Transcript 2SM Super Network Radio

GRAEME GILBERT

My next guest, well he used to have a fairly easy job. All he had to do was edit and put out a newspaper every day. No trouble there, no difficulty. Making sure he filled the news pages and left enough space for the sales department to put in some advertising so they can all be paid. He then got into politics. Just this year there have been horrific bushfires, drought, and coronavirus and today adding to the workload of the Leader of the National Party in Australia is the, well effectively, bankruptcy of Virgin Australia Airlines.

Joining us, the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia and I thank him for his time, Michael McCormack. Good evening, sir.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Any time, Graeme.

GRAEME GILBERT

You must miss the relative ease of doing a newspaper, do you?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Well, I've never had an easy job.

GRAEME GILBERT

That was very much tongue in cheek.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Yes, I appreciate that. 21 years, the last 11 of which were as editor. I can remember when I took over as editor, I was only 27 and we actually had 58 in the news room, would you believe, back then, across the Riverina Media Group and the Daily Advertiser, of course, was the flagship of that, the main masthead and it was a vibrant time. We were going from black and white to colour and it was an exciting time in newspapers. You know, we were churning out 60 pages a day, six days a week and we had a whole host of little papers in the stable as well.

And then I ran a small business for eight years and that was pretty tough too and that really taught me the value of the customers are not always right but they certainly do come first and when you actually have a company and run a business, it really does teach you some lessons, Graeme and it teaches you that you don't just take that wage for granted because unless you work hard and unless things fall your way, sometimes you don't get paid and sometimes when you do do the work you don't get paid.

GRAEME GILBERT 

Still don't get paid.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

I understand how difficult it is. And then, of course, as you say, I got into politics in 2010 and look, I've enjoyed every day of my working life. My late father Lance once told me, find a job you love doing and you will never work a day in your life. You know, I do love doing my job. But it is difficult.

GRAEME GILBERT

Now I'm not being a smart-alec here, Deputy PM, but I remember when I was news director of AMV Television and I used to think, gee, our poor gang up there at RVN, Wagga Wagga, all they get, really, are truck accidents and Saturday night brawls between the army and the air force whereas down in Albury we have the best of regional Victoria and regional New South Wales. It was, you know, a piece of cake to put out 30 minutes of news. I felt sorry for the Wagga gang.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Well, sure and back then I think Colonel Gordon Hurford who took over the Kapooka Base at the Army there, he changed things and really built a bridge between Defence and the civilian community which hasn't changed since. It's a great relationship. We're very proud. We're a tri-service town now. We've always had the Air Force since World War II, we've now got a Navy base there. So we're proud of our military heritage and Wagga is a pretty good place. Unlike Albury back then, you only played one code of footy. Wagga Wagga was indeed, where they drew the line, anything further north they played rugby league only and anything further south they played Aussie Rules and of course, at Wagga Wagga they played both and that's still the case.
 
GRAEME GILBERT

Yeah, it was interesting wasn't it, because I know your newspapers, television they took a lot of programming, including news and current affairs out of Sydney whereas Albury took it out of Melbourne. So there was a big social divide and you're right, it was Aussie Rules and nothing else in Albury in those days.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Indeed and it's interesting because they probably sell, of the tabloid newspapers, as many Daily Telegraphs as they do Herald Suns in Wagga Wagga. It's probably the only city where they do that.

GRAEME GILBERT

Yeah.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

And that's probably because of the footy, but there is also a lot of people who have often said the Murrumbidgee should be the border, not the Murray. But that's a debate for another day.

GRAEME GILBERT

Yeah, and it amazes me when I first went down because depending on the tide of the river was where the border actually was. It had a minor variable depending on tide and flow of the river.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Indeed. But our rivers are so important and just to throw a plug in, I know Keith Pitt's going to be doing a great job in water resources and we need to get more water to the farmers, we should acknowledge that, the drought's taken its toll. But our farmers, through this COVID-19, they, like so many others, have been real champions at making sure that we get the food, Graeme. We've got the cleanest, best and freshest food available and we don't just feed our own population of 25 million but we feed another 50 million people across the world besides.

