Transcript - Wagga Wagga press conference

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Today, I just want to assure Australians and indeed the families of William Mainprize and Lukas Orda that the search for those two brave Australian men who were on the Gulf Livestock 1, which capsized off the coast of Japan on September 2, that search continues. That search has been done by the Japanese Coast Guard. Australia has every faith in the Japanese Coast Guard to have looked everywhere for that capsized vessel for those people who have been lost on that particular boat. It is a tragic situation. It's a fortnight today since it occurred and every effort is being made to find the ship and find those aboard. We've not given up hope and we won't and we'll see how the situation unfolds.

I also want to say that everything from a COVID situation, everything that the Federal Government has done has been with protecting people's health and making sure that their livelihoods were also very much backed up by the Federal Government. We've done this since COVID first began in Australia at the start of the year. It's been a difficult year. It's been a very, very difficult situation and back when COVID first hit our shores, this global pandemic, the Prime Minister and I and others, indeed, in Government tried to get as many Australians back home as possible.

We put out the call to Australians to return home, we urged and encouraged and implored them. At any given time, there are hundreds of thousands of Australians abroad for varying reasons and of course, that's all well and good, but we did urge and encourage Australians to come home. It has been a very difficult situation for some trying to get home and we've acknowledged that. We've worked through the National Cabinet process, I've worked every week with my national Transport Ministers, Infrastructure Ministers around the country, and we’ve had weekly hook-ups to discuss this and other situations involving transport. That's how we so successfully got through the transport code to ensure that there was ease of access and availability for trucks to get across borders when Premiers close borders.

Certainly, it's a difficult situation with international borders, of course, they were closed early in the piece. They we closed when we wanted to make sure that we protected Australians very much from this global pandemic which has caused so much misery, so much heartache and so many deaths right around the world. We in a sense have been lucky that there have only been about 813 deaths, that is still tragic for those 813 families who've lost loved ones.

But comparatively, when you look at Australia's situation, when you look at the number of deaths in Australia, per capita, you look at the number of deaths in total, compared to any country in the world, we've done very well. And as I say, we continue to work hard as a Federal Government and indeed, all governments are now doing their part and playing the role to ensure that we minimise at all levels, the number of deaths from this awful, awful situation.

Today, I just want to announce that I've written to each and every one of the Premiers and Chief Ministers to tell them that the caps for international flights based on quarantine levels and based on our reasonable record in recent days and weeks as far as the number of cases of COVID.

We want to make sure that we can get more Australians home, we want those returning Australians to be able to do so at the moment is about 4,000 coming home per week, I would have raised that to 6,000.

So I've written to the Premiers and to the Chief Ministers to try to make that possible, indeed to put in place the caps so that we can bring home 2,000 more Australians over and above what we've been doing in recent weeks. And this has been as a result of discussions that took place at the last National Cabinet meeting. And that's been as a result of the discussions that have taken place at regular National Cabinet meetings and regular meetings on a weekly basis that I've had with my Transport Ministers across the country.

This is important. So what we want to do is we want to make sure that we increase the numbers of returning Australians to New South Wales by 500. New South Wales has carried the biggest load of Australians coming back and I think Premier Gladys Berejiklian and the New South Wales Government for making that possible. So we're going to increase the numbers of Australians coming into Sydney by 500 per week, as well, 500 more will be coming in to Queensland and I urge and encourage Annastacia Palaszczuk to look at the Cains and Gold Coast options to use those international ports as well, to make sure that Queensland can get more Australians home, indeed more Queenslanders home.

Likewise, Western Australia, increasing its capacity by 500 as well, South Australia by 360 and I've just finished a phone call with Premier Steven Marshall. He wants to do as much as he can. He wants to get as many South Australians indeed, wherever they might reside, more Australians into Adelaide because as he quite correctly told me, more people coming in, more flights coming in, means more freight can go out and he's very keen to see South Australia's produce, to be able to go out to those export markets that South Australia engages and trades with.

And I'd like to see as many possible with Tasmania, the Northern Territory, the ACT, what we want to see is more Australians being able to come home.

So for those States and Territories, I've written to the Chief Ministers and Premiers as well, to see what capacity their quarantine can have, at this point in time. Victoria, well the situation there, a few more than 40 cases today, it's a situation that is improving, but until the situation improves, to even a better state, then there will not be international flights into Melbourne.

