
Now, aiding this effort are positive signs, though, in our economy going into 2020 that the fundamentals of our economy are strong and in good shape.
Key global risks have eased following the ‘phase one deal’ between the US and China and the reduced uncertainty over Brexit, although the effect of the recent Coronavirus outbreak does remain uncertain.
Domestically, we have seen encouraging recent data that shows that the underlying resilience and strength of the economy is there. Retail sales figures for November were the strongest in two years and the housing market continues to stabilise, which underpins confidence.
The labour market is also performing well, continues to, with over 260,000 jobs added in 2019. More than half of these were full-time, while our unemployment rate remains at a low of 5.1 per cent.
More than 1.5 million jobs have now been created since our Government was first elected.
And the number of unemployed persons, importantly, is lower today in Australia than it was at the last election, the election before that in 2016 and the election before that in 2013.
This year we will continue to roll out the economic plan that has delivered those dividends:
- maintaining our disciplined approach to financial management
- keeping taxes low, with tax cuts for small and medium-sized businesses and continued tax relief for around 10 million Australians
- delivering on our record investment in transport infrastructure, including the over $2 billion that we announced we brought forward over the next 18 months
- expanding access to new export markets for Australia, with a special focus on the UK post-Brexit and the European Union, where the Finance Minister has just returned from overseas where he has been pressing that case
- busting regulatory congestion that is holding up business investment
- reducing unnecessary bureaucracy in our industrial relations system, while working to pass the Ensuring Integrity and Proper use of Worker Benefits laws, and
- building on our $585 million Skills Package through Minister Cash that we announced last year and the creation of new bodies such as the National Skills Commission. It is a priority for us this year.
Skills reform will be a priority for COAG discussions in March and beyond and I want to thank the states and territories, premiers and chief ministers, for their commitment to that agenda.
Our $50 million commitment to TAFE Revitalisation will deliver infrastructure projects, refurbish facilities, and purchase specialist training equipment. That has now being authorised.
The Australian Skills Quality Authority (ASQA) is being reformed to improve its governance, accountability and engagement with the sector.
And we’re making it easier for many VET students to access courses by increasing the size of loans available for around one-quarter of all eligible courses. That was signed off last week and I will expand further on all of these issues and the economic plan on other occasions.
A strong and resilient nation, though, can only take action with a strong economy. And in particular to protect the safety and security of its citizens.
As we look into this year, our Government will remain steadfast in defending our independence and our sovereignty as a nation.
We will not stand for foreign interference or allow our borders to be compromised. We will do everything possible to protect Australians from terrorists as we have done so vigilantly under Peter’s leadership at Home Affairs. Australians can be kept safer by an economy that is strong.
And we will counter the evil ideologies that underpin those terrorist attacks from whichever evil ideology it stems from.
And we will stand with our allies and partners in support of an open, peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific, with ASEAN at its core.
We will work to preserve a balance in our region that keeps the skies and sea lanes open, upholds international law, and reinforces the independence and sovereignty and indeed our success of our neighbours.
This is essential to our own prosperity and security.
As part of our Step-up, we will continue to strengthen our commitment to our Pacific family, who themselves have opened their hearts to us in a very touching was during this most recent bushfire crisis.
These bonds have never been stronger between Australia and our Pacific family.
We will continue to invest in our intelligence, security, diplomatic and other border protection agencies that keep us all safe each and every day.
This year our Government will also achieve that through realising our goal to restore the defence budget back to 2 per cent of GDP – a commitment we made back in 2013 and will be realised this year when the Treasurer hands down this year’s Budget.
However, this summer has reminded us that our national security is also about our preparedness, responsiveness and resilience to natural disasters and the environment we will live in today, over the next decade and well beyond.
Given the significance of these events and the issues that they have raised in recent times, this is where I would like to spend the majority of my focus today.
It has long been the case that state and territory governments have primary responsibility for protecting life, property and the environment within their borders. They perform most of the functions essential for emergency management and community safety and they do a great job.
This includes maintaining the agencies that provide emergency services – police, fire, ambulance and medical services.
This should remain the case. The incredible skill and bravery of our state fire services has saved so many lives over this summer, so many homes and I am full of admiration for all of their efforts and their leadership.
To date, the role of the Commonwealth has been limited in responding to natural disasters has been limited to responding to requests for assistance from state governments. They judge the time and form of support needed in making that request.
But I must say, the scale of the bushfires this season – not least their simultaneous reach across many borders – has demonstrated to me the limits of these arrangements.
As you know, I took the initiative for the first time ever as a Prime Minister to change the Defence Force posture from ‘respond to request’ to one of ‘move forward and integrate’ and to issue a compulsory call out of our Defence reservists in response to a domestic natural disaster.
I thank the states for their cooperation with this decision and stress again that it was not made because of any questioning of state efforts or preparedness.
In practical terms, this meant our defence forces were no longer waiting for specific requests for assistance, but they mobilised and moved forward into disaster affected areas at their own initiative, integrating wherever possible with local authorities to render the assistance where they could.
And the demonstration of the practical difference between ‘respond to request’ and ‘move forward and integrate’ is this - in just a few short weeks our defence deployment escalated from under 900 to more than 6,500. That made a big difference.
This constituted one of the largest domestic ADF operations in our history, with more than 13 fixed wing aircraft, 20 rotary wing platforms and three naval vessels all supporting that effort.
