Joint Press Conference

TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER

THE HON. TONY ABBOTT MP

 

JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE WITH THE HON. KEVIN ANDREWS MP,

MINISTER FOR DEFENCE AND AIR CHIEF MARSHAL

MARK BINSKIN AC, CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE FORCE,

PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA

 

PRIME MINISTER:

One of the great privileges of being Prime Minister is working closely with the senior commanders of our armed forces. It really has been an honour for me to work closely with Mark Binskin, the Chief of the Defence Force, earlier with General David Hurley and obviously I have worked very closely with Air Marshal Geoff Brown and General David Morrison, the retiring Chiefs of Air Force and Army. And I will have a little bit more to say about them in a few moments.

But today it is my honour and privilege to announce the new Chiefs of Army and of Air Force, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell DSC, AM will take up his role as Chief of Army from 16 May and Air Vice Marshal Gavin Davies AO, CSC will take up his new role as Chief of the Air Force from 4 July and he will also be promoted to Air Marshal.

General Campbell is probably reasonably familiar to you as the head of Operation Sovereign Borders over the last couple of years and he has done exceptional work in this very difficult job. Air Vice-Marshal Gavin Davies has obviously been a pilot of distinction. He has had, more recently, a series of senior commands including senior roles in our air operations in the Middle East. So, I think we are very lucky to have two outstanding officers taking on these vital roles in our Defence Force.

I should say a few words about General David Morrison who has been a ground-breaking, path-finding Chief of Army. He is a soldier’s soldier, but he’s also been a modern soldier’s soldier who has very much wanted the Army to move into the modern world. No-one who saw his famous talk to the Defence Forces, “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept” will ever doubt his commitment to making our Army a modern as well as effective fighting force.

Geoff Brown has been Chief of the Air Force at a time when our Air Force has never been more capable. We have a strong air component in the Middle East right now which is operating very effectively and at high intensity and the interesting thing about our air deployment to the Middle East is it’s the first time in our history that we have deployed so far in an entirely self-contained way. Thanks to aerial refuelling, our Super Hornets flew themselves from Australia to the Middle East via Diego Garcia and it was a wholly Australian operation, we didn’t need anyone else’s help to make this happen. As well as our Super Hornets, we have also got our refueler and our airborne control craft which are making a marvellous contribution to the coalition operation in the Middle East.

So, these two distinguished officers can feel very, very proud of their contribution to our armed forces and I salute them as they conclude their long and distinguished military careers.

Obviously, this is a Government which takes the defence of Australia very, very seriously indeed. We are committed to increasing defence spending steadily to two per cent of Gross Domestic Product. We will shortly release the first principles review of defence which is the most comprehensive reform in decades. We are continuing to work on the defence white paper which will be released within the next few months. But this is a really effective Australian Defence Force; a very, very effective Australian Defence Force. It’s been in good hands and it will continue to be in the best of hands under Air Marshal Davies and Lieutenant General Campbell.

Kevin.

DEFENCE MINISTER:

Thanks, Prime Minister. Can I join with you in welcoming and congratulating them on their appointment to Chief of the Air Force and Chief of the Army, Air Vice-Marshal Davies and Lieutenant General Campbell. Can I also join with you, Prime Minister, in thanking both General Morrison and Air Marshal Brown for the service that they gave the Defence Forces and, in particular, the Army and Air Force, over their term as Chief of those respective services.

There is an important compact between the nation and the Defence Forces and the strength of that compact is reflected in the leadership of the services and in these two gentlemen taking the Chiefs position of both Air Force and the Army. That is a reflection of the strength of that compact and a reflection of the continued importance that we as a Government place on the ADF and the way in which they serve us in this nation.

CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE FORCE:

Thanks, Prime Minister. I’d also like to take this chance to formally thank David Morrison and Geoff Brown for their years of dedicated service, more importantly their last couple of years as great Chief of Army and Chief of Air Force. They have been very, very strong supporters of reform and Army and Air Force are in far better shape now than what they were a number of years ago and I want to see that continue.

