Transcript - Interview on ABC Wimmera Radio

8:33AM

REBEKAH LOWE

My guest today is Michael McCormack, who’s the Deputy Prime Minister and also, we have Member for Mallee, Anne Webster, with us this morning. Good morning.

ANNE WEBSTER

Good morning.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Good morning, Rebekah.

REBEKAH LOWE

Good to have you back here. Two years ago, you were here when Anne was a candidate for the Party, wasn’t she?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

She was the candidate then and she’s proven a great local Member, a fierce fighter when she gets to Canberra. I tell you what, there’s not too many local Members who fight as fiercely as Anne.

REBEKAH LOWE

How do you feel hearing that, though, Anne?

ANNE WEBSTER

Well, it’s not the first time I’ve heard it. Look, it’s true. He actually calls me annoying. So that says something about how persistent I am, Rebekah.

REBEKAH LOWE

Now, what are you here for? What’s the actual visit here for?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, I’m just getting around the countryside, obviously talking about the Budget and making sure that people are aware how good it is for the regions and, indeed, it is. But yesterday we had an important sod-turning for work to begin on that beautiful Wimmera River Precinct. That was announced, of course, two years ago when I was last here, but we’re now going to get on with the job and actually do the work now that planning is very much over and work is going to begin. So that’s pretty special.

REBEKAH LOWE

So, two years ago you announced some funding to help get that project started and the sort of research into that project. So, what is the Government giving towards that project now?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, what we’re doing is we’re making sure that work can begin. It’s a multi-million dollar project when you look at the various stages. But the first stage is going to be for a new ablutions block, it’s going to also have pathways and walkways. We want the river to be a go-to area, a destination point and for way too long people have just looked at that river precinct and yes, it’s been nice, there’s been some park benches and one thing or another, but it hasn’t actually attracted people. We want there to be and the Council wants there to be a café there and for people to go there. I know that Australia Day activities are held there but we want to beautify the area and that’s just what’s going to happen.

REBEKAH LOWE

And how important is it for you to actually see these things on the ground rather than just be told through Anne about projects like this?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, it’s important because you can see your money at work. And whether it’s the Building Better Regions Fund, which in last week’s Budget was now extended to a quarter of a billion dollars, whether it’s those various projects that we fund throughout the area, indeed, the programs that we put in place either through the Budget or other processes, it’s great to actually get out and not only look at the projects but, indeed, talk to people and more importantly, even listen to people about what their needs and expectations are going forward because we need to see workers on site. We need to actually get some of the roadworks happening.

And look, I’m happy to work with state governments of any political persuasion to do just that. Indeed, in the Budget last week there was another $1 billion towards the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure. I know how important that is to get those smaller roadworks done, whether they’re in suburban areas such as Horsham or whether they’re out on the those country roads putting a lick of bitumen or asphalt on a road that has never actually seen that and have been dusty roads for way too long. $73.5 million to the 12 councils within the Mallee, the region, the electorate, that Anne so proudly represents. That’s significant money and it’s significant money not only to improve and upgrade the safety aspects of the roads – and, of course, it is National Road Safety Week – but also to get workers on site.

REBEKAH LOWE

So, let’s talk about that. Anne, when we spoke to you last week about the roads funding, the detail wasn’t written yet. So, what will be going for this area road wise? I believe Stawell to the border road is one of the most in need. We have a lot of callers ringing in about that, just complaining about that road. So how much money will be going towards that?

ANNE WEBSTER

There’s $13.8 million between Stawell and the border on the Western Highway, so it’s part of the $60 million commitment to that stretch of road. So, people who are living along there will be very pleased about that. The other road that we stood on the corner of, if there’s a corner – I don’t think there really is a corner – is the Horsham Junction and $4 million is going into that corner. Eighteen thousand trucks go through that space every day, which is just phenomenal. So, that will be very pleasing, too. It’s quite a dangerous – people who live in Horsham, of course, know that. It’s quite a treacherous corner. So that’s good news.

REBEKAH LOWE

So, what exactly will that money do, particularly the highway one? What will that money actually do?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, what it’s going to do, it’s going to provide a new roundabout and that’s going to make the intersection easier to navigate for all motorists. So that’s on the intersection of the Western Highway, the Henty Highway and the Golf Course Road. Anne mentioned the 18,000 vehicles through there. I think they actually passed there yesterday whilst we were there. It was just bedlam. And what we want to make sure is that that particular intersection is easier to navigate.

