Transcript - Pacific Highway Press Conference

KEVIN HOGAN

It’s wonderful to be here today on what is a very significant day today with the upgrade of the Ballina to Woolgoolga section of the Pacific Highway. So great to see Paul McDonald here, the General Manager, Robert Mustow the Richmond Valley Mayor, Eoin Johnston the Deputy Mayor of Ballina, my good friend and colleague, the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, Michael McCormack, and Chris Gulaptis [Inaudible].

As I said, an exceptionally significant day. What we’re doing here is reviewing the opening of this section, this 34-kilometre section of the highway, which will be opening hopefully before the school holidays. And this 34-kilometre section as we know bypasses Wardell, Broadwater and Woodburn. This highway has always and will always be about the fact that we wanted to reduce fatalities on this highway and where it has been duplicated, fatalities are at an all-time low, this section will continue that [inaudible]. Once it opens it’s going to be great for tourism and for all the locals throughout the region as well. So I can’t wait. In a week or two Woodburn will not get traffic jams every school holidays and Christmas time, you can’t go to any of the joints because of the multi-kilometre backlog that it was. But it’s great today in the development of this highway.

CHRIS GULAPTIS

Well, good morning everybody, it’s terrific to have the Deputy Prime Minister here along with all the other stakeholders in what is a mammoth infrastructure project that has been so important for the Northern Rivers and for the North Coast. Because we’ve had multiple fatalities on this Pacific Highway for decades and it’s about time it’s been upgraded to a 21st century road, and that’s what we’ve got right now.

We’re going to see a decrease in fatalities. We’re going to see more comfort when you’re travelling to and from the capital cities. And, of course, you’re going to see the transport industry being able to operate with full productivity.

So look, full credit to the Commonwealth Government, to the New South Wales State Government for their collaboration on this as well as, of course, with all the other stakeholders, the councils that are involved. Because this is their turf and we are here and we respect what they’re trying to do for their communities to keep their communities safe. It’s a great thing. Great things happen when we work collaboratively together. We can see that today. So, look, thank you to everybody that’s here today for this momentous occasion.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, fantastic to be here with the Assistant Minister but perhaps, most importantly, the Member for Page, Kevin Hogan. Chris Gulaptis, who of course is the Member for Clarence and he’s also the Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Roads and Infrastructure and of course, Deputy Mayor Eoin Johnston and Robert Mustow the Mayor.

We know how important that building roads is not just to getting people home sooner but getting them home safer. Since the Pacific Highway upgrades began the road toll has been halved. And the Federal Government – the Liberals and Nationals, when we returned to government in 2013 – we’ve invested $5.64 billion into what is the largest regional roads upgrade in the country. And that’s significant because we want to get people where they need to be sooner and when the Pacific Highway upgrades are all completed, it’s going to mean that people can get from Hexham to the Queensland border in two and a half hours less time than they would have before the actual program started.

This is a significant project – 3,800 direct jobs, 11,400 indirect jobs supported by Pacific Highway upgrade. And of course, as we all know, through COVID-19 the one thing that is going to help this country recover is regional Australia, it’s jobs in regional Australia. That’s what it’s all about. We’re getting on with building a better nation as part of our $100 billion record amount of infrastructure that we are investing in right across this great nation. I would have said wide brown land but it’s pretty green and it’s pretty wet at the moment, but this is a significant day, not just for local residents, not just for the three communities that are going to be bypassed but indeed, for the entire nation. The Pacific Highway is such a critical and crucial road for our freight traffic, for our tourism, for everything that is to do with Australia. We know that for far too long there have been far too many tragedies on this highway, and we’re getting that fixed.

ROBERT MUSTOW

[Inaudible] This has been a long time coming black spot between Grafton and Woodburn and the safety of our travellers is paramount [Inaudible]. The council has done a lot to keep the economy going in those towns, we have upgrades [Inaudible] the economy there so hopefully going to kick along but that’s going to take a while. So thank you very much to the Government for this and it is well received by our local communities.

EION JOHNSTON

I’ll be very brief, no more than 45 minutes. On behalf of Ballina Shire Council I do thank everyone for attending today. But more importantly, I thank the politicians, the planners, the engineers, the machine operators, all the people that came together and obviously the taxpayers that paid for it all to make this wonderful road what it should be as recommended by [Inaudible]. It’s taken a long time. Hopefully it will save lives. It won’t save people from driving irresponsibly but that’s up to them, we can do no more than what we’re doing and thank you all involved.

