Transcript - Charters Towers Media Conference

FRANK BEVERIDGE

Welcome here today to Charters Towers. The rain here’s for a very small period of time the first time in three weeks. I’d like to welcome the Acting Prime Minister, the Minister and Senator and the Member for Kennedy, Bob Katter. We truly have some big guns here – not just the ones behind you and we're very happy today to be talking about the Big Rocks Weir. Thank you very much for everyone attending.

SENATOR SUSAN McDONALD

I'm so excited to have the Acting Prime Minister for Australia, Michael McCormack to join us here in Charters Towers today. I knew he was really keen to get to the North, to get to regional Australia during this time. It shows just show what a priority regional and remote Australia particularly coming out of COVID. Also very pleased to have Keith Pitt, Minister for Resources and Water and, of course, most importantly, Northern Australia. We have the Member for Kennedy here, and of course Mayor Frank Beveridge.

It's just great to be here to be talking about the most important thing we can be talking about which is water. Water assets, water infrastructure. And the construction of the Big Rocks Weir here, just outside of Charters Towers, is critical. It's critical to the development of North Queensland. It is only a small project of 10,000 megalitres. But we have experienced irrigators in this region, we've got great soil. And as we saw earlier today we've got the mighty Burdekin River that delivers a huge amount of water each Wet Season. And we've just seen an example of that. The Mayor’s talked about the great season that's kicked off and we hope to see more rain right across North Queensland and Northern Australia.

But this is a great project, it’s been a project that’s been a long time in coming and I think the mayor will be able to talk to you about it being around 30 years ago, people have been talking about building Big Rock here in the North. It's a natural site to build it. Low environment impacts; the river runs back into the riverbed. And it makes a lot of sense in building this project because this is just the starting point. The partnership between the Federal Government's $30 million, and the state's commitment will allow this to be a first site, a first example of starting to build dams again in Northern Queensland. Whether it be here, in Richmond, in Hughenden, in Cloncurry, Uranna Dam. We've got the right projects, ready to go. Big Rocks Weir is the proving point for testing. And I'm very excited to have leaders of this government of the Australian Government here.

KEITH PITT

Great to be here with the DPM, of course Frank Beveridge, Bob Katter and everyone else. But once again as we come into 2021, unfortunately, it looks to be another year that we'll be managing the COVID outbreak, looking to continue to keep Australians safe and secure. And more importantly, ensuring that we do provide that opportunity for the economy to grow, to build and to drive jobs. And right now, there's no better place to be than regional Australia, and I say to all those who are watching, whether you're looking at Big Rocks, or whether you're looking at a lot of water infrastructure projects, whether it's gas or resources, there is an opportunity for you, your family, your business to be in regional Australia, to not be in lockdown, to be operational and be competitive, internationally, right across the world.

But once again, we find that we have Premiers that continue to be consistently inconsistent, consistently inconsistent. Now in business there are very few things more damaging than that inconsistent approach. It’s been very difficult for the past year. We want to ensure we have that consistent approach, and I say to the Premiers it’s past time: get your heads together and find a consistent way to deal with COVID, it is here, it will not be able to be eliminated. Quite simply it’s a fact on all the advice that we have now. What we have now is Premiers with different rules and different divisions, who are making Australians refugees in their own country. And the fact you went to visit your family, the fact you took all year to plan to for a holiday and to find yourself locked out from your own home in your own state, well, I just find that the wrong decision, and we need to find a better way to manage that. Now we all have to work together. But we also have to ensure that we continue to drive our economy and provide opportunities for our kids who have also been impacted over the last year. And we know that there are opportunities in regional Australia. We want more growth. We want to ensure we continue to build on Australia's strengths and resources and gas and agriculture. To do that we need investment and investment needs confidence.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Thank you, Keith and I do also want to acknowledge Senator Susan McDonald for her great advocacy that she provides for all Queensland, but particularly regional Queensland. Acknowledge the great work that Keith Pitt is doing for Northern Australia for water resources, and for resources in general. Regional Australia has fought hard to lead the way during COVID-19. Frank Beveridge, the Mayor of Charters Towers, knows that, Bob Katter the Member for Kennedy, knows that. Obviously, Keith does and so does Susan. We live in regional Australia. We want regional Australia to be its best self. Now back on Christmas Eve, 1871, a young Aboriginal boy, Jupiter Mosman, discovered gold in the soil here in what was to become Charters Towers. Within 10 years, 30,000 people were living in this district, living in this town, eking out an existence. Making sure that they tried to become rich, very quickly. Well, Australia has certainly become rich off the back of resources, and certainly become wealthy on the back of agriculture, and those two industries those two sectors have kept us strong through COVID-19. And they belong in regional Australia.

