Interview with Danica De Giorgio, Sky News First Edition

2 November 2020

DANICA DE GIORGIO: Well, Australia recorded its first day without a COVID-19 transmission in nearly five months, but Annastacia Palaszczuk said her election victory show voters backed her decision to keep the states borders closed to Sydney and Victoria.

Joining me now live is Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management, David Littleproud. Minister, good morning, thank you for joining me. Annastacia Palaszczuk says that the result was a vindication of her management of the pandemic. Was it wrong for the Federal Government to attack Queensland Labor on its stance over borders during the election campaign?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, it wasn’t. But what the Premier did do well was play on the anxiety of, particularly, older Queenslanders in getting them to feel as though the only way that they could feel safe was to locking down hard borders. Now, you can still keep people safe but not lockdown entire state borders - you can actually do it by having localised lockdowns. And that was our argument, is back yourself with science rather than going back to parochial politics of using lines that were put on a map 120 years ago - just simply use science. I mean, New South Wales contact tracing is exceptional, but we’ve got no cases particularly in central-west New South Wales, and southern-west New South Wales, and even some parts of Victoria but they’ve chosen not to open them up until recently. And Victoria, some parts of regional Victoria are still closed to Queensland - so, how is that predicated on science?

This is what my whole argument has been form the start, is rather than using it as a political weapon, we need to work together. Federation had a unique opportunity to work together at the moment to prove that we can get through this pandemic - not only on a health front, but on an economic front. And instead state borders, the state governments have used it as a political weapon. And it’s a good business model, because ultimately, the Federal Government, you, the Australian taxpayer, has to pay for it for their political expedience.

DANICA DE GIORGIO: Is that the hardest part though, is actually getting everybody to work together? We’ve seen Annastacia Palaszczuk saying that her strategy worked, Mark McGowan over in Western Australia, he’s released a timeframe to drop that hard border, but he’s certainly been buoyed by what’s happened in Queensland. The New South Wales Premier, Minister, now also under pressure to drop that southern border with Victoria. Are you concerned, though, that National Cabinet’s plan to reopen by Christmas simply may not happen?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I’d hope not. If they’re true to their word and they’re true to the science, then National Cabinet should back the Prime Minister and get on with the job. But this is why the Prime Minister was so keen to get a definition of a hotspot, because instead of locking down entire states from one another, you can lockdown local areas - that’s the smart thing, that’s the modern federation, that’s the modern thinking of a modern Australia. Rather than going back to what’s politically expedient and thinking of 120 years ago; that won’t cut it. I mean, this will send us broke and the states, unfortunately, can use this as a political weapon to make themselves popular at a local level. But, unfortunately, we have to pay for it. And this is the challenge that we’re trying to lead, and the Prime Minister’s trying to lead through National Cabinet. And I just say to the premiers, this is a real test of our federation, and an opportunity, but to entrench it is showing that we can come together as a nation - to forget about lines on a map that were put there 120 years ago, and work for one another and work for our country.

DANICA DE GIORGIO: Minister, let’s take a look at the Queensland election result - Annastacia Palaszczuk, of course, re-elected for another term. What are the key lessons from this election for the Federal Government?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. I think Andrew Clennell nailed this on Saturday night; I think Palaszczuk did a great job on playing on that anxiety. It was a COVID election, she’s won under the cover of COVID. And she’s taken away, particularly One Nation voters, who felt afraid. In times of crisis, people revert back to their incumbency of the government that’s there looking after them. Now, we can’t take it for granted at a federal level, because ultimately we’re the ones that are cutting the cheques to pay for all this at the moment, and while the states play on populism, we’ve got to pay the bills. And this is going to be a real challenge for us, particularly as we transition the economy away from JobKeeper and JobSeeker.

So we got to make sure that we pull the right economic levers to create jobs. Because ultimately, in 13-14 months when we’re going up for an election, people will judge us - not on keeping them safe on the health front, but whether they’ve got a job or whether they got a prospect of a job, and whether the economy looks as though its moving in the right direction. Now we’re pulling the right levers for that, but you can’t take that for granted, and I think that’s our big challenge as we head into the next 13-14 months before our elections, is the Australian public will judge us on what we’ve done and what we’re going to do for them in the future, whereas the states have been able to get away with just being assessed on their health response.

DANICA DE GIORGIO: Deb Frecklington, during her speech on Saturday night, she declared that she would continue as LNP leader. Do you think that she should? Is she the right person to continue in the job?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well the only people who get a say on that are the parliamentary members of the state Queensland Party - so they’ll obviously have that conversation in the coming days. And as I understand, I spoke to Deb Frecklington yesterday, my understanding is that she’ll call a party room meeting as soon as some of these seats are clear, and obviously then whether there’s a spill motion. As I understand it, the convention is that all positions are spilled after an election lost - as it is in the federal level. After every election we spill the positions and obviously the leader can put their hand up, but that’s a determination for those members of parliament that have been elected on Saturday.

DANICA DE GIORGIO: Let’s move on now to a matter that’s arisen in the last day, in regards to the exportation of lobsters. Have Australia been able to resolve the issue with custom clearances for lobsters entering China?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Not yet. We’re working through our Beijing officials, my Department and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade - but we have serious concerns about this. They are effectively saying that they wish to test up to 50 per cent of rock lobsters that come in for heavy metals. Now, we contest quite clearly that there is already arrangements within Australia to do tests to make sure the product we send is of the highest class in the world. And the other issue that we have serious concern about is that Australia has been singled out on this - there has been no other nation that is exporting rock lobster into China that has been asked to do this, so we’ve asked for clarification because Australia ultimately is a fair country. We live by the rules of WTO, and we expect those countries that we trade with to do the same. So we’re expecting clarification from Chinese officials today, and my officials and DFAT officials in Beijing are working through that as we speak.

DANICA DE GIORGIO: You’ve asked for clarification, but have you or Simon Birmingham actually been able to get in touch with the Chinese counterparts at all?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, I haven’t. And in fact I wrote to the Chinese- my Chinese counterpart only in the last couple of weeks when there was commentary coming out of China that they were telling importers of cotton not to take it from Australian mills - so I asked for that clarification, I haven’t had a response from my Chinese official. But my door is always open, my phone is always on, and we’ll continue to try and engage with Chinese officials because the best way to deal with the misunderstanding or any disagreement is to have dialogue. But there has to be someone to have the maturity, to have the leadership to put their hand out first, and I know Simon Birmingham and I continue to do that and we are prepared to do that. Because while China is an important trading partner, we also have created many other markets where our produce can go to, and we’d like to continue on with the relationship and the arrangements we’ve had. But obviously, our producers will look to other markets into the future if it becomes too risky.

DANICA DE GIORGIO: Now, a tricky situation. Minister David Littleproud, thank you for joining me this morning.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me.