JOURNALIST

How important is this upgrade especially on days like today? 

MICHAEL McCORMACK

People should always drive to the conditions but, of course, when we do have wet weather, when we do have weather that is not conducive to driving the way in which we would normally drive 110 kilometres an hour, depending on, of course the freeway. We need to make sure that we drive to the conditions. But when you’ve got better roads and when you’ve got better cars [Inaudible] better infrastructure, better vehicles, of course, it does reduce the road toll.

It’s up to not just drivers, it’s also up to those passengers. I always say this, if you are in a car where somebody is actually doing the wrong thing as a driver, tell them. Make sure you tell them,and particularly on a day such as this, R U OK Day, we need to be mindful of asking people are they okay, should they be driving. Do they have substances in their system? It just makes good sense. And we want to get everybody from home to work, work to home, wherever they’re going, on holidays of course, the Pacific Highway is the destination for so many people, whether they’re travelling to Queensland, whether they’re travelling to those wonderful spots in the mid-north coast of northern New South Wales. There are many, many great places to see across Australia and as we come out the back of COVID and international travel which of course is very, very limited, people this year are going to be holidaying at home. They’re going to be holidaying in Australia. They’re going to be travelling to a destination in Australia. Why wouldn’t they at any rate? It’s the best country in the world in which to live, in which to holiday and with more people on the roads, we need better road infrastructure, and that’s why the Coalition Government federally and the Coalition Government in New South Wales are combining to do just that – build better roads and it’s great to be here with Chris Gulaptis. I have a very good relationship with Paul Toole. We’re building a better state. We’re building a better nation.

JOURNALIST

This section of the highway goes through a koala habitat. I know that’s been a big issue for the state Nationals. You know, what are you making of their stance on –

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, I can tell you that the Ballina koala plan and the koala management plan for the Pacific Highway were both signed off in July 2016 and August 2016 respectively. So the koala management plan for this section of the highway was signed off four years ago. Now I appreciate that the New South Wales Nationals are in there and fighting hard for what they see are onerous laws for farmers. That’s what National Party members do. We’ve built better infrastructure. Chris, Kevin and I are here today – Paul Toole would have been here but he’s been otherwise engaged elsewhere – but that’s what we do. We build better regional infrastructure.

And when our regional communities tell us they need something, we act and of course, what we don’t want to see is a repeat of the practices that Annastacia Palaszczuk and her Labor mates have enacted in Queensland where it’s impossible for farmers to do anything with the land they own – that they own. Their own farmland. I mean, they can’t even look so much outside at a tree and they get in trouble. So the New South Wales Nationals are doing what they always do – they’re in there fighting hard to make sure that their regional communities are well represented.

JOURNALIST

Are you worried this koala management policy is going to strain the relationship between the Nationals and the Liberals?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, I’m the Federal Leader of the National Party. This is a state environmental planning policy. I’m not in the State Parliament so I don’t get a say in it. But what I will say is that the New South Wales Nationals stick up for regional communities. They have for 100 or so years. They’ll continue to do that for the next 100 years and I’ll be right alongside them.

JOURNALIST

Just a question on vaccines. What’s your response to CSL’s chairman saying that we shouldn’t be banking on a vaccination?
 
MICHAEL McCORMACK

I’d much prefer to have the politics of optimism and hope and I think that’s what Australians need right now – is leaders of the community, leaders of business, leaders of their country talking about hope. There will be a vaccine. One way or another there will be a vaccine and when that vaccine comes along Australia will be right at the front of the queue to make sure that our Australians get access to that vaccine free of charge. We’ll also make sure that it’s available for our friends in the Pacific Islands. That’s what we’ve done. That’s what we’ve said we’re going to do right the way through. [Phone Rings]

That’s probably Scott Morrison right now telling me that another milestone has been reached in making sure that we build a better economy and get out of COVID-19.

JOURNALIST

So you’re not concerned that we’re building sort of false hope by guaranteeing or saying that something should –

MICHAEL McCORMACK

No, we’re not indeed because AstraZeneca and Oxford University and the universities that have been involved in Australia, they’ve all said that there is very late-stage development of these vaccines. Of course they’ve got to go through all the right processes and protocols and trials. We want to make sure that that’s all correct. A vaccine won’t come on the market until it’s absolutely safe, but rest assured, when it does Australia will be at the front of the queue to making sure that that vaccine is freely available to the 26 million Australians who, rest assured, they need that hope right now. They need to know that the Australian Government is in there fighting hard for them, as we are every hour of every day.

