Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC Afternoon Briefing

4 May 2021

PATRICIA KARVELAS: David Littleproud is the Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Services. He joined me from Rockhampton a little earlier.
    
Minister, welcome to the program.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, PK.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: What's your response to the AMA's argument that the travel ban is unnecessary because the suspension of direct flights means very few Australians can actually get home from India anyway?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD:Look, while we respect their view, we obviously take our advice from the Chief Medical Officer. We received this advice and we've acted accordingly. And I think while there'll be varying opinions from different bodies and different professionals, which we respect, ultimately, what the Government needs to do is make its decisions predicated that of the advice of the Chief Medical Officer, and that's what we'll continue to do and that's what we've done consistently. And I think that's what Australians would expect, that we are consistent. And so long as we are consistent, I think they understand the decisions [audio skip]. I think that's the premise that we will continue on and so long as this pandemic continues.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Do you acknowledge that the decision to criminalise people returning from India is a suspension of one of the rights of citizenship, key rights, which is the right to entry?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, look, let's put this in perspective. This is part of the Biosecurity Act, one which has been place since before this time last year, one in which has been put in place in extreme times where the nation's safety is at risk, and that's when governments use it, only very rarely. And obviously, the penalties that apply to that legislation have ever rarely ever been used. So I don't think we need to over conflate the issues here. I think, in a pragmatic and practical sense I think you'll find that the reality is…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just to get some clarity, you do accept though that it does actually remove a fundamental right of citizenship?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, this is- part of being a functioning member of society is acknowledging that you are part of a society that has laws. These laws were created by a democratically elected parliament, one in which uses it responsibly to make sure that it keeps its people safe, and when you're in the middle of a global pandemic, the primary responsibility of any government is to keep its people safe. Now obviously there will be people that find themselves on the wrong side of the border when these pandemics start, and it's important to understand that we try and get them home as quickly as we possibly can, but we need to protect the Australian population and our country and our island and use those tools that have been provided through a democratically elected parliament, to make sure that we do exactly what the Australian people would expect us to do, which is keep them safe.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, there's some news this afternoon. The whole Lower House Crossbench, including also senators Patrick and Griff, have written to the Government [audio skip] the India travel ban and repatriate Australians in India, also to build surge capacity for quarantine. Is the Government going to consider this call from the Crossbench?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think the last thing the Australian public want is politicisation of a pandemic. Now, while I respect their democratic right to actually protest what the Government has done, we have acted in accordance with the medical advice that was provided to us by the Chief Medical Officer. Now, if they seem to have information that out trumps the Chief Medical Officer, I'm happy to hear what their credentials and qualifications are, but knowing the Crossbench, none of which I think have those credentials or qualifications that are superior to that of the Chief Health Officer. I think I'll risk my luck with the Chief Health Officer and I think the Australian public will as well, and I think they'll see that the Crossbench are playing more politics than actually trying to lead the nation in understanding some of the challenges that we're going to face through this pandemic. And I think, really, I think the public expect more of its politicians. There are more challenges to come, and we're going to have to lead, not fight, and it's important we come together to achieve that.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just some clarity from you, why is this a politicisation? Are they not just responding to the citizens that they represent, including Australians stranded now in India with no right to return home over the next several weeks. How is that a politicisation? Isn't that democracy?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, you've got to sympathise with those people that are stranded overseas and obviously also important to appreciate that this is a temporary cessation of the India-Australia border. There will be a review of that in the coming week or two, on 15 May as I understand. But the reality is, as election officials, as we've had debate about whether vaccines should be used, whether they're safe or not, as elected officials, we should look to our institutions [audio skip] bipartisan support, like the Chief Medical Officer, that should be able to give us frank and fearless advice so as to make the decisions that have clarity and transparency to the Australian public, not to confuse them in any way shape or form. I think the Chief Medical Officer has given outstanding advice, both of them. One of which obviously is now…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: …the Director-General of Health. But I think we need to entrust them with what they have been able to provide us and the way that they have helped the Australian Government to keep its people safe.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But Minister, with respect, one of the demands of the Crossbench is that you build surge capacity for quarantine. So I'll ask you this question, does quarantine need to be able to accommodate much larger numbers of people given it's going to have to continue now for two to three years?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well the Federal Government has done that, in fact, with capacity at Howard Springs. That has been the Australian Government's contribution…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Well, that's it. The only work you have done is on Howard Springs.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well with respect, PK, I think it's important that you're ignoring the fact that National Cabinet, which was brought together to make sure that state and federal governments work together from the very beginning, meant that our premiers stood up and took ownership primarily of the quarantine arrangements, set their own caps within their own states and territories, which we respected, because ultimately, they are the health providers, they are the ones that provide that health service. So, with respect, it has been a partnership between federal and state governments in making sure that we can do this safely, and those that we bring home, we can bring them home safely but also keep Australians here safe, not only in the broader population, but those that are there to work in those quarantine facilities and hotels that the states have engaged with.

