Interview with Leon Delaney, 2CC Canberra Radio

Source: Australian Ministers for Regional Development

LEON DELANEY

Today, the Federal Government has announced $500 million in funding for local governments to spend on roads and community infrastructure and an additional $1.3 billion in grants will be brought forward. Now, out of that, the ACT receives an $8 million funding boost while councils across the Eden-Monaro electorate will receive around $7.2 million. To tell us more, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development, Michael McCormack, good afternoon.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Good afternoon to you, Leon.

LEON DELANEY

Thanks very much for joining us today. Let’s start with the business. We’ve got more money for roads and infrastructure. That’s always a good thing. What exactly can the ACT Government do with this money? Are there strings attached?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

No strings attached. They can deliver priority local roads and community infrastructure projects right across the ACT. What that is going to do is actually generate jobs and it will also help protect businesses because there’ll be local procurement criteria written into the guidelines. And so the ACT Government will, of course, work through our Infrastructure Department, put its priorities and moreover the community’s priorities and expectations forward. Our Department will give the tick-off to that and the money can roll out the door from July 1.

It needs to be spent within 12 months but whether it’s the ACT or, indeed, you just mentioned those local government areas within Eden-Monaro, indeed right across the nation, they will be participating in it. There are 537 beneficiaries of this funding. It’s a good stimulus package. It’s needed. And it’s certainly going to create local jobs and local business opportunities.

LEON DELANEY

Now, of course, there is obviously a very big need to support jobs as much as possible at the moment and that’s one of the reasons behind bringing forward some of this funding and adding in the new funding. The key point here is to get the money out the door quickly, is that right?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Well, that’s right. We’ve seen with the drought, we’ve seen with, of course, the bushfire crisis and we’ve seen with COVID-19 people need the assistance and they need it quickly and that’s what we’ve always endeavoured to do. Sometimes when, of course, councils working through states and then working through Government bureaucracies, sometimes the money doesn’t go out the door as quickly as people would like. But there has to be transparency and accountability around these sorts of measures. There certainly is around this. And the one way to get local jobs on the ground quickly, people in high-viz, boots on the ground, so to speak, is certainly through a Commonwealth local government direct funding mechanism.

LEON DELANEY

Okay. Now, speaking of the Eden-Monaro electorate, you’re still up in the air as to whether or not the National Party will run a candidate in that by-election, whenever it’s going to be held. The Liberals, of course, are having their virtual meeting today to pre-select their candidate. Is it advisable to pursue a three-cornered contest?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

We’ve never held the seat of Eden-Monaro. That’s the Country Party and the Nationals. We’re 100-years-old this year. We’ve never actually held that seat. We’d like to. Of course we’d like to hold even more regional seats. But, look, there’s nothing wrong with a three-corner contest. I know when the Prime Minister spoke to me when Mike Kelly first signalled his intention that he was planning on retiring, the Prime Minister and I had a discussion as to whether our parties, our individual respective parties would run. The Liberals, of course, went within a whisker of winning the seat last time. And they’ve got every right to run. I ran in a three-corner contest when I first entered Parliament in 2010. So I know what it’s like. I know how competitive and robust these three-cornered contests can be. It gives voters choices. And, speaking of people getting choices, the choice for The Nationals will be made at the local level, as it should be. The local branches, the local members get to decide whether we will run a candidate or not.

LEON DELANEY

Yes, you’ve been saying that repeatedly that it will be the local branches that make that call.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

It has to be. It has to be.

LEON DELANEY

Sure, and when will they make that call?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Oh, in the next couple of weeks. They’ll sit and have a meeting next week or the week after and of course they’ll go through State Executive. We are a state-based organisation, as such, under the umbrella, of course, of a Federal Executive and of course Federal Executive, the president, Larry Anthony, will have a bit of a say. But, largely, the decision will be determined by the local branch members. As I say, we’ve been doing that this way for 100 years and that’s the way it should be. I don’t think, as the leader of the party, I should usurp the autonomy of those local branches. They’re the ones that, after all, who are going to hand out, they’re the ones who do the hard work, they’re the ones who turn up to branch meetings and they’re the ones who should have their say on this.

LEON DELANEY

Sure. When you’re talking to Larry, tell him I said g’day.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Shall do.