There is no reason we can’t make Charters Towers great again and no reason – while it's great already, and Frank will tell you it is an absolutely fantastic place to live with a population of around 8,000 in the town and for the 68,000 square kilometres that the Charters Towers regional local government area covers, the population’s about 12,000. Now Frank would like to see a lot more people in Charters Towers, as would I.  We can do it by just adding water, you add water you grow agriculture. I was talking to Michael McKenna earlier – he’s a local irrigator. He wanted to know why we hadn't done it a long time ago. Susan gets me frustrated to, I’m sure, with the take up by the States to deliver water infrastructure.

Well, I was on the phone with Glenn Butcher as I travelled up to Townsville today and we spoke about making sure that we get the delivery done on behalf of the people of Charters Towers, great people, resourceful people, doers, builders, workers. We want to make sure that we get other builders, doers and resourceful people right here in Charters Towers. You wouldn't find a better place in which to live. Northern Australia provides such options and opportunities. Susan goes on about it in parliament all the time. She wears the carpet into my office after more infrastructure, the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure for the greater area of Charters Towers. Frank was telling me earlier, nearly 3,800 kilometres of roads, 3,200 of them unsealed. We want to get on seal some of those roads, if not all of those roads. That's what our delivery is doing, the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure.

But more importantly, the Big Rocks Weir. As Michael McKenna said it’s been way too long. So $30 million commitment, we’ve put on the table. The Queensland Government has matched it. It's now time for the Queensland Government to come on the journey with us and get that first sod turned. Let’s get on and build Big Rocks Weir. Because it's been way too long. Michael McKenna wants to get on and grow the irrigation, almost 500 acres I hope I'm not misquoting you there, that I'm not doing you out of an area that you're producing for our agriculture. David Littleproud will tell you that agriculture – despite COVID, despite the drought, despite the flood, despite everything else – grew from $60 billion to $61 billion in the last 12 months, according to ABARE. So that's great. Keith goes on all the time about how resources is making sure that it grows too. So we want to protect and preserve and promote and build those great regional industries. Regional Australians have been magnificent during that exercise the social distancing, they’ve worn masks when required to do so. They have been very much impacted by decisions in capital cities. Many of these communities have not seen a COVID case, for many months, if at all. But despite the unfair restrictions and limitations placed on business, they have been there they still get their communities largely COVID free, and they've grown despite that, they've been resourceful, they've still importantly, carried the back of Australia. And now, the Australian Government is repaying that faith. We're going to build water infrastructure, we're going to make sure that agriculture can lead to this deal so that farmers like Michael McKenna can grow even more, so that we can have an abattoir, not just 100 kilometres away, but here in Charters Towers. Why not have a feed mill here in Charters Towers. Why just rely on what is in Townsville, Why not have one here in Charters Towers, right in the backyard. There plenty of resourceful people willing to take that risk, to back themselves, to finance their operations. We just need to get on with the job, that's what we're doing. $30 million now matched by the State Government. And I’m very much looking forward to that happening soon.

JOURNALIST

Mr McCormack, $60 million in, two years on from the project’s announcement and yet there's still yet to be a pAssible road into the Big Rocks Weir site, and the contractor hasn't done any rock sampling of that area is this project in danger of stalling.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

We’ll get it going. Rest assured, down south with the Emu Swamp Dam, one of the, one of the problems there was the enabling roads. Well, we found another $6 million to ensure that they were no excuses from them at the time. The Queensland Government, I appreciate it’s still the Premier but a different minister. I worked well with Anthony Lynham and I'm prepared to work well with Glenn Butcher. We’ve shown good faith so far, we've had a number of conversations, not just about Big Rocks but about other projects as well, right around the State. You heard earlier Susan McDonald rattle them off one by one by one. The potential, there is so much potential in Australia. We've got 85 per cent of the water infrastructure down south and 85 per cent of the water up north. Let's get the balance right, let's get Big Rocks Weir done, let’s look at Hells Gate, Hughenden, Urannah Dam all those other projects Susan listed before. We’re prepared, we’re committed, we’re pledging, we’re putting up the money. If it’s just roads that’s the issue, rest assured, I can absolutely assure Frank Beveridge the mayor, we'll get that done

