Transcript iv Mornings on ABC Radio Darwin

ADAM STEER: David Littleproud is the Minister for North Australia. Welcome back to the studios here again at ABC Radio Darwin. Minister, the Federal Government has been very critical of Labor Premiers who aren’t going to follow the national plan. What do you make of Lia Finocchiaro’s position here in the Northern Territory?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, you’ve got to understand this is Federation playing out. This is what our Constitution has been set up to do. They are sovereign governments. They are their own right. What the Prime Minister has tried to do through a National Cabinet mechanism is to get some consistency across the states, because lines were put on a map 120‑plus years ago; modern Australia has moved past that and what he’s tried to do bring them together and try to get some consistency. And being a Queenslander, coming across the border, it’s different here as what it is to go to Western Australia – well, you can’t get into Western Australia – as it is to South Australia. So, we have to understand at some point we’re going to have to live with this. This living under the doona forever is going to end, and at some point, we’re going to have to have the courage and conviction to do that.

What the primary basis of every government, state and federal and territory, is to make sure that our health system can support any cases of COVID while also supporting those who might come off their bike and break an arm; they need a bed in a hospital as well. So, we’re going to have to get to a basis whereby the health system – those who are vaccinated – we’ve got enough across the country to maintain that capacity in our health system. So, what the Prime Minister has tried to do is say, “Let’s come together.” Now, the challenge we’ve got is this thing called the Constitution and it’s the right of every state and territory; they’re sovereign governments and they get to make that call and, unfortunately, it doesn’t leave the rest of the nation in a good spot – 

ADAM STEER: The Prime Minister made a big song and dance about this. “This is the road map. This is the road map. This is how we’re getting out of it.” It is being ignored by the states. Where does this leave the Prime Minister? Emasculated, one would even suggest?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I think people are getting a real education on what Federation means. That we are a Federation of states that have sovereign rights that actually override in many respects some of the rights and powers of the Federal Government. That’s what our forefathers put in place with the Constitution. So, I think people probably are getting the real education that they’ve lost the understanding of what state and federal and local governments do. They’re getting a real education right now. Now, what the Prime Minister has said and what all these premiers have said is, “We want national leadership.” Well, every time the Prime Minister does that through the National Cabinet mechanism and they all sign up. They walk into the room. They sign up. The Prime Minister says, “Yep, we’re with ya.” Then he goes out, he looks around, left and right, they’ve run off in all different directions, and that’s not what the Australian people want. They’ve had a gutful of this. They actually just want us all to come together. We’re going to have to have a crack at this and get out from under the doona and get out and get back to living. I know in the Territory and in Queensland we haven’t had as bad a cases of lockdowns as what other states have, but, you know, ultimately, we’re all Australians and we’re going to have to come together and we’re going to have the courage and conviction in one another to trust each other to come out of this; otherwise, this is going to be what life is going to be what life looks look like for perpetuity, and I don’t think anyone wants that.

ADAM STEER: Yeah, but us here in the Northern Territory, do we really want to come out from under the doona? We’ve done quite well ourselves. We don’t have those outbreaks elsewhere, and part of that, surely, is because of the snap lockdowns that we’ve put in place?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think you’ll find at some point, such is the veracity of Delta, that there will be Delta cases, and we see that – that will come in Queensland such is the fact that we are intertwined, particularly on the east coast. Now, if the Northern Territory decides they don’t want to open up to the rest of the country, that will put a constrain on your economy as well, because ultimately someone is going to have to pay the bill at some point. And to pay the bill you’ve got to be able to operate and you’ve got to be able to function within an entire economy. When you think about the scale of the Territory, 250,000‑odd Australians are up here, they need to be intertwined with the rest of the economy and at some point, we’re going to have to take that bold step. The first step is to get jabs in arms. Once that’s done, then we need everyone to come together and understand we’re going to have to live with this thing, rather than run away from it.

ADAM STEER: Well, what did you make of the Chief Minister’s road map he announced yesterday? Are you in support of it?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I haven’t seen it in detail, so I’m sorry; I haven’t gone over all the detail. I’ve been in meetings across Darwin last night and even in this morning, so I’m not privy to all of the detail he’s made public, but what I’m saying is the important piece of this is that the Prime Minister has put a platform through the National Cabinet to try to get consistency, and I think it’s important, no matter their political persuasion, whether they’re coalition or Labor, Chief Ministers and Premiers, they really need to stick to the plan. I think that gives the entire country the confidence that our political leaders are working together. And this is the thing where Federation has been tested, and I think it’s fraying. And no matter the efforts of the Prime Minister in trying to bring us together and the constraints of Federation, he has tried his guts out to try and make sure that they all work together, and that’s the frustrating thing. And the fact that he doesn’t throw his hands up, but he keeps going back, I think shows a level of tenacity that probably others would have thrown the towel in before.