The ADF effort, the defence effort, multiplied and it amplified the effectiveness of state disaster response agencies, not supplant them, and it has played a critical role in getting fast and effective disaster relief where it is needed most.
These decisions though, I stress, were not taken lightly and they were not rushed into.
As I’ve said before, I have been very conscious of testing the limits of constitutionally defined roles and responsibilities during this bushfire season.
But I believe there is now a clear community expectation that the Commonwealth should have the ability to respond in times of national emergency and disasters, particularly through deployment of our defence forces in circumstances where the life and property of Australians has been assessed to be under threat at that scale.
I note that this was not something contemplated or recommended to the Commonwealth Government before this bushfire season, nor was it requested by any state or territory government.
After this fire season and before the next one, this is an area where we will need to get some clarity and we need to make some decisions, make some calls on this, including changing the law where and if it is necessary.
I therefore flag the following as issues to be considered in the wake of these events:
- The legal framework that would allow the Commonwealth to declare a national state of emergency, currently doesn’t exist, - with clear authorities and appropriate safeguards for Commonwealth action on its own initiative, including the deployment of our defence forces;
- The legal interface with the states and territories on responsibilities when it comes to preparation for, and response to, natural disasters and emergencies of national scale;
- And an enhancement of a national accountability framework for natural disaster risk management, resilience and preparedness. This should include the setting of targets and transparent reporting on key actions, with enhanced national standards where necessary. We’ve got to be comparing apples with apples, we’ve got to be using the same methodologies.
An enhanced, and more proactive role for our defence force in response to domestic natural disasters will have implications for our force structure, for it’s capability, development, its command, its deployment and the training of our defence forces. So I don’t put this forward lightly.
There is no doubt we have learnt lessons from past fires and other natural disasters.
One of those has been the evacuation procedures that we’ve learnt from previous fires which I know has saved countless lives. But too often, the findings from these enquiries get forgotten. They get de-prioritised over time. One of the key tasks of a Royal Commission will be to audit the implementation of previous recommendations, drawing on the work that has already been done in this area. So they can get about that fairly quickly, it won’t have to take them too long.
And as the years pass, though we note that the bush grows back and fuel loads increase, people move in, in still larger numbers to live in fire-prone areas and dangerous fires occur again in a cycle which we must break.
We must continue to learn from this fire season so we are better prepared for the next one because there of course will be one. Whether that be the deployment of the defence forces, local hazard reduction, access to resources such as aerial firefighting equipment, consistency of disaster recovery arrangements or resilience in the face of a changing climate. And we must learn, as I discussed only last week, from the Indigenous Australians and their ancient practices and how to improve our resilience to these threats. They know more about this than we ever could and they stand ready to work closely with us.
But we must also look further ahead and prepare for and adapt to the environment and the climate we are going to be living in, and acknowledging what that is.
This summer is the latest chapter in the often harsh realities of living in this amazing continent.
Building our national resilience means building our ability to resist, absorb, accommodate, recover and transform in the face of such events – and this includes the effects of longer, hotter, drier summers.
Practical action on mitigation through reduced emissions needs to go hand-in-hand with practical action on climate resilience and adaptation.
Locally, when it comes to practical safety of people living in bushfire zones, hazard reduction is even more important than emissions reduction.
We need to seriously engage with issues like how we manage native vegetation, how we allow land-owners to clear asset protection zones on their property, where they’re stymied. Where we allow structures to be built and how, the materials and standards they are built to, and where and when hazard reduction burns, or other hazard reduction practices are carried out. All these considerations have a direct impact on the safety of Australians living in this climate, and in this bush environment.
That is why I have said it is important that we have greater transparency and accountability nationally about action being taken to reduce these risks and manage these going forward in a changing climate.
All of this is the climate action we need now.
Building dams, developing new crop varieties, improving planning for natural disasters is climate action now.
The science tells us the effects of emissions already in the atmosphere will continue to be felt in coming decades, even under the most ambitious global emissions reduction scenarios.
Mitigation and adaptation both contribute to resilience – mitigation reduces the risk; adaptation is how we prepare for the climate risk we cannot reduce.
We know our farmers are on the front line of resilience, I saw it first hand when I was with them only yesterday, continuing to battle this devastating drought in the face of more frequent and severe droughts they have led the world in the development of drought resistant crops.
That’s climate action now.
The $5 billion Future Drought Fund will support practical, resilience building measures, including small-scale water infrastructure and improved information on local climate variability, sustainable stock management, soil and water regeneration and the like.
Climate action now.
Our Drought Resilience Funding Plan, the framework to guide funding decisions for projects and activities, is expected to be tabled in Parliament by March of this year.
The National Water Grid will guide investment in new dams and distribution networks, and ensure a comprehensive, integrated plan to help drought-proof our water supply for farmers and regional communities.
The new Emergency Response Fund will provide up to $200 million each year to support not only immediate response activities, but also recovery and preparedness for future disasters.
The Reef 2050 Plan, backed-up by $1.9 billion in Commonwealth funding, is also among initiatives we are taking to build future climate resilience.
Climate action now.
We also have a track record of investing in the technology of resilience, science of resilience through agencies such as the Bureau of Meteorology, the CSIRO and the Bushfire & Natural Hazards CRC.
And moving forward, I am asking the CSIRO, supported by an expert advisory panel chaired by our Chief Scientist who is here today and doing an amazing job, Dr Alan Finkel, to bring forward recommendations to Australian Governments, all of us, on the further practical resilience measures, including buildings, public infrastructure, industries such as agriculture, and protecting our natural assets.
