E & OE.......................
Topics: Andrew O’Dwyer, bushfire recovery, Snowy Hydro 2.0
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, good morning everybody. First of all can I start off on a sombre note? Today we mourn the loss of Andrew O’Dwyer, his funeral today in Sydney is a stark reminder of those three brave Australians who made the ultimate sacrifice for their community and our nation. Not only do we pass on our sympathies to their families but also to the RFS that is their family as well. They have lost three brothers. It is a deeply sad day for the community for the RFS and for their families and we thank them and they should be profoundly proud of what these three brave young men have done for their community and their nation. They will never be forgotten and we thank them and we thank their families profusely. Obviously it highlights the dangerous nature of what this bushfire season has thrown up at this nation and it's important that we understand we are not out of this yet. Obviously later in the week, we're concerned again about where weather conditions could take us.
So it's important- it's in fact our responsibility to make sure we continue to prepare for that. Each and every one of us have a responsibility to those men and women that are still putting their lives on the line and those three brave Australians that lost their lives that they do the right thing and prepare and act when they're told to do it. It's imperative that we continue to make sure that we are vigilant. But above all, do it for your loved ones. We do not want to see another statistic of 26 Australians lost, any addition to that at all during this crisis. So I say to each and every one of us, please be prepared and act when provided.
But today I'm here obviously with Andrew Colvin who will lead our recovery agency and you have to understand while some parts of the nation are still fighting fires and preparing for the next wave of fires later in the week, there are other parts of this country that have obviously gone through it and now are looking for the recovering. And it's important that we step that up and understand that we already have made a considerable contribution as we stand already. And that's come in many parts, in making sure that we do give some dignity and respect to those that have been impacted, and we've done that through payments of $1000 per adult and $400 per child as well as some supplementary payments with the states and they're available now.
In fact, the Prime Minister made it very clear this morning that we're to get out of the way with paperwork. We have got over 20 pop-up centres from the Department of Human Services getting in to these communities now and they've been instructed: get the money into people's pockets. Yes, we'll audit it and we expect people to act with honesty and integrity, but the money has to get out there to give them that first bit of integrity and respect they deserve and putting some money in their pockets and we'll continue to work through that.
It's also important that our rural firefighters, who are coming off the front line, having some reprieve as a result of the weather conditions, understand that that compensation that we've worked through with the states is still available and the states have got that ready to go. And obviously, there's a lot on our firefighters' mind, but we want to make sure they understand that their efforts will be compensated. While some may not want it, we cannot understand everyone's own financial circumstances and it's important that if they need financial support, it is there for them. And we continue to work through that.
Obviously now, Andrew and I will work through the next phase of this recovery in a broader sense. And I don't want it to be a Canberra-led recovery. I want it to be a local recovery. And that's why in rebuilding lives, it can't be done from Canberra. It has to be done at a local level and AJ will be tasked with getting out there on the road, sitting around halls, town halls, kitchen tables, talking to people, understanding. There will be whole-of-government responses and programs, but we also want to empower the local community and normally through local governments. They are the ones that are connected more granularly to these communities. It's important that we empower them to help in that recovery and making sure that the money that the Australian taxpayers are putting out, are investing in this process, the process of recovery and the rebuilding of these lives is done appropriately.
So we'll continue to make sure as a whole of government we come together in making sure that every department is now tasked in understanding how we can make that recovery happen and it will be coordinated through the leadership of Andrew Colvin who I can think of no-one better to lead this that has the experience to be able to bring together agencies and above all to bring together people. This is what it's about now. It's about us as a nation coming together, all levels of government, community leaders, even those that have been impacted, we come together and Andrew will lead that in making sure that recovery is effective. The dollar amount doesn't matter. This is about rebuilding lives. This is about making sure those communities that have been impacted by this are looked after.
So Andrew, thank you.
