Transcript - Interview with Katie Woolf, Mix 104.9 Darwin

KATIE WOOLF

There is always a lot of information to get through when the budget is handed down and that was certainly the case yesterday. But there may be more in the Federal budget for Territorians and those living in regional Australia than we’d initially noticed. The Federal Budget has committed $2 billion to water infrastructure spending and workers who are prepared to go to regional Australia for at least six weeks could get a relocation payment.

Now joining me on the line to talk more about this is the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack. Good morning.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Good morning, Katie.

KATIE WOOLF

Now Deputy PM as part of that $2 billion for water infrastructure what’s been earmarked for the Northern Territory?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, we’ll be working with the Northern Territory Government. Of course, they bring forward their priority projects. We cannot build damn and water infrastructure without the States and Territories, working with them cooperatively and collaboratively. Look, I appreciate there’s been a Northern Territory election recently. I appreciate the fact that Labor won that election. I have reached out to Michael Gunner and congratulated him. I was pleased to see that he’s roundly welcomed the budget and what it meant for the Northern Territory. So, I’ll work with Eva Lawler and make sure that for those infrastructure projects – whether it’s water, whether it’s roads – that we do it for the benefit of Territorians. Now, I’ve spoken to Lia Finocchiaro. She’s delighted with it as well, with the budget.

So, where we can identify collectively water infrastructure potential, then I’m happy to progress it. If there’s business cases already done, so much the better. If we can get shovels in the ground sooner, let’s go. I know the Northern Territory has a lot of water. I appreciate that it’s got a lot of agricultural potential and resources, too. The mining industry of course, it too needs a lot of water. So, we want to make sure that those CSIRO-identified areas for water in the top end are fully explored and let’s get it happening. As you say, $2 billion on top of the one-and-a-half billion dollars. We’ve got the National Water Grid in place. It’s been operating well. We’ve got Chris Lynch heading up an eight-person advisory panel. And I’m pretty excited about this.

KATIE WOOLF

How soon would you like some of that work to get under way here in the Territory?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, how soon is tomorrow? I mean, this is pretty important. So look, I’ll be working with local stakeholders, working with the Government of the day to, you know, fast track this now.

KATIE WOOLF

And I did note as well that there’s also been an allocation of $17.4 million over two years. It is for relocation assistance. So basically, with a forecasted labour shortage in the farming sector it will, no doubt, be a welcome announcement. But is this all about trying to get people to move to regional Australia?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Yes. Totally. I mean, there are 45,600 jobs in regional Australia – Northern Territory included – as identified by the Regional Australia Institute. We want those positions filled. We want people to come from the capital cities to go to regional areas. And there are good jobs, not just in resources, not just in agriculture, but in so many areas of endeavour. And having been to the Northern Territory a number of times as a Minister and certainly as Deputy Prime Minister and just in recent times, you know, I see the potential. I see the number of jobs just singing out, “Fill me. Occupy my seat in this office.” We want to make sure that those business people who’ve made the investment and made the commitment in the Northern Territory that they can get those positions filled.

KATIE WOOLF

So how exactly will this work? As I understand it, this money is going to be spent providing a one-off relocation rebate up to $6,000 for those workers prepared to go regional for at least, well, I’m not sure, what period of time? And how are you sort of going to entice people?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

There are all sorts of conditions around it of course. But ultimately, at the end of the day, we want to help people relocate. And the Northern Territory, yes, for some people who are, say, on the eastern seaboard, that’s a long way. It’s a long way from where they’re used to. It’s a long way potentially from their home. Make a new home. Anybody who’s gone to the Northern Territory – and I bump into them every time I go up there – and they say, “Oh, yeah, I came here for three months in 1976, you know and I’m still here. I came here, you know in the 1980s for a one-year maternity leave appointment” – you know, whatever the case might be – “and I’ve stayed here. You know, I’ve met someone. I’ve fallen in love. I’ve raised a family.” Why would you want to live anywhere else?

KATIE WOOLF

Well, it happens so often. And I think that, you know, this is the whole thing. We see that our capital cities are obviously overflowing and you know, there’s not enough infrastructure in place in a lot of cases to actually deal with that. But then in regional parts of Australia very often we’re screaming out for people to fill jobs. Are we still classing –

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, we’re investing in the Tiger Brennan Drive. But let me tell you, if you are going from one side of the capital, Darwin, to the other for work, you’re not going to be sitting in traffic for an hour and a half.  That’s not the case if you live in Brisbane, Melbourne, or Sydney, is it, Katie?

KATIE WOOLF

No, that’s right. Deputy PM. Are we still in a situation though, where the likes of the Gold Coast are being classed as regional?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, the Gold Coast, yes, for some programs, yes. And you have to look at the Gold Coast and say it’s been pretty hard hit. It’s been pretty hard hit by Annastacia Palaszczuk closing the borders and keeping them tightly closed for months and that has really had an impact on their businesses, on their psyche, on their mental health.

KATIE WOOLF

There’s no doubt. But, I guess, to somebody sitting in Tennant Creek this morning or in Katherine, they would be thinking, well, regional is very different in those areas to what it is on the Gold Coast or in Burleigh.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

There is some hinterland areas of the Gold Coast, too. To be fair, there are some hinterland areas. And I know I speak to Karen Andrews and Stuart Robert and Angie Bell all the time about their issues around Gold Coasters. I appreciate for something of those living in Tennant Creek and Katherine or wherever else you mentioned in the Top End, yes, they probably say, “Well, they’re not regional. We are. Look at us. You know, we’ve got dust in our streets, they’ve got sand and surf etcetera.”

