Interview with Sally Sara, ABC RN Breakfast

19 January 2021

SALLY SARA: David Littleproud is the Federal Minister for Agriculture, he joins us from Longreach. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me.

SALLY SARA: Before we get to crux, can we start with tropical cyclone Kimi off the Queensland coast. You're Emergency Management Minister, what's your latest advice on the situation there?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah look, this morning, thankfully, it looks as though the system has now become a rain depression rather than a cyclone, but it's turned back on itself so it's still running off the east coast, just east of Townsville. We've got to watch it, the unpredictable nature of these cyclones and the very fluid nature in which they can transform is something that'll have to continue to be monitored. I've got to congratulate Queensland now for their preparation - they will continue to monitor this, not just for the cyclone but also flooding. 

So, there's crews up there just safely out of harms' way, ready to pounce if this forms into a cyclone again and flooding increases. So, we just say to residents up there, please listen to the warning that are advised by the Queensland Government and your ABC; make sure that you continue to listen to this. I get that this isn't their first rodeo up there but we just cannot be complacent - this can turn very quickly, and North Queenslanders have shown consistently that they, they've been able to withstand this. But we shouldn't be complacent, we should act when they're asked to.

SALLY SARA: Well Minister, as you're saying, heavy rainfall is forecast and many of the rivers in northern Queensland are already swollen. How worried are you about that flooding threat that you're talking about?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that is primarily the biggest threat at the moment, unless that cyclone re-forms. There are still winds up to 75 kilometres at the moment, but we're obviously watching that very closely and that's why swift river rescue teams from south east Queensland have been moved up into position, ready to make rescues if required. And again, the message is, if it's flooded, forget it - don't go anywhere near it. But obviously, we're making sure we've got every preparation, we're working with the Queensland Government who have done an outstanding job and I've got to congratulate them. The minister has done a great job in keeping us informed as well. So we continue to stand ready if they need Defence assets, they will be deployed at a minute's notice.

SALLY SARA: Minister, let's return to this issue of agricultural workers on the summer crops. Victoria needs around 26,000 workers to pick the harvest, but unlike other states it's yet to approve quarantine protocols to bring them in from overseas. Earlier, we heard from fruit grower, Peter Hall, expressing his frustrations. Can you understand the frustration of growers that are in that situation?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I can. And in fact, being been from regional Australia, we feel like the forgotten Australians in all of this. Peter's right. There has been an opportunity since August when we reopened the Pacific and Seasonal Worker Programs for workers, and we found 25,000 pre-vetted, work ready men and women from 10 Pacific nations ready to come in. The states, at National Cabinet, said that they wanted to own public health - the quarantine arrangements - which we respect. And then, in fact only as late as December. that was reaffirmed - Daniel Andrews was one of the key Premiers to reaffirm that. 

But sadly, they've had a proposal from agricultural industries in Victoria, sitting on their desk since October, which would use Aspen Medical at three proposals to either take over the hotel quarantine for those workers; do it on farm - which Aspen Medical I might add is doing the audit for the Queensland Government for that, the program that they're running in Queensland on farm isolation and working. Or, they would create a tent city - bringing workers and having a closed loop between farm and that tent city in a particular area with food in Victoria. They've had nearly six months to make a decision on that, and in fact Greg Hunt himself, as the Federal Health Minister, made it very clear to the Victorian Health Minister that the Federal Government sees no impediment in us stamping the visas under any of those proposals - Aspen is a highly recognised international company. Please just do the job and we will stamp the visas. It's been as simple as that.

SALLY SARA: Minister, given Victoria's recent history though, and particularly the weight of the second wave, can you understand Victoria's desire to get this absolutely right? Given the experience it had with that second lockdown?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I can, and that's why I think industry shows a maturity to bring in an internationally recognised organisation that the WHO, other foreign states, and even other states within Australia have recognised as a peak organisation in health care, in being able to provide those solutions. So I don't think that this was a half-baked solution that was put up. This is something that had real veracity and could actually give comfort to the Victorian officials, and making sure that it didn't impact on the caps. So this was a real opportunity and still is. 

But, as Peter had quite clearly articulated, time has run out and we have seen that this is also not only going to impact the farmers, but it's going to impact you at the checkout, because we haven't been able to get the states to act. This is a failure of federation and unfortunately, it's regional and rural Australia that's hurt the most from it.

