Interview with Matt Wordsworth, ABC Afternoon Briefing

6 July 2021

MATT WORDSWORTH: But first, let's go to David Littleproud. He is the Minister for Agriculture and Northern Australia coming to us appropriately from Darwin. Thanks very much for joining us today, Minister.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, mate.

MATT WORDSWORTH: Fellow Queenslander, of course, I do want to talk to you about Northern Australia. Very important for this half of the country. But just a couple of emergent issues this afternoon. The Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix, the Australian MotoGP, have been cancelled. The Victorian Government saying major reasons are the slower than forecast rollout of the Commonwealth vaccination program and subsequent caps to international traveller intake. Just wanted to give you an opportunity to respond to that, given that it seems like it's a bit of a responsibility of the Commonwealth Government that they're saying there.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look, with respect, I'm not going to get into pointing fingers. I think the Australian public just want leadership, not childish antics where they're pointing fingers at everyone. The facts remain is that the states wanted to reduce the caps, the international caps coming in. The Prime Minister was keen to maintain them where they were. We've had over 350,000 people come into this country, and 99 per cent of that has worked well. We've also made sure to we've given Australians the confidence to put their arm out with jabs that they know will keep them safe not only from COVID but won't have the side effects. We haven't had to rush into that like other countries have. We've let the science been able to be dictated, been agile enough to move with that science as it's evolved in terms of the side effects of some of those vaccines.

So I think we've acted with the agility that's been required to keep the confidence within the Australian public to make sure that they know they put their arm out to get through this. Pointing fingers does not help anybody. The fact that we've have had all these lockdowns, and particularly in Victoria, of a state, more than anybody, I think the Victorian people will reflect on that more than anything else.

MATT WORDSWORTH: And Minister, it's also emerged this afternoon that 160 Year 12 students at a private school in Sydney, St Joseph's of Hunter Hill, have gotten the Pfizer vaccine, even though the national rollout hasn't spread to the under 40s. Yet the school is saying they asked New South Wales Health for special dispensation because they've got a fair degree of boarders, taking in the regional, rural and Indigenous communities of Australia. But are you worried that people are jumping the queue here?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look, I think that's been a determination by the New South Wales Government, and I think it's too early for me to make any commentary on that. It'll get gratuitous advice from the sidelines, I think. We are being very, very clear that we need to protect particularly those remote Indigenous communities. If we're to get an outbreak in those parts of Australia, then there would be serious effects. So I think obviously, on the face of it, before we jump to conclusions, I think it's important to get to the facts of what's happened at that particular school, particularly when you have remote students boarding. I myself was a boarding school student, and when they return into remote communities that don't have the tertiary health facilities to support those communities, some of these things can put lives at risk. So, I would expect the Chief Medical Officer in New South Wales has made that determination on science and health factors rather than anything else.

MATT WORDSWORTH: Okay. Let's move to Northern Australia. You've taken on the job of Minister for the North. What are you hoping to achieve in the short term for Queensland, Northern Territory, and Western Australia?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, I think it's building on the framework that's been put there in place by those that came before me. I mean, it was put in stone in 2015 when the Coalition Government created a Minister for Northern Australia and the NAIF, and we've now had a $5 billion program that I'm advised by the end of the next 12 months will have all that $5 billion out the door. But there's also other complimentary and supplementary programs that the Federal Government is exploring with state and territory governments up here to showcase the opportunities for those that want to come and spend a dollar. This is the new frontier of a modern Australia that will grow our economy, and I think what the rest of Australia needs to understand is that there is confidence, there is backing by the Federal, and also state and territory governments, to make things happen up here. There are a abundance of resources, and it's about how we use the smarts of the 21st century and those that are up here, those that have already blazed that trail for us to build on that, to grow Northern Australia, and to grow our economy. And this is where I think the exponential growth can come, but we need to give the rest of the Australia- Australian population and the global community the confidence that it can be done. And I think the foundation stones have been laid.

And we now need to make sure that we have a strategic pathway that clearly uses the data sets to identify that, to give confidence to investors. Not just the Australian taxpayer, through investments from the Federal Government, but also those that want to put their own money into this. Give them the confidence that the data is there to back the courage that they will take in investing in Northern Australia with the opportunities that lay here.

MATT WORDSWORTH: I'm interested when you just said there. The $5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility will be entirely spent in the next 12 months. As of 30 June last year, you had only spent 2.1. How much have you spent up until 30 June just gone?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yes, I was advised only last night actually that it's just ticked over $3 billion and the funnel…

MATT WORDSWORTH: 3 billion? So you've got to spend $2 billion this year?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: With the funnel of financing that's there, and been approved and about to be improved, I was advised only last night that within the next 12 months we'll have the rest out the door. Such as the acceleration that's taken place. After we put the foundation stones around making sure the governance was right, but also giving the confidence to those that have had the courage to come in and also put their own cash up here. To be able to give them that confidence that they've now started to take that up. So that's only one piece of the puzzle but it's important to understand.