So, this has been a partnership and I think it's one that the Australian people should be very proud of, the fact that state and federal governments have worked together. We've taken our responsibilities. The states have owned the health aspects of [audio skip] DFAT to make sure we can bring these people back in a COVID-safe way.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Is the Federal Government considering the Toowoomba businessman John Wagner's offer to build a dedicated quarantine facility on his land?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well I don't think there's anything to consider. The Queensland Government hasn't provided any proper details of a business case of any standing, nor been able to mitigate any of the significant health risks. You've got to appreciate that the other proposals that are being put in place are very close to tertiary health facilities. The one in Toowoomba is a regional health facility. Facilities are already stretched because it also serves as, not just Toowoomba, but it also services western Queensland, much of which is in my own electorate, and it would put a lot of strain and stress on that. And it would also expose a lot of COVID risk to regional western Queensland that it necessarily shouldn't have because we don't have those health facilities, not just in Toowoomba but west of there. If there was an outbreak in Toowoomba that was then to spread into outback Queensland, we would have a catastrophe for those small outback communities that would be exposed because the Premier simply is trying to move the quarantine arrangements out of Brisbane, out into a regional area.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, you're in Rockhampton for Beef Week. Take me through what you've announced today. You've launched this agriculture portal and what it means for the industry.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Today we've announced a further $371 million to go towards our biosecurity and that's on top of the $888 million that we committed between October's budget and now. So there's over $1.25 billion worth of new commitments towards keeping brand Australia safe. This isn't just protecting agricultural production systems; this is also about protecting the environment. You've got to understand if we got foot and mouth disease in this country it would cost us around $52 billion, and African swine fever around $1.5 billion. So what we're saying is we're going to invest, not just with boots on the ground and paws on the ground that have kept us safe so far, but new technology. 3D x-ray scanners that will be able to make sure we'll know what is in everyone's port and if it's an organic matter then we will be able to pull it out and check it. Also with 144 million parcels that go through our postal services, we'll be able to check them. And we're going to look at our screening processes with other countries so that when we see a bag come from another country, we'll know what's in it beforehand and we'll be able to send those men and women or our dogs to go and check it. Because we've had a number of incursions that we've been able to find because of the hard work of those men and women. And so this is just an evolution of investing in technology and using greater intelligence to keep our borders safe. This is an investment in Australia's security.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Have China's trade sanctions damaged the beef industry or have producers found new markets?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well they've done both in terms of find new markets but also been able to continue to export to China. In fact, last year we met our ChAFTA cattle quota, meat quota, for red meat in June when we normally do it in October or November every year. So the demand for Australian beef continues to rise not only from China but around the world. In fact, I was with an abattoir, one of the abattoirs that had a suspension order placed on it, still does, in fact, they've had increased consumption domestically as Australians have found their ability to cook at home and actually embraced beef. And as service industries continue to reopen, we've actually seen an increase in beef consumption here but we've been able to diversify markets. And what we've also done because of the $300 million that we put in place through the budget for market diversification, is now get greater shelf life in countries like Saudi Arabia for our beef. So we've actually seen an increase, and despite what China's done, we continue to be able export, not just to them, but around the world.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Do you believe that China is involved in grey zone warfare and how worried are you about the prospect of an actual war?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well I'm not privy, I'm not a member of the National Security Committee so it's not wise for me to comment. But I can assure Australians that we take cybersecurity very seriously and the new Home Affairs Minister, Karen Andrews, has been tasked as a major priority of her portfolio, to ensure we are adequately prepared, we have the resources, not just in terms of the men and women that are needed to run it but also the technology to be able to support it. So we will continue to make sure that we provide the tools to those men and women that are keeping us safe in the intelligence area, but we're also are very committed to the diplomacy, that we will continue to make sure that we keep a peaceful, global community. And I think one of the best ways to do that is trade and that's why we will continue to make sure that the best way to actually address any issues, any disagreements, is through dialogue. And both the Trade Minister and I continue to make sure that our counterparts in China, and everywhere around the world, know that we're prepared to have that dialogue if there is disagreement. That is the best way to enforce a peaceful global community through free trade, through understanding and through dialogue.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, is there a shift in thinking that's driving this increasingly blunt language coming from the Foreign Minister and others on China?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well obviously I think it's important that as members of the National Security Committee, both the Defence Minister, the Home Affairs Minister, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, are proving to the intelligence that not all of us are. And they need to make sure that they're honest with the Australian public to the extent that they can share that information and the threats, the potential threats that may exist. And while they're potential, our whole emphasis continues to be on diplomacy, on dialogue. That is the best way in which to progress, not only Australia's interest but the globe's interest.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Should we be as direct as the Philippine Foreign Secretary who told China to F-off on Twitter?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look, I think that's a matter for their own sovereign countries to make their own decisions about the dialogue that they use. But Australia, I think, would never probably use that direct dialogue with not only China but any of our trading partners or any country around the world. I think we need to be constructive, we need to be mature. We're a good global citizen, we are leading the world in being peaceful and being good trading partners, and I think we should set an example and that's what I think Australia has done and will continue to do.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, if the Defence review of the sale of the Port of Darwin recommends cancelling this 99-year lease, should Australia do that, whatever the cost to the trade relationship?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's obviously a decision the Prime Minister has said that he's open to explore. And we've always made sure that the intelligence that's provided to the Government, that we'll act on that and we'll make decisions predicated off that intelligence. And if that's what is provided to the Government, then the Prime Minister has made it clear that in our own national interest, for our own sovereignty, we will make those decisions, those hard decisions. We will not trade away our values and principles, our sovereignty. There's been over 100,000 Australians that have lost their lives protecting and defending that very, very principle. So the Australian Government will continue to use the intelligence services to provide us with that advice and then act on it accordingly.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, thank you so much for your time.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, PK.