I will be discussing resilience measures with the states and territories at COAG in March, and I know they’re looking forward to that discussion including to ensure the Commonwealth Government’s investment through the National Bushfire Recovery Agency will be in assets that are built to last, built to resist, built to survive longer, hotter, drier summers. Building back better for the future.
Now we also acknowledge the need to take action to reduce global emissions, to mitigate the risk of climate change. It’s not in dispute.
Of course we know that Australia, on its own, cannot control the world’s climate, as Australia accounts for just 1.3 per cent of global emissions. We also know that no fire event can be attributed to the actions of any one country on emissions reduction.
But Australia must play its part and we are playing our part. Taking action is agreed.
Our action though, is a balanced and responsible emissions reduction plan to reduce emissions by 26 per cent through to 2030 that we took to the Australian people at the last election.
Our target is comparable to countries like Japan, New Zealand and Canada – especially when account is taken of such factors as our geography, our population density, growth and economic and comparative advantage.
It’s a target higher than every other major economy in Asia.
A target that will see our emissions per capita fall by half. Half.
Our 2030 target is set, and we intend to meet it and we intend to beat it.
Just as we previously beat our Kyoto 1, and Kyoto 2 targets, when all the critics said we wouldn’t. And are saying so again about 2030.
And if legitimate carry over credits are not necessary, then even better. However, let’s not forget on this point, it was the Labor Government that made carry over credits a condition of their signing up to the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. So I’m not copping lectures from that lot.
And we will do this consistent with the commitment we gave to the Australian people:
- without a carbon tax that will slow our economy,
- without driving up electricity prices, which I note by the way are down 3 and a half per cent today on the latest inflation figures, particularly, and without shifting jobs and without sending emissions offshore, and
- without leaving behind Australians, so often ignored, so often left out, particularly in regional areas, who are working in sectors such as agriculture and mining and some appear to accept as casualties of this process. I don’t, and neither does my government.
One of the major vehicles for driving this agenda forward will be bilateral agreements on energy and emissions reductions with each state and territory, and that will begin with New South Wales, and I’ll have more to say about that soon.
But these agreements will focus on keeping energy prices affordable, improving the reliability of the electricity grid and driving down emissions while we do so, and I commend Angus Taylor for the great work he’s been doing in this area.
Central to this agenda is getting access to our domestic gas supplies. We need to get the gas from under our feet. There is no credible energy transition plan for an economy like Australia in particular, that does not involve the greater use of gas as an important transition fuel.
There are plenty of other medium to longer term alternative fuel arrangements and prospects, but they will not be commercially scalable and available for at least a decade, is our advice.
Gas has a critical role to play as a backstop to our record investment in renewable energy generation. It helps ensure we can keep the lights on when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.
Sweating our existing coal fired power generation assets will only take us so far.
Gas can help us bridge the gap while our investments in batteries, hydrogen and pumped hydro energy storage bring these technologies to economic parity with traditional energy sources.
So right now, we’ve got to get the gas.
Our focus is also squarely on harnessing the power of new technology and allowing natural markets to operate, together with the desire and ingenuity of Australians to reduce emissions while keeping the economy strong.
Technology is key to driving down costs and identifying new economic opportunities for Australia, particularly for technologies providing storage and back-up to the electricity, industry and transport sectors.
This includes our $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation driving down the cost of our renewables, our $1 billion Grid Reliability Fund to catalyse investment in battery and pumped hydro energy storage, our $500 million hydrogen strategy to position us as a key player in the emerging hydrogen economy, which is a key issue of bilateral discussion with our friends in Japan, and our soon-to-be-released electric vehicle strategy to support the modernisation of our transport fleet.
This is all climate change action now.
In the waste sector, Australia’s emissions have already fallen by 25 per cent since 2000.
We are world leaders in renewable energy. More than 2.2 million Australian’s have rooftop solar panels - the highest uptake in the world.
And 2019 saw a record amount of renewable capacity installed, 24 per cent above the previous record set in 2018 - and electricity generated from renewables is forecast to grow again by a further 26 per cent this year. This year.
Based on Bloomberg’s New Energy Finance data, in 2019 Australia’s per capita investment in renewables- sorry Mathias- was more than triple the per capita investment of countries like Germany, France, and Denmark.
SENATOR THE HON. MATHIAS CORMANN, MINISTER FOR FINANCE: I’ve been making that point all week!
PRIME MINISTER: He’s been making that point in Europe all week, Mathias says, and he’s right to do so. He’s right to do so. We’ve got a great record here. We’re achieving great things in this country when it comes to renewable technologies and renewable energy. And I won’t stand by and see others talk this down for some other purpose or agenda. We’re doing the right thing here, and we’re going to keep doing it.
To guide Australia’s future technology investments, the Government will next month release for consultation a new technology roadmap charting the way forward in areas such as:
- Solar and batteries,
- Transmission and networks,
- Large-scale energy storage, and
- Carbon capture and storage.
So our climate action agenda is a practical one, it goes beyond targets and summits and it’s driven by technology, not taxation.
This is important as there are real weaknesses in the current global action frameworks on emissions reduction.
Current frameworks and agreements globally, actually endorse massive increases in emissions from some of the world’s largest and growing economies.
So understandably this tests the patience of people in countries like Australia, particularly in regional areas, who ask the question why do their jobs have to be exported and their incomes exported to other countries, while global emissions under those arrangements are allowed to rise for so many.
