Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC Afternoon Briefing

24 November 2020

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management, David Littleproud, joined me a short time ago.
Minister, welcome.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: What does Queensland's decision to reopen the border with New South Wales next week mean for the agriculture sector?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, effectively what it means is the seasonal workers can come up. They had a temporary arrangement around ag workers and farmers going across the border with permits. But what this now allows is that seasonal workers- a seasonal worker in Griffith can now get up, which is a great start, but it’s been a long time coming and it has impeded agriculture. We now need Victoria to come on board. The insanity of this situation is we’ve got a localised lockdown between Queensland and South Australia where Adelaide's locked out. Regional South Australians can get into Queensland but the entire state of Victoria's locked down despite the fact that a town like Mildura, where a seasonal worker may be, hasn't seen a case for over six months, and yet there's been a hard lockdown around Melbourne. So, there's been no rhyme nor reason to what Queensland's decision-making process has been. So, this is a great start for ag, particularly the seasonal workers who will get into the real heart of the picking season, but there’s still a long way to go and particularly we hope that Victoria is given the same reprieve tomorrow or even before the end of the week.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Do you hope this puts pressure on Western Australia to speed up their reopening of their border?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's a decision for WA but they need to understand that we're a nation that needs to pull together. And our federation's being tested. Federation can only work if we work with one another. A modern Australia has moved past lines in a map and we expect to work with one another for the betterment of our whole nation, and that’s what we’ve tried to do as a nation through National Cabinet. It’s important the premiers understand that those lines on a map were put there 120 years ago. Modern Australia has moved past that and it’s important that if make federation work, we’ve got to work together. We’ve got to trust one another. And that’s what we’ve tried to do in terms of a hotspot definition, and we’re getting that at an ad hoc level from some states in locking down individual areas but then others, for parochial reasons, are locking down the entire border. Now that’s a decision for them, but ultimately, states got to understand it’s the Australian taxpayer that's paying for that type of political decision, and unless the nation gets moving in a COVID-safe way, then it is going to cost us lot of money and our recovery will be slower.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce says the airline will refuse to allow passengers to travel on international flight if they’ve not been vaccinated against COVID-19. Do you think that’s a good strategy?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, it may be out of Alan Joyce's hands. In fact, a country in which Australians may want to travel to, that may be a condition of their visa. That’s the sovereign right of any country to determine. But obviously, we’ll work through that, not only with the airlines but with the states and health professionals about what is the requirements, the mutual obligation, about having the vaccine and not having it. It’s a choice. It will be a choice. But there has to be responsibilities. If you are not going to undertake it, you have to understand that that may pose a risk to other citizens, not only here in Australia, but in other parts of the world. So, those are the things that the Chief Medical Officer will work through and give us advice as a government, and we’ll take that advice and then obviously work with those countries that we’re able to open up bubbles with to make sure that international travel can happen in a COVID-safe way and make sure that those Australians that leave our country come back just as safe and protect those Australians that are still here.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: What do you make of the new WA Liberal Leader's comments that on managing coronavirus, there won't be Liberal or Labor, just Western Australia?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well I haven't seen those comments, but I just say we're all Australians and it’s important that in times of crisis that we always revert to that we are a proud nation no matter the lines that are put on a map 120 years ago. It’s important that we pull together as a nation because ultimately, we all pay for it. And if we don't pull together, then the cost will be greater. And I think, first and foremost, we’re Australians. Australians from right across from every state have gone and fiercely defended our democracy, our way of life. Some with their own blood. So, it’s important as Australians that we never forget that. We always understand it’s great to be parochial and love your own states. I’m a Queenslander that toweled up New South Wales in the State of Origin, but ultimately and foremost, I’m an Australian.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So, with some of these plans we’re seeing, will it allow more Australians looking to do harvesting work to travel to areas where workers are needed?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: We’ve put some incentives in place for that. I don't think that's going to be the panacea. I’ve got to be honest with you around that. But all these jobs have to be market tested first with Australians. We’ve tried to say to Australians understanding the fact that a lot of these jobs are thousands of kilometres away from where some who are unemployed are, so we’re trying to incentivise in reimbursing those costs up to $6000. But there are 22,000 pre-vetted, work-ready people in 10 Pacific nations ready to come if the state governments and industry decide the quarantine arrangements and they work that through. We’ll stamp the visas. So, we’ve known about this since March. We were able to get to a juncture in August to open up the Seasonal Pacific Worker Programmes and said to the states: it’s up to you to work with industry about bringing these people in, but Australians must get first crack at this. And I’d still encourage every Australian, particularly those that are just leaving school, you’re not going to be able to backpack around the world, you can backpack around your country, make a quid, and go back to O week with it in your pocket and we’ll reimburse you for your travel costs, and you will have an accelerated pathway to Austudy or ABSTUDY.