Interview with Geoff Hutchison, ABC Drive Perth

26 May 2020

GEOFF HUTCHISON: My guest is Federal Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud. David Littleproud, good afternoon to you.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Good afternoon. Good to be with you.

GEOFF HUTCHISON: The Premier wants to know why your department allowed the Al Kuwait to berth at Fremantle even though some of its crew members reported having elevated temperatures. How did it get to this?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well let me just say there were a number of inaccuracies in which the Premier has articulated there. On 20 May, there was a declaration made by the master of the vessel to say that there were three crew members that presented themselves as ill. They did not, they did not have elevated temperatures above 37 degrees and did not have symptoms of COVID-19. Now there's nothing extraordinary about crew members presenting themselves sick on a voyage, a sea voyage, as you'd all appreciate. That is an occupational hazard and in fact has been a normal occurrence even during COVID-19 for crew members to … ill. So therefore because of that…

GEOFF HUTCHISON: David Littleproud, we hope will come back to us very shortly as we are mid conversation. This is going to be a very interesting chat. We'll get him back…

                                                                                            
GEOFF HUTCHISON: if you don't mind will come back for that a little bit later on. David Littleproud has as re-joined us. Thank you for that. So on the 20th three crew members report ill, you're saying to us well there's nothing unusual about crew members being ill, there's no elevated temperature at that point. What about 22 May, Minister?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So important to understand from then, the protocol continues on. In fact, it wasn't until after the Port Authority official had docked, had got on the boat as the Premier had articulated, that the Department of Agriculture was notified by the ship's agent from the vessel's master that in fact someone has subsequently presented themselves with symptoms of COVID-19. As a result, the protocol that the Department of Agriculture continues to uphold is that they notify the Department of Health in WA or any other state for that matter immediately. So there is now, and I've just being driving and I'm just waiting to see those emails, but there is documentary evidence of emails of the Department of Agriculture rightfully sticking to the protocols and sending an email once being notified by the ship's agent that someone had presented themselves to the Department of Health in Western Australia for them to then undertake their protocols, which I would have assumed to notify all the state agencies. So I'm obviously wanting to see that documentary evidence and that's what I've asked the department to provide me and I want to make sure we can provide that evidence.

The other piece is in these times of heightened anxiety it's important that we lead and not create further anxiety as political leaders. And it's important to understand that none of those crew were going to go down the galley way into the streets of Fremantle.

GEOFF HUTCHISON: No that's true, that is very true but also Minister…

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So it's important to understand the protocols are there that have been looked at. I am waiting to make sure that the Department of Agriculture has lived up to those protocols and it's important that we make sure that we work together in this, state and federal agencies, because we all have different expertise.

GEOFF HUTCHISON: Indeed, indeed. And it is important in these heightened times as you say to note that they weren't going down the gangplank because we have a state of emergency that prevents them from having done that. So that point is absolutely valid. But also in these heightened times we are concerned about the kind of information that comes from ships. The Artania told us, the Artania provided information that was in the early stages, was often deemed to be inaccurate. So when we hear that crew members are ill then Border Force are told on the 22nd that three other people had similar symptoms, perhaps elevated temperatures, I don't know that to be true yet, but given that we are talking about these heightened times do we also have to understand that every decision that gets made about vessels under these considerations has to be looked at very closely? Because there's another question I have to ask you. Was the behaviour of the department in any way compromised by the need to get this ship loaded and on its way? Because it is the last ship that gets to go to the Middle East before those summer restrictions are in place.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well there's no documentary evidence to that fact. The reality is there are declarations made by all ships coming to Australia around COVID-19. One, that none of their crew presenting themselves with the symptoms and that being temperatures above 37 degrees, and that they've had no contact with someone with COVID-19 in the last 14 days. So those declarations were made and in fact the Department of Agriculture has subsequently, I'm advised, checked the logs of the vessel to ensure that the temperatures of those three that presented themselves on the 20th were properly documented. And in fact the logs, as I'm advised, clearly show that they had temperatures below 37, 38 degrees and therefore three or four days prior to that declaration being made up to that point, and therefore the ship's master has declared as appropriate and the protocols that we determine, our actions predicated from the best medical advice from health professionals has been adhered to. But I want to see the documentary evidence of that and I think when I see that I'll be comfortable that everyone has adhered to the protocols outlined between state and federal. And it's important that if there are learnings in how we can streamline that or do it better, then that will be taken from it. But I think it's important before we start to compare and contrast to other ships, it's important we put it in context and I think that as leaders we just need to calm everybody and understand the circumstances and get documentary evidence before we jump to conclusions.

GEOFF HUTCHISON: It's true. But we also need to know that lessons have been learned from those previous experiences. You didn't address the question about the possibility that any decision making was compromised by the need to get this ship off to the Middle East as soon as possible.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah.

GEOFF HUTCHISON: Because as of tonight, you've got 56,000 sheep in holding pens and we don't know what that future is. So can you confirm that there was no rush, no sense of we've got to get these sheep out because otherwise they won't be going?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, that's a good question and it's one that I'll get confirmation. But my understanding is the officers that make the determination with respect to the biosecurity of the ship coming in the health aspect play a different role than those that will make the determination about the sheep and their condition in being able to sail.

GEOFF HUTCHISON: Of course.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So there is a differentiation and a deviation in terms of roles and responsibilities but…

GEOFF HUTCHISON: But as Minister, I appreciate that, but as Minister, you would absolutely want the answer to be no.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Totally. And that's why I'm not afraid to be transparent on this. It's important we do know and that's why I've said to my department, they gave me verbal advice, and I made it very clear to them that it's important that you have documentary evidence to be able to provide the community with the comfort they deserve, and it would have been good to be able to do that before political allegations were made. But instead we work together and we work through each of the processes and each of the steps and make sure that we can document and understand that everyone has lived up to their responsibility. Now the department has advised me they are confident that I've said I want to see the written documents. I mean, I'm not a cynical person but I'd just like to have that comfort to put my head on a pillow at night and...

GEOFF HUTCHISON: Don't worry David Littleproud, none of us are cynical either and I think the Premier did stop short of pointing the finger but it was that responsibility and they want that clarified from you. And I'm not cynical to suggest that you would have any idea yet as to whether there might have been an effort to just bring the ship in, get the sheep on board and get it away because you and I aren't cynical. Last question Minister, it would have been the last of the exports to the Middle East under these rules preventing animals being moved in those high heat northern summer conditions. Any idea what happens to 56,000 animals on a suburban feedlot now?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well as I understand the independent regulator will make that determination working with the export company. There's an animal welfare issue here that needs to be addressed and I think the Premier alluded to it in his comments, that the quicker that we can clean the ship, give it a deep clean and be able to ensure the crew are in satisfactory health, then the sooner that we'll be able to get those sheep disembarked. So that's really where we're trying to work through now. But there is an animal welfare issue here that the independent regulator will work through with the exporter to ensure that every measure is taken in protection of those animals. And also working with WA Health to make sure the crew are fit to transport those sheep and that's being worked through as quickly as we possibly can.

GEOFF HUTCHISON: Thank you for talking to me. We'll all go through the logs and the details in coming days but I appreciate your time.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Anytime. Thanks for having me.

GEOFF HUTCHISON: David Littleproud is the Federal Agriculture Minister.