Press conference, Toowoomba

27 May 2020

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look, thanks for coming this morning. I thought it was important that in these heightened times of crisis that political leaders don’t raise anxiety unnecessarily and particularly, with respect to the Al Kuwait boat, it's important that we put some facts on the table, some real facts. And I think the first two important facts that Australians should take comfort in is, that no one has left that boat without medical attention being provided to them beforehand. So, we have undertaken all the quarantine protocols and isolation, as would be expected, and no one went onto that boat unless they were wearing protective equipment. So, everyone that has come into contact with the Al Kuwait has undertaken that due process.

Now, it's important to understand the Department of Agriculture does have a role to play, and it's important we put the facts on the table and we work through them calmly, rather than trying to raise anxiety in the community.

On 20 May, the ship's master notified the Department of Agriculture that three of their crew were, in fact, feeling ill. But they did not have a temperature, did not have symptoms of COVID-19; that was logged. And in fact, our departmental personnel have checked the ship's log to ensure that that is the case and we continue to work through that.

From then on, as the boat came in, and was docked on 22 May, at 10.39, we notified WA Health, in fact, their public health emergency operations centre, that we had been notified less than an hour earlier, that there had been someone that presented themselves with symptoms of COVID-19.

It is not for the Department of Agriculture to make medical assessment; we look after plants and animals. We undertook the protocol set out by the WA Government to notify them through this email address, what was set up by the WA Health for COVID-19, and in fact, was used for the Artania. This was a set protocol that was put in place that we were to notify WA Health of anyone that was feeling ill or showing symptoms of COVID-19. It's important to understand that we also, in that email, CC-ed a WA health official to ensure, despite what the Premier of WA says, is it went to a generic email, a generic email to an emergency health centre, set up specifically for COVID-19. This address; we CC-ed it to another WA official to ensure that they were fully cognisant of the situation that was under way on the Al Kuwait. So, it was important that that took place.

We continued to work through, and because there was no advice to the contrary, the ship was allowed to dock some two or three hours later in Perth. Again, no one left the ship. Anyone that went on the ship was in protective clothing.

It wasn't until the Sunday that Australian Border Force, as I understand, also became concerned after consultation with the captain, as well as the Department of Agriculture with the captain, Australian Border Force, through a third-party agency, notified them of their concerns about people presenting themselves with symptoms. That again, that agency, notified the public health emergency operations centre in Perth. The same protocol that the Department of Agriculture took two days earlier. See, it wasn't until the Monday in which health officials from WA boarded the boat and started to test.

Now, those are the facts that have been put before me by my department. I have emails to ensure that my department has acted within the protocols that we have set out with the states. In fact, that has been tried and true even with the Artania that the WA Government handled, as I would say, magnificently. So, we have not deviated from that.

So, it's important that we work through this calmly and with the facts. And can I just say, that it's important as political leaders, we appreciate those men and women that have put themselves out there. And I'll end on this, particularly for those biosecurity officers that are in my department, these are the unsung heroes of COVID-19. There's very few Australians that would know that they have been the first to enter planes and boats, to take those that are ill, that those who have COVID-19, and taken them to medical quarantine areas. They put themselves forward, they put themselves forward for this nation in this crisis. And it's beholden on political leaders, the tone of conversation that we put forward is one that is respectful of the efforts of our Australians in these trying times, ordinary Australians, doing extraordinary things.

So, I just add that there should be a level of maturity that we work through this. If there is evidence to the contrary, that we, in the Department of Agriculture, should have done more; we are all ears. But from the evidence that's been provided to me, the Department of Agriculture has stuck to the protocols outlined to them by the states. We are not medical professionals. We do not make diagnosis on COVID-19. We hand the information over to the health professionals to make that diagnosis, and it's important that we allow them to do it. It would be dangerous otherwise.

So, I think it's important now that we, and the WA Government, work through this. And if there are learnings, we work through it calmly and in a mature way that ensures that if protocols need to be changed, or there has been a gap, that we can understand that together, not tear one another down. Happy to take questions.

