Interview with Harry Spicer on Breaking News, Macquarie Media

Bundaberg industries, Paradise Dam, Northern Australia, nuclear energy, National Party

HARRY SPICER: I caught up with Mr Pitt in his office to discuss his new job as well as issues in the Nationals, beginning by asking him about key issues in his electorate, which covers the regional Queensland town of Bundaberg.

KEITH PITT: Well, certainly the greatest people in the country and it's a wonderful spot to visit. Anyone out there looking to come and do some tourist-type activities, head up to Hinkler. So two major centres, Bundaberg and Hervey Bay, a very large agricultural component, particularly macadamias. Biggest macadamia growers in Australia now. Horticulture – we produce probably about 80-odd per cent plus of Australia's sweet potatoes, sugarcane, avocados. And in the south, tourism is really important. So Hervey Bay, obviously, adjacent to Fraser Island. They have the whales in season. That's a wonderful place to visit. We've certainly got a lot of retirees and veterans. But we also have some challenges. Our youth unemployment got far too high. We are trialling the Cashless Debit Card in Hinkler at the moment. It's the biggest trial in Australia, just under 6000 participants. And we've also got one of Australia's only regional deals, which we signed up two weeks ago, over $260 million in total, in combination with the state and local governments.

HARRY SPICER: Let's talk for a bit about industry in Bundaberg, which is going to be the biggest thing, which would drive down youth unemployment. A big driver of that, as you say, is the agriculture industry. But the agriculture industry needs water, and with the Paradise Dam having its capacity reduced, that's no good for the industry. What does the State Government need to do there to get that show fixed?

KEITH PITT: Well, the Paradise Dam issue is the single biggest issue, in my view, in the country at the moment. Now, there's obviously challenges with natural disasters and I certainly feel for all those individuals. But in terms of moving forward for economic growth, we have a 300 gigalitre dam completed in 2005, which the government-owned operator, and the Queensland Labor Government are now saying is so unsafe, it needs to be knocked down. This is just appalling. I mean, if we lose 100 gigalitres of water from the local economy, that is a real challenge for jobs into the future and certainly for investment confidence.

HARRY SPICER: Does the State Government need to fund a repair of this dam? What's the solution?

KEITH PITT: Well, my view is quite straightforward. We need to make safe. We need to repair, restore or replace. There are no other options. They're fielding this idea that, you know, we'll just build something somewhere else. The people I represent, they're not silly. They know that that's a 10 or 12-year prospect, when they have a dam right there, right now. So the industry has got very, very involved. They've raised some money of their own. They've engaged one of the world's leading experts on this dam type. It's an RCC type dam. They've brought him in from the US. I expect to see some information and reports from that individual in the very near future.

HARRY SPICER: Some people say regional Australia has gone backwards in recent years. How do you think it's going?

KEITH PITT: Well firstly, there's no better place to live. You don't spend an hour and a half commuting when you drive to work. Especially if you're on the coast, you've got lots of options for beaches. And if you like the bush, well, you can certainly head to any of those sorts of areas. There's no better place than regional Australia. It's wonderful. But in terms of the economy, I'm really looking forward to the challenge in the portfolio that I've been very fortunately given. The resources sector is expected to deliver $281 billion worth of economic activity in terms of exports in 2019-20. That is a huge chunk of the Australian economy. Some 245,000 permanent jobs. They are well-paid, highly skilled, and in general, delivered by people in regional areas.

HARRY SPICER: The direction it's going, are you happy with the direction regional Australia is going, or does more need to be done?

KEITH PITT: More always needs to be done. That is our job, right? As parliamentarians first and foremost, as representatives of our electorates, we are always looking to do better for the people we represent. So right now, it's about building regional economies. It's about jobs. And certainly, the resources sector is a very big part of that.

HARRY SPICER: You're coming into the water portfolio, which has been a pretty tricky portfolio. How will you manage the competing interests along the Murray-Darling Basin? And do you think it's an advantage that your electorate isn't actually on the basin?

KEITH PITT: Well, two points. Firstly, anything to do with the resource part of the portfolio, the decision-making authority around water for that lives with Sussan Ley, as the Environment Minister. For me, water policy, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, all of those challenges, which have been around for a very long time, as we all know. But I think there are some advantages in coming from an electorate which is not directly affected and is not directly placed in the Basin. You know, the commitment that I can give to all the people who are listening to your program is I'll be absolutely impartial and fair and act in the national interest, and I'm certainly looking to listen to the stakeholders.

