Wagga Wagga press conference

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, fantastic to be here at Wagga Wagga Beach and I was only telling the Water Minister Keith Pitt, my friend and colleague, about the fact that Wagga Wagga Beach was rated in the top ten beaches in Australia and of course, in summertime it’s the place to be and we’re loving the wet weather as well.

I’m joined of course, by Keith Pitt, my Cabinet colleague. I’m joined by my Nationals colleague, Senator Perin Davey from Deniliquin for whom water means absolutely everything and of course, Sir Angus Houston, the new Chair of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, such an important position. So important that we continue the great work done in this space. Of course, there’s a lot of work to do and there are a lot of bridges to be built with the Murray-Darling Basin Authority. We know as well as anybody that the stakeholders, that consultation will continue through the States, through local valleys and through, of course, irrigation communities. Sir Angus is a very good appointment. I was delighted when Keith Pitt told me that he’d accepted the position.

Keith and I this morning have been out to Cowra, have been out to Wyangala Dam. And that is one of three major projects in New South Wales along with the Mole River business case that we’re doing, but also Dungowan Dam near Tamworth. One of the big projects that we are investing heavily in, a $650 million project, by increasing the dam wall from 85 metres by 10 metres at Wyangala. It is going to increase the capacity of that water storage facility by more than the equivalent of Sydney Harbour – by 650 gigalitres. That’s a huge infrastructure project. It’s going to create jobs. It’s going to avoid the sort of flood efforts that were needed back when of course, the Lachlan flooded and closed the Newell Highway for weeks upon weeks upon weeks not that long ago. And of course we know that farmers are going to benefit from that water storage infrastructure. You build water storage infrastructure, you add agriculture, you aid the balance of payments, you get more exports. And of course, as Perin Davey knows, we want to build agriculture from the $60 billion industry it is to $100 billion. Well, you can’t do that without adding water. You can’t do that without building dams. You can’t do that without looking at weirs and pipelines and that’s what we’re doing.

We’ve already invested three and a half billion dollars looking to make sure that through the new National Water Grid that we invest in more water infrastructure. We look at more water infrastructure, we take on board that local engagement. We take on board working with the States. We can’t build water infrastructure alone and we are working cooperatively with the states. And I don’t care what the political persuasion of the State is – I want to make sure that we build more dams, we extend pipelines, we build weirs, we do what we need to do to increase the water capacity of our nation. Because only by building the water infrastructure that our nation so badly needs, wants, expects and deserves, do you grow agriculture, do you actually engage community and build regional populations.

Only this morning we looked at a project near Charters Towers and that project, the Big Rocks Weir is going to ensure that that population of Charters Towers, around 8,000, is going to grow into the future. The Queensland Government statistician not that long ago said Charters Towers’ population would decrease. Well, as regional Members of Parliament as Perin Davey, Keith Pitt and I are, we want to build our regional communities. And by building the right water infrastructure in the right place, right now, you get those populations increasing. So it’s so important.

I’ll hand over to Keith to make a few remarks. I’ll certainly invite Perin Davey and Sir Angus also to add to the remarks. But that’s what we’re here to talk about. We’re here to build more water infrastructure. We’re here to talk to communities. As Keith and Sir Angus go through our river communities, through our irrigation communities, engage and consult with the right people and to talk about what further we can do in this space, Keith.

KEITH PITT

Thanks very much and can I say, how great is the rain? We’re in Wagga, it’s raining. That’s good news. I’ve been on tour through the Northern Basin coming down from Queensland and Goondiwindi, all the way through Moree, Bourke, Dubbo, Orange and now here in Wagga where I’ve announced $15 million in Economic Development Grants out of round two of that fund.

So it’s been very good for local communities. We are looking to build more strands into regional economies, more local jobs, more strength into those economies. But I have to say, the country is in fantastic condition in the regions. There is a very strong winter crop through a very large part of western New South Wales. That is incredibly positive for jobs. I’m very hopeful that they’ll get all of their crop off, get a good price and good returns. We know just how difficult it has been for many years throughout parts of New South Wales dealing with the drought.