JOURNALIST

So what will happen if something doesn’t come about by next year – 

MICHAEL McCORMACK

I’m much more confident than that. I don’t want to say what if something doesn’t happen. I much more believe in the art of hope. Rest assured, we’re doing everything we can. I credit Greg Hunt, he has worked tirelessly, day and night, to make sure that these sorts of arrangements, these sorts of deals have been made. And even so, our rate of cases and our mortality rate is the envy of the world. We have made sure that we’ve cushioned the economy from the effects of COVID-19 with $314 billion of assistance for businesses, for workers, for those people who for the very first time have found themselves as a welfare recipient.
We want to make sure that Australians can come out of this in the best way possible. That’s why we’ve put in relief and recovery funds of a billion dollars. That’s why we’ve backed aviation. That’s why we’ve made sure there’s a transport code across the nation for goods to be freely and ably transported right across borders. That’s why we’ve made sure that the National Cabinet process has been put in place so that we can hopefully be all on the one page when it comes to making sure that we get Australia through this. This isn’t about New South Wales or Queensland or Victoria, this is about Australia. We’re all in this. We’re all in this together and we’ll all get out of it together.

JOURNALIST

On Facebook and Google paying for news, does the government have any power against the social media giants?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

We’re not going to ban news. We’re not going to allow news to be banned. I love news. I was a newspaper journalist for 21 years and when you’re a newspaper journalist for that long and when you’ve been a newspaper journalist and newspaper editor for 11 years, of course news is part of my life, every one of our lives. We couldn’t do without it. And free, available news is very much part and parcel of our daily lives. We’re not like countries who decide what is going to be printed or what is going to be broadcast or not. Facebook are of course, a company [Inaudible]. Rest assured, as we’ve found with one of our near and dear colleagues recently, if you go putting crap up on Facebook, that is not true then there will be repercussions for you. And those sorts of things should not have be put up there and people should know that and I’m pretty determined about that. People should particularly on days like today and indeed, every other day of the year, think about their actions and how they might hurt or influence others.

JOURNALIST

Aviation now, your reaction to Virgin pulling several regional services like Wagga Wagga. 

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, Virgin doesn’t fly to Wagga Wagga, it is serviced by QantasLink and REX and I appreciate some of those services were stopped around about the start of COVID. That’s why we’ve put in place $1.31 billion of assistance for the aviation sector and that’s why I certainly made sure our regional aviation sector was well looked after with not only underwriting but also services. Yes, I was criticised for it, but the fact is some of those services are flying to at least 35 communities but for that assistance would not have received personal protection equipment, respiratory devices, face masks and most importantly, frontline medical personnel. So I make no apologies to anyone about the regional air network services that we put in place. We’ve also of course, put in place a domestic network to make sure that those trunk routes were well looked after. Look, this was always going to be a decision made by Virgin. Virgin came into COVID, yes, saddled with large debts, and they were always going to have to restructure. They were always going to have to look at their services, their staffing, personnel and their ability to refinance because it was always going to be difficult for them, even before COVID started.

So look, the best thing about what’s happened in the last week or so is that the Bain have bought Virgin and there is going to be blue skies ahead for that airline network. What we needed was a market-led solution for Virgin. That’s what we’ve received. My heart goes out to those thousands of people who’ve lost their jobs in the aviation sector. That’s why we’ve backed it to the tune of $1.31 billion. That’s why we need as soon as possible State Premiers to lift those border restrictions so that we can get our planes back in the air because planes in the air mean jobs on the ground.

JOURNALIST

Do you think the state koala issue is something worthy of the National Party flexing its muscles on?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, I think National Party members should always stick up for farmers and their rights to farm their own land.

JOURNALIST

Just on the clinical definition of a hotspot [inaudible]. 

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, I believe so and the National Cabinet sits around every fortnight and I know these discussions are going on every day. I know the Prime Minister and the Premiers talk either through the National Cabinet process by telephone every day, in fact, as Kevin and I drove out here I was on a teleconference hook-up that we have every morning with the AHPPC, with our medical expert and with the Minister, Greg Hunt. And certainly I know that the discussions had within those meetings are then passed on to Premiers. We want to get the right definition for a hotspot. We want to make sure that whether it’s an agricultural code, whether it’s access for our truckies, those heroes of our nation, whether it’s indeed anything that is going to help us better tackle COVID, that it is put in place and is put in place on a state-wide basis and put in place on a national basis.