ANDREW COLVIN: Minister, thank you very much and good afternoon everybody. I think- I want to start by also acknowledging the sheer tragedy that is unfolding and has unfolded over the- over what is now a few months and the minister has already raised the funeral in Sydney today. Andrew and his family - of course, anyone who knows me, knows my background knows my care and thoughts are with emergency responders and their families and the impact of what they do for us each and every day, the impact it has on them - and of course, Andrew's family, Andrew's colleagues, Andrew's friends are now dealing with that in a very real way and our thoughts are with him.
Twenty-six lives have already been lost. We have unaccounted for people across Australia. We have over 1,800 homes have been destroyed and that's before we even begin to count the cost of outhouses, of sheds, of public places, of schools, the heartbeat of some of these communities. It's before we even begin to count the cost to business, to those people who may not have lost their homes, but they don't have a place to turn up for work today. They're not sure how their next pay cheque is going to arrive. The cost of this is unprecedented. And as a result of that, and I welcome the announcement by the Prime Minister and by the Minister, that we will set up a national response.
And of course, it's a privilege and an honour to get to lead a national agency of that nature, but I'm under no illusions about the size of the challenge that is ahead of us. But I'm also under absolutely no illusions about the support that is there for this to be successful, not only from within government, but just in the short 24 to 48 hours since this was announced, I have been inundated with support from inside and outside government. This is when Australians are at their best, there's no question about that. And our job now is to harness that and to make sure that we are delivering for Australians, for communities, in a way that is local - as the minister has said - in a way that is tangible, in a way that has an impact.
30 years in policing has taught me a lot about how to work with other agencies, how to work with police, how to work with emergency responders, how to work with states and territories and I look forward to that. I've been in touch with so many of my state and territory counterparts already. I will continue to be in close contact with them because that is where this will work, that is where we have to deliver. This will be- it may be nationally generated, it will be locally delivered and the people on the front line will often be states and territories.
Of course we've now got our army reservists, we've got our Defence Force out doing amazing work all across the community and the Minister just mentioned the work of Services Australia getting our mobile centres out into the communities, getting the pop-ups into the communities, so that people have somewhere to go and talk to, people have a face to put to the challenges and the problems that they need help with. We will continue that. That is- that will be ongoing. It's rolling out now. A lot has been done already.
The beauty is I don't start this agency from the standing start. The government have previously dealt with disasters, perhaps not of this nature, but it's not new business to governments in Australia, we know that. A lot has already been done and the announcement of $2 billion yesterday by the Prime Minister is in addition to the substantial work that has already been contributed by government across a range of payment factors. So there's a lot of work ahead of us, but a lot has already been done and I'm glad that we hit the ground running in many ways.
We'll be listening and we'll be learning. That's the key message here. I need to get out, my team and I need to get out to the communities and hear what they need, to hear what will have a meaningful impact now in an immediate relief sense but also long after hopefully these fires have been dealt with and we are dealing with recovery. I'm very keen early in this- in the tenure of this agency to get up to Queensland, to get into northern New South Wales, who went through their fire events now several months ago. This isn't about southern New South Wales or east Victoria or South Australia; this is a national response. And across the nation, there are communities who are at different stages of these phases, different stages of grieving. So we need to get in and help all of them and that's what I'll be doing.
In terms of how we will do this, of course, it's a whole-of-government effort. I want to bring a whole-of-government effect and I want that to include state and territory where we can as well, a whole-of-community effect to this. I've been inundated with support from across the public service here at the Commonwealth level and I know that that extends to our state and territory partners as well. There are a range of good ideas out there. There's no shortage of what we need to do. My job, of course, is to make sure that we coordinate them, make sure that they're effective, make sure they are what is needed on the ground and we're working through that now. We're haven't- we're not waiting to get started on that. The Prime Minister has been very clear to the Minister and I about getting services out there, getting money flowing, getting support flowing and that's what we're doing now.
Minister, I might leave it at that. I'm sure there'll be some questions.
QUESTION: Mr Colvin, I understand, obviously appreciate you've only been in the job a couple of days. Have you had a chance to see first-hand the damage, travel to one of the fire-affected communities or?