These contradictions and limitations need to be acknowledged.
The atmosphere doesn’t care where emissions come from. Emissions do not have accents.
The only thing that matters is the cumulative impact of all countries’ emissions.
You will also not reduce the number of coal-fired power stations in the world today by forcing the shut down of Australian coal mines and the Australian jobs that go with them.
Other countries will just buy the coal from somewhere else - often poorer quality with greater environmental and climate impacts.
And you won’t get emissions down in large developing countries through arbitrary target setting. Quite rightly, they’re getting people out of poverty.
The pathway to making meaningful impacts on global emissions reductions with these countries is through partnering with them on technological development. Making it scalable, making it commercial, making it achievable.
You know, it is worth noting that the United States has achieved higher rates of emissions reduction than many of the nations that are signatories to the Paris agreement.
Between 2005 and 2017 US emissions fell by about 13 per cent, that’s just a click over what we have achieved which is 12.8 per cent by the way. This compares to about 2.4 per cent for Canada, 4.3 per cent for Japan. US firms are already building in climate risk and managing for it, just as they are here in Australia. The US has also substantially reduced their emissions in a large part because they have opened up their gas resources. That’s why they’re using less coal.
Our economies will adjust. The market signals are already there. We have to give them the room to adjust and not cut off response options, like in gas exploration and development, that help them move forward.
The answer is not more taxes and increased global bureaucracy, but practical change, driven by science and technology, that allows companies and economies to develop and commercialise new technologies that are accessible, affordable and scalable the world over.
That’s how you will get emissions down. By solving problems like affordable and scalable energy storage, as Angus reminds me constantly. By developing cost-effective carbon sequestration. By developing and switching to viable alternative fuels. You don’t do it on a bit of paper, you do it by changing what you do and how you do it.
This is where we are focusing our practical efforts.
If we get this right as I believe we will, we will be well on our way to lower cost, more reliable and lower emissions energy.
Isn’t that what it’s supposed to be about?
There are many other issues we will address this year, and no doubt more will emerge and challenge us as the year proceeds.
But as the year unfolds, I want to say this to my fellow Australians, it is important to understand not just what we are doing as a government, but why we are doing it. And why we take the action we believe is necessary to secure Australia’s future as we promised. And the answer is because we believe that it will make Australia more resilient to the challenges we know we will face.
We know it will make Australia even stronger.
Thank you for your attention. Thank you.
PRIME MINISTER: Before we go to questions, Riles, as a separate note on behalf of Jenny and I, and my whole family, could I just think all of you who have extended such kind condolences to me and my family in recent times. My brother and my mother and I very much appreciate it. I mean, the outpouring has been quite overwhelming, frankly. Thousands and thousands of people. We’ll remember him tomorrow and I'm not going to say any more than that, because I’ll lose it.
SABRA LANE: Thank you, Prime Minister, for the speech. Given that there's going to be a lot of assessment of what should have been done to better prepare Australia for the last couple of months that we have experienced and we are not yet through, have you had some time to look back at your own performance over the past two months and assess your own performance and judgments? And if you had your time again, what would you have done differently?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, prime ministers are never free of character assessments, particularly from those who have so cheerily joined me today and they will always be made. And what I tend to do is focus on the tasks that I need to do each and every day. What I'm focused on right now is obviously responding to a series of crises, not just when it comes to the issues of the bushfires, which have been so devastating, the drought we have not for a second - can I assure those Australians in drought declared areas right across - that we have not forgotten you for a second. You have been so much in the middle of our thoughts and our plans as a government, as we were just yesterday meeting with Shane Stone’s Flood and Drought Recovery Agency and going through what more we can do there. Same with those back up in North Queensland, up in the ‘curry and across the Hughenden and Julia Creek and all through that area, which was so devastated a year ago. I haven't forgotten that for a day. I can still remember the smell of those rotting carcases on those properties and it reminds me each and every day. I still can remember, and it sticks with me every day, you ask me what I've reflected on, the quiet, eerie silence of the bushfire zones that Jenny and I toured, including in Cobargo. It wasn't so much the noise there. It was the quiet, still, eerie feeling of isolation that people felt in that. And you know what? At that precise time, we were in the throes of putting together the compulsory call out for our defence forces. Several days before, I'd been speaking to the Chief of the Defence Force to start mobilising the Adelaide. And when I went to these communities, what was reinforced to me is that Australians have suffered so many things through these disasters. And I wish I could change all of the experiences that they've had and the devastation they've felt. But the one thing I'd never want any Australian to feel like when they go through a situation like that is that they are alone and that they are isolated. And that's what our Defence Force reservists and team have done probably more than anything else. Showing up, showing that those who are affected so terribly were not alone and that Australians were with them.
When I was out in Blayney yesterday, the local mayor, Scotty said, you know, these projects that you've got with the drought recovery program, they reminded everybody out here that we weren't alone as we went through this. And I know as those $75,000 grants went through the pastoralists and graziers up there in north Queensland after the devastating floods, it said to them ‘you're not alone. Australians are standing with you’. Every day I reflect on how I can better service my country in this role, which frankly, we should all do.
SABRA LANE: Mark Riley.
MARK RILEY: Mark Riley, Prime Minister, from the Seven Network. Thanks very much for your speech, and I think I can presume to speak on behalf of my press gallery colleagues to convey our deepest condolences to you and to Jenny and the girls over the loss of your father [inaudible] terrible time.
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you.
