TRANSCRIPT: Interview with Belinda Sanders, ABC Southern Queensland - 31 January 2019

E&OE

Subjects: Emu Swamp Dam; Water projects; Inland Rail; PFAS chemicals; Animal activists

BELINDA SANDERS:       

The Deputy Prime Minister of course is in the region at the moment with most commentators backing a May federal election so promises have begun, one of course surrounding the Emu Swamp Dam in the Southern Downs.  The Federal Government is committed to funding half of the project as long as the State also contributed money to the development.  The State Government says it’s still working with the proponents to finalise the business case.  The Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack is on the phone now, good morning.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:            

Good morning Belinda.

BELINDA SANDERS:       

And welcome, thank you for joining me this morning.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:            

Pleasure.

BELINDA SANDERS:       

Now is the Emu Swamp Dam funding from the Federal Government dependent on the Coalition winning the election or can you sign contracts right now?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:            

Well I’d love to be able to sign contracts right now but I’m going to, in good faith, meet with the Water Minister for Queensland Anthony Lynham in coming weeks and I’ll be sitting down having a chat with him to see where we go from here.

BELINDA SANDERS:       

So it’s unrealistic to expect it to happen before the election?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:            

I’d love for it to happen before the election. The proponents have been talking about this, have been discussing this for 30 years.  We want to get on as the Federal Government and I know States do also want to work cooperatively on these sorts of things. We’ve worked cooperatively with the Queensland Government on the Rookwood Weir and we want to work cooperatively with them on this particular project which can increase irrigated agriculture in the region, the Granite Belt region by up to $60 million a year - I think that figure is probably understated. So it's a good project. It stacks up well and as David Littleproud said yesterday we’re just looking for a dancing partner now.

BELINDA SANDERS:       

Of course it's broader or it touches on an issue that is much broader than that: the drought is very difficult. There have been a number since the ‘90s. All seem to be quite severe, for example the Darling Downs has had its driest January on record, but what's being done for long-term water access? Is there a need, for example, for more dams in this region and where?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:            

We believe so and that's why we've put another $500 million on the table for the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund that builds on previous commitments taking that amount of money to $1.3 billion. We’re looking at the Rookwood Weir - we’re getting on with that. Emu Swamp seems to stack up, it does; we want to proceed with that. There are projects like that and projects which can also have business cases done for them around the nation. The Myalup-Wellington irrigation project in Western Australia - I appreciate that’s a long way from Toowoomba - but those sorts of projects,  that Myalup-Wellington project,  Scottsdale in Tasmania - they stack up. They build agriculture, they build our flood mitigation efforts but they also help drought-proof our nation.

BELINDA SANDERS:

Well I suppose right now people are talking about bores; the need for water; the South Burnett needs more water; Toowoomba needs water; the Southern Downs wants more water outside of Emu Swamp Dam. So there's calls for more water in the long term everywhere and I suppose bores can't be the answer all the time, can they?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:            

No and the fact is it's dry now. It's been dry in some parts of Queensland particularly for seven years. The fact is: it will rain. Government can't make it rain but I tell you what, when it does rain there are going to be people who will be cursing the amount of rain that we get and then of course we need to store that water for times when it is dry. Everybody remembers Cyclone Debbie in Queensland and there's so much rain that came out of that particular weather event that people were thinking when is it going to end? So we need to make sure that we store the water when it falls for those times when it's dry as it is now.

BELINDA SANDERS:       

The Inland Rail route is controversial in this part of the world. Some property owners along the route particularly between Millmerran and Brookstead fear the building of that line will worsen already severe flooding events along the 12.5 kilometre wide flood plain. So have you met with farmers or ARTC on this trip?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:            

Yes I have with a group of farmers and business people - I met with them yesterday with David Littleproud. It’s actually about a 16 kilometres stretch across the Condamine which means that it is an issue.  I met with them in good faith yesterday. They gave me some information, passed on some more maps and diagrams and evidence yesterday. I'll take that away. I'll have a good long discussion with the CEO of the ARTC.  The particular project, Inland Rail, is transformational but I'll sit down and have a discussion with Richard Wankmuller as well as the chair Warren Truss - but as I say this is a nation-building project so wherever we put the line it's going to cause some people to be impacted. I appreciate that, I understand that but we want to minimise the impact. We want to make sure that the benefits there are maximised and so it’s a matter of getting the balance right. So I met with the group yesterday in good faith in Millmerran, had a really good chat and spent some considerable time with them. They took me to various places where they showed me the effects of flooding both in recent times but also what's happened there since the rail line was put down in 1911 and showed me diagrams of floods dating back to the ‘50s and subsequent from that. So we'll have a good chat with my ARTC colleagues and I've given the assurance that I'll get back to the folk there and we'll all sit down again and have another discussion.

BELINDA SANDERS:       

Of course generally speaking the route has been finalised; finer details haven't been finalised yet but are we talking about minor changes from here on in, and would any changes now at this late stage considering it’s started in other States delay the project?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:            

Sure. Again, I'll have a chat with the ARTC. I’ve taken on board exactly what I was told and shown and given yesterday and we'll be having further discussions about that in the not too distant future.

