Interview with Katie Woolf, 360 Mix FM Darwin

23 March 2022

KATIE WOOLF: Got a few announcements happening in the Northern Territory at the moment from the Federal Government's perspective. And joining us on the line right now is the Minister for Agriculture and Northern Australia, David Littleproud. Good morning to you, Minister.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Good morning. Good to be back with you. 

KATIE WOOLF: Yeah, good to have you on the show. Firstly, I understand that you're going to be testing these five remote-controlled robots. Tell me a bit more about these. 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, look, biosecurity is one of the biggest issues we have in agriculture at the moment, we're really concerned about some of the threats we've got, whether that be African swine fever, or now lumpy skin, that's in Indonesia. And what we're trying to do is increase our capacity to be able to do more surveillance that detects it. And to do that, we're not just putting more boots on the ground and more dogs on the ground, we're actually putting robotic dogs and even small robots that are allowing us to get into places and to inspect places, on whether that be tractors or bulldozers, or even on containers that we haven't been able to do as thoroughly before. So we're using thermal imaging technology with these robots to get into cracks and crevices to be able to have a look and to find any pest or weed that may be on there that would cause us harm. So this is a big investment. We over a billion dollars over the last two budgets into biosecurity. But Northern Australia is at the front line of biosecurity and so today $66 million alone just in more money for up here. What we see Northern Territory in particular, is has to be the centrepiece of our protection of…

KATIE WOOLF: Yeah, right.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: …agriculture and the environment for that matter. 

KATIE WOOLF: Yeah, right it sounds like something out of a sci-fi film. Minister. the robotic dogs, but it sounds like they're needed.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: It is, and look this is the thing, is we're actually shifting towards technology. In fact, we're the first country in the world now that's using 3D x-ray technology with artificial intelligence. Every parcel that goes through Australia Post will now be scanned. And in fact, we're moving towards digital decoration cards when you come into Australia, about watching your bag. We're now starting with New Zealand, atrial that we will put your bags through a 3D x-ray scanner as well. And if it doesn't marry up with your decoration cards, my biosecurity officers will be sitting waiting for you at the airport before you even get off, with a fine when. And we've lifted them from just over $400 to the most we can which is just over $2600. And we've cancelled these visas. In fact, last week we cancelled a student visa, international student visa, who had 10 kilos of meat on him. And we have sent him home and they are not welcome back to this country for another three years. He can do his study externally because foot-in-mouth disease would just wipe out the Northern Territory cattle industry. So we're taking this seriously, and we've got to be tough but we've got to have the technology to make sure we detect people. And people can get around this by just simply declaring.

KATIE WOOLF: So Minister, where exactly is the trial which is happening in the Territory? Where in the Territory is it happening?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Out at the airport here. In fact, we've just had the robot trialled. And a dog was here last week, and it's now being taken to Brisbane to do more trials. So each port is different and unique, and that's why the Territory has- has to be across not just airports, but also the seaports. So we're trialling it up here because we believe this is sort of gives it the biggest tests across multi-discipline for our biosecurity officers. And because this is the frontline, this really is now becoming a frontline in the Territory. So we're trying these new innovations up here because we see that will be an investment. But we're also putting more men and women on the ground, and we're going towards indigenous ranges more. And that's what this 60 odd million dollars will do is put more boots on the ground, more dogs on the ground. There'll be four dogs, live dogs, these ones that'll be brought up. And if- but if the robot dogs work out as well they'll complement and supplement those dogs, we won't get rid of our Labradors just yet. They've got a big role to play.

KATIE WOOLF: No. I was going to say, I hope the robot dogs aren't doing our canines out of a job but it sounds as though they're all certainly required.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, and it's more to send the robot dogs into areas that we don't want our live dogs, our Labradors to go into that aren't safe. So it's just protecting them. They're very expensive but they can get into places that we can't send the Labradors in because we're just concerned about their safety.