Can I also say how pleased I am to be here with Sir Angus Houston, the new Chairman of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and how very pleased I am that Sir Angus accepted the offer to take up what is known as a very challenging role. But one of the great things about Sir Angus is his ability to deal with adversity, his ability to build teams, to build across the interaction with State Governments which can be, I have to say, challenging at times. We know the Murray-Darling Basin is a challenging policy space, but we will continue to deliver on the basin plan. We will continue to deliver for those communities and I absolutely recognise how difficult it has been for them over a period of time.

So great to be here as well with Senator Perin Davey, another champion for the bush. Perin rings me on a regular basis, I have to tell you and certainly about water and obviously about jobs in those smaller towns including Deniliquin and others. It is great to be here. It’s great to be here at a time when we do have rain. We know we have inflows into the storages in the northern basin and the southern basin and I’m looking forward to a positive season. Sir Angus.

SIR ANGUS HOUSTON

Deputy Prime Minister, Minister Pitt, Senator Davey, look, I’m delighted to be here today and Minister, thank you for inviting me to take this demanding job. I really relish the opportunity and I hope I can deliver what you need going into the future.

I’m also delighted to be here in Wagga Wagga. I learned to fly helicopters here many moons ago and I have very good memories of that and perhaps not so good memories where I basically came to grips with flying a very difficult aircraft to fly. Through the years I’ve been back many times. As Chief of Air Force I came here, we set up an enhanced training establishment out at the RAAF base there. And when I became Chief of the Defence Force I came out here to see the army recruit training facility as well. So I have been to Wagga Wagga many times. I’ve always enjoyed coming here, and it’s great to be here today with this rain pouring down.

I must say, when I was flying helicopters we were based in Canberra and it was a day just like this. We got into the helicopter and we said, “Well, how are we going to get back?” And my instructor said, “Look, Angus, it is easy, we just pick up the Murrumbidgee, we fly down to Burrinjuck Dam and then we go and pop over the ridge and we’re into Canberra valley.” And we flew low level on a day like this. Everything was green, the rain was pouring down and I remember it very, very well.

So wonderful to see the rain coming down today. And as we drove down from Canberra today we crossed the river a number of times. We saw flood plains, we saw birds, we saw a very healthy environment at the moment. So I hope the weather forecasters are right in that we’re going to continue to get rainfall through the end of the year. Because I think that would be a wonderful thing for the whole Murray-Darling Basin and much better than what we have over the last three years where people have had a really tough time, probably the toughest time in a generation. I will do my utmost to work with all the stakeholders in this demanding job I’ve got. My approach will be to work very closely with everybody. In the first instance I need to engage, I need to learn and I need to listen. But it’s all about relationships. If you can develop constructive relationships usually that results eventually in trusting relationships. So that’s what I’ll be seeking with all stakeholders. I’ll be very open, I’ll be very transparent, I’ll be totally impartial, but I’ll be collaborative and I look forward to working with everybody who has this great interest in this mighty river system which I think we have to keep healthy. Healthy for agriculture, healthy for the environment, healthy for the nation. Because, at the end of the day, 3.6 million people rely on this river system for their basic needs – their drinking water.

So great to be here today. Lovely to visit you in your electorate, Deputy Prime Minister. And I don’t mind it, this weather is fabulous. Great to see. Thank you very much.

PERIN DAVEY

Thank you all for coming here today and it is great to be here to meet Sir Angus. I am very pleased that he’s taken up the very challenging role as Chair of the MDBA at this critical time. We are at the very last moments of finalising the implementation of the Basin Plan. This has been a long time coming, but where we are at is crucial to get it right because I believe that we can finish the job without needing to go back to farmers to claw back more water off our farmers. I believe if we focus on outcomes we can get the job done. And that’s what the Basin Plan is about – it is about outcomes. And to do that we need to listen to communities. We need to listen to the people on the ground. We need to go to Deniliquin, have a chat to the people out there, Griffith and all the way up to the top of the Basin to Mungindi and Moree, listen to the people, talk about what is happening on the ground and focus on outcomes so we can get the job done.

That is the crucial point. And as the wife of an irrigator, I’m loving the rain, but I certainly hope it’s also falling over the dams so that we can get good allocations this year and we can get good irrigation crops in so our area and basin farmers can do what they do best. And that is growing food and fibre for the world. So thank you very much.

