Interview with Sabra Lane, ABC AM

Sabra Lane: Good morning and welcome to AM.

Michael McCormack: Good morning, Sabra.

Sabra Lane: Has the new National Drought Coordinator, Major Stephen Day, given the Government the full outline yet of what additional measures he thinks you should take?

Michael McCormack: Well it's an ongoing effort, and I know he is working with the Special Drought Envoy Barnaby Joyce and telling the Government what we need, what is expected. Indeed, he's outlined a few of the things that he believes that are necessary and those things, such as a mental health for drought victims also—because they are victims of the drought, they're not just all farmers either, many people in small businesses are hurting and hurting badly from this drought. We've had some rain in recent days, and the past fortnight in some areas, but it's very patchy and many communities are still doing it very tough.

Sabra Lane: The coordinator, though, said he was going to listen, plan, and act. So, he's not going to produce a big plan and say this is what we should be doing; just a piecemeal?

Michael McCormack: No, it's ongoing, it's ongoing.

And look, we will act accordingly, we will listen to his advice, we will act swiftly; we need to. And that is why he's been appointed, he's working in conjunction of course with the New South Wales Drought Commissioner Pip Job as well, and she's already doing a really great job.

Sabra Lane: The Special Envoy, Barnaby Joyce, has suggested that farmers be allowed to take, without permission, water meant for environmental flows, arguing that it's an emergency and farmers should be allowed to do that; is the Government open to that idea?

Michael McCormack: Well, that will need to be also a legislative process. So, we're looking at what we can do in that regard. Look, I'm not against that, I've got to tell you. I think in these dire circumstances, in these areas of national emergency, sometimes you have to look at these sorts of things and make sure, look to see how we can do it, where we can do it, and why we need to do it. The why is certainly there, it's just a matter of getting the how and what right.

Sabra Lane: What about the thoughts of someone like David Papps who was the former Commonwealth Environment Water Holder. He was responsible for his environmental water flows. He says that effectively doing this would put the environment last, and that sentiment is what got the Murray Darling Basin in such a mess in the first place.

Michael McCormack: Look, I appreciate David Papps' comments; I know him well. But the fact is the environment always does bounce back a lot more quickly than the rural communities. The birds, as soon as there's a flush in the system and the flush will happen when it rains, and it will rain again, the birds come back, the frogs come back, the plants regrow in those riparian areas, but I'll tell you what, the farmers don't come back as quickly and nor do the workers who've deserted the towns in droves to go back to the cities to find work. So that's what we need to do, and we are doing that by giving 60 councils $1 million each to keep the work in the community, and the money going there and flowing around those communities. But look we need to do whatever we can, this is an emergency situation and our farmers need help.

Sabra Lane: Farmer leaders are pretty annoyed that Mr Joyce has this role. Some of them have told the ABC he had four years to craft drought policy while he was the leader and he didn't and it's time for new people like you to be to given a go. How do you respond to those?

Michael McCormack: Well there's also a lot of farmers who are delighted that he's going to be on the ground, being a conduit between the rural communities which are hurting and the Government.

I've spoken to Barnaby on a number of occasions about his role, of how he'll do it, and he's hit the ground running.

Sabra Lane: Doesn't report to you though, does he? He reports directly to Scott Morrison?

Michael McCormack: Well he does. He certainly still does report to me as the National Party Leader and we get on very well. And of course, he is reporting in this role in his capacity to the Prime Minister, and that's thoroughly appropriate.

Sabra Lane: But is it slightly annoying, it's sidelining the Agriculture Minister and it sidelines you.

Michael McCormack: No, not at all. And the Agriculture Minister has also got his ear to the ground and he represents Maranoa, and that's one of the hardest hit areas in Australia, in Queensland. But Barnaby, of course, is answerable in this regard to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister and good on him for doing it, he's made drought his number one priority; that was his focus as soon as he became Prime Minister. He said: this drought is my number one focus, and I'll work with farming communities, side by side, shoulder to shoulder to support them through this.