But they are, by and large, also needing that assistance at the moment and that’s what our budget does. It doesn’t leave any Australian behind. It looks after all of those areas right across the nation, metropolitan, too. They’re doing it tough. Look at the lockdowns in Melbourne. I have a daughter who teaches in Melbourne and being shut up for 23 of 24 hours a day in a small apartment, well, it ain’t nice.

KATIE WOOLF

No, it would be terrible.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

I wouldn’t like to be doing it and I’m amazed she’s kept her spirits up as well as she has. Moving out of a classroom, it’s all right for the year 12s, they’ve got a big future ahead of them. But for rowdy year 7s, she tells me it’s sometimes a tad more difficult. We all know what we were like when we were in year 7.

KATIE WOOLF

Absolutely. I reckon it would be very tough and we certainly are thinking of all those Aussies that are locked up.

Now I just want to move to another issue though, that we’ve been speaking about here in the Territory, and that is mango pickers. Now Senator Sam McMahon has had a crack at the Chief Minister accusing him of putting the Northern Territory’s mango harvest in jeopardy by refusing to allow seasonal workers to quarantine on farms. The CLP Senator said the Territory’s mango industry was at risk of having more than $50 million of mangoes left to rot on the ground due to that ongoing worker shortage. She’s blamed the Northern Territory Government for the crisis because she reckons, they’ve refused to lift those quarantine restrictions for fruit pickers travelling from overseas and interstate. She went on to say some of our NT mango producers have very good facilities that are suited for on-farm quarantine. She went on to say this would allow these workers to harvest the crop while undergoing quarantine, yet Michael Gunner is blocking this as an option. Isn’t the arrival though, of international workers a federal issue?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Yes, but the quarantine issues are very much also a State and Territory-based decision. So yes, I fully agree with Senator McMahon. She is a fierce and proud and fighting advocate for all things Northern Territorian and on this she’s right. I mean, if we can put in place measures by which we can get seasonal workers in from areas which have been largely and relatively COVID free and certainly agreeing to those hotspot three by three issues and we have those resolved and we can ensure the integrity of the quarantine when they do arrive on farm, then why wouldn’t you for the sake of the economy, for the sake of those farmers and for the sake of the best mangos anywhere in the world do that?

KATIE WOOLF

So, do you reckon the Chief Minister and the Government really need to change their minds on this? They should be allowing those farmers to have those fruit pickers stay on site?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Particularly if they can guarantee the integrity of their quarantining, yes.

KATIE WOOLF

Okay. Now just finally this morning, I do want to talk to you about the Northern Territory’s representation in Federal Parliament. It is looking at though this is going to come to a head. Barnaby Joyce broke ranks earlier this week supporting that Labor motion in Parliament. Now a bill which was before – well, it’s now been delayed, as I understand it –

MICHAEL McCORMACK

When you say, “broke ranks”, I mean, I’m in the Nationals and I had a statement back in August. I had what’s called an opinion piece in the wonderful NT News – my favourite newspaper – extolling the virtues of more regional representation, not less. So, I agree, the Northern Territory should have two representatives in the House, two House of Representatives people. I appreciate at the moment they’re both Labor. When I was in Darwin, I caught up with both of them, had coffee. In fact, I had more than one coffee. And I understand that regional representation is important. I come from the regions, I live in the regions, I live my life espousing the value and virtue of the regions and I will go on doing that. And the Prime Minister knows my view on Northern Territory representation and you know what – he agrees. I mean, we still have to get the report back from the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters about the representation for the Northern Territory. What I’d like to see is the Northern Territory grow its population such that it doesn’t even come into question. But we’ll put a bill forward that ensures that there is two-seat representation for the Northern Territory. Because I tell you what, if I was living in Darwin, I wouldn’t like to be traipsing backwards and forwards all the time in the car to Alice, to Tennant Creek. You need two representatives. It’s a massive, massive area. I know my electorate is six hours from top to bottom. I know how hard it is for me as a just when I was a backbench member getting around my electorate let alone now as the Deputy Prime Minister and with ministerial responsibilities. I know how Luke and Warren, they need to get out and, more importantly, people need accessibility to them. They need to be able to – when they want to see their member about an issue, they need to have that face-to-face contact. And if you’re representing an area as large or larger than some European countries, it makes it so much more difficult. So I’ll always be in there fighting hard for regional representation. The Prime Minister knows that. The Parliament knows that. I’m sure anybody who has read my thoughts and views in the NT News or heard me on Northern Territory television or radio – your wonderful program – knows full well where I stand. And there will be, there will be, here’s the assurance, two seats for the Northern Territory going forward.

KATIE WOOLF

You legend. That is exactly what we want to hear. I think it’s so very important to Territorians. We want to make sure that there are those two representatives and I tell you what, that will be music to people’s ears.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

This wouldn’t have happened either without Sam McMahon’s representation. She gets in there and she – I’ve never heard Labor actually really arcing up about regional representation –

KATIE WOOLF

Well, Malarndirri McCarthy has. Malandari McCarthy has certainly been – she has been really advocating for this to happen –

MICHAEL McCORMACK

The rest of Labor don’t. Yes, I’ll concede and I’ll agree, and good people –

KATIE WOOLF

You are fired up this morning, Deputy PM and I tell you what – so you are guaranteeing that we will have those two House of Reps seats? We will maintain those?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Yes. Underline it and put a couple of exclamation marks after it if you like.

KATIE WOOLF

Excellent. I will be doing that. Well, Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, always good to catch up with you. We really appreciate your time today. Thank you.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Have a great day.

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