Interview with Sally Sara, ABC RN Breakfast

2 July 2021

SALLY SARA: Let's get into federal politics now, and the new look National's ministry will be sworn in today. And Barnaby Joyce's backers are the big winners in the reshuffle, including Bridget McKenzie, who returns to Cabinet, and Andrew Gee, who replaces Darren Chester as the Veterans Affairs Minister. 

The Minister for Agriculture and the Deputy Leader of the Nationals, David Littleproud, joins me now. David Littleproud, welcome back to Breakfast.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me.

SALLY SARA: Well, we'll get back to this reshuffle in a moment. But obviously the situation with COVID is dominating the headlines. In your view, what does National Cabinet need to do today to restore confidence that there's a unified response to the pandemic and the challenges that it's throwing up?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, I think what Australians want is just a consensus, and I think that's why the Prime Minister put in place the National Cabinet. You've got to appreciate the federated system that we have here in Australia, the sovereignty of our states, and we respect that. And that's what the Prime Minister did in initiating initial- in initiating National Cabinet, and it's important that the premiers now come together, we work together and make sure that we evolve as this virus evolves. And that's not just in terms of the strains, that's also in terms of our actions, you know, the lockdowns and the vaccines and quarantine - that's what the Australian people want. They don't really care who actually enacts it, they just want a level of government to take responsibility and get on with the job, and that's what National Cabinet's all about.

SALLY SARA: But the issue this week seems to have been mixed messages. Do you agree?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, obviously, there's been differing medical advice from the Chief Medical Officer in Queensland. And it's been quite consistent from the federal perspective is that, please go and see a GP, talk to your local GP, the one that you trust. And we would expect all our chief medical officers to trust our local GPs to give the right advice so that an informed decision can be made by every Australian about what type of vaccine they take. That's, that's the sensible thing to do. And that's why we didn't rush in to getting the Sputnik or the Chinese vaccine. We took our time, we went through the approval process calmly and methodically to make sure that we could give confidence to Australians that when they put their arm out, they were going to be safe.

Now, things continue to evolve. But we haven't had to rush it the way that other people have. We're going as quickly as we can, we've hastened as quickly as we can to give as much confidence as we can. And that's why now we need the medical profession to come together and back their GPs.

SALLY SARA: But when you're saying we don't need to rush it; did you really hold that view now?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, what I'm saying is that when we initially went through the approval processes, we didn't have to rush the approval process, the normal approval processes that we went through. Now, we even expedited some of those that we would normally take to approve some of these vaccines in light of the circumstances. But other countries started some two or four months before us in having to ask their citizens to put their arms out on vaccines that hadn't gone through the normal processes that we had allowed our vaccines to go through here in Australia. And that, that's because we were working together as states, making sure that the states worked with one another in making sure that we had lockdowns. We did it sensibly, made sure that we protected our health system.

And so, that's why it's dangerous to, to compare Australia to the rest of the world. Our circumstances have been different and we- and we've acted accordingly. We just now need to make sure that we're all on the same page. And again, that's why National Cabinet is so important and why the Prime Minister's initiated it.

SALLY SARA: But we're so far, we're so far behind now. On any tally, we're a long, long way behind. Can you understand public frustration on that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, again, that's a dangerous assertion to make around the premise of why we are there. Many countries started some two to four months before us because they didn't go through the approvals process, the lengthier processes that we did here in Australia to give our people confidence. Because we didn't have to, we didn't have the pressure on our health system. So, they started asking their citizens to put their arms out some four months before Australia. So, what we…

SALLY SARA: But surely, this is a supply issue as well. We've, we've got in, we've got in late here, it's not just about approval. We just don't have the stocks that we need at the moment. Isn't that right?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, exactly. Exactly. We didn't have the sovereign manufacturing capability we had here, and that's why we took a spreaded risk between AstraZeneca that could be ramped up in terms of sovereign manufacturing, and the Pfizer. We weren't allowed to manufacture the Pfizer here, so we had to rely on those external sources.

Now, many people were jumping up and down saying, why didn't we also take another one? In fact, the Labor Party was saying, why didn't we take Johnson & Johnson? Well, Johnson & Johnson was then found to have issues because, again, other countries have had to expedite their approvals process. Australia went through it as quickly as we could, methodically as we could to get as much confidence so that, when we're at this juncture, Australians have the confidence to put their arm out and get that jab.