JOURNALIST

Townsville enterprise has been steering the project so far but the committee doesn't include an irrigator, or a member of the local transit house Regional Council. Does that concern you?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, always take on board the advice that I've given by local irrigators. I talked to Michael McKenna earlier. Had a good conversation; happy to swap numbers with him later on and, you know, we'll have those discussions. I’m meeting Townsville Enterprise later today. I want to make sure that we get the best possible projects, the right infrastructure in the right place, you know what, right now and I'm going to do it.

Any other questions about the local water, or any other questions about the local water infrastructure?

JOURNALIST

Government obviously is an important partner in this. On their website update on 16th of December, they've only committed to further environmental studies, and not the construction. What sort of message that you send to the local community here about the ability of the Queensland Government to actually partner with federal government for this project. They chose to dam out at the town of Forsyth I believe that the contractor there that was tasked with building that particular infrastructure has gone into receivership $2 million, owing to local businesses out there. Will the federal government commit to passing the money that was involved with the contingency for the planning and design and construction of Charleston dam onto the council so it can bail out receivables?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

What do when we invest in infrastructure, we rely on the State to do the contracting, to do the work arrangements as far as building infrastructure, no matter whether dams, or roads or rail. We provide a very big cheque in some cases. In other cases, it’s 50-50. For this particular Big Rocks project it's $30 million-$30 million. I appreciate that I understand that situation that you mentioned, we'll certainly look at that. And look, that is very much an agreement at the State Government, understand that Glenn Butcher is working through that. He’s inherited that. We want to make sure that we find out what happened and I'll be making sure that I am seeing what happened in that regard.

JOURNALIST

Have you spoken to Etheridge Shire Council about the issue.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

No.

JOURNALIST

A question from Cairns: Cairns businesses are worried that when JobKeeper ends there’s going to be a big hole left in their income, especially without international tourists. What assurances can you give them, and will the Government look at specialised funding?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well we are providing specialised funding to the sector indeed. We're just rolling out a $200 million Building Better Regions Fund and 537 councils where anyone can invest, they can apply, or they can apply their energies and their submissions to that particular fund, $200 million, half of which is dedicated to helping Tourism. Tourism’s been hard hit, it’s been hard hit by bushfires, by COVID, by drought, still recovering from that. But we want to make sure that those tourism operators have the best possible chance of not just surviving but thriving in future. It’s also up to Premiers and States to play their part. It’s also up to the States to provide a surety by not making hasty decisions and knee jerk reactions when we do have small outbreaks of COVID19. We're going to have that; it’s a global pandemic. Light at the end of the tunnel, vaccine rolling out in February. I spoke to Greg Hunt, the Health Minister at length yesterday, we will get that vaccine rolled out. We will get it rolled out to the vulnerable, into aged care and those sorts of facilities and people first. We're making sure that our frontline medical personnel have the resources they need to fight COVID. But indeed as a Federal Government we've invested heavily. We had a billion dollar particular fund for tourism related businesses. But we will still continue to provide the assistance that businesses need as we go all the way through, and we'll continue to assess the situation, as we've done all the way through.

JOURNALIST

Did you actually seek assurance from the State Water Minister in your conversation that he would assist with construction and design works, enabling those through his state government department?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Very much so and I'm looking forward to working with Glenn Butcher. As I say, I’m happy and willing to work with any ministers of any political persuasion, to get things done and – I’ll just ask my colleagues to block the ears – I had a very productive conversation with Premier Palaszczuk on Saturday about doing just that because I want to get things done. And I know, Susan, Keith, we’re not so political argy bargy that we’ll say we’re not prepared to work with Labor ministers. The Queensland Government has just been reelected. So, you know, good luck to them, we have to work with them, we will work with them. People out there in the main street of Charters Towers, operating businesses in Cairns and Townsville, they don’t care about politics, the argy bargy. They just want to see delivery. Well the Liberal-Nationals Government in Canberra, the government that Scott Morrison leads – we are getting stuff done. We’ve got $110 million, a record amount of infrastructure that we're rolling out across the country. And many of that much of that is with Labor States, but we're getting it done. And we ask Labor States to come on the journey with us in good faith. Let's get things done, not just for the political argy bargy, but for people out there who are desperately needing help to recover and rebuild. And that's what we're doing. That's what I'm about. That's what Senator McDonald's about, that what Minister Pitt’s about, that’s what we're doing.

