Interview with Hamish Macdonald, ABC RN Breakfast

14 August 2020

HAMISH MACDONALD:    The COVID-19 border closures are taking a heavy toll on the agricultural sector and testing relationships all over, not the least of which is the relationship between Clive Palmer and the state of Western Australia. David Littleproud is the Federal Agriculture Minister. He joins us from his Queensland electorate of Maranoa this morning. Good morning to you.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD:    Good morning, Hamish. Good to be with you.

HAMISH MACDONALD:    I suspect you heard the end of that interview with Mr Palmer. I suppose it's one of the symptoms of these border closures, that you get business people very upset about these sorts of things. What are you saying about border closures this morning?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD:    Yeah. Look, I didn't hear the end of Mr Palmer's interview, I'm sorry. But look, what I'm saying is that while we respect the fact that states have had to act, we're just asking for some practical application of some of the policies, particularly for regional areas that haven't been impacted and have the cases that metropolitan cities have. And just to ensure that supply chains can remain open, that animal welfare continues to be at the forefront. And also above all, human welfare. There's some human stories that are coming out of this as well, because of just the broad scale border closures, the arbitrary closures without understanding the practical implications at a local level in regional areas.

HAMISH MACDONALD:    But if there's not broad border closures, if there's not arbitrary border closures, what's the alternative? What do you suggest here?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD:    Well they look- yeah, and look, some states have already done this, Hamish, and in terms of bubbles and creating bubbles where they can broadly get across into other areas where there's been no cases. And we've seen that where Queensland, in fact were only isolating Sydney. But on the Queensland-New South Wales border, there's opportunities for bubbles to be expanded and not just some postcodes but on LGAs. And then the same down, particularly Victoria-New South Wales, there's a two kilometre from the- on the Murray River, and there's plenty of Victoria that's been untouched. And then when you go from Victoria to South Australia, there's also opportunity there in far western Victoria. Where just some pragmatism, where instead of just having an arbitrary health decision made in capital cities by health officials - which I respect, fully respect - if they go and engage with these communities and understand the practical implications and understand the impact this will have on supply chains, the animal welfare issues, but the human welfare issues are so important for these people who rely on cross-border health services.

HAMISH MACDONALD:    Why is this not something that can be resolved through National Cabinet? I thought that was the point of this approach.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD:    Well this is exactly what the Prime Minister will escalate, but ultimately it comes down to each individual state's sovereignty. Our Constitution protects that and rightfully so ...

HAMISH MACDONALD:    [Interrupts] Sure, but is it as much in the interests of the states as it is in the interest of the Commonwealth to ensure that people on both sides of these border closures are not prevented from doing business and not impacted in the ways that you're describing?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD:    Yeah, and that's why we're highlighting it at National Cabinet. The Prime Minister is himself going to escalate this, because he sees the gravity of the situation that's coming before us. That he is going to inject himself and ask the premiers in each state to inject themselves together and understand each other's borders and implications, and the actual solutions, the practical solutions that can change people's lives. And Hamish, I'll just give you, not just on the supply chain. Let's give you a health example. In far western Victoria, there's a three-and-a-half-year-old girl who's got cancer. She's actually wearing a colostomy bag and has lost part of her spine and was getting chemotherapy in Adelaide. And because of the closure, she's unable to get chemo in Adelaide and has now been pushed away. A couple hour trip will now be pushed in and her family are going to have to take her hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres away to get treatment. So this isn't just about the pressures we're going to have on our food supply and animal welfare. This is a real human toll, that we're just asking our Premiers to inject themselves and lead on a compassionate human ground as well.

HAMISH MACDONALD:    What would be the solution, though, given that there's already enormous pressure on the resource- the limited resources available? We've seen that when you're closing state borders, it requires an enormous police presence. If you're then starting to talk about regional bubbles but preventing people travelling beyond that, isn't that going to require an enormous amount more resource?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD:    Well let me give you a practical example of the Goondiwindi Shire Council up on the Queensland-New South Wales border implemented themselves after being accredited by the Queensland Government. They put in place electronic gates and they gave those people on the New South Wales side a PIN code that only they could get through the gate. The gate would only open for those individuals on that side of the border to be able to come up. So those are the practical solutions that can be done without any cost at all. In fact, I think the gates cost them around $20,000, and in essence, you don't need any one on the border. This is the sort of practical solutions that can take place, and we just need to work through this. And it also goes to the heart of what's so important that every Australian should respect what they've been asked to do. Because these are the unintended consequences, they're also forcing on state governments to impose on our citizens, particularly in regional Australia, where we haven't had the case numbers that they have in metropolitan areas. And I just say to every Australian, if you don't respect one another, this is- and what our state governments are trying to do, these are the unintended consequences, particularly for us in regional Australia, that are hurting on an economic and social level. 

