Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC Afternoon Briefing

4 April 2022

GREG JENNETT: Now, over the weekend, Australia and India signed the interim agreement for an economic and trade cooperation pact that's been the subject of on-again, off-again negotiations for more than a decade now. There are definite gains in all of that for some agricultural products, but some big omissions too. Things like beef and dairy are left out of the agreement. So to discuss this and other matters, Deputy Nationals leader and Agriculture Minister David Littleproud joins us now. Welcome back to our studio...

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah.

GREG JENNETT: …It feels a while since you've been here in person. When do you think we can tackle - Australia is the we - can tackle the parts that are left out of this deal?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, this is a big stepping stone. This is a historic moment for Australia, to be able to secure a free trade agreement with India. Very few have been able to achieve that so we should be very proud of that. And what you've got to appreciate is the domestic political situation that the Indian Government find themselves in. Over 50 per cent of the population in India are employed in agriculture; 189 million farmers. So, obviously market liberalisation is a big challenge for them, and to be able to achieve this is significant. So where we've been able to get wins, we bank them.
You can- in the pursuit of perfection, you can often miss the big picture, but what this does do, in the ones that we have locked in, whether it be before for wool, sheep meat, wine, nuts, citrus, it gives us the stepping stone to work on the beef, to work on chickpeas and dairy in particular. So those are what we're going to work on now, but this gives us that stepping stone that many other countries don't have.

GREG JENNETT: Sure. But those structural economic concerns that India has, they're not going away anytime soon, so what gives you the confidence that they might have more of an appetite to visit dairy, beef, chickpeas in, say, the next decade?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Sheer mathematics. We're a nation of 26 million people. We produce enough food and fibre for 80 million people. There's 1.3 billion people in India. We can't flood any market. We're not a bulk producer of commodity; we're actually a high-end commodity producer. And so that's what we're going to continue to articulate to our India counterparts, that we're no threat to Indian farmers. We're going to complement and supplement. And obviously, all this does is give them the opportunity also to have some market access here, but also the people-to-people access, and part of this is inviting them to be part of the Ag Visa. And that actually has a real opportunity for their farmers to transfer some knowledge in agricultural production here in Australia back to India. So there's a win-win opportunity.

GREG JENNETT: How many there? I haven't actually been through the documents in that level of detail, but are we talking hundreds, thousands of Indians?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: The Ag Visa is a demand-driven program, and so, obviously farmers have the Pacific schemes available to them at the moment. We've had Vietnam sign up only recently, and that now means we go to implement st- implementation stage.

GREG JENNETT: But do you think you can get India signed up under what- It's still an outstanding agreement that would have to be signed specific [indistinct].

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: They would have to sign up under the MoU, which is the implementation program. But this is an invitation to them because of the close ties that we have that we want to extend beyond Vietnam to them, and we'll continue with the bilaterals with those other countries that Marise Payne has been for some months now.

GREG JENNETT: Okay. Are you totally comfortable with the Narendra Modi Government? I know they've had dealings lately with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister. Does it feel like the right time to be clinching these deals, when you look at the international environment?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, I do. they're sovereign nations, they get to make their own determinations. But they've been very clear about their pursuit for peace. They see that as a necessity. Now, how they go about that, we all, as sovereign nations, take different tacts, and that is predicated on our geopolitical standing and our geographical standing and positioning. So you got to understand that we respect that. We've been very forceful, not only with Russia, but also with India about where we believe our belief system on this is, but respect those other sovereign countries in letting them determine their own. And the fact that the Indian Government has been very clear. They want to see peace in Ukraine brought to heel very quickly is something that gives us some comfort.

GREG JENNETT: Yep. A bit of breaking news happened, I think around the time you were heading over to the ABC Studios, out of Tasmania. We got reflections from Richard Marles. For your own part, anything you'd seek to observe about Peter Gutwein, but also the timing as it intersects with the federal campaign?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I don't think it's got any federal implications. I'm shocked. You know, I think he's been a great servant of the Tasmanian people. He hasn't been flashy. He's just got on with the job, and I think the fact that you look at they're one of the fastest growing economies in the country. And on a health front, they handled it very well. It just goes to show that it can take its toll. Politics is a rough game, and it takes toll on family as well. And I just hope that Peter and his family are okay, and I'm sure that they've reconciled this decision for them. And sometimes you have to do that and I respect him for that.

GREG JENNETT: Even when you've kind of entered into a compact- this is not a question about Peter Gutwein, perhaps a more philosophical one, but you've entered a compact with voters, promising words like stability and certainty. Does some expectation come with that about the duration of your service?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: But the big caveat on that is, we're still human beings. Politicians are still human beings. We have families who love and who care for us and us for them, and sometimes you've got to just make those big decisions where your family does have to come first. And I think the Tasmanian people respect that. He's obviously been through a lot, even before politics, and I think he obviously reflected and it's time for him to get back to his family. And I think he can obviously hand over, having gotten through what has been a very trying period, not just for Tasmania, but for the nation.

GREG JENNETT: Sure. No, it takes its toll. I'm certain of that. Within the Coalition, how goes everything? The New South Wales Libs are locked in a most unseemly brawl at present and it seems to be standing between you and the calling of the election. Quick resolution needed by the other side of the family?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, as someone in the National Party, we don't like gratuitous advice from the Liberal Party…

GREG JENNETT: But you've been named.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Not me personally, Greg, but look, I'm sure the Liberal Party will work through it. There's a very competitive nature in wanting to come to this place. It's a great honour to come and be a member of Parliament and obviously, that brings heightened tensions, and I'm sure they'll work through that quickly. But there's some other things that the Prime Minister and the Government want to finalise before we go into caretaker mode. And obviously we've just had Parliament last week, so there's some bills that need to have executive council approval and things that need to be done, signed off, before we go into full election mode. That's our contract with the Australian people. That's what we'll fulfil, and then we'll get on and go before them.

GREG JENNETT: And a lot of appointments, I notice, today as well. Fran Kelly was observing the same. David Littleproud, we'll let you go and attend to unfinished business so that, in fact, the calendar may be cleared up before the end of the week. We'll wait and see.