Interview with Matthew Doran, ABC Afternoon Briefing

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: COVID payments; Norco factory; Lismore community.

Matthew Doran, Host: Time now for our regular political panel and we're joined in the studio today by Labor frontbencher and Assistant Minister for Trade, Tim Ayres, and Coalition frontbencher, the Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Michael McCormack. Welcome to both of you.

Michael McCormack, Nationals MP: Good afternoon.

Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: G'day.

Doran: Thanks for coming in today. Tim Ayres, I want to start with you. We've seen the announcement about COVID payments continuing. Was the Federal Government dragged to this position?

Ayres: I think it's just an example of the National Cabinet working. What we see here is no longer a timeline, but a set of principles attached to ongoing COVID payments where they are – where they're mandated by the medical rules; some sensible adjustments to some of the rules, but again a consensus decision of the National Cabinet. The costs, of course, borne between the Commonwealth and the States. I think this is an arrangement that's consistent with what the Government's been saying now for quite some time and I think the community will welcome it.

Doran: Obviously, we heard from the Prime Minister today that the feeling is as long as mandatory isolation is in place, these sort of payments need to be kept in place. Does that mean we're facing a situation where these payments are going to have to be put out there for the public for – it's an open‑ended time frame?

Ayres: Well, there's a balance to be struck here, isn't there? I mean, over the course of these payments, as I understand it around about $2.2 billion has been paid out, is a very significant expense, but the Government rules are requiring that people isolate for now five days. There is a balance to be struck here. We've set some principles ongoing, and we'll just have to watch as this develops. It is a very significant expenditure item on the Government's Budget. We've made this decision. It's split between the Commonwealth and the States; but, as you say, you know, it's a very heavy bill for the Government to be paying on this issue.

Doran: Michael McCormack, no doubt this is something that the Opposition would also be welcoming, this continuation?

McCormack: Well, as Tim says, it's a heavy expenditure item. It's also an investment in keeping our economy going and we want to continue to grow the world's best food and fibre. I know Tim is very interested in trade, we need to keep the wheels of the economy going and so, yes, it's a significant expenditure, but it's also an investment.

Doran: How long do you think is it feasible for the nation to keep in place things like mandatory isolation periods for COVID? Is there going to be a stage somewhere in the future where we sort of reach a tipping point where that's no longer required?

McCormack: Well, I think Tim would agree, it's been an evolving situation. I mean, we've so far lost 14,457 people through COVID and, that is so sad for their families, and that also has a real impact on society. So, it will continue to evolve. We're not out of the woods yet. COVID is still very much – very much in existence right throughout Australia, and so we need to continue to monitor it. I'm sure the Government will play a responsible role along with the states and take on board Chief Medical and Chief Health Officers views on this, as well as business, as well as just making sure that they keep abreast of every situation and any imminent threats that may come in from new strains from overseas and act accordingly.

Doran: I want to touch on another issue, and you may well have heard Kevin Hogan the local member discussing this with me earlier, this possibility that 170 workers at the Norco ice‑cream factory up in the Northern Rivers could be out of a job by next week. How worried, Tim Ayres, should that community be, looking at another blow after what has been such a difficult year?

Ayres: Well, I know this business pretty well, both as a union official in my former role – I worked with this business – and growing up as a kid in that community. I understand how important as a sort of anchor business on the north coast Norco is. The Government's contribution here has been very significant. We have as a Government allocated $8 million in payments to Norco to cover recurrent expenditure. Some of those payments were under the previous Government. The contribution that has been offered to Norco, $35 million additional essentially for capital expenditure to fix this company – this factory up and get it on its feet is a very substantial contribution.

I just say to Norco this is a very big call for the future of the community that they are supposed to be serving. This is not an ordinary business; it's a cooperative business that has a responsibility to its members – dairy farmers – but it's also got a responsibility to the broader community that has sustained it for scores and scores of years. You know, on the little farm that I grew up in near Lismore and another little property near Kyogle, you could tell how vital the Norco operation was to the whole agriculture sector, not just dairy.