There are more than 20 International carriers coming into Australia. Of course, Virgin and Qantas, our international fliers, they are not flying internationally at the moment as Australian-based companies, but they are flying as best they can around the country. And that's why it's important that we get more interstate travel and that's why it's important that border restrictions are eased so that we get more planes in the air because as I've said repeatedly, planes in the air means jobs on the ground and the aviation industry was hit first and hit hardest.

So I want to make sure that we do get more international flights into this country. I want to make sure that more Australians can return home. There are some heart-wrenching stories. I only heard one, just yesterday in Forbes of a young woman, that’s been nannying in the United States of America, who's found it very, very difficult to be able to come home.

I appreciate these stories are heart wrenching, are heartbreaking in some cases and so we want to make sure that we – as much as quarantine capacity allows us to do so – get more Australians home.

So I thank the Premiers for their forbearance, I've notified them that I want to see those additional 2,000 places enacted as soon as possible, hopefully by the end of the month, but if it's possible to do it sooner, then that would be fantastic. Because we do want to see – there's up to 30,000 Australians who've registered their interest with DFAT and the embassies abroad to make sure that they know, that we know, that they want to come home and so that's what today's announcement is all about.

Certainly, the Premiers, they know they understand the situation as it is, they have got many people from their own constituencies, from their own states who need to come home, who want to come home and today's announcement makes that possible.

JOURNALIST

Mr McCormack, you mentioned that New South Wales has borne the brunt, I guess, of dealing with the return travellers coming in from overseas. What discussions have you had with the airlines as far as being able to help those flights come into two different ports to help ease that pressure on New South Wales?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Indeed, I've had those discussions with the airlines and I've had those discussions with other airports, too. And what we want to see is the capacity increase so that if people can quarantine in Sydney or in Adelaide, whatever capital city it might be – and I do thank Steven Marshall and Gladys Berejiklian for what they've done so far – that we increase that ability to get more Australians home.

We increase the ability for more people to quarantine. Of course, any returning Australian still has to quarantine for 14 days. But with the ability to do so via more international flights, we'll be able to get more Australians home. We'll be able to get more Australians home sooner and I think that's important. Certainly with Christmas coming up, a lot of Australians want to be reunited with their loved ones and I think this is so important.

JOURNALIST

Shouldn’t Tasmania and the ACT be taking in international arrivals?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

And that's why I've written to them today to ask that very question. To ask Peter Gutwein and Andrew Barr about what their capacity might be to take Australians to Hobart and indeed to Canberra, respectively. We want more Australians to come home and any international airport in Australia – it doesn't have to be a capital city, there are plenty of them – that has the capacity to be able to take those Australians, we want them to do just that. So the Premiers have been written to today, the Chief Ministers have been written to today. I've spoken to a number of them. I've also spoken to their various respective Transport Ministers. We've been doing that on a weekly basis. This is as a result of discussions, of course, that have been on a regular basis with the National Cabinet.

JOURNALIST

Tasmania says that it can't take international flights, because it doesn't have the adequate infrastructure and staffing? Would you consider giving them AFP and ABF staff to help?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, I’ll have those discussions with Peter Gutwein, but where possible if people can come to Tasmania, that's why I haven't put Tasmania – when I released the numbers that I want to see, 500 for Queensland, 500 for New South Wales, 500 for Western Australia and 360 over and above what's already being done. So we want to see 2,000 more – I didn't include Tasmania in that, but discussions are ongoing with the Tasmanian Government, with the ACT Government, indeed, with the Northern Territory Government.

I appreciate that the ACT Government has an election on and there's a situation there where, indeed, the Government of the day is in that period where they are facing an election, which is coming up. So I get it. I understand that. I understand their capacity also, there's plenty of empty hotel rooms in these capital cities. I want them filled with returning Australians and that's what we're doing today.

JOURNALIST

Is there a reason why the Government hasn't offered that extra support for those States that haven't been taken international travellers so far?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, discussions are ongoing, of course. It's important to know that Premiers have made the requests earlier in the year to put caps on international flights. They did it according to their quarantine capacity. They did it according to their airport capacity, but it's time to – given the fact that case numbers are low as far as coronavirus is concerned – it's time to revisit that and we will continue to revisit this and we will continue to ensure that we have constant oversight of it as we have done all the way through. With the case rates coming down and that is pleasing, what we want to see is more Australians with the ability to return home.

