Interview with Tom Elliott, 3AW

26 August 2020

TOM ELLIOTT: I spoke to Federal Agriculture Minister Littleproud just before the show began by asking him why he and Josh Frydenberg have asked for this inquiry.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look there's two parts to this it's important to understand the first part is to review the dairy code of conduct that's come into place and to see whether we should extend that through to the supermarkets, it currently only goes to the processors. And while we're doing that we saw the opportunity to look at all perishable agricultural goods to see whether the supermarkets had undue influence in the marketplace. We have been hearing significant stories from farmers about the way that they've been treated by the supermarket. They're using their power unduly. So we are going to test that. We're going to validate that and if required will continue. We will then look at the code of conduct that are in place and whether a new one needs to cover all perishable agricultural goods.

TOM ELLIOTT: What's sort of unfair activities of the supermarkets being accused of?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: We'll look some of the cases that we've heard is around contracts that they've asked growers to enter into, which means significant capital investment in buying land and infrastructure and then ripping those contracts out from under them. And effectively - or undercutting them significantly. And therefore some of these farmers have gone broke. So this is all hearsay and this is where people haven't been prepared to come forward in an open forum because they fear of reprisal. So we are hearing this there's a lot of anecdotal evidence but what we want to do is get to the bottom of this. And if there is and we are able to quantify this we will act and that's what this process is. It's not reinventing the wheel it's only three months. We believe that there is enough data the ACCC can do this comprehensively if farmers come forward.

TOM ELLIOTT: And will farmers be able to come forward in a confidential manner?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah that's the whole intent. We want to make sure that they feel the comfort of bringing forward their cases. They might be investigated against the supermarket it'll add to the amount of information that's happened. They'll be confidential ACCC may ask for an interview, just to validate it and in fact get deeper into the detail, so that they can form an opinion. But everything that farmers or even processors bring forward to this inquiry, will be held confidentially. So everyone can have comfort that there is an environment in which they can come forward and tell us whether there are issues with dealing on a commercial basis with supermarkets.

TOM ELLIOTT: And will it cover all types of farming not just dairy but the meats, vegetables, fruit everything.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Effectively anything that's perishable so that's eggs, that's meat, chicken meat, that's fish, that's also into the horticulture sector. There is a horticultural code of conduct and again like the dairy code of conduct it only goes as far as the processors, it doesn't go through to cover the supermarket. So this is making sure that we have the full supply chain looked at and make sure that if there needs to be more guide rails put in place to make sure that everyone acts in good faith then the government will do that. We have to quantify that through this inquiry.

TOM ELLIOTT: And will all the supermarkets be investigated. Obviously you've got: Coles and Woolworths and there's Aldi and you've got IGA and the various brands associated with that. Will you look at all of them?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well that's the intent. This is an open process whereby we are trying to engage with farmers about the conduct of anyone through their supply chain that they can have comforts and bring that forward. Because they may be unidentified issues that we haven't seen so far that may be [indistinct]. And that's why we're encouraging farmers who feel aggrieved by the arrangements they've had with supermarkets no matter what or any other part of the supply chain to come forward.

TOM ELLIOTT: Isn't though - the problems is we've had these sorts of investigations before, isn't the real problem that; effectively you've got a duopoly to like an oligopoly amongst the supermarkets. There's a handful of really big players and two super big ones from lots and lots and lots of individual farmers. Isn't that the fundamental problem we have here?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well that that's just how the markets evolved. But what we need to do - and that's been a fair marketplace - but what we are trying to say is that there has been - has there possibly been an imbalance in that evolution of these supermarkets. And if there is, the only time a government should interfere in a market is when there is an imbalance. And what we are saying is there are plenty of farmers saying there's imbalance. We want to quantify it and then we'll act on it. And that's what this inquiry will do. There's plenty of evidence around to suggest there is but this now needs to be formalised so that we can and validated so that we can act quickly. And that's why there is the inquiry goes for three months.

TOM ELLIOTT: Okay. Just another issue. There's been several reports recently about a lack of overseas workers to come and pick fruit and harvest vegetables and do things like that. Has that's been sorted out yet?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah look, only last week the Federal Government announced that it will be extending the Pacific worker and seasonal worker programs so that state governments can work with industries and they can bring workers in for specific industries where they needed them in the unskilled sector so long as they have market tested first. So Australians get first crack at those jobs. But if no one takes them then obviously farmers don't have the luxury to sit around and wait for someone to turn up. So that will be an option and ability for them. We're also looking at ways in which we might incentivize those that are on Social Security payments to do this work.

TOM ELLIOTT: So if you're on the dole you might be sent to pick fruit?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No you wouldn't. There's a little bit of complexities as you can appreciate that most of these jobs are not anywhere near where much of the majority of Australians who are unemployed are. This work is very transient and very short term so it can only be for three or four weeks. So we've got to understand the demographics of the makeup of those that are unemployed. But looking at those that that would be able to it around the country and what we're looking at ways of even looking at our university students who are now those who are just leaving school who are unable to go and backpack around the world. Well backpack around Australia and quid while you're doing it. And is there a way that we as an Australian Government can incentivise them and some of those who are on off study to incentivize them to travel to go and do this. And lo and behold they'll end up with a few dollars in their pocket when they get back to university next year. So we're looking at creative ways that might be able to encourage and incentivize Australians to do this. That's who we want to do it first. But as I say these jobs aren't necessarily close to where unemployed Australians are. And I can't let farmers not have the labour supply when their crops are ready to be picked.

TOM ELLIOTT: Will any of these workers be they backpackers, be they Pacific Islanders, be they university students having a gap year. Will they be able to come and work in Victoria?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well that'll be at the discretion of the state governments. They determine the health requirements of their workers. And in fact that's what National Cabinet bought out last week is we want to get a nationally consistent approach where all the states agree. Now that sounds simple but when you get state and his state governments involved; invariably they try to look after their own dung heap and they want to nuance it. So we're trying to work with him to get consistency so that we can have the freedom of movement of labour across the country that is already here and that that will be coming in.

TOM ELLIOTT: David Littleproud. Thank you for your time.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me anytime.