Interview with Matt Brann, ABC NT Country Hour

21 July 2020

MATT BRANN: The Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud, he is in the Northern Territory today. Over the last 24 hours he's been busy checking out Barra farms, checking out crocodile farms, and catching up with members of the NT's horticultural industry. I spoke to the minister just a short time ago, and I started by asking a question that is on the minds of all Territory mango growers.
                                                                                            
The mango industry is getting very nervous about the upcoming harvest and the lack of available pickers. They want seasonal workers brought into the country ASAP. Will you help?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well we are and we already have started. In fact, we were able to extend the visas of the seasonal work visa holders, the Pacific Islander holders, as also the holiday makers for a further 12 months. We understand that there are constraints at the moment, and there's also an issue around the transferability between states of workforce, and we're trying to work with our states with that. And bringing more in is in fact something that Sam McMahon and I have been working on around ensuring that we get the protocols right. In fact, all the agencies that are intertwined in this, whether that be Immigration, Border Force, Workforce, all those departments are near to a juncture where they see no real issue.

And in fact the last bastion now is around the quarantine numbers that the State Government's asked to be impose of a cap of 4,500 per week being brought into Australia. So we're just working through, and in fact I had a conversation with your Agriculture Minister this morning, asking him to get the Chief Minister to take the national cabinet an exemption on that 4,500 cap, that any workers that are brought in under that seasonal or Pacific Islander program be in addition to the 4,500 cap that the states have imposed onto themselves. And that's around the quarantine of putting them into motels or in quarantine facilities, because the states were struggling to keep up and manage that quarantine issue.

MATT BRANN: So you're on top of this idea of bringing in seasonal workers and putting them in the Howard Springs facility there, the old Inpex facility?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, I am and fully supportive of that, and we've been looking- and in fact had dinner last night with some mango producers and understand in fact some of them start picking today. So I understand the necessity to get this sorted as quickly as we can. You've got to also understand we've got to work with those other nations around making sure that they're comfortable in allowing their people out of their nation into Australia. We've got a pretty safe record with COVID-19 but we've got to continue to be able to demonstrate that to them as well. So there's been a lot of work from Foreign Affairs, Immigration, the whole gamut of agencies, and then also now with the states to make sure that they're in agreement and understanding of their responsibilities around that quarantine piece.

MATT BRANN: And have you worked out who would fork out the bill to have seasonal workers spend 14 days in a facility like Howard Springs?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well as I understand it, the Northern Territory Government has been contributing in kind. The Federal Government is looking at that as well, and I know that producers themselves, and from conversations I had with them last night, are very- more than open to paying a contribution to that as well. So the money side of it is something that's being worked through. I think the main issue is making sure that all the protocols are in place so that we can get a plane moving straight away. That's the real issue. I think the cost is something that can be worked out and is being worked out as we speak. But the main issue is making sure that that quarantine cap of 4500 coming into the country every week is being looked at and an exemption is provided for these workers.

MATT BRANN: So are you feeling confident, like to mango growers who are worried there'll be fruit rotting in paddocks? You're confident there's a solution around the corner?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well there's a solution from the Federal Government. We're more than comfortable from the Prime Minister down to make sure that protocols are in place and they respect the health requirements here in Australia. Because we've got to also protect Australians, but we have had the APPHC, which is the chief medical body of all chief medical officers coming together, and they'll be kicking it off today. As we understand, they discussed it yesterday and didn't have any major issues around the plan of protocols we put in place. So from my mind, the protocols are in place. We need the states to simply agree to the fact that there's an exemption on that 4,500 people coming- on that cap of the quarantine. And effectively we should be able to get things moving, and that's the intent of all levels of government because we understand the urgency of this.

MATT BRANN: The Federal Court last month ruled that the live export ban to Indonesia in 2011 was unlawful. Will your government appeal the decision or not?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well that'll be determined very, very soon, and in fact we'll be making an announcement very, very soon around that. There's already been discussions on that. That's a point of law that the Attorney-General has worked through. We as a Government wholeheartedly respect the decision of the court. We believe that the decision by Joe Ludwig to shut the live trade in 2011 was a serious flawed one, and therefore obviously compensation will need to flow to producers and to the supply chain with respect to that. And obviously, the Attorney-General's working through the point of law to make sure that there are no unintended consequences. But we are ensuring that we get this right. But the principle of making right this horrible wrong that was placed on Territory producers, and Queensland producers and WA producers is something that needs to be rectified.

MATT BRANN: It's getting considered by Cabinet tomorrow. Is that right?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: There's a number of considerations that have already happened and I think we're not trying to prolong this, obviously is a long judgement; 158 odd pages that the Attorney-General had to work through. And I think he's now at a juncture which is going to be able to give some advice to the Government around what our position can be moving forward.

But the underlying principle of compensation will not be wavered from this Government. If it is points of law that he's looking at, I'll leave the Attorney-General to make those determinations. But the principle of compensation is one that the Federal Government, the Prime Minister has made very clear is an underlying principle that we will wholeheartedly respect.

MATT BRANN: The Nationals have held the agricultural portfolio for almost seven years and could have played a huge role in making sure these got settled out of court and hasn't reached this stage. Why didn't you?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well I can't change the past. I don't know what the decisions and the conversations and the information that's provided seven years ago. I wasn't even in Parliament then. I can't change the past …

MATT BRANN: Yeah. But it could've got settled out of court as late as, you know, a month or so ago. It didn't have to get to that stage, did it?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well with respect to- it's easy to have commentary from the outside. There is obviously legal advice, as a Federal Government, that we rely on around the machinery of government that we have to respect. Not just for our government but for successive governments to ensure that that is respected so that the machinery of government that Australians have enjoyed since Federation can continue.

MATT BRANN: So is that- was that legal advice? Don't worry you'll beat the cattle industry, just keep going?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well I don't- I don't make public legal advice that's provided. In fact, I haven't sought or been given any legal advice. The Attorney-General is one who manages obviously legal cases. It's inappropriate for me to get involved in legal cases; I don't have a legal background and that's why the Attorney-General and the Attorney-General's Department handles these matters and it'll be matters of law in which they determine their course of action under.

MATT BRANN: Well if I could wrap it up then with just one last question regarding the letter published in The Australian yesterday, which I can only assume you may have seen from Ian McLachlan …

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yup.

MATT BRANN:… Andrew Robb and Don McGauchie. One line stuck out to me. They say: we don't know what advice the Attorney-General is getting but we assume it comes from similar sources as those who supported the original blanket ban of 2011. Have they hit the nail on the head there?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well I think they're a bit premature. They're making commentary around the fact that we will appeal the decision. No decision has been made whether we will make that appeal or not yet. So they're being very, very pre-emptive in thinking they know what is happening inside Government. Unfortunately, these gentlemen, as distinguished as they are, no longer enjoy the Treasury benches or Government.

So for them to make commentary and prediction is probably not wise until such time as the Government makes the decision.

MATT BRANN: I know you're busy today so thank you so much for your time.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, great to be here. It's a great part of the world. 

MATT BRANN: That's the Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud who is in Darwin this afternoon.