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: How are the pilot programs to bring in workers from East Timor and the Pacific going? Are there plans to expand those?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: There is, and in fact there’s been some- and I’ve got to congratulate the Northern Territory, they were the leaders in this. Some months ago, Queensland are now bringing them in and they have got their own arrangements of being able to quarantine on farm. New South Wales is working towards that but other states still haven't finalised through their Chief Health Officers what those quarantine arrangements are. Now, the states all wanted ownership of that. We respect that, that is their sovereign right and responsibility, but they need to act quickly with industry because time is running out. And if Australians aren't taking these jobs, those 22,000 people that are sitting in those 10 Pacific nations are work ready, they are pre-vetted, it is simply about industry and state governments working through getting a plane here and quarantining them. We will stamp the visa. But it is time critical. Farmers do not have the luxury to sit and wait for someone to turn up to pick their crop. It has to get out of the paddock and onto your plate when it is ripe.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: How much has that shortfall in seasonal workers been reduced by?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, look, we continue- and industry themselves estimated it to be around 26,000 at the peak and ABARES in fact validated that. They believed that it was somewhere of 20,000 north. So, that is why we acted swiftly to have 22,000 ready but- and trying then to incentivise Australians as well. But we are now at a juncture where if we don't get them- in fact, we have seen probably 2000 or 3000 as a minimum come through internationally and there is still more to come in the coming couple of weeks, even this week, but we still need a lot more. But we need- particularly states like Victoria to work out their quarantine arrangements. Now, they may have a little bit more time because their season comes on a bit later but they are fast running out of it because the quarantine arrangements will take time for them to set up and then obviously there is 14 days for these people who come in to be in that isolation.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Are you sympathetic to some calls to look- relook at the issue around hotel quarantining and look perhaps at regional quarantining spots, more of those like Howard Springs; is that something that you think should perhaps be looked at now?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, in fact, some states are already doing that. I know Western Australia wrote to me saying that the workers that they intended to bring in were going to go through Howard Springs. That’s a cost that they must bear. The states all said they would be responsible for quarantine, not only in terms of administering it but also in terms of the cost and sharing that with industry. So, we are allowing them to work through that. They are their own jurisdiction and we respect that. Some states are looking at that. Queensland Chief Medical Officer got comfort in the fact that they could quarantine on farm. If you can do that practically then that is a sensible way to do it. But they are the ones that obviously we rely on the medical advice about how we can keep Australians safe but also keep those people that are coming into our country safe as well.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. But we know there have been some issues around hotel quarantining in Melbourne, in Adelaide. The Opposition Leader in South Australia has raised this issue and written to leaders as well. Are you concerned about hotel quarantining?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I respect the sovereignty of the states. They are big boys and girls now. They…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yeah, but sure, as a citizen, they are big, but we’re all citizens. I mean, I’m from a state that had issues around quarantining. I know South Australians probably feel similarly. There's a little discomfort around it. Are you sympathetic to people who are thinking maybe there are better models?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, as a citizen you always look up and expect your Government, whether it be state or federal, do their job. That's what we're saying to the states, you are big boys and girls now. You make those decisions, you wanted to make those decisions, you need to give faith and confidence to not only your community but the entire nation about getting that right. The Commonwealth has been more than generous in offering support. As you recall, we offered support to the Victorian Government around using Australian federal assets to be able to do that, i.e. the Defence Force. So, we’ve been forward leaning with respect to that. But the states wanted ownership of this, they can't walk away from it, they’ve got to put the plans in place that gives confidence to every citizen, not only in their own state but across the nation.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just another question, what’s your reaction to this latest death of a food delivery driver in Sydney?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Sorry, PK, I have been on the road all day so I haven't seen any of those details. I have come from my electorate in western Queensland out into Brisbane, so I haven't seen any of those details so it would be a bit difficult for me to comment.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. There is a broader issue though, I think it’s the fifth death nationally in the last three months of delivery drivers. Is it something that needs to be dealt with at a national level? Something more serious has to be done given there are so many people in these roles now and clearly they are very vulnerable on Australian roads?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Obviously, we want to respect the sovereignty of the states but our job is to coordinate that. If there is a mechanism, if there’s a pattern that is starting to emerge that is seeing the death of innocent Australians then we all have a responsibility to work together, not shirk responsibility, but we'd be happy to coordinate any approach but the states obviously would have ownership around their jurisdiction as we do around ours. So, I don't think we should turn our minds away from that. If there is a pattern that is starting to emerge then I think we have a responsibility. That is the responsibility of any government whether state or federal, to keep their citizens safe. And if there is a pattern that is starting to emerge then we need to act and act together.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Thank you so much for joining us.