RILEY: Prime Minister, I was here reporting during Labor’s sports rorts scandal, the Ros Kelly affair was a shocker, but this is one of those rare things, a bit like Godfather 2, where the sequel is bigger and badder than the original. I mean, really, the recommendations of an independent expert authority overlooked, swept aside for political expediency. Lists of marginality of seats drawn up. Colour-coded seats, Prime Minister, of marginality. Now, I know you're not going to answer questions about the Minister's future until Mr Gaetjens report is issued to you. But I want to talk about your responsibilities and get a response from you, please, on two matters. First, can you say categorically that your office had nothing to do with this? No involvement in the construction of this rort? And secondly, what will you do as Prime Minister to ensure the integrity of the expenditure of taxpayers funds in this scheme but in so many others across government, where there is such broad ministerial discretion on decision making to ensure that money goes to worthwhile - I'm not saying these projects weren’t worthwhile - but the most worthwhile on merit and on need and not on what best secures a marginal victory for a government?
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Mark, and thank you for your kind words and those of your colleagues. I'm glad to see the one question rule is off to a good start, Sabra.
But let me deal with a couple of the points that you've raised, Mark. First of all, this is a serious matter. I'm taking it seriously. That's why we're acting on the recommendations of the Auditor General's report and are and that process is already underway and that's being implemented. In relation to the issues that you've raised in terms of the management of this issue, as you rightly say, I took that action last Friday week, I think it was, to refer that matter for the application of the ministerial standards to the Secretary, which is important because these interpretation of these standards needs to be done consistently over time. And I have full confidence that the Secretary will undertake those responsibilities, as you would all expect him to, and that will lead him to his recommendations and I'll deal with those. You've been around this place for a long time, Mark, and one of the things that you'll recall is that Ros Kelly and indeed Catherine King were both involved in programs that gave money to ineligible projects. The Auditor-General found that that did not occur, did not occur. So I think there's quite a significant comparison there between those two. That's not to suggest that I'm not taking the broader observations and findings of the Auditor-General seriously. Of course I am. But I think history is important. I think facts are important. And I think it's important to note that the Auditor-General did not find there were any ineligible projects that were funded under this scheme, and nor did he say that rules had been broken. There was a ministerial authority to make decisions in this matter, and that's what was exercised. Now, observations and commentary has been provided about how that was exercised, and that's a matter that's under review. But equally for all of those, well, let's talk about the program. For all of those hardworking local community sporting organisations that have been benefited by this program, as you said yourself, all projects were worthy and in any grants program, whether they're administered by departments solely or otherwise, there will always be criticisms that are made about the decisions that are taken. What matters on the ground is whether the projects are making a difference to local communities and the feedback I've had from those communities all around the country as we were putting this investment in, and let's remember why we were doing it, because we didn't want to see girls changing in cars or out the back of the sheds rather than having their own changing facilities. That's why we did it. We wanted to make sure because we understand that local community sporting organisations are the heart of the communities and no more have we seen that demonstrated than through these recent crises. It's the gatherings and the connections that people made around their sporting clubs that in so many cases have been the foundation for their resilience and working together in response to crises. So the purpose of the fund, the purpose of the initiative, the $100 million we've invested in building in what is not just sporting infrastructure, but it's community bonding infrastructure, I think is highly worthy. But the issues that have been raised in the Auditor-General’s report will be addressed by the government and we will continue to proceed to ensure that communities get the support they need. I mean, there is no end of these projects that you could support and there are many other projects that you would like to support, and the Treasurer and I will consider that as we go forward.
RILEY: And your office?
PRIME MINISTER: Sorry, on that matter. What prime ministers have always done is supported their colleagues and when matters are raised with them. And that has been done since time immemorial with prime ministers to relay those positions on to the relevant ministers in those programs. And that's the role that my office played.
RILEY: So your office was involved?
PRIME MINISTER: All we did was provide information based on the representations made to us as every prime minister has always done. As a veteran of the gallery, you'll understand.
SABRA LANE: Sarah Martin.
SARAH MARTIN: Prime Minister, Sarah Martin from The Guardian. Can I just clarify from your answer to Mark there? Are you suggesting that there was nothing wrong as a matter of principle in using public funds for your own private political interests and the entrenchment of your government's power?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I just reject the premise of the question. That's not why we did it.
MARTIN: So why did you do it?
PRIME MINISTER: To support local communities and the sporting infrastructure that they need to to bond together, to be cohesive and ensure that girls didn't have to change out the back of the shed. That's why we did it. You can have an editorial on it if you like and you're welcome to that. But that's not why I did it. And that's not why the government did it.
MARTIN: The question, as a matter of principle, do you accept that it's wrong to use public funds for your own private and political benefit?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, that's not what the government has done.
MARTIN: I'm asking if, as a matter of principle, if you accept that.
PRIME MINISTER: Of course. I mean, that's like, you know, do I believe the sun should rise tomorrow? Yes, I do. And it will.
SABRA LANE: Our next question, Andrew Probyn.
