Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

23 June 2020

KIERAN GILBERT: Earlier as I mentioned, I spoke to the Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management Minister, David Littleproud. I started by asking him about new funding for primary producers like forestry and wine makers, hard hit by not just the COVID crisis but the bushfires before that.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah Kieran, this is another down payment on the disastrous fires of this summer, understanding we want a locally led recovery. Particularly for the forest industry, there's $51 million. $41 million of that is to go into rebuilding infrastructure at sawmills like this, to invest in new technology to make the industry more sustainable, more efficient. There's $10 million to be able to store logs for storage capacity. There's a lot of logs out there that are partially burnt but can still be used. And so we need to get them out of the field and into storage areas like this that they can be used not just wasted. Then when we move to the apple industry, $120,000 per hectare for those apple farmers to rebuild, replant, either put netting in, irrigation, new infrastructure. You've got to understand it's going to be four or five years before they even start to get a cash flow in that industry. And then the wine industry, those wineries that were hit and damaged, they got $75,000 in repair grants. We're now saying to those that not necessarily got hit by the fires but by the smoke, there's $10,000 grants there available for them to prune the trees and take those smoke tainted grapes away and to remove them.

So we're acknowledging that this is a complex problem that we've got to solve and there's many facets and that's why we've worked through from the immediate relief phase, now to the recovery and investing in the jobs and that's- today we'll be investing in the 70 jobs that are here but they'll be creating new jobs for what we're announcing as well.

KIERAN GILBERT: Minister, are a lot of these producers benefiting from separate government efforts, measures to keep exports alive during the COVID crisis?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah look this Eden mill itself exports to Japan and Malaysia and in fact, had its first boat go only in the last couple of weeks. So they've kept business as usual despite all the trauma that they've gone through. The tenacity and resilience of this mill in particular to be able to keep going, has kept the economy going. You know, this community has been hit by drought, fires and COVID-19. They've had a triple intersection of disaster yet they're still standing up, still having a crack. And this small investment that they have to match will be very important not so much as just in the here and now, but for the future as well. And it's an investment in this community as well as the other mills right across the country. It's not just New South Wales but Victoria and South Australia will also benefit from it as well as Queensland.

KIERAN GILBERT: On the wine industry, obviously the current vintage has been smoke tainted. Is there a hope there that it will bounce back immediately for the next vintage post COVID as well?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, it's a really challenging area the wineries. It's not just the smoke taking a loss of this vintage but because of COVID-19, a lot of these have cellar doors these wineries, and because of the restrictions people haven't been visiting them and they haven't been able to sell previous year's vintages at all as well. So it's very complex and that's why we've tried to be as granular as we can in supporting every part of this and complement it with the JobKeeper payments, those small business grants to go on top of that. And the best thing any Australian can do is to get around the country and go and have a few glasses of wine at one of our local wineries because they need the help. There's plenty of vintage there from last year and there'll be plenty going into the future. We're just going to have to wait for 2021 and I'm sure after what we've gone through we'll be bigger and better than last year.

KIERAN GILBERT: On the bushfire recovery, has the clean-up deadline been pushed back beyond the original commitment of having it done by 30 June and if so why is that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well we obviously work with the states. The states run this program. New South Wales was saying that they would finish by 30 June, they are now saying they'll be finished by 31 July. There's a couple reasons for that. One is the complexity of the clean-up. Some of these buildings have asbestos that has to be removed and then placed somewhere safe and some of these communities are isolated and remote.

And the second stage around this and the reason around this that I'm advised by the New South Wales Government is that some people haven't come forward yet and they've only come forward in recent weeks. They've been going through trauma and everyone processes that trauma in different ways. So we'll keep the program open with the New South Wales Government as well as Victoria. Victoria aren't saying they'll be completed until the end of August. South Australia proudly, they've cleaned up all the houses that have been identified with them and I thank them for that.

We're simply cutting the cheque and we're paying our half and we just hope that the contractors and each of the states will continue to get on with it. And we are actually continuing to monitor this, as well as all the other programs that the states are running for us. We want to make sure there's full transparency through the National Bushfire Recovery Agency. We're putting all the data up to make sure that it's open and transparent. We said we'd only spend 500 million of the 2 billion by 30 June. We're going to have a billion of that out the door and into people's pockets by 30 June the way we're standing at the moment. And that's because of the work Andrew Colvin has been able to work with the States in putting the pressure on them to get these programs rolled out to the people who need them most.

KIERAN GILBERT: Has the bushfire recovery been too slow given the Salvos are saying that some victims are still living in their cars and caravans?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, there shouldn't be and we ask our state colleagues to make sure that also emergency housing that they look after is provided where required. And I say to people from my experience, if you come forward and let the officials know, you will be provided with support. I know I've had personal interaction with John Barilaro on a number of people who I've identified and he's been able to fix immediately. So there is no need for it. People need to simply come forward either through their individual states or through the National Bushfire Recovery Agency. They're there to help. No one will get left behind in this and you've just got to understand everyone grieves differently and they ask for help at different stages. But it is there and I have to reassure everybody, the states are doing their job and they only have to be told if someone has fallen through the cracks and they'll fix it.

KIERAN GILBERT: Finally, on the issue of state borders is it frustrating that this spike in Victoria has been the catalyst for some of the states like WA and Queensland to put a pause on the reopening of their borders?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well it is. And you know what, I think the Victorian officials are handling this the way they should through the best medical advice. They are simply now looking to isolate those suburbs that are most impacted. They now have better tracing; we've been able to do it quicker. And I just say to Queensland and all the other states, just give us the medical reason why you differ from the national committee that your chief medical officers are part of. I just fear, particularly in my home state of Queensland, is that this is just the politicisation of the Chief Medical Officer, Jeannette Young, rather than trying to work through with best medical advice. This is just causing anxiety in the community. We cannot continue to lock ourselves down. We have created a health system that can support it. We are taking the medical advice of a national committee that all the medical officers from around the country are part of. They are all saying the borders should be open. But yet when you have states isolate themselves the way they have without reason, then that causes confusion and frustration. And the premier in each of these states could simply come out and give us the difference in medical opinion that they have to that of the National Committee of Medical Chief Officers.