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Interview with Kieran Gilbert of Sky News Live

21 June 2020

Kieran Gilbert

Subject: New Coronavirus cases in Victoria, the Murray-Darling Basin, exports to China and the Collinsville Power Station


KIERAN GILBERTLet’s go live now to Keith Pitt. He’s the Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia. Minister, thanks so much for your time. Before we get to the water issue let me ask you about this Victoria COVID-19 spike. From a Federal Government point of view, how concerning is this spike in numbers?

KEITH PITT: Well, Kieran, firstly it’s great to be with you, great to be with your viewers. It is concerning but I think we do need to recognise that it was always going to be the case that there will be localised hot spots and small outbreaks. So, the coronavirus remains very challenging in terms of a health response. I note that Dan Andrews has gone back out and walked back from some of his commitments. But I note that none of those include changing the cap on protests from 30,000.

KIERAN GILBERT: In terms of those that have been caught up in this outbreak, though, families visiting each other in large numbers according to the Premier. Should there be tougher penalties on that front?

KEITH PITT:  Well, the states do set those regimes. They are the enforcement agents. We provide advice at a federal level from the Chief Medical Officer and others in terms of the health aspect, but the states are the ones that determine border closures, for example, and what rules they put in place. We know there’s a bit of a mismatch across the country, but we do need to continue to get on with getting our economy open. We do need to deal with the health challenges, which are real. But I think if anyone is out there that believes this is completely eliminated in Australia, well I think that’s wrong.

KIERAN GILBERT: [We] reported one federal source who suggested that this is two weeks on from those protests. The question is, is it just a coincidence? Will the Government be seeking to ascertain that?

KEITH PITT: Those facts will be established through contact tracing and other means. But once again, you’re out telling families that they can’t get together with family and friends but you allow 30,000 people, a lot of which in high risk categories, to get together for a protest. Well, I think your viewers know very well what the cause of some of these outbreaks may be.

KIERAN GILBERT: It’s hurting with the borders closed. You’re the Minister for Northern Australia. As you know full well the tourism industry’s hurting in a big way. Are you concerned now, though, that this outbreak will lead to Queensland rethinking the reopening of its borders in July?

KEITH PITT: I’m certainly concerned about our tourism operators, particularly those who do rely entirely on international travel. And our international travel, in my view, is a long way from returning. We do need to find other ways to deal with those challenges, particularly in the north. But Queensland Premier Palaszczuk, once again, the Labor Government in Queensland has been appalling in terms of its economic management for many years. We know that they just don’t put forward what’s needed for business. They’ll make their own decisions around borders, but I certainly know business wants to get back to work. The case numbers are very, very low in Queensland and we really do need to get out and test the boundaries.

KIERAN GILBERT: Would you urge her to stick to this schedule despite and in spite of that outbreak in Victoria?

KEITH PITT: We’re a big country, Kieran, with a lot of space. Once again, I’ll encourage people, if you’re looking for something to do, to move to the regions. You get your own house, you can get three cars, a dog, a tractor, a slasher, plenty of space for your horses. It’s certainly a much lower risk of corona. But look, it is a serious issue. We will be providing health advice at a federal level. States will make their own determinations. And for those of your viewers, if you’ve got a view to put forward, put it forward to Annastacia Palaszczuk.

KIERAN GILBERT: What’s your view though? Obviously you want the businesses to reopen, you want the economy to reopen. You would advise her, don’t delay?

KEITH PITT: Well, the Federal Government’s advice has never been to close borders. States have made those decisions and I do think they need to get on with it.

KIERAN GILBERT: Let’s look at some other issues now, the China issue. What’s the purpose of calling out the incidence of cyber attacks, given this has been a threat for some time?

KEITH PITT:  Well, firstly, I’d refer you to the PM’s statement. We had advice that there was an attack across a broad range of portfolios, not only Government but industry, from a sophisticated state-based actor. Now, we need to ensure that the Australian people are firstly aware of those challenges, that they are taking steps themselves. And take the advice that’s available, make sure your patches are updated, and make sure you have all the current software, any changes as they come through. And secondly, the Federal Government will always act in the national interest when it comes to our security, our sovereignty and our economy.