JOURNALIST

Would you consider using Christmas Island for quarantine again?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

We've had a discussion about that. There is that, there is Howard Springs in the Northern Territory, there was a potential site in regional Queensland as well, but we feel as though the best way that States can manage the quarantine is through the hotel situation with, of course, proper guards over that. Making sure that there's the right ability and the right people in charge of those quarantines and we want to make sure that the quarantine – the integrity of it – is not compromised. That is so important because the last thing we need is a returning Australian to of course bring coronavirus with them and then spread it because the quarantine wasn't what it ought to be. That is so important. I can't stress that enough. So we need to have that integrity in our quarantine system. So far so good and as far as the recent weeks are concerned, what we want to see is more Australians home. That's why we're making this announcement today.

JOURNALIST

Regional Express has announced that it wants to fill the void left by Virgin, how much support is the Government willing to provide to airlines to get back on their feet after the pandemic?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, we've provided $1.31 billion of support to the aviation sector, it has been a sector-wide approach. We’ve ensured that, as much as possible, we had planes in the air as far as regional Australia is concerned, the domestic air routes serviced and indeed, the international freight, of course, back earlier on.

We had those flights repatriating Australians via Hong Kong, via Auckland, via LA and via London. We had that in place for eight weeks. We were encouraging Australians to do so, many availed themselves of that opportunity and there are still 4,000 Australians returning each week. We'll continue to monitor the situation as far as aviation is concerned.

I know that REX have availed themselves with the assistance available. I am pleased to say that REX flies to 35 regional centres which, but for REX, would not have seen a flight coming in, would not have seen vital respiratory equipment, face masks, personal protection equipment and perhaps even most importantly, frontline medical personnel being delivered to those 35 centres, which only REX services. So, pleasingly, they've availed themselves of that assistance available as has many, many airlines right across Australia and we've been pleased to be able to provide that assistance because but for that $1.31 billion dollars of assistance, those communities would not have receive flights at all.

JOURNALIST

Will you give REX support if it chooses to take over the Virgin routes in towns such as example, Port Macquarie and Tamworth?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

We’ll have those discussions going forward. I have constant discussions with John Sharp and Warwick Lodge, indeed the owner of REX Lim Kim Hai and I have regular discussions as I do with Paul Scurrah from Virgin and Alan Joyce from Qantas and other airlines as well.

We want to make sure that there are more planes in the air. As I said before, planes in the air equals jobs on the ground. What we want to see is the Premiers easing those border restrictions that they have in place.

I do feel that in many cases, the border restrictions are there for political purposes. It's restricting businesses, it's restricting aviation. It’s restricting life as we know it. The time has come to ease those border restrictions, forget about elections that might be being held in the future. Let's get on and open those borders up, allow tourism to be what it needs to be, allow Australians to travel freely around their own country and get more planes flying inter-state – that is so, so important.

JOURNALIST

Speaking of border restrictions, we're expecting an announcement fairly shortly from Gladys Berejiklian regarding the New South Wales-Victoria border, John Sharp this morning on AM mentioned that he thought that state governments could do more damage to the economy if they rush to lift the border restrictions because it could lead to a second wave, which could lead to further shutdowns. What's your response to that comment?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Australia wasn't meant to have borders in place that were stopping Australians having free access interstate. And certainly when it comes to regional areas, some of these places haven't had a COVID case for many months. Indeed, some of them haven't had a COVID case at all. And yet they've been locked down unfairly.

And this has caused great hardship to farmers to small businesses, to people trying to access health services. We've seen some absolutely tragic stories of people who generally in the Mallee area of western Victoria, are unable to access the services they normally go to in South Australia. In places in northern New South Wales such as Lismore, unable to access Queensland Health Services, which they've always used. We've had a Premier come out and say that Queensland hospitals are only for Queenslanders. I mean, this isn't Australia. This isn't the way we should be living. What we want to see is those border restrictions eased. I'm sure the Premiers will ease them in a right and practical and pragmatic way.

Yes, we don't want to see any more outbreaks. That's absolutely paramount. But what we do want to see is Australians being able to get back to work, access the health service, irrespective of the state in which those health services are being provided. What we want to see is tourism back up and running, the weather's warmer, people are starting to think about holidays. We don't want people shut inside for 23 out of 24 hours. I mean, this isn't the Australia that we need to have. We've been very good as far as the pandemic is concerned with keeping the case rates low, the death rate low, it's time to open up those borders, it's time to get back to work. It's time for Australians to be able to access the health services they've always been able to. It’s way beyond time to be able to do that.

