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Interview with Peter Gleeson, Across Australia, Sky News on WIN

7 August 2020

Peter Gleeson

Subject: Mask production and testing facility, food supply chains and country of origin food labelling review


Peter Gleeson: Many are concerned Victoria’s tough new restrictions on Australia’s industries could lead to a nationwide food shortage as the state battles its deadly second coronavirus wave. The Government has ramped up domestic manufacturing in essential medical supplies to ensure the nation is equipped to get through the pandemic. One manufacturer of surgical masks in Australia is now expecting to make up to 267 million masks by the end of the year. 

Joining me now Federal Minister for Industry Science and Technology representing that beautiful part of the world on the Gold Coast around Mudgeeraba, Karen Andrews. Minister, thanks for joining us. Now, you've announced a new face mask testing facility which will open in Melbourne.

Karen Andrews: Absolutely. This came out of the COVID crisis in its early days when we had to start looking at ramping up our manufacturing of surgical face masks here in Australia, and what we found is that there was really only one other laboratory across the world - in the United States actually - that could test the masks. So we set about working out how we were going to set up that capability here in Australia, and CSIRO stepped up and, and have now established this facility in Melbourne so that they can test masks - not only that are produced here in Australia, but potentially we can test other masks that are produced elsewhere in the world. So there are some real opportunities for CSIRO, and of course for Australia here.

Peter Gleeson: Yeah. I love the innovation that's going on around, not just Australia, but around the world at the moment when it comes to dealing with this particular pandemic. Take us through- there's reports today that there could be food shortages in Victoria, and that there's been a rush on supermarkets. Are you getting those reports, Minister?

Karen Andrews: Yes, I am. And we're finding ourselves in a situation that we were in a number of months ago where there's a level of panic buying, of stockpiling, of hoarding and that is creating some issues at supermarkets in particular because they are having some difficulties in restocking the shelves. So the food availability at the moment is good but there are some distribution issues, and it is a little bit difficult to get those products restocked at the pace that they are moving from the shelves.

So we're all very familiar with the issues that there were with, with toilet paper, where there was no issue actually with us being able to produce toilet paper here in Australia, but it was just being purchased at a rate that was well above the pace which the shelves could be restocked. So we're seeing similar issues happening at the moment, so it really is - it's a warehousing and a distribution issue. But it's one that the Federal Government is keeping a very close eye on and we are of course doing everything we can to work productively with the Victorian Government, but also with businesses who potentially are affected.

Peter Gleeson: I think this is a terrific review that's being undertaken at the moment into country of origin labelling, with the focus shifting to Aussie made food and produce. And I think you know, as we look at the post-COVID economic renaissance, as we look at stimulus measures, I think Australians are taking a much longer view and a much broader view that we must support Aussie made products. What will that review try and achieve?

Karen Andrews: Well, if I could just sort of add a little bit to that, that the groundswell of support for Australian manufacturers and manufactured goods has just been phenomenal. So people are very actively looking to support Australian manufacturers, to buy Australian. So with the country of origin labelling review that is underway now, it deals directly with food and food labelling. And of course we all want to know where our food is grown, where it's produced, and where it's packed. 

So, when you buy a product in a supermarket you do see the label which indicates how much of that product is produced from ingredients from overseas, how much is from Australia. We're wanting to get some feedback from the community about how they think that system has worked, any changes that they're proposing that they're suggesting that need to be made so that it's very clear. We want a very easy system so that people can look at the labelling and they can identify where, very clearly, where that product is from, where it's been packed.

Peter Gleeson: And just in tandem with that, Karen, I mean we're also seeing pretty punitive sanctions coming from the Chinese, particularly on barley, on meat, on wine. So there's this fresh emphasis on developing our own sort of export market, and taking that export market to the next level in economies like the UK, the United States, Indonesia, and of course India. How important is that next phase strategy, from your perspective, when it comes to exports?

Karen Andrews: It's critical. It is absolutely critical because well, 25 per cent of manufacturing in Australia is food and- food product related - so food is a big part of what we're manufacturing here in Australia. But if we want to grow our manufacturing, if we want to create more jobs, if we want to boost our economy then we have to develop the markets to sell those products. 

So with a population of around about 25 million here, we have a reasonably small market - so we need to open up export opportunities. So an amazing amount of work has been done with the free trade agreements to open up markets for us. But I'm very keen to do all that I can to make sure that all the products we produce in Australia, we have got markets that we can continue to grow over the coming months and years. It quite frankly, is the road to our recovery - to build our manufacturing, build our industry here in Australia, and create those export opportunities.

Peter Gleeson: Well, Karen Andrews, I don't think anyone would disagree with that - the world is our oyster. Our reliance on China clearly has, has been something that we need to look at, and clearly you've got a strategy which is great stuff. Karen Andrews, thank you for joining us tonight, really appreciate it. 

Karen Andrews: It's a pleasure, take care.