Interview with Kath Sullivan, ABC Country Hour

30 March 2022

TONY BRISCOE: That's where we'll start today's Country Hour. Farmer groups have described last night's budget as stable and steady. But, Federal Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, says: there's plenty of funding for the farm sector. 
            [Excerpt]

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, it builds on what we've done in the last two budgets. This is an extra 600 million dollars, and that's on top of the 300 million in MYEFO. and then the previous two budgets, billions of dollars going into our trade systems, our biosecurity in particular. Well over a billion dollars in new measures being put into biosecurity - we've got evolving threats. But this is also about finalising our innovation reforms, and also looking into the infrastructure. The infrastructure spend on this is the biggest reason Australia has ever seen. 

KATH SULLIVAN: Let's bring it back to agriculture. A couple of the major…

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that does fit in with it - infrastructure's important. 

KATH SULLIVAN: … lobby groups, I think, described it as steady and stable. They were frustrated there wasn't more funding for biosecurity. In particular, the NFF pointed out the risks of lumpy skin disease. Have you been overlooked by some of the other portfolios? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: A billion dollars into biosecurity - and I think that's ignorance from the NFF. We've put 50 million dollars into lumpy skin, and it's not even in the country. We've sent our chief medical veterinary officer to Indonesia and now on to Singapore, to make sure that we can work constructively with them. 
But we're putting boots on the ground in Northern Australia because this thing will blow in. It's not going to come in through our ports, it's actually going to blow in. And so putting $60 plus million into more boots on the ground in terms of surveillance is, at this stage, all we can do. Otherwise, you'd just be spending money on lumpy skin that we don't have. So that's ignorance about understanding the threat. We see it as a real threat. But we're taking the steps, and the Department is giving us the advice, the scientists are giving us advice - not sideline critics that don't understand the science. 

KATH SULLIVAN: Just on biosecurity. A few budgets back, now, you announced a levy on containers- on shipping containers coming into the country that would fund our biosecurity response. Now, I understand that was put on hold as part of Australia's response to the pandemic. Now that we're living with COVID-19, can we expect to see that levy come back? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: We're working through the final stages of the cost recovery model - it's working with industry, and that's now being finalised. So, we've gone through the consultation process. And the consultation process is about letting industry understand their level of risk that they pose to Australian agriculture, each industry, specifically. And then, a cost recovery model of what it costs the Australian taxpayer to actually inspect. 
So those final stages in the- of discussion are happening as we speak. They understand - and in fact, they've been more than forward leaning on this - because they understand we're going from around five million containers to about eight and a half million containers by the end of the decade. And so we're going to constrain their business if we don't have a biosecurity system that can keep up with that. And they know they're the ones that posing the risk. So that's why we're making sure that those that give the pose the greatest risk, pay the most. 

KATH SULLIVAN: Talking about market access. You've just given a speech in which you mentioned all of the supermarket's, including your favourite, the big German - ALDI. You had an ACCC inquiry into the fresh produce supply chains last year. Is there more to be done in this space? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: There is. And this is where there was an $5.4 million in the last budget, around making sure we work through the market mechanisms. In fact, we've been engaging with industry around what that might look like, and the diversity of industry as the complexity of that. 
So, the horticulture sector has different requirements to what the dairy sector, and you know, probably one of the biggest achievements I've ever had is to break the dollar a litre milk - taking on the two big supermarkets and the big German, when they were just doing our dairy farmers over. And I still don't think they're actually giving him a fair deal at the moment. So, this is where I think the ACCC needs to grow some teeth, and they haven't. And so, what I think we need to do is continue on this path, and $5.4 million is about showing that there is still a huge gap's there. And the only way to fix that is with regulation over the supermarkets, and to make sure that farmers get a fair share They're not looking for charity - they're just looking for fair prices. And that's what I don't believe that the supermarkets are giving them at the moment. 

KATH SULLIVAN: Okay. And we're getting the wind up here, but I do want to ask you about some other portfolio issues, including Northern Australia. Last night's budget included more than $7 billion over 11 years for a fund, which sounds a little bit like a cross between the National Border Authority and NAIF. Do we really need another fund so that the Nationals can announce more infrastructure projects in, let's face it, they're all seats being targeted by the Coalition? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, it's all in areas where Australia is underdeveloped. Why wouldn't we put infrastructure where the exponential growth in Australian agriculture, of Australia's economy, can happen? Who cares what seat it is? No, I don't think we're looking at seats, we're looking at opportunities. If we've learnt nothing from COVID-19, it was the resource and agriculture sector that the paid the bills. And that's what we've, I think, Australia's awoken to - it's us that makes the investment. 
So this will complement what's happening in Northern Australia - working with our regions of growth. It will complement the NAIF. The NAIF is a loans product, as well as an equity product. And in fact, we've put an extra $2 billion into the NAIF as well - so, we take that up to $7 billion. Such is the investment …

KATH SULLIVAN: Why don't you just spend that first of all. 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, those are private projects. This is about making sure that the supply chain gaps, with the infrastructure, are filled in. That's derisking Northern Australia - is actually taking away those infrastructure gaps that are holding back progress from getting up- from getting product from the port- from the paddock to the port, or from the pit to the port. And they're not investing because we don't have the roads or the rail to be able to do it. And so, what we're doing is creating infrastructure for that to happen that'll complement Northern Australia - it's in addition to that. And this is where Australia's economy is going to go forward in any exponential way, is in Northern Australia. 

KATH SULLIVAN: Would Michael McCormack have been able to secure that if he was still the Leader? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yes.

KATH SULLIVAN: Just finally, as I'm talking to you, Lismore's being evacuated for the second time in 24 hours. Has the Federal Government's response to the flooding there been appropriate?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: To date, it has. And there'll be more announcements, as I understand. Kevin Hogan has done an exemplary job, not just during the disaster but in making sure that the Government understands the scale of this. I saw it firsthand, and, being a former emergency services minister, this is a scale of- scale and concentration of devastation I haven't seen before. I went through the bushfires and many others, and that was horrible, and it doesn't take away from me the devastation that anyone else has endured. But the concentration and scale of this, in Lismore and those outlying outlets, is significant and one in which we're going to have to continue to evolve with. 
            [End of excerpt]

TONY BRISCOE: That's the Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, speaking there with Kath Sullivan about the flooding in Lismore, and of course, the Federal Budget overnight.