KIERAN GILBERT: The New South Wales Government wasn’t going to release the information, and yet the Federal Government did in relation to that most recent sophisticated attack on the Berejiklian Government. Are you concerned that it could be counterproductive in an economic and trade sense? Particularly, I ask you that as Minister for Resources.

KEITH PITT:   Well, I’ll let the state pedal their own bicycle, Kieran. We will continue to work very closely with our trading partners as we always have. Australia is a trading nation, the resources sector has remained very strong through the corona outbreak, it will continue to do so. In fact, iron ore, we expect to go through $100 billion this year, in just one year. First Australian commodity to go through $100 billion worth of exports. That’s good news for people who are out there working hard and good news for our nation.

KIERAN GILBERT: Are the resources exports, though, safe from sanctions? Or does China have alternative sources for some of those?

KEITH PITT: Well, trade continues to be trade. There is always competition for trade regardless of what your product is. We’ve seen some softening of prices around met and thermal coal. There’s a lot of economies which, quite simply, are closed. That means there’s a lot of people out there looking to get into the available markets, that’s what drags the price down. In some cases we do get an advantage. We know that there’s a reduction in exports out of South America for example for iron ore, that’s meant an increase for Australian products, which has pushed the price up to around $100. Trade’s always been like this, Kieran, it will continue to be that way. But Australia will continue to provide a good product, which is competitive, and we are absolutely reliable.

KIERAN GILBERT: And just in terms of that cyber threat, we’ve known for a long time that this is what China’s up to. Doesn’t it make more sense to make sure our security agencies have the resources, deal with it, but ease up on the megaphone diplomacy so we can get on with that trade you talk about?

KEITH PITT: The Federal Government has increased its budget into those agencies over recent years, we’ll continue to look closely at what those requirements are. But once again the message to the Australian people from me is very clear. We will always stand up for their rights and their interests and protect our national interest.

KIERAN GILBERT: This week we saw some terrible unemployment numbers. Without JobKeeper it’d be much, much worse. Is there a recognition within Government that JobKeeper in some form will have to remain not just til September?

KEITH PITT: Well, there is a review underway right now through the Treasurer and his Department. We know there’s around more than 3 million people on JobKeeper right now. JobSeeker has obviously increased by more than 800,000. And Kieran, they are people we all know, they are mums and dads and brothers and sisters and family members and friends who find themselves in a position which they may well never have been in their entire working life. It is challenging for the economy, there’ll be difficult decisions to be made. But once again the best thing we can do is get our economy going. For me, for my portfolios, to get as many projects underway in the resources sector as we can manage, because they mean real jobs, full time, well paid and into the future. So everything we do needs to be around our economy [indistinct] producing more jobs. And I’d say to the Australian people: On this question, who do you trust? Well, we have delivered on these commitments before. We’ve made commitments of more than a million jobs over a period of time. We’ve delivered on that and we’ll deliver on this.

KIERAN GILBERT: Is there an expectation within the tourism operators in your part of the world and across Queensland that there will be some form of wage subsidy beyond this initial period?

KEITH PITT: Well, I think there’s a question to answer here about what’s the best approach. Is it to keep people in business without customers, or is it to get customers to businesses, to get bums on seats in planes? There’s a whole very broad range of discussions going on right now across departments, across portfolios and across Government. When we kicked off on JobKeeper we obviously had a very limited amount of time to prepare. It wasn’t terribly granular. We did what was necessary in that short period of time. The review is now underway and I look forward to seeing what’s put forward.

KIERAN GILBERT: On the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, Andrew Clennell reported earlier in relation to New South Wales walking out of that meeting on Friday. Is there any chance, any prospect of compromise here?

KEITH PITT: Well, I think I want to clear the facts up first, Kieran. There was no walk-out, nobody left. It was a video-conference meeting. No one stormed out of the room. It just didn’t happen. Now, Victoria and New South Wales put forward a motion with no notice. It’s no surprise to me that other members of the council weren’t willing to accept that given that they hadn’t seen it prior, they’d had no time to consider what was on the table. But I’ve got to say it was a congenial meeting, we actually got some results. If you look at the press release from Victoria, for example, they reached an agreement between Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia around trying to deal with very large range of developments downstream. So when you look at things like the almond industry for example and its rapid expansion. And I think that’s a very positive sign for the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial meetings moving forward.