HARRY SPICER: You're taking over the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility. Labor argues just $15 million out of the fund's $5 billion has been delivered? Is this program failing?

KEITH PITT: Well there are a number of projects which have been announced, and they are working through their process. You don't deliver all the money upfront, give it to a proponent and say: here's your cash. I mean, that's the Labor Party way. So those proposals are moving forward. There is significant funding left that we are working to get distributed and certainly invested into regional Australia in the north. But I think this fund, there's a great opportunity in this fund, there's a great opportunity for Northern Australia. And it's not just the NAIF fund, it's the connecting infrastructure, it's the roads and bridges and ports. And we know that there's $100 billion in infrastructure on the table from this Government, all of which is important for the regions.

HARRY SPICER: Your predecessor, Matt Canavan, was known for his strong advocacy for coal and coal-fired power during his tenure. Will you have the same kind of advocacy in that area?

KEITH PITT: I think you'll find it's too late, I already have and have had for quite some time. I really want to point out, you look at my colleagues, right. So, someone like Ken O'Dowd, the Member for Flynn, the Bulldog from Flynn they call him here in Parliament. When you go up there, there's big posters everywhere and it says: Ken stands for coal. So I think that's a true reflection on the people and their representative, because, you know, the resources sector just drives so much of our economy. As I said earlier, highly paid, highly skilled jobs, a lot of which are in the regions. I'm looking to expand those opportunities, and in particular for our youth. I really think that there's an opportunity for our youth to get involved in the mining sector, whether that is through a trade or a traineeship, to learn the skills they need to be engaged and take up those high paid positions. And that's great for them and great for their future.

HARRY SPICER: And as a backbencher, you've also pushed the case for nuclear energy. Now you're a Minister, you're bound by cabinet solidarity and so on. But internally, will you continue to make the case for nuclear energy to at least be considered as part of the energy mix?

KEITH PITT: Well there's a moratorium in place right now. And, Ted O'Brien, the Member for Fairfax chaired a committee of which I was a member as backbencher very recently. I wasn't a voting member on that committee. I was what's called a supplementary member, and there's been some recommendations put forward to the shareholding minister, Angus Taylor, one of which is a partial lifting of the moratorium. So Minister Taylor, as the shareholding minister, has to respond to those recommendations, and I certainly look forward to seeing what his response is. But as I've said, all the way along, it was about a conversation with the Australian people, and I think it's the Australian people who make sensible decisions and well-informed decisions.

HARRY SPICER: So would you say that it's more about at least getting that conversation started for people to consider all options in the energy mix?

KEITH PITT: Well certainly, that's what the committee did. It went right around the country talking to stakeholders. It's made some recommendations to Angus, and I look forward to seeing what he comes back with in terms of a response to the report.

HARRY SPICER: Now speaking of your Nationals colleagues, are you frustrated by the instability in the party room, and do people need to move on from this event?

KEITH PITT: Oh, we've already moved on.

HARRY SPICER: But it would seem some of your colleagues haven't moved on. Just today, a leak appearing discussing a party room meeting being moved so ministers could claim travel entitlements. These people are continuing to cause issues, aren't they?

KEITH PITT: Nothing upsets the Australian people more than when we're not focused on them. Our job as Parliamentarians, as the Coalition Government, is to deliver for the people we represent, and when we are not focused on the Australian people for even a nanosecond they will penalise and punish us, and we would deserve it. So I think all of my colleagues - we just need to move forward, the events of last week we put behind us, and we get on with the job.

HARRY SPICER: Mark Coulton, one of your colleagues, likened the whole thing to a soap opera. Would you agree with that description?

KEITH PITT: As I've said before, I don't work on the set of Days of Our Lives. I mean, this is a serious building, serious decisions are made in terms of the future of the nation and its direction. It's great to be part of it and it's an absolute privilege to be part of it. But certainly I look forward to making a stronger and larger contribution in this role.

HARRY SPICER: Some Queensland Nats backbenchers we hear are talking about a potential split in the Queensland LNP or within the Nationals. Would you urge everyone to not engage in that kind of behaviour?

KEITH PITT: Well, I'm a member of the Liberal National Party. I sit in the Nationals party room like many of my colleagues. And as we all know, I mean, all those decisions are party-based decisions, and you know, we are where we are. We are members of the Nationals party room. We just get on with the job of being in the Coalition. It's a great privilege to be in Government and long may it continue.