Interview with Lisa Millar, ABC News Breakfast

26 August 2020

LISA MILLAR: Let's return now to our story on the competition watchdog that's looking into whether there needs to be a crackdown on supermarkets and food processors who abuse their market power when dealing with farmers. For more, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud joins us now. Minister, good morning. Welcome to News Breakfast.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, great to be with you.

LISA MILLAR: Tell us why is this necessary, this ACCC inquiry?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, there's two parts to this, Lisa. Firstly, we're looking at the Dairy Code of Conduct that simply goes from the farm gate to the processor, and now seeing whether that should be extended to supermarkets, and then looking at other perishable agricultural goods, whether that be fish, whether that be dairy, whether it be horticulture, eggs, chicken, meat, to make sure that supermarkets are not abusing their power in their dealings with farmers.

The ACCC found for the dairy industry that there was a market imbalance and that's why the Dairy Code of Conduct was put in place, we have a Horticultural Code of Conduct to protect farmers in the horticulture sector. But we're just making sure that there is a framework that gives fairness. This isn't about regulating prices; this is just making sure farmers are treated fairly. When you have two supermarkets that have over 60 per cent of the market in terms of supermarket share, that adds some complexity and gives them some bargaining power that could be abused, and we want to make sure we explore that properly and if needed, we'll act.

LISA MILLAR: Yeah. Well, I take note of the fact that you jumped in quickly to say it wasn't about regulation, because how do your more liberal free market feeling colleagues feel about this, given that it does seem to be about cracking down on supermarkets?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, this is a core principle of the National Party around fairness. We're a coalition partner and we're proud to make sure that we protect our constituency with fairness. As I said, this isn't about regulating prices, this is simply making sure that there is a framework of fairness in how all parties deal with one another. There is a Grocery Code of Conduct at the moment, but it very much only focuses on the big companies, not on small family farms. And I think what we're saying is these small family farms don't have much power, don't have any legal recourse because they don't have the financial means in which to prosecute. So, is there a framework that needs to be put in place. And if you're doing the right thing, it costs nobody anything and so the supermarkets who proclaim they've done nothing wrong and processors, they should fear nothing because if they're doing the right thing, even if there was regulation, it costs them nothing anyway.

LISA MILLAR: Yeah, but we've had inquiries like this before. Why is this going to be any different?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, this is where we're going to make sure it is only three months, it's an extension, as I said earlier, on the Dairy Code that only went to the processor level, and we'll look to have this done by Christmas as well as these other agricultural perishable goods. Because we've heard a lot of anecdotal evidence, and the ACCC has in fact got past evidence around this. What we're trying to do is to quantify it and validate it, and then make sure that if there is an imbalance, that needs to be looked at and regulated in terms of a code of conduct, then we will act quickly. We don't want to kick this into the grass, and we're creating an environment where farmers can come forward in a confidential manner to the ACCC without recourse or fear of retribution from any of their supply chains. So, we're going to do this and sort this out once and for all.

LISA MILLAR: Alright. Can we talk about borders? Because there's been some changes in the last 48 hours - New South Wales and South Australia announcing some extensions of the area around the borders. Is that good enough for you?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I obviously welcome it, but I'm still a little bit concerned about agricultural production systems in Victoria. I've heard from our local members down in Victoria that are still concerned about the fact that this may- still hasn't addressed the agricultural flow between New South Wales and Victoria. And I again say that they've shown leadership to states in doing this, but there's still some more that they can do. And don't treat us as you would your capital cities, regional and rural Australia has evolved past lines on a map. We have integrated agricultural systems right up and down the east coast, farmers need to be able to do that particularly, not only in tending their crops but for animal welfare, and this is a perverse outcome that needs to be fixed very quickly. And I just say, we've made some great steps and some great leadership by our states, but I think there's just a little- another push that needs to be had, particularly for agriculture between Victoria and New South Wales, and I think that we will have had that common sense that we've asked for out of federation.

LISA MILLAR: Alright. Just finally, the Prime Minister told the coalition party room yesterday, was all about unity, discipline, complete focus - was that a very pointed comment towards the National Party and the latest rumblings over leadership of which you have been mentioned?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. And look, let me- we run our own race in the National Party and the Prime Minister understands that we are our own sovereign party and we will sort our own things out. And let me say that the stories about leadership in the National Party are absolute rubbish, that is just a couple of journos bored about reporting on COVID-19. Now, while they might be bored about reporting on COVID-19, we're not. We're going to continue to focus on Australians, getting through this pandemic, not only on a health front but also on an economic front. So, you know, it's just when we come back to Canberra, journos like to change the tempo a bit. It's nonsense. Michael McCormack will lead us to the next election, he is doing an outstanding job, and in fact, was at forefront of this move around the ACCC in supporting the Australian farmers. He led the charge with me to make sure that our coalition partners understood the importance of this to us.

LISA MILLAR: Alright. David Littleproud, thanks for joining us.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me.