Sabra Lane: Now, you're from Wagga Wagga, the New South Wales State Liberals lost the seat in the state by-election in the weekend- held that for more than 60 years. Part of the blame is being sheeted home to the federal Liberal Party leadership turmoil; what do you think the lessons are?

Michael McCormack: Well look, it had effect. But there were a number of factors, and the fact that the state Nationals opted not to run, that was also a factor because it didn't have, it didn't give voters that other choice. It was those conservative voters who were disappointed that there was a by-election in the first place, and the circumstances around why there was a by election. So, they were disappointed and they wanted to express their view in that regard, and they did. Joe McGirr had had a run before, he's headed up the Notre Dame Rural Clinical School, he'd run in 2011, so he had a name, he had a reputation and a good one and so people have chosen him; that's democracy, I understand that. And I'll be happy to work with him.

Sabra Lane: Well, how confident are you that voters won't come after you with a baseball bat?

Michael McCormack: Well, I've been a good member, I like to think, for not just Wagga Wagga, but indeed the wider Riverina. And the area has done very well, and the fact is, I've been out there on the weekend, when I'm not running around the countryside looking at infrastructure and building things and announcing things, or indeed, sitting in Parliament. I'm turning out to the flower shows in the CWA halls and talking to people, but more importantly listening to them, and then acting upon what they tell me.

Sabra Lane: You said that was one factor; are there other federal factors that have fed into it?

Michael McCormack: Well, obviously the federal Leadership had changed, that was a bit of a factor but it was a perfect storm. The candidate that the Liberals chose, fantastic candidate that she was, wasn't actually from the city of Wagga Wagga, lived outside, and so didn't have a big name in the community. And sometimes when you run for Parliament that name recognition that name identification does help, particularly in a seat like Wagga Wagga where Dr Joe McGirr and other candidates had been out in the community. And Julia Ham, the outstanding candidate that she was, I hope she has another crack in March. She wasn't that well known, she was a farmer, business woman caught the school bus with me many years ago, and I know her well, and she's a really good person. But look, she'll be better for it. She was a bit inexperienced in the political frame and the political game, but she'll be a lot better in March if she decides to have another run, and they decide to pre-select her.

Sabra Lane: More broadly, has the National Party lost the support of women in the fallout of the Barnaby Joyce saga?

Michael McCormack: Not at all. And just last Friday, I attended the National Party New South Wales Senate preselection and Perin Davey a Conargo businesswoman, an outstanding irrigation advocate, was preselected to replace Wacka Williams. Big shoes to fill. But in the New South Wales Senate and of course, we pre-selected Susan McDonald, an outstanding rural woman a businesswoman from Queensland for the LNP. Michelle Landry and Bridget McKenzie are doing outstanding jobs as Ministers. I was delighted that Michelle Landry joined our ministerial team as Minister for Children and Families. We're getting on with the job of making sure that women are very welcome in our party and we're- hopefully, we're going to increase the numbers after the next election, which hopefully will be next year and hopefully in about May.

Sabra Lane: Your Liberal Party colleague, Julia Banks, in Parliament again last night was saying that there was appalling behavior in Parliament and she says that quotas are required to boost the number of women in the Liberal Party.

Michael McCormack: Well, look, I don't condone in any way shape or form any bullying or intimidation whether it's in Parliament, whether it's in any workplace, any schoolyard, anywhere in Australia. Bullying and intimidation, they're not the sorts of activities that should ever, ever occur. And of course, we have a process by which the Whips provide pastoral care as they should. I think there are a few learnings out of what's happened and we'll move on.

Sabra Lane: And they are?

Michael McCormack: And they are, absolutely. Nola Marino, I know is reaching out as she always does as the Whip. And that's the same in the Labor Party, Tanya Plibersek admitted the same yesterday. That's what happens in the Labor Party as well.

Sabra Lane: That's the Nationals Leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack.