Friday, 30 October 2020

Press Conference, Bushfire Royal Commission

​Subjects: Bushfire Royal Commission

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: … after this year's black summer. Can I thank the royal commissioners, for not only their diligence but their compassion towards the victims of this year's black summer. Tragically, we saw 33 people lose their lives. Ten of those were emergency services personnel. They gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country and in fact, some came from across the seas to help us. So out of respect to them, it was important that the Government acted swiftly in making sure that we introduced a royal commission that got underneath the skin of this whole event and look at broader natural disasters to make sure that we're prepared for into the future, disasters of this scale and magnitude. Whether it be fire, whether it be floods, cyclone, whatever else may be thrown at us. So it was important that we did this in an open and transparent way and I thank all of those commissioners, the three commissioners for that in the way that they have done that.

It's important to understand that out of this report, the Government intends to work collaboratively with the states. This is not just the Federal Government's royal commission; this is one at the states have signed up to well. The letters patent were agreed to and signed off to by all state and territory governments, along with the Commonwealth. So this is a partnership that we will work with our state and territory governments in a constructive and collaborative way.

There are 80 recommendations. Fourteen of those are for the Commonwealth Government. Twenty-three relate solely to state and territories. Forty-one are shared, are shared responsibilities that we'll work with the states. And two pertain to the industry, insurance industry and the building code board. The real theme about the report is around risk reduction, preparedness, around response, relief, recovery, reconstruction and above all, resilience.

So some of the key findings just to give a flavour, one of the key findings is the commissioners asked us as a Federal Government to bring forward legislation to bring up an opportunity for the Federal Government to declare a state of emergency. Now that doesn't mean that the Federal Government would come in and take over the operational management of fighting the fires. But it would give a clear delineation and a trigger point in which the Federal Government would be able to bring in its agencies, whether that be the Defence Force or any other, to support and assistance state governments across the country because of the scale and size of that disaster. That is a simple recommendation that the commission has made around making sure there's greater coordination and cooperation between state and Federal Government. There's also a recommendation around a sovereign aerial firefighting fleet. One that has been mooted previously and one that we'll work with the states around. There is an arrangement already in place whereby the state commissioners work through a peak body to determine what that aerial firefighting fleet looks like. But the commission has said that it would be advantageous for a sovereign aerial firefighting fleet because most are currently leased from other countries around the world. There's also a recommendation around a single relief and recovery agency. You need to appreciate we currently have two at the moment. When it comes to natural disasters, we have a Flood and Recovery Agency and obviously the National Bushfire Recovery Agency was set up in response to this bushfire. So we'll take that recommendation.

There is recommendations around charities, one that we've been working with already with respect to the charity sector. There needs to be greater transparency. I think we need to get it back to first principles when it comes to charities. If a punter wants to give $500 to a disaster victim, they expect that $500 to go to them, less some admin costs. And I think we need to make sure that there's clear transparency of the charity sector in achieving that and giving confidence to our community. And we've already had initial discussions with the charity sector around this but this gives us greater and clearer direction about moving forward with respect to that. There's also key findings around land management and making sure that hazard reduction, which is the responsibility of the states, is undertaken and is transparent in terms of the targets and the achievement of those targets. But, more importantly, I think it also brings into light the role that First Australians can play. And I've said this when this disaster first hit us, back at the start of the year, is that our First Australians have a significant role to play in education us and working with the new science to make sure that we can prepare better for particular fires in the future.

And the last one I'll talk about is the harmonisation of our data and our warning system. That's just common sense. And in fact, the state and Federal Government have already have been making continual inroads into this in trying to get the harmonisation around that but making sure there's a single source of truth around that data is important and then making sure that the public has confidence in that harmonisation and what that looks like and how it's displayed to them, and giving them that confidence will save lives. So it's important that we continue to work with the states on that. And I have to say we have already started the journey, not pre-empting the outcome of the royal commission but because of the proposals the royal commission put forward in August, we had already been working on looking at harmonising a number of these things previously and this obviously gives us the impetus with respect of the royal commission.