HAMISH MACDONALD:    On the Ruby Princess inquiry, David Littleproud, you are the Agriculture Minister. The Federal Government declined to put forward a biosecurity officer of the Agriculture Department to respond to questions. There was a formal summons from Bret Walker. Why was this individual blocked from giving evidence?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD:    Well I'm advised by the Attorney-General's Office that that's been a longstanding convention of governments of all persuasions since federation. That the convention has always been and states have always understood that while we will always cooperate and answer any question in written format, there has never been an opportunity for us to put our staff in front it because of the legal implications that are there for those individuals being federal employees and states have known that convention. But the Federal Government-

HAMISH MACDONALD:    [Interrupts] But you see that there's a differences in there between putting forward a written submission and actually offering the individual up to explain the circumstances, to respond to some of the questions. I mean it's less illuminating, is ultimate, well isn't it?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD:    Well it's also about protecting that individual's right, legal right as- in protecting that, they have a legal right that needs to be protected as Australian citizen, as all should. This has been a convention that state and federal governments have worked since federation and understood quite clearly. We have always and any question that has wanted to be asked and if there wasn't enough detail would always be continued, followed up with further information. So there's nothing under [indistinct]…

HAMISH MACDONALD:    [Interrupts] Can you just explain a little further what you mean by this is about protecting the individual's legal right?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD:    From my understanding, this officer within my department would not be able to be afforded Commonwealth legal representation, they would have to have their own under the under sections of which the legalities of our Constitution have been formed. And [indistinct]-

HAMISH MACDONALD:    [Interrupts] And so all of that outweighs the gravity of the situation surrounding the Ruby Princess?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD:    No, the gravity of it is very severe and that is why we have continued to cooperate with the inquiry and continue to go back with any question that's wanted to be asked and any detail that the- Mr Walker would require further. We have continued to cooperate and this has been a long held convention. This isn't anything extraordinary or ground-breaking This is something that state and federal governments have worked through for generations, since Federation. And I'm sure that the report that Mr Walker will hand down will be very robust and will be very detailed and granular because of the cooperation, not only of federal agencies, but state agencies and everyone else involved.

HAMISH MACDONALD:    Some of the detail that has emerged though, suggests that a biosecurity officer with the Department of Agriculture spoke to the port agent of Carnival Cruises on the gangway of the Ruby Princess. Agriculture's biosecurity officer was told some passengers had been tested for influenza and that 11 were in isolation. Many people listening this morning will find it hard to understand why the Commonwealth would not want that individual before the inquiry to make sure that any information that is relevant is made available during that process. And that putting the individual forward offers to illuminate more than just simply providing documentation.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD:    Well, all the information that the inquiry requested with respect to that individual or any other Commonwealth officer has been provided in immense detail. So much so that Mr Walker is now to the point that he can release his report. I think that shows that the cooperation between state and federal governments and with respect to this long held convention, does work and has in fact been able to hand- will be able to hand down a report today, as I understand it. 

HAMISH MACDONALD:    So then if it was a Commonwealth officer who had the authority, made the decision or was instrumental to decisions to let passengers disembark; why not hold a federal inquiry into this?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD:    Well let me make this clear, that federal agricultural agency only looks after plants and animals; they don't look after human health. And that's always been the convention of state governments, that they hold the responsibility of human health and make decisions predicated on human health. 

HAMISH MACDONALD:    But you're not denying the fact that this agriculture officer had a role in in the process that led to disembarkation, are you?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD:    No, I think you're jumping to conclusions before a report has been handed down. I think that's a dangerous thing to do for anyone, to start commentary on the events of the Ruby Princess. I think it's important…

HAMISH MACDONALD:    But you're saying there's a protocol in place that preclude this individual going before a state inquiry. But given everything we know about those that were involved from Border Force and Agriculture, why not then hold a federal inquiry to observe exactly what they did right and what they may have done wrong?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD:    Well obviously if Mr Walker hands down recommendations and- that point to deficiencies, then obviously the Federal Government will make decisions predicated on that as a result.

HAMISH MACDONALD:    [Interrupts] So you'd be open to having an inquiry at a federal level?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD:    Well I'm not going to pre-empt what Mr Walker brings down. I think it's important to respect the process as we have - wait for that to be handed down. Look at it in the cold hard light of day and understand if there are any learnings and to act on that swiftly. That's the responsibility of a responsible government. Not to jump at shadows but to wait for this. This has been a thorough, very, very thorough inquiry by Mr Walker. It should be respected. We'll learn and understand what his findings are. And if there's further action required then of course the Federal Government will undertake further action. And we've got a record on that - if there's something that's gone wrong, we'll fix it. That's our job. We'll ultimately get in and fix it.

HAMISH MACDONALD:    David Littleproud, thank you very much for your time. 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD:    Thanks Hamish. Great to be with you mate.