I take the chance to congratulate Lieutenant General Campbell and Air Marshal Davies on their appointments. With these two appointments, that finalises the new command team in the Defence Force. It’s a command team I have every confidence in and it’s a command team that I know is going to be positioned to confront the challenges that we have over the next couple of years, predominantly in the reform space but also in the operations space as well.

PRIME MINISTER:

Ok, we might take questions on these appointments and on military matters, and then our service Chiefs will withdraw and if there are any other questions, we will take them then.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, what now happens with Operation Sovereign Borders? Will you appoint a new military chief or is it going to move to the civilian field?

PRIME MINISTER:

We will have more to say early next week on that subject.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, the Americans announced the overnight that the coalition is taking part in air strikes around Tikrit. I assume this also means that Australian aircraft are taking part in strikes around Tikrit. If this is the case, does this mean that Australia is now working hand-in-hand with Shia militias?

PRIME MINISTER:

We are working hand-in-hand with the Iraqi government. That’s what we set out to do when we committed our air component to the coalition campaign. We set out to work hand-in-hand with the Iraqi government to do what we could to help the Iraqi government to regain control of its own country and to disrupt, degrade and ultimately destroy the ISIL or Daesh death cut which is reaching out even here in Australia. So, we are doing what we’ve always done. We are working constructively and effectively with the Iraqi government.

QUESTION:

Can I ask the CDF if he can give any guidance on how you’d go about working with Shia militias?

CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE FORCE:

Any request for coalition air will come from the Iraqi government and it is in support of the Iraqi government that we’d do it. I think the request has come with the realisation that the forces in place can’t take Tikrit without some air support, without all the coalition working together in support of the Iraqi forces.

QUESTION:

There are a few serious complications in that Tikrit has a civilian population still, or does it?

CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE FORCE:

I think majority of the population has moved out, but any targeting and any strikes that the coalition air will do always takes into account minimising, reducing any collateral damage or any civilian casualties – so, that won’t change. If you look at what’s happened across Iraq so far, the civilian casualties have been very minimal because we have been very structured in the way we approach this and have very tight rules of engagement and we abide by laws of armed conflict and all that goes with that.

QUESTION:

If there is a serious hurdle now in terms of driving IS out of Iraq, it is going to be ensuring that the Shia militias don’t start behaving to the Sunnis the way the Sunni militias behaved in the Shia areas. Is there a mechanism to stop that happening or are you confident it can be avoided?

CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE FORCE:

So, government-to-government level, the Australian Government works with the Iraqi government to ensure that our position is put forward there. Military to military, any work that we do with the Iraqi security forces always emphasises laws of armed conflict, rules of engagement and protection of civilians.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, you mentioned, going back to the appointments, that General Morrison had done a lot in driving change in the Army particularly. Does that remain a priority for the Government and does it remain a priority for Lieutenant General Campbell?

PRIME MINISTER:

Of course it’s a priority for the Government and for all of the service Chiefs as you’d expect. I am incredibly proud of our armed forces, I think we are all very proud of our armed forces and we want our armed forces to reflect us at our best. Of course, members of the armed forces are only human and from time to time, even the very best people will sometimes make mistakes. The important thing is that we have the best possible culture, we have the best possible structures and we have the best possible support for everyone who is trying to do the right thing.

QUESTION:

Mr Abbott, with no disrespect to the men that you have appointed today, I can’t help but notice there are no women there. When do you think we might have women in such high ranks of the Defence Force?

PRIME MINISTER:

That’s steadily happening. You may or may not have been at the parade for the people who have served in Afghanistan over the last decade or so and that parade was led by a distinguished veteran of Afghanistan, Major General Wilkie who, of course, is female.

Increasingly, right through the ranks of our armed forces, we have women serving and they are serving in an ever-greater range of roles. So, while at the moment the service chiefs are all male I daresay the time is coming when that might be different.

QUESTION:

With Iran, and also to the CDF, what contact, indirect or direct, have we had with Iran with regards to the coordination of these attacks and whether we are under pressure to join Canada in attacking – attacking is probably the wrong word – but in operating over Syria?

