Interview with Lisa Millar, ABC News Breakfast

14 September 2021

LISA MILLAR: Well, it's official. Australia's farmers are having a record-breaking year with the latest forecast suggesting agriculture could grow by more than $73 billion this financial year. It is a remarkable achievement for a sector hit hard by drought and bushfires in recent years. But could labour shortages and border closures hamper the prospects? Not to mention that mouse plague we've seen in some of the eastern states. The Federal Agricultural minister David Littleproud joins us from Katherine in the Northern Territory. Good morning to you Minister.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Good morning Lisa. Good to be with you.

LISA MILLAR: They're very big figures. I mean, the goal is eventually for it to be a $100 billion industry. It looks like it may end up there.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yes, we had a cracking year last year. But this year we're going to set new records. We're for the first time going to get over 70 billion. We'll get to 73 billion, predicated pretty well on the back of a bumper winter crop that will come off in the coming months. And then obviously we're looking at catchments right across the eastern sea board in particular. We're very confident that we'll hit that 70 bil, get to 73. If you think back last year, we were estimating at the start of the last financial year we would only get to 60 billion. We actually got to 67 billion. So, this industry, despite all the challenges, has continued to grow. In fact, we've grown over the last 10 years from a $48 billion industry to now over a $70 billion industry. It just goes to show that our farmers have adopted the technology and science to be able to face up to those challenges and have done it well. We've been able to keep the economy going during COVID while other industries have put back under the doona and forced there. We've been out there toiling away, and with agricultural and resources, we paid the bills.

LISA MILLAR: Yeah. But you've got senior agricultural people who are saying that there are already crops being ploughed into the ground because you do not have the workers in place to ensure that these crops are harvested. That's not good news.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, it's not. That's the biggest constraint we're seeing on agriculture as we move forward. We found 27,000 men and women from 10 Pacific nations. We've brought in around 10,000 of those. We announced the ag visa. And in fact, the ag visa is ready to commence on 30 September. In fact, bilaterals have already started with a number of countries to try and open up those. But the biggest constraint is the states adopting quarantine arrangements in addition to their caps to bring those workers in. And at National Cabinet last year, the premiers all agreed the simplest way to do that was for their chief health officer and them to write to the Prime Minister to articulate the way that they'd do that in a COVID safe way, and we would simply sign the visas. Sadly, some states have done a good job, others have lagged. I mean, South Australia is probably the gold star. It's not only created its own quarantine facility, but it's the first state to be able to do in country quarantining in Vanuatu.
So, we're just saying to states, have some courage and conviction. Don't be the hand brake on agriculture. We're giving you the Pacific scheme. But the ag visa is the biggest structural change to agricultural workforce because we're giving a pathway to permanent residency. We're bringing the next generation of migrants to regional Australia and to agriculture to grow regional Australia and grow ag, and be part of our communities, not be transient, but actually come and live in places like Katherine. And we're seeing the success of that in the past, and that's what made Australia. We think it can be the success of the future.

LISA MILLAR: Yeah. But if the Federal Government had moved quicker on making deals for quarantine centres, like Howard Springs, wouldn't that have eased the way to get these people in? I mean, it has been an issue. People haven't moved quick enough and the federal government surely has to take some responsibility for that as well.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we did. And that's why we worked with the Northern Territory government to make sure that we could open up Howard Springs. Every state wanted to do it different and that's…

LISA MILLAR: I'm talking about new quarantine centres.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. And I will answer it. This is the constraint of federation. Every state is their own sovereign government. We have to respect that. And as I've said, South Australia showed leadership and led the country by not only creating their own quarantine facility, they didn't just sit around and wait for the Commonwealth to come along, they said at National Cabinet: we'll take control of this, with all the rest of the premiers. Steven Marshall led the way and he said: I'll create my own quarantine facility, and I'll actually go and do the in-country quarantining which the Commonwealth says is safe. Other states weren't as ambitious, weren't as courageous as Steven Marshall. In Queensland they're doing on farm quarantining, but they have only done it in small scales. Northern Territory I've got to say has done a pretty good job up here. I'm in Katherine and I can say the NT Government is pretty collaborative in working with us. But every state's had a different way of doing it. Victoria won't even allow them to quarantine in their own state, despite Daniel Andrews saying in December last year he needed 15,000 workers. He's brought 1500 in…

LISA MILLAR: So are we still at risk then of these- it's all very well to say it's a $73 billion harvest, but are we still at risk of that not ending up on the tables of Australians because the workers are not going to be able to get in?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we have factored that in. But I think the biggest constraint for our growth, getting to that 100 billion, will be the workforce. That's why we've made a structural change to the ag visa, bringing in a pathway to permanent residency for skilled and semi-skilled workers. But we need the states to come with us. And in fact, we have been working with the private sector, behind the scenes, to try to come up with a further solution that one state may adopt. We have been in negotiations with a couple of states to try and do that. But again, we need their chief health officers and their premiers to accept that. If they don't, that's going to be a constraint on agriculture. That's why the NFF came out today simply pleading with the premiers to show some leadership, to show some courage. This has the potential to grow agriculture, our agricultural exports, and grow regional Australia.

LISA MILLAR: David Littleproud, George Christensen, your colleague, is again asking his followers to jam the switch lines of the TGA to get this drug Ivermectin to be able to be used even though it is not what all medical advice suggests. When are you going to call him into line?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we live in this beautiful thing called a democracy and freedom of speech is centre to that democracy. George is entitled to have…

LISA MILLAR: Not when it's misinformation. You're there in the Northern Territory, you're in Katherine, we talk about the risks to Indigenous Australians, and the Minister for Indigenous Australians says that misinformation is one of the greatest problems right at the moment, and one of your own MPs is pushing misinformation.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: And exactly why you allow the trusted institutions of the TGA to make a determination around that. Not politicians. Everyone will have their own view. I have people in my own electorate that have their view around this chemical. As far as I'm concerned…

LISA MILLAR: So you're happy for him to be pushing that view? A member of your party?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: That's his personal view. It's not- that's not representative of the National Party. We're a diverse bunch. And I think diversity is a good thing in a democracy. I don't have to agree with George and I know that George doesn't agree with me on everything either. But you need to have those trusted institutions like the TGA that are the arbiters of these types of debates and these types of conversations. You do that in a plain and transparent way. And common sense prevails. I'm confident common sense will prevail. Medical advice will continue to prevail to make sure that people put their arms out for the vaccines and I know that there's other work being done around the world around treatments. The first step is to get those vaccines in people's arms and that's what we're doing.

LISA MILLAR: David Littleproud, thanks for your time.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks Lisa. Thanks for your interest in agriculture. ABC really does do a good job on it.

LISA MILLAR: Terrific. Thank you.