The NAIF is just one program, there are many other programs through the infrastructure grants that we provide to actually accelerate that as well. And I think this is the opportunity in making sure that we build on what's been done to accelerate that, to excel rate the growth, not just for Northern Australia but for the Australian economy. As we just heard from the RBA governor, we are going into an expansionary phase sooner than what they had actually even anticipated. And that's because the Government's pulled the levers that are going to create the growth. Not just in creating jobs in building infrastructure, but also operating it.

The other mob put it into Pink Batts and school halls. They created jobs and building it, but not operating it. And this is what's going to grow the pie, that'll build the productivity and profitability in our economy and get us out of the COVID recession and pay back the debt. It's not the Government that's going to do it. Our Australian population's going to do it, and these are the levers we've pulled.

MATT WORDSWORTH: Yeah. I appreciate you might not be able to tell me exactly what projects you're funding to the tune of $2 billion with this lending facility, but can you give us a sense of the flavour of the projects? And will they be fairly split between the states and the Northern Territory?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. At the moment there's around- just under $1 billion has been spent in the Territory. I think it's over $1.2 billion in Queensland and $1. 3 billion in Western Australia. So obviously that's why I'm up here talking to the Northern Territory Government to make sure that they understand the opportunities. Because it is a partnership, mate. This isn't just the Federal Government doing it in isolation. We need states to come with us because they own the resources and if they want some support in doing the development, then that's where the NAIF and other infrastructure programs come in.

And so it's important that we work together, and that's why we've also identified four key areas across the North whereby they'll be pilots to identify key industries, across not only Queensland but in the Northern Territory and WA, that'll accelerate those supply chains. You get confidence to build that inertia to get further investment in up here in North.

MATT WORDSWORTH: Can I ask you about the Australian Aboriginal Mining Corporation. There was a commitment of up to $12.5 million a couple of years ago from the NAIF, for what would have been Australia's first Aboriginal owned iron ore project. It reportedly was purchased by billionaire, Chris Ellison. Was that what you intended and will more taxpayer funds go towards this?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, Chris- I've just walked out of a briefing and I'm only just getting my head around those numbers. I was sworn in on Friday. So, I'm literally going through line by line as we speak. I've just walked out of a meeting in doing that, Matt, so obviously I'll get a better lens on that out of the coming hour. So it's a bit premature for me to comment on individual programs or individual loans at this point in time.

MATT WORDSWORTH: Okay. Let's move to your agriculture portfolio because we've told many stories about farmers really finding it hard to find workers right now during the pandemic. Does the cut of 50 per cent to international arrivals that was announced out of National Cabinet on Friday, affect those seasonal workers for the farms?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, it doesn't have to because what we've said in opening up the Seasonal Worker Programme and the Pacific Labour Scheme to the states they can do that in addition to the caps. And some states are doing that, in fact, South Australia in August will trial in country quarantining with Vanuatu. We've opened that up. They're the only state that accept that. They've also put in place their own camp- quarantine camp. Every state and territory have had a proposal put to them since October last year from Aspen Medical and Palladian Medical to do the quarantining for them so that they could concentrate on their own caps. So the opportunity's there for the states and territories to take up the 25,000 men and women we found in the Pacific that are keen to come and work here. We just need the states to have the courage and conviction to take up that opportunity. Whether it be quarantining in their own individual states, or whether it be in country quarantining.

Unfortunately, only South Australia has taken that opportunity up. But it is there for the states. They own the health approvals. We own the visas. And once they give the health approval, we're happy to stamp the visas of those men and women. First, we just need the states to have some courage and conviction to bring those men and women in.

MATT WORDSWORTH: And just finally, I want to ask you about hotel quarantine and the move from the states to build these special purpose quarantine facilities. One in Victoria, one at Pinkenba on defence land here in Queensland. Given that they won't be up and running until next year at the earliest and they're going to cost tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, and the vaccination program should hit every Australian by then, do you think they're worth it?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I think so. We have to have a suite of measures to make sure that we can not only keep Australians safe but we can keep our economy going. And as Governor Lowe just articulated, those measures that we've taken mean that we are in a better place in terms of economic performance than probably any other country in the world. So we've obviously worked with the states and in March last year the states said that they would handle the quarantining of those in-bound foreigners and also Australians coming home through hotel quarantining. We've respected that. They've then come with other proposals around quarantine facilities one in Victoria and then…

UNKNOWN SPEAKER: Hey, buddy.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Great to be in Darwin. But then, obviously, working with the states, Victoria put a professional proposal that we're working through with them, and now Queensland after putting a substandard proposal in regional Toowoomba, we have now after working through a National Cabinet saying that we have to be near tertiary health facilities to keep regional Australians safe as well, is that we've taken mature steps to make sure that if we undertake quarantine facilities, we do them in a safe environment that keeps not only city dwellers safe but also regional Australians. We can't have second-class citizens in this country, whereby we're deciding to transfer those in inbound citizens is out into regional areas where they don't have the tertiary health facilities to support an outbreak that would put lives at risk.

MATT WORDSWORTH: Alright. Well, I'll let you get to your constituent of Northern Australia there, Minister. That's David Littleproud, Minister for Agriculture and Northern Australia.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks, mate.