GRAEME GILBERT

Now I want to talk about Virgin but just if I can indulge you for just a few minutes before that, you are the Minister for Regional Development and Infrastructure, etc. We must not forget we still have drought across large parts of New South Wales, we still have people hurting and will for some years from bushfires and other sections, as you take in the entire country, affected by flood. It's been an awful time but as you say, our food production hasn't gone down, we still have that clean air, clear water and the world's best farming practice.
 
MICHAEL MCCORMACK
 
And indeed we haven't forgotten and I know that I was only talking to Andrew Colvin, who heads up the National Bushfire Recovery Agency, earlier this week and you know, he said he'd been to Batlow and Tumbarumba in recent weeks and you know, they're still recovering from the bushfires. They will be for not ...

GRAEME GILBERT 

Some time, yeah.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Well, years, perhaps. 

GRAEME GILBERT 

Yeah.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

And I know David Littleproud, his focus is still very much on addressing drought issues because that hasn't gone away. The effects of the drought have not gone away. Yes, we've had rain and it's been great and we've had really good falls and some farmers are getting their first crops in for many, many years and their ewes are actually going to drop lambs onto green grass rather than bare earth and so that's fantastic. But the bushfires have also taken their toll. As a Government, we haven't forgotten either of those issues and we won't.

GRAEME GILBERT

You mentioned Mr Littleproud and I just want to put in a plug. There's no reason I need to but I just want to say, too, that I think he's doing a good job. He's a great part of your team.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Yeah, he is and he understands the regions. Look, he worked in the banking and finance sector and you know, he sat around a lot of kitchen tables and talked to farmers about how they can refinance their landholdings and how they can do things better and that's the background from which he has come. His dad was a member of the Queensland Parliament so he's got a bit of politics in his pedigree. So that's always handy.

But National Party members, they bring a wide, diverse range of interests and backgrounds to the fore and it's good that we're just not, I have to say, you know, staff members who have known nothing else but being in Parliament or indeed, union apparatchiks, which we sometimes all too often see from the other side and I know I'm sounding a little bit political there, but National Party members tend to come from a wide range of backgrounds and whether it's teaching or farming or mining, you name it, engineering, those sorts of things we bring it to the fore and I think that shows in the Parliament.

GRAEME GILBERT

I must admit, when I watch Question Time, because you are pretty much centre of camera in most shots when it's the Government's side of the despatch box.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

I can't even scratch my ear or wipe my nose.

GRAEME GILBERT

We often see you scratch your nose and take, you know, a subtle sip of water. But you get ... and please don't take offence, you get a cheeky smirk on your face when the Opposition says or does something really stupid and I think of their Shadow Health Minister, I think she often says totally stupid things and the Shadow Treasurer. But that's just a personal observation. But I love the look on your face.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

I know that it's the argy-bargy and certainly Question Time between 2:00 and 3:10 is the argy-bargy of politics but, you know, we do get a lot of things done in a bipartisan way and I think if something has come to the fore during this coronavirus pandemic it's been the fact that Scott Morrison, through the National Cabinet, has been able to work with the State Premiers and Chief Ministers and there's been a variety of political persuasions around those teleconferences and likewise, I've been able to have great relationships with the Labor Members and the Liberal Members and Coalition partners, colleagues in the State Transport and Infrastructure meetings that I've been holding on a very regular basis and to the point where not only during those teleconferences but almost on a daily basis, I've picked up the phone or they've picked it up to me and Labor members talking about how we can do things better in infrastructure and transport. 

I think if there's one thing that has shone through and I think the public like to see that, they like to see their politicians getting on, not just always playing the politics, which has been good.

GRAEME GILBERT

How did you fare in Mr Turnbull's book? Are you a good guy or are you rat and a traitor?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Look, I'll be honest with you, [inaudible]
 
GRAEME GILBERT

[Talks over]

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

I haven't bought it, I've been too busy with coronavirus issues and aviation matters to actually sit down and read a tome like that. But I guess I will in due course. But look, Malcolm's free to have his view and have his version of the world. That's the democracy in which we live. I've always upheld free speech. Whilst I mightn't agree with everybody all the time, I always will champion their right to say it.

GRAEME GILBERT

Alrighty, we'll get on to aviation because you are the Federal Minister for Transport. Now I can remember being on-air, September 11, that was early in the week, later that same week Ansett did their last flight from Perth to Melbourne.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

I remember the week well.

