Interview with Ben Knight, ABC Breakfast

1 July 2020

BEN KNIGHT: The Federal Government will announce today how it's going to spend the first $100 million of the money it set aside to help future-proof farmers and rural communities from drought. Well, for the details, I'm going to speak now with the Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud. He is with us from his Queensland electorate in Warwick.

Minister, good morning. $100 million to future-proof drought communities. Where's it going to go?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. Look, this is the first pay down of the $100 million, a dividend that will be paid every year. This is going into a range of measures, whether that be through natural resource management, research and development. The community itself and also equipping our farmers with the tools they need, whether through climate information, regional guides, localised guides to give them the tools they need to understand how to make decisions, predicated off the climate, as well as business tools. Giving them more insightful knowledge around business plans, around what are the levers they need to pull around risk management, how they can actually try and drive profitability, bringing both the climate and their business together in one easy platform, that then allows them to make timely decisions, real time decisions that can mean the difference between profit and loss.

BEN KNIGHT: The early response is that the climate tools that you've talked about have been well received, but I suppose the other thing that jumped out is that $20 million, a fifth of this, is going to go towards helping farmers to develop business plans. Well some that the ABC have spoken to have essentially said, look, if you're still farming and you don't have a business plan, perhaps you shouldn't be farming. And some saying, look, we would rather see this go towards, say, town water. There's only something like $3.75 million going towards helping towns to prepare for drought and of course, you're in Warwick which was trucking water to Stanthorpe not that long ago.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. Well, let me say, this is going a little bit deeper than just a normal business plan. This is about risk management tools, about understanding how you can hedge your products in international markets. It's about giving our primary producers the financial tools that they need and understanding to make the decisions. It's not just about putting together a budget. Most farmers, as I knew before as an agribusiness banker, that sit around kitchen tables, you sit around and do that every year. This is a little bit deeper than that.

With respect to water, town water supplies has always been the remit of state governments, always will be. But we've put over $3 billion on the table for state governments to come and get for water infrastructure. And sadly, apart from Tasmania, no-one's come near us. We're there, ready to partner with the state governments. We understand it's their responsibility. We're not going to shirk ours but we're going to say, we've got some money for you and we're here to help. In fact, just down the road here, as you articulated, around Stanthorpe, Emu Swamp Dam, the Federal Government will put $47 million of the $84 million that's up to be built for that. The growers will put $26 million and the Queensland Government will put a measly $13 million. So we're doing the heavy lifting, but the states who have the responsibility for it, really have to come to us and put their hand out, because we're ready to go.

BEN KNIGHT: You say that water is the states' responsibility, always will be. I guess the question is, given the circumstances we're in, why isn't it time that we change that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that'll take what we call a referendum of the entire nation and in fact, obviously, the Federal Government stands ready to take the lead on whatever it may be that the Australian people ask us to do. But our forefathers put in place a constitution under the federation, which gave the ownership of resources and the management of those resources to the states. And until that's changed through a referendum, we've simply got to try and encourage them through financial means to work collaboratively with us.

The frightening thing is, is by 2030, it's not just rural areas that'll hurt, it's all the urban areas. By 2030, there'll be a 37 per cent reduction in storage capacity per person, per megalitre of water, which shouldn't just worry regional areas, it should worry metropolitan areas because state governments haven't built the water infrastructure to support the increase in population. What we've said is, here's over $3 billion for us to start getting excavators bulldozers going, to start to pipe and plumb this nation. All you have to do is do the planning and get on with the job. And Tasmania has built 16 of the last 20 dams since 2003 in this country. The rest of the country has done three parts of bugger all and it's time we say to the states, we're not here to kick you, we're here to help. We have a cheque book, come and get it.

BEN KNIGHT: Let's take another quick look at the other major story this morning. Of course, that's the $270 billion Defence plan which will be outlined by the Prime Minister today. The front page of The Australian says it all: PM shoulders arms to China. Is that what's driving this package?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, the world's changed since COVID-19 and it's a lot more uncertainty, a lot, dangerous place than what it was pre-COVID-19. The Federal Government's responsibility primarily is to keep its people safe. What we're saying we've been able to run a strong economy that will allow us to invest in this, to continue to invest in our defence systems to make sure they keep pace with technology, to give us the cutting edge technology, to partner with a lot of like-minded nations to keep Australians safe. Our whole intent is never to have to use it but you always have to mitigate and be ready to protect your citizens and proudly, the Australian Government is taking those steps today and the Prime Minister will outline that quite articulately around what we are going to do. But the fact that we've been able to do this in result of heavy economic times shows that our economic stewardship over the past six years has been strong and we'll continue to protect Australians, not only economically but in terms of our national safety.

BEN KNIGHT: The quote from the Prime Minister to The Australian newspaper this morning: The world hasn't known a time of economic and strategic uncertainty like this since the 30s and the 40s. That's pretty frightening language.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well it's one that we need to be prepared for. As I said, our responsibility is to keep Australians safe. We have to be prepared for every circumstance. The world dynamic has changed; the world order is changing. We need to ensure that Australians can feel protected by their government, that we have strategic partnerships that will make sure that when called upon, if called upon, that we can work together to protect our nation and continue to promote peace. That's what Australia always has been, is a democratically peace-loving nation. We don't intend to change from that. But unfortunately, the world dynamic has changed and we have to be alive to that and we have to be prepared for that. And that's all we're doing, is taking strategic steps, being prepared, keeping our nation safe. That's what a good Government should do.

BEN KNIGHT: Thanks so much for joining us this morning.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me. Any time.