Interview with Leon Byner, 5AA

4 September 2020

LEON BYNER: The Agricultural Minister - whom we'll talk to in a moment - has made another plea for common sense to prevail in regards to border restrictions to clear a path for agricultural producers to navigate Australia's close states. Let me explain this a little bit. The Queensland Minister accused state politicians of making coronavirus restriction decisions around capital cities and not taking into account the impact on regional communities, which have so far escaped the brunt of the pandemic. Now the Minister wants farmers to have freedom of navigation for agricultural production, which would allow them to cross closed state lines. Now, New South Wales and South Australian border closures to Victoria created issues, as has the closure of the Queensland borders with New South Wales. Now here's something else that you probably don't know, you might assume, oh Leon, there's no issue here, they are an essential traveller, they can get a permit. Can they?

Let's talk to Minister Littleproud. David, thanks for coming on today. I've got to say on this one, I'm totally with you.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah look, this is just plain insanity. The reality is we are allowing freight transport companies to let truck drivers in COVID hot spots in Melbourne drive right across the country without any worry at all, they get a permit and off they go. But a farmer who has a farm on one side of the border cannot go up to tend to his animals or tend to his crops even though he's outside a COVID hot spot just because unfortunately, we've got bureaucrats in capital cities making arbitrary decisions predicated on capital cities, not understanding this thing called common sense that regional Australia is a little bit different. We're not asking states to tear down their borders restrictions in any way sense or form. We're just asking a fair go like that given that the transport industry.

We're just saying you can do the same with agriculture in a safe way, but we'll continue to allow food to be put on your plate and clothes to be put on your back. That's all we're asking for. If you don't do that, you are going to see that there will be pressure on prices, because if farmers can't get to it, and they're about to have a bumper year, after so many hard years of the drought, and now this is another kick in the guts, where they simply just can't go and tend to animals. And there's actually some very serious animal welfare issues that are playing out on this, as well as health issues. And right across the state, I've come up with a code that now our Chief Medical Officer of the Commonwealth of Australia has given written approval too, that he believes will keep us safe, that will allow agriculture to keep going keep going, so it’s now up to the Premiers.

LEON BYNER: So why would other medical officers say no to our Chief Medical Officer just because, well, they think differently?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well this is the thing that frightens me, I think it's down to politics. And in times of crisis, your system of government is tested. And over a hundred years ago we created this thing called federation and we drew lines on a map. Well, modern Australia has outgrown most of those lines. We're an integrated agricultural system and society right up and down, particularly the eastern seaboard and into South Australia. So we've got to understand that our society has evolved past those arbitrary lines and we need to use some common sense, particularly when the Prime Minister is trying to create a hot spot so that you can use science. And what we've learnt to evolve with this virus is that how do we trace it and how do we treat it quickly? And that's been through tracing, and you can create bubbles, you can create hot spots and say, we locked those down, whereby you can't go in. Even the outside there's a bubble in which you can work and have freedom of movement.

If we don't learn to live with this, we're going to shut down our economy. And let me tell you, while it might seem as though those that still have jobs at the moment it's all okay, I can tell you, we're going to have to pay this back. This is going to take this nation a long time to pay this back. It's not free money, and it is going to be a lot of hurt. And this is why we've just got to use our smarts and back ourselves and understand that we can achieve this, but particularly for regional Australia that hasn't had the cases. You've just got to get out of their lives. Protect us, yes, but get out of our lives and just use some common sense in some of the protocols that we've put forward, that even science and medical profession is now telling me is safe to do.

LEON BYNER: Alright so are you telling us today that there are some health bureaucrats who will not let farmers cross their orders on their property? Is that what you're telling me?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: That is correct.