GRAEME GILBERT

Coming across on the red eye. After they went belly up, we had Compass part one and then Compass part two and I have to say, I did buy shares in Compass part two thinking there was no way they'd let a second airline crash but they did.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

My wife Catherine worked at Kendell Airlines ...

GRAEME GILBERT
... Oh, did she?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

She was the technical records officer for Kendell for many, many years and Don Kendell, he's gone to God now and God bless him but his wife Eilish still lives in Wagga Wagga and we see her regularly.

GRAEME GILBERT

It's a great aviation name, isn't it, Kendell?
 
MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Absolutely, and when you go to Wagga Wagga Airport it's appropriately named Don Kendell Drive and it goes right past the Australian Airline Pilot Academy where Regional Express, which is sort of the successor of Kendell, now churns out some fantastic young pilots, both for domestic purposes as well as for Vietnam Air, etc.

GRAEME GILBERT

Well, Virgin came along, originally Virgin Blue and now Virgin Australia. What's happened? What's gone wrong? I guess I should say how come they're able to trade being several billion dollars in the red?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

The airline industry is a very volatile industry and it's so hard to, you know, margins are always very tight and we appreciate that. We want two commercially viable airlines coming out of this, Graeme. It's going to be tough, I know that Virgin Australia have made a tough but necessary and brave decision today to enter voluntary administration. The Treasurer Josh Frydenberg quite correctly pointed out, it's not liquidation.

They can still draw on JobKeeper funds through this voluntary administration process. They've got Deloitte looking over their books. We've appointed Nicholas Moore to head up an engagement process with the administrators. So he's the former Macquarie Group CEO, very experienced in business. So he'll take on board the soundings and the advice of Deloitte and what they have to say and he'll report back to Treasury and that's important.

But we want Virgin to come out the other side. They've got the 10,500 employees, they've got 6,000 suppliers and we want them to be their best selves and I think this process, given the fact that there's been, as I was told today, at least 10 potential investors, that's encouraging. That would not have probably happened but for this process and certainly wasn't being talked about a week ago.

GRAEME GILBERT

Surely the Australian Government would like it to be an Australian group or consortium that come out with final control of Virgin?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Well, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in an interview the other day that he felt industry funds could be looked at and I'm sure there's enough money in some of those funds to be backing an airline such as Virgin. I think there's great potential there.

You know, it is almost entirely foreign owned and I know there's been a lot of commentary and I know there's been a lot of people in the media saying that the Federal Government should have bailed it out, but a lot of taxpayers too, have also said why should we pour money, $1.4 billion, into the pockets of Sir Richard Branson and Etihad and Singapore Airlines and the Chinese consortium when what we've done and I think we've done it well, yes, we have invested $1.28 billion, but we've done it sector wide and we've done it to ensure that we get freight overseas, to ensure that we get domestic trunk routes serviced between our capital cities and major regional capitals.

We've also put a lot of money into – $198 million, in fact – into regional air services to service those 138 centres in country areas that, you know, would be, in some cases, cut off from the rest of the world but for that investment that we've made. We've also helped aeromedical services, we've waived fees. We've done a lot in this space but to go and bail out an airline, as Josh Frydenberg said today, that wasn't part of our agenda and I don't think it should have been and taxpayers would quite correctly think that we've done the right thing.

GRAEME GILBERT

You know, I was talking to a fellow today, Michael, who, like your wife, has spent a lot of years in the airline and tourism and travel industries. He says what he would like and he thinks the industry would prefer, is for a rebirthed Virgin as it were to be purely domestic. Drop the international claims, just concentrate on Australia and that's where they could make money and that's where they can get, I was going to say, back on their feet, really back on their wheels, can't they?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Well, the Virgin CEO Paul Scurrah, who has been good through this process, he said today that they will come out better for it, they will come out stronger, perhaps leaner, but they will, you know, they even said in their own statement that help would ensure its emergence in a stronger financial position on the other side of COVID-19. So that was what their statement said. I listened carefully and closely to what Paul Scurrah said today and he wants them to be their best selves out of this process. Their board and there's some good members on that board and you know, experienced in Australian life and Australian business and I'm sure with all the best intentions they will come through this, through the other side and they will be stronger, as Paul Scurrah says.