ANDREW COLVIN: No, I haven't and I want to do that, but at the same time I think we all have a pretty good feel for what's happened on the ground. I need to hear from people directly. But I'm sure I sit here looking at this room and those that watching, there will be very few of us who don't know someone who has been directly impacted themselves, either a family member or a friend. That's the same for me as well. We will get out as quickly as I possibly can. As I said, I need to get into Queensland, and northern New South Wales, but I also need to see some of these areas in the South Coast and east Victoria areas and see that for myself.
QUESTION: Is there a timeframe as to when you will hit the ground?
ANDREW COLVIN: Well it's hopefully this week. The Minister and I are working through schedules. We'll be out there regularly. If not this week, we'll be out there in the early stages of next week to start to do that.
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: One of the priorities is making sure money hits the ground and we need to make sure the mechanics is right and we're obviously working - and that's why we were hoping to get out even as early as today. But it's important we get the framework around this as quickly as we possibly can because these towns need money and that's why we just need to do the leg work here, do the grunt work and then get out and listen.
QUESTION: You mentioned that it was a short-term relief and long-term recovery project in tandem. Just wondering, given the scale of devastation we've seen in some and level of danger that's been evidenced in some isolated towns, whether you'll be considering if the best path to rebuilding is to relocate some small hamlets if there's a consideration to that sort of level of danger of some isolated areas?
ANDREW COLVIN: I think part of that's going to rely on damage assessments and damage assessments are underway at the moment. When I talk about relief and recovery, I mean in my mind they're two very distinct phases. We're in a relief phase around the South Coast of New South Wales where we're not fighting fires at the moment, whereas in other parts of the country we're starting to get into that long-term recovery. Much of what the ADF and our emergency service brothers and sisters are doing is around relief, getting generators out there, getting power turned on, getting phone towers back up, getting power into homes. So, we'll transition into recovery. In terms of what that recovery looks like, I think, Minister, we're going to listen to what the community has to say.
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. They should be making that determination, not us. That shouldn't come from Canberra. The community should lead that recovery. It's what they want it to look like and that's why we're there - to empower them, to listen, to learn, and then act.
QUESTION: So one of the- Mr Colvin, James from the ABC. I've been talking to a few small businesses who've been having a range of problems. One of the problems is that they're just not getting the customers through that they would otherwise get because of road closures, or people just staying away because of danger. What does recovery look like for them over the sort of medium term because they've kind of missed a season now? A lot of them are missing a summer now. And so, if they don't come through, is there a role for government over the kind of next three to six months to help those people rebuild?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, it's already started. In fact, those businesses that have been impacted can get income support, 13 weeks of income support. And we'd say to those businesses that can demonstrate that they've been impacted, whether it be B&Bs, whether they're reliant on tourism, they simply have to demonstrate that. We're making it as simple as we possibly can. Simplification is so important here. And Stuart Robert and I have been tasked by the Prime Minister to look at some of these forms from the perspective, not of a bureaucrat, but by somebody that's feeling these damn things out. So we understand their emotional state, and exactly what we're asking: do we really need it? The most important thing is we get people's lives up and going again. We rebuild them as quickly as we can and we simplify it. So that's already started with the 13 weeks and that will continue to roll out.
A broader package around business support is being worked up now and that's why Andrew and I didn't get out today. We're working through that and there'll be some announcements in the coming days. We're not talking about months down the track that we'll be putting announcements out. We'll be talking in the next few days that there'll be further announcements. So, we've got to get the grant work right now and then-that's the first phase and then obviously, the broader one is going out and listening and that's where Andrew will be out there, sitting at kitchen tables, listening to people, understanding their story.
ANDREW COLVIN: Minister, if I can just quickly add to that. It's a good point because there is always a risk that we focus on the immediate, we focus on that that is in front of us, that is so clearly devastated and destroyed. As I said before, there are people who may not have lost their home but they don't have a workplace to go to. There's businesses who may- the business may still stand but there's no customers. The road is blocked and that could be quite some time before that is re-established.
My aim here- yes, payments are available. Yes, there is short-term assistance. But long-term? We need to get tourists back into the south coast. We need to get tourists back into the Gippsland region. We need to get tourists back into Queensland or wherever is affected because that is sustainable, and that is what, I'm sure, these business owners want.
