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Interview with Deb Knight, 2GB

28 August 2020

Deb Knight

Subject: The Bush Summit, border closures, relationship with China, COVID-19


DEB KNIGHT: These fellas are quite the double-act. They're both speaking at the Bush Summit that's underway in Cooma at the moment, and they've just come off stage. Joel Fitzgibbon and Angus Taylor hosting a panel together, and they're with us now. G'day fellas.


JOEL FITZGIBBON: Good to be with you Deb.

DEB KNIGHT: So, tell us about this summit, because obviously rural and regional Australia, they've had such a tough year. We've got COVID, we've had the bushfires, the drought. So many issues to contend with. I guess to you first, Angus, what do you hope that this summit will actually achieve?

ANGUS TAYLOR: It's recognising the important role, incredibly important role the regions play in this country and will continue to play, and need to play more. Whether it's in agriculture or in manufacturing, tourism of course is important in the regions, energy which is what we were talking about today. You know, we've got to celebrate the regions, we've got to support the regions, and we've got to make sure that they continue to be the powerhouse that they have been historically for Australia.

DEB KNIGHT: And are they forgotten too often, Joel?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: They are forgotten too often, Deb, and if there's one thing Angus and I stand together on, it's the interest of rural and regional Australia. We've just come out of mortal battle in there on the Bush Summit panel, but Angus and I weren't doing mortal battle with one another, we were doing battle against the billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes. Now, everyone on that panel wants the same thing, Deb. We want secure and affordable energy into the future, and we want to transition to a cleaner energy framework. But Mike Cannon-Brookes is just a guy, from my perspective, who is in too much of a hurry to get us there. We are getting there, we will get there - that is, to a cleaner economy - but we've got to make sure in the meantime our households and our industry have affordable, reliable power.

DEB KNIGHT: So, he's pushing too hard too soon?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: I think he's a guy in a hurry. He's obviously an intelligent person who is well read. One day we will have 100 per cent renewable energy backed by things like hydrogen, but it's going to take a long time, and in the meantime gas for example will be an important transitional fuel, and that means we need to get more gas out of the ground and a more competitive gas pipeline network.

DEB KNIGHT: Yep, well, good to see that you guys are united on some things, I'm not sure that you are on everything. We'll see how we go with this. But the border issues, the border lockdown is a major topic at the summit that you're at. And this tragic news this morning that this young woman from Ballina denied entry to Queensland for an urgent emergency medical treatment. One of her twins has died and we've got the Queensland Premier and the Chief Health Officer talking about ‘Queensland hospitals for Queenslanders’. I mean, Angus, they're playing politics here with people's lives.

ANGUS TAYLOR: It's not good enough. Look, what a tragic story. Terrible, terrible story. The Prime Minister spoke about it here in Cooma this morning, and you know, this is a call to the state and territory premiers to sort out this border issue, because it's just not good enough. We spoke about common sense last week, and I tell you, you know, when common sense doesn't prevail, these are the kind of tragedies you get. Now is the time to just get this sorted out, get the clarity there that we need, and look after people in a common sense way.

DEB KNIGHT: What can we do though, Joel, because by nature of our Federation, the PM can't come over the top of the state leaders? But in this case, I mean, we pay Medicare, we pay our taxes so we get access to healthcare regardless of lines on a map, regardless of borders.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: The story you shared Deb, of course, is a tragic one and my sympathy goes to the family. It's just a terrible thing to have happened, and common sense does have to prevail. I think the Australian community expects that more than anything from our politicians. And what they don't want to hear is the Prime Minister this morning blaming the states and the states blaming the Prime Minister. I said last week, the Prime Minister said he was taking control of this thing through his National Cabinet. He takes credit when things go right and he's got to take some responsibility for the border issues as well.

DEB KNIGHT: Yeah. Here, here. Absolutely. Now, news this morning. This is interesting. We've poked a bear it seems with China. They've now banned imports from another major Australian meatworks. This one the John Dee abattoir in Queensland. Is this just a wild coincidence, Angus, or is this in retaliation to the Government announcing the new Foreign Relations Bill trying to put Australian interests first?

ANGUS TAYLOR: That's not a question I can answer, but what I can say is that we are going to put Australia's interests first and we have to. Look, this bill is about making sure that states and territories, universities do the right thing. Australians expect the national government, our federal government to set foreign policy. They expect federal and state governments to speak with one voice when it comes to foreign policy, and that is exactly what we're doing. We can't have states and universities running around doing something completely 180 degrees opposed to what the federal government is doing, and that's why this legislation is important. So, we stand by principle as we always do. We want to maintain a strong trading relationship with China, but it's important we stick to our principles as well.

