Interview with ABC News Breakfast

8 May 2020

MICHAEL ROWLAND: The biggest cluster at the moment is associated with the Cedar Meats abattoir in Victoria. For more on that we're joined now by the Federal Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, from Canberra. Minister, good morning to you.

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

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Firstly, I mean the obvious question a lot of our viewers will be asking, are these meat products safe that have been circulating in the market?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Totally safe. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand have clearly, through medical advice, made it quite clear that these products are quite safe, there's no risk and we can continue to enjoy the best beef and meat production in the world right here in Australia.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: What is your understanding of the timeline here? I mean, why did it take so long for this to come to public knowledge?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, those are serious questions that we're trying to work through with Victorian Health, Victorian state officials and also my department. I had four Department of Agriculture employees there, two that are permanent, two that are transient, as meat inspectors. They're not medical experts, they're simply meat experts inspecting the quality of meat.

But what we were concerned about is the timeline in which we were notified because two of the inspectors then moved onto another plant. So I'm not about recriminations, we're about understanding. In fact, we met with all the agriculture ministers yesterday and committed to learn from this situation to ensure that it doesn't happen again, not only in Victoria but across the country, to ensure we have continuity of food supply through our meat sector.

They've been very forward leaning. I think, while this is an outlier, we've got to be proud of the fact the meat sector, themselves have been forward leaning in their protocols and precautions around COVID-19 to continue to keep our supply chains full.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: But clearly, you see it as an argument for tightening restrictions, or regulations rather, even further in this industry.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well as I pushed all the state ministers yesterday, I think that each jurisdiction needs to sit down with their meat processing sector to ensure that they have the protocols that their state health officials would expect, then if there's an outbreak what does that protocol look like so that people are protected, but also we can get these processing plants up and going quickly again.

We don't have a supply issue, there's plenty of supply in the processing sector to continue even if one was to shut down for a period of time. So, we're not going to going to have a shortage, people don't need to panic, we're quite well equipped with respect to that. But we need to keep that continuity, not just domestically but for international markets as well.

And this is the opportunity for agriculture, is that we've been able to showcase ourselves as not having the best produce in the world but also being able to be one of the most reliable suppliers in the world, and it's important we continue to do that and the supply chains is important.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. We're looking this morning, Minister, ahead of the National Cabinet meeting today on how different sectors of the economy will look different as we gradually move out of these lockdowns. So, how will it affect, or how has it affected agriculture? And how, if anything, will the sector look different?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, you know, I think agriculture has been a shining light. I think Australians have awoken to the importance of agriculture. It's times like these when we get back to basics and understand what is good for us, and good food and fibre is, are being seen as the cornerstone of that, we're the bed rock of the nation's economy because farmers have just been calmly and methodically going about their business. We put the goods on the supermarket shelves; we're the ones that just kept churning through it.

And in fact we're well placed, not only domestically but to take international advantage of our product and being able to supply that. And we invested in ensuring we can continue to keep those supply chains internationally going as well because that means Australian farmers will make more. We produce enough food for 75 million people, we're just a nation of 25, so if we don't trade we don't need farmers, as many farmers.

So this is a real opportunity for agriculture and I think we'll be the ones that hold the economy together and then reboot the economy out of agriculture.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. Finally, looking at the Eden-Monaro by-election campaign. It hasn't been the coalition's finest week, has it?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. Definitely not and, you know, we've just got to get back to what we're here for. And it's for the Australian people and in Eden-Monaro it's for the people of Eden-Monaro. They're talking about the fire recovery, helping them get back on their feet. Self-indulgence on any level isn't acceptable by the Australian public nor should it be. We deserve an uppercut. You have a look at yourself, you dust yourself off, you go back and get back to basics and that's about the Australian people and about the people of Eden-Monaro. You can't sugar coat it, that's the truth.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay. I love how candid you are but you may not have seen Barnaby Joyce. He's leapt into print this morning in the Nine newspaper saying: John Barilaro should reconsider his decision to pull out of this campaign. What do you make of that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well obviously Barnaby wants us to be competitive in Eden-Monaro and John Barilaro has a strong following, in Eden-Monaro - he's a local state member. But he's made it quite clear now he intends to stay in state politics until 2023, he and his family have made that decision and I think it's time just to respect that and let John get on with the good job he's doing as Deputy Premier of New South Wales, forget the conjecture and no just, forget other personalities and just get on with the job of delivering for people in that area and right across the country as a government.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: David Littleproud in Canberra, thanks so much for joining us.