8 February 2021
GABBY COSTIGAN, CEO BAE SYSTEMS: Good morning everybody. Thank you so much for joining us today. We’ve had a fantastic morning here with the Prime Minister of Australia, the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Defence Industry, celebrating a truly fantastic milestone in the journey of the F-35. We welcome the first F-35 aircraft here today at BAE systems Australia’s hanger and the most exciting this about this is this is the beginning of a 50 year journey that is going to bring hundreds of jobs to the region and further boost and help the local economy, but also provide skilled jobs and opportunities for exports for our nation. So it is a very exciting day and I would like to welcome the Prime Minister and ask the Prime Minister to say a few words.
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you, Gabby. It is great to be here with the Defence Minister, the Defence Industry Minister. Of course, Senator Hughes who looks after this area well for us on the ground from the Government’s point of view and, of course, the Chief of the Air Force. This is a very exciting day. This is what sovereignty looks like. It is right behind me. But it is not just this incredible new aircraft, of which Australia is invested in for Australia's sovereign defence. But it's everything that goes into it. It's the technology. It's the know-how. It's the Australian jobs that now sit behind it. It's the Australian componentry that forms a part of every single one of these joint strike fighters. This is the demonstration, not only of Australia's capability, but it's the demonstration of Australia's partnership with so many around the world. Whether it's our alliance partners in the United States. Whether it's in our commercial partners in the defence industry, particularly BAE, as we are with them here today. Whether it is the many, many suppliers and the subbies and the others involved in not just delivering what is done here on this base, but also those who are beyond this base. Those bringing forward the next generation of engineers and technicians and others who will be involved in the jobs here, not just for one generation, but for generations and generations to come. This project, like so many in our defence industry all around the country, are delivering the jobs on the ground that are supporting regional Australia. But it is also what is actually delivering the sovereign capability that keeps Australians safe in an increasingly uncertain world.
Our Government is absolutely committed to the defence of our nation, but doing what is necessary to make that a reality. And that means young boys and girls going to primary school here in the Hunter know that in the future, they can train to work right here and to be the best in the world at what they do. Earlier today, I met those workers here in the Hunter who had lost their job with Jetstar and have now found employment here in the defence industry. I met technicians who have trained overseas and have brought those skills. I reckon they taught the Americans a thing or two as well. But they came back here and now they're going to be training a whole new generation of technicians to deliver on this important capability into the future. And then I met our amazing men and women in our RAAF, Chief, and I know you're incredibly proud of them, as the Ministers are. But they are Australia's best, and all that we can say is thank you for your service. Meeting Junior up there before, who has spent a lot of time in these F-35s, and he's putting the others through their paces now. It gives me a lot of confidence about what's happening here. But I particularly want to say to people here in the Hunter - we are so committed to what's happening in this region. It wasn't that long ago that I was up here in Varly Industries out there at Tomago at the smelter and the important jobs that make this region what it is, and we are investing in securing its future. From training people up, by supporting the industries that we know will continue to deliver great prosperity and a future for the people of the Hunter and that's why I'm thrilled to be here today with my ministerial colleagues and I'll ask Linda to say some words as well and then we'll hear from Melissa.
SENATOR THE HON. LINDA REYNOLDS CSC, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Thank you very much, Prime Minister. Today is a great day to be the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Defence Industry. This is as the Prime Minister said, what sovereign defence industrial capability looks like. It is the 100th anniversary next month of the Royal Australian Air Force and yet again, they have risen to the occasion. The joint strike fighter is on time, it is on budget and it is simply a superb fifth generation multirole fighter jet. It is doing exactly what we need it to do. In fact, the Chief of Air Force in December last year declared initial operating capability, which means that these 30 that we have are now ready for combat operations. So can I just commend the Royal Australian Air Force and the squadron here at Williamtown who have got us to this point today. But can I also say thank you very much to all of the Royal Australian Air Force men and women who are supporting this capability. Also, a great thank you to BAE Systems because they and their staff will be maintaining this capability right here in Australia until at least the next 50 years. So as the Prime Minister said, that is world-leading technological capability being sustained by kids who have not even yet been born here in the Hunter region. So thank you very much. This is a very proud day for our nation. Thank you. Thank you, Prime Minister.
