Interview with Peter Stefanovic, Sky News

18 January 2021

PETER STEFANOVIC: Joining me live now is Agricultural Minister, David Littleproud. David, good to see you, thanks for joining us this morning. So, the Premier of Victoria is moving ahead with opening up borders to international students. You believe he's ignoring seasonal workers, is that still the case?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well it is. He's had a plan from industry and Aspen Medical for over six months now where they've provided him the opportunity, a program where they'd even do the hotel quarantine for him, because he couldn't handle it so well. They'd either do that or create a tent city whereby it would be isolated and cut off from the rest of the community, but being able to go out and work on farms - and even being on farm themselves. But the Victorian Government has accelerated to bring in tennis players but forgotten about farmers. And we've got the Ag Minister in Victoria saying that they're waiting on the Commonwealth to do something about it. 

Well I'm sorry, Greg Hunt has in fact personally advised the Victorian Health Minister that there is no impediment from the Federal Government, so he just needs to come forward and tell us what it is, or get out of the way and approve this. We are seeing billions of dollars' worth of produce in Victoria that will simply go to rot.

PETER STEFANOVIC: So that's the point there too, I was going to ask you about that. So Victoria is apparently waiting for the Commonwealth to tell the states what the public health risks Pacific countries posed to inform quarantine requirements for seasonal workers. So, so that's not a breakdown in communication there?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, it's nonsense because Greg Hunt himself has advised the Victorian Health Minister that what Aspen Medical and industry have put forward is totally acceptable. And we will continue to stamp the visas of the 25,000 pre-vetted, work ready men and women that we found across 10 Pacific nations. There is no impediment whatsoever. This is simply a stalling tactic. And for Ed Husic to come in and try and give them cover and say we're playing politics, well you know, what we're doing is holding them to account, and I'm sorry, that's what we should do. They want to own responsibility of some of this, but they've got to live up to that responsibility. And the Victorian Government has been found wanting for six months. We've made it clear to them there is no impediment from the Federal Government - we will stamp those people's visas. Aspen Medical has provided you with a very safe program that would protect the Victorian public, but also allow produce to be able to be picked, and that's been sitting on your table for six months. The Federal Government has provided no impediment to that, we've made it clear to the Victorian Health Minister. In fact, I've tried to even have a meeting, a urgent meeting with them, and we're still waiting for them to come back with this. So the Ag Minister is lying. The Victorian Government, sadly, has had stooped to a new low whereby not wanting to make a decision, they're simply lying. Why don't just come and say we don't like or we don't want to do it? Rather than just keeping people on the hook like this?

PETER STEFANOVIC: The government of Vanuatu says that it's offered thousands of workers to the state of Victoria, but it's received very little interest - not just from the state government, but from the Commonwealth government as well. Why is that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. They're part of the Pacific and Seasonal Worker Program. What they wanted to do was to do the isolation, the 14-day isolation in Vanuatu. Health officials in Australia, whether they be state or Commonwealth, won't accept that. Obviously, we need to make sure that the health systems in each one of these countries in and around making different protocols in which our health officials here would accept, we need to have faith in that. So that is the only impediment and everyone is in agreement with that. 

But what we have had is a long lead in time whereby those workers could come, and could have been already been here in isolation, in Australia's standard isolation, that would have given confidence to our health officials and our communities. Because you've got to understand, a lot of these regional communities where these workers are going haven't seen a COVID case, and it's important we also provide them confidence as well.

PETER STEFANOVIC: Given the financial incentives for, not just international students, but people would argue the Australian Open as well, and in particular the tennis players that have come from overseas - why shouldn't they be prioritised? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Sorry? I just cut out, sorry, Peter.

PETER STEFANOVIC: Well I'm just asking, why shouldn't international students and the tennis players taking part in the Australian Open be prioritised, given the financial incentives to the state of Victoria and to the economy?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I'm not, I'm not saying that they shouldn't be incentivised, but when you've had a plan sitting in your desk for six months and you ignored it shows-

PETER STEFANOVIC: Prioritised. I meant, prioritised.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, well that should be prioritised. You're talking billions of dollars' worth of product to the Victorian economy that's been sitting there. Farmers have to make commercial decisions, not exactly when it's ready and ripe - they need to make those commercial decisions before the crop becomes ripe and they haven't been afforded that respect by the Victorian Government. 

Now, I don't I don't begrudge them by wanting to bring in international students or tennis players, but when this- you've had a plan sitting in your table for six months and you've done nothing about it, and you've got to understand farmers need to make commercial decisions in the lead up to picking that crop, that you have a responsibility to your, to your people - where they're living in regional Victoria - they're just as precious as someone living in Melbourne. 

And this is where it seems to be a two state system down in Victoria. And unfortunately, we've got city centric state governments that are making decisions predicated on what's popular and right for the city, parts of our country and for getting regional Australia. We're the forgotten Australians out here, and it’s time that state governments lived up to their responsibility of governing for all Australians.

PETER STEFANOVIC: Just on the tennis, what do you make of the tennis players who are complaining about conditions?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Harden up. I mean, as I understand it, to get through the first round there's 100 grand on offer to any player that does that - that's not a bad payday in anyone's, in anyone's mind. So look, I think there might be a few prima-donnas amongst them, if they want to go and exercise their right to make money - which I fully respect - there are, under this pandemic, restrictions that we all have a responsibility to respect and be part of because we're part of a global community. So I think they're being a bit precious and they should just get on with the job.

PETER STEFANOVIC: Do you think the thousands of people who are wanting to return home to Victoria have a right to be miffed at the moment, given the treatment that some tennis players are receiving?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think obviously we brought in thousands and we're working with the states on lifting the caps. And in fact, this Aspen Medical - and this is the important aspect to this Aspen Medical proposal for agriculture, because we're talking about 25,000 that could come in - It's in addition to the caps, so it wouldn't actually put any strain at the back of the queue because Aspen Medical would be able to isolate in facilities that are of a high enough standard to be able to provide that comfort. 

So this is where we're trying to work with the states to lift the caps. And I get their reluctance to, to jump in boots and all. Victoria's found from bitter experience that if you don't have the right protocol arrangements then we can see an outbreak. So that's why it's important that we continue to work with them about how we achieve that. And we're trying to work through with all those Australians that want to come home as quickly as we possibly can, understanding the circumstances the public health responsibility have - not just to them but to the Australians that are here in Australia at the moment. We have a responsibility to them to make sure we continue to keep them safe as well.

PETER STEFANOVIC: And just finally, Tropical Cyclone Kimi, looks like it's going to make landfall probably sometime this evening, Is- are all the defences in place, Minister? Is everything as it should be up there? What concerns do you have?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah well obviously, this is their first rodeo up there, but I've got to say the Queensland officials have done an exemplary job in preparing. We planned for this back in July, August between states and Emergency Management Australia to make sure that we can have a coordinated approach. I'm confident that they've got everything in place. The big, the big risk for us, not only is the destructive winds, but everything saturated up there at the moment - so it's important we understand that there will be flooding. And I just say to everybody, it's not just the responsibility of governments to be prepared, they also have a personal responsibility - not just to themselves, but to their family and particularly those emergency service personnel who are putting their lives on the line for them. So I just say, please be prepared, not just for the destructive winds but for the subsequent flooding. And we just need to make sure you listen and hear- adhere to what you have been asked to do.

PETER STEFANOVIC: All right. David Littleproud, thanks for your time, as always. Talk to you soon.