ANDREW PROBYN: Prime Minister, Andrew Probyn from the ABC. Your ministerial colleague Darren Chester said today the biggest deficit in Australia was one of trust and it’s in the spirit of that question that I present you what was referred to before by Mark Riley, which looks very much like a politically corrupted government scheme here. What do you say to the hundreds of community groups, not for profits, councils, who spent a lot of time putting together their grant applications did so thinking that the process would be one of going to be devised by merit as opposed to political advantage and what will you do and can you promise that you will ensure that future slush funds aren't treated in such a fashion?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, Andrew, I’ll put your editorial to one side and your commentary on it. That's your view and that's what you've put forward. What the government was doing was supporting local community infrastructure projects and I know that all of which were eligible under the program, all of which will make a difference in the community and there are always many more. I've served as a minister in a number of portfolios. I remember when I was the Minister for Social Services and the Department of Social Services grants, which is about an $800 million program. And we'd put in place an arrangement where all of those decisions were made solely by the Department. And after those decisions were taken, you know what’d happened? Wonderful community organisations that have been providing emergency cash relief and local playgroups and all these things were all defunded. It was just stripped away from them. And so as Social Services Minister, I worked with the prime minister at the time to ensure that we could go back and ensure that they got the support. On other occasions, departments have made decisions which had stripped money from Foodbank, and I've had to reverse those decisions. You know, politicians, ministers, members of Parliament, we’re part of our community. We know what's happening in our community. We're in touch with our community. We know the things that can make a difference in our community. And it's important because we're accountable to those people in our communities for getting stuff done that's going to make a difference in their communities. Now, in my answer to Mark, I said this - there are many, many, many more worthy projects in this area. I agree with that. And I will work with the Treasurer to see how we can better support even more projects in the future. But on any grants program, however, it's done, there will always be many applicants whose projects are very worthy and they're unable to be accommodated by the budget that we've set. We're a responsible government that manages public money carefully. That's why we've been able to put $2 billion like that, like that, without a tax, without a levy, to support those most deeply affected by this bushfire crisis. And so our reputation and track record when it comes to responsible financial management speaks for itself.
SABRA LANE: Colleagues, please, one question per person, because you’re going to deprive one another asking a question later on. Phil Coorey.
PHIL COOREY: Phil Coorey from the AFR. Just on your message on climate change. You said given the emissions that are already in the air, that this is going to be the sort of the new normal, if you like, the situation we're going to have to learn to live with. This summer alone has made a massive whack on your budget situation. If this, as the scientists tell us and the national park rangers and the fireman tell us are going to happen nearly every year, every other year, how sustainable do you think is going to be economically on the nation? The cost of climate change and trying to get your budget in surplus and keep it there?
PRIME MINISTER: It’s a good question and it's obviously one that is the great challenge of managing the Budget and why you have to be so careful with your financial management. That's why, Phil, today I very much seek to cast this in the same context as our national security decisions. I think it very much falls within the scope of that, particularly when it comes to resilience and adaptation measures. And, you know, the thing about resilience and adaptation measures they’re as true for government as they are for a farmer. So if you put the investment in upfront to build your resilience, then you're more likely to get through and the overall cost will ultimately be lesser for you on the preparedness that you make. It's taking out insurance for the climate in which we're living. And so I'd probably maybe take- come at it from a different perspective and to say it's a wise investment, you know, 2 per cent of your economy being invested in Defence is a wise investment because it keeps Australia's strategic interests secure and safe. The investments we put into our- our security agencies, our border protection agency, our biosecurity, all of these things are incredibly important because the cost of not doing so when it comes to those issues falling over become very significant. That's not to say you can you know, you can prevent the impacts of any and all disasters. Of course you can’t. We all understand that. But what I am saying is that we really need now to lay down the longer term investments, whether it's in how technology is being undertaken, the systems and practices we have in place to manage the risk down, to ensure that as we continue to live in this climate, that we are able to better cope and respond to what comes our way, which in turn makes the Budget more sustainable because it's not hit with the bigger impacts of avoidable situations. So I see it very much as part of responsible budget management, of responsible fiscal management, and importantly part of the national security agenda.
SABRA LANE: Kieran Gilbert.
KEIRAN GILBERT: Kieran from Sky News. Prime Minister, thanks so much. You said in your speech that, and rightly, that we only are 1.3 per cent of emissions globally. But when you look at every nation with a similar carbon footprint, it amounts to 40 per cent of global emissions- and nations with a carbon footprint-
PRIME MINISTER: How did we get from 1.3 to 40 per cent?
KEIRAN GILBERT: I’m saying of all the nations together with a similar carbon footprint, but the point I’m making is, as a proud nation, a middle power. We've made contributions- punched above our weight in so many different areas in terms of the Middle East and so on. Right now our troops are there patrolling with other nations. The point I'm getting at is, do you believe there's scope within you as a leader, within this nation to step up our role and advocate? Because, as you say, climate emissions don't have an accent, but you can advocate as a leader, our nation can advocate. Is there scope to do that?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, let me tell you what the Australian accent is saying about emissions reduction, right now. Meeting and beating our Kyoto targets. And then we're going to meet and beat our Paris targets. That's what the Australian accent is saying under our government. The Australian accent is saying we've got record levels of renewable investment. The Australian accent is saying that we're going to reduce our per capita emissions by half. The Australian accent is saying we're investing in technologies which will see us transition to alternative fuel sources and that we're going to lead the way in technology and science and partner with others to do that. See, the Australian accent is there and I'll seek to amplify that every opportunity I get. There are plenty who want to silence that accent, many from our own country, for whatever purposes they're seeking to do that for. But I'll keep speaking it strongly and loudly, that Australia, as I did at the United Nations last year, Australia is carrying its load and more. We are doing what you'd expect a country like Australia to do. But what I won't do is this. I'm not going to sell out Australians. I'm not going to sell out Australians based on the calls from some to put higher taxes on them or to push up their electricity prices or to abandon their jobs and their industries and tell them that they're just collateral damage of a global movement. I'm not going to do that.