PRIME MINISTER:

We are working wholly and solely with the Iraqi Government to support the Iraqi forces. That’s what we are doing. We are working with the Iraqi Government to support the Iraqi forces. Sure there are some Shi’ite militia that are cooperating with the Iraqi security forces in the assault on Tikrit but we are working with the Iraqi Government and we are supporting the Iraqi security forces. That’s what we are doing. Now, we obviously have some contact with the Iranian government because they are a sovereign government and, from time to time, our interests intersect or we have something we would like of the Iranian government. For instance, one of the things I know we have been talking to the Iranian government over the years about is returning, to Iran, Iranians who come illegally to this country by boat. So, there are a range of issues that we talk to the Iranian government about from time to time and one of the points we have made to the Iranian government is that our role in Iraq is wholly and solely to support the Iraqi Government to defeat the Daesh death cut. That’s our role in Iraq. It’s not to change the structure of the Middle East. It’s not to take sides in other fights. It is simply to assist the Iraqi Government to disrupt, degrade and ultimately destroy the death cult in Iraq itself.

QUESTION:

On Syria?

PRIME MINISTER:

On Syria, we have made no decision to broaden our air operations into Syria. I note that the Canadian Government has decided to broaden its air operations into Syria and, in so doing, it’s joined the Americans and a coalition of Arab members of the overall coalition; Jordan, Saudi, the United Arab Emirates and a number of other Arab countries are also engaged in air strikes into Syria. We saw massive Jordanian air strikes into Syria, very effective air strikes into Syria, after the butchery, the unspeakable butchery of that Jordanian pilot. So, we have made no decision to extend our air strikes into Syria but I should point out that our support aircraft, our refueler, and our AWAC aircraft are supporting coalition operations throughout the theatre and that means we are supporting operations over Syria. We are not actually conducting operations over Syria but we are certainly supporting operations over Syria. That’s as it should be.

QUESTION:

A question on Operation Sovereign Borders – Lieutenant General Campbell may or may not be able to help. Can you confirm reports in Jakarta that an asylum boat has been turned back in recent days, 12 people on board? Was that done with the compliance of the new Indonesian government and does it show people smugglers are trying to restart their trade?

PRIME MINISTER:

Mark, I will take that question but I think we might deal with questions that are about the specific announcement today and then I might ask the military to withdraw and then I will deal with that question. Are there any further questions about the appointments?

QUESTION:

Can we get Angus Campbell’s view on his strategic direction as far as the Iraq fight against ISIL?

CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE FORCE:

When he takes over as Chief of Army, you will get a chance to talk to him about that.

QUESTION:

When you made the deployment, you said it would be a case of months, not weeks. Given we are rolling into new Defence Chiefs now, is it more realistic this will be years, not months?

PRIME MINISTER:

When the Government announced this commitment, we said we would obviously from time to time review its effectiveness but we would be there for as long as it was necessary to help the Iraqis to disrupt, degrade and ultimately destroy the death cut. This may take quite some time. But our air component has been a very effective part of the overall coalition air campaign. Our Special Forces have been effectively advising and assisting the Iraqi Special Forces in recent months. As you know, at the moment, we are preparing a further training force that will go to Iraq to help train the Iraqi regular army for effective offensive operations later in the year. Look, we are a country which takes our responsibilities to the defence of Australia, to the defence of our interests and values in the wider world seriously and we will continue to do that.

QUESTION:

I have a question for Air Marshal Davies. Is that possible?

PRIME MINISTER:

The protocol I understand is that Prime Ministers, Ministers and CDF speak at these events. The distinguished appointees will no doubt talk to you on another occasion.

CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE FORCE:

When they take over.

QUESTION:

Geoff Brown has expressed general enthusiasm for unmanned technology for the RAAF. I just wonder if you see that playing a large role in acquisition during Air Vice Marshal Davies’ tenure?

CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE FORCE:

I [inaudible] CDF and I know talking to the incoming Chief of Air Force, he feels the same way.

PRIME MINISTER:

Look, I might ask the military chiefs to withdraw. Thanks so much. Ok.

