Interview with Hamish MacDonald – RN Breakfast

9 December 2019

HAMISH MACDONALD: The Federal Minister for Disaster and Emergency Service Management is David Littleproud. He's in Sydney this morning. Good morning to you.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Good morning, Hamish. Great to be with you.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Obviously, the concern is also for Queensland today but slightly cooler temperatures over the weekend. As I understand that, they've given firefighters there some relief. What reports are you getting this morning about the status of things in Queensland?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. Look obviously, we're not out of the woods yet and haven't been and won't be until - as Shane just quite clearly articulated - there's significant rain. Even in my own electorate, I'm copping a fair bit of these fires just east of Warwick. We are concerned that the weather's working against us and we're just simply going to have to use the time between now and the next extreme weather event in the next couple of days to work on fatigue management of our brave men and women that are out there to give them a blow, let them recover. But we're also working internationally and nationally to make sure we're helping them with that fatigue management as best as we can. But we've got to brace and we've also got a responsibility, each and every one of us, to make sure we have a plan. These men and women are putting their lives on the line. So you have a responsibility to make sure you have a plan to get out and do exactly what they say.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Are you worried about our ability to actually cope with this and manage it over the course of the summer? As you say, we're already at a point where fatigue management is a pretty significant problem and we're just into December.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I think what we can take great comfort in is that our fire commissioners from around the country have meticulously planned for this season. They didn't just do this in the last month or two. They have been planning in fact, when I became Emergency Management Minister in June, the first piece of advice I got was that the season was going to be longer and it was going to start earlier in August and they were spot on and they have meticulously planned for that. These are some of the most professional and some of the world's best emergency management personnel. We should take great comfort in that.

And obviously, I thank the states who have the primary responsibility of emergency management and they've done a great job on this, all states of all political persuasions. And what we need to do is continue to work in a nationally coordinated approach and we will, and I think that's the one thing Australians should be proud of and take comfort in, is that we work together in times of crisis, all levels of government from local through to federal and we'll continue to do that to make sure we keep Australians safe. And we should also remember while tragically, there have been lives lost and homes lost, there have been thousands of homes that have been saved by these men and women because of their brave actions. So we've got to remember that, but we've also got to be there as a shoulder for those that haven't been so lucky and make sure we put our arms around them as a nation not only financially but emotionally. 

HAMISH MACDONALD: From what Shane Fitzsimmons was describing, it seems like the Australian Defence Forces are already heavily engaged in fighting these fires. Can you give us some specifics around that? What is the role of the ADF here currently?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, well obviously, it's around- particularly around logistics as Shane quite clearly articulated, and it's location by location as well, Hamish. It's important to understand where our ADF assets are. Now, obviously, the Prime Minister has made it clear that if reservists are needed and ADF personnel are required in anything other than logistics and providing accommodation and those types of things, then we'll consider it. But these are professionals and you just don't put someone on a fire line that isn't trained.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Sure.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Our Defence personnel can do other things away from the fire line to support these professionals, many of whom are volunteers. They can do that and obviously, we stand ready but obviously, in terms of their equipment, we've been logistically moving goods as well as personnel from one state to another and we'll continue to do that. We understand that and continue to work with the states and particularly the peak body AFAC who all the commissioners come together and plan through. And we listen to them quite meticulously around what they need and how they want it and we're quite agile with that. In fact, as soon as a request comes through, I have a matter of hours to make sure the approval is granted so that I'm not holding anybody up either.

HAMISH MACDONALD: Okay. Defence Minister Linda Reynolds told Parliament last month that the ADF was actively scoping a full call out of reservists. I mean is there a clear trigger point for that kind of thing to be required?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well that's- the emergency services around the state will make that call, not federal politicians or the ADF. It is those professional men and women at a state level that will make that determination …

HAMISH MACDONALD: [Interrupts] Sure. But are they saying to you, you know, things would have to reach a particular point or this would have to go on for a particular length of time for us to be in a position to say we need that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I think it's difficult to say that because obviously in each state, it's at different levels at the moment, Hamish. And New South Wales, in particular, is really copping it and Queensland in the southern part where we're starting to feel it. But obviously we're not sure where other parts will flare up so that's why we stand ready. We're preparing for the worst and that's whatwe can take comfort that our fire commissioners from around the country have done this meticulously for many months and that's why we have to continue to be ready to help them. 