QUESTION: You've said that the department just looks after plants and animals, but the email from the Ag Department clearly states that there were no COVID-19 concerns. Does that mean the department was making some assessments of the human's health?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Definitely not, and that's dangerous to assert otherwise. They are simply passing on the declaration of the ship's captain to us about what they had seen from their crew, what the crew has presented to them with symptoms. They do not make a diagnosis; they do not make recommendations. That is why, within the hour, they simply provided that information to the email address provided to us, to be able to send it to the public health emergency operations centre for them to make that determination.

We do not make determinations on health; we allow them to undertake that. We simply provide the information, the declaration that's provided to my personnel on the ground.

QUESTION: David, this is a question from Perth. Is it time for Premier Mark McGowan to publicly apologise, given his attacks on the Federal Government yesterday afternoon, before knowing the full facts and then his subsequent backdown last night, and has he picked up the phone yet to speak with you directly?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, no, but he could still be in his jammies, it's still two hours earlier in WA than it is here, to be fair. Look, I'm not going to get into a commentary. I don't think that's constructive, as I've said. I think it's beholden on us and what the nation expects of us as political leaders, is to lead. And I think we can do that constructively; we've shown that.

And I get that the Premier may have some anxiety and may not have had all the facts yesterday. But it's important we respect those men and women, as I respect the men and women in WA Health and I'm not passing any dispersion on their professionalism during this in any way, shape or form. They are presented with the information; they make critical decisions in a crisis. I think we should be proud of them. If there's learnings, and I'm still more than happy to be proven that there is gaps from the Department of Agriculture, but no one has been able to provide that to me. And if there is, I'll deal with that in a mature way, in a constructive way with my department. And I think that's what the nation expects of their political leaders in this time, is not to raise anxiety but to come together, not tear one another down.

QUESTION: The company says the ship's capacity is 28,000 sheep, why were they planning to load 56,000 sheep?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look, I can't answer that one. I don't think that that's necessarily the information that I've been provided. But let me just say that the sheep are in good health, they have food and water and had veterinary checks. They'll work with the exporter. I think the independent regulator has the ability to provide an exemption if the boat cannot sail until after the first June. And I'll leave that to the independent regulator to make that determination, not me as a politician. I think that's important there is clarity around that. But as I understand, all the conditions on the boat are met in terms of the numbers that will be allowed to sail.

QUESTION: What assurances do you have that they are in good health?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: In fact, the department has provided that to me only this morning. They have seen that the sheep are in good health, they're sheltered, they're watered, and they've had veterinary checks, they're in good condition. And as far as we understand, they are ready to sail.

But let me just me say, that needs to happen after a couple of things. Firstly, there's a deep clean of the boat. And secondly, there is a crew that is healthy enough to do that. So, between WA Health, the Department of Agriculture, we are working with the exporter in understanding the situation, but we're trying to work through that as quickly as we can, understanding that the northern summer is coming and coming quickly.

QUESTION: What would be the value of the exports that are meant to sail on this voyage?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look, my rough estimates from memory is that each one of those shipments are around $12 million. But that's sometimes ago. So, please don't hold me to that. That's about two years ago. I remember in the live, in the middle of the live trade situation, remembering some of those numbers. But I'm happy to provide them to you.

QUESTION: And you say the independent regulator could grant an exemption so the ship could sail after 1 June. How far into June would you accept it's appropriate to allow an exception?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well that's not for me to determine. I'm a politician. I don't have the scientific backing to be able to do that. I'll leave that to the independent regulator, who has the scientific basis in which to make that recommendation, and that's where it should be left.

QUESTION: Have you spoken to the regulator regarding the option to postpone the sailing?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, I haven't. I've been dealing with the allegations and assertions around the Department of Agriculture to ensure that we've adhered to all the protocols. But I'll be dealing with the department. I won't be making any recommendation or making any of my personal views known to the independent regulator. That'd be inappropriate and it's up to them to make their determination. That's what the Australian public would expect. They would expect that the live sheep that go into the Middle East, do that in a safe way. And that's what the independent regulator will be charged with the responsibility of doing.