QUESTION: Mr Colvin, with so many areas affected, how will you decide where to begin? And also, how long is this expected to go on for?
ANDREW COLVIN: That's a great question. I'm working at the moment simply trying to get my head around the magnitude and the breadth of the areas affected. And as I said before, not every area is affected in the same way. We've got industries that are tourism-related industries that are terribly affected and then you've got small farm and agriculture industries affected in other parts of the country. They're through that and they're now looking for recovery.
Prioritising where I go is a big part of what I'll be doing over the next couple of days. Known, of course, as I said I need to get into those places like Queensland and northern New South Wales, who are probably more ready to receive recovery assistance. I don't want to get in the way of response. I don't want to get in the way of those people doing their job to save homes, lives and properties, but I need to hear from them.
QUESTION: Several major drinking water catchments have been almost completely burnt out. Have you got any advice on risks to water quality when it does rain? Are there plans in place for that?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Obviously, we're working with state agencies with respect to that, and that's why the Prime Minister took the pre-emptive step of asking the ADF to get involved. We've got engineers on the ground, as we speak, making those assessments, helping state agencies, where we're directed to. The states still lead this and we're being directed by them. But there are expertise that the ADF can provide and they're providing that. And obviously, those critical elements of life are being looked as priority and that's what the states are prioritising, the tasks of the ADF. And we've already got 14 Defence liaison officers in New South Wales and there'll be more to go out as we're asked. And there's also a number of key agencies that are being enshrined with the ADF and in fact, the ADF are looking to put small teams even into some of these small towns that haven't seen anybody, get four or five in a car with a tent, pitch it up there and hopefully, even be able to take some Department of Human Services people out there, so that people know that they're being listened to and Australia cares.
ANDREW COLVIN: I mean, that issue that you raised is very well understood in this country. Unfortunately, we're a country that is ravaged by fire and this is unprecedented size and complexity but we've had fire in catchment areas before, and both at the Commonwealth and the state level, I think it's well understood and there are challenges there.
QUESTION: Another common story that we're hearing a lot is about generators. People really crying out for generators. Obviously, we talked about the sort of distinction between relief and recovery and also that the states are the lead agencies. But has there been any conversation about a federal role, either in the supply of generators or in the supply of diesel?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Already done and started. There are actually five generators that have gone into Victoria. Now, we understand the Victorian electricity supply is starting to shore itself up now and there are still communities in New South Wales. And in fact, this morning, the Prime Minister and I on a teleconference, made sure that EMA, Emergency Management Australia, now looked at that and if those generators can be re-tasked to New South Wales, to those communities, to get power. Obviously, the states are working as quickly as they can to restore electricity, but you got to understand: this is a disaster zone and they can't send people in until it's safe. But if we can get generators, we've made very resource available to the state agencies. As soon as they ask, they get it.
QUESTION: Minister, do you think we have to be prepared for some communities, the industries that underpin those communities, may not come back because of these fires? You look Eden, for instance, with the mill there, the town's biggest employer is burning. Tumut, close, dear to my heart, it's my birthplace, where all the pine plantations that feed the big mill there, a lot of them has been destroyed.
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I'm more optimistic. We're a great nation. We've copped this before and we'll cop it again. But the one thing we do do is recover because we come together. And there's some challenges and I know the Prime Minister was already, this morning, talking to us about the effects of the Eden mill and what can we do there to make sure that we preserve those jobs in those industries. This is why we are such a great nation in adversity; we innovate. We go out and we make sure that we rebuild and recover and we come back stronger and better. So, I'm more optimistic.
I think that we have to go and do this with a lot more optimism and I know that things are tough at the moment and people's confidence has been shattered because of these disastrous events. But we can't give up. We've got to stick together and we can find a way through. And I think if we back ourselves, we back ourselves as a nation and we stick together, then I think we'll tackle any challenge that this disaster throws at us.
