Monday, 30 March 2020

Interview with Tom Connell, Sky News

Topics: Agriculture, drought, food security and bushfires

TOM CONNELL: My first guest on the program today, joining me live, Deputy Nationals Leader David Littleproud via Skype, of course. Also, the Agriculture Minister. Thanks very much for your time today, Minister. We're bracing ourselves tonight to hear about perhaps more restrictions around workers. Can you confirm if agricultural workers, and indeed workers right through the food supply chain, are going to be deemed essential as we move through the gears of these restricted elements of people being able to leave their homes?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look, agriculture is definitely essential. We all need to eat no matter our isolation. The reality is our farmers have calmly and methodically been going about their business of continuing to produce the best food and fibre in the world and those supply chains, not just at the farm gate but all the way through, to get it to the supermarket have to remain open, in a sensible way and one that looks after the health needs of every Australian in terms of social distancing. And obviously we're working through with state governments to ensure that that continues, but we can take great comfort and pride in the fact that we have the most secure food security in the world.

We're a nation of 25 million people. We produce enough food for 75 million. So we're not going to run out. And in fact, our farmers will continue to do that in a safe environment, but they will need services to support them. And then obviously we'll need to continue to make sure there's continuity of supply at the supermarket, which is all the way through so that Australians can also continue to enjoy that food when they need it.

TOM CONNELL: So the workers have been deemed essential, but what about those that fall ill? They'll be isolating, obviously. To what extent could we face a real issue there? What's the backup plan for these workers, anything from picking the fruit and veg, right down the way to being able to transport it - do we have a backup workforce?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look, obviously at the moment, agriculture lies heavily on seasonal workers, on Pacific island workers, and also holidaymakers. We're working through what that contingency looks like. There's a lot of Australians that have lost their jobs. But some of those, it is impractical for them to travel thousands of kilometres to Northern Australia to continue to pick fruit. So we've got to work through and get that balance right. We also got to understand there's around 140,000, 150,000 between those three programs of workers here in the country at the moment. And while there's a lot of Australians without jobs at the moment, what will happen is once we flatten the curve and we come out at the other end, those Australians will return to their normal work.

And then agriculture, particularly as we get into the summer months, will- and possibly have a shortage too. There's a real balancing act that we've got to try and get our policy settings right here to protect us, not only in a short term but also in that medium term and then more broadly through the supply chain. Now I've got to say that industry has been very forward-leaning on this. You look at the processing sector. We've worked with FSANZ - which sets the food standards in this country and New Zealand - to be able to have a process in place, a contingency process. If someone on a processing floor falls ill of COVID-19, how do we keep the continuity of those abattoirs and processing plants going?

And there is a process because they've forward-leaned into this and made sure that they have safety procedures already in place in a lot of these processing plants where social isolation means that those that have been impacted and those few that are around them will be isolated out, but we will be able to move another team in. So continuity of supply is secure because of the way that governments and industries have worked together, and agriculture has led the way on that. And I think Australians will be able to take great comfort in not rushing to supermarkets. It will continue to be stocked, and in fact we're oversupply, and we'll still be exporting a lot of our produce so farmers can continue to make the money they deserve.

TOM CONNELL: Well that, yeah, it's an important message to keep getting out there. Presumably this sort of hoarding has to stop at one stage. I mean, the strange part about all of this is whilst everyone's going to supermarkets, as a country presumably we're still eating the same amount of food, Minister. So, when you say oversupplying, there's going to be a point at which the demand's presumably going to drop off. I mean, even if people aren't going to restaurants, we're still having the same amount of calories, right? It's a bit strange. It still seems to be these short-term shortages.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: There is, and because of the panic of a minority in this country that really just need to take a cold shower, have a lie down and understand the only pressure that's been put on our supply chains are by them. If they calmly go about going to the shops as they normally would, it'd be okay. And in fact, we are still exporting, and that's the exciting thing. We can showcase Australian agriculture on the world stage as not only being the best food and fibre in the world, but being one of the most reliable suppliers. Our farmers in regional Australia will grow and rebound out of this quicker than anyone.

TOM CONNELL: And help some of our neighbours that might well be struggling a lot in the future months. Just a couple of other issues. The wage subsidy plan we believe is coming. People have already been laid off, though. What do you say to people for whom this wage subsidy plan has come too late? Why wasn't it announced a couple of weeks ago?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look, obviously, the Prime Minister and Treasurer will make these announcements, and I think we should wait for the detail within that announcement before we start to speculate. I think it's important that we get the detail before commentary commences. I know that we've been working closely with industry and unions about how we continue to support those workers that have been dislocated from this in a calm, methodical way. Australia is best placed to handle this than most nations because of the economic stewardship of this nation's economy by the Government, but working collaboratively with all sides of the aisle, and unions, and that's an important thing.

So we'll get the balance right. I think we just need to wait for the detail and allow the fullness of that detail to be explored and to be worked through.

TOM CONNELL: Okay. We have had one announcement already of course around Newstart. The DOLE payment has doubled as a result of this COVID-19 crisis. The Government has described that as temporary. Obviously, once a vaccination, or whatever it might be happens, and this crisis is over, the financial crisis, the financial aspect doesn't end on that very day. It's going to be hard to remove this doubling, isn't it, given you'll have still a lot of families relying on this. The doubling of the payment, if you suddenly halve that again, they're going to be in financial dire straits, aren't they?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's why we'll continue to be agile, as we have with the fires and the drought. We continue to respond to the circumstances as they present themselves, and that's what a good government should do. We make decisions predicated on the best information we have at the time. But as circumstances like this evolve, you've got to be able to be agile enough to evolve with it. Obviously, we'd like to see the economy rebound quickly but we've got to be practical and understand that may not happen. And we've shown our agility in the past and we'll do it again, whether it be with that payment but- or any others. And as we've seen in the past, that payment, in its former form, two-thirds of those Australians that were on that payment were effectively off it within 12 months. It's a transition payment to employment. And we understand that there'll be a longer transition in the recovery of this, depending on how long it goes for. But we all play a role in that. And we've got to understand, every Australian. Governments can't do it all. We've all got a responsibility to the health professionals …

TOM CONNELL: No, no. I understand that this transition-

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: … because the more that we listen to them, the quicker we'll recover.

TOM CONNELL: This transition could be a really long one, particularly if you look at the cohort, say 55 to 64, they're going to struggle particularly to find work if they've been pushed out of work. Trying to get back into the workforce is always hard then. Are you saying this doubling of that payment, while we still have a huge number of Australians on it, that it wouldn't suddenly be halved again? That if there's a big cohort, they should take some confidence that it's not going to suddenly be halved while so many rely on it?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think it's too early to speculate, Tom. I think it's wise to continue to work through these circumstances as they present themselves and it evolves. This is something we've never experienced before, and I don't think it's wise for any government to lock itself into any policy formulation without understanding the circumstances as they evolve. But we simply-

TOM CONNELL: [Indistinct] there's a huge cohort. If we're talking, you know, a million or two Australians on this payment, suddenly halving that would be another economic shock. You'd be pretty reticent to do that.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well again, you'd be speculating on the numbers and it's unwise to do that until we're faced with those circumstances. But what we can do is, because of the economic stewardship of this Government, is be able to put us in a position to make those decisions and to be able to act on them in a responsible way that doesn't jeopardise the long-term viability and economic recovery of this nation.

TOM CONNELL: David Littleproud, good to know that the food source has been shored up. We appreciate your time today. Thank you.