LEON DELANEY

Now, what would you call it? The imbroglio between John Barilaro, Andrew Constance and yourself, that was rather unedifying. Has that hurt your chances if you do run a candidate?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Well, when you say unedifying, I’ve never swayed from the fact that I always put people first. And that is why I – very straight away at the start when it looked as though John was going to run I said I’d give him every support, maintained that all the way through but said at the end of the day the local branches have to make the decision on the best person they think is going to be – because it’s how fair is it for the leader to exert his influence over local branches or, indeed, somebody who lives in Wagga Wagga, not that far away but far enough away not to probably be sticking his nose in. It’s up to the local branches. Always said that. As far as Andrew Constance running and then not running, well, that was a matter for Andrew Constance. Yes, I suppose you could, for some people, see that it was a little unedifying. But I’ve never swayed from the fact that I always put people first. I always talk about outcomes, not personalities and always seek to get achievements done and accomplishments made and not headlines in newspapers. That’s the way I am. I don’t apologise for that. What we do need is somebody who is going to represent Eden-Monaro in the best possible way. If the Bega Mayor, Kristy McBain happens to win the seat, well, she’ll still be in opposition and the people of Eden-Monaro will still have somebody, a member, who is in opposition. And let me tell you, Leon, from experience on both sides of the parliament, you can get more things done when you have a member in Government.

LEON DELANEY

One of the things that was most unedifying, of course, was the private messages that ended up, as you intimated, on the front page of the newspapers. That sort of leaking doesn’t help, does it?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

I’ll just say no.

[Laughter]

Well, they certainly didn’t leak from my phone. But anyway, look, it is what it is, water under the bridge. I know John is doing a fine job for regional New South Wales. And, you know, people need to know that we are working hard for them. Yeah, now and again it’s like any family, you know, people have their squabbles and their spats. Yes, unfortunately, it ends up people airing their dirty linen in public but I’ve only ever put the people first.

LEON DELANEY

You’re saying very nice things about him publicly but, you know, obviously behind the scenes it’s not always what we see in public, is it?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Well, I don’t think anybody who knows me would ever say that I say anything differently behind the scenes. You know, I’ve got relatives of his who work in my office and I don’t have to go around my office second-guessing what I might have said in, you know, the recent past or whatever because what you see with me is what you get. And I say what I mean and I mean what I say.

LEON DELANEY

Well, that’s always appreciated but the fact, of course, that these things did emerge in the way that they did, surely that indicates you’ve got enemies within your own camp that are undermining you and they’re not doing you any good.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

No, well, that’s the way it is. I mean, as Darren Chester once said to me, “If you want a friend in politics go and buy a dog.” He’s got a wonderful dog Marlo and I’ve got a wonderful Labrador, Max. So I might just leave that…

[Laughter]

And Max is always happy when I take him for a walk.

LEON DELANEY

I’m pretty sure he may not have been the first to suggest that. But, obviously, yes, politics can be a rather friendless occupation but at the same time it is about – it’s a team effort, isn’t it? If the team is not cohesive, if there’s division in the team, you’re bound for disaster, aren’t you?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Yes, I don’t think it’s helped, Leon, by the fact that we’ve now got a 24/7 news cycle. I used to be a journalist for 21 years and life was different back then. We had the radio, you know, we used to do the news bulletin of a morning and very, very well. And then, of course, you’d have the 6 o’clock news bulletin that night and then you would have the local paper the next day, and that was about it. These days we’ve got Twitter and Facebook and, you know, TikTok and any other spectrum, there’s a lot to look at. And everybody is out, everybody is almost narcissistically trying to get, you know, the most number of likes on a thing and it just becomes all overpowering. But, for me, I just try and be positive, try and do the best I can always and try and get outcomes for those people who particularly live in regional Australia and certainly for those who are particularly doing it tough at the moment. And many people have lost their jobs. Many people are still living in caravans following the bushfires. Many people are still recovering from drought and when those sorts of people see politicians arguing amongst themselves, politicians who, you know, should be getting on with talking about the people not themselves, that does become a little bit distressing for those people who are doing it tough.

LEON DELANEY

All right. Now, while I’ve got you there, there are a couple of other things for me to touch upon today. First of all, the state borders that remain closed, most notably Queensland but also South Australia and Western Australia. The concern here, of course, is for the future of the tourism industry and aviation in particular for which you are responsible. There’s a lot of discussion or dissent perhaps would be a better way of putting it, about this issue. And does Queensland have a point when their Premier says that they’re not going to be dictated to by a state in Australia which has the worst COVID-19 numbers?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Well, there’s always been competitive federalism since 1901. And, of course, Queensland and New South Wales have a lot of argy-bargy over all things more than just viruses. They play a certain game of football contest each year called the State of Origin Rugby League where they don’t like to see eye to eye with us either. But, that said, you know this is a very serious matter. We’ve always taken the best medical advice from the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy. We’ve followed that course all the way through. Moreover, the National Cabinet has set a framework by which the states have largely cooperated.