JOURNALIST

Do you think it's time then to open the New South Wales and Victorian border now, given that they've had more than 40 cases today, still?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, of course, so long as people do the right thing and self-isolate, exercise social distancing and all of those things. What we've done all the way through is follow the best medical advice and even with this international cap announcement that I made today, I did it on the best medical advice through Professor Paul Kelly, through Professor Brendan Murphy. I mean, they've been outstanding, all the way through. I spoke to them this morning on a teleconference hook-up. What we've done is we've followed the best medical advice. The best medical advice is not saying that border restrictions need to continue.

JOURNALIST

Just on that as well, just on the international cap as well. So do you think the states are doing enough to bring people home as well at the moment, like states like Queensland, WA?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, they will be after they get the letters and open them and see that and I've obviously had discussions with them. They've obviously made sure that these discussions, they've listened obviously, very closely in partaking in the discussions that have been at the last National Cabinet meeting.

What we want to see is them opening up their quarantine to more Australians returning home. Yes, still have the right integrity, still have the right guarding of those quarantine facilities for the 14-day mandatory period that the best medical advice has suggested. And let's get more Australians home. 4,000 returning at the moment, we want to make that six, we want to make that eight, we want to make that 10, we want to increasingly, exponentially available so that more Australians can come home and be home with their loved ones by Christmas. It just makes good sense.

JOURNALIST

Just to clarify, those letters are a request, or a demand or an instruction –

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Those letters are telling them what they need to do. I've had discussions with them. They know, they understand this needs to happen.

JOURNALIST

What do you think the likelihood is that all those Australians will be able to get home by Christmas?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Not every Australian will be able to come home by Christmas, I accept that. But we want to get as many of those who need to come home, want to come home, paid for a ticket to come home to be able to do so.

JOURNALIST

How do you think Labor Premiers are going to respond to these letters of demand, so to speak?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

The National Cabinet has worked very well, all the way through. This has been a topic of discussion at National Cabinet. The states – when the case rates were so much higher – actually asked the Federal Government to put in place these caps and we did so based on that request.

The time has come to increase the caps. The time has come for states to start accepting more of their own, more of our own Australians back home. So you know, I don't care if South Australians end up in Perth, I don't care if Queenslanders end up in Sydney, we're all one country. We're all Australians, we need to get more Australians home.

Yes, it would be preferable if South Australians flew home to Adelaide and similarly with other states, but Steven Marshall's keen, Gladys Berejiklian is keen. I've spoken personally to Annastacia Palaszczuk. I have spoken to Transport Ministers about this. It won't come as any great surprise to them. They would have had, as MPs would have had right across the country, State or Federal, representations from people who are desperate to get home and the heart wrenching and heartbreaking stories – they do strike a chord with us. We are all Australians, we’re all in this together. We said that all the way through. We want to see more Australians home, that's what we're doing.

JOURNALIST

Any break down on who will take this extra 2,000 –

MICHAEL McCORMACK

I've given the breakdown. It's 500 more for New South Wales. Again, I thank New South Wales for carrying the major workload and burdening the major responsibility of getting more Australians home. Five hundred for Queensland, 500 for Western Australia and 360 give or take for South Australia, Steven Marshall has just said they're actually keen to do more. So as he said, more flights in means more freight out. So they want to see more flights in too, it means money for them. It means income for them and State economies are doing pretty tough just like the Federal economy is. I mean, we've already invested $314 billion through JobKeeper, through JobSeeker, through JobMaker, through HomeBuilder. Through the aviation process to $1.31 billion there. We've made sure that we've protected lives, saved lives and saved livelihoods. That's what we've done all the way through. States need to do more. They've invested between them, $48 billion, they need to do more. They recognise that, that's what this is about today.

JOURNALIST

Koalas, as you know, they've been a topic of interest.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

They're important, too.

JOURNALIST

Do you think the Federal Government should step in to protect koalas or farmers rights to farm under federal legislation rather than state?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, this is State Environmental Planning Policy. This is very much in the remit of the States. Federal Government can’t take over every piece of legislation, every aspect of life. That's not how the Federation was set up, it was not. Of course we do have protections in place for our marsupials. We do have good environmental laws in place, but this is very much the remit and the obligation of states to work on.

JOURNALIST

John Barilaro had some interesting comments about you the other day, what do you take about those?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

What particular comments were those? I mean, he's made a few comments this year? A couple of texts but I'm not quite sure what you're talking about.

JOURNALIST

Criticisms of you, Mr McCormack, how do you take those?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

You know, I just brushed criticism off, I'm wanting to do my work, I want to do my job for and on behalf of Australia.

