Interview with Lisa Millar, ABC News Breakfast

19 March 2020

LISA MILLAR: Well, returning to the impact of coronavirus on Australia the Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud joins us now from his electorate in South East Queensland.

Good morning, Minister. Thank you for joining us. Can we go straight to the news that's come out of the UK? Boris Johnson closing schools there. Is the Government worried that that will cause more confusion here in Australia?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, I think the Prime Minister has been very clear on this. We take the advice of the Chief Medical Officer in Australia and he has been quite clear about this, that the best medical advice is we should keep schools open and we'll continue to do that. And the Prime Minister has been very, very forthright in showing the leadership of what we expect and we will continue to take our advice from the Chief Medical Officer.

LISA MILLAR: Why is it so important?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well obviously the Chief Medical Officer believes that minimising the infection that can happen and spread of it is better than maintaining the schools otherwise the social dislocation happens when children aren't at schools and spread throughout the community - in fact, some have to go to stay with their grandparents because their parents work. We have to think through the practicalities of this, and that's what our Chief Medical Officer has provided. We will stick to that advice. We have been clear from the very beginning that we take our advice from them and we'll predicate our decisions off his advice and that of the other chief medical officers around the country.

LISA MILLAR: Just shows you how fraught this is when the Prime Minister and the Education Minister have to intervene and speak to the Catholic Archbishop himself, Anthony Fisher, in New South Wales to plead with him not to allow the Catholic diocese to close their schools.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well that's leadership, and that's what the Prime Minister and the Education Minister has shown, that we are privy to the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and then obviously we make that advice known to the education leaders, to ask them to adhere to it. It's in the betterment of the whole society that they do that, and the Prime Minister, Education Minister, Health Minister, and Chief Medical Officer have been forward-leaning in this. And we thank those educational facilities that have listened to the advice of the Chief Medical Officer and the Prime Minister.

LISA MILLAR: What can you say to Australians who are clearly concerned that there's an issue with food supply when they're still seeing empty supermarket shelves?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, they are the ones that are causing this. They should take great pride and comfort that Australian agriculture has provided us with one of the safest and most secure food supplies in the world. And the reality is we produce enough food for 75 million people, we are just 25 million people. So there is no risk of us having any issues around food security.

The only pressure that is being put on those supply chains are from people themselves - from the stupidity of the people themselves. They need to take a deep breath, have a cold shower and understand that if they shop normally, then the shelves will be stocked normally. But when you have people rushing to supermarkets, putting pressure on supermarkets to stock those shelves quickly because of panic-buying then that obviously means that shelves are empty - that is just common sense. All I ask people is to use two words: common sense.

LISA MILLAR: There's real concerns today though from the $60 billion agriculture industry about the seasonal workforce - the people who actually get the food from the land into those supermarkets. What are you going to do there when most of it is backpackers and foreign visitors?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, the Immigration Minister and I have already had conversations around this. There are over 140,000 backpackers already in the country and the Immigration Minister has already taken pre-emptive steps around letting international students be able to work in supermarkets to stock those shelves.

So we'll be agile and we'll work with industry. In fact I hooked up with all industry leaders yesterday to ensure that we act swiftly with this and we give them confidence. And we are confident that with some minor tweaking of visas, visa conditions, that we'll be able to provide that continuity of supply - and that will be from the farmgate right through to the supermarket.

And there still is an export market that we're continuing to make sure that we can keep those lines open. Because this is an opportunity for Australia on a world stage to again prove that not only do we have the world-best produce but we are a stable partner in being able to supply that.

LISA MILLAR: So the tweaking means you're likely to extend, for example, the working holiday visas?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, there's a number of opportunities that sit there that the Immigration Minister and I are working through now and in fact they've been worked up. And after consultation with industry yesterday we'll continue to have that dialogue and act swiftly to provide that confidence to the industry that we can secure that continuity of work, workforce supply and that will happen very quickly.

LISA MILLAR: Minister just finally, as people are waking up this morning and absorbing the latest news - 475 people dead in Italy, the Dow closing another 6% down - there's so much concern. What's your message to Australians this morning as this crisis unfolds?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well stay calm and listen to the medical advice. Our Chief Medical Officer has provided the best advice in the world to the Australian Government from the very start. We have led the way in terms of slowing access to our borders from Chinese students to start with and in fact we were criticised for that.

We've been forward-leaning because we have taken the best advice from the Chief Medical Officer, so we'll continue to do that. But we all have a responsibility to play. And if we do that in a calm, methodical way, we will get through this. And we will get it through this not only in a health sense, but also in economic sense.

And it's important that we look after one another, not only in a health provision but also in terms of economic - supporting those businesses out there, spending a quid with them will go a long way to making sure that our recovery is a lot quicker from this.

LISA MILLAR:           David Littleproud, thank you.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD:      Thanks for having me.