Media conference in Toowoomba

2 October 2020

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for coming today. And it's with great comfort and pride that I'm able to advise the Australian public that Emergency Management Australia, and all the states and territories, have finalised their disaster management planning for this season. This is a season that could be like no other - as we saw only last year with the bushfires. What we saw last year with those bushfires is something we hope we never see again, but we have a nationally-coordinated approach where the Federal Government works with our state counterparts to make sure that we are prepared - and prepared particularly this year, with COVID in mind. You have to understand that we are going to have to work as a nation, moving emergency service personnel from one state to another, or even making sure those emergency personnel are safe, in a COVID environment, in rescuing people.

So, we've finalised those arrangements, but it's important to understand that while the bushfire threat is still there - particularly for Queensland and WA - they may need to pivot, and pivot quickly into flooding and cyclone. This is now getting to a situation where the Bureau of Meteorology has now issued a warning as a La Nina event. And the last time we saw one of those was in 2011 and '12. And being here in Toowoomba, let me tell you those scars are still felt today - not just in an infrastructure sense but also in a human toll.

So it's important that we understand that the agility of our emergency service personnel is going to be paramount, but so too is every Australian out there. I ask them to prepare, not just for bushfire but also for flooding and cyclone, now. This warning from the Bureau means that Australians, particularly in cyclone areas, should be prepared now because we are going to see more cyclones, we are going to see them earlier and they are going to be more severe. So I say to anyone in the cyclone zones, they need to make sure they start to have their plans ready now.

But those in the bushfire areas, continue to make sure they prepare for bushfire this year, in the coming months. And I think that they owe it, not just to their families, but they owe it to the men and women who put their lives on the line for you. Those men and women, many of whom are volunteers - the emergency service personnel who put themselves out there to go and save you and your properties, it's important - you owe it to them to go and prepare. This is going to be a season that, if we do not prepare, we will see the devastation of what we saw last year. Albeit, maybe in a different form, from a different disaster.

Can I also say that the Federal Government hasn't forgotten the other natural disaster? That's drought. And today we're announcing $50 million for the on farm water infrastructure program that allows farmers to build resilience by putting in water infrastructure on their properties, to make sure that their properties are more drought-resilient, putting in troughs and running Polypipe, de-silting dams.

So we're announcing $50 million. But it's contingent. It's contingent on the states actually kicking the tin. We've committed $50 million already, and we've asked the states to run this program for us. And sadly, our good friends in the states couldn't count, and they've over-committed the last $50 million. So there's about $12 million that they've over-allocated to farmers in their individual states. And part of that $50 million, we'll have to clean that up. But the balance will go into new water infrastructure programs for farmers to be able to put in, contingent on the state matching us. So we're saying that we'll put up to 25 per cent - $25,000 per farm. And if the states match us, that could be up to $50,000.

So it's important, I say to the states, we are doing our bit, we're doing our heavy lifting, it's important they do as well. And I know that in South Australia and Queensland, where credit's due, they do do this. But this is an opportunity for them to fix their mistake about over-allocating and now getting it right. Because if we've got them on the hook, they're more likely to count a little bit more clearly, I would suspect.

And can I just also say that today is the last day in which the Queensland Government is able to operate before caretaker? We have a situation where the Queensland Government has not signed up to the ag workers' code. That means that a seasonal worker picking fruit in Griffith today, that wants to go and pick mangoes in Bowen tomorrow, will have to isolate for 14 days before they can go and work. That's unviable for a seasonal worker to do. Yet, the Queensland Government is proposing to bring in Pacific and seasonal workers from overseas and allow them to isolate on a farm and pick while they're doing it. It just doesn't make sense.

So, I just say to Mark Furner; before he finishes cleaning out his desk today, he just sign up to the ag workers code, to give confidence to the Australian, and particularly the Queensland agricultural sector, in having supply of agricultural workforce across this country. It's important we provide that to them, because we're putting the foundations around our agricultural sector. 

And today, we're also announcing $7 million towards streamlining our research and development corporations, getting rid of 24 pieces of legislation and taking it back to four.

There's over 8000 points that collect our RDC levies, there's over $800 million. And what that means is that if it's more streamlined, there's more accountability, there'll be more money going to research and development. And in fact, here in Toowoomba, they're going to also benefit from the $86 million in a new research and development hub that will be more than likely here in Toowoomba. They'll be able to do the research at a grassroots level.

So, we're putting our investment into research and development into ag, whether it be drought. And also, with respect to emergency management, we have a summer ahead of us that has many challenges, whether it be natural disasters or whether it be COVID. The Federal Government is prepared. We now say to the states, come with us, prepare with us. And I'm sure that this COVID recession will be busted by agriculture and resources, in particular, if we use common sense and just get on with the job and get out of the lives of those that are making the money that are going to repair this economy back to where it was.

