Interview with Patricia Karvelas, RN Drive

26 May 2020

PATRICIA KARVELAS: David Littleproud is the Federal Minister for Agriculture and he joins us tonight. David Littleproud, welcome.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me PK.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: You just heard the WA Premier Mark McGowan there. Is that the correct timeline around this event?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Not as I have been advised. And some of the evidence that he is [indistinct] some that evidence that he's placing in some of those statements, I don't concur with them. The advice that I've been provided by the Department of Agriculture…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So what's different according to the Department of Agriculture, according to your briefing?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So, the, we, pre-arrival, the ship's captain and the vessel's master notified the Department of Agriculture that three of their deckhands were sick but did not have the symptoms of COVID-19. They did not have elevated temperatures, above 37 degrees, and in fact, they must make a declaration of that before they're allowed to come in. And in fact, we, subsequent, had our Department of Agriculture people check their logs. And from the report I got, the ship's master in fact has logged that no one had elevated temperatures above 37 degrees. So predicated on that. And I make this clear that people coming in on boats, there is normally a number of them that are ill, as you'd well expect coming on the high seas. So that's not unusual. So the protocol is to make a determination predicated off temperature and symptoms, and there was no one that I'm advised had had the symptoms nor the temperature. Therefore, the ship was allowed to continue on into port. And it wasn't until 22 May that the ship's master, through its agent, advised the Department of Agriculture that someone had presented themselves with a heightened temperature and symptoms and I'm advised that, as a result of that, the Department of Agriculture immediately sent an email to the Department of Health in Western Australia.

Now, I've asked the department, my department, to provide me with that email. I want to make sure that they did exactly what they said they did.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And have they provided that yet, Minister?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that was only done in the last hour or so and I want to get all the information here before we start raising anxiety in the community. It's important we get through this calmly and work through with fact and evidence. And that's what I'm getting the department. I'm taking them on face value, what they have provided to me only in the last hour…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: …or so. But I want to make sure that that can be documented and it's important they do. It's important also to make sure that we calmly talk through this and understand that not one of those crew could go down the galley into the streets of Fremantle. They are in isolation. That is the protocol that's been put in place. And if there is any protocol that has been missed here by the Department of Agriculture, I intend to hold the department to account and…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And ultimately, you're accountable, aren't you?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, as is the Westminster system. But I can't sit on every court and be in front of every protocol and make sure that everyone adheres to it. That's impractical. But what I have a responsibility to do is to make sure that that framework around our employees is administered and adhered to and that's what I'll attend to do, if there is a deficiency. But let's not jump to conclusions.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yeah. Yeah. Well, let's just go to the sickness because, no, we shouldn't be jumping, I absolutely agree with you. But let's go to this. You say that there were unwell people. We are living in a pandemic. Everyone is on high alert at the moment. People can't go to work with a runny nose. So, shouldn't that have actually raised alarm bells at that point?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's why there is a declaration to be made around the symptoms. And if they present themselves with those symptoms, then obviously, there's a different protocol that's taken place. But that's where the ship's master undertook, and from what we can see, logged it appropriately and has declared that they didn't have the symptoms nor the elevated temperature above 37 degrees for it to be COVID. Now, as the Premier quite rightly indicated, there are PPE worn by both the Port Authority officials and my own department when they go on board regardless. Because you've got to understand that we still have to keep things moving unless we want to shut down all imports and exports out of this country. We still need to get items into this country to keep us moving and items out. And so, obviously, we've taken up medical…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. So you agree though that the Premier, just on the facts, the Premier says the Department of Agriculture was notified by the ship that crew members were sick. You can't confirm that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: That wasn't, there weren't notified. The Department of Agriculture- this is an important distinction so I think we need to be clear on this. The advice that I've got the Department of Agriculture was not advised that anyone presented themselves with COVID-19 symptoms up until...

PATRICIA KARVELAS: No. But were they informed that people were sick?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: On the third, on 20 May, three were notified that they were ill but did not have the symptoms of COVID-19.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay. So that's the key bit for me, right? 20 May, you say they're informed that they're sick. We're living in a pandemic. Shouldn't they then action this up, say: okay, we're living in COVID-19, even if they're not identical symptoms, we better check this?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: And that is where the declaration comes from the ship's master. So, obviously, we aren't on the boat and the Port Authority is not on the boat prior to them coming in, and that's why we rely on the master of the vessel and the captain to notify us and to make those declarations. And that's what we predicate our decisions on.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Sure. But if the captain is saying they're sick, isn't that then incumbent on the department to take action and say: well, we need to treat this in the most serious way possible?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well that's why they made a declaration subsequent to say that there's no one with those heightened symptoms. So the ship's master has done all that he should have, he or she should have. The reality is, yes there were people that were ill from the voyage. I'm actually trying to ascertain whether the three that were ill back on the 20th are part of the six that are now...