The next steps from the Federal Government's perspective is that I will call the ministerial Council meeting of emergency service ministers from around the country to make sure that they understand the recommendations within this report, that we collectively work together around achieving them. The Federal Government will be looking at this report and in fact, some of the recommendations, in fact, as early as next week at Cabinet. So the Government does not intend to take a backward step on this. We intend to address these recommendations as quickly as we can. Our intent is, as possibly as early as next week, Cabinet may be in a position to approve recommendations and our response to those recommendations, particularly the 14 that pertain to the Federal Government. The Prime Minister's been very clear on this from the start that this report was important to our nation, not just to pay respect to those lives that were lost but to each and every one of us moving into the future. We have prepared meticulously for this season. Make no mistake. Our State Emergency Service Commissioners have done an exemplary job again this year. We are well-prepared and even in the light of COVID-19, I think Australians can take great comfort that we have some of the most professional emergency service personnel in the country, many of which are volunteers but I say to each Australian, you also have a responsibility to prepare. You have a responsibility to yourselves, to your family but also those emergency service personnel who are prepared to put their lives on the line for you.

This is a report that the Government will obviously work as quickly as we can with our state colleagues, but one, as I said at the start with, goes in that next journey of this nation's healing after one of the most significant natural disasters in our nation's history.

QUESTION: Are there any recommendations here you can't accept or have difficulty with?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Not from our perspective. Obviously, I think it's important we, again, appreciate this as a royal commission, not just of the Federal Government's making but of state jurisdictions as well. And it's important we respect that and I think the tone that we've been able to maintain and the collaboration we've been able to maintain with states is so important and what we'll continue to work with. I don't want to pre-empt all state jurisdictions and territory jurisdictions around where they will go with some of those recommendations. But I think we're entering into those discussions and have a report that gives us a baseline to work collaboratively on, further deepening our relationship as we have over the last couple of weeks. But in terms of the federal recommendations, there is nothing there that the Federal Government is concerned about. I think they are very pragmatic recommendations and ones that we will continue to pursue.

QUESTION: How many of these can you have in place by this bushfire season? And given that La Nina is forecast, is the country prepared for extreme weather events like that, as we speak right now?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. Let me tell you, we are in bushfire season. In fact, we've had bushfires in Queensland, in my home state. We are still under threat, particularly in some parts of Queensland and WA and, in fact, even around Canberra here, there's risks of grass fires later on in the season, despite the rain. So what our emergency service personnel are prepared and always prepared for is to be able to pivot. And we will be able to pivot, despite COVID, from bushfires into cyclones and into floods. And in fact, we have worked collaboratively with the states, coordinated with this nationally coordinated approach to make sure that if there is an event, particularly in North Queensland, that we can pivot to a flood and we can bring emergency service personnel from other states, in a COVID-safe way, into North Queensland, or anyone else in the country, and get them to support the emergency services in that particular state. So we are well prepared. We were well prepared last year.

Let me make this clear. Our emergency service personnel plan meticulously every year, and they do that with the multiple agencies that feed into that, whether it be the Bureau of Meteorology, CSIRO, their own departments in terms of understanding the amount of hazard reduction that's been done or needs to be done. There are multiple factors that are brought into this. This is scientific work that they work through and then put that in an operational lens through the professionalism of the men and women who are the boots on the ground. So, that is prepared. We are fully prepared to pivot from bushfire into any other hazard that comes our way.

QUESTION: [Inaudible]… a situation being for the federal government to declare a state of emergency, and what happens from there?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, the definition of that declaration is one that we will work through, particularly Emergency Management Australia and Home Affairs. There's been some work done on that, but I think it's important before we pre-empt is that we clearly define what that definition would look like. Again, I have to reiterate, this is not about the Federal Government coming in and taking over and fighting fires, or doing swift river rescues. The states are the best ones to do that, they are the professionals on the ground who are trained meticulously for that. So, what our premise is is that there is normally a need where particularly the scale of the disaster is so significant that the resources required are more than what the state can provide, or states can provide. So, we will work through that definition and make sure that we do that in a respectful way. But I have to make it clear, we are not planning on taking over any of the emergency service roles that states quite adequately, more than adequately undertake at the moment.

QUESTION: And how quickly could you legislate that national state of emergency bill?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think once we define that definition, we can do that quickly. And the intent of the government is that going through these recommendations, we will act as swiftly as possible. I think we have shown that and demonstrated that by the way that we've started this royal commission. But if there is legislation that's required, we will be able to draft that up as quickly as possible, and I hope that we would get bipartisan support with respect to that.