GRAEME GILBERT

And also, to a layman like myself, a very attractive buy. They've got a relatively newish fleet, well-maintained, you know, modern aircraft. They've got good ground and air crew staff.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

They've got a fantastic crew. There's no question they've got great crew. You always get well serviced by the people, the cabin crew, the baggage handlers. They're great people. They wear their uniforms proudly. Their bright red uniform, it's part and parcel of Australian aviation, has been for a long time and we want it to continue to be.

GRAEME GILBERT

Does Government have much of a say in something like the sale of an airline? The point I'm getting at, would X-Y-Z Group, you know, stump up the money and take over Virgin, would Government be saying we want you to maintain strong links with places like Wagga Wagga, Tamworth, Grafton, Mildura, Port Augusta, etc, maintain, as well as capital cities but also a strong regional network?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Well, it would but Virgin doesn't fly to Wagga Wagga. QantasLink and REX Services ...

GRAEME GILBERT

But you can ask the new owners to add ...

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

That’s right and we would expect and hope that that would be the case. Certainly, if a foreign investor came in that would have to have the ruler run over it, Graeme, by the Foreign Investment Review Board, that is always the process no matter what a foreign entity might or a foreign business might be wanting to invest in Australia, whether it's agribusiness or farmland. Indeed an airline, even given the fact that it is majority owned by foreign interests now, it would still have to pass the national interest test. But, I'm sure the Treasurer would look at that in the current light with all due diligence that he always does.

So, look, it's a situation now that Virgin is in voluntary administration, it's a position where if I were working at Virgin, I know that it is a difficult time. I appreciate that very much. Let's see what happens over the next few weeks and potentially months. We need to get through this crisis, this health pandemic. That's first and foremost. Our economy needs to remain strong. We see measures that we've put in place; JobKeeper, JobSeeker, the other financial incentives that we've tried to keep businesses open. We've tried to keep as many people engaged in the work force as possible. I know that the Reserve Bank Governor, Dr Philip Lowe, who I went to school with at Wagga Wagga, actually, stood up today and he said there was a way through this whole crisis. Brendan Murphy has been magnificent.

GRAEME GILBERT

Oh, has he ever.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Oh, yeah.

GRAEME GILBERT

He works around the clock.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Well he's been like Shane Fitzsimmons.

GRAEME GILBERT

Yeah, during the fires.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

The Fire Commissioner during the fires, calm, reassuring and people look to those sorts of leaders to ensure they get the right advice and if people follow what Professor Murphy is saying, you know, we'll keep our mortality rates as low as it has been. You look at what we've been able to do with Scott Morrison leading the Government and what he's been able to do with the National Cabinet and compare it to what's happened overseas, I hate to use the term but it's almost chalk and cheese.

We've been lucky, yes, but we've managed it well, yes, but thanks to so many Australians, those listeners who listen to your show, I'm sure that the majority of them have stayed at home and are doing the right thing and keeping the social distancing and everything. It's tough, there's no question it is tough, but because we're doing it, because we're following what we've been asked to do, the good old Aussie spirit, that ANZAC spirit will shine through and we'll get to the other side and you know, there won't be too much heartbreak hopefully and we'll get through it and we'll be a stronger nation because of it.

GRAEME GILBERT

Just briefly and marrying coronavirus to Virgin Airlines, hypothetically, if Virgin were back in the air, let's say next week and we know that's not going to happen but hypothetically, it would be very difficult on some of those routes anyhow because anyone flying into Queensland would need to go into two weeks of self-isolation, same into South Australia, Western Australia, so people aren't flying for a weekend getaway or whatever, are they?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

They can't, but we do have a number of air routes that are being serviced at the moment and of course different State jurisdictions have got different rules about their border closures, etc. But people understand that. But, what the routes are doing, that we are keeping open through either the regional program or, indeed, those domestic trunk routes, what is happening is we're carting around the nation the vital defence and medical personnel, we're ensuring that freight gets delivered and we're servicing some of those places which would otherwise not get serviced.

And, of course, there are some FIFO workers who are keeping our mining and resources sector going and if there's two sectors which are helping our balance of payments and are at least making sure that Australia stays on the world stage, it's mining and agriculture and we thank those two sectors because they play such an important part in our economy at the best of times. We're now, Graeme, in the worst of times and they're still firing on not quite all cylinders but I tell you what, they're doing a grand job for and on behalf of the nation.

