Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

27 May 2020

KIERAN GILBERT: Agriculture Minister David Littleproud, thanks very much for your time. Let me start with the fundamental question: are you satisfied with the way that your biosecurity officers handled that export sheep ship in WA?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yes. Totally. I've gone back to the department and made sure that they can demonstrate that to me, not only verbally but through documentation. They have lived up to the protocols that are being outlined through National Cabinet and then we're expected to adhere to through health professionals at each individual state and in this case, in WA. And I'm proud to say they did and I'll stand by them. But if someone can produce evidence to the contrary, well, I'm prepared to go to work with them. But from what I've seen and what I understood at the circumstances, they have done everything to the T.

KIERAN GILBERT: And from what I've seen, this email that was sent from your officials to WA Health, that was sent mid-morning on Friday, 22 May. The ship didn't dock until 2.00 PM that day. So the state officials were aware of the situation.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we presume so. That's the protocol that they ask us to send through this email address, that's through the public health emergency organisation there that's been designed for us to send through these types of information, these declarations. This isn't information. This isn't an assessment by us. It's simply a declaration by the ship. It sent through to them and it was also CC'ed to a officer within the Department of Health within WA to also make sure that they got a copy. We've run through this with the last incident in WA and made sure that this has been an accepted practice. We then left it for them. And apart from the WA Health notifying us that there was health reasons for the ship not to dock, then there was no reasons for that ship not to dock. And therefore, when WA Health didn't notify of any need for us to take precautionary actions, the ship simply docked. And it was their responsibility also, I might add, to notify the port authorities because we don't make assessments whether someone's got COVID-19, we simply send the assessment, the information from the ship through to the department.

KIERAN GILBERT: And on that email that we refer to, that information that was sent to the department, it makes clear that some crew had elevated body temperatures. It passes on, as you said, the information that the ship master claimed that there wasn't, no concern for COVID-19. That's what the ship master suggested. But a health expert would have seen the elevated body temperature surely and said: well, maybe we're not going to take that assurance as 100 per cent.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's why we send it to them and that's why there's this protocol in place. We look after plants and animals. We don't look after human health. We don't diagnose. And that's why we're simply a conduit to send those declarations from the ship's master through to the health professionals for them to make that determination. This is the protocols in which that we've been asked to do that through. It's been tried and tested, not only in WA, but in other states as well. And we'll continue to work with the states. And if there's improvement that's needed and WA want to identify some improvements in that system and streamline it, we're happy to work with them.

This is about keeping Australians safe. This isn't about trying to point fingers. This is about leadership and making sure that we protect people. And it is important, Kieran, to also acknowledge no one left that boat. So they were in isolation despite the fact that it did take time for WA Health officials to get there. There were people isolated on that boat and they weren't running the streets of Fremantle.

KIERAN GILBERT: You say it's not about pointing fingers but that's what the Premier did yesterday. He had a good crack at the federal authorities. What motivated that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look, I've had a conversation with the Premier subsequent only in the last hour, and obviously, he feels as though, he was obviously passionate about the anxiety levels that have risen by the fact that there was more cases in WA because they've done a great job in what they've done over there, and he felt that it was taken out of context. I take him on value on that, on face value. But as I said to him, I'm here to work constructively. This is about leadership, not about politics. That's what the Australian public expect of their political leaders. And I get we have aberrations at time, but the WA Premier was quite clear to me that he wanted to work constructively with me into the future and my department.

KIERAN GILBERT: So did he recognise to you that if anyone dropped the ball, it was his own health department?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No and I didn't explore that. I'm not a health expert. I'm an agricultural expert with my department. I'll let him to explore those avenues with his own department and the protocols that they've upheld or haven't. I'm not going to make commentary on that. That's not constructive because I don't have remit over it and I don't have a line of sight on it. I'll leave the WA Premier and the Health Minister in WA to make those determinants.

KIERAN GILBERT: Fifty-six thousand sheep were on board that export vessel. What happens to the sheep now?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we're working through with the exporter, and in fact, the WA Government, about how they can be sent. They are healthy. They are well fed, well watered. They are in shelter in WA and had vet checks and I'm advised that they're in good condition. There are a number of opportunities now for the exporter to possibly send in a new crew after the boat has had a deep clean and then the boat sent on its way. We have a hard line of 1 June per the shutdown of the live sheep into the northern summer as of 1 June through the 14 September. But there is an exemption provision open to the independent regulator to make an exemption to the exporter and he'll have to work, he or she will have to work through with the independent regulator to ask for that, and I understand that those discussions are taking place as we speak.

Obviously, there's a known welfare issue here. There's a biosecurity issue here because those sheep can't go back into the paddock. So it's important that we work through this quickly, methodically and predicated off the best animal welfare advice and medical advice of the crew that would be on that boat.

KIERAN GILBERT: But it's possible they could still be export in if that deep clean happens and a new crew brought in.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: My understanding, that's the intent. That's the intent of the exporter. And from the conversations with the WA Government, that's the intent that we're trying to work through collectively and collaboratively now to achieve.