KIERAN GILBERT: So what’s your focus now to try and placate New South Wales? Because quite clearly they’ve got a different view as to how that meeting unfolded. The Minister was disappointed in the outcome.

KEITH PITT: Well, once again, this is a discussion, it’s an arrangement between six key stakeholding Governments. The Commonwealth is just one. We have to work together in the interests, firstly of the nation. This is a national issue. We also have to work together in the interests of each of the states and their shareholders, regardless of whether they’re irrigators or business, community or environmentalists. Now, I think that we’ve done a reasonably good job in terms of the Murray-Darling Basin and its management over a long period of time. If that wasn’t the case you would have massive amounts of salt intrusion, for example, acid sulfate soils breaking out right across the Basin. There’s been a drought. Everyone recognises that that is a very challenging period of time, particularly for farmers, and we continue to work closely with the states, regardless of whether they are New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia or others. So I’ll continue to do that, that’s my job.

KIERAN GILBERT: Let me ask you about the Collinsville power station. I’ve got a few issues I want to rip through before we wrap it up this Sunday morning. But the company behind the proposed new plant at Collinsville has asked whether they’ve been used as a pawn by the Federal Government to win the last election and has expressed doubt as to whether the Government is actually genuine in its support for that proposal. So can you clear it up this morning? Do you support the Collinsville proposed coal-fired power station?

KEITH PITT: My understanding is that Minister Taylor’s announced in the last 24 or 48 hours that $3.3 million will be provided for that project. We made a commitment and we’re meeting that commitment.

KIERAN GILBERT: And you personally, do you think it should go ahead?

KEITH PITT: I’m an engineer, Kieran. Feasibility studies are about determining the prospects for a particular project. I look forward to seeing the results of the feasibility study. But I’m not going to predetermine an outcome on a feasibility study I haven’t seen, that hasn’t been conducted, that hasn’t been read. That’s why we put $3.3 million on the table.

KIERAN GILBERT: On nuclear energy, you’ve been an advocate for some time. Do you still hold that view? And would you be happy, as an engineer, as someone who knows this space well, to have that sort of facility in your own part of the world, in your electorate?

KEITH PITT: Well, small modular reactors have been included in the technology roadmap. I was part of a backbench committee that made some recommendations to Government some time ago. Minister Taylor will provide a formal response on behalf of the Commonwealth to that report in the future. Once again, these are engineering questions. I often get asked about whether I’d want one in my own back yard. The challenges we have here is I have an area that’s prone to earthquakes, so I just think from a technical viewpoint, that’s unlikely. The small modular reactors are new technology. My understanding is there’s a very large order book underway in the US and a number of other nations. We’ll be watching that very closely, that’s one of the reasons it has been included in the technology roadmap moving forward.

KIERAN GILBERT: And finally, on the live cattle exports ruling by the Federal Court, that landmark ruling that ruled the ban in 2011 was invalid, yet the Government Senators opposed appealing that in the Senate. The Attorney-General says the Government will be appealing that decision. Should the Government have settled with the cattlemen before this ended up in court?

KEITH PITT: Well, once again the Australian people are paying for the short period of time that they had Federal Labor in the Commonwealth Government. The decision was wrong at the time. I’ve said this on the record previously. I’ve continued to be supportive of the live export industry, I think it’s a very positive industry and it’s one, Kieran, where we actually require the people that buy our product to implement our ESCAS  system [Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System] in terms of animal welfare. I mean, that doesn’t happen anywhere else. So I think the industry will continue to be strong. I think the decision made by Mr Ludwig at the time was wrong. But in terms of the current decision, what the Commonwealth will do, I’ll leave those comments to the Attorney-General, our chief law officer.

KIERAN GILBERT: Minister for Resources Keith Pitt, appreciate your time, thanks.

KEITH PITT: Great to be with you.