JOURNALIST

We’re just wondering with some of the reports that are coming out from farmers about the border closures and farmers being told to put sheep on planes to cross the border, do you think that’s a case of bureaucracy gone mad?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, anybody who tells a farmer to put a wether or a ewe or a lamb on a plane seriously needs to go back to school, seriously – I mean, that is just crazy. But I understand completely farmers’ angst, their frustrations, their concerns. I know Keith Pitt and I and indeed Perin, have been working so hard to ensure that we get a practical, pragmatic approach to these border closures to ensure that we get consistency, that we get outcomes that our farmers won’t be pulling their hair out about. And I know only late last night I was on the phone to Adam Marshall, the New South Wales Agriculture Minister. I as on the phone again to him this morning. I know National Cabinet is sitting as we speak and certainly that was going to be one of the hopeful outcomes of that particular meeting between the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, the Premiers and the Chief Ministers – to get that consistency, whether it is over the New South Wales-Victorian border, whether it’s over any of the borders. Indeed, I know there’s difficulty over the Queensland-New South Wales border. I was very, very disappointed, to hear that the Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, this morning indicate that she was going to use COVID as some sort of election campaign. This has to be above politics. It has to be about people’s lives and livelihoods. That’s what I’ve said the whole way through. I know Perin has been on a daily morning call with the Cross Border Commissioner, James McTavish with our colleagues, Damian Drum, Anne Webster, Steph Cooke and others to see what we can do to try to get the best practical outcomes for our farmers. I know the national transport protocols that I’ve put in place have worked very well to ensure consistency across borders so that we can transport goods freely and readily across the border so that there wasn’t holdups. It needs to be the same in agriculture. It needs to be the same in all sorts of things. You take Anne Webster, for instance, who is the Member for Mallee, she represents a third of Victoria. Many of her constituents are actually closer to Adelaide than they are to Melbourne and yet, you know, she’s having difficulties with people who live at Pinnaroo who might be indeed, the nurse working in the Mallee Rural Health District, indeed heading much of the health outcomes up in that area and then weren’t granted exemptions beyond a week. Well, these sorts of things need to be sorted. They need to be sorted soon. Hopefully in the National Cabinet this morning they have been resolved.

JOURNALIST

John Barilaro said he wants to get rid of the permit system and open the borders, is that a concept you support?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well indeed, if he is having that conversation with his Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, then we need to get practical outcomes. I appreciate very much that rural and regional people are being affected, disproportionately affected by what’s happened in Melbourne, by what’s happened with the clusters that have broken out in Melbourne and indeed, in many rural and regional areas where they haven’t had a COVID case at all, those people are in stage three lockdown and life for them has become very difficult. For farmers who’ve got property over both sides of the Murray, moving their headers, moving their equipment, moving their tractors, indeed, just tending to their stock has become quite a nightmare for them. I understand that. That’s why I think today’s National Cabinet meeting is so important to be able to resolve those outcomes and I look forward to the Prime Minister standing up in a short while and announcing some good resolutions from that particular meeting.

JOURNALIST

Mr McCormack, so given that the Riverina hasn’t had an active case, you know, in several weeks, would you be willing to petition Parliament to allow some travel restrictions in the near future, especially if travellers are willing to, you know, foot the bill for that kind of thing?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, I mean, largely these are the remit of State Governments. So we are working very closely with the State Governments. Look, everybody has a story to tell about how their life has been hindered and impacted by coronavirus. The important thing is that we listen to the health advice. The important thing is that we take the best medical advice and put it in a practical way so that people’s lives and livelihoods aren’t being affected unnecessarily.

As you say, we haven’t had a case here in Wagga Wagga for some time. That’s not to say that if somebody does travel to Wagga Wagga and does have the symptoms they could well spread it to many others. So I understand why the Premiers are nervous. I understand why some provisions are being put in place. But we need to be sensible. We need to be practical and we need to understand that for some people with their health outcomes they do need to travel interstate. For some students who may well reside in Victoria but are doing their higher school certificate, year 12, in New South Wales, they do need to be able to come over the border to do their studies.