DEB KNIGHT: But Angus, China keeps hitting our farmers. We've got the wine growers, we've got the barley growers, we've got our beef growers. All of them have already been hit hard and now another Australian meatwork being hit - it's still not clear why.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, obviously it's not an ideal situation, but what I'd say is China needs our goods and wants our goods and likes our goods because we produce some of the best food and fibre in the world, if not the very best, actually. And you know, I think this will sort itself out but you can't compromise your principles at the end of the day as a country, Deb. This is too important. Controlling our destiny is way, way more important than compromising at the wrong time, and we've got to make sure the principles are clear and that's exactly what we're doing.

DEB KNIGHT: And Joel, you've been very critical of the Government's approach here saying that they should calm the farm on the approach to China. I mean, putting our national interests first, that makes sense doesn't it?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Well, I've always put our national interests first, Deb, and you've indicated yourself just now that another meatworks has been locked out of the China market this morning. I don't think it's by any coincidence that it's in the Agriculture Minister's electorate-

DEB KNIGHT:  It's in David Littleproud's electorate, isn't it? Yeah.

JOEL FITZGIBBON: So, I think you can see what's going on here. Look, Anthony Albanese, the Labor leader, has said we'll look at this legislation and our test will be the national interest. We will always defend the national interest, but I've said it here before that we risk some pretty significant trade retaliation. We should always stand firm on our national interest, but be smart about it too. So, if this bill is about protecting the national interest, of course it will have our support. But personally, I still remain concerned that it's another move by the Government to garner political support domestically at the expense of our trading relationships, and therefore our farmers and all those others who export to China.

DEB KNIGHT: And did Victoria get it wrong by signing up the Belt and Road deal, by not speaking to Canberra about it first, by going it alone? And our universities signing up with these research deals and with these Confucius centres that we have in Australian schools and universities. I mean, does that have to be reined in, Joel?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: I think it's absolutely smart if not mandatory for both state governments, business and universities to follow the guidance on foreign policy, the foreign policy guidance of the National Government.

DEB KNIGHT: Alright, agreeance on that. Now, Angus, what's going on with your colleagues? We've got Michael Sukkar and this massive branch stacking operation. Should he step aside while the party investigates this?

ANGUS TAYLOR: No. Look, the Victorian division is launching or has launched an investigation into the matter. Both Michael Sukkar and Kevin Andrews have referred the starting matters that have been in the press to the Secretary of the Department of Finance, and that'll be dealt with in due course. You know, Michael Sukkar is an extremely good Minister. He's driven the HomeBuilder package which I know from talking to builders around my electorate is making a real difference. A sector that we need to keep going, the construction sector, enormously important as we come out of COVID and during COVID. And Michael Sukkar's doing an excellent job.

DEB KNIGHT: What about Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck? Walking out of the Senate after delivering his statement on aged care while Penny Wong was responding - not a good look. And not having the facts and figures in front of him on the number of residents who have died in aged care. He's not performing in his portfolio, surely he's got to go?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, it has been a tough time in the aged care sector, there's no secret about that and that hasn't just been in Australia, that's been across-

DEB KNIGHT:  Yeah, and the buck stops with the minister. You've got to be across your portfolio, don't you?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, it's been across the world, it's been across the world, and the plan, despite what Labor's been saying, the plans have been put in place, but it's an incredibly tough environment. Now, 97 per cent of our aged care-

DEB KNIGHT: It's been tough for the family members who've lost their loved ones in aged care homes though.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Of course! Tragic, absolutely tragic! Anyone touched by that has seen the tragedy of it. And as I say, it's been, we've seen that right across the world and this is the real impact of COVID on those older demographics, is where we've seen the, obviously the strongest effect right across the world. But we have seen 97 per cent of our centres have not had an outbreak of COVID-19. We'll continue to work extremely hard on this. We can always do better. There's no doubt about that.

DEB KNIGHT: And quickly Joel, does he have to go?

JOEL FITZGIBBON: Oh, your listeners know Angus is defending the indefensible, Deb, they'll wake up to this. The performances have been terrible. But we just heard there's another committee kicking things down the road, another plan. The Prime Minister came to the Bush Summit today to remind us that 12 months ago at the last Bush Summit, he promised we'd have a plan for Australian agriculture's growth, but still just over 12 months on, we haven't seen a hint of that plan let alone the finalisation of the plan. They love a committee and a review.

DEB KNIGHT: Alright, well, it's good it's being discussed. We need that issue, we need rural Australia to have a light shone on it, that is for sure, and it's good that that's happening, that Bush Summit today. Fellas, we are out of time but thanks so much for joining us.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Thanks for having us Deb.


Media contact:

Minister Taylor's office: 02 6277 7120