SABRA LANE: Greg Brown.
GREG BROWN: Greg Brown from The Australian. Prime Minister with the coronavirus issue countries, there have been nations who already have received permission from China to evacuate their citizens. South Korea is doing it tomorrow. Japan's doing it Tuesday. Why did it take your government until this morning to decide that you'd ask the question to China? And have- has your government been too slow to respond?
PRIME MINISTER: No, we haven't. And the- what I announced this morning was already in train from several days ago Greg. And we've been acting on the basis of the advice of our medical advisers consistently throughout this most recent event when it comes to the coronavirus. The issues in getting access to our citizens in Wuhan is different to a lot of the other countries, in particular the United States and others that are involved. And I should stress, as I said today, the United States has only provided assisted departures for those who are in their consular corp and their families. So the United States has not been providing any further assisted departure for more broadly, for their citizens in that area. And they had quite an established presence, as is the United Kingdom and others who were in that region. Now, we didn't have that, and that's why we started moving earlier this week to get Australian consular officials in place. And that's why we've been working closely with the New Zealand government who were in a similar situation in not having a presence there. And so what we've announced today, and I have no doubt we'll get a very good hearing and good support from the Chinese government to work through this as other countries have, the arrangements to source commercial carriers to support in this. That was in place and that was being worked on, you know, for several days, well before this, and so we're working patiently, we'll get the job done. We've been doing so in accordance with the best medical advice available to us. I've also been very conscious that I'm very keen to protect the safety and, health and well-being of Australians in Australia and to ensure that we have the appropriate arrangements in place, that if we're successful in being able to provide an assisted departure for what I stress are the isolated and the vulnerable in these places, that that they would be quarantined at Christmas Island for what we would believe to be 14 days. And if that changes well that would only change on the basis of medical advice. And that's protecting Australians here. So my job is to support people, Australian citizens, who find themselves in an isolated and vulnerable position. We're doing that. And my job is also to protect the health and wellbeing of Australians here at home. And we're doing that.
SABRA LANE: Shane Wright.
SHANE WRIGHT: PM, Shane Wright from The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. I just want to go to something that Phil mentioned, and also in your speech, and that's about adaption and resilience to deal with climate change. And you reference, say, housing standards in bushfire areas. Are you- and Moody's today has said, the New South Wales government is perhaps the most exposed from a zip by the spending that's going to be necessary on adaption and resilience? Do you acknowledge that outside of budget cost there will be an economic cost from having to spend more money on adaption and resilience? It might be making your home more fire resistant if you're going to be building into an area which you may have to spend even more on insurance, for instance. Have- do you recognise that there may be a cost going down that adaption and resilience path? And is that something that you're going to consider as you go forward?
PRIME MINISTER: Well with the build back better for the future principle in some ways, particularly for those places that are building again from scratch. It's not 100 per cent clear whether that might provide the opportunity to actually do it more efficiently. And you can never underestimate as many of you know, before coming into politics many years ago, I worked in the property industry. I mean, this is an area where there's been rapid technological development of building materials and design principles. And one of the encouraging things is that when we had the- when I assembled about 30 peak national groups in Canberra several weeks ago in a week, that we brought all organisations, charitable sector, the wildlife protection sector, the transport sector, the energy providers, we pulled them all together and we started to work through our recovery plans. And Denita Wawn made the point, from Master Builders, about how we do have new building standards for bushfire affected areas and they are much improved. So that is an area where I think there's been a good initiative for these building standards and Denita made a really practical and helpful point. And that was, the Master Builders are going to be conducting education workshops and getting materials out to builders who have probably never built in a bushfire affected area before, but will need to know how to do so in accordance with the new standards. Now, that's- that is what the recovery's about, common sense, practical initiatives, thinking about what happens on the ground, which is a builder who's been contracted by a homeowner that have lost their home. And they need to build it back. It needs to be the standards. They need to know how much it's going to cost so they can make decisions about how they build back better for the future. But these standards, I think, are very important. It's not a question of if, it's when and how, and that's what will happen. The economic impact of that could well prove to be positive. Who knows? But what matters is that it has to be done. The economic cost of not building back better....I mean, if you build back better and more resilient, then you're obviously going to reduce the potential insurance cost. You would hope. That is the whole point of where you build, and how you build. But it's not just about what you build, Shane. It is also about the things that go around your property, and clearing around your property, which is prevented with so many homeowners and landowners under various regulations. They can be council, they can be state, native vegetation management, hazard reduction burns, all of these things. I mean, on the ABC, you’ll probably remember- there was that the protest against the Nowa Nowa backburns that mysteriously disappeared, that report. But that was an example of the tensions that exist, I think in local communities, in bushfire affected areas, more and more people have moved into these bushfire affected zones and thinking you can sort of live there like you do in a suburb of Sydney. There are different risks, there are different challenges and there are differing understandings. And particularly when I've been in some affected communities, those have been around a lot longer in a lot of these communities understand a lot of these issues and there's been actually a lot of tension in some of those communities, now I'm not being critical of that. I'm just saying it exists. And that's what the future looks like. And those tensions have to be resolved. And what has to win out is common sense and practicality, not ideology.
SABRA LANE: Prime Minister, your speech went a little bit over time. You happy to take a couple more questions?