And let me just say, also, with respect to the timing and release of this report, the convention around the release of royal commissions – so, particularly those where letters patent were agreed and signed off with the states and territories – is one that needs to be coordinated. And it is disrespectful to those victims in the bushfires to politicise that. There are in fact two Labor states that understood that convention and did not say anything until the coordination and the collaboration and the simultaneous dropping of this release was agreed to. So, I think we just need to make sure that there is a structured process to this, and I just ask that the politics be taken out. This is about people, not politics. The report has been done very quickly, and we have had interim findings and this now is the baseline for us to which to work from.

QUESTION: Minister, what do you make of Annastacia Palaszczuk this morning has announced that New South Wales will be open [indistinct]-

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: [Interrupts] Well, before I- is there any more on the report before I go to [indistinct]?

QUESTION: [Inaudible]… obviously that requires coordination with the states and territories, but how quickly do you think the country could get on with buying planes and other aerial assets?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, it's important to appreciate we already have- some of the states already have aerial assets themselves. What the arrangement is at the moment, there's a peak body called AFAC. That is effectively the fire commissioners from around the country who come together. They plan what is the suite of aircraft that they would require, and that ranges from large aerial tankers through to small fixed wing aircraft to helicopters. They determine that, not the government, they are the professionals. And what has previously happened is that it has been more feasible to lease those from overseas. But as we have seen an overlap of seasons between the northern and southern hemisphere, the Commissioner has said that it would be wise for us to build on that fleet. They have given a list of aircraft that they believe should be part of that sovereign fleet. We will now need to work with the states around making sure that the mechanism to achieve that is done. We proved that during the bushfires, we put an extra $11 million into the standing cost, just the standing cost of having planes on the tarmac ready to go. And we have made sure now that that continual funding is just under $26 million a year indexed. But if that needs a change, then the government will move with that but again we will have to work collaboratively with the states, and again work with the fire commissioners around what is the baseline fleet of aircraft they believe is necessary to keep us safe. That is where we will take our advice from.

QUESTION: So, in the [indistinct] fundraising laws, there's a suggestion that fundraising should be nationally coordinated [indistinct]. Does that mean that someone may be able to contribute in a local area but the money will go somewhere else?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I think this is going to be one of the big opportunities to leave a legacy around charities, and I think there was a depletion of trust in the charity sector out of this. I have discussed that depletion of trust with them and they acknowledge that, and this is where I think we can, particularly for natural disasters, put in place and leave a legacy of a platform that you can pull off the shelf on any natural disasters, where we know what federal governments do, what state governments do, and then what charities can do. We make sure we run down those laneways. And that means we get better bang for buck. But we've got to coordinate that better and make sure, particularly that we don't have charities scrambling over one another in particular areas, and we get better bang for Australian's dollar for what they provide to them, and how we coordinate that better.

So, they've already made a suggestion around a code of conduct or a charter. Red Cross has themselves and we want to explore that. We would prefer not to legislate, we would like to see leaderships by the charities on this, and I think this is an opportunity for them to do that because I think that has real scope to provide real benefits to Australians in their time of need, and it's actually an avenue and a vehicle for Australians that aren't impacted by these disasters to really show their concern for their fellow Australian. So, I think we've got to get those principles and those values right around charities.

QUESTION: [Interrupts] So, is it feasible in that respect to have a cap on the amount of money or the proportion of money that charities can use for administration, and the proportion of money that they should direct towards the people who need it, which is why it's donated?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think the big piece on that is transparency because if you know what the administration costs are, you make a decision as someone that's going to donate around where you think you're going to get the best bang for buck. So, we need to work through all those issues and that's why I think the charities have shown some maturity, and the government has said to them that we need that maturity. We do not want to have to legislate. We think we can do that without it and this is the opportunity to really lead that legacy for natural disasters in the future, because this is a real opportunity to get that piece of it right.

QUESTION: [Indistinct] Annastacia Palaszczuk has kept Queensland closed with Greater Sydney, opened it to regional New South Wales, closed it to regional Victorians and all Victorians. What do you make of that call a day out from the state election?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I will let the good people of Queensland make their mind up over the next 24 hours.

QUESTION: [Inaudible]…

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: And I have always been clear on this and I think people know where I'm going to vote tomorrow and how I will vote. But let me say this, it should always be predicated on science, not on politics, and I think that the science has been cherry-picked from the get go from the Queensland Government.