QUESTION: Just another question. We've heard from the Royal Commission that the Bureau of Meteorology forecasters predicted a horror fire season. Why wasn’t more done by the Federal Government to prepare for it?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I don't know who's making that assertion. Are you asserting that we didn't do enough? I don't agree with that assertion in any way shape or form. We had that information from the bureau and we worked with the fire chiefs. The fire chiefs are the ones that determine the operational management of fire in this country. And they warned us and they warned their state governments. And I think for anyone to suggest that our fire chiefs from around this country, from each of the states, did not prepare meticulously is a slight on their professionalism. They knew about this. No one had any more information than what those fire chiefs did. And if it wasn't for their actions and the actions of those brave men and women, many of them volunteers that went and put their lives on the line for us, then there would have been a lot more than 33 lives that were lost during this event and it would have been more than 3000 homes that would've been lost.

So, to make any assertion that meticulous planning from state and federal governments was not undertaken is wrong, is factually incorrect and in fact, it's disappointing that someone would want to politicise an event like this with such a statement.

QUESTION: Just back to the live export issue. In terms of these live exports boats coming in and out of our Australian waters and ports, is there talk in the Federal Government of plans to review how that works at this point or even suspend that trade while we’re in the COVID-19 crisis?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, no. The suspension comes in on the 1st of June and goes through to the 14th of September. In fact, industry themselves imposed their own ban on themselves during this summer period. When I was last Agriculture Minister, I put $2 million out to look at new technology that may be able to dehumidify some of these boats to allow it to happen. We're still waiting for that research to continue. We're looking at technology but we're using baseline science to make sure that the mortality rates remain low, underneath 1 per cent. In fact, I brought it down from 2 to 1 per cent. And most of those shipments are now sitting well under 0.5 per cent in terms of mortality. So, the reality is these ships have improved, but we won't make any changes. The independent regulator made it quite clear that there will be a suspension of the trade from 1st of June to the 14th of September but we'll enjoy that market continuing on. And we're looking for new markets, can I say, for those and particularly those in the Opposition that said the live sheep trade was finished, it was about to fall over internationally. Well, they're wrong. We are very close to securing new markets for our live sheep to give particularly WA farmers more options and more ability to make money out of the live trade in a safe way. And that's what we'll continue to do with the independent regulator and the Inspector-General of live animal exports. I've had conversations with him about making sure that we continue to keep up with technology in ensuring that we can continue to send sheep in a safe manner to the Middle East.

QUESTION: Back to the issue of exemptions, is it a bit embarrassing to consider that you may need an exemption to these new animal welfare laws before they've actually begun?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. COVID-19 has only just hit us in the last three or four months. This is a pandemic. Seriously, this is uncharted territory for the world. A little bit of pragmatism and common sense goes a long way and that's what I would expect us to look at for any exemption for the shipment to continue on.

QUESTION: And are you satisfied that your department has adhered to its responsibilities in handling this outbreak?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yes, I am. And unless someone can prove otherwise, I have documentary evidence to suggest that the department has stuck to the protocols in which WA Health have asked us to. As I say, I'm open to anyone providing information to the contrary. And I'll do that in a constructive way and work with my department in a constructive way to make sure it doesn't happen again. But from what information is presented to me, the Department of Agriculture has adhered to the protocols set out by National Cabinet and therefore, through WA Health. We have done it to the T, but unless there's information to the contrary, please bring it forward.

QUESTION: at the farmgate level at the moment, just in agriculture, all these sheep, if they don’t go, will flood back onto our local market. Talking to producers in the farmgate, is there concerns about the potential impacts on prices for them, devaluing their stock at the moment?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think we just need to calm about this. There's a few things firstly to unpack on that. My understanding is that the sheep that are sitting there in the port ready to go, have been sold by the farmers and they've been paid for those sheep. You do raise a point that they would go back into the market and there'd be a supply and demand issue. They would obviously have to go back into the slaughter houses because effectively, there are biosecurity risks of us sending them back out into paddocks, as I understand it. But I think that's too early to make any estimate of market conditions when all indications are that we are working towards getting this boat loaded and sent back. But the independent regulator will have to make that determination and I'm sure he won't want to see that go on too long because the longer it goes on, the deeper we get into their summer. We're on the shoulder of it now. So the independent regulator will have to make that determination and I'm sure that will happen very soon. So to speculate would be a little premature.