Look, I appreciate, it is Queensland’s jurisdictional right to close their borders for longer if they like than indeed New South Wales. And I know I’ve got a colleague, who works for me in fact, who drove down from Brisbane the other day but didn’t go back through Sydney because if they go back through Sydney they have to be in quarantine for 14 days because there have been a number of cases in Sydney. So, I can see both sides of the argument. But the sooner the internal border restrictions are eased and the sooner the intrastate borders are eased – because there are some intrastate measures in Western Australia that, you know, regions are actually closed off from one another – the sooner our domestic airline services can resume.

LEON DELANEY

We were discussing this in the office earlier and we came to the conclusion that the best way to solve this problem is to shut down, or lock down, the city of Sydney and the rest of Australia can go about its business.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Your words, not mine.

[Laughter]

LEON DELANEY

It would open up the regions, wouldn’t it?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Well, yes, potentially. But it would be very difficult to police, though. I could just imagine, you know, you don’t want to create an East Berlin situation. But what we need to do is continue to download the COVIDSafe app. That is one thing that your listeners, if they haven’t done already, takes a minute, takes a minute or two and the more people who are on that COVIDSafe app, the healthier our nation will be and the healthier the outcomes will be for COVID-19.

LEON DELANEY

Magnificent. Also, very quickly, China, there’s a big problem here with the attitude of China at the moment in terms of imposing the tariffs on barley, the restrictions on beef and now talk about slowing down the importation of Australian coal. Where’s it going to end? And is it fair when people criticise the Government for suggesting that perhaps Australia was a little too strident in its criticisms of China?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Well, Australia did the right thing by co-supporting a bid to have the reason for and the spread of, COVID-19 brought before the right and proper authority, that is the World Health Assembly and that was supported by nations right across the world including China. The difficulties with trade are not unprecedented. The difficulties with trade are not insurmountable. I know that Trade Minister Simon Birmingham and Resources Minister Keith Pitt and Agriculture Minister David Littleproud will work through these with their counterparts in China. Our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials, they do a wonderful job, as do all our public servants. They’ll work through this with the diplomats in China. We’ll bring about a resolution and that will be important for those workers who do rely on an income from a meat processing plant or, indeed, a farmer who is making a decision right now as to whether they will plant barley or some other grain.

LEON DELANEY

Now, finally, before you go, it’s been revealed today that there has been a miscalculation at the Tax Office in relation to JobKeeper, thanks to mistakes made by businesses filling out the paperwork, and apparently there has been a great overestimate of the number of employees who would be collecting the money. So the bottom line here is that apparently the revised cost now of the JobKeeper program is around $70 billion instead of the original $130 billion. Now that you’ve got an extra $60 billion up your sleeve, do you see your way clear to perhaps spreading some of that money amongst the casuals who have currently found themselves denied any assistance or perhaps extending the support for longer than the initial six months?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Well, it’s not as if we’ve got an additional $60 billion up our sleeve. It’s just that we don’t have $60 billion that we have to borrow and then pay back. And let me tell you, Leon, you, like every other person in this country, would be slightly worried about the fact that this is going to take some time to pay back. It’s been important. It’s been absolutely critical that we get JobKeeper out, money out the door for business and for individuals, absolutely imperative that we’ve, you know, increased JobSeeker during these difficult times to ensure that those people who’ve never been on the welfare queues got some dignity and got some money and certainly can get back on their feet and back into work as soon as they can.

That’s why we’ve put on the table the assistance measures that we have. That’s why they’ve been important. But it all comes at a cost. And what we do want to see is our economy back and running and operating as it should and with $60 billion of additional cost, it’s not up our sleeve. It would be $60 billion that we’d have to find down the track.

LEON DELANEY

Nevertheless, to make sure the economy is as strong, as you want it to be, people are going to need income support for a bit longer yet because you can’t have a consumer economy without consumers and the projections are for unemployment to remain high well into next year.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

Indeed, but when you look at and compare what Australia has done with our rates numbers, with our mortality rate and indeed with our unemployment numbers and you look at even other first world countries, I mean it is chalk and cheese. We have done exceedingly well. The images coming out of America of depression-style unemployment queues, of mass graves being constructed on Manhattan Island, they beggar belief quite frankly. And Australia has done very, very well.

Yes, we can always look at what measures we need to put in place, and that’s why I’ve worked very hard, of course with the Prime Minister and with other members of Cabinet and indeed all members of the Government to ensure that we’ve got the right measures in place. I know the Prime Minister has been working very hard with Premiers and Chief Ministers from right around the country, irrespective of their political persuasion, to get the best outcomes for Australia and we’ll continue to do that.

LEON DELANEY

Michael McCormack, thanks very much for your time today.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK

It’s been an absolute pleasure, Leon, thank you very much.

LEON DELANEY

Thank you. Michael McCormack, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development.

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