Transcript - ABC News Breakfast

LISA MILLAR

Well, the Federal Government is set to announce another cash splash today, with almost $2 billion for roads and community projects.

MICHAEL ROWLAND

It is being hailed as an initiative to boost local economies and importantly, support local jobs. The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Michael McCormack, joins us now from Canberra. A very good morning to you.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Good morning, Michael.

MICHAEL ROWLAND

So, this money includes the bringing forward of $1.3 billion in government grants to local councils, and a new $500 billion program, it is called the Local Road and Community Infrastructure Program. What sort of community infrastructure are you hoping to support here?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Well, certainly roads, as you mentioned, Michael. But, indeed, if councils come to us and say we want to build street lighting, if they want to build bus stops, if they want to put in, indeed, refurbished town halls, which are so much the fabric of particularly country and regional centres, then we'll certainly look at that. We want to have local jobs. More importantly, local procurement, which will be one of the criteria of this $500 million stimulus.

MICHAEL ROWLAND

Okay, and how will the program work in practice? How do local councils who need this money get hold of the money?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Well, they've already applied as part of a letter they wrote back to me. I had 400 councils write back to me when I wrote to them on March 6. I wrote to each and every one of the 537 councils. And certainly each and every one of those 537 councils will benefit. They'll now put in their applications for what particular stimulus projects they want to do, noting that any road projects, they need to be new road projects, they need to be things that they weren't working on pre-COVID. They need to be new projects that they want to spend their money on, that they want to invest in to help local jobs. Because if there's one way, one way of actually getting local jobs on the ground through this pandemic, it's going to be through local councils. And that's why we wanted to put in this injection of money and that's why this cash will certainly help small and medium enterprises around the country. Because if there's one thing that local councils know how to do, it's spend money locally. So, I know that David O'Loughlin, the ALGA President, is delighted at this. I know so many mayors I spoke to last night on the way over here to Canberra, were delighted at the prospect that they were going to get this money to spend in their local regions on the sorts of things that they want to spend it on. A locally-led recovery, not necessarily, Michael, a Canberra-led recovery.

MICHAEL ROWLAND

It's a lot of money, a lot of taxpayers' money. I've got to ask you this question, Michael McCormack, what guarantees do taxpayers have that this scheme won't be rorted like the Sports Grants Scheme was?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Every one of the 537 councils across the nation will benefit. There's absolutely money going to go to each and every council and it will be up to them to decide where they want to spend it. Of course, they'll have to get the tick-off by the Infrastructure Department. But they'll go through that process. When each and every council has got, you know, in the order of $1 million to spend, they're going to spend that wisely. They're going to spend it on local projects that are needed to be done. And certainly I'm sure that local councils will require and receive local input into those projects.

MICHAEL ROWLAND

Okay and it will be spread fairly evenly, there won't be, I suppose, discretion in your office as to which council gets money and which council doesn't get money?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

It will be based on the Roads To Recovery, which is a formula established many years ago, so the Roads To Recovery funding is based on a formula on how long their roads are, their road network in each and every council area and also the shire population, the local government area population in that area. And it's based on a formula. That's why, for instance, in my electorate, Wagga Wagga City Council, which is the largest population gets the largest amount of money and Bland Shire, which has one of the largest road networks in all of New South Wales, also figures very prominently when it comes to getting money. And Bland Shire, of course, hasn't got a large population around West Wyalong, but it's got a very, very large network of 6,000kms of indeed, unsealed roads.

MICHAEL ROWLAND

Let's move on to this disturbing story in the Nine newspapers this morning, reports the Chinese Government is directing state-owned power plants in China to purchase domestic coal and other products instead of exported products. What do you know about this? And if you do know about it, how concerned are you?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Well, of course we are very concerned by this, by these reports. And I know that the Trade Minister, Simon Birmingham, is working very diligently and very closely and in a very diplomatic way to ensure that, you know, whether it's coal, whether it's iron ore, whether it's, indeed, barley or beef, that we have those trade relations continuing with China. We produce the very best thermal coal in all of the world –

MICHAEL ROWLAND

[Interrupts] Excuse the interruption, coal is a very important export market for Australia into China. Are you concerned about the Chinese now pulling back on the amount of Australian coal they buy?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Well, of course we're concerned. Of course we're very concerned by it. But we have a two-way relationship with China. China needs Australia as much as Australia needs China and we want to make sure that whatever we do is in a careful and considered way. That's why I know Simon Birmingham and our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials are working very closely with our Chinese friends and diplomats in making sure that we work through this in the way that you would expect the Australian Government to operate. We want to make sure that our coal exports have a destination. China has long been a customer of ours. They know the quality of our coal. They know the quality of our iron ore and other resources. For their steel mills, for their energy needs, they're going to require Australian coal. So, this is, of course, concerning and we'll be working through it in the way that you'd expect the Australian Government to do.

MICHAEL ROWLAND

Okay finally, I want to ask you about the border closures. It's been a raging debate all week. The question I want to ask you is, don't states like South Australia, Tasmania, Western Australia, Queensland, and the Northern Territory have the perfect right to follow their State Health Medical Officers in closing their borders for as long as they need to, to preserve the health of their populations?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Well, of course they'll take that advice from their Chief Medical Officers. But, of course, the national Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, has said there can be an easing of restrictions across our internal borders. He said that –

MICHAEL ROWLAND

[Interrupts] But it's up to the states. The Prime Minister said it was up to the Premiers when it comes to the question of schools. It is ultimately up to the Premiers and the Chief Ministers?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Quite correct and of course, there's always been that competitive federalism, you know, we've always had the argy-bargy between the states. We'll work through it. We'll work through it. But what we've done very successfully so far is keep the case rates and keep the mortality rates very low. We are the envy of the world in that regard. Look, I appreciate that states will have their different reasons for their different restrictions. That's understandable. But if we do want a domestic airline to continue and to resume very quickly, then one way of doing it is to ease those border restrictions. Understanding that trucks are getting through, so that's important. And I appreciate the efforts that the Premiers and the State Transport Ministers have gone to in that regard. But, look, I'm sure that the states will take on board the best medical advice and make the decisions right for them.

MICHAEL ROWLAND

We'll leave it there. Michael McCormack, thank you so much for joining us.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Thanks, Michael.

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