JOURNALIST

Regional centres have had a really tough trot over the last few months, we’ve had bushfires, drought and a pandemic, is this going to help kick start the economy?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, I had this discussion with the General Manager just a few moments before the press conference started. And we need to get these areas back firing again, back up and what they were pre-COVID, pre-bushfires, pre-drought, indeed. We need to make sure that they are absolutely going on every cylinder because these areas are vital to our nation. These areas are great tourist destinations. They’re great for agriculture, they’re great for jobs. And what we want to make sure is that with everything that’s been thrown at these communities, as you say quite correctly – the bushfires, we’ve had drought, we’ve had COVID-19 – it’s hit regional communities hard. But rest assured, regional communities have also done largely the right thing. We’ve kept our areas largely COVID free. We’ve kept our areas that way because we’ve exercised social distancing, as we are now. We’ve exercised all those things that we were asked to do by Professor Brendan Murphy, by Professor Paul Kelly and others. We’ve downloaded the COVIDSafe app. Regional communities have been very, very responsible. And I say to them thank you. Thank you for doing what you’ve done. The Federal Government has your back. The State Coalition Government has your back. The National Party will always have your back. We will always be in there fighting for more jobs, for better jobs, for more infrastructure, for better services. That’s what National Party members do.

JOURNALIST

Could I just ask one of the local members about the road, in terms of concerns around the fact that those towns that have been bypassed, those concerns that they may lose trade, what do you say to that?

KEVIN HOGAN

Yes look, things change. I mean, that does change, there has been a lot of studies done on this. [Inaudible]. In initial stage trade does go down. We’ve done a lot of work to make sure that those communities will bounce back. We know in Woodburn, for example, we with council invested millions of dollars to revitalise a park there and I think places like Wardell, Broadwater Woodburn, they will become destinations themselves. They’re all on the river. They’re all beautiful spots. Sure, the type of business there might change. They might go from a really fast, quick food stop to more people hanging out for longer. So I think they are going to thrive, but it will just be a little different from what it was before.

JOURNALIST

Chris, can you talk us through what happened in the state Party Zoom meeting this morning?

CHRIS GULAPTIS

Look, the Deputy Premier will come out and make a statement later on in the course of the day. I’m not going to talk about what happens in our party meetings. But look, clearly there’s a misconception that country people don’t care about koalas. The fact of the matter is we’ve got koalas living in the country with us. And farmers are the best custodians of the land and the timber industry they certainly have protocols with how to deal with native fauna species. We shouldn’t be blamed, those farmers, those industries, should not be blamed for the death of three billion native fauna species that were killed in the hot fires. I mean, quite frankly, that was the mismanagement of our national estate. There was not enough resources put into looking after that estate. And it shouldn’t be the farmers. This misconception is ill-directed. It’s targeting farmers wrongly. As I said before, farmers are the best custodians of the land. They don’t wake up one morning and say, “I’m going to go down the back paddock and clear three acres to get rid of those koalas.” In fact, if they have koalas on their property, they love them, they want to show them to their kids and their grandkids and they are actually looking after our iconic species. And so, it’s a misconception. The fact of the matter is – we have got koalas in the country. They haven’t got any koalas in the city. They’ve decimated their koala population and yet we’ve got people from the city telling us how to look after our animals and how to manage our businesses to protect iconic species which we’ve done for the past 200 years.

JOURNALIST

You have threatened and others in the National Party to cross the floor on this issue. Is there any news on that following today’s meeting?

CHRIS GULAPTIS

Look, I’ll leave the Deputy Premier to make a statement later on today.

JOURNALIST

Chris, are you prepared to lose your position as Parliamentary Secretary for the North Coast when you cross the floor?

CHRIS GULAPTIS

Look, it’s Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Roads. That’s just a title that hangs on me. That’s not why I joined Parliament. That’s not why I was elected. I was elected to represent my community and my community feels that they are being targeted unfairly by this sector. You know, that people in the timber industry, the people in agriculture, our farmers, it’s going to impact on workers and on rural and regional communities. This is a time when we need to revamp, to increase our productivity and we’re not going to do that if we target farmers and prevent them from carrying out their livelihood, from growing the food and fibre that people in the city need. Those same people who have decimated their koala colonies by the way.

JOURNALIST
 
So are you willing to put your title on the line to stand for this issue?
 
CHRIS GULAPTIS

Absolutely. My first priority is to stand up for my community.

JOURNALIST

Even if that jeopardises any titles that you have?

CHRIS GULAPTIS

Absolutely.

Media Contact:

Mr McCormack: Dean Shachar – 0418 202 860