JO LAVERTY: David Littleproud is the Minister for North Australia. You’re not quite across the details, and they were only just announced yesterday. Will you get a chance to discuss them in person with the Chief Minister when you’re here in Darwin?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, unfortunately, the Chief Minister has cancelled the meeting that we were meant to have this afternoon. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of the reason why, but that’s his prerogative.

JO LAVERTY: Did he cancel without giving you a reason?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that’s his prerogative. And, unfortunately, he cancelled my last meeting that I was here, but I’m very keen to catch up with him and to make sure that he understand that this Northern Australia development, and particularly here in the Northern Territory where – if you can look at what can happen in Northern Australia I think probably the territory will lead the way in what can be done because it’s been underdeveloped, not only its resources, but also in terms of the infrastructure and capacity that can be built here. So, I think it’s imperative that we understand the exponential growth. I’m a Queenslander, proud Queenslander, and, see, some of my electorate is in Northern Australia in terms of the definition, I really think the Territory is where the grunt work will come from. It can be the engine room of how we get that exponential growth so – 

JO LAVERTY: Will you get to meet with the Deputy Chief Minister?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: At this stage, I’m pencilled to meet with her at 4 pm and I’m hoping that that meeting – she also cancelled last time, so it’s important that we do work together, and so as state and territory governments can work with Federal Government. This is about leaving legacies, and those who have come before that have laid the foundation stones in the Territory, that have come to this frontier and developed it, had the courage to do that; now it’s time for us to take it to the next level. That’s why it’s important that we work together and make sure that every tier of Government is putting the shoulder to the wheel.

JO LAVERTY: The biggest challenge that we have not only in North Australia and Australia, but the world is coronavirus, so I’ll just stick with that for a moment longer. You have said that it is important that we get the health system right, that they have the support that they need, but here in the Northern Territory at the Royal Darwin Hospital, we’ve been at a code yellow, which means at capacity; elective surgeries are being cancelled, and that’s without coronavirus coming to town. That’s the third time this year that a code yellow has been called so far. The President of the Australian Medical Association of the Northern Territory Dr Robert Parker has written to the Federal Government asking for more financial support to make sure that we have the resources that we need. Have you received that letter?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I haven’t seen it but let me just say: there’s this thing called GST and we cut that every year to the states and territories, and what they get to do is to set their priorities about how they spend it. Now, if the health system in the Northern Territory is in disarray, that is because of the management of the Northern Territory Government, not because of the Federal Government. They get a lot of money and, in fact, in the Territory, you get in addition to GST, because of your population, in fact, we top that up significantly. So, it’s a very easy business model for states and territories to turn and around say and say, “Look at Canberra and we’ll put the card in the ATM, and we’ll get more money.”

It also goes to the mismanagement of health systems, and as a primary source of Government your primary responsibility is to keep your people safe, and health systems go to the heart of that. And so, to say that the money isn’t flowing is not correct and to say that you just need more money, well, more money doesn’t always solve the problem. Because if you’re not managing it properly to start with, then we’re just going to throw money at a problem that can’t be fixed because of the management. So, we had this in Queensland – 

JO LAVERTY: The way that the GST is distributed to states and territories is based on addresses, isn’t it, those number of people who are actually living in the state or territory?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah.

JO LAVERTY: That is right. So, if –

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: But you’ve got to understand we top up the Northern Territory. So, GST is one portion, but because of your arrangements with the Federal Government, there is additional funding arrangements that are made into the billions of dollars and, in fact, those discussions, as I understand, have been going on and continue to go on every year. GST is one component of it, but because on the Territory and its population is smaller than the other states, then we stop that up with additional payments. So, you are getting, in fact, more than what the GST component is. The GST is just one component. So just to say it’s just GST and the number of people here is only one small component of the funding model that has been struck with the Territory Government. So, there is significant – billions of dollars going into the Territory.