GRAEME GILBERT

And there's a lady who phones me regularly on this program, Sarah, she always says don't forget the cleaners. You know, they may not be high profile but they do a pretty good job too, don't they?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

They do a wonderful job in Parliament House and Anna and her team are great mates of mine and we should never forget the cleaners. Look, at the moment, more than ever, they're going around, they're sanitising everything, they're wiping handrails, they're doing a job that’s saving lives and protecting livelihoods and I know that sounds a bit glib and trite but I tell you what, they are doing it and one thing that we will, I think, make sure that does happen out of this coronavirus pandemic, Graeme, is I think people will practice hygiene like they never did before.

We all get told by our mothers to watch our hands and do all those things and yes, we do but sometimes we do it in such a way that it's sort of, you know, probably not as good as we probably ought to or should, but I tell you what, out of this I think we all will concentrate on that part of our lives a little bit more. We'll give it closer attention, put it that way.

GRAEME GILBERT

And please, it's not because I'm talking to a senior politician but I do have my hand sanitiser, here's my little bottle right here on the desk with me.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK 

Well done. Well done, you. 

GRAEME GILBERT

Now ANZAC Day is going to be a very different Anzac Day this year. No two-up, no dawn service, no RSL breakfast. What's happening in Wagga Wagga?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Well, I think a lot of people will be going out to the end of their driveways perhaps shining a torch.

GRAEME GILBERT

Or a candle.
 
MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Standing in silence for a minute to mark this important day. It is Australia's most important national day. I've produced my 10th annual booklet this year and once again, the schoolchildren in the Riverina and Central West, hundreds of them, in fact, sent their entries in and I gave them books, the best ones, from the Australian War Memorial as I always have. I'll have to send you a copy, Graeme.

GRAEME GILBERT

Please do, yes.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

And you know, filled it with stories about those heroic efforts of valour. The service and sacrifice has been amazing. It's given our country the peace and democracy that we do enjoy today. But this year, as you say, it's going to be different, unique, but still a special time and I urge and encourage people to try to haul themselves out of bed around 5:00, 5:30 and still mark the occasion because it is important.

It's not just for those who landed on Gallipoli and the 8,709 who lost their lives in that 1915 conflict. But it's also very much about those who are serving today, those who are in deployment in our peacekeeping missions or in the Middle East, wherever the case might be. Those who are training, those who are serving, those who are in uniform and those who have gone before us, it's their day. We should always honour that selfless sacrifice that so many have given.

There's 102,500 names involved in the War Memorial in Canberra and it's closed, too. But it will be open again and hopefully by the time that Remembrance Day – Armistice Day comes around on November 11, we'll be able to commemorate once more in public, as we should, that wonderful service, those khaki uniforms and white and navy uniforms of our wonderful service men and women.

GRAEME GILBERT

And it's not hard around Wagga Wagga to find the name Edmondson, Kapooka barracks and several streets, etc, that was my mum's cousin, John Edmondson, who won the Victoria Cross.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Indeed, I have to say John Ryan, Private Ryan from Tumut who is honoured now with a life-sized bronze likeness of him in Tumut's park there and as he should, what a wonderful story that is and anybody who doesn't know it ought to Google it and just look at the sacrifice that that man made. The Riverina has many heroes just like every far-flung little corner of the nation has their own stories of valour and it's a great nation. We've got more than 100 VC winners and I tell you what, Mark Donaldson still continues to contribute.
 
GRAEME GILBERT

Oh, isn't he outstanding?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

He's a mate of mine, Mark and we often catch up and he's doing some great things with Boeing and indeed veterans, too. So, you know, but the whole lot of them, Ben Roberts-Smith, we've got any number of war heroes that we should always acknowledge for what they've done.

GRAEME GILBERT

Lest we forget. Well, as we said, it's a lot on your plate. There's drought, there's bushfire recovery, there's flood recovery in different parts of the country and coronavirus which is keeping us all a little bit house-bound but, as you quite correctly say, we'll come through it and we'll come through it all the better. Thank you for your time tonight.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Any time at all, Graeme.

GRAEME GILBERT

There he is, Michael McCormack, the Deputy Prime Minister.

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