Interview with Danica De Giorgio, Sky News First Edition

23 December 2020

DANICA DE GIORGIO: Joining me now live is the Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud. Minister, thank you for joining me. Let's begin with the ongoing border closures due to the outbreak on Sydney's Northern Beaches. We know already regional Australia in particular has done it tough with the bushfires and now the pandemic. Now they're seeing a number of cancellations - what are businesses telling you?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, they're really hurting. And particularly in Queensland, I can tell you in regional Queensland, North Queensland, they're feeling the brunt of this. And in fact, they're seeing cancellations costing $250 million just alone in the Whitsunday region, so these are enormous numbers. And this is why we've said from the start, the best way to deal with this is through science, and the science tells us you should have localised lockdowns, not lockdown entire borders, have hard border closures. That just using lines that are put on a map 120 years ago, just doesn't fit in a modern Australia, doesn't need to fit in terms of this circumstance.

Contact tracing and localised lockdowns have proven to work, and we need to back one another, the states need to back one another to make sure that they continue to minimise the impact on our economy while keeping us COVID-safe. And you can do that; you can do that with common sense and science.

DANICA DE GIORGIO: It appears so far, though, that states aren't backing each other. The tourism industry in particular has criticised National Cabinet's failure to agree on a national hotspot definition. Why isn't the government doing more to provide certainty?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we are as a Federal Government, but there's this thing called the Constitution. And our forefathers gave public health responsibility to the individual states; they're their own sovereign governments. What the Prime Minister's trying to do through National Cabinet is national leadership and bringing them together, but it's like herding cats when you have premiers using state borders for political, parochial reasons, for their own advantage, rather than working together. That has shown that federation is being tested, it's been tested severely through this crisis.

Because no matter what the Federal Government does, there is sovereign responsibility and ownership by the states, and the states are using this as political footballs, rather than working together to get a workable and achievable outcome for the entire nation. Because it's a great business model for them. I mean, they get the political kudos for having acted tough and locked down entire borders when they didn't need to, and we fit the bill. So, it's a great business model from their perspective on a political level - we've already seen the Northern Territory Government, the ACT and the Queensland Government all win COVID elections, and I suspect WA's sizing it up for March next year as well. But we've got to at some point prove that federation can work, and it can work if we lead and lead together and trust one another.

DANICA DE GIORGIO: Minister, I want to talk about the agriculture industry. Obviously tough times, particularly with a number of Chinese tariffs on Australian goods. How can Australia boost agriculture exports?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, it's around diversification. And you've got to understand, we have 13 other free trade agreements on top of the Chinese free trade agreement, and there's countless countries that we have market access into for our commodities. What we've done previously is we've lifted the number of agricultural counsellors that work in my department, and sit in embassies and high commissions around the world; we've taken them from 16 to 20 two, and they're there to get market access, commodity by commodity. We've also, in this budget, nearly $330 million put into streamlining and modernising our trading platforms, and making sure that we reduce the regulatory touch, but while maintaining our clean green image using technology.

And today, in an hour, I'll be announcing further measures to help amplify and support exporters in that diversification. Around 30 per cent of agricultural exports go into China, but there is opportunity in other markets, and we're also currently negotiating the UK and EU trade agreements as we speak. So, we'll continue to work through these free trade agreements, market access, and we'll be looking at making significant investments today, and probably further in into the budget, again, to support those exporters, to diversify into other markets.

DANICA DE GIORGIO: How long, though, will it take for Australia to diversify into markets that perhaps haven't been its focus before?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, let me say that there has been a focus, and that's why we've had these agricultural councils on the ground. I think that there's been commercial decisions made by exporters to simply go to China, but there is opportunities in other countries where we have free trade agreements, we have market access that we've been working on. And in fact, we saw that with barley; the fact that barley didn't fall significantly in price because we were able to open up other markets and send that commodity in there relatively quickly. Shows that different commodities have different timelines, but there is real opportunity there for us because of the quality of our product.

And that's why we're saying, if we can speed up and amplify and accelerate that process in making sure that, not only business to business level, but government to government level in these other nations that we're looking to get market access can be accelerated, then that provides opportunities for them, businesses to make that commercial decision about where to sell that commodity into.

DANICA DE GIORGIO: Australia has taken China to the World Trade Organization over barley. What are the next steps here? What are you expecting? What sort of an outcome?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, obviously, we're expecting the WTO to, in fact, rule in our favour, that what China has done is against the agreements in which we have, our bilateral agreement and under the WTO rules. We haven't dumped barley into China and we haven't subsidised Australian farmers. In fact, of the 37 OECD countries in the world, there's only one country that's been measured to subsidise their farmers less than Australia. So, I think we have a very strong case. And what we'll expect the WTO is to rule in our favour, and that will then remove those tariffs.

But I think what the world is watching anxiously is the actions of China, that this is not necessarily around technical trade matters, but around sovereign matters, that Australia has made decisions, and quite rightly. And we will always make those decisions in our own national interest, and we expect other countries to respect our sovereignty. And there's mounting evidence that the actions that the Chinese Government has taken against us is around those sovereign matters, rather than technical matters. And there's anxiety starting to creep in around the global community of trading with China, because it's higher risk. If these sort of actions can be taken against a country like Australia that's a rules-based trading nation, a fair trading nation; if it can be done against a nation like Australia, then obviously they're feeling the anxiety around trading as well.

DANICA DE GIORGIO: What does it say about China, that they'd rather have people freeze than use our coal?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's a matter for the Chinese Government to answer to their people. But we will continue to stand ready to export our commodity, and our coal is the cleanest in the world, and that is factual. And the reality is, is we need those nations that take our coal to continue to have that opportunity to take it to reduce emissions. So, it's important China decides very quickly to support their communities by providing clean and relatively cheap coal to provide them the electricity and the energy that they need through their winter.

DANICA DE GIORGIO: Minister David Littleproud, appreciate your time. Thank you for joining me.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me.