BELINDA SANDERS:       

So you're open to more change?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:            

I'm really pleased that I went there yesterday and sat down with them and had the discussion.  I’m really pleased that I jumped in the car and went out and had a look at the various sites and spoke to business people, spoke to local people, spoke to farmers and landholders. It was a good discussion. I took on board what they said. I'll now go away I'll have a chat with the ARTC officials and I'll get back to them.

BELINDA SANDERS:

I’m speaking to Michael McCormack, the Deputy Prime Minister, who is in the region at the moment. You’re listening to ABC Southern Queensland.

Another controversial topic is the toxic chemical in firefighting foam that was used at the Oakey Base. The biggest problem at the moment seems to be indecision. So, when is a definitive position for affected property owners going to be announced?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

The Australian Government is committed to supporting local communities affected by PFAS. Their wellbeing is obviously critical and important not just to them but also to the Government. The Government has announced a $73 million package of measures to support those local communities. I appreciate this isn’t just a Defence problem, this isn’t just an Australian problem - it’s a worldwide issue. There have been a number of inquiries; we’ve conducted one ourselves. We’ve taken on board what’s been shown to us, what’s been told to us, and made site visits. I visited Oakey in a previous portfolio when I was the Assistant Minister for Defence. Oakey was one of the first places I visited as well as Williamtown. So, I’ve been there. I’ve spoken to the local people and it is a concern.

BELINDA SANDERS:       

But why not just bite the bullet and move or compensate those that are directly affected right now?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

It’s an issue that is ongoing. So we stand ready to help these local communities. We stand ready to do what we can. And we’re working with the local communities; I know Defence is working with the local communities. Some of the people may want to stay. They want to get the issue resolved. Many many billions of litres of water have been treated both there and at Newcastle and other sites. So, we’re working with the community, doing what’s best for the communities concerned.

BELINDA SANDERS:

I’m speaking to Michael McCormack, the Deputy Prime Minister, here on ABC Southern Queensland. It is 18 minutes to 9. Now, you were annoyed by animal activists - Aussie Farms, in particular, in this case, who posted a map with the locations of many farms this week with the idea of causing trouble in terms of animal activism. You’ve called for that particular organisation to be deregistered as a charity. Has that been progressed?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Yes, the letter has been sent. This is a disgraceful situation where the names and addresses of farms throughout Australia were published online as a measure to get people to be activated against our farmers. Our farmers do a great job for Australia. They grow the very best food and fibre. They do a good job. Animal welfare is front centre of everything that they do. Why should their addresses, why should their identifications be revealed so that people can then, at times, if they feel so aggrieved, take action, trespass, do those sorts of things? It's a call to action to do the wrong thing against our farmers and many farmers have children; they have animals that don't need to be trespassed upon. It's a situation that cannot continue.

These people, they take charity status; they take donations from people who I would be imagining would be unsuspecting of what their activities are. So I've called on the Minister concerned to revoke or at least look at their charitable status. I believe it should be revoked and if it can be, it will be because I don't think they're collecting their money under the right circumstances. I don't think they’re collecting it for the right cause. What they're doing is trying to cause mayhem and despair for our farmers who are just doing a darn fine job.

BELINDA SANDERS:

Now, it's all public information on the website. If you searched hard enough, you'd find it anyways. So the laws haven't been broken as such, so what realistically can be done?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Yes, but they're making it easier for people who would do the wrong thing to be able to do the wrong thing. They're putting it all in one easily accessible site. Look, if you want to go and try and find the name and address of a farmer and that particular farmer’s details in another State, well, yes, I suppose if you look hard enough, if you Google hard enough, you could probably find it but the fact is to have it all in one place, there at your fingertips, what possible good can come of that? What possible reason is there for it? No, these people are there, they’re trying to do the wrong thing. They are there, they make their way in the world by doing the wrong thing. In this regard, they take animal welfare way beyond where it needs to go. Animal welfare is front and centre of everything that our farmers in Australia do – whether it's live exports or whether it's here in domestic farms, et cetera. They do a good job. They don't need this sort of activity against them.

BELINDA SANDERS:

What I'm trying to say is you can't- the actual website itself, okay, you may be able to deregister the charity. Let's see what happens in terms of that.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Indeed.

BELINDA SANDERS:

We're not sure if that is going to happen. Are you confident it will happen?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Well, I'm hoping. I'm hoping. And if it can be, I hope it will be.

BELINDA SANDERS:

But you can't really take the website down, can you? Law-wise, there’s nothing they’ve done.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

The people who put this up - they can take it down. It’s like anything. I know a candidate yesterday had her Facebook account suspended because she put online some of the bullying things that were said against her. A Country Liberal candidate in the Northern Territory had her Facebook account suspended. So people can change what they've got online. They can take things down. If they've got these things online for activities other than building the public good, then they should take them down. And if they're collecting money under circumstances where people really aren't quite sure that that's what they're up to and they're collecting money in these sorts of ways, I don't believe they should they have charity status afforded to them.

BELINDA SANDERS:

Has Aussie Farms suggested to you that they have any intention of taking it down?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

No, they haven’t.

BELINDA SANDERS:

Thank you very much for your time.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

A pleasure. Anytime, Belinda.

BELINDA SANDERS:

That's Michael McCormack, the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, in the region at the moment speaking to you on ABC Southern Queensland.

Hannah Maguire