KATIE WOOLF: Yeah, right. Now, it's not the only announcement that you're making while you're in the Territory. I know that $1.125 million is going to be invested over three years to support the creation of adoption officers in Northern WA and NT Drought Resilience, Adoption and Innovation Hub. What is this all about? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: You know, this is a real modernisation of our agricultural innovation systems, and particularly around drought. And what's happened is there's over a billion dollars a year of research dollars that's paid from farmers through levies and through you, the Australian taxpayer, to give our farmers the tools for research and development. And unfortunately, what's happened is state and territory governments used to have extension offices in their Department of Primary Industries. They used to go out at the kitchen table and explain to farmers what this research and science is and how they could make a dollar out of it. Unfortunately, they've been ripped away. And so what we've done is, we've created eight Innovation hubs around the country, one here in the Northern Territory. And it's important that we then have not only the science and research being done in those innovation hubs, but when we have someone sitting out at kitchen tables and town halls, telling farmers about the opportunities that this science or technology [indistinct] at the farm gate, building their profitability and resilience to further droughts, or up here, cyclones. So this is the sort of work where we believe if we- our job is simply to give farmers the tools, then let them get on with the job of producing the best food and fibre in the world. But when you've got over a billion dollars a year that's going out there, if we get them out of the capital city universities and into universities in regional areas, like Darwin, it really shifts, the dial on our education system in giving a real signal to young people. They can do a course in Darwin in agriculture and then have a career. They don't have to go to Melbourne, or Sydney, or Brisbane to do it. They can stay up here. And then you can be part of the ecosystem that will give our farmers the tools, and these extension officers will then take those tools out to the farmers, and hopefully make them more profitable and continue to produce that food and fibre we enjoy. 

KATIE WOOLF: Now, as I'm sure you are aware of, this week here in Darwin, the Senate inquiry hearings are taking place into fracking in the Beetaloo Basin. I know that there have been some pastoralists in that hearing who voiced concerns about the fracking of the Beetaloo. Is it something that you're keeping an eye on? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I am look, but I can speak from lived experience. Being a Queenslander, we actually had this thrust upon us back in around 2007, back in Queensland, where we had coal seam gas put on us in the Surat Basin overnight. There was no process approval process put in place. It was simply we were told that you're going to get coal seam gas put on us in this RAAF base and overnight. There was no process, approval processes, put in place. It was simply we were told that you're going to get coal seam gas. And so a lot has been learned from that, and I think it's important that state and territory governments ensure that the regulatory framework they put around gas companies gives primary producers the confidence in those approval processes, and in the application of the mining of those gases. So we've seen that there was, particularly in my hometown, there was a real angst with this when it first came out, but there is a coexistence that does exist there now. But it's one that needs constant monitoring by state and territory governments, around particularly groundwater. And that's something that we want to make sure that the state and territory governments are doing properly to give that confidence. And I think, you know, that's only right that pastoralists have concerns about this. There's nothing to be ashamed in this, because this is their livelihood we're playing with. But we need to be able to have a process that they can back the science and they can back the regulatory process that supports this and have confidence in it. And that's what state and territory governments should be able to provide. 

KATIE WOOLF: And are you confident they will be able to do that here in the Northern Territory? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I've got to say- being fair on this, I've got to say you, the Northern Territory, went through a far more extensive approval process than what we did in Queensland. So it has gone through more regulatory and scientific and environmental hoops than what we got in Queensland. So I'm saying that the process that I would say I've seen so far has been far more thorough than what we experienced in Queensland, and that's a positive. But it's important that it's continue to be reinforced. And science should be the predicator of how we move forward with this and be able to provide that confidence to pastoralists and to Indigenous Australians as well. 

KATIE WOOLF: Well, Minister David Littleproud, we always appreciate your time when you're in the Territory. Mate, any idea when is this election happening? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well it has to be done by 23 May, so if you wanted to have a bet on it, I reckon it'll be either the 14th or 21st of May. 

KATIE WOOLF: 14th or the 21st of May. And are we- can Territorians expect there to be a bit in the Budget for us next week when it's handed down? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: There will be but you've got to understand, we've spent a lot of your money already in just getting us through this COVID crisis, and we've come out really well. Our economy is better than anyone else in the world. But someone's going to have to repay the bill. And governments don't repay bills, unless they put up your taxes. And so we're not going to do that. We believe that the best way to repay the debt is to grow the pie. And only way to grow the pie is let you decide how you spend your money, not a government from Canberra. So we'll try and get the balance right, but you know, we've got to reflect. We've been through a lot over the last three years, whether it be fires, the drought, cyclones, and COVID. We're still swinging pretty hard as Australians. And you know, it's not just governments that have done that. The Australian people have stood tall, and we are in a good space as a country. We've got a lot to do. There's a lot of challenges ahead of us, but we're in a good space because we've done the hard yards. 

KATIE WOOLF: Well, David Littleproud, thank you very much for having a chat with us this morning. No doubt we'll talk to you again soon. 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Sounds good. Thanks for having me.