I understand for farmers who’ve got land on both sides of the river, they also need to be able to do what they do best. As Perin Davey just said – growing the best food and fibre in all of the world. I was speaking to Simone Jolliffe, a dairy farmer here at Wagga Wagga just the other night. She needs technicians to come up and look at their equipment, to look at their equipment to be able to milk their dairy herd and we need to be able to enable those people who reside in Victoria to be able to come up – it’s well out of the bubble – to be able to come up and look at the equipment to ensure that those cows are able to have the necessary milking equipment fixed and adjusted so that they can produce their daily milk. These might be small issues for some bureaucrats who sit in ivory towers but they’re very important for people in rural and regional Australia.

JOURNALIST

What about what your Government can do? In New South Wales you’ve got Barilaro taking on his Premier, the New South Wales Premier taking on the Queensland Premier and a lot of handballing in relation to aged care and the Ruby Princess. After all this is over, is there a case to revisit federalism and maybe fix up a few of the holes and just make it a lot more simpler?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, you say when it’s over and let’s all pray to God that it does get over and get over very soon, because what we’re seeing is people losing their lives. And we’ve already had more than 400 deaths and our hearts and thoughts and certainly prayers go out to those families who this Christmas will not have their loved ones with them.

But what we’ve been able to achieve by addressing the issue, by listening to the best medical advice, we’ve kept our case rates low. We’ve kept our mortality rates very low compared to other countries in the world. That’s not to say we couldn’t have done better. That’s not to say we couldn’t have done more. But there was no manual for this. You couldn’t pull down a book off the shelf and say, “Well, that’s what happened last time this happened and that’s what we’ll put in practice again.” It’s been very much a learning experience and putting in place the best health outcomes that we endeavour to do. And certainly pushing the economy with such things as JobKeeper and JobSeeker.

I’ve given up counting the number of business people who’ve come up to me not just in Wagga Wagga but in my travels to say that but for JobKeeper, their business would be closed and never re-opening. They’ve been able to keep their doors open. They’ve been able to engage their workforce. They’ve been able to give people that hope, that income that has actually saved the economy. And so we’ve done very well on the health front and on the economic front. The Federal Government has invested $314 billion to make sure that we had the right health and economic measures in place to protect Australians lives and livelihoods through coronavirus.

But we’re not out of the woods yet unfortunately and we see way too many cases each day. We’re trying to get as best as we can – working with the States – on top of those, but yes, I’m sure when this is over, as you say, there’ll be the proper inquiries which will look into all aspects of how we dealt with this. But I know for the number of Australians who’ve actually come up to me and said, “Thank you for what your Government has done both on the health and economic front,” I know what we’ve done has been the right thing to do at the right time and we have kept our case and mortality rates very low.

JOURNALIST

Do you think the Federal Government should be incentivising rail cargo transport interstate instead of on our roads to reduce the risk of COVID-19?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, indeed and that’s what I know the ARTC is doing, working with key stakeholders and is providing some freight relief as far as that is concerned. But that’s why we’re also building the Inland Rail. We’ve talked about Inland Rail since the 1890s. Well, we’re getting on as the Liberal-National Government and we’re building it, an investment in our future. And you only have to look at the number of jobs that have been created at Parkes, for the Narromine to Parkes section. There are 13 sections in the Inland Rail and I’m working with the three Governments – Victorian, New South Wales and Queensland Governments – to deliver what will be nation-building infrastructure, creating thousands of jobs but also getting freight to port within 24 hours. That’s not been done on rail before in this nation. As I say, they’ve talked about it for decades and decades, and we’re getting on and we’re building it.

JOURNALIST

Right now, things like reducing truck charges, some companies have called for that to make them more competitive. Is that something you’d consider?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, the ARTC is working with key stakeholders about those things. I’m taking part in those conversations as well. We do need, of course, to help our transport industry through this situation and that’s what we’ve been doing. That’s what certainly I’ve been doing as far as making sure there’s national consistency for truck transport companies and for truck drivers.