REBEKAH LOWE

Okay. What about the highway itself? You said – is it $60 million to –

MICHAEL McCORMACK

$60 million all up as part of the Roads of Strategic Importance. So, some of that money has already been rolled out. This $13.8 million as part of last week’s Budget that was allocated to that particular stretch and so that’s as part of the Roads of Strategic Importance, but perhaps just as importantly we’ve laid out last week in the Budget another $1 billion on top of the $2 billion that we allocated last year for road safety upgrades and, as I say, it is National Road Safety Week. All too often regional people are over-represented in those road toll statistics and we want to make sure, whether it’s just little things, like those audio tactile lines, whether it’s the grade separations, you know, the rumble strips, whatever the case might be, only little things, but they create work for local councils and others, but also, importantly, they save lives and particularly regional lives. Because, as I say, too many times country people are dying on our roads and getting injured and you know, we need to as we work towards Vision Zero get those road safety upgrades and that’s why we’ve put a $3 billion commitment in just the last 12 months.

REBEKAH LOWE

My guest today is Michael McCormack, Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, and also, we have Member for Mallee, Anne Webster, with us this morning in the studio.

Let’s talk about what else are you here to announce and who else are you going to see? Because you’re stopping in Warracknabeal, I believe, or you have stopped in Warracknabeal?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Yes, we’ve got a few places to visit today and very much looking forward to that and it’s really important to actually, as we did last night, talk to some businesspeople, listen to some businesspeople. There are some great things going on in this area and we want to make sure that, you know, when I get around that cabinet table that you take what you’ve learnt from these visits and put it into play when you are actually allocating money, when you are for such things as that Building Better Regions Fund. I can’t impress upon listeners enough how important that is. It gives local councils, their local communities, the opportunity to apply for funds and to build the sorts of community infrastructure that is going to enhance their areas.

Whether it’s little places like Patchewollock or whether it’s the larger regional centres such as Horsham where we are at right now, they make such a difference to building the lifestyles of those people. The Regional Australia Institute has identified not only the fact that there are 66,000 job vacancies the regional Australia at the moment, many of those in regional Victoria, they’re in law firms, they’re in accountancy practices, good-paying jobs, but also 43,000 people who once lived in the metropolitan areas last year made the choice, the lifestyle choice, to move to a regional area. And so, we want to make these regional areas more liveable, more accessible and better places for services and amenities for those people who are moving out of the cities into our regions.

REBEKAH LOWE

There’s no doubt that the National Party has pushed for many years for decentralisation and to get people out to the regions and to actually encourage business to open up in the regions. But COVID-19 certainly has given a bit of a boost to the regions because of people wanting to move out to the country and buy homes and so forth. But that actually has pushed up the price of homes. There’s not enough homes on the market now. It’s actually pushed up rents as well.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Rental prices, yes.

REBEKAH LOWE

Rental prices are just going through the roof at the moment.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

So, there was significant money in the Budget last week for that. And to even allow, well, single parent families to have just 2 per cent deposit to actually be able to get into the housing market through the various programs that were announced by Josh Frydenberg but pushed along by Michael Sukkar, the Housing Minister in the Federal Parliament. But it’s also a state responsibility as well. So, we’ll work with states, just like we do with infrastructure, just like we do with all aspects of life, to make sure that we get those housing options out there. And I know there’s a Victorian State Budget coming up very, very soon. And, you know, it’s up to and incumbent upon the Victorian Government to pull their weight in that regard as well.

REBEKAH LOWE

But then also when people move out here and they say we’ve got a good lifestyle but then there are struggles with things like transport, medical services, things like that, so how does the Government make sure that those sort of services are maintained to retain people in the regions?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, Mark Coulton, the Regional Health Minister, is certainly making sure that we get more doctors for the bush. I know Anne has been fighting for that ever since she got into Parliament and even before that. She’s spent a lifetime making sure that medical services are what they need to be in our regional areas. And whether it’s Mildura, whether it’s Horsham or anywhere in between, that’s a priority for The Nationals, it’s a priority for the Government. We want to make sure that these regional areas are very liveable.

We talk about housing prices. I can recall when I first got married in 1986 paying more than 21 per cent for our first home. And so, I tell you what, if they were paying anywhere between 18 and 21 per cent now there’d be rioting in the streets. So, everything is relative, but we want to make sure that people who do want to get into their first home or indeed, have fallen on hard times and you know, need a rental property or just a roof over their heads, that they have that ability and that dignity to be able to do that.