SALLY SARA: The Aspen Medical Plan. If that went ahead, who would police the arrangement?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's where Aspen Medical would, in fact, have much of the responsibility, and they've done this around the world - not only through pandemics, but other natural disasters. So they're internationally recognised, as I say, by the World Health Organisation, they've been used in other nations for a number of, a number of reasons. So they are internationally recognised as having the best standards, many of which, as I just said the Queensland Government is relying on in their auditing of their on-farm protocols for workers, agricultural workers in Queensland. So they have a proven track record, one in which could be complemented and supplemented, obviously, by Victorian health officials. And that's what the farmers are saying. Let's use common sense. Let's work together for a solution for us all. And these farmers, many of whom are coming of drought, were looking at their first year of income or significant income, and it's been stripped away from them because of indecision.

SALLY SARA: Ultimately, quarantine constitutionally is a Federal responsibility. How could you be sure that seasonal workers would do the right thing and not leave the lock down?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's where the protocols are so important in making sure - whether that be on farm; whether that be in a tent city that would obviously be secure; or, whether that be in hotels that Aspen Medical would control - those are those are the protocols that would be put in place that would allow that confidence, and that's what's happening in Queensland as we speak. So this isn't anything new, this isn't ground-breaking stuff. This is stuff that can happen with a recognised organisation. So it's just important that we say to the states, and particularly Victoria who have yet to move on this, when the smallest jurisdiction in the country - the Northern Territory - put something in place as far back as September. So they were able to do something, and yet Victoria is still standing, standing by watching this happen.

SALLY SARA: Minister, if you're confident that the Pacific is a low risk for COVID, or even COVID free, why not declare it a Green Zone, which would allow movement without the need for quarantine?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. We're confident under the current quarantine protocols of 14-days self-isolation here; and whether that being a closed loop on farm, or between farm and a tent city of some note, that is that the health advice that we've got. And those Pacific nations are ones in which we've got to that, that level of appreciation and understanding that we can accept that risk.

But to open up a bubble, there are further and more strenuous understandings to have of each individual nation before we reach that particular goal. But this is something that could have been achieved, and can be achieved, and should have been achieved back in October. So, time of 14 days of bringing them over here and self-isolating under our conditions, gives comfort to not only health officials, but it also gives comfort to those regional communities that are housing them because many of those communities don't actually have, or have had a COVID case at all.

SALLY SARA: Minister, what about the option of local workers? The Federal Government has had an incentive programme that pays a $6000 relocation bonus to local workers who would take up these kind of picking jobs, but only 350 odd people have signed up. Why has the scheme failed?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well effectively, Australians don't want these types of jobs. We've got to be honest, this was even before COVID. We were struggling, farmers were struggling to try and incentivise workers to go in and come out from Australia to do this. We've also incentivised young Australians, saying that it's an accelerated pathway to Austudy and ABSTUDY if you go and work in agriculture, and agriculture alone. Sadly, they haven't taken it.

And this is a shift in our society. When I grew up, my mum wouldn't let me stay at home on the school holidays, I had to go and pick rock melons or watermelons, and I graduated to being a cotton chipper. Now, they graduate to going to work in cafés and being baristas on the school and university holidays. And we've got to understand society's changed.

But that doesn't help farmers. They don't have the luxury to sit around and wait. When their, when their crop is ripe. They need to get it from the paddock to your plate.

SALLY SARA: But to be fair, we've had enquiries like the Fair Work Ombudsman's Report in 2018 talking about widespread non-compliance in the industry. If Australians don't want that, those jobs are there - even Tony Mahar from the NFF says that some of the industry needs to take some of that on board?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: We do, but we have to work within the real- practical realities in which we, society presents to us. And that's why we'll will continue to look through. And I think the Pacific and Seasonal Worker Programs, and what we've achieved under this pandemic is something that could continually be in place into the future years. I think it's a great program that not only benefits Australian farmers, but it benefits those Pacific nations. And in a diplomatic sense, it's also very positive for Australia.

So we've got to look at, the look at the whole drivers around agriculture workforce - and technology is also playing a part in that. But you've got to- you can't run away from the realities that Australians have turned their back on these jobs and in vast- in the vast majority. I appreciate that, but I've got to try and help to find a solution and we'll look at whatever we can to make sure agricultural production continues to increase - not be inhibited by labour.

SALLY SARA: Minister, thank you for joining us on RN Breakfast. 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, Sally

SALLY SARA: That's David Littleproud, the Federal Minister for Agriculture joining us this morning from Longreach in Queensland.