THE HON. MELISSA PRICE MP, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY: I'm just going to say a few words, thank you. Thanks. And today really is a celebration and an acknowledgement of the global competitiveness and also the global capability of Australia's defence industry. Whether it's Marand vertical tails or Lintek circuit boards, the only ones that make them in Australia by the way, this is an example of what we've been able to build here. A sovereign capability which is critically important. But not just sovereign capability, but something that we can build upon, more jobs in the region. And it's so wonderful today to have met the ex-Jetstar workers who, through no fault of their own due to COVID, lost their jobs with Jetstar, and I really congratulate BAE. They've been able to take on 25 ex-Jetstar employees. Highly qualified, highly skilled, and we need them in our defence industry. So I just want to give a shout out to the ex-Jetstar workers who are now proudly working in the defence industry. We need their skill and we're just so pleased to have them. Thanks very much.
PRIME MINISTER: Thanks Melissa. Now, I'm happy to take questions on many issues but could we just focus first on the joint strike fighter and where we are today, because we've got Gabby and the Chief of the Air Force who are here with us. And once we've dealt with those, happy to move onto other matters.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, are these aircraft well enough protected from enemy attack in our northern airbases?
PRIME MINISTER: I'm going to let the Chief of Air Force speak to that.
AIRMSHL MEL HUPFIELD, CHIEF OF AIR FORCE: Yes, absolutely, and this is a good example of what you see behind you is a wonderful platform. But to operate as an Australian Defence Force, as a good part of the overall joint force, we've got infrastructure, we have support systems, networks that all come together to deliver an air combat capability for the protection of this nation. It's a full system, and that's what we're building and continuing to develop and upgrade and ensure it meets what our security requires.
JOURNALIST: So are there plans to upgrade storage facilities for these planes in our northern bases?
AIRMSHL MEL HUPFIELD, CHIEF OF AIR FORCE: We have upgrade plans already underway ahead of schedule at bases like Tindall and we're making sure that we can deploy them in appropriate ways to other bases as well.
JOURNALIST: The joint strike fighter has been described by a lot of people as having a lot of problems. Are you confident our [inaudible]?
PRIME MINISTER: Absolutely, but again, the Chief is best placed to talk to the capabilities of the joint strike fighter, or indeed, the Minister.
AIRMSHL MEL HUPFIELD, CHIEF OF AIR FORCE: Actually, the Minister explained before, the heart of this aeroplane is the multirole capabilities. It's highly competent in air-to-air engagements and also in strike missions. An early test pilot on the F-35 program, a Marine Corp test pilot, said that the F-35 replaces nothing and changes everything. This is a key capability that can integrate across the whole of the capabilities that we already have in the ADF, and indeed, continue to integrate over that 30 or more years of service as we upgrade and continue to develop. It will work with our existing Super Hornets, our Growlers. It will integrate with the E-7 Wedgetail, a world leading capability.
AIRMSHL MEL HUPFIELD, CHIEF OF AIR FORCE: The problems are the ones that you read about in the commentary. The stuff that you don't see. The stuff that you don't see is what we see at the classified level, and the level of capability our pilots get to operate. They're the ones who know the system the best.
JOURNALIST: And what do they say?
AIRMSHL MEL HUPFIELD, CHIEF OF AIR FORCE: They are very confident in the aircraft and they know what it can do and what it's able to do with our overall joint force. No doubts at all.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the residents of Williamtown affected by PFAS say that they feel trapped, that they’ve been on a political roundabout for years with very little compensation or fair compensation. Will you be meeting with them today, while you are here given you are so close?
