Interview with Jonathon Kendall, ABC Radio Gippsland

Jonathon Kendall: The Acting Prime Minister has just wandered into the studio. A very warm good morning to Michael McCormack.

Michael McCormack: Good morning Jonno!

Jonathon Kendall: And lovely to have you here. And Darren Chester is the Member for Gippsland, he’s here as well. G’day.

Darren Chester: Great to be here Jonno. We were driving past and we’re 10 minutes early to our next meeting, and we thought we’d drop in say g’day.

Jonathon Kendall: Well you're always welcome. You've got a cuppa here too.

Darren Chester: I've scored a great cup. I was worried it was a Collingwood cup, it’s got magpies on it, but I’ve been reassured it's only a wildlife cup and not a Magpie Football Club cup.

Jonathon Kendall: That’s my mug, that one, that’s a Collingwood mug, so you are drinking out of a Collingwood mug. Why are you here today Michael McCormack?

Michael McCormack: We're having a Transport Infrastructure Tourism Forum with local mayors, which is going to be good.

We’re talking Princes Highway, we’re talking about the infrastructure needs and wants of local councils and it’s just a chance to catch up with Darren and talk about the things that are important to Gippslanders.

It’ll be good.

Jonathon Kendall: Alright. How did you get the Acting Prime Minister here, Darren?

Darren Chester: Well, Michael and I are pretty good mates and I found out he was going to be in Melbourne last night and I said well while you're in Victoria here, duck down to Gippsland and we can convince you to put a bit more money into our region, it’ll be good idea.

So you never miss an opportunity to twist his arm if he’s in the region!

We've got a bit going on already in terms of some really major investment in the highway obviously, but there are some other things that the councils are raising with me already so it'll be good to let them have the chance to make their case.

Jonathon Kendall: So obviously Darren Chester is going to be getting in your ear today to ask you to fund things or free up funding for things. What's going to be number one do you think Michael?

Michael McCormack: Princes Highway obviously is something that people have told me, and Darren continues to advocate for and on behalf of it. We have a considerable amount of money on the table at the moment.

I had a meeting actually with Jacinta Allan yesterday and I really need and want and expect the Victorian Government to also stump up their share – we're only asking 20 per cent. Generally in these sorts of regional programs, these regional road funding initiatives, we provide 80 per cent of the funding and I reminded Jacinta that it was an important corridor for all activities, and she understands that.

And of course the Prime Minister and Daniel Andrews are meeting next month to talk about the infrastructure needs of Victoria. That's important, and we want to get on with building things.

We want to get on with making sure that Victorians know that we're back in business, that we're back in Government and that we're wanting to get the infrastructure that we said we were going to put down on the table prior to the election – we want to get it rolled out with the help of the Victorian Government.

Jonathon Kendall: Well that's right. So when you depend on the Victorian Government for funding, is there a danger in that? Because, I mean, the State Government is saying that they're not getting their fair share of funding from the Feds.

Michael McCormack: Every State Government says that, every State Government, and you never get between a Premier and a bucket of money. But the fact is, we've got a bucket of money – we've got $100 billion of infrastructure money that we are rolling out across the nation over the next decade. 

Darren, as you know, knows full well how important it is for infrastructure; how important it is for better and safer roads. I've heard him talking about the need for safer roads for as long as I've known him and there's been no greater champion in the Australian Parliament for safer roads than Darren Chester – and we want to make sure that that delivery happens.

Darren Chester: And the thing about, I guess Jonno, about the Princes Highway duplication is we're almost there. It will be such a pity to get it to this point and not finish the job.

Between Traralgon and Sale there’s only two stages to go: one at Sheepwash Creek which is just out of Traralgon, and, obviously the big one at Kilmany over the overpass there where it goes across the railway line.

So our share remains on the table and I’m staggered to think the Victorian Government won't come on board. It's a project which has always enjoyed bipartisan support, so we want to get it done.

And as part of today also, Michael is going to head down to Yarram which will be good. I don't know how many Acting Prime Ministers have ever been to Yarram, so it's great to head down there. We're going to catch up with the team at Mirridong, where we've provided a couple of million bucks to help out with some supported accommodation in the disability sector.

So it's quite a diverse visit, but I get a chance to show him part of our beautiful region and it’s great that it’s a bit greener than the last time he was here.

Jonathon Kendall: Now, getting back to the Princes Highway though, I mean The Nats have kind of, or the Coalition have kind of put themselves in that position, making this dependent on funding from the State Government. So wouldn't it just, wouldn't be better to fund it completely and not wait for that?

Darren Chester: That's a point we can look at – I mean, to be fair to the Commonwealth, and to be fair to Michael, the road is owned by the State Government. It's actually their road.

Historically it's always been a shared arrangement on the national network and we’ve provided 80 per cent of the funding and they’ve provided 20 per cent. It hasn't been a problem. The road’s been upgraded now over the last five or six years and we've got to, I think, to a pretty good position now with only those two stages to go.

I don't think it’s too much to ask the Victorian Government to find $33 million as their commitment which is required, when they're spending billions and billions and billions of dollars in Melbourne.

This is almost a rounding error from some of that tunnelling work they’re doing right now in terms of public transport rail networks in Melbourne. I don't see there’s any reason why they can't help us finish the job.