JOURNALIST

You talked about infrastructure. Have you got any plans here to build more dams, as you’ve said previously?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Always happy to work with the States. And if States come forward with a priority for the Murrumbidgee River, then certainly happy to look at it. And I know that the Lake Talbot near Narrandera is something that has also been talked about for decades. Well, if the State wants to put that on their priority list, we’re more than happy to stump up a cheque for a business case, or for part of a business case, whatever the case might be. We need to build more water infrastructure. We’ve got Keith Pitt as the Water Minister. He knows how important it is. As he said, Senator Davey rings him every other day of the week, as she does me, to talk about this very thing.

Wyangala and Dungowan provide great hope for New South Wales, but there’s more to do. And I very much want to work with the States, with Melinda Pavey, the Water Minister in New South Wales, to do just what you said, build more water infrastructure. So if they want to put it on their priority list, they want to make sure that New South Wales irrigators and others want to also lobby for more water infrastructure, you’ve got a Minister right here who’s happy to play ball.

JOURNALIST

I understand you’re celebrating some kind of 10-year milestone in Parliament today. Do you plan on being around for another 10 years?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Well, you only end up in this job at the request and the behest of the voters who put you there. I’m just proud and privileged to have represented the Riverina for 10 years. You know, with all due respect to Keith Pitt, it is the best electorate in Australia. There’s 151 of them. There’s no better electorate to represent than the Riverina. And I’m sure every Member of Parliament would think their area is the very best. I know mine is, but I’m very humbled and privileged to have represented this area and to have followed on the great representation of people such as Kay Hull, Noel Hicks, John Sullivan and others before, right back to John Chanter. I’m the 14th Member for Riverina and I’m very proud to have served in this role, very proud and humbled to have been elected four times. I will keep doing the best job that I can each and every day for and on behalf of the Riverina people, so long as the Riverina people want me to do that.

JOURNALIST

[Inaudible].

KEITH PITT

Firstly, can I just say our farmers have the highest level of animal welfare standards. They care deeply about their stock and how they’re treated, but they’re not going to send them on business class flights on an aircraft. I mean, that’s just a statement of fact.

Secondly, in regards to the Queensland Premier’s comments this week around Queensland hospitals, I have to say, I was appalled to hear the Queensland Premier even suggest that Queensland hospitals are only available to people based on their residential address. I think every doctor, every nurse, every individual that works in the health system would be horrified to think they have to turn away a sick child because their parents live somewhere other than inside the Queensland border.

JOURNALIST

When you go back to Queensland, will you be paying to stay in hotel quarantine for two weeks?

KEITH PITT

So my understanding is that we have been provided an exemption to travel to Canberra and we obviously have to meet all of the standards which were set by the Presiding Officers in the Parliament. I will be returning into self-isolation for two weeks, as is required by the Queensland Government.

JOURNALIST

In hotel quarantine?

KEITH PITT

We were advised that we’ll be able to self-isolate in residential houses and that’s what I intend to do.

JOURNALIST

You don’t feel that that’s a double standard, sending the wrong message to the community when everyone else has to pay, you know, quite a substantial amount of money to stay in hotels?

KEITH PITT

Well, these standards are set by Queensland Health. Like all MPs, I will be obeying their instructions.

JOURNALIST

Sir Angus, obviously you’re a former Air Force Chief, what qualifies you to head the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, especially given the complexities of water treatment?

SIR ANGUS HOUSTON

Well, I’ve had a lot of experience dealing with large, complex organisations. Large complex organisations where there are different perspectives, different points of view and you have to sit down and resolve wicked problems. I’ve been doing that for a long time now. Getting the three services together so they could go and operate as one team is one such example.

I was asked to do the asylum seeker expert panel. There were really difficult issues there. And the crisis management requirements of MH17, then Prime Minister Abbott asked me to do that. That demanded skills and working with lots of different stakeholders in a very, very difficult environment.

So I come to this job, which is all about water management. Now, I have a very acute understanding of the importance of water. I was originally going to pursue a career on the land in Western Australia. The first year we had too much water for share farming and the second year we didn’t have any water at all. The crop failed. I left the farm, completely broke, we had a lot of bills to pay and I joined the Air Force and of course, I stayed in the Air Force a long, long time.

So I come to this job, I know there are lots of people [inaudible] and some of the hotter issues and I intend to work with all the stakeholders through all of those issues going forward and deliver a plan and run the river in the way it should be run. Thank you.

Media contact:

Dean Shachar, 0418 202 860