HAMISH MACDONALD: I need to ask you about the water-bombing aircraft. I noticed that Andrew Wilkie, the independent MP, had called for military transport planes to be modified so they could be used for that. It's something that we read about in the papers pretty regularly. It seems people involved in the firefighting effort from time to time say that more of those sorts of facilities are needed. I note that the Government ruled that out immediately. He was dismissed as an armchair expert pretty sharply. Why is that not a reasonable thing to be talking about?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I wouldn't say that he was- it was ruled out sharply. In fact, I had conversations with Andrew after. I respect him greatly. I think he brings a lot to the national conversation …

HAMISH MACDONALD: [Interrupts] Peter Dutton called him an armchair expert.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, the reality is is I'm working with these stakeholders as best I can. But let me make some points here. That to refit ADF aircraft and then train our own staff is considerable. The training that our ADF air crewmen have is quite specific about keeping Australians safe from warfare. And in fact, the other challenging point is that we have over nine overseas engagements at the moment that mean that our aircraft can be called upon at any time. So we don't want to leave ourselves short in defending our nation. So what the arrangements have been and quite successfully through AFAC, the peak body, is that the sourcing of these specifically designed aircraft, whether they be big- and everyone is hung up on these big aircraft. If you go and talk to the commissioners, they say you actually need a suite of aircraft and it's not necessarily just the big ones, because they don't always work in certain conditions. You need small- smaller aircraft to do the job as well and that's why we've got over 100 different aircraft out there. 

And that's why AFAC come together and then they give advice as to what's needed, and those arrangements are then made. And in fact, it has been proven, despite NSW going alone and purchasing a number of aircraft themselves, to be more feasible and more agile to be able to lease them. And those lease arrangements are done many months in advance. So the states are prepared for this and I think we get hung up on having khaki men and women fighting the fires because it's quite emblematic, but the reality is, is that we need to let these professional men and women at the state level - who have been doing this since Federation - get on with their job and we complete them from the ADF perspective where we can with the skills that they have. These people have very specific skills and it's just not a matter of putting on a hat and a coat and a hose and out you go. These are some of the most professional firefighters in the world and they have specific skills that just can't be emulated across into the ADF, who are there to keep us safe from foreign sources. 

HAMISH MACDONALD: Okay. We need to ask you about milk. You've had some pretty strong things to say about Coles after the ACCC said that it had failed to pass on the 10 cent a litre milk levy during the drought. You now want the levy doubled to 20 cents? If they haven't been paying on the 10 cents, what chance of them handing over 20 cents?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well that's why we've got the ACCC. That's why we've got a tough cop. But what upsets me, Hamish, is that I had conversations with all the major supermarkets. Coles were the last ones to come and they came along and they promised me, they promised Australian farmers and they also gave a commitment to the Australian public that they were going to pass this money on and they didn't. They broke their promise. That's un-Australian. So what I'm saying is they can get back their social license, they can show that they care about a sustainable dairy industry. We're trying to put in a place …

HAMISH MACDONALD: [Talks over] I mean, they are now saying they're going to do it. They dispute this- the finding of the ACCC but they say they will do it. 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's disappointing. But the facts are I think Australians are the ones that have the power in this. They can vote with their wallets and their feet and go to supermarkets that will support Australian dairy farmers. And the problem we've got - and I said from the moment that I was able to break this nexus of dollar litre milk with the supermarkets - was that it was only going to milk and what happens when a dairy farmer produces a litre of milk, not all of it goes to milk. It goes to cheese and yoghurt and butter and if you only put it over milk, a very small amount of that 10 cents goes back to the farm gate. 

They've created a mechanism now that can show they can get it back to the farm gate. If they extended it right across the dairy range, this would help dairy farmers keep their head above water until the reforms that the ACCC told us to put in place in their report back in April last year. We're through the mandatory code of conduct and the more measures that we've created through a market platform and other measures to allow the market to get itself sorted. 

But the ACCC said in April last year there was a market imbalance and we need to sort it and we're doing that in a calm, methodical way to make sure it works, but we all have skin in the game. And supermarkets have a role to play in that as well, and I'm saying show your social license now. You've proven you've done the wrong thing and Australians have the power to show them they've done the wrong thing. 

HAMISH MACDONALD: David Littleproud, thank you very much.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks Hamish, great to be with you mate.