QUESTION: Minister, Craig Kelly has gone on UK TV and denied a link between climate change and bushfires. He's being criticised for that. Do you think that he's damaged Australia's reputation on global warming?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look, that's just a sideshow. He doesn't represent the views of the government on what he's saying there and quite frankly, I've got better things to do than worry about what a backbencher goes and says on international TV. You know what? There's people's lives that we're trying to rebuild. There's 26 Australians that have lost their lives. You know what? I couldn't give a rat's what he said. It's irrelevant. Let's just focus on those people that are out there that need our help. That's what we should be focused on as a nation. There's titbits on the sidelines I couldn't care less about.
QUESTION: The Treasurer has probably spoken about this today as well but I'm interested whether your agency has any interplay with this. One of the things that I suppose businesses will be worried about over the medium term is whether banks come looking for their loans and whether they start trying to end some of these amnesties and freezes that might have been provided in the short-term, whether they then dry up, and people are expected to cough up and then go out, go broke, months down the line. What is the interplay there? Are you able to sort of make a promise, for instance, that no business will go broke as a result of this?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, in fact, the Treasurer is not only having conversations with the Insurance Council but the banks. And I have to say from firsthand experience with the drought, the banks have been very proactive and compassionate in their dealings with their customers through these events and obviously, they'll be making some announcements their own. We're also looking at the Regional Investment Corporation. Now, while farmers will be eligible in these areas for the interest-free repayment free loans. We're working as quickly as we can. In fact, I met with the CEO of the Regional Investment Corporation, yesterday in seeing how we can extend that to small businesses. We're about to extend it to small businesses in drought-affected communities that service agricultural pursuits. But we're looking now how do we extend that in the fire zone. We're working as quickly as we can on that because that would then give $500,000 loans interest-free, repayment-free for two years. That'll help them rebuild their cash flow. So that's an important aspect of it, and it'll allow them to even refinance some of their own debt from a commercial bank to the RIC just to give them that breathing space.
So, we're working that up as quickly as we can and again, that's why AJ and I haven't gone out today. There's a lot of legwork that needs to be done that'll make a difference to people's lives and why we had to do it now.
QUESTION: Minister, you said on ABC yesterday that government was well aware that this would be a terrible bushfire season. If that was the case, why did so many government leaders go on holidays?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Because I was charged with the responsibility. I had the full authority of the Australian Government. That's what I'm tasked to do. From September right through to only yesterday, I've approved 50 tasking requests from the states who lead the operational management of these fires. In fact, some of those were approved within a matter of minutes. We made sure that every asset, every bit of support that the states asked for, they got, and I have to say, the states have done an exemplary job. No matter their political persuasion. I think we should be damn proud of the men and women, not only on the frontline, but our commissioners who meticulously plan for this. Now, there's been 26 lives tragically lost. Three of those are brave Australians that gave the ultimate sacrifice to this nation. But you know what? They have saved countless lives and countless homes because of the professionalism. We are dealing with Mother Nature and this is an event that is probably one of the most severe in our written history. So I think while there is a sombre note to this and we mourn, we've also got to be proud of what our professionals have done. They are world-class, if not world-best.
ANDREW COLVIN: Minister, I might just say- I mean, we focus very much, as we should, on homes and lives lost. I know from the New South Wales Rural Fire Service perspective, they're also counting what they think they've saved, and the last figure I saw was over eighteen and a half thousand homes, they believed they've saved. That's amazing, and they should be congratulated for that.
QUESTION: Minister, Mike Kelly, whose electorate has borne the brunt of these fires, has suggested a sort of national service type scheme for young people to help in sort of like- a civil defence type role. Is that something that's worth considering down the track given that we have an aging population, a volunteer base that is dwindling - is it a conversation that we need to have?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look, I think obviously after we deal with the fires, there's going to be a broader conversation as a nation. But, I mean, there's over 200,000 volunteers in the Rural Fire Service across the country. And in fact, if you talk to the Rural Fire Services, they are saying the spike and increase in applications has been significant since these fires started in September. We all have a responsibility to our community and our society. And some of us want to give it in different ways, but you know, this is a noble pursuit - while dangerous. Obviously we need to have those conversations, but I think the fact that we've got over 200,000 Australians that are prepared to volunteer now to be part of this, this service to their community and their country, says a lot about us as a nation. But can we do it better, how do we do it - I think is a conversation after the heat of the moment and when there's calm, mature heads. We just need to focus on keeping people safe and property safe at the moment. I think that's where we need to be. And recovery piece where we can, is where AJ comes into it. So we're trying to make sure we look at this, but obviously there'll be a broader review after this event has been completed. But at the moment, we just need to rebuild lives and protect lives.