PRIME MINISTER: Oh please. I was hoping you were going to say that Sabra.
SABRA LANE: Excellent. Good, good.
PRIME MINISTER: Because Michelle is chomping at the bit.
SABRA LANE: Michelle Grattan.
MICHELLE GRATTAN: Michelle Grattan from The Conversation. Prime Minister, can I take you back to your remarks about politicians being more in touch with community feelings? Do you think in general bureaucrats are less in touch with community needs and priorities when it comes to schemes like the sports grants one? And therefore, do you believe that the bureaucrats who made the initial rankings were wrong in those rankings and that the Minister was likely to have a better view, leaving aside the marginal seats issue, a better view of community needs?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, let me first of all say, that I absolutely respect the professionalism and the expertise and the skills of Australia's public service. I've always done so and I greatly value the contribution they make in the work of our government, particularly in times like this, before I just acknowledge the work of Andrew Colvin. But I could equally talk about Frances Adamson at the moment, who is assisting us so greatly when it comes to the issues of dealing with the coronavirus. And of course, Brendan Murphy so ably assisting as the Chief Medical Officer, there is Alan Finkel- we've got great public servants in this country. They do a marvellous job. And I appreciate the advice that they give us on so many issues, I’ve just seen Christine Morgan over here as well, doing an incredible job, amazing job when it comes to addressing the mental health challenges. And we'll have a lot more to say about the great work that she's been doing very, very soon. But at the end of the day, politicians, members of parliament are elected. We face our electors. We are part of our communities. We live in them. We engage there every day. If there's one thing that I am finding a little hard to let go of, is that prior to coming into this role, I loved being in my community all the time. This role, obviously, and my community is very understanding of that, that it's hard to spend as much time there as I used to. But I still get there on game days, Josh, and on many other occasions. But it's where you live and breathe and you can- it's not a question of either or Michelle. It's a question of the two working together. And my best experience as a Minister and a Prime Minister is where you just worked together closely with your public officials and you make decisions.
SABRA LANE: Laura Tingle.
LAURA TINGLE: Laura Tingle from 7.30, Prime Minister, I’d just like to take you up on some of those points. What's the point of having guidelines for a scheme if they're not followed? You say that the scheme, all the funds that were distributed were to eligible applications and that's fine.
PRIME MINISTER: That was the Auditor-General's finding.
LAURA TINGLE: Yes. And the Auditor-General also questioned the legality of the Minister's involvement in making those decisions. It also said that the guidelines weren't followed, which included the fact that schemes shouldn't have been started, or funding shouldn't have been given to applications where things had already been started. And that funding should have been completed by the 30th of June last year. So I'm wondering, when Federal Cabinet sat down on the 3rd of March to consider giving a further $42.5 million to the scheme, how did Cabinet think that that money was going to be distributed when you only had effectively three months for it to be spent on schemes that weren't supposed to be started? And you only had about five weeks before caretaker took precedence to distribute the money?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, as the Auditor-General found, the rules were followed. Guidelines are separate issues. The decisions were enabled for the Minister to make them and the other point I'd make is this, that the question of legality is one that I've referred to the Attorney and he's providing advice on that.
SABRA LANE: Our last question, Kirsten Lawson.
KIRSTEN LAWSON: Thank you. I'll shift tack since the last question with your indulgence, because it's an historic week in Canberra. On Friday, cannabis becomes legal to grow and consume here. I'm wondering if that happens…
PRIME MINISTER: I won't be partaking. Feel free to disclose though, at the table.
LAWSON: If that happens there’s very mixed messages, Prime Minister, to the federal police from the federal government and from the ACT government. The police are being told on the one hand that you want prosecutions. On the other hand, that it is legal in Canberra. Do you anticipate and expect the police to continue prosecuting in Canberra despite it being legal under ACT law? What are your feelings about this historic moment? And can I also ask whether you think it's the thin end of the wedge in terms of drug law reform in Canberra and we'll find other states really following suit?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, states have the legal authority over these matters and I've always been a federalist and states will make their own decisions according to their own priorities and complexion of their own governments and that's up to them. And I would expect federal law enforcement agencies to enforce the law. But we can take one more, if you’d like.
SABRA LANE: Oh, you'd like to take one more? Lanai Scarr.
PRIME MINISTER: She's from, well, she reports for the West. And we can't leave the West out ever, can we Michaelia and Mathias?
LANAI SCARR: Thank you so much, Prime Minister. That's very kind of you.
PRIME MINISTER: Return the favour.
SCARR: I'm not sure I can do that. I won't ask you about cannabis, I can assure you that. Look, you've spoken today about getting defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP. One thing that will be required to be spent on will be the full cycle docking of Collins class submarines. Your Defence Minister said last year, Linda Reynolds, that that decision on whether to move that to Western Australia would be made before the end of last year and that's not occurred. So when is that decision going to occur? And why hasn't it been made yet?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I wouldn't be going into the discussions of national security committees and you wouldn't expect me to be doing that. It is a very important decision. We've been weighing the advice and the recommendations as they're coming through and the NSC will deal with that matter when, you know, we've arrived at a decision. I'm not telecasting or forecasting any timetable around that. It's a very big, important decision. There are many issues at stake and we're weighing those up carefully. That's, I mean, that's how we always make those decisions.
SCARR: But the Minister did say last year it would occur before the end of last year. So why did that not occur?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, the timetable has changed.
SABRA LANE: Everybody, please join me in thanking the Prime Minister.
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, everyone.