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So you're saying you still don't know if those three were part of the six?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well obviously that's part of WA Health takeover. The Department of Agriculture are not health professionals, they are biosecurity professionals around trying to minimise risk to our environment and agricultural production systems. So why WA health would take over from that, so I'm trying to explain…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So with the benefit, yeah absolutely, look I appreciate that Minister, but with the benefit of hindsight should the Department of Agriculture have given this ship permission to dock when they knew there were sick people on board, sick, during a pandemic?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well those were the declarations around the symptoms of COVID rather than being sick. Otherwise no boat, there will be very few boats in this country that have come subsequent to COVID-19 that would have docked and we would have got goods on or off. And that's why you take precautions around PPE of employees that have to interact with these vessels, to take precautions. And that is the reality and the best medical advice that we've taken from the medical professionals in how to keep our economy going but minimise the risk and understand that there are, further beyond that is that no one was allowed off that boat…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yeah.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: …subsequent to docking.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Could your department have been misled by the ship's captain?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well again, this is where it's important that leaders don't jump to conclusions. It's important that we get the evidence and I think that all parties here, we all have a responsibility. But let's understand the protocols that are in place have been adhered to and if they have then I think we can take comfort. If there isn't, there's going to be learnings and there has to be responsibility. I'm not afraid to do that. But I think before you jump to that, particularly in these heightened in times of anxiety, we as leaders need to make sure we get the documentary evidence and calmly work through this together and to understand if there are gaps, if there was then we rectify it. If there isn't then we understand and review and understand is that anything that could be done better? Better learnings not only for this voyage but for others as well.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: When were you notified about this?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I was notified this morning as to the fact that this vessel had had crew members that were tested positive. And obviously we are also working through the animal health aspect of this too. It's important to understand that there are live sheep. And we're working, the department…

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Are they at risk of COVID? I mean we know there's been animal transfer before.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. Look that's one for the independent regulator in which to articulate. I don't have that in front of me at the moment. I do know that domestic animals, there has been reports but with sheep I can't answer that one. But that's where the independent regulator will make determinations and work with the exporter about the animal welfare and about the shipment.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: And Minister have you reached out to the WA Premier? Have you had a conversation?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No sadly, the first I heard of his anxiety and as he said disappointment, was through media reports and I have subsequently from that been working with my department to get answers and for them to demonstrate that they have met all the protocols.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So you're not satisfied as we go to air tonight that they have met all those protocols, you're still waiting on that information?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Verbally I am. They've assured me they have met the protocols but I want to make sure that I have documentary evidence of that.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Okay.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: And I think that's important because no one is beyond this. We need to be mature enough to look at ourselves and understand whether there's been deficiencies or whether there's learnings. So I think there's a way for them to demonstrate through these protocols and with written documentary evidence that they have adhered to those protocols. And as I said I intend to make sure that they are held to account and we will continue to work through that.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister, before I let you go there's a tweet going out from the LNP in Queensland it says: today the Prime Minister outlined our plan to restart our economy and get Australians back to work, meanwhile Palaszczuk still refuses to commit to a date or a plan to open Queensland's borders. And then there's an image of the Prime Minister, it says job maker. And then above Annastacia Palaszczuk's image on this official advertisement from your LNP, it says job taker. Does that just demonstrate that the national cabinet is no longer functional if the Liberal Party can make advertisements calling one of the key members of that national cabinet a job taker?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well I think you have to understand where we are in the political cycle in Queensland, we're very close to an election. And there is disappointment in Queensland and confusion more than anything. And I think that's more the aspect rather than disappointment it's just confusion around what is happening in Queensland with respect to this. And I think the Premier could clear this up overnight by simply coming out and identifying the aspects of the medical advice that the Chief Medical Officer in Queensland differs from the AHPPC which she is part of. So that Queenslanders can understand, what is the medical advice that the Premier is relying on for keeping our borders closed? What is that and why is that different? What part of that is different to the AHPPC? That's where the confusion is, is that they seem to be going off in a different tangent and because of the political cycle there is fear that she is creating unneeded anxiety in the community about having our borders locked down. Now there may be medical advice, but predicate that decision on the medical advice and show us clearly where the differentiation is between her Queensland advice and the AHPPC which is the Queensland Medical Officer is party to.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Minister thanks for joining us.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Anytime PK, thank you.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: That's the Federal Minister for Agriculture, David Littleproud.