QUESTION: There's no science behind this decision at all.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, the problem we've got is that the science is not transparent. The Chief Medical Officer is being used as a political pawn in Queensland. The science has not been put out there. Now, the APPHC [sic] has made recommendations aplenty about having a hotspot definition. That would make sense. This is what I think needs to come out of this COVID-19. There needs to be new thinking about Federation. 120 years ago, there were lines on a map. We cannot get back to the parochialism of that. The world has moved past that, it's evolved past. I'm a proud Queenslander, we love towelling up New South Wales every State of Origin. But let me tell you, we are one nation. And what's important here is that we back ourselves and we back each other, whether they be in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, with science. And we get some consistency. And that's what the leadership of the Prime Minister was trying to achieve through the definition of a hotspot, that we're all singing off the same hymn sheet. Like we're trying to with warning systems for bushfire. This is just common sense, and this means that we can keep the economy going. This is the challenge we've got. This virus has been around for some time, and it'll be around until we get a proper vaccine. So, if we don't back one another, if we revert back to thinking of 120 years ago, then we'll hold this nation back. This is the opportunity for Federation to shine, to show leadership, for states to follow the Prime Minister in saying if we trust one another and back one another, we will be out of this COVID recession quicker, and we can still protect lives. Because ultimately, that's what we're meant to do.

QUESTION: Was the Premier wrong to make the decision she made?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I don't have the science because she won't release it. And this is the challenge we've got. Government should be transparent. We're being transparent. We've put out a report that we're going to be held to account on. We're saying- and as I've always said as a proud Queenslander, when I saw those harrowing cases of people just across the border that were not allowed to get medical attention because their closest medical attention is in Queensland, and had been getting that for decades, was stripped away from them. It's not what Australians do to one another. We're better than that. We're bigger than that. And that's why I say to the Premier, this is above politics, this is people. We're all Australian, and you've got to work with your fellow Australians to get this right. Be open and transparent with it. That's what we say.

QUESTION:  Just back on the report, it states that smoke blanketed much of Australia, including capital cities, and contributed to hundreds of deaths. Should the official death toll of 33 be updated?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, look, I think that's predicated on a previous definition of obviously deaths from this event. Now, I think that's going to be difficult to be able to define. There is no definition currently for that. So, the ones that have been the long-standing arrangement is that tragically those that were caught in a natural disaster are the ones that are actually put against that disaster. So, I think if you want to start stretching that, then there needs to be a greater definition and science put around it, but we should never belittle anyone's life that has been lost, whether directly or indirectly out of this disaster or any other disaster.

QUESTION:  [Indistinct]… should be considered?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think obviously we'll work through those issues one by one, but I think there's some more pressing issues for the government and state governments to work through.

QUESTION:  With the public safety mobile broadband capability, there are stories after every cyclone. There was heaps of them in the bushfire of people leaving at the wrong time, getting stuck in a black spot and then not being able to, you know, either been caught or so on. I'm sure you would be familiar with that in your electorate. Is this something that can be delivered quickly in a nation as vast as ours?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. Well, we've cut the check. Over $8 million has gone out to get this up and going and to make sure the states come on board. We've also said, as part of our bushfire response, $37 million will go into improving the telecommunications assets for bushfires in a lot of these bushfire areas. And the next round of the mobile phone blackspot program will in fact go to a lot of these areas where there has been vulnerabilities. So, we will continue to work through that. You've got to understand that, no matter what you do in terms of the assets you've built, you cannot always build them to the extent that will protect them from damage.

 One of the things that has been very disappointing, and I've had private conversations with Telstra on a number of occasions. We've asked the telcos to share the locations of a lot of their infrastructure so that our emergency services personnel know what assets need to be protected. I get there's competitive tension in the telecommunications market, but I've had two or three cracks at this. And there's always- we're going to help, we're going to do it, but they still haven't done anything. So, it's also very beholden on the telcos to do something as well.

QUESTION:  One section of this report, it says the disaster outlook is alarming. In another, it says there's increasing risk of multiple hazard events occurring concurrently and that further global warming over the next two decades is inevitable. How important is climate to all this? And isn't this a message to do more in terms of policy on minimising climate change?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, this is preparing us for those disasters. This is giving us the framework in which federal and state governments need- help to protect, prepare and protect Australian citizens. And that's why, particularly around the initial recommendation they talked about around that declaration legislation, that is the opportunity to make sure that all resources, so that we are prepared for this, for further disasters of this scale or even larger, are in place; that we can take them off the shelf. We act swiftly, we save lives as quickly as we can. The Government is working through and living up to its international commitments. We are doing that. We have a 2030 plan. We've got one- we're saying, and in fact, as part of Paris, it is saying that we, at some point in the second part of this century, we should be at zero emissions.