JOURNALIST

Human rights group have (slammed your comments) about Black Lives Matters … do you think that’s valid.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

No, I don’t think it's valid because I abhor any violence, violence of any form. And the Black Lives Matter protests, as at about mid-last year, cost 19 lives. That’s 19 lives that should not have been lost. Now I'm not going to apologise because I said that violence should not happen from a protest. Irrespective of what the agenda of that protest was, there was violence. There was destruction. There was uninsured property that business owners then had to dig deep into their own pockets to rebuild. And then of course there's lives lost. Well, Amnesty International, and others out there, appreciate there are a lot of people out there who are being bleeding heart about this, they should know that those lives matter too, all lives matter. People shouldn't have to go to a protest and lose their lives. There are 67 names on the War Memorial Honour Board behind us, who went to a war to fight for a freer society, in the future. So, those 102,000 on the War Memorial in Canberra, they went to war so that we could have free speech. But in Australia, we're concentrating on rebuilding our economy on making sure that we've got the health outcomes. Now in America, yeah, there are things going on there at the moment which are very, very unsavoury. But the concentration of the Federal Government, of myself as Acting Prime Minister this week is on rebuilding our economy and protecting lives and and saving livelihoods. That's what I'm about. And that's what I always will be about.

JOURNALIST

Earlier today, you said facts are sometimes contentious and what you might think is right someone else might think is completely untrue. Can you explain to me by that statement giving the definition of a fact is something known or proven true.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well you might look out over there and say the sky is blue and I can see from here it’s grey. You go out from under this rotunda and there are probably blue patches. I mean, there are a lot of subjective things, you know I was asked about a colleague who puts material up on Facebook. Some of what my colleague puts up on Facebook is very much true but people on Twittersphere, they don’t always like it. Well, toughen up I say. I mean, George Christensen is doing a great job for the North. People have different views from time to time. One thing I’ll say about George Christensen and other National party members, about parliamentarians in general, we put our name to things. We put our names to things. We don't always like what’s written about us – there was someone yesterday who wished I got COVID. Okay, that’s his view, pretty nasty view, pretty unsavoury view, I don’t share his views. I’m not going to say he’s right, I’m not going to say he should be censored. But it was anonymous.  So I say to people, I’m glad we’ve got a Government which is investing heavily in eSafety, and I praise Nola Marino, the Member for Forrest in Western Australia, who's gone out of the way to make sure that what is being put online is safe, and especially for children and for adults they should be monitoring what their children are putting online, to make sure they're not being bullied, to make sure in fact they're not bullying themselves. It starts in the family home. It starts with parents, making sure that at least we have this generation so at least the next generation can be a bit better behaved on online.

JOURNALIST

Your colleague Craig Kelly today posted on Facebook compulsory mask mandates are child abuse. Do you agree with that statement.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

No, I don’t.

JOURNALIST

And do you believe that he should take Facebook post down.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

It’s a matter for Craig Kelly. Again, it’s censorship. I'm not in favour of censorship. I’m a former newspaper editor. I don’t believe in censorship. But you’ve also got to be a bit sensible about what you do put online, I always am. But I’m always talking things up, I’m always talking about what we're building, what we're opening, what we plan to do. And most importantly, while here in Charters Towers, I’m listening – not talking at people – but listening to people, to what they have to say. Listening to what's important to them, because regional Australia is at the heart of COVID recovery. Regional Australians have been unfairly impacted by COVID, unfairly impacted by the restrictions placed on them when they've been their best selves. They've worn masks, they've done the right thing. They’ve exercised social distancing, they’ve self-isolated when needed to do so. And they deserve thanks and I’m giving it to them today.

