Wagga Wagga press conference

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, yesterday I toured the electorate and visited Gundagai, Cootamundra, Temora and other parts and interestingly at Gundagai they are very keen on what we have done there as far as infrastructure is concerned. I want people to know we certainly have not forgotten the fact that communities are still feeling the effects of the drought and when you see the Sheridan Street upgrades, when you see what is planned in Gundagai, as part of the Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council and you know that those main streets both Sheridan Street and Parker Street in Cootamundra are being upgraded, thanks to the million dollar Drought Support Programme, that community support program, you can see that there's local jobs. You can see that there's local procurement. And you can see that this Government still cares about how those communities are still feeling the effects of the drought. And certainly when you look at the upgrades to the sewage system there at Gundagai, you know that the money is being well spent, you know that the infrastructure roll-out right across this nation is going to where it needs to go. I know in Cootamundra, they're very excited about the fact that their main street upgrade will also benefit with local jobs and local small businesses taking part in the money that we are spending. Whether it's the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Program as part of COVID, that extra Roads to Recovery funding – 12 months of funding that all those councils are providing – Cootamundra-Gundagai Regional Council’s $985,000. Across the 537 councils across the nation, it’s half a billion dollars. So it's around about a million dollars for each and every one of those councils right across the Riverina and Central West, right across the nation. So I'm proud of the support that we've provided, the ongoing support for drought, the support that we've provided for bushfire relief and recovery and certainly through the COVID crisis and when I talk about the current crisis, it is a crisis. Another 384 cases in Victoria announced today, more than 160 deaths now and we're working towards, of course, making sure that we have the medical supplies, the medical frontline personnel and everything that needs to happen. From a Commonwealth level, of course the states are doing their part to and we will get through this. But I want to remind people again, that they do need to download that COVIDSafe app. They do need to be their best selves. They do need to exercise social distancing. And if they're asked to be in quarantine or they're asked to self-isolate then they need to do so. As I speak, there are protesters milling in The Domain in Sydney to protest and we know that people have a right to protest. We accept that in a democracy, that people do have that right to express their feelings that may be contrary to the Government’s, that may be contrary to other people's views. They have that right to protest. We've fought two World Wars so that people can have that right. But when we are facing a global pandemic, these people who are protesting today are thumbing their nose at the police. They are showing a flagrant disregard for the law. It is showing a callous indifference to the lives and livelihoods of Australians all over and as the Leader of The Nationals and as a regional Member of Parliament I don't want to see additional cases that are borne out of a protest in a capital city coming to a regional area. We've done very well here in Wagga Wagga and in the Murrumbidgee Health District to keep our case rates low. We've done very, very well. But if we see, as we did down in Melbourne, when there were three active COVID cases and I appreciate there were other causes of that spread of the virus but this is just not acceptable. This is totally un-Australian and those people who are protesting should think of the lives and livelihoods of others – just for a change. And you know, the same sort of people who are protesting today. Well, they were the ones that the Extinction Rebellion protest. They are professional protesters – many of them – and whilst they do have a cause and I appreciate that, the fact is they are thumbing their nose at the police. Police resources which could be far better spent and put to far better use elsewhere then looking after a bunch of protesters who should not be – with a global pandemic on and the situation we’re in Victoria – protesting today.

Now, I spoke to James McTavish, the Cross-Border Commissioner this morning as part of a hook-up that we do on a daily basis and they're working through, as best they can, the issues on the border. It is a situation which of course is evolving. There are 28 permits that people have to get for one reason or another to get across the border. Individual permits that the people have to avail themselves of. The situation is of concern there and many regional people are being affected by what happened in Melbourne. It's such a shame. I appreciate that what has happened in metropolitan cities, is affecting so many lives and livelihoods in regional areas where they've been very good, very responsible and taken care of other people as you would expect regional people, country people, always do. The situation at the border with 28 permits with many people not being able to cross over for work. Many students not being able to complete their HSC because they might live in Victoria and they might be trying to study at a school in Albury. It's really, really unfortunate. And of course, we will work through that. James McTavish is doing a fantastic job as he did with the floods here in Wagga Wagga not that many years ago. So we know him. We rely on him. We trust him. We understand the difficulties he's facing. And then of course, he's working with the ADF. Many hundreds of Defence personnel, right throughout Victoria doing what they expect the Commonwealth would do. But it's a situation that of course, as I say, is evolving all the time. We want Australians to be their best selves. I say again, if you're asked to do something, as far as the COVIDSafe app, as far as quarantining, as far as self-isolating, then please do so. Not just for your own safety but for the lives and livelihoods of others in your community and others besides.

