Interview with Chris Smith, Sky News

11 January 2021

CHRIS SMITH: On Friday I told you about an agriculture audit which showed that because of a lack of foreign workers in the bush at the moment, we have wasted $39 million in unfarmed produce. Meanwhile, we hear today that both Victoria and New South Wales are in for a horrid fruit picking season as workers remain trapped behind closed borders and bureaucratic red tape. Agriculture Minister David Littleproud joins me right now. Happy new year to you David.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Happy new year mate, good to be with you.

CHRIS SMITH: Yeah, good to have you here. Just- can I ask you about COVID before we get onto the guts of what I want to talk to you about? What's your reaction to Mark McGowan's lesson that he's dished out today to New South Wales about how New South Wales should be fighting the virus instead of ticking along with it?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Oh look, just grow up. I mean, a whole lot of these premiers - our federation is failing this country at the moment because with petulant premiers just wanting to act like teenagers, trying to score cheap political points rather than lead. Federation was meant for us to work together, and though it was a line put in a map 120 years ago, and at the moment it's failing us, because it's parochial politics. McGowan's going to an election in March, he's using it as a political advantage to himself - and I get that, that's politics.

But this is above this; this is a crisis, a national crisis, where we've got to back one another. We're all Australian at the end of the day, and we have to back one another with the signs - we've learnt a lot since this started nearly 12 months ago. So, it's time for the premiers to grow up, they want to be big boys and girls now and have ownership of a lot of the public health and make all the big calls, but with that comes a responsibility of working together. And unless they're going to do that, they should bugger off, because effectively the rest of the country's had a gut full of this.

CHRIS SMITH: Spot on. Well described - you haven't held back there. And I- can I just add to that? That New South Wales and the country, the entire, you know, nation is lucky that New South Wales did try as much as it could, took so many risks to keep open because it is the engine room of the economy.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Exactly. And look, this is what we've said from the start: we don't need to have hard lockdowns of straight borders right across the line. What you need to do is back yourself localised lockdowns, and invariably, we're moving towards that as we're getting through this virus. Now we've got a localised lockdown of Greater Brisbane and a few of the shires around it at the moment - that's the right thing to do. The Northern Beaches of Sydney - that's the right thing to do. But back that state that has that localised lockdown; don't cut off the rest of the country.

And particularly for us in regional Australia, we're the forgotten Australians in all this; we're the second-class citizens, and everyone's forgotten about it. We've had city centric decision making processes predicated on everyone in the city. And that's great, but then they've put an arbitrary line on the map and said: this is what's going to happen to you all. Well, it doesn't fit for us because, you know, we haven't had the cases, we're not being impacted the way that city people have. Have the localised lockdown and keep the country moving.

As the- your last guest just said: we've got to learn to live with this. This is going to be around for some time. And instead of just reverting back to old type of having that parochial politics at the state border and looking after your own dung heap, we have to work together. And that's what National Cabinet was meant to do. But at the moment, federation is failing our country until these premiers grow up and learn to live and work with one another.

CHRIS SMITH: Okay. Let's talk about the drastic shortage in, well, foreign workers initially, and now workers in general when it comes to agricultural produce, and in particular, fruit picking grapes and apples in Victoria and fruit picking in New South Wales.

We've got two problems; we've got a bureaucratic barrier occurring in Victoria because they can't work out how to pay for a quarantine system that would allow workers in from overseas to do the job. And then you've got those who should be in New South Wales, back in Victoria, because the border's closed. How do you solve these two problems?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, this is where federation has particularly failed farmers and regional Australia more than anybody in all this. Back in March, we tried to put in an Ag workers code, where we could have the free movement of workers between one state and the other. But Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania told me to go and take a running jump. The other states signed up to it, but then they put all these restrictions on it. In August, we reopened the Pacific and Seasonal Programmes; there's 25,000 pre-vetted, work ready, men and women to come into this country. Because, unfortunately, when we market tested these jobs with Australians, they won't take them. So, we've had to bring them in, because farmers don't have the luxury of sitting around, wait for someone to turn up and pick it. When it's ripe, it has to get off the paddock onto your plate and that's why we've said to the states: you want to own public health, you want to own the quarantine responsibilities, then here it is. You come up with the protocols and we will stamp the visas.

In Victoria, the industry in Victoria themselves, lead the way with Aspen Health, an internationally recognised health organisation. The WHO, for what that's worth, but also other state agencies are also recognising these as the peak commercial health entity in Australia, had put a proposal to Victoria back in October to say they would do either hotel quarantine, on-farm quarantine or in fact, set up a tent city. They put this up in October, the Victorian Government has been sitting on this since October and will not make a decision, despite the fact that Greg Hunt himself, has made it very clear to the Victorian Health Minister, the Federal Government has no worries about this whatsoever. There is no impediment to us stamping the visas of those people. So, it is in your court. National Cabinet, Dan Andrews, big man beat his chest and said this was important, we need these workers in, we will take responsibility. He has been sitting on this since October and still will not make a decision. There is no red tape to this; the only people that are holding this up is Dan Andrews and his Government. All they have to do is listen to Aspen Health…

CHRIS SMITH: But, what if - and spend the money that will reap them the benefits of the industry on its feet.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, this is the thing is - so, those initial numbers that you saw, Chris, is very important to put into context. That's only with what's happened, particularly in Northern Australia. So, as you understand, as it gets warmer in the Northern part and then spreads itself down through the Southern states as we get further into summer. That really predicates, those numbers are predicated on what's happened in Northern Australia. So, Victoria and New South Wales and Tasmania's part is about to hit them, because we're getting warmer, they're coming into their season now. And particularly, when you've got state borders locked off, we can't workers across and then we can't get these seasonal pacific workers in. We are looking at a situation where these farmers are making commercial decisions now where they're ploughing crops in and they're actually letting crops fall - for no reason whatsoever, because there had been proposal from Aspen Medical and industry, put to Dan Andrews, in October in front of him. The Federal Government said: we've got no problems with it whatsoever, go your hardest, we're there to back you. They still will not make a decision and this isn't about pointing figures, this is about accountability. This is about federation; every tier of Government, standing up in a crisis and standing up to their responsibility and getting it solved. We have solved the problem and it's found 25,000. We've said to the states: now you let them in, you find the quarantine protocol and I can tell you, Aspen Medical is doing the on-farm auditing of those foreign workers that have come into Queensland. So, they're doing the on-farm- So Queensland trusts Aspen Medical. The Victorian Government in fact, is engaging them in other matters already. So, this isn't some sort of fly by the night company, that's just set up under COVID-19. This has been a long standing international company that is world-renowned to having the best credentials. Yet, the Victorian Government has been sitting on this proposal since October and will not make a decision. The Victorian farmers, but also every Australian consumer will pay for this. 15 to 25 per cent increase at the checkout, because the Victorian Government is sitting on their hands. This is where federation is just doing my head in, I can tell you. My old man used to be a state member of parliament and I used to believe in the states, but I think we need to have a mature conversations about the future of federation because it has been found wanting during COVID-19.

CHRIS SMITH: Couldn't agree more, couldn't agree more. David Littleproud, thank you very much for your time.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, mate.