Interview with Stephen Cenatiempo, 2CC

8 October 2020

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: The Federal Government has announced its Ag 2030 Plan to try and help Australia's farm sector become a 100-billion-dollar industry within the next decade. This week's Federal Budget contains more than $320 million to make exporting simpler, $3.5 billion for dams and water infrastructure and fee reductions for agriculture related tertiary courses. The Ag 2030 Plan also includes a focus on biosecurity, innovation and research and stronger supply chains.

To talk to us more about it, we're joined by the Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management and Deputy Leader of the Nationals, David Littleproud. Minister, good morning.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: A $100 billion industry. How big is the ag industry at the moment?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: We're going hit $61 billion this year, and that's up a billion despite the fires, the drought and the COVID-19 as well as floods just 18 months ago up in north west Queensland, where we lost 500,000 head of cattle.

So AG, despite all the uppercuts is doing pretty well. And now, what we're trying to do is make sure that if we could just get some rain at the right time and get a couple of average seasons, we'll be up in a way. The NFF's articulated this stretch goal and this target and we're going to back them by putting the environment infrastructure around. And that's what the budget was about.

And we haven't just forgotten agriculture because the reality is it's the thing that's been keeping this country going while it's been locked out. Resources and agriculture are the things that have kept the economy going. And so we're giving our bit back in this budget.

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: The $320 million to make exporting simpler, I don't think anybody would argue that that's - that's a good thing. But I imagine we are really at the mercy of what other nations are doing at the moment who are largely in the same position we're in because this global pandemic has affected - well, I don't think there's a country in the world that hasn't been affected, is there?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, there hasn't. But what we're trying to make sure is that we get the competitive advantage out of COVID-19 and we've already put $600 million into air freight support because those passenger flights, the flights have stopped and our agricultural cargo used to go under peoples' feet. And we've tried to get- keep that going to make sure that our markets see us not just as the best produce, but the most reliable trading partner through tough times. And that's where a lot of our opportunities lie. Because you've got to understand, we're a nation of 25 million people. We produce enough food for 75 billion.

So if we don't trade with the world and we don't engage with the world, then we don't need as many farmers we've got, we don't need regional Australia. So we've got to continue to give free trade agreements, get rid of the tariff barriers and that's why market access is so important. And that's what this investment is.

And it's also about regulation, about quality control. We're going to engage in technology and the meat sectors are a really good example of this. They're going to bring in smart glasses that are manufactured in Brisbane and there's going to be remote audits.

So we're not sending Department of Agriculture people around the country on planes and costing taxpayer money. They can sit in an office and get one of the abattoirs workers to walk around with these smart glasses and tick off the audit, all from the office in a quick and timely way. So all this, we believe and we think, over the next 10 years, it could save the industry, all agriculture, over a billion dollars.

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: I like the idea of, you know, efficiencies like that, but I imagine the agriculture sector's biggest wish list when it comes to Government is just to get out of the way. The biggest problem there is state governments. And as we know, they haven't all been that helpful in recent times.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, particularly when you look at the thing that we need most, and that's water. Under the Constitution, our forefathers gave the responsibility and management of resources to the states. It is illegal for myself and the Prime Minister to pick a shovel up in any state or territory and dig a hole to start a dam for irrigation. The states own that responsibility.

There has been 20 dams built in this country since 2003, 16 of those have been in Tasmania. The eastern states have done three-fifths of bugger all and we are now to a situation where, don't just think about agriculture, it's actually people in metropolitan Australia. By 2030, there'll be a 37 per cent reduction in storage capacity per person per megalitre of water because our population's going up but the states haven't built a water infrastructure to support it.

So your ability to turn a tap on is going to be impinged in the future because state governments won't take our money. We've got $3.5 billion in cold, hard cash for someone to go and dig a hole. The only ones that are doing it is Tasmania. New South Wales have given some sort of indication they're going to have a crack. But Queensland, we're sitting up there - I'm a Queenslander and I can tell you in north Queensland, we can't even get them to get on an excavator up there.

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: So that's a refreshingly honest answer. But that's the point. So okay, $3.5 billion is great. But really, it's really, $3.5 billion that won't get spent, isn't it?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Unless - well, it will, because Tasmania - I can tell you, Tasmania come back for another lick. They literally plumbed the state down there. Their agricultural industries are going because they've got a progressive state government that understands you've got to tax this stuff when it falls and you can still protect the environment while you do it.

Let me tell you that if our forefathers hadn't built all that water storage so many years ago - and we talk about the Murray-Darling system - during this drought, the whole system would have been bone dry, it would have been an ecological disaster.

So for all the greenies to say dams are bad, let me tell you, it has saved all the ecology up and down the Murray-Darling because our forefathers built these storages to catch them in the good times, regulate them and environment got a lick out of it while this drought was on as well and farmers got a little bit and now we're getting them filled. That's what grows this nation. We've got to use our smarts.

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: I don't think any right-minded person would disagree with you. But what measures are being taken to make those structural changes so that it's not illegal for the Federal Government to go in and say: okay, we need this infrastructure, this is nation building infrastructure, not just state building infrastructure, we need to get on with it?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, there's two ways. There's one, the nation has a referendum and we hand over all those responsibilities to the Commonwealth. Or two, you get a state government that isn't doing it, you kick them out. And in Queensland, we've got an opportunity at the end of the month to do that, to get rid of the mob we've got and get one in that actually wants to dig some holes and plumb the state.

But that is the nature of our democracy. The people have the power, and that is the only way that we can take over ownership of water in this country is for the people to come together and say: give it to the Commonwealth, let them manage it, let them dig the holes and decide where it should go and make sure we plumb this country properly.

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: Well can we get a commitment there'll be a referendum question at the next federal election then?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look, that's a big one that you need bipartisan support on. There's no referendum that gets up unless it's got bipartisan support.

But you know what? We shouldn't have to do this in this modern age. If state governments understood their responsibilities - and now know they don't really have to cut much of the cheque. We're going to do it for them. Really, what is stopping them? What is stopping them?

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: David Littleproud, good to speak to this morning.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Any time. Thanks for having me, mate.

STEPHEN CENATIEMPO: That's David Littleproud, Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management, Deputy Leader of the Nationals.