SALLY SARA: David Littleproud, let's have a look at what's happening in the bush - there's concern about the rollout nationwide. And we've heard this morning from Townsville GP, Michael Clements. He's saying that in some areas, AstraZeneca is being tossed in the bin because no one wants it, but there are no stocks of Pfizer. Let's listen to what he had to say.
[Excerpt]
MICHAEL CLEMENTS: I was in Julia Creek this week and we had a fridge full of AstraZeneca that I- I was literally walking the halls, walking around outside, looking for anybody to give it to before we had to throw out the first batch that we'd received.
[End of excerpt]

SALLY SARA: And at the same time, some of those towns- Michael Clements listed a number of towns where there is no Pfizer at all. Does that worry you?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, obviously, there's a confidence issue around AstraZeneca, and that's why it's important that our chief medical officers back our GPs and get the consistent message out there that you should go and talk to your local GP. The trusted GP, that looks after you, day in and day out. That's the one that our chief medical officer should be saying go and have that conversation with. There is plenty of AstraZeneca because we've got that sovereign manufacturing ...

SALLY SARA: But what about the second issue of not having any Pfizer at all in some parts of rural and regional Australia? Did you know that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I- well, as we continue to ramp up and we rely on overseas supplies to come in of Pfizer, that obviously will continue to ramp up. And every state's know on the extent of which they have had available to them, the amount of Pfizer that has been brought into this country. We have secured more, and we will continue to make sure, as we are adding Moderna, as we got confidence with Moderna now, that we will bring that in. And we are trying to get more sovereign capability here in manufacturing. And if we can, we will. But we obviously have to understand that the intellectual property of these vaccine is owned by Pfizer, and obviously, if we can get Moderna up and going, and Christian Porter's working through that as quickly as we can. But these are intellectual properties owned by corporates in other nations. And obviously we found from the very start, we had trouble with the EU in releasing 3 million doses. So we just need to make sure we work through this and understand we're doing it as quickly as we can, as safely as we can. And please go and talk to your GP. That is the biggest message anyone can say today. Forget the politics, forget the grandstanding. It's important that each one of us, if we want to go and get a vaccine is to go and talk to our GP…

SALLY SARA: David Littleproud, that's- Let's keep moving on. What's your message to rural and regional women who are unhappy about the return of Barnaby Joyce?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think they've got every right to be upset. And Barnaby himself has acknowledged the wrongdoing that he has done. And I think- he obviously stood aside from the leadership of the National Party in acknowledging that wrongdoing. He has gone and reflected on that. And what he is saying is that he believes that he has reflected to the juncture where he has shown remorse. He has reformed himself and now what he is saying is please give me a go, and it should be his actions that he is judged by. And if they are not, then obviously that's a discussion publicly that not only rural women, but also the National Party will have. But we cannot and no one will continue to support somebody that does the wrong thing. But Barnaby has reflected on that. He's acknowledged his wrongdoings.

SALLY SARA: And Minister, just to check with you as well, with the federal National Party at the moment, are there any other allegations against any members, federal National members or ministers at the moment, from women when it comes to harassment or poor behaviour?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: None that I'm aware of.

SALLY SARA: When we look at the issue of the environment and the Coalition at the moment, Australia has been ranked last of all the UN nations in the 2021 Sustainable Development Report. Do you concede that the National Party needs to do more when it comes to issues of water policy and also climate change?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we already are, and I think it's important to understand that we're taking a leading role in that. Despite some of the hyperbole that's going on from some of the media, the National Party has seen that there is a symbolic and symbiotic relationship between the health of the environment and the financial well-being of our farmers. Our farmers found that out about 40 years ago with this thing called Landcare, and we've put over $1.1 billion into that. And now what we're also doing is ramping up things like biodiversity stewardship programs, soil carbon sequestration, understanding the important role of managing country, caring for country, actually adds to the bottom line. And as a former bank manager that used to sit around farmers' kitchen tables every day, I can tell you our farmers are the best stewards of our land. They've understood that. Yes, our practises 40, 50 years ago weren't the best. But I think ...

SALLY SARA: But aren't organisations like the NFF leading you, when they're coming up with the- looking at the reality of climate change, they're in a different position to you.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, well, I think you've got to put in perspective the caveats, and everyone is jumping to the NFF saying they've committed to net zero by 2050. Well they have, but there's a number of caveats around the financial impacts that that would have on farmers. So, again, the National Party have said that we want to see the detail. We want to see how we're going to get there, who pays the bill, because Australian agriculture paid the bill for where Australia is now. We have paid the bill for the social licence and the social conscience of this country and to get us to beat Paris, to meet our previous commitments. And if we're to go further, then Australian farmers can be part of the solution, but they have to paid for it. We paid the bill without any compensation last time, and here's the opportunity. As the stewards of the land, of nearly 52 per cent of the landscape, here is the opportunity to embrace and to reward Australian agriculture for the great work that they do in the stewardship of our environment.

SALLY SARA: David Littleproud, thanks for joining us again on Breakfast.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Anytime. Thanks for having me.

SALLY SARA: That's David Littleproud, the Minister for Agriculture and the deputy leader of the National Party on RN Breakfast.