JOURNALIST

You mentioned before that capital cities is where we have most of the concern, do you see scope for changing the rules around regional people being able to travel and keeping the lockdown to those Melbourne, Mitchell Shire spots?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, at the moment we've got a situation in Victoria where the situation is what it is now and of course, it's probably gone beyond that. And so, we will of course continue to monitor the situation from a Commonwealth level, it is very much the states. They are organising the situation as far as the border closers are concerned. Of course, there are the Police resources that need to be there but other Police resources have unfortunately been diverted to protests in Sydney. We want the most available people. I've worked very hard to ensure that some of those bridge crossings at Walwa and Jingellic, Tintaldra and other parts have been open because we need to get seasonal workers across and their equipment. We need to get certainly the heavy tractors and fruit picking machines and whatever else the case is. It's not good enough that because of a situation in Melbourne, that farmers were forced to drive hundreds of kilometres up or downstream to get their harvesting equipment or sowing equipment across the bridge to enable them to farm their own property which happened to be on the other side of the river, if they own two properties on either side of the Murray. So it's a situation that of course, is unfolding and it's a situation that is evolving by the hour. So we will as a Commonwealth – and we do stand ready to provide whatever assistance Premier Dan Andrews and Premier Gladys Berejiklian require and we're doing that.

JOURNALIST

On the seasonal workers, they're still not allowed to cross from Victoria into New South Wales and the citrus industry is warning that there's going to be fruit left on trees and allowed to rot. Would you like to see that change?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, that's correct and that's why we're working with State Agriculture Ministers. That's why I'm working very closely with state authorities to see what we can do. And of course, if there is anybody who doesn't have a job because of COVID and does want a job well there's plenty of fruit to be picked in Victoria and indeed New South Wales. That Sunraysia area and I know Anne Webster, the Member for Mallee, is distraught about the situation, as you've described, with seasonal workers unable to come across because they may happen to be in that bubble. We're working very hard to get as many of them across or any of them across to be able to pick that fruit because the one thing that we don't want to see is navels or mandarins or whatever they might be growing, whatever is coming into season at the moment being left to waste on the trees or indeed on the ground.

JOURNALIST

So would you like to see that border reopened for seasonal workers?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, as I say, we're working with the authorities at the moment to ensure that that situation is remedied so that those farmers can have the certainty that they will have the labour force to pick up their fruit and so I'm working very closely with James McTavish, with authorities in New South Wales and indeed Victoria, to see if we can remedy the situation.

JOURNALIST

Mr McCormack, you're still urging people to download the COVIDSafe app, it doesn't concern you that it doesn't really seem to be picking up many active cases and doesn't seem to be particularly effective at this point?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, it is working. The situation was always going to be that it was going to be accessed, the data was going to be accessed by the health authorities and I'm told that in many cases, in some cases that the app has been successful. What we want to see is people downloading the app, what we want to see is people primarily doing the right thing. So if they've been asked to quarantine, then for goodness sake, stay in quarantine, don't mingle with others. If they've been asked to self-isolate then do the right thing because there are heavy fines if they don't and for those who haven't already downloaded the COVIDSafe app then it's an assurance. It's a safeguard for them. If they do come in contact with somebody for longer than 15 minutes, then an alert will be sent to them to be able to then go and get their health checked. That's important. Of course, I'm pleased that Wagga Wagga was the first regional centre in New South Wales to get a respiratory clinic so that people can go to Glenrock Country Practice and get tested. We've been very good in the Murrumbidgee Health District to keep the local cases very low. But what we don't want to see is any outbreaks. Certainly, Wagga Wagga has been lucky as has the wider-Riverina, Southwest Slopes and Murray regions but we can't be complacent.