Mark your question. Look, we don’t comment on operational matters. We haven’t commented on operational matters on the water from the very beginning of Operation Sovereign Borders and I don’t intend to break that rule now. As for the general principle, though, my message to people smugglers or would-be people smugglers is don’t take us on because, if you try to take us on, you will find us resolute and the tactics which have been successfully deployed in the past will certainly be deployed in the future.

QUESTION:

Sorry, PM, can you at least say whether the new Indonesian government is comfortable with the policies?

PRIME MINISTER:

We are acting to protect our sovereignty and whenever I discuss these matters with the Indonesian Government, when I discussed them with President Yudhoyono and now with President Widodo, I stress that we absolutely respect Indonesia’s sovereignty as we know they respect our sovereignty. Frankly, one of the great things about the end of the, or the effective end of the, large-scale people smuggling we saw under the former government here in Australia is that it’s removed an irritant in the Australia-Indonesia relationship. It was a distraction. It was an irritant. Now it’s largely gone. That’s a very good thing for both our countries.

QUESTION:

You said next week that you would make a decision, that there would be an announcement about the future of Operation Sovereign Borders. One of the issues is whether you have a multi-agency organisation overseeing the whole thing. Is that going to be Border Force? Can you give us a hint, as to whether there will be a new, going back to the original question about whether it would be a military head or Border Force has, effectively, like a Secretary overseeing it?

PRIME MINISTER:

Andrew, I’m not going to pre-empt announcements that will be made next week other than to say that we will be sending a very clear message to people smugglers and their potential clients that we are not relaxing our vigilance here because the instant we relax our vigilance, the risk is that we put the people smugglers back into business. If the people smugglers go back into business, the boats start coming and the deaths start again, that’s the last thing anyone should want.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, could I just ask a question about the Budget. When you hand down the Budget in May, will the forward projections contain still the savings from the measures you’ve been unable to pass from the last one? Will you still stick to them as policy principles?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, the forward projections will be based on the measures in this year’s Budget and, obviously, what we’ll be doing as part of this year’s Budget is dealing with measures that have been left over from last year’s Budget. What you will see in this year’s Budget is a whole series of measures that are responsible, measured and fair and which continue the task of budget repair that this Government has had to undertake because of the debt and deficit disaster that we inherited from Labor.

As you saw in the MYEFO document, every year we make steady progress towards a much better budget outcome. Every year we improve the budget bottom line by about $10 billion and I think it’s that kind of steady progress towards a much better outcome which the Australian people expect from us.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, privatisation has been a big issue in New South Wales. Can you rule out any asset sales in this upcoming federal Budget? I know you’ve done some scoping studies on Australian Hearing, Defence Housing and a few others. Is that something you are contemplating given the controversiality of privatisation?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well look, we’ve got an Asset Recycling Fund in place and I’ve got to say that there is massive interest in the Asset Recycling Fund from the Labor states and territories. We have already done an asset recycling deal with the ACT Labor Government where the ACT Labor Government has privatised the housing stock. It’s well known that the Victorian Labor Government is in the process of privatising the Port of Melbourne because they want to cash in on the Asset Recycling Fund. So, whatever Labor might say before an election about asset sales, after an election they need the money and they want to take advantage of the Asset Recycling Fund that we have put in place.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, do you agree with key members of the Commission of Audit who say Australia risks disaster if you retreat on making tough decisions and press ahead with a so-called dull Budget?

PRIME MINISTER:

As I said, it will be measured, responsible and fair and it will show steady progress towards a much better budget outcome where Australia is once again living within its means. We will get steady progress from a Budget that is measured, responsible and fair towards the situation where Australia is living within its means. I can understand the alarm of many people in the community at the obstruction of the Labor Party and the Greens in the Senate. I really can, because having created the problem, the Labor Party is now sabotaging the solution and I can well understand the alarm in the community and I would say to people in the community who are concerned about the long-term future of our country: ask Bill Shorten – what’s your plan? What’s your plan? You don’t like what the Government is proposing; tell us what you’ve got in mind because, so far, all we have had from Bill Shorten is the suggestion via the Deputy Leader of the Opposition that they’re going to spend an extra $18 billion on foreign aid.

