Interview with Ross Kay, ABC Statewide Breakfast Queensland

7 January 2021

ROSS KAY: For those who've been through the wild storms, brought on by ex-Tropical Cyclone Imogen, financial help may be at hand. The Federal Government has announced disaster assistance will be available to a number of local councils to help them recover. Imogen is still tracking off the coast, around North Queensland, and keeping an eye on it is the Federal Minister for Emergency Management, David Littleproud. Good morning.
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Good morning, thanks for having me.
 
ROSS KAY: So, what help is being offered here?
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, look, there's four shires up in remote- the Gulf area that have been impacted; Croydon, Etheridge, Carpentaria and the Moorington shires. What we have done in partnership with the Queensland Government is initiated disaster recovery arrangements. So that- what that does is says that there's been significant damage, particularly to public assets that need to be repaired. And those shires don't have the financial capacity to be able to repair a lot of the infrastructure, particularly roads. So, the Queensland and Federal Government partner in making sure that those shires are able to rebuild that infrastructure, to a standard that is, as a minimum, to what it was before the flooding. And what we're trying to do and we're partnering with Queensland on this already is looking at betterment where we can in terms of building back better the infrastructure if there's an opportunity to do that.
 
So, this is the first tranche of that; there's more assessments that will need to be made and the Queensland Government will make those assessments around further assistance as the water subsides and they're able to get people in there safely and make those assessments. But this is the first tranche of support from both the Federal and State Government.

ROSS KAY: And is it a case that there are specific amounts of money available or is it more on an as needed basis?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: At this stage, some of those needs - so, this is the first tranche of disaster recovery arrangements that have been initiated by the Queensland Government with the Federal Government. So, this is just basically making sure that we repair that critical public infrastructure and then as further assessments are made, and particularly even if there's been individual damage to property, we will assess that and work with the Queensland Government. And there may be further support that's forthcoming to individual property owners as well and that will be over the coming weeks, that we'll get that assessment from the Queensland Government. But they're very experienced in this, I've got to say, and thank the Queensland Government for the way that they've dealt with this. They're very quick to initiate this and activate these DRA arrangements and it's been very well done. And it's just a matter now of allowing them to continue to make further assessments to provide appropriate support on the ground up there.

ROSS KAY: Will this funding be made available to council areas around the Herbert and Lower Burdekin as well as they start to bring their assessments through?
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, and that's what we've got to appreciate. This is unfolding and as the Queensland Government can get up there and get their people on the ground to make these assessments of the damage, then they'll initiate further shires as well. So, while this is the initial fall up in the Gulf who were probably the first to be impacted, these other shires that are being impacted as we speak, there'll be further assessments by the Queensland Government. And that's the process that's been long standing - the state governments make the assessment of the damage and then they initiate these disaster recovery arrangements and we share the cost and we do that in a very transparent way. And if Queensland says that the damage is significant enough, then the Federal Government simply agrees to the terms in which they put forward.

ROSS KAY: It's 18 minutes past 7. This is ABC Radio Queensland. You're hearing this morning from David Littleproud, he's the Federal Minister for Emergency Management. But another issue that's been very much in the front of mind for farmers in 2020 has been the shortage of farm workers. There's been some changes to visas. Can you explain what's going on there?
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, we're allowing international students that are here to work longer than 40 hours a fortnight. So, previously they were limited to do that. But they can extend passed that 40 hours if they work in agriculture. So, we've identified agriculture as an essential service. We obviously continue to try and encourage Australians to take these jobs up first. They, in fact, get first crack at these jobs. Every job must be market tested and we've tried to incentivise Australians to take these jobs up with up to $6000 in reimbursement of travel costs. And also, particularly those that have left school or uni, an accelerated pathway to Austudy and ABSTUDY. But they haven't taken them up and we've got to continue to try and bring in every source of labour that we can. We've opened up the Pacific and Seasonal Worker Programme, 22,000 men and women in 10 nations ready across and we've also looked at those visa holders that are here in the country at the moment. So, those students that are here now, we're saying to them, you can go and work in agriculture for more than 40 hours a fortnight and you'll be- you won't impact your visa. Our farmers are at a critical juncture. We've relied heavily on foreign labour for some significant years now and we see- then with COVID-19, we've seen backpackers go.

There's normally 160,000 of those in the country at any one given time. And 30 per cent of those normally work in agriculture, they've basically gone down to around 50,000 and we're trying to bring in these extra 22,000 to make sure that there is supply. But it's a challenge and it's going to continue. But we've encouraged them to have a go. Good money and to be helping a farmer. Also be making sure that Australian farmers be supported. But also, if this doesn't happen, we're going to see this play out of the checkout. You're going to be paying more for your fresh produce every time you go to the supermarket.

ROSS KAY: David, we're watching the situation unfold in the US this morning with the US Capitol going into lockdown as the Congress is hoping to ratify the returns of the Electoral College votes. Cause for concern?
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, it's deeply disappointing. We've got to remember that in any democracy, the people always own that democracy. But it's also the responsibility of those people to respect that democracy and the institutions of that democracy. And I think we should reflect on our own democracy here in Australia and be profoundly proud of our democracy and the way that the Australian public respected it. And I think at times, despite some may disagree, I think our politicians do as well. So, I think it's important that the premise of democracy never be lost. It's kept us safe and free whether that be here in Australia or around the world. So, I think it's deeply disappointing that there is a fringe element that would disrespect it and disrespect the people within a democracy who have made their mind up at an election. And that's really the premise of our democracy and one that hundreds of thousands of Australians have fiercely defended with their own lives. So, it's important that we always are fierce custodians of that and make sure that the premise of what those people who have laid their lives down the line for is always protected here in Australia.

ROSS KAY: David Littleproud, appreciate your time. Thank you.
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me.
 
ROSS KAY: David Littleproud, Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management.