QUESTION: In terms of the storm season, is part of that Federal Government preparation needing the army on standby? Is that why they needed to be withdrawn from the borders?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. The army's always prepared. In fact, the royal commission will give us greater direction around that when it hands down its finding at the end of the year. But the Prime Minister made an unprecedented move in the wake of the bushfires last year, where he compulsorily called out army reservists - that's never been done in our nation's history - because of the gravity of it and the size of the recovery. So the Defence Force, you've got to appreciate, its primary responsibility is to keep us safe from foreign threats and to go and undertake peacekeeping missions around the world and anywhere else they're asked. But when it comes to natural disasters, they stand by. But they have finite resources. Just don't think that there's untapped resource that can just keep going. Their primary responsibility is to make sure they keep us safe in a defence sense. So state governments need to understand that the decisions that they make around borders, they need to understand that they have to be able to resource that. They just can't rely on the good old' Federal Government. They keep on putting the card into the ATM and expect the Federal Government to kick the tin all the time, and that's you, the Australian taxpayer. They've got to prepare. And that's why the Prime Minister has tried to use common sense. He said: let's come up with a hotspot definition so that we don't put an arbitrary line across the state border. But we back ourselves with science and understand we can trace where these outbreaks are and then lock them down and make sure we keep the rest of the nation moving safely.

And that's what the Prime Minister's asked for, is common sense, and if the premiers don't want to do that, they just want to revert back to parochialism for political expedience, they've got to understand they might have to kick the tin themselves and start paying up. And in fact, the state government, let me say, isn't even paying little outback councils who- I was in Cunnamulla, who had to fork out over $200,000 to support the State Government in keeping the borders closed. And yet, this Queensland Government won't pay them the money they're owed. That goes for Goondiwindi, that goes for Balonne and that goes for Paroo Shire. These are little councils with, in some cases, a thousand ratepayers. They don't have the ability to spend $200,000 for the State Government on a decision they've made. They've got to stump up the Queensland Government. If they make decisions, well cut the cheque. Don't keep coming back to the Australian taxpayer.

QUESTION: Annastacia Palaszczuk virtually just now has released a new roadmap which shows that from 1 November, visitors from New South Wales will be potentially allowed to enter Queensland. That's obviously at least a timeline, but is that still too far away for these issues that you're pointing out with the ag workers or is that a good timeline now?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well that's- you've got to understand what the ag workers, they've only signed up to another month. So they approved it on the 22nd of September. It takes us out to the 22nd of October. So, again, the Queensland Government will have to make a decision around whether farmers and ag workers can come across from New South Wales and Queensland. But they won't do it for seasonal workers. So there's a difference between permanent workers and seasonal workers. So, if you understand the pressures that are going to come on, particularly in the next three months, are going to be around the seasonal workers. The people are going to pick the fruit, and they're the ones that if you don't have the free movement, which Queensland won't allow, they're saying that if you're an Australian citizen and you live in New South Wales, well, sorry, you're going to have to isolate for 14 days before you go and work on a farm. But we're happy to sign up to bring in workers from Vanuatu. We won't make them isolate. We'll actually isolate them on the farm they can work. That's just not common sense. We're Australian first. I just say to the Queensland Government, just put this lens of common sense over it. You're nearly there.

And with respect to opening up the borders, if you sign up to a definition on a hotspot, these arbitrary lines were put on a map 120 years ago, have just- really, Australia has just outgrown it. We're more mature than that. And while it's politically expedient for states to maintain them, if you back yourselves and work together with science, you can have hotspots rather than having arbitrary border closures. And therefore, we keep the economy moving because we can keep Australians safe and keep the economy going if we back ourselves with the smarts of the 21st century, rather than just looking backwards onto lines on a map that were set there 120 years ago.

QUESTION: So you would potentially want to see those borders open before 1 November one?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, again, I think that we should be looking more towards this localised shutdown rather than straight borders. I think that would make far more sense. And that just takes cooperation. This federation that was put in place 120 years ago is being tested. And the test will be of the leadership of the premiers, whether they can trust one another and work with one another to identify and localise the shutdown of areas that have outbreaks of COVID, rather than just reverting back to thinking of 120 years ago of shutting down a straight border. I mean, if you're in Townsville and there's an outbreak in Ipswich, people in Townsville shouldn't be impacted. If there's an outbreak in Sydney, people in Griffith who haven't had anything shouldn't be impacted. The same in Victoria, right across this country. All it takes is leadership and common sense.

