Interview with Jane Norman, ABC Afternoon Briefing

2 October 2020

JANE NORMAN: In a significant step marking a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia's borders are set to reopen in a limited way to tourists from New Zealand. From 16 October, Kiwis can travel quarantine-free to New South Wales and the Northern Territory. Other states can also join in too. South Australia is expected to be the next cab off the rank, but as long as they agree to a Commonwealth definition of a COVID hot spot. This is the first stage of the trans-Tasman travel bubble that was first agreed to back in May, and for now though, it is only one way. Earlier I caught up with Deputy Nationals Leader David Littleproud.

Minister, welcome to the program.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me.

JANE NORMAN: Can I first ask for your reaction to this huge news today, Donald Trump and his wife Melania have tested positive to COVID-19 and are now in quarantine.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, look, obviously our best wishes go to the President and the First Lady, but it demonstrates no-one is immune from catching COVID-19 and catching it. So, it shows that no matter the precautions, we are all susceptible to this. It is important that we understand that as a global community. And the President of the United States is no different to any other human being, and so obviously we hope that the President and the First Lady recover quickly, and that they get through that as quick as they can. Obviously, there have pressing times ahead, coming into a very important election. And anyone that's been around him, we obviously hope that they're also been able to obviously evade COVID-19, but if they aren't, our thoughts are with them as well. A trying time, and it just goes to show a global pandemic can in fact touch anybody, in fact, even the President of the United States.

JANE NORMAN: Yeah, a global pandemic that keeps surprising. And just before we move on, this is terrible timing for Donald Trump. Americans go to the polls in five weeks, but he'll be spending the next two weeks in quarantine. This is going to throw his presidential campaign of course, won't it?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, look, I think it'll be exciting times in the United States. I mean, there's always a twist and turn that we've seen through this COVID-19, but this is a significant one, particularly around timing of the US election. So, it'll be interesting to see how the political parties - one, on the Democratic side try to take advantage of it, and two, on the Republican side, how the President actually is able to campaign. I would suspect that digital campaigning will become even more prevalent for him from the White House in isolation. So, I'd say there'd be a fair few campaign discussions happening at the moment in the United States, scrambling to make sure that they keep on message and make sure that they continue to demonstrate strength from both sides.

JANE NORMAN: Okay, well let's move on to the other big news that happened here today, and that's news that Australia and New Zealand have settled on the first stage of the trans-Tasman travel bubble. I suppose the question a lot of Australians might be thinking, David Littleproud, is when can we head across the Tasman to New Zealand?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, well look, obviously we'll continue to work with New Zealand but it's only one way at the moment, and obviously the Kiwis are pretty keen to come to Australia, as most are. But unfortunately, it is only into New South Wales and the Northern Territory at the moment. And the New South Wales Government and Northern Territory Government have been very forward leaning and proactive on trying to create that bubble. New Zealand will obviously continue to work with the other states, and we will work with them in trying to reciprocate that. We give confidence. And I think that even in Victoria we are starting to see some better results as we work together as a nation in trying to get rid of these clusters as quickly as we can. I think it's important also- it goes back to the Prime Minister's point about trying to create a hot spot science, because if we get that science right around hot spots, it shows that we don't have to actually close off state borders but we can isolate, locally isolate areas that have outbreaks rather than broad areas. I think that will give even greater confidence not just to New Zealand but across the country that we can keep the free movement of people, and that keeps the economy going. We're not going to get out of this COVID recession by locking ourselves up and hoping that the Australian Government will spend its way out. We actually have to get the economy moving by getting people moving, in a safe COVID-safe way. And if we do that then we can try to manage this. Because we don't know how long this will be with us for, so it's important that we are practical and that we use common sense. That's where the Prime Minister wanting that hot spot science is so important. And I think just say to the premiers, look at this, because this is our opportunity as a federation to lead, to come together, find those opportunities and make sure that we evolve with this virus.

JANE NORMAN: There's clearly a bit of pressure on the states here. So, it's only New South Wales and the Northern Territory right now. Other states can sign up to this travel bubble, travel zone, provided they agree to this hot spot, which for our viewers, is a three-day rolling average of three locally acquired cases per day. Your home state of Queensland has not signed up to this, but there's obviously pressure from the Commonwealth to do so.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, not just on Queensland, on all the states. I think this is an opportunity for federation to show that it works. But we've got this insane situation even in agriculture where we've got Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania that won't sign up to the ag workers' code which gives the free movement of workers. Yet Queensland want to import in from overseas seasonal and Pacific workers, allow them to isolate on farm while they're working, but they won't let an Australian picker from Griffith come up to Queensland without 14 days of isolation. Now, a picker's not going to come up from Griffith and spend $2500 sitting in isolation before they can go to Bowen to pick fruit. That's just insane. That's not common sense.