JO LAVERTY: Is it fair to have those models in place when yes, we have a smaller population and that’s why we get the extra top‑up, but that smaller population is so much more vulnerable than other states and territories in Australia? Wouldn’t that warrant extra money, just extra money to make sure our health systems are robust like you said?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: That’s why you get it. That’s why you get the extra money – because we see the vulnerabilities of the communities here, but it comes back to management. And this is the problem. As a country we just go, “We’ll fix the problem with more money.” Well, no, you’ve got to fix the problem of how you manage it first. Otherwise, this is Australian taxpayers’ money. This is not just putting the card in the ATM, and it flits out. Somebody’s got to pay for this. This is the problem. We’ve just had a business model where it’s just too easy to say, “I need more money.” Well, we’re happy to give more money but prove you can manage it, because, otherwise, we’re taking it off something else. We’re taking it off the ABC. We’re taking it off – somebody’s got to pay for it. This is important to understand: money doesn’t just solve the problem all the time. The root cause is mismanagement.

JO LAVERTY: Sometimes it does, for example, the tourism bonus that you gave; how much was that again; $1.2 billion to airlines and tourism? So, they get a lot of money as well.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Because they were managing it properly. So, again, I mean, you’ve got to make sure before you hand someone money, Australian taxpayers’ money, you’ve got to be able to demonstrate that they can use it wisely and properly, and if you have got a Government that hasn’t been able to do that, well, you’ve got to go to the root cause and say, “Well, you need to fix how you’re managing this. This isn’t a free ride. You don’t have the right it to Australian taxpayers’ money unless you’re using it properly and if you can’t use it properly, then there should be some conditions on how you use it.” But we are giving extra money.

JO LAVERTY: Unless it’s JobKeeper.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, with respect, JobKeeper didn’t go to businesses. It went to individuals. JobKeeper paid people’s wages. So, everyone thinks  that it did go to companies. It went to companies, but they had to pay it to their employees. It kept them in employment.

ADAM STEER: Are you going to be asking for that JobKeeper money back from those businesses that made a lot of money during the first lockdown in the JobKeeper payment period?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Again, we haven’t gone down that track because it was about keeping the economy going. It was a stimulus. And it didn’t go to the companies. It went to the workers. It was about keeping them connected to their business so that when you come out of lockdown the economy moves quicker. And the fact that we now have less people in the unemployment line after the first lot of these lockdowns than what we did before COVID says that it works. In fact, I think David Richardson came out and put an editorial in the AFR this week saying it’s probably one of the best policy outcomes that we’ve seen in our nation’s history.

ADAM STEER: But I think the argument, and you know there will be a lot of people yelling at the radio at the moment, because we do know reports of major companies paying large dividends to their shareholders and those companies received millions and millions of dollars in JobKeeper. How about getting some of that money back from those companies so that you can pay for extra ICU beds? We only have 20 ICU beds in the Northern Territory.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we do get it back through taxes or portions of it through taxes, with respect. But again, this was not going to the companies; it was going to the employees. The companies were the conduit to put that in. Some of those companies have shown a social licence better than others and have returned some of that money. But in terms of what it has done for the economy more broadly, it has meant that we are in better position than any other country in the world. And when you have economists looking at it in a broader sense of what it achieved, I think we should be proud of the fact that we kept this country going. And we can still afford to have ICU beds and there’s no reason why we won’t have more, but again it comes back to management of the health system.

ADAM STEER: Okay, well, let’s move on to some of the reasons you’ve been here in the Northern Territory. The Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility loan – this is a loan system. You announced this week a $13.5 million loan for a new food storage facility in Alice Springs. Food security has been a major issue in the Northern Territory for a long time. Access to cheap fresh vegetables in remote communities has been a major issue for a very long time. We’ve covered it extensively. Never once has it been raised by experts on ABC Radio Darwin that a new big fridge in Alice Springs is the answer. Why was that money provided?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, it goes to creating supply and, you know, I’m not an economist, but Year 10 business studies at high school, Chinchilla High, they taught me about demand and supply; and if you increase the supply, then obviously that puts downward pressure on prices. So, what you’ve got to do you’ve got to understand the remoteness is about making sure we can have as much supply there as possible to be a hub to get to these communities. That’s not going to be the panacea, but it is one of the tools we need to bring to the table to try to put pressure on those prices to keep the – and to ensure, above everything, that those people who live in Central Australia have access to fresh fruit and vegetables and that’s, I think – 

ADAM STEER: Who requested the loan? Was it requested or was it bequeathed by the Government?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, no, this is a partnership. So, the Government doesn’t go out and ask people to apply. The NAIF is about those businesses across the country that want to make an investment in regional Australia. It was done by the Arnhem Land Progress Association, from what I understand, from what I recall, and they put in a proposal around creating a business model that not only the big supermarkets, but also the small IGAs, the small stores, can also take advantage of. It’s a business model about growing that capacity, and no‑one is going to move to Northern Australia if they can’t get fed. I would have thought, you know, it’s not a bad announcement, $13.5 million, and it’s only use that once they’ve cut their cheque. It’s a 50–50 job. So, no‑one is going to come up there unless they can get bread and butter on the table, so, with all due respect, I think it goes a long way to advancing Northern Australia and giving confidence to people to know that you can have the amenity up here as you can in Bris or Sydney or Melbourne.