JOURNALIST

You mentioned you were in Gundagai yesterday on Sheridan Street, how are they feeling? Obviously, they’re quite reliant on people traveling up the Hume, if traffic doesn't pick up, how long are they going to last before they might need additional help?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, of course, we’ve made the necessary changes to JobKeeper to ensure that we keep businesses engaged with workers, we've made the necessary changes to JobSeeker to continue assistance to those people who for some are on welfare for the very first time ever in their working lives. And of course, we're very lucky in Australia we've got a safety net for those people who do fall through the cracks and there is that assistance for them always and we will continue to monitor this situation. But people in Gundagai yesterday were concerned about the potential protest in The Domain today. They were concerned as you'd expect them to be that Police resources were going to be taken away from the job that Police officers need to be doing. And that's not congregating around protesters. Each and every one of whom if I want to go and break the rules today and thumb their nose at the Police, well, they should be locked up. It's as simple as that. They should be charged with the offence that they've committed because if it's well and good for three pubs in Wagga to receive fines, to be given fines, for breaching the rules and I appreciate they were trying to exercise as best they could those rules but unfortunately, they didn't meet every item that they needed to and so they've been given fines. Well, if it's good enough for Wagga pubs and if it's good enough for people to be fined for carrying fruit across the South Australian border, then protesters also need to be fined. They need to have the book thrown at them. It's as simple as that.

JOURNALIST

Last Thursday an Inland Rail roundtable organised by your office was set to take place. However you had to pull out just days before, what was the reason for cancelling the meeting?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, we worked with the National Farmers Federation who were going to be in that meeting. We worked with of course, others and of course the growing situation in Victoria. And Victoria is one of those three states which is going to be the beneficiary of the Inland Rail. We felt that at the time, with the situation worsening with COVID that it wasn't appropriate. So it's been postponed to a date to be set. I continue to engage with any organisation interested in the Inland Rail, I continue to engage with stakeholders, whether it's ARTC, whether it's the Country Women's Association, New South Wales Farmers, National Farmers Federation, AgForce in Queensland, VFF in Victoria. I continue to work with all those people for whom Inland Rail is important and this is nation building infrastructure. We're getting on with building it. The Narromine to Parkes section is almost completed. Hundreds of jobs, hundreds of local businesses are benefiting. This is nation building infrastructure. It will continue, but of course we will continue to go and engage in a consultative way as we have since I’ve been the Minister, with communities and with stakeholders.

JOURNALIST

Barnaby Joyce says Parliament must resume as soon as possible. He says votes could be carried online. What do you think?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, you can't have a Parliament without a State. With Victoria in their situation at the moment, we've decided to have those two weeks of sittings that were scheduled in August, we decided to put those off. We will of course, work through what we can do and continue to monitor the situation in Victoria. If the situation in Victoria worsens or if it worsens across the rest of the nation, then we may well have to look and see what we can do with a virtual Parliament. But at the moment, the Standing Orders are quite clear. The Parliament, people come to Canberra to sit and eyeball each other to have those debates, those robust debates and to vote in person. That's the way it's been since 1901. That's the way at the moment it's slated to continue. But we will of course, if the situation worsens, we might well have to look at that and see what we can do.

JOURNALIST

Why can't Victorian politicians just self-isolate for two weeks in Canberra, get tested negative and then return to Parliament?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

That may well have to happen so, as I say, we're continuing to monitor the situation. For some who haven't been in those hotspot areas, they have been able to, in the case of the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, last week when he announced his economic update, that was exactly what happened. And certainly if the situation continues in Victoria, as it has in recent days, then that may well have to be the case.

JOURNALIST

Mr McCormack, going back to the Inland Rail, you said you're happy to consult with, you know, farming communities, that kind of thing. Some of the farmers we've been talking to say that it's just a bit of a box-ticking exercise. They're not really being listened to. They've got a two-kilometre corridor that they're determined to stick with and basically not really much room for compromise. What would you say about that?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, we've been engaging with farmers right the way through and certainly since I've been the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development, that has happened. The ARTC have been far more consultative. We've had those community consultative meetings. And I appreciate that for some farmers for their land, which is going to have a rail track built there, which wasn't there before. I appreciate this is of concern. But I drove the other day on the Hume Highway as I often do and I remember the same sort of concerns back when I was a newspaper reporter when the Hume Highway was being built. Well, no one would argue, no one would even question in 2020 as to the duplication of Hume Highway just like nobody is questioning the duplication of the Pacific Highway which we're doing right now because it saves lives and rest assured the Inland Rail – taking some trucks off the road – will eventually save lives when it's completed in the mid-2020’s. You can't build nation building infrastructure, 1700-kilometres of it, without affecting some farmers and whilst I appreciate some are concerned because they’ve held their land for decades, for generations, they will be properly compensated if in fact the Inland Rail does in fact go through their property. But we will continue to engage in a consultative and constructive way with those effected land owners.

Thank you very much.

Media contact:

Dean Shachar, 0418 202 860