PRIME MINISTER: No, I don't have plans for that today. The $86 million that we've already put into the various packages of support as a result of that process that was initiated, that is a process we engaged in with good faith and that we followed through on. And I'm pleased that we were able to get to that point where we're able to come to making those contributions. But the contributions we're doing in so many other areas, which the Minister can speak to, whether it is the science and research that we continue to do, or the direct support we're putting in around water systems and things of that nature, they will continue. Linda?
SENATOR THE HON. LINDA REYNOLDS CSC, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Thank you, Prime Minister. Here in Williamtown and everywhere else, where we are dealing with impacted communities for PFAS, public safety and health is our absolute priority. Whether it's the four billion litres of water that we process locally here in Williamtown. Whether it is the thousands of tonnes of soil, we are doing everything that we can with the local community as part of our remediation plan and we will continue to do so.
JOURNALIST: You mentioned this morning that you would be meeting with somebody and getting a briefing today, especially about the clean-up. Has that happened? Will you still be doing that today?
SENATOR THE HON. LINDA REYNOLDS CSC, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: I will, yes.
JOURNALIST: Who are you meeting with?
SENATOR THE HON. LINDA REYNOLDS CSC, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Local officials here, defence officials yes.
SENATOR THE HON. LINDA REYNOLDS CSC, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: I understand, and certainly, Minister Price, who has been dealing with this, we understand that it is a difficult situation for the locals. But we are doing everything we possibly can to do that. Nationally, we've spent over $400 million doing remediation. We have come to a settlement here in Newcastle. So we will be here as long as we need to be to do the remediation here for the local community.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, I had a question regarding quarantine.
PRIME MINISTER: Sure.
JOURNALIST: There was a bit of an issue today. Do you feel like all states should have a 16-day rule?
PRIME MINISTER: We'll take the medical advice, as the states will also. The length of quarantine has been a topic that we have dealt with on many occasions. It wasn't that long ago that some were suggesting that we should be shortening the amount of quarantine time. Now, we took a decision that that wasn't the wise thing to do and we maintained that buffer on 14 days. Now, the medical evidence will guide the decisions that we make about the length of quarantine. And so that is something that I know is under constant review by the AHPPC, the medical expert panel, and if they were to make recommendations along that line, then I'm sure that you would see the states and the Commonwealth move in that direction. But at this stage, that is not the advice of the medical experts.
PRIME MINISTER: I'm going to let Linda respond to that because she's very involved in that.
SENATOR THE HON. LINDA REYNOLDS CSC, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: I can confirm that Defence are in talks with the Newcastle Airport Authority, and in fact I met their Chief here this morning. Defence is funding the defence component of the runway upgrade and that work will start mid-year. So we're having very cooperative discussions with the Newcastle Airport, but we will fund the defence component of that and the Newcastle Airport are seeking funding for their component of that so we can do the works together later this year.
SENATOR THE HON. LINDA REYNOLDS CSC, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Yes, we're working very closely together. And again, I had that reconfirmed this morning with the CEO of the airport here. So we are fully funding our component of that. And Newcastle Airport is seeking funding for their component of that plan. And if we do the works together at the same time, it minimises impact here at the airport for both, and of course, reduces costs as well.
JOURNALIST: Do you think that Newcastle [inaudible] submarine maintenance?
SENATOR THE HON. LINDA REYNOLDS CSC, MINISTER FOR DEFENCE: Look, I'm not going to speculate on that. It's still a matter of discussion within the National Security Committee. So I can't speculate on that, it's too early to speculate.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, what do you make of polling that has been publicised showing that the Liberal Party significantly ahead in the Paterson and Shortland electorates?