 So, the Federal Government is doing everything we are required to, as part of our international commitments, openly and transparently. We are saying we can get there through technology, backing ourselves with technology to reduce our emissions. That is what we're trying to do responsibly while keeping the economy going and being able to pay to have the very best assets in the world to protect us when natural disasters come. But it's not just Australia that has to do it. The rest of the world needs to come with us. And we're proving to the rest of the world that we're going to be a good global citizen. We'll live up to the commitment that we signed up to, but we're going to protect the Australian economy because we're backing ourselves with technology and the smarts of the 21st century to achieve it.

QUESTION:  What does that [indistinct] look like? You talk about trying to protect the economy [indistinct]…

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I'll give you a perfect example. I've got four coal-fired power stations in my electorate and one of them is the first one to sign up to carbon capture storage. They potentially will reduce their emissions by 90 per cent by that technology. That's smart technology. Now, it is a game, not about whether you want coal, gas or renewables. It's about reducing emissions. So, wouldn't we back ourselves with the smarts and the technology of the 21st century? That's a smart nation, not one that just wants to run down a philosophical view or argument for the sake of having an argument. Just Australians want action. That's what we're saying. We're giving them plan, a technology plan. They can have comfort in that we're going to reduce emissions, and we're going to protect jobs. And then it's going to be cheap for you to get up in the morning and turn the lights on. That's what Australians want. They want a government that is practical, that uses common sense and gets out of their lives.

QUESTION:  [Indistinct]… emergency legislation. When you say very quickly, is that before the end of the year?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Potentially, depending on the definition. I think that's where the legwork really needs to happen. But we obviously have been considering a lot of options and recommendations that may come out because we got a glimpse into that in August. So, there has already been a lot of work with respect to the number of these recommendations that the Government has been working up in anticipation if the royal commission went down that track. So, we've tried to make sure that we pre-empted as best we can so that we don't lose any more time.

QUESTION:  What difference would a sovereign aerial fleet have made if it was in place for last summer? Could lives have been saved?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, I don't think that's the case. In fact, I wrote to AFAC in November, asking them: did they have enough aerial assets? The response I got was, yes, they had enough aerial assets at that point in time. Subsequently, about two weeks later, they wrote to me and said they'd now believe, because of the changing events, that they would need more assets. The Government acted quickly. In fact, I think we bought two or three VLATs, Very Large Aerial Tankers, in. We acted swiftly as soon as we were asked. And again, the Government doesn't decide what type of aircraft comes in. We let the experts do that. And our fire commissioners were agile enough to tell us that's what they needed, and we acted and we cut the check and got the planes in.

QUESTION:  On another matter, you had made a string of announcements as Water Minister to ensure integrity around Murray Darling, even appointing an inspector-general to oversee accountability. But you had written in your press releases at the time that a national integrity commission would be a safeguard, but there isn't one, so how does that work?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, there will be one. The Government has been quite clear and been part of public conversation for the last couple of weeks is that the Government is working through the legislation as we speak. There's consultation going on and the Attorney is working through that. We've got great confidence in the Attorney-General in making sure that that will be delivered and it'll be appropriate. That's the Government's position and will continue to be the Government's position.

QUESTION:  But there's no legislation at the moment and this is a press release from a long time ago. Until that actually happens, is Murray Darling going to be plagued by scandals and issues?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. That's why there's an Inspector-General that-

QUESTION:  [Indistinct], does he?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, in fact, the challenge with powers is not necessarily the Federal Government, it's the state governments. Because if you go back to the Constitution, you need to understand that the management and ownership of resources in this country was given to the states by our forefathers when they wrote the Constitution. So, we are prepared to act with respect to water. The states have to mirror that legislation in their own jurisdictions. Now, that's the beauty of Federation, but the Federal Government has shown its intent and we'll continue to make sure with Mick Keelty who, I have to say, did an outstanding job to build trust and confidence across the basin, and I know that his replacement will do exactly the same.

 Thanks guys.

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