So, we're just asking for some consistency and I think that's what the PM has really been on about - backing ourselves and backing one another with this hotspot science because if we get that, I think you can see that we'll be able to manage these outbreaks quicker, in a more sensible way that keeps the economy going and helps us get out of this COVID recession. Because if we think we're just going to revert back every time there's an outbreak to closing down wholesale borders, then this nation is going to just fall in on itself. So, I just say to the states, there's an opportunity for them to lead and prove that federation still works.

JANE NORMAN: I want to get to the farm worker shortage issue in just a moment, but just to finish on the New Zealand travel bubble - New Zealand's Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has warned any Kiwis who come here that they'll have to quarantine for two weeks on their return. Was this anticipated by the Australian Government and do you think this is going to deter New Zealanders from actually taking advantage of this scheme?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Not if I could get to Australia. I think coming into the summer months, I think it'd be fantastic to get to the beaches in any part of Australia at the moment, particularly if you've been cooped up in New Zealand for the last nine, 10 months. So, obviously we respect the sovereign right of the New Zealand Government. They've got a responsibility to keep their citizens safe, as do we ours, and that's why believe what's been agreed today is a safe way in which we can continue to expand and make sure that not only our economy keeps moving but our Tasman partner also does as well.

JANE NORMAN: Yeah. Well right now - moving to another topic about farm labour, we know that the horticultural industry has said that they are 26,000 workers short for the harvest this season, largely because of the closed borders. How much do you think this new travel bubble might alleviate that shortage? Like, are there 26,000 farm workers in New Zealand who can come across here to help pick fruit this season?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, they're also in New Zealand but they're also here in Australia. And this is the thing, we've been worried about this since March and that's why I took pre-emptive steps back then to make sure that the backpackers in this country, which were around 140,000, have come back to just over 70,000 now. We've got also the Pacific and Seasonal Worker Program, which is about 8000. We said to them back in March: if you work in agriculture, you can have another 12 months. And then two months ago, we reopened up the Seasonal Worker Programme and Pacific worker program to try and bring more in. We estimate somewhere between 1000 and 4000 could come in before Christmas and there's potentially up to 10,000 within that cohort.

So, we'll be making some more moves around those visas to incentivise the backpacker cohort as well as the Pacific and seasonal cohort to stay, and we'll make those announcements soon. But we've also got to understand that each one of those jobs have to be market tested first. Aussies have to get first crack at it. And we're hoping that Australians will start to take these jobs up. Got to understand that many that are on JobSeeker at the moment are sometimes thousands of kilometres away from where these jobs are. The jobs last in one location for three to four weeks and then you have to move on to another location.

So, there's a practical lens to this and that's why we'll look particularly at those young Australians because they can't go and backpack around the world at the moment, so why not backpack around the country, make a quid and go back to uni or go to uni for the first year with a few dollars in your pocket and see your country while you're doing it? So we'll be making some announcements very soon about incentivise- the first priority of the Australian Government is to get Australians working first, but we'll continue to work with that cohort that's here already.

JANE NORMAN: What incentives are you going to be providing? Is there money for relocating? Are you looking at changes around Youth Allowance? Like, what are you actually going to be offering young people to move to the regions to fill these labour shortages?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well we work very closely with industry on this to make sure that we get the mix right, and it won't be the entire panacea. I think you've got to understand, this is a very complex problem and we'll be making those announcements. I'm not going to give you the scoop today, Jane. We're only days away from that announcement.

JANE NORMAN: Well, it's been reported this week that there are some incentives on the way, so feel free to elaborate on it. I mean are you thinking about a relocation allowance?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well Jane, look, there's a number of- there's a suite of measures that we're looking at that is trying to make sure that we comprehensively look at this. And while you have one of the highest rating shows I can think of, I just can't announce it today unfortunately, but I'd love to. But obviously, you'll be the first to know on Tuesday.

JANE NORMAN: Yeah. 7.30pm when the Budget speech takes place. Well David Littleproud, thank you very much for your time today.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, Jane. Great to be with you.

JANE NORMAN: The Deputy Nationals Leader David Littleproud there.