REBEKAH LOWE

The Labor Party committed to setting up an Australian Housing Future Fund to build social and affordable housing in its Budget reply speech and it wants to spend $10 billion in this fund of building 30,000 affordable housing rental homes in the first five years. Why is this Government – why has the Government only committed to projects that make it easy for low-income earners to buy existing homes and when there’s a shortage of supply in regional areas?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, we already a significant program in place, as I said, through Michael Sukkar for low-income earners to get into their first home. We’ve certainly put in place measures in this year’s Budget to address that as well. But, you know, people can look at both sides of politics on their merits. There will be an election no doubt in the next 12 or so months and people can weigh up whether they believe that we’ve got the right policies and programs in place or, indeed the alternative, which is higher taxes and that’s the Labor way. They’re going to tax people through the hip pocket. We believe that more people should have more of the money that they earn to spend on the things that they want. That’s our policies, that’s our philosophies. That’s what we took to the last election and I’m proud of the fact that I am in a National Party and indeed, in a Coalition that is making sure that people are paying less tax, that have that dignity of a job and, as I say, there are 66,000 jobs in regional Australia right now. And I urge and encourage anybody listening to look around, have a look at the RAI website to see where there are jobs available and what there is in the Budget for them by visiting australia.gov.au.

REBEKAH LOWE

I want to talk about the immunisation, the COVID-19 immunisation. If a person under 50 with a chronic health condition and is recommended that they have the Pfizer vaccine, the national website says that they can attend Mount Gambier or Murray Bridge to get it. Now, [inaudible] also has come up with those in the Northern Mallee. Now, we’re already having trouble getting people over the border this year. So why aren’t local towns getting supplies quicker?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, DHL is actually getting the doses out to regional areas. I’m pleased with the fact that Saul Resnick from the DHL organisation contacts me every other day to update me as to how that roll out is going. Now Professor Brendan Murphy, who was the Chief Medical Officer, now he’s the Secretary of the Department of Health, he has said that this is the largest peacetime logistical exercise in Australia’s history and it is a huge exercise. I know there are also many doctors’ surgeries and GP practices which have got more doses than they’ve got patients at the moment. So, you know, there’s a balance there that we need to strike.

I know there’s more than 3 million Australians have already had their first jab and I encourage those Australians, particularly those over 50s who are part of this latest tranche, to get their vaccine, but to call ahead to their GP clinic to make sure the vaccine is available and then to get the jab.

REBEKAH LOWE

But is it right for people in Victoria having to travel to South Australia to get the Pfizer vaccine if they’re under the age of 50, though? Shouldn’t they be getting them, like, in Mildura and places like that?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, look, certainly those particular incidences, we’ll advise Greg Hunt and see what we can do as far as that’s concerned. Look, as I say, this is a large logistical exercise and I appreciate that some South Australians come to Victoria and vice versa for their health services anyway. I mean, state borders shouldn’t define who we are or where we go to get easy access to various services, whether its health or whatever the other case might be. And I know Anne complained bitterly last year – appropriately and rightly – about the fact that many people in the west and north of her electorate were facing difficulties having to abide by rules set in Melbourne when they were a long, long way from Melbourne and indeed, closer to services in South Australia for the various lifestyle options that they chose. So, our state borders should not define us as part of the service roll out for the vaccine or anything else.

REBEKAH LOWE

So, what happens if the borders do close during this period of time?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, we’re hoping that they don’t close and I certainly had a good, long conversation with Premier Steven Marshall about that yesterday. South Australia have been an exemplar as far as what to do and how to go about making sure that the borders remained open as much as possible. Look, this is very difficult and I get that Premiers get very nervous. Sometimes they’ve become almost too over-reactionary as far as COVID-19 is concerned when you consider what is taking place overseas. But they’ve done what they think is best as far as their public health outcomes are concerned. I appreciate that. I get that. They have jurisdictional responsibility for that.

But, we’ve kept our case rates very low. So far, we’ve had 910 deaths – that’s very, very sad, of course, for those 910 families, but when you compare what we’ve been able to manage and do with any other country in the world we’ve done pretty well and thank you to Australians, particularly regional Australians for abiding by the rules set.