Jonathon Kendall: All right. And as Acting Prime Minister, I mean how does that responsibility weigh on you Michael McCormack?

Michael McCormack: Well, as the Leader of The Nationals, you automatically become the Acting Prime Minister when the Prime Minister goes away. The country’s in reasonably safe hands. The Prime Minister needs a break, he deserves a break, he's earned it.

We had a great result in the election. It was fantastic on May 18 to see us returned. It seems like a refresh.

I know you just had young Seth in doing a poem about a leaf which was fantastic. It almost seems like we've turned a new leaf too because even though we're a third term Government it just does seem that the refresh button has been pressed – that we have this opportunity now, we really have, to roll out the infrastructure, to do the sorts of things that we need to do.

I’m delighted that the Member for Wills, Peter Khalil, has come on board with urging Labor to actually vote in our full suite of tax measures this morning. So we're starting to get even Labor coming on board with the sorts of narrative that we're going on about with tax because that's what the public wanted.

That's what the Australian voting public said they wanted, tax cuts, and we’re there standing ready to pass them through the Parliament.

Jonathon Kendall: It's a quarter to 10 on ABC Gippsland and you’re listening to the Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack and Member for Gippsland Darren Chester in the ABC Gippsland studios as part of their visit to Gippsland today.

Not for Darren – Darren Chester lives here in Gippsland. But it would be remiss of me to have you in the studio and not ask about drought funding today.

There were some changes made to the Farm Household Allowance at the last Federal Budget and there have been widespread calls from farmers across Gippsland to get some rate relief at a State level. But is there more that you can do as Acting Prime Minister, as Leader of the Nationals to help out drought ravaged farmers?

Michael McCormack: Well, what we have done is we've elevated David Littleproud to a position – he was already in Cabinet – we've elevated drought to a position in Cabinet, so now as the Minister for Drought. He's obviously the Minister for Emergency Management and he's also the Minister for Water Resources but he has Drought in his title. So it's been…

Jonathon Kendall: Barnaby was the special envoy, wasn’t he?

Michael McCormack: … was an envoy, sure. And that enabled him to go and talk to communities and report back to Parliament. But Barnaby wasn't in the Ministry since he stepped aside. He wasn't in the Ministry, so David Littleproud is in the Ministry and he's in Cabinet and now drought is in Cabinet.

Scott Morrison has made it his first priority when he became the Prime Minister back in August last year, visiting Quilpie in outback Queensland to talk about drought.

But we've been there since, he and I, we've been to Cloncurry. We've talked to people there about drought, and he continues to get daily updates about the drought and not just from David, not just from me, but also from Darren. It is a big factor.

We've put already on the table more than $7 billion of assistance and we need to continue to monitor and continue to adjust what we are doing as a Federal Government. But there is a call on the States as well.

I know the New South Wales Government came to Coolamon in my electorate just last week, and they announced further subsidies and further help for drought stricken farmers. But also we need to think about those small businesses, because whilst farmers do get well looked after, we also need to consider the businesses which have a direct and indirect impact from the drought effects on their bottom lines.

Jonathon Kendall: Darren Chester was saying before that it's nice to have you here when it is a bit greener, but I'm sure that people you meet today…

Michael McCormack: …It's a green drought, though.

Jonathon Kendall: Exactly. Exactly.

Michael McCormack: Yes, we've had a bit of a shower. There's no subsoil moisture and anybody who’s in farming knows that you need that subsoil moisture to get crops above the ground. You need that to get pasture up. I know a lot of people have destocked and it’s going to take some considerable time, not just months but years, to recover.

Jonathon Kendall: The farmers we're hearing from: three to five years to get back to where they were before the drought.

Darren Chester: That's consistent feedback, Jonno, that I've been getting right across the region, particularly around the areas just out of Sale, out of Giffard and through Stradbroke there.

They're going to need to capitalise on the re-establishment grants, the funding we're making available for re-sowing pastures, because re-establishing’s going to be difficult for them. It’s only a matter of few weeks ago that some had their topsoil blowing away.

So having that bit of ground cover now is stopping that blowing away, which is great, but then we’ve just got to make sure we’re there for the longer term as well as they set up their businesses and make sure they're viable for a long time in the future. Here in Gippsland we have an extraordinary heritage and history when it comes to agriculture and we're going to have great future as well.

And speaking of great futures, Kevin Hogan just walked in, a living legend in Sale: a former South Melbourne footballer and Sale Football Club correspondent, and I really am in rare territory now.

I've got the Acting Prime Minister and the king of Sale beside me. This is a rare moment, Jonno.

Jonathon Kendall: Well this is where I have to kick you off air actually. [Laughter]

Darren Chester: I would always make way for Hoges, I promise you. 

Michael McCormack: We make way for more important people!

Darren Chester: I’ve got the Magpies cup [indistinct] Sale Magpies cup, it’s not a Collingwood Cup Jonno, I can’t wear that.

Jonathon Kendall: Well, that was bought for me because people know that I’m a Collingwood supporter. So I think you are drinking out of the Collingwood cup there. But, look, thank you for dropping in. I really appreciate you spending some time with us here today.

Michael McCormack: Pleasure.

Darren Chester: Thanks so much, Jonno.

Jonathon Kendall: That’s Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack and the Member for Gippsland.