PRIME MINISTER: I'm just very focused on getting Australians into jobs and particularly here in the Hunter, as I am right across regional Australia. And these sorts of investments, whether it's these, the infrastructure investments, investments we are putting into energy, transmission grids and all of these things. That is securing jobs here in the Hunter, as it is in so many other parts of regional Australia. So that's our focus. Our focus is on the jobs of people here in the Hunter, just like it is of people in regional Australia and right across our nation. You know, 90 percent of the jobs we've lost through COVID have come back already by the end of last year, and we're seeing the Australian economy continue to step up as we step out of the COVID-19 recession. And that is what we're focused on. That, the vaccine rollout, continuing to ensure our economic recovery plan gets the results that it is getting to guarantee those essential services that I know people in the Hunter here depend on. Our health services, our education services, keeping Australians safe, as you see demonstrated behind us, and caring for this amazing country.
JOURNALIST: Just a question for Nine. Are you concerned about the AstraZeneca vaccine? Apparently there is some concerns about a recent study suggesting that it has minimal protection from the South African strain?
PRIME MINISTER: There are many studies, some of which and many of which at this point... I think that they are just asking you to move back from the cameras. You guys right? I think you just need to… there. We take our advice from Professor Murphy, who heads up the vaccines science and technology taskforce and they look at the peer reviewed science and they make the recommendations to us. And as recently as just the last few days, it continues to be very positive. We're waiting for the Therapeutic Goods Administration to give their approval to the AstraZeneca vaccine, and we met with Professor Skerritt on Friday, the Premiers were there also and he gave a very good report. And we're already seeing in quite a number of countries where the vaccine is being rolled out, that not only is it delivering real results in preventing serious illness but also, we're seeing some early signs which is encouraging about its impact on preventing transmission. Now, that's what the vaccines we're hoping for them to do. On the first one, that means that the virus in Australia could become just like many other viruses, ie that means that you know, they exist, but then don't lead to the serious illness that we have seen from COVID-19. There are many diseases and viruses that are in the community that don't require the response that we have had to COVID-19 over the past year. The vaccination program, which is my Government's top priority because it not only underpins the health of the nation, but it supports the economic recovery of the nation and that vaccination program is on track.
JOURNALIST: Just coming back, Prime Minister to talking about security for communities, Port Stephens has a very small hospital, a growing ageing community, and we don’t have good services here. We have, you know, two hour wait for an ambulance [inaudible] John Hunter. When it comes to health, we’ve got the opportunity to invest in that locally and I don’t see that happening.
PRIME MINISTER: Well, as you know, the state governments run our health systems here in New South Wales. And where the State Government wants to raise those issues with us, you know, I always engage very constructively with the Premier. They're rolling out very big investments in health all around the state and we're aware of that and we partner with them on many. So very happy for the Health Minister and the Premier to raise those matters with the Commonwealth in the way that they normally do. Our job is delivering Medicare. Our job is delivering the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Our job is to roll out the $6.3 billion, $6.3 billion vaccination program across Australia. You know, in the last 12 months, $21 billion from the Commonwealth Government invested directly in boosting our health services, mental health services, hospital supports, partnering with the states, to get Australia in the position that we're in today, which means that in Australia, we have one of the best records of protecting our country against both the health and the economic impacts of COVID-19 and we've done that by working together.
JOURNALIST: Did you ever stop to think what would happen if the virus were to arrive and the boats were still arriving? [Inaudible]
PRIME MINISTER: Many countries are seeming to learn many things from Australia at the moment. Whether it is on the successful immigration policies of the past and that we continue in place today and how we've managed that. Or how we've managed COVID-19. How we've managed our economic recovery. How we work together in defence partnerships. I'm looking forward to later this year joining the G7 leaders as we work through many of the things that are confronting, particularly, Liberal democracies around the world today. And Australia has a very strong story to tell. Leaders of nations, I don't think, have been speaking to each other as frequently as we have over the course of this last year. And I've got to say, in most cases, they're asking Australia, "How are you getting this done?" And my answer is pretty straightforward - the Australian people are amazing. OK, thanks very much, everyone.