QUESTION: Just on the phones, if I could. A lot of people are obviously struggling to get through, and a lot of government services [indistinct] that's 20 mobile operating centres. A lot of people want to get through on the phone and can't. What's the Federal Government's role in working with telcos trying to get areas that have lost coverage back up?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, look, that's obviously continuing. And the telcos have lost a lot of infrastructure in this as well, so they have mobile infrastructure that they'd bring in, and they can bring it in when it's safe. And that's one of the challenges, is as soon as it's practical to get it, in they come in. So we're working with the NBN and the telcos in making sure we can get that recovery piece working as quickly as we can. We're also looking- and the Prime Minister only this morning in our hook up, made it clear that if there's Federal Government assets that can help support the telcos in that comms piece, then we will. Nothing is going to be spared in this. We've made it quite clear this is not about money. This is about lives and rebuilding lives. So as quickly as we possibly can, we will. And the telcos have been very forward leaning on this, and they've made sure that they're doing the utmost they can. But again, they have to keep their people safe as well.
ANDREW COLVIN: There's been no shortage of desire from the telcos in the energy sector to want to get forward and re-establish communication. But to your point, if we see an area that is struggling without comms, that's where we'll get the mobile pop ups to; that's where we'll put people on the ground to make sure. So we're constantly doing our analysis of the challenge of the regions, and whatever the need is, is what we'll respond to.
QUESTION: Minister, you mentioned some potential in dangerous weather towards the end of this week. Have you had any advice on some of those access roads to coastal towns in New South Wales and Vic that are still at risk of falling trees, smouldering logs and that sort of stuff? Have you had any advice on getting those roads reopened and shoring up leaks through that hot weather?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. And that's one of the challenging parts of this, is around- once the fires go through along roadside, the trees, getting the integrity of those trees, and obviously that has to- that takes painful meticulous assessment. So our firefighters go out with arborists in many cases, and make those assessments, and then obviously someone has to come along and knock the tree over and move it. So that's why it takes time to get roads cleared, and where the ADF is being directed by state agencies, they do that. We're trying to do that as quickly as we can, and as the weather abated, it has given us a window opportunity. They're doing that at every aspect, and obviously we're hopeful that the weather may be kinder to us this time, but we're preparing for the worst, and that's why I'm proud of our state agencies and all that they've done. They have prepared every step of the way for the worst, and they've made sure that they have done everything humanly possible to ensure that lives have been saved where they can.
QUESTION: Minister Colvin, your appointment is for an initial two years. Is that going to be long enough given the scale of the disaster and things like that, what you're dealing with?
ANDREW COLVIN: Look, as the Prime Minister said, it's an initial two years. We'll- you know, we'll need to make those assessments as we go along. Some of this will need a long term recovery. What I’ve seen from the Prime Minister, the Minister, and the government generally is two years shouldn't be seen as a lack of commitment. If this takes five years, ten years, somebody will be doing this work on behalf of the government.
QUESTION: I'm not suggesting it's a commitment or a deadline or anything like that, I just wonder if the scale of what we're dealing with is-
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I think you can put it as simple as whatever it takes.
QUESTION: Just one- it's a smaller issue. Is there any update on the impact on the Snowy Hydro- Snowy Hydro 2.0?
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: The last brief I got was that things had abated there, and in fact this window had given the opportunity for some cool burning, to make sure that they were more confident. But obviously, we stand ready and prepared. And again, the state agencies have planned for this and made sure that they protected those assets, those key assets as best they can. And now with this window of opportunity taking more pre-emptive steps to try and protect that asset further if conditions move against us.
Thank you. Thanks guys.