LEON BYNER: But why can't they get a permit like others? Because you could argue their work is essential. So why can't they get a permit?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well unfortunately this is this thing. We have announcements for announcements sakes by some of these states. And there's been bubbles off across borders and then you can go and apply for a personal exemption. So the problem then comes down in the practical application of it. The arbiter of this is normally a health official and in fact I've got a number of cases where we've got contract harvesters that have rung up the health officials, who are the ones that decide, and they say I'm a contract harvester, I'm outside the bubble, I want to go across the border because I've got work up there. They don't even know what a contract harvester is. And so they say no.

LEON BYNER: See now here is a principle of government. The bureaucracy enacts policies the government tells them, not the other way round. So isn't this really up to each premier to get on with it and give consistent rules so that everybody is treated fairly? Is that not the case?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: That is all we ask for and that's not a huge ask. And that's what we've taken to National Cabinet today. An AG workforce code of conduct that mirrors the freight one, that- you're allowing people in COVID hotspots to actually cross borders to come in and out of, but you won't let a farmer that's nowhere near a COVID cases some hundreds of kilometres. We've even got the insane situation in Queensland where- I will grant you they have done some good but they've only allowed it out to 22 September and then they're going to reassess it. And we've got the situation, not only with AG workers but health and education. I mean we've just allowed 400 AFL executives to swan around a resort in the Gold Coast to be up here for the AFL grand final. But we've got teenage boarding school students that will not be allowed to go home and see their parents, see their parents in the next school holidays. They won't see their parents until the end of the year. Now they're going out into north west New South Wales where there is no cases, but the Premier sees it fit to allow entourage of AFL people to come up and swan around but won't allow and look after these kids. This has just got to stop. We're better than this.

LEON BYNER: Now here is the big problem David Littleproud, Agriculture Minister, it's this. It seems as if I know that the Prime Minister and the National Cabinet of which you're part, they want to see a consistent definition of what is a hot spot. It appears that there are some health bureaucrats who will not want this. Well I don't think the public care what they want. What they care about is that these people are supposed to work for them not the other way round. If you can't get agreement on this what's going to happen then? Because the Prime Minister and the Federal Government have some sway. Are they able to use any to give some sense kicked into the backsides of these people?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, and this is exactly the challenge I put down to the premiers yesterday. Come with the clinical evidence to prove that I'm wrong, come with it. Because I've got the Chief Medical Officer of Australia that says I'm right. So you bring your Chief Health Officer-

LEON BYNER: You know as well as I do that all this now has become deeply political.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah.

LEON BYNER: And that is not what this state of emergency was ever about. And I think that's got to be challenged at the highest level because I just don't think we are being- David, we are being defederated before our eyes with this nonsense. It's got to stop. It's got to stop.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well this is exactly right Leon. This is the issue that I say in times of crisis your system of government is tested. And the system of federation, where constitutionally the power and responsibility given to the states which was set over 100 years ago, we need to continue to understand: is that fit for the future? And not be afraid to have a mature conversation as a nation about what and how we should look. And I think the Prime Minister's trying his hardest in terms of National Cabinet and he hasn't given up on that. And in fact he'll be trying very hard today to make sure that there's some practical outcomes out of this.

LEON BYNER: When will we know?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: This afternoon we will know. I think the National Cabinet sits in about now and we'll know about 2:30-3:30 this afternoon. In fact, he's called a cabinet meeting this afternoon for us in the Federal Cabinet so obviously we'll know more this afternoon. But I can tell you, he's committed to this because he can see it. He can see that these lines on a map that were put there over 100 years ago are holding us back at the moment because our society's evolved past it. And we respect the sovereignty of it but we've got to understand that we're in trying times and in these times we've got to work together and not isolate ourselves as states, but to think outside the square. Think outside that line on a map and think about how we can achieve the same outcomes of keeping Australians and keeping those within their states safe. But do it working together. That's all we ask.

LEON BYNER: Alright. David Littleproud, thanks for joining us.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me mate, anytime.

LEON BYNER: That's the Federal Agriculture Minister talking about a very important issue.