And I just say to the premiers, this is the test of federation that we are looking at today. The world has changed since COVID, and we've got to understand our federation has never faced this before and it's important that federation be tested and shown that it does work. And this is the opportunity. The Prime Minister's put his hand up. He's saying we'll do it with science. They're saying they'll do it with thinking of 120 years ago.

QUESTION: What have you done about Victoria and WA's request to investigate an amnesty on legal workers given the COVID-driven worker shortage?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well first, I find it a bit rich for WA to even raise this when they won't sign up to the ag workers' code either. I mean, they- their solution to this was to create an ad with two 18-year-old ladies skipping through cherry fields, picking cherries while having a great old time. I mean, hardly a description and understanding of agriculture in WA or anywhere around the country.

But you've got to understand, this is a little bit more complex than just the Agriculture Minister saying we're going to get- we're going to create this amnesty. There are security issues that multiple agencies need to work through. Our first responsibility as an Australian Government is to keep you safe. And to do that, we need to understand who is here and why they're here. And to provide an amnesty for people that are working illegally is something that I think needs deep consideration.

And while it's easy for states to sit quietly on the side with all care and no responsibility, we are going to take our responsibilities very seriously about keeping Australians safe. We'll look at this through a security lens, but we'll also look at this through a workforce lens in making sure that we also try and address the exploitation of workers in this country.

And let me say, I don't think we should generalise and say that that's a mass problem across the country. I think that's a dangerous thing to do. Yes, there are people out there that are doing the wrong thing. But like in an industry that - that does happen not just in agriculture. And what we've got to do is weed them out and get rid of them. But to provide an amnesty without due diligence is dangerous and it shows that the states just need to cool their jets and understand that we are playing in a bigger sandpit that needs to really be understood before we make any decision around that.

QUESTION: Are you prepared to investigate it as an option?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: There are discussions that have been happening for some time and this is the complexity of it. Well, it sounds great on the surface. You've got to understand the security issues that you would open up to the Australian public. There are investigations, there is work being done by multiple agencies around some of these people that are out there.

So we've just got to be careful and understand that this is a complex environment. And while it sounds great on a sound bite on a TV or a radio, there is more complexity to this that needs to be worked through because we take our responsibility to keep Australians safe very, very seriously.

QUESTION: How far have you progressed in investigating this?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: There's been ongoing. In fact, the Immigration Minister, Home Affairs Minister and myself and even the Workforce Minister have been working through these issues. And obviously that takes time to make sure that we've got the right intelligence. And obviously, we'll go back and make sure in the coming weeks that we make a decision around this.

But it is something that has been looked at and it takes time to gather that data, that intelligence to make sure that the decision we make doesn't have unintended consequences. And that's what a good government does, particularly with something as sensitive as this. It'd be easy to jump the gun and go out and say, yeah, let's do it and then not understand the unintended consequences.

QUESTION: You say it would be a security concern, but if these people are already here living and working in our communities, what is the risk to safety?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, obviously, Home Affairs and Immigration understand who's here and why they've been here and how long and there's intelligence being gathered all the time. And it's very difficult for me to go into any of those details. And obviously, I don't think the Home Affairs Minister or Immigration Minister would either, because obviously those are operational matters that aren't welcomed in public debate.

So I think we just need to take a deep breath with this. We are working through workforce issues. We've got a strong track record. Back in March, we already said that if you're here on a working holiday maker Pacific or seasonal worker program and you work in agriculture, which we identify as an essential service, you can have an extra 12 months and we'll be making further announcements. And we made further announcements - sorry, back in August where we said those seasonal and Pacific worker programs, we'll extend. We'll bring people in. We created a bubble with those nations that bring them in. And we're waiting on the states to actually formulate proposals for that. And now, we'll be making further announcements with the budget next Tuesday around visas and also around incentives.

So the Government has a comprehensive plan. We've been working for this, but unless the states sign up to the ag workers' code, it means three-fifths of bugger all because, again, you're going to have people on one side of the border that can't go across the other. So this is why I just say to the states, you just need to, while it's great to give a sound bite, you just need to understand your responsibility in this. And this is why federation is being tested and tested to its core during this pandemic. And if they don't get their stuff together, we are going to see all that we might do in trying to get a nationally coordinated approach, actually mean nothing.

QUESTION: Have you discussed amnesty with the National Farmers' Federation?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. I've discussed this with the appropriate ministers and obviously the NFF has a position and we respect that. And I've had numerous conversations with NFF - and other peak bodies around this and their position on that. I know the VFF has one as well, and obviously, we appreciate that. But we've got to look at this through the lens of our nation's security and what that means.

So it's important that while I appreciate their position, it's important they understand there's some complexity to this that needs to be worked through. And that's what the Government is doing. And we'll do that when we've got all the information and we can make a sound judgment predicated on our national security.

Good. Thanks.