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Interview with Sabra Lane – ABC AM

6 August 2020

Sabra Lane

Subject: New Australian mask testing facility, manufacturing strategy, Victorian supply chains


Sabra Lane: The Federal Industry Minister is reassuring us there's no need to panic buy despite business groups warning that there could be issues with supply chains now that Victoria's six-week lockdown is in place.

Karen Andrews has been regularly talking with key manufacturing groups and businesses since the start of the pandemic. Initially, there were problems with finding enough ventilators and personal protective equipment. Australia is now making those things here, and as of today Australia is now, now has an accredited testing facility in Melbourne to make sure locally made products meet high standards instead of sending those products offshore for testing.

The Industry Minister is Karen Andrews. Karen Andrews, good morning. What will this facility do? And how much will it cost?

Karen Andrews: The very important thing to know with PPE is that when we are going to be using PPE for medical uses it does require testing prior to registration for the Australian Register for Therapeutic Goods.

So when this pandemic started a number of months ago now, there was actually no accredited testing facility in Australia. In fact, as we started to ramp up mask production here, what we were finding is that there was really only one other facility in the world that we could identify and that was in the United States – and it had a minimum of three weeks’ delay to get product tested. So CSIRO and I worked closely together to see what we could do to set up such a facility in Australia.

So now we have the facility ready to go. We've increased our mask production, and of course having this facility here means that there’s going to be easier access for manufacturers to get their materials, their masks actually tested. And of course there's the opportunity that through this we will now be able to attract other business here into Australia, to test their masks and filter materials.

Sabra Lane: Right. So that's it? It will test masks and filtering materials?

Karen Andrews: Yeah. And of course what we'll be looking at is what some of the other uses are for this testing facility because it tests three things, actually. It tests the breathability of the material; it tests blood penetration; and, the bacterial filtration efficiencies.

Sabra Lane: You've been reassessing the domestic manufacturing ability in Australia for some time now, with an eye to ensuring domestic capability with crucial goods. What should people expect from the Government in the October budget?

Karen Andrews: Now, I'm on record as saying that we need to do a couple of things with manufacturing. One is we have to look after our national resilience - what are we going to need to do? And there’s demonstrations of that already happening with masks and the testing facilities - so that's important. But then we need to look at what our key strengths are, where we actually have the opportunity to build on our comparative and our competitive advantages.

So that's the work that I'm putting the finishing touches on now. And of course, there's been a lot of inputs into that. We've listened to industry, but it's a very extensive and a very comprehensive piece of work that we’re finalising now.

Sabra Lane: Given the huge financial constraints now with COVID, will this not so much be about new money from the Federal Government, but reallocating money to prioritise development of industries?

Karen Andrews: I'm very keen to look at what we can do with some realignment so that every dollar of taxpayers’ money is getting the maximum outcome. A lot of the work though is really going to be looking at how we prioritise; what are our key industries, how do we support those, how do we bring all of those resources together.

Sabra Lane: Picking winners.

Karen Andrews: That's something that governments have never been keen to do. But I would say that there is a big difference between picking winners and identifying priority industries.

Sabra Lane: Alright. With the renewed six-week lockdown happening now in Victoria, industry groups say that there just hasn't been enough consultation here, and that there are problems. They're also warning that national food supply chains, saying that they're at risk. Is the Federal Government stepping in here to help the Victorian Government?

Karen Andrews: We've offered assistance, absolutely, to the Victorian Government. I'm taking a national perspective on things such as PPE, but also our food supplies. What's important is that we do keep supply chains operating.

And look I'm reasonably confident, particularly with food at the moment. For starters we actually grow more than what we need for our own uses here in Australia, but we are very keen to look at what's happening - particularly with the meat industry, because we need to make sure that we've got the proper refrigeration if we have to move around storage and distribution.

So we're already monitoring those and I’m very confident of the work that's being done, not only by my own department but across the Federal Government. And we have indicated very clearly that we will work with every state and territory.

Sabra Lane: Particularly in the last 24 hours, industry groups are saying that it's a real mess and that food supply chains are at risk. Are they crying wolf here?

Karen Andrews: No. They are not crying wolf. They are right to be alert and to be looking to the future, the very short-term future, about what those issues are. So there's been extensive engagement with industry to talk to them about supply chains, what we need to do to be able to assist them - that will clearly ramp up given the escalation of the situation in Victoria, particularly over the last week.

We will continue to make sure that we are working with industry. I don't want industry to be alarmed but I do want them to be alert and I want them to be looking at what the issues are with their supply chains, and to come to the Federal Government and talk to us if there's something of national significance.

Sabra Lane: Will there be food supply shortages?

Karen Andrews: I'm not envisaging anything at the moment. Over the last couple of months there has been issues with restocking where there's been panic buying. So as long as people are sensible, buying what they need, don’t stockpile it, don't hoard it - I'm not envisaging that there's going to be major problems. However, I will always look to make sure that, in a worst-case scenario, Australia is going to be as well-placed as it possibly can be.

Sabra Lane: Karen Andrews, thanks for talking to AM.

Karen Andrews: It's a pleasure. Thank you very much.