QUESTION: David, we might just get you on dairy as well, while you're here.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. Yeah.

QUESTION: One 1 June, the code of conduct comes into play. Is that a step in the right direction?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well it is. In fact, I'm proud to say that I started that process. It wasn't until September, October 2018 that we we're able to finally get industry to have a consensus of wanting a dairy code to conduct. And it's been a long process to make sure that we get this regulation right, and that's been through consultation with industry and processors and making sure that they all had a seat at the table. So, this is a big step. The 1st of June was when the processors must declare their prices. And also, it's important to understand that one supermarket will also have to be declaring their price because they've now gone directly to dairy farmers. So I'll be watching very closely our friends at Coles, who I've had conversations with, and other supermarkets about understanding the dairy price and the impact it's having on dairy farmers. And they've all told me it's all too hard to look at the dairy price. Well, here's their opportunity to pay them a very good price when they put out their price on the 1st of June.

But we'll be asking the ACCC to also investigate and keep a close eye on all those opening bids by the processors, to ensure that they are within a market scope and there is further regulatory reform that I'm looking at after consultation with the dairy industry. Obviously, when you put in place a regulation like this, the boundaries get tested by processors and by individuals. So we have to be agile enough to look at that and there's a few things that I'm continuing to look at. And particularly here for the northern producers, there's challenges around exclusive and non-exclusive contracts and we're being careful. We want to keep them. But the regulatory piece around that is that there is concerns that some processors may be able to take advantage of that process because of the market knowledge they have, and I've asked the ACCC to look at that and how do we give some protection to that.

I've also asked my department to look at a possible arbitrator or a commissioner or ombudsman to ensure around the price settings, to make sure there's veracity to them over the eight dairy regions. And then, I think there's another piece that I've started to work with the Treasurer's Office around the grocery code of conduct because the supermarkets can't get out of this as well. They are morally bankrupt. They have brought the dairy industry to its knees by devaluing it with a dollar a litre milk. And it wasn't until we had robust conversations a bit over 12 months ago that we were able to break a dollar a litre milk, and I can tell you, they weren't happy in doing that. And it's important to understand the misery that they put into the dairy industry as a result of that. And I think there's an opportunity to strengthen the grocery code of conduct and we've already started some discussions with that and how that might look and doing some work. And I'm going to continue to push that. I know some of my National Party colleagues are very keen on that. They're also very keen on a number of other measures that may hold our supermarkets to account, not just for dairy, but for the way they deal with some of our agricultural producers.

QUESTION: Just questions from our Victorian bureaus; what's your reaction to organic dairy farms of Australia going into receivership today?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, look, it's obviously very disappointing. We need to let the administration process take its course. Obviously, we'd like to see that someone comes in and restarts the business, but the market needs to do that. Governments can't come in and interfere. Otherwise, we'll be broke and we need to make sure that there is a framework for someone to take that in place. I'm sure the administrator will work through that and make sure the creditors are fairly treated to ensure that we hopefully get this business back up and going again.

QUESTION: Will you be providing any support to the farmers or the companies?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. There'll be no need. The Government wouldn't be stepping in, as I've just said. We won't be making a habit of us getting involved in every business that falls over in this country. Otherwise, we'd go broke. There's an administration process that now takes place. It's important that gets respected, that creditors get looked after, but the business may possibly be restructured and reopened and that's what should happen. Governments shouldn't interfere in market places. We should let the market undertake that. Otherwise, we don't grow, we don't expand, and we don't have the hunger to diversify and develop new things and go forward.

QUESTION: In Victoria there, why is it important for dairy processors to meet their code of conduct requirements by next week’s deadline…

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Because that's the law and no one's beyond the law. I've made it quite clear. I've had a number of processors write to me and say: maybe you might give us an exemption. Well, they're out of luck. We've put in place a law and I expect them to live up to it. So if they don't, I'll be expecting the ACCC go and square up with them.

Too easy.