The Government's contribution more broadly is sustaining nearly 1,500 jobs. $12 million to Sunshine Sugar – another very important business closer to the coast – will sustain 400 jobs. It's up to Norco now. They've got a responsibility. They ought to do the right thing. They've been asked to make a significant co‑contribution. But this is a significant proposed investment of taxpayer money into this firm because the Government sees it as an absolute priority. It's time for Norco to step up to the plate.

Doran: So, you're suggesting they have a social licence here to keep these people employed, but if the company is saying that its costs here have blown out because the damage is so vast, is there any room for Government to step in and help that situation?

Ayres: Well, there's $35 million worth of contribution –

Doran: Beyond what you've already done.

Ayres: – and we're going to continue working with the New South Wales Government. I just say it's time for everybody at Norco to get focused on, this is a very significant contribution that the Government's proposing to make. It's public money. It's a very important priority. I think they need to step up and do everything they can. This is a very big call for this company to make, to close what is a top‑shelf, high‑technology, value-adding business in Australian agriculture. We need more of that, not less in the country, and I'd like to see Norco think carefully about its position and come back to the table with a real proposal that means that this anchor business has got a future.

Doran: Michael McCormack, it seems like Tim Ayres there is saying that the Federal Government has gone to its limit there of what it's going to be doing with Norco, at least at this stage. Do you think that he's right, that Norco have a social licence here and that they need to stump up?

McCormack: Well, they do, and I'm sure, too, that all is not lost. I spoke to Kevin Hogan this morning, the Member for Page. The Lismore area, the Northern Rivers area – and Norco's right on the Wilsons River – it has been hit for six lately, and I'm hopeful that the company can trade through these difficulties. Yes, the Government, the current Government – the previous Government – has invested substantially into Norco. It does have a huge impact on that whole economy through direct and indirect jobs and I would like to think that it can continue to trade.

Let's see what happens in coming days. I'm sure the Government will work with the State Government to see what it can do. This has really placed everybody on notice that this company's in trouble. I know when the Shepparton cannery looked as though it was in the same trouble – Qantas, many, many years ago. You know, Government can only do so much. It is up to these companies also to look at their future, to look at the communities which have helped them for so many years and give a bit back. So, look, let's see what happens over coming days. I know Kevin Hogan is more hopeful than some of the reports that have come out earlier today and let's see what happens.

Doran: It seems like despite what Tim Ayres – well Tim Ayres actually painted quite a picture of the community connection with Norco –

McCormack: Oh, indeed, and he's so right.

Doran: Do you think –

McCormack: It's good ice‑cream.

Ayres: It is good ice‑cream.

McCormack: That I would definitely know all about.

Ayres: People ought to buy their ice‑cream, they ought to buy their milk, they ought to support the business. You know, I remember just a couple of years ago the Health Services Union and the nurses turned on a real campaign at the Lismore Base Hospital to make sure that Lismore Base Hospital was buying Norco milk. You know, there's a real sense of community and solidarity in Lismore. They have been through so much, and facing into another wet season, another La Niña season. You know, that community is girding its loins for another go‑round, Well, we all need to work together on this as Australians. The Government's made a very significant contribution. You know, I want to see Norco work really hard to try and resolve this issue. I didn't hear Kevin Hogan's contribution earlier, but I know that everybody in that community is fighting hard for this outcome.

Doran: I've got a sudden craving for ice‑cream. But back to the actual topic at hand. Do you think because of that Government contribution, Michael McCormack, and that connection that the community has with the company that there could be some ill‑will, some poor sentiment from the community that Norco could be about to send a whole bunch of Lismore residents out into –

McCormack: Well, it's a cooperative, so it does have different provisions around how it's established, how it's set up and the governance of it. I'm sure that Norco will work very closely with the community hand in glove to make sure that there's a future for Norco in the Northern Rivers and wider afield.

Doran: Well, Michael McCormack, Tim Ayres, we are out of time today. Thank you for joining us today on Afternoon Briefing.

McCormack: Pleasure.

Ayres: Good to see you both.

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