JOURNALIST

Is such information causing panic and fear in the Australian public.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

No, I wouldn’t say so. I don't know how many followers Craig Kelly has on his Facebook or a social media platform, but it’s probably poor compared to perhaps what the mainstream media has. I don’t always agree with what the mainstream media says either.

JOURNALIST

Now experts from the WHO are writing in China this week to begin the investigations into the COVID 19 pandemic. How important is it now for China to cooperate with the investigation and do you believe they will.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, a) it’s important and b) I hope so.

JOURNALIST

And finally, DFAT has bumped some Australians off flights due to arrive back in Brisbane after a reduction in international arrivals announced by the government. What do you say to those people who thought they were coming home.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, there’ve been 430,000 people arrive home since March 13 since Prime Minister Morrison asked and implored Australians to do so. Not all Australians took that advice or request, and many of them have found themselves now having been on a DFAT list to try and get home. But since September 18, we've actually bought home more than 71,000. There’s limited airlines coming to Australia. We've also halved the number of quarantine – or the State Governments have, it’s their jurisdictional responsibility. The number of quarantine places while this very infectious new strain is addressed. We respect the Premiers’ decision to make those quarantine arrangements because it's the responsibility to do so. And we'll work through it. We've done it in a rational and sensible and pragmatic way. We want to see Australians come home. But we are also saying to Australians who are overseas, some of whom have actually bought a ticket and then not presented at the airport, to do the right thing, because what you're doing is actually costing somebody else a seat. So we want those seats on those planes coming into the country to be as full as possible, and we want as many Australians as possible.

JOURNALIST

[Indistinct] Is Australia’s Parliament House prepared to fend off (a protest)?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, I hope so because the last time that happened it was actually unionists. I didn't hear anybody coming out slagging off at the unions or sledging them. I hadn't seen that interestingly over this recent commentary I haven’t seen the unions being bashed up for what happened many years ago, albeit, when they invaded the parliament, and they in fact hurt police officers. But, look, we've, we've made good provisions to ensure that Parliament House’s security has been strengthened. That has even happened even further in recent years, and I'm sure that Australians will do the right thing. I'm sure that Australians are sensible enough to know that what's going on overseas is not the Australian way. And I encourage Australians to, you know, if they want to protest fire a letter to the editor of their local newspaper today. I’m sure they won’t be censored.

JOURNALIST

[Indistinct]

MICHAEL McCORMACK

I don’t want to condemn Donald Trump. For goodness sake. You know, I'm concentrating on helping the economy in Australia to be rebuilt, on helping regional Australia to continue what it has done, and that is to lead the COVID recovery. Our efforts, the efforts of the Morrison-McCormick government, are on Australians, are on making sure that we've got the health outcomes, and the economic achievements in delivery and that's what we're doing.

JOURNALIST

[Indistinct]

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, we as the Government do not go into the reasons why individual cases under the Foreign Investment Review Board have been rebuffed by the Treasurer, whose responsibility it is. As I understand that ProBuild will actually withdrew its application.

The company itself withdrew its application.

JOURNALIST

[Indistinct]

MICHAEL McCORMACK

What I can assure Australians is that the Australian Government will always do what's in the national interest. Josh Frydenberg will always do what he can, what he needs to do in the national interest, in Australia's best interests. He did that with JobKeeper. He did that with JobSeeker. He did that with his Budget which was handed down on the sixth of October. Best Budget ever for regional Australia. So, we're getting on with job of making sure their health outcomes are what they need to be, getting on with the job of rebuilding the economy. That's my focus. That's the focus of Senator McDonald, the focus of Minister Keith Pitt. That's what we're concentrating on rebuilding.

JOURNALIST

[Indistinct]

MICHAEL McCORMACK

People working in health should be required to have the vaccine and that's the case with measles, that's the case with other vaccinations and I agree with the Prime Minister and that's the right approach.

Well, if they’re working in health, they should get the vaccine. It’s there for their own sake. It's there for their own sake for their own benefit, for the benefit of the patients that they are working with and supporting. I would much sooner take the vaccine and take the jab in my arm, then be six weeks down the track be in ICU and wondering and gasping for breath and wondering why I didn't. Thank you very much.

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