ADAM STEER: The latest the next federal election could be held is next May. What’s in store for the Territory as part of your portfolio before then? What types of things will you be announcing for Northern Australia?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look, I don’t want to give you too many scoops today, but I think this is – 

ADAM STEER: One would be good.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, the opportunities are there. In fact, yesterday we announced another $111 million for grants, 50–50 grants, with not only big business but also small business, and this is the thing about giving them the confidence to come and invest, de‑risk some of the concerns they have in coming to Northern Australia. So, it goes from $50,000 to $2 million for small businesses and for larger up to $10 million. So, that is about giving them some extra grunt to come up and to give them the impetus to come here. We’ve got to fix the insurance piece. We’ve announced a $10 billion insurance underwriting because we’ve got market failure, and probably it’s just as challenging here as it is in north Queensland, and we need to make sure that those insurance companies are on the hook.

ADAM STEER: When is the next election being held, Minister?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: That’s a question for the Prime Minister. He doesn’t tell me. I’m just a National Party member from western Queensland, so you’ll know probably sometime – 

ADAM STEER: You must have some idea. Is it this year or next year?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I think you’ll find it will be next year. The Prime Minister has made it clear in all his public statements, and that’s all I can go on. He’s made it very clear it will be next year and we’re getting on with the job of making sure we get vaccinations out, we get the economy moving. And obviously today’s announcement is about keeping Australians safe.

JO LAVERTY: David Littleproud, Minister for North Australia. I’ll go back to how the Federal Government pays taxpayers dollars and the Federal Court judge ordered this week your predecessor Keith Pitt to his team to urgently file an affidavit explaining the reasons for the sudden decision to enter into a $21 million grant agreement with a gas company with interests in the Beetaloo Basin after indicating it would take weeks. Why is the Government handing grants worth tens of millions of dollars to gas companies who didn’t ask for it?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look, that’s before the courts so it’s important that we allow that process to take place. But more broadly, we work with businesses of all sizes because this is about trying to create wealth and jobs in Northern Australia, and whether they’re big or small and, as I just articulated, the small businesses in particular we’re trying to also encourage them, the mums and dads, to come up here with those grants that we announced yesterday. So, just to isolate any entity won’t develop Northern Australia, won’t let it get to its potential. So, with respect to how we try to do this is we are casting the net widely to make sure that every rock is looked under to try to attract capital to here, to Northern Australia, as quickly as we can to create that wealth for generations to come.

JO LAVERTY: Also on how taxpayers’ money is being used wisely, how much is it going to cost to pull out of the French submarine deal?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I’ll leave that for the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister, but let me just say that when we signed that deal, that was the best technology we had available to us. The fact that now, in an historic agreement with the United States, the fact that they are prepared to share this technology with us is absolutely historic – this is a legacy that will be left – 

ADAM STEER: But those contract restrictions, my understanding is, were very tight. This is going to cost the taxpayers a lot of money – 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: It will cost money, but let me just ask you the question: Do you want your service men and women being in state‑of‑the‑art machinery that will protect them, that will bring them home safe and alive?

JO LAVERTY: I think a lot of people would say what they really want is a hospital system that’s getting funding in the COVID pandemic.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: We can do that. We can do both. We are a smart and rich country and we’re doing that. But again, we’re prepared to spend the money if you get the management right. And with the submarines, I think we should be proud of the fact that we are now having access to technology that is cutting edge that will keep our service men and women safe, that will bring them home. And I get that there will be a cost for the submarines, but the fact that when we signed that contract, we didn’t have access to this technology, the fact that we have, if we didn’t realise it, we would be criticised for not pivoting and keeping our service men and women safe.

JO LAVERTY: Good luck with your meeting today with Nicole Manison. I look forward to finding out how that goes. That is our Minister for North Australia, David Littleproud.

 

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