We are in the midst of a global pandemic and, quite frankly, if people want to go and start throwing stones – sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. Quite frankly, I just want to get on and do the job as I've been doing right the way through as an MP for the Riverina for 10 years, as the Deputy Prime Minister since February 2018. And particularly now.

It's been very difficult for regional Australians. We've had the drought, we've had bushfires, in some areas we've had floods and now we've got the coronavirus pandemic. And it's been very hard, particularly on regional Australians. But we've put in place the infrastructure, we've put in place the assistance measures. So I think it's time for politicians to stop taking potshots at one another and to actually start to work as a collective to get things done, just like I've done to make sure that we're concentrating on the issues that count for those people who are running small business in Baylis Street in Wagga Wagga, for those people who are running small businesses in Hoskins Street, Temora. No matter what nook or cranny you have in Australia, you can be sure that the Federal Government has your back.

If you've got a job, if you've lost a job, if you're searching for a job, the Federal Government has your back. And I think it's time that politicians should stop taking potshots at one another and start concentrating on the people who matter. And you know what, that's the people we serve. That's the people we swore an oath when we signed up for this gig, to make sure that we represented their interests not ours.

JOURNALIST

Just quickly as well, just back on the cap quickly. If the states don't comply, what more can the Federal Government sort of do?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

The States will comply.

JOURNALIST

What if they don't though?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

They will.

JOURNALIST

Is this martial law?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Steven Marshall is a good man (smiling). I have every faith that he said that he will take and accept the 360 additional people per week and he wants to take even more. So they should apply right across Australia, that particular Marshall law. Well done, Steven, he is a good man.

JOURNALIST

Have the other Premiers accepted those numbers?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, the other Premiers, I have spoken to them. They know, they recognise, they understand. This letter won't come as any great surprise to them. It's discussed at the last National Cabinet meeting, it’s time to get Australians home.

They know whether it's Annastacia or Gladys or Steven or Peter, I could go through the full list if you’d like, Mark. They know it's time to get Australians home and I just wish and I hope that the Victorian situation improves so that we can get more flights into Melbourne, any flight would do, so that Dan Andrews can take his share, too.

JOURNALIST

Would you like to see Victoria restart its hotel quarantine program?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, Victoria has still got to get through the coronavirus at the moment and I appreciate that for regional Victorians – at 11:59pm tonight – some of those restrictions will be eased. That is a good thing, it shouldn't have been put in place in the first place.

I mean, regional Victorians have been hurt and affected by something happened in Melbourne. Well Melbourne doesn't always – note to Dan Andrews – doesn't always speak for all of Victoria and I know and I commend my colleagues, Anne Webster, Damian Drum and Darren Chester and Perrin Davey and Bridget McKenzie for the work they've done to advocate for and on behalf of those regional Victorians. Peter Walsh, the Victorian Nationals’ leader, you know, they've done a power of good to make sure that the interests of those regional Australians were being listened to in Spring Street in Melbourne. But unfortunately, Dan Andrews wasn't listening and unfortunately, they're put in restrictions which for places in Victoria which have not had a COVID case at all, were being affected by lockdowns which were just simply unfair. Keeping people at home, keeping them from their livelihoods. You know, thankfully, a little bit of sanity is provided and at 11:59pm tonight, some of those restrictions are being eased and that's a good thing.

JOURNALIST

On what basis have you set these new quotas? What health and economic factors have led to this appeal to the Premiers to lift above certain numbers?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

The best medical advice, hotel quarantine capacity, discussions with the States, the Premiers, the Chief Ministers, going back to the last National Cabinet meeting and common sense.

JOURNALIST

Are you saying that the Federal Government's preference is to have hotel quarantine as opposed to facilities like Howard Springs, is that a viable option?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

At the moment, yes, hotel quarantine is the preferred option.

JOURNALIST

Will you consider Howard Springs as an option?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

I'm not taking anything off the table and we won't be. What we want to say is more Australians coming home. More international flights coming into Australia, bringing Australians home. We've got 4,000 coming home at the moment per week want to make that 6,000. We want to increase it exponentially as we head towards Christmas and as the case rates hopefully fall, and that's what we're doing.

JOURNALIST

And what would you like the cap to be by Christmas? When would you like it to be 10,000?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

I am not going to put a number on it, what we want to do is monitor the situation. Let's get this increased number happening as soon as possible, monitor the situation. Again, anything we’ll do, we'll take the best medical advice, the best advice that the health experts can give us and we'll follow that advice to the letter. Thank you.

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