Interview with David Speers, ABC Insiders

23 August 2020

DAVID SPEERS: David Littleproud, welcome to the program. Now, you set the bar pretty high for Friday’s National Cabinet meeting. You said it was a flashpoint for the Federation. Did the leaders pass the test?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, they’ve finally shown some intent, David, to look at this issue. I wasn’t calling for a broad scale pulling down of restrictions from states. What I was asking for was common-sense, and asking state leaders to understand that they govern for all their state, not just for capital cities, that regional and rural areas have different needs and different requirements than what they do in metropolitan areas and we should simply impose some common sense in allowing agricultural production systems, which are integrated now. I mean, our forefathers put lines on a map over 100 years ago. Well, modern regional Australia’s outgrown that. We’re integrating agricultural production systems in our communities, and most importantly, in our health. And when we have perverse outcome that aren’t predicated by medical fact and science, about showing our fellow Australian, who might just be on the other side of a border, the rights that they deserve in having health treatment and being able to undertake business in a safe way, that’s not common-sense. This isn’t about calling people names. This isn't about parochialism. It’s great that we're all parochial about our states. But at the end of the day, we are all Australians. We are going to have to learn to live with this virus for some time. And what that takes is leadership and common-sense in making sure we undertake practical solutions, that we use common-sense in making sure we keep people safe and keep the nation moving.

DAVID SPEERS: All right. Well, let’s look at practically what’s going to happen. So, after the National Cabinet meeting on Friday, you’ve been given the task to work with your state counterparts over the next week or two and come up with a new code for agricultural workers crossing the border. What’s your ultimate aim here? What would you like to see this achieve?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, look David, let me make this clear: ultimately it will still be the Chief Medical Officers in each of the states that will have to give approval. If it had been left to the individual state Agricultural Ministers and myself, this would have been done. In fact, we had an agreement between us in January and February, we pre-emptively looked at this as Agricultural Ministers. But we are out-trumped by health, because ultimately this is a health decision around keeping Australians safe. And we ultimately respect that, make no mistake. What we’re trying to do is...

DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] All right, so what’s this code going to do then? What’s it going to achieve?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So, what it’ll do, David, is hopefully be able to give Chief Medical Officers comfort around making sure that each of those farmers and agricultural businesses that need to cross have a COVID-safe plan, be able to trace where they’ve been, and in fact, have PPE at their disposal for whatever the requirement is in the state that they’re going into. But let me make it clear that they don’t need to wait two weeks...

DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] So how do you do that? Sorry, let me just jump in there. How do you do that? How do you make sure a farm worker, it might be a harvester, a vet, even a truck driver, how do you make sure they can show where they’ve been for the last two weeks?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, there’s traceability procedures that can be followed. And in fact, you can look at what happens in a pub when you walk in. You simply put down a list of the people that you’ve come into contact with. We’ve got the COVIDSafe app that we would obviously request people to have as well. So we’ll work through that with Chief Medical Officers to make sure that they have comfort in it. But let me make this clear: they don’t need to wait two weeks for this. States can act unilaterally on this. Because two weeks is still going to see severe outcomes for agricultural production systems and particularly animal welfare. We’re already seeing where farmers, we wait another two weeks, we are seeing farmers who are not going to be able to get to their properties just because they’re outside of a bubble, not get up to treat their animals. Where, if I’m a truck driver in Melbourne, I can apply for a freight permit and fly right the way through the border. But if I'm a farmer just outside the 100km bubble in an area where there’s no COVID cases, I can’t go through. So that’s not common sense, and that’s why we can say...

DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] Okay, just coming back to practically how this will work, would they just sign a piece of paper saying: I haven’t left this COVID-free region? Or would they have some sort of tracking of their mobile phone? Practically, how would this work?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that’s what we’ll try and work through with the Ag Ministers to try to get some consistency. There may be, because of the sovereignty of the states, they may want to have some extra requirements state between state. We respect that. But ultimately it will come down to what the Chief Medical Officers in each of those...

DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] Like phone tracking, is that something you’d be open to?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I’m open to anything that will allow our farmers the freedom of navigation that they require to undertake agricultural production, that keeps food and fibre to this country. And that’s just common-sense. But we should do it in a safe way, and I think that we can do it if we’re listened to. And this is the thing. Out here, we feel like we’re the forgotten Australians. These decisions have been made and predicated on capital cities, not on regional Australians. We just ask to be listened to. It’s really distressing not only for businesses, but when you see the human toll of people not being able to access medical attention because that’s where they get it from the other side of the border. That’s not Australian. That’s not what we do to one another. We try and look after one another, we try to do that in a safe way, and that’s where we’re just saying to the states: they have the power, let’s show the leadership.
DAVID SPEERS: You mentioned animal welfare. Normally, about 480 Kiwi New Zealand shearers come over to help on properties in Victoria and New South Wales each year. What’s going to happen there? There’s talk of some special flight to bring them in?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, we’re working with the industry, as with a number of agricultural industries around labour supply and the shortage that we have at the moment. And in fact, on Friday’s National Cabinet, there was an agreement around expanding that pilot that we undertook up in the Northern Territory for the mango pickers, the 170 mango pickers we brought in. We’re now saying to the states that you can openly work through, and we’ll provide visas under the Pacific Work and the Seasonal Worker programs for you to bring in those from countries that wish to participate, isolate in your own state and allow them to work. Particularly with shearers, they’re seen as skilled workers. So in fact, there’s even a clearer pathway for them, the Australian Border Force commissioner as I understand, now has the approval to simply approve their visas if they come in. So we’re working with industry to make sure that we can achieve that. But we’ve already made sure that we’re understanding the labour needs that are going to hit our agricultural production systems. Back in March, we extended the ability for visa holders to stay an extra 12 months if they worked in Ag.

DAVID SPEERS: Let me turn to the Ruby Princess, Minister. Can you now clear up who gave permission for passengers to leave the ship?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: The Department of Agriculture gave approval after the New South Wales Department of Health gave advice that it was safe. The Department of Agriculture relies on the Department of Health in each individual state, and also Border Force in terms of making sure that they give green lights for what they specialise in...

DAVID SPEERS: [Talks over] Okay, we’ll come to what they’re meant to do.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: ...and once that’s received, then pratique is provided.

DAVID SPEERS: Okay, so when did they give pratique for disembarkation?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, they gave it on the 19th of March. The exact time, I don’t have in front of me. But Mr Walker has extensively gone through the chain of events. In fact, the...

DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] Well, he’s come up with something different to what your Department Secretary said about what time pratique was given? There’s confusion over this and whether the proper steps were followed.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, there’s no confusion, David.

DAVID SPEERS: Well, okay, let me quote to you, the head of your Department Andrew Metcalfe told a Senate inquiry this week that one of the Department’s officers granted permission around 6:30am, and off they went. The submission from the Commonwealth to the Walker Inquiry said it was 7:39am.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that was when the communication was formally able to be sent because of technical issues around the ability to send messages out off the boat. There was communications issues, but all processes had been followed...

DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] So, pratique was granted at 6:30am? You’re saying 6:30 is when pratique was granted by your officers?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I’ll allow the Department Secretary, who has said that he will come back and give specifics on this, on the exact timing...

DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] You just said that there’s no confusion about this. Minister, with respect, you just said there’s no confusion and then you don’t know.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, there is none, David. No, I think you’re trying to conflate and confuse issues here purposefully. Mr Walker went through this...

DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] Okay, let me be clear. When was permission granted? I just want to be clear about this.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, as the Department Secretary said in that hearing, is that he will go back and make sure that he can check those times. But he had two times that was provided to him, and the difference was predicated on the fact that communication lines, where it was formally being able to be recorded, was some time after the event of it formally being given on the boat. That’s not anything new or...

DAVID SPEERS: [Talks over] Okay, as of where we sit this morning...

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: ...and I think what you’ve got to understand is that the...

DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] Sorry to jump in here, but I just want to be clear about this. You don’t know when permission was granted by your Department officers for people to leave the ship?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yes we do, David, and as I said, the exact time of that I don’t have and the Department Secretary...

DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] So when was it?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: As I said, David, please understand, the exact time the Department Secretary is ascertaining and will go back to the Senate inquiry, but it doesn’t make any difference...

DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] So you don’t know.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, David, if you let me finish, the facts are that they were able to provide an approval. Whether it was formally recorded some time later was predicated on communication issues around technology. Not in terms of any of the processes that led up to that. And I think we’re trying to conflate issues and confuse issues, when Mr Walker has very comprehensively...

DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] I’m just trying to get some clarity on this. So at 6:30am or thereabouts, your Departmental officer from the Department of Agriculture gives permission for people to leave the ship. They had not done what’s called the Traveller With Illness checklist they were meant to do. Is that correct?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: They gave approval on the advice of New South Wales Health. The Traveller...

DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] But they’re meant to do a Traveller With Illness checklist, that’s what I’m asking about. They hadn’t done that, had they?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Okay, David, and I’ll answer the question. It’s very technical so it’s important you allow me to answer this. What happened was that there is a process that had been agreed between New South Wales Health and the Department of Agriculture. Those protocols were changed some weeks before, an additional form which is the Traveller...

DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] Because of the pandemic.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I’ll finish, David, it’s very important. Yes, the TIC, previously the TIC form was never required if there was medical professionals on the vessel, and that was the case that they’d worked under previously. And in fact we changed those protocols with New South Wales Health, with all the state health officials, that a TIC form should now be required in addition to what was done previously...

DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] Okay, and they didn’t do it, did they?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Now, that wasn’t followed by New South Wales Health or the Department of Agriculture. But Mr Walker, in his findings, did not see that as anything material in the outcome of the tragedy that took place on the Ruby Princess. He has been very specific that it was the expert panels from New South Wales Health that were in full charge of human health, gave the recommendations and allowed the boat to have pratique. And that has to be very clear...

DAVID SPEERS: [Interrupts] Just to finish on this issue. It is clear, where the failing was made by Bret Walker. Gladys Berejiklian has apologised because of that failure by New South Wales Health. Will you now apologise for the failure of your own Department to carry out the TIC?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, David, I’m very sympathetic to the 28 families that have lost loved ones out of this. And the Australian Government is sorry for any loss of life during this COVID-19. But we are working off the Walker inquiry that quite clearly, in its recommendations and its findings, found quite clearly that it was the failure of New South Wales Health’s expert panel that caused this. That they were in charge of human health. And that if there is anything that comes forward, let me make this clear, I will be pursuing it vigorously. And in fact, I have asked the Inspector-General of Biosecurity to actually overview this process even closer, to make sure there is nothing that’s being missed either by Mr Walker or the Senate inquiry that’s going on at the moment. And the Department Secretary looks very, very closely at the Department and anything else that may be gleaned out of this. This is something we should learn but we shouldn’t be prosecuting people or individuals or departments that have done no wrong and have not been found to do any wrong at this point in time, but I’m still open, to make it clear that if I find anything else, I will fix it. And I will fix it quickly, and I will hold those to account if they’ve done something wrong. But at this point, working off what Mr Walker has quite explicitly put through, the Department of Agriculture were [indistinct] albeit a little bit clumsy in communication.

DAVID SPEERS: Okay. The Federal Government wouldn’t allow, I just want to point out, any of your officials to appear before that Walker inquiry. So it was somewhat limited in its ability to question any of the officials. Let’s move on, though. China this week has launched an anti-dumping investigation into Australian wine. It follows actions already on barley, on beef. Do you think that the Government’s strategy is working here, of not calling this out as economic coercion?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, David, I think you need to be very careful on this. Because you did mention beef there. One of the four abattoirs that have had their licences suspended is, in fact, majority Chinese-owned. So they haven’t arbitrarily just put it straight across every Australian business they can find. So we need to look at each one of these, in fact, work through them in the process. Many of those abattoirs previously, some of them have previously failed some of the labelling requirements they’re sending across. Barley we will continue to vigorously defend that we have not subsidised or dumped barley into China. And the same with wine. In fact, of the 37 OECD countries there is only New Zealand that subsidises their farmers less than Australian farmers get. So you’ve got to understand that we don’t subsidise our farmers. They’re on their own two feet. We’ll vigorously defend that and if required, we’ll go through the process and go to the WTO. We’ve got form for that. In fact, when you put it in perspective around China, we actually have taken action in the WTO against India and Canada. So when we’re trying to single out China, we just need to be careful and put it in perspective and look at it on its individual merits and work through it calmly and methodically.

DAVID SPEERS: Fair enough. Let me ask you this, then, finally. Figures this week did show that about a third of Australia’s food and agricultural exports are going to China. You know, we hear a lot of talk about trying to broaden out our trade partners and so on, to diversify our markets. But it looks like we’re becoming more and more concentrated than ever when it comes to the Chinese market in agriculture.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, David. Grade A business economics tell you not to have market concentration, to spread your risk. But ultimately, that’s the decision of individual businesses, not the Government. Our job is to provide the opportunity for them to send it into other markets and we’ve done that with Free Trade Agreements with Japan, the TPP 11, Indonesia. And we’re currently working through with the UK and EU. And we would say to our exporters that you should spread your risk. That you shouldn’t have market concentration. That is a simple business principle, but ultimately, it is your decision. Governments can’t do everything for you, and shouldn’t be blamed for everything that goes wrong that is outside of our remit. We’re just saying to them: you have an opportunity now, the Government has been very forward-leaning in providing you market opportunities and you should explore them and undertake them and we’ll continue to look for more opportunities for them. That’s our job: to put the environment and infrastructure around our people and let them get on with the job of making money for this nation.

DAVID SPEERS: Agriculture Minister David Littleproud, thanks for your time this morning.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, mate.