QUESTION:

Mr Abbott, do you think Bill Shorten is scaremongering ahead of the New South Wales election when he seized on a report this morning that the Grants Commission has recommended changing the methodology for the GST to take into account volatility in the iron ore price? Is it fair that he’s saying you’re taking $200 million from New South Wales to give it to Western Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

I think that’s all Labor does. You look at every Labor political campaign in recent times, whether it be the South Australian state election, the Victorian state election, the Queensland state election, now the New South Wales state election, it’s all just scare. It’s all just scare and responsible Labor leaders like Martin Ferguson, like Michael Costa – Labor people who actually know what it’s like to run a responsible government or to be part of a responsible government – are saying this is just an embarrassment. It is just an embarrassment that the Labor Party at the moment seems to be doing nothing but what Mark Latham used to call ‘scab lifting’. That’s what they’re doing.

QUESTION:

Do you support changing the methodology so that Western Australia gets a fairer deal because of the softening of the iron ore price?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, obviously, there’s a Commonwealth Grants Commission process which deals with this and no doubt this is a matter that will in the fullness of time be dealt with by the Commonwealth Grants Commission and once the caretaker period is over in New South Wales, no doubt this report will be dealt with.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, when you used to talk about a debt and deficit disaster before the last election, can you just clarify what you were talking about? Were you talking about a 40-year projection, were you talking about a 10-year projection of debt and do you regret that kind of rhetoric now that you seem to have accepted that there will be a growing debt and deficit while you are in Government?

PRIME MINISTER:

Let me start at the beginning, Mark. As some of you know, I’ve been a reasonably long-serving member of the Davidson Rural Fire Brigade and you can have a terrible fire which is threatening homes, threatening communities. That is an emergency. The instant the fire brigade turns up, the emergency starts to ease. The instant the fire brigade turns up, the emergency starts to ease. When it comes to the budget emergency, Labor were the fire. The instant the Coalition – the fire brigade – turned up, the emergency started to ease, because we are committed – absolutely committed – to budget repair.

As you know from the Intergenerational Report, Labor’s debt and deficit is halved going forward already based on the measures that have already been passed by this Parliament and, obviously, we will have more to say because there’s more to do. But, this is a Government which is absolutely committed to sensible, measured, responsible and fair reform and that’s what you’ll see from this Budget.

QUESTION:

Prime Minister, the New South Wales election is this weekend. Malcolm Turnbull has featured in some of the voice messages for the election and there have been reports of candidates requesting his appearance. Will you be making any appearance with the Premier in the lead-up to the election or will you be staying aside?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well look, we’ve only got a couple of days left and today I am tied up in Canberra and tomorrow I understand I have a very important state occasion to attend. But, I’ve done a number of events with the Premier in the course of the campaign. I have had some announcements on security measures that we’ve made together, obviously, we’ve made some infrastructure announcements together, I’ve been to some fundraising events over the last few weeks, as you would expect. And, look, I am pleased that my senior colleagues have also been involved – I really am – because it’s a team effort. It’s a team effort. The Liberal Party is a big family and we are all working together to ensure that we get the right result in New South Wales because it’s very, very important that we continue to have reform in governments, not just at the national level but at the State level as well. It’s very important that the public say to the Labor Party: when you haven’t learnt and you can’t change, we won’t vote for you.

I will take one more question.

QUESTION:

Can you tell us how much the metadata laws will cost the Government?

PRIME MINISTER:

It’s very important that we have these laws in place because, as you all know, about 90 per cent of counter-terrorist investigations rely on the use of telecommunications metadata, about 90 per cent of child abuse investigations rely on the use of telecommunications metadata, so if we don’t keep this data, our police and security agencies will be flying blind.

Obviously, there is some cost involved in retaining metadata for two years. There is some cost involved. We have said to the industry that we are prepared to make an appropriate upfront contribution to the cost. We are continuing to talk to the industry about precisely what that will be, but we are prepared to make an upfront contribution towards the cost of this, as we should – as we should. It’s fair and reasonable that when we ask business to do something that they might not otherwise do that we bear a fair share of the cost and we’re happy to bear that. But the important thing is that the metadata legislation be passed and passed quickly because if we want to keep our communities safe, we need this legislation in place.

Thank you.