REBEKAH LOWE

The Victorian Government is due to hand down its Budget on Thursday and the Federal Government has asked the State Government to match a $5 million commitment to come up with a plan to standardise the rest of the Murray-Darling Basin Rail project. So, why is this needed?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, we’ve so far put hundreds of millions of dollars down towards this project. You know, it’s important and I know Anne wants the best outcome, as do particularly the farmers and the communities that rely on that freight rail. Now, Murray Basin has been a vexed issue. As I say, we’ve put down considerable money, it’s now up to the Victorian State Government and Jacinta Allan to match what we’ve asked to do and to get that important piece of nation-building infrastructure because, you know, the farmers of the Mallee, the farmers for that particular area, need that freight rail to get their grain to port, to market, so that they can make a profit, so that they can have the options that they’ve needed for so long. Now, you know, we’ve put down another $200 million on top of the previous $240 million commitment. That is more than $400 million and of course, there’s more work to do.

REBEKAH LOWE

So, what if the State Government don’t step up with their part of the –

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, I’m hoping they do and I’ve had that conversation many times with Minister Allan. I appreciate we work in good faith with the Victorian Government. We need them to step up to the plate. There’s a Budget coming up and it’s up to them now to stump up.

REBEKAH LOWE

Let’s talk about water projects because $22.3 million for eight new water projects nationwide is in this Budget, including the Coliban in Bendigo. So how close is the West Grampians pipeline business case to being funded?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, I’m always hopeful and I’m always looking to state governments to bring those business cases forward, to bring those projects forward. We’ve got the National Water Grid Authority set up in October 2019. If states want to and if Lisa Neville wants to plonk something on my table and say, “This is what we need funded. We’ve got the business case, let’s get going.” I’m more than happy to play ball. Whether it’s West Grampians, whether it’s South West Loddon, Mitiamo, you know, we’ve proven that we’re very reliable in this space. Water is the lifeblood for these communities. I get that. Anne is a fighter for better irrigation, for a stronger and more adaptable Murray-Darling Basin Plan. You know, we’re willing to play in this space so long as we’ve got state partners who are going to come on the journey with us. Again, there’s an expectation and obligation on state governments to be able to do that with us. We can’t build water infrastructure on our own. That’s the way the federated model of government that we operate under was set up in 1901. More than happy to talk with Victorian ministers, as I do on a regular basis, but they’ve got to show us the colour of their money.

REBEKAH LOWE

And finally, in March you announced an additional $1.7 million with the State to support the Mildura Airport. Many of them used it to pay staff who didn’t qualify for JobKeeper. Will you continue to fund more regional travel?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, we will and we’ve already put down $4.5 billion for aviation services and I’m proud of the fact that for many of those, that Regional Airline Network Support and Domestic Aviation Network Support – RANS and DANS – that actually enabled planes to land in places where they otherwise would not have to bring face masks, to bring respiratory equipment and perhaps most importantly, frontline medical personnel. So, I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do in that regard.

Yes, we will continue to look at what we need to do. We’ll continue to take those soundings from our valued regional communities as to what they need in the future. Obviously, we’ll look at the situation with COVID and how the vaccine is rolling out and how everything else is occurring. But also just as importantly, we’ve got a Regional Airport Upgrade Program. We’ve had two rounds of that and more than happy to look at what we can do for that in the future to upgrade those air strips, whether they’re remote or whether they’re more regional and more used by airlines and by charters, more than happy to look at it in the future.

ANNE WEBSTER

I might say too, John Sharp, the Deputy Chair of REX was in my office in Canberra last week and he said without the Government’s support, REX would not have survived through COVID. So, you know, the Government’s support for our airline industry has been immense.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Virgin wouldn’t have survived. It’s as simple as that. And now we’ve got two viable – John Sharp will tell us three – carriers doing those domestic routes and looking to expand and look, it’s been difficult. Aviation was hit first and hit hardest. It’s been very troubling, but we’ve provided that support that’s kept the aviation sector going.

REBEKAH LOWE

And time will tell if it will recover fully, so. All right, thank you very much for your time.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Thanks Rebekah.

REBEKAH LOWE

I know you’ve got another function to head to at 9 o’clock this morning.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Hopetoun, Woodbine, here we come.

ANNE WEBSTER

That’s right.

REBEKAH LOWE

All right, lovely to see you again. Thank you so much for stopping by. Michael McCormack is the Deputy Prime Minister and also Anne Webster, the Member for Mallee. Thank you very much.

ENDS 8:52AM

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