KIERAN GILBERT: Now, a couple of other issues. The state borders' matter. Premier Palaszczuk is very cautious on this. The Queensland situation though looks a bit uncertain at the moment. We've seen the death of the youngest Australian with COVID-19, the 30-year-old miner from Blackwater, so some questions potentially over community transmission. What's your view on the whole state borders issue given that development over the last 24 hours?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we've got to understand, as the Chief Medical Officer said, there will be outbreaks, there'll be small outbreaks as we loosen some of the conditions that have been placed on Australians. We've got to understand that. We've got a health system that can support it. And sadly and tragically there will be loss of life. As we've seen, this this young man has lost his life up in central Queensland. So, everyone has to be vigilant, but I think the confusion and frustration that's come in Queensland has been predicated by the confusing messages by Annastacia Palaszczuk. And I think she can clear it up pretty well straight away. All she has to do is come out and say where Jeannette Young differs from the APPHC, which is the body that she is also part of with the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, and clearly articulate what is the medical advice that differs from Queensland to the national body that she's part of. If she can articulate that, the Premier can articulate that, then I think Queenslanders will get an understanding that this has been predicated on medical advice, not on heightened anxiety in the community for political gain. And I think the Premier has a real opportunity to do that. She can do it with science and fact, and she only has to get the chief medical officer in Queensland to clearly enunciate the difference in medical opinion that they have between APPHC which she's part of. And I think that can be done quite quickly and easily and I think the Queensland public would accept that and understand that. But until then, the confusing messages that are coming out Annastacia Palaszczuk's mouth is adding to the frustration. There's people livelihoods that have been lost, and we just need some clear communication and leadership here from the Premier, and it seems to be going from one extreme to the other day after day. And I don't think Queensland really know whether they are Arthur or Mather at the moment.

KIERAN GILBERT: My colleague Andrew Clennell has some polling he's reporting today which has more than eight in 10 Queenslanders support the closure of the borders. So even though some industries are copping it, obviously tourism is a big one and a big part of that state, in terms of the broader numbers, it seems there is support for the Palaszczuk position there, Minister.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, it's because of the anxiety that's been pushed and predicated on a medical position. But that's why I'm saying it needs to be clarified regardless of whether you agree or don't agree. I've always said, and I think most Queensland research should be predicated on the best medical advice. When you have a differing of medical advice from Queensland's chief medical officer to that of the group that they are part of, we need to understand where that is, what that is and why that is. It's as simple as that, and I think that would that would remove the confusion and frustration from the element of the Queensland economy that's really struggling with this. But to not do that just adds to the frustration, and that poll doesn't surprise me in any way shape or form because there's been anxiety pushed into the community as a result of this.

KIERAN GILBERT: On the dairy code, the ACCC made recommendations to level the playing field between farmers and processors. As I understand it, the deadline was for 1 June for greater transparency in the process by processors. Is that happening?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: It definitely will. That's the law and I intend to make sure that it's enforced. We expect the processors to declare their opening prices. I've asked the ACCC to make sure they keep a watching eye over that and see what process is put out there to make sure that it is equitable. And it's also important to understand we've got a supermarket that's decided to enter into this, into this fray as well, and is going direct to farmers. And Coles have been very reluctant to help Australian dairy farmers, in fact, they're the cause of the downfall of a lot of dairy farmers by introducing dollar litre milk. They've been morally bankrupt at every level, Coles. And despite conversations with them and their CEO about trying to give dairy farmers a fair go for more regulatory form to get a level playing field, they've told me basically to go away. Well, I'm going to be watching very carefully to see what Coles does because I don't trust them as far as I can throw them. I think they've proven that they are morally bankrupt. They've destroyed this industry. So, their price will be very interesting to see.

But I also intend to continue to pursue some other measures and working with industry around that, in complementing the code of conduct and making sure that it's robust and the boundaries are strong enough so that no one breaks out. And you always find that, someone always tries to test the boundaries when you when you create a new regulation. Well, there may be some complementary measures we need to look at. I think also the grocery code of conduct needs to be brought into this, so that step up provisions between the dairy farmer and the supermarket have more meat, because that then is more reflective about cost of production to our dairy farmers that flows through to the supermarket. And consumers have no worries in paying what's fair to a dairy farmer. Dairy farmers aren't charities, they're just looking for a fair price and I think Australian consumers are prepared to pay for it if the evidence and the information's there for them to see.

KIERAN GILBERT: So, Coles, obviously you're not happy with them, but how are the rivals behaving on that front to provide a fair price?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, they know better than one another. The two big Australians and the big German have done three parts of bugger all, really. I mean, I had to have a stoush with them 12 months ago to break a dollar a litre milk, and I mean, that was like plucking hens' teeth. And the reality was they only came at the end because of just constant pressure, public pressure. So, these people aren't interested in a sustainable dairy industry. They're only interested in themselves. But what they'll find is the way that they are treating not only dairy but some of the other agricultural sector is they won't enjoy a good Australian produce, the best produce in the world, if they continue to treat farmers with the contempt they have over years and continue to do so now.

KIERAN GILBERT: Agricultural Minister David Littleproud joining me from Warwick.