Interview with Fran Kelly, ABC RN

18 May 2021

FRAN KELLY: International pressure continues to build on Australia to set more ambitious climate change targets. Late last week British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, used the phone hook up with Scott Morrison to urge the Australian Government to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. While the Government still refuses to set any firm target it's stepping up efforts to achieve carbon neutrality in at least one sector - agriculture. Last week's Federal Budget included money for a Biodiversity Stewardship Programme. It's been hailed as a world first that could see farmers trade credits for polluting industries for their environmental gain, not just for their carbon offsets. The plan is the brainchild of Agriculture Minister David Littleproud. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: You've effectively come up with a new climate change policy for the ag sector, as far as I see it. Farmers can already sell carbon credits to business under an emissions reduction fund. What's different about this scheme?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, this is a world first on being able to measure improvement in biodiversity. So it's an extra payment on top of the ERF that would be able to be traded with the business sector who are very hungry for this type of product. Because we are the first ones in the world to be able to measure the improvement in biodiversity that adds the social licence that companies are looking for and it rewards farmers for their stewardship. And what's in the budget that's more important than ever is that we're looking to extend to remnant vegetation.

So back when we met Kyoto, and we're going to beat Paris because of the stopping of land clearing - which no one is necessarily arguing with - they took away property rights from our farmers. And the Federal Government - John Howard - paid the states for that. But the states didn't hand that on to the farmers who lost a property right. Now in Australia, I don't think that's fair. So what we wanted to do was square the ledger. And so by saying now also to those that have had vegetation management restrictions, if you manage your property and improve your biodiversity, then we'd be able to give you an extra payment on that - business wants to be able to pay for that - and then we'll also put a seal on your product - a biodiversity seal on your beef, on your sheep, on your wheat, so that we get a premium in places like the EU and UK where they are wanting these types of programs and proving our environmental credentials are better than anyone else in the world.

FRAN KELLY: Okay. So they can essentially get two payments? They can get a carbon payment and this biodiversity payment? Does a biodiversity improvement necessarily also bring with it any kind of emissions reduction goal, though? Not by definition? Or can you have a biodiversity improvement that doesn't have anything to do with, I guess you can, with emissions?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, they all fall under the ERF program. So obviously, if you make plantings, you'll, you'll be eligible for the ERF payment, as per the normal carbon farming piece. Now, there is some challenges with carbon farming - there's been some perverse outcomes where we've had passive investors from capital cities come out into south west Queensland and north west New South Wales, and buy country for 20 bucks an acre and then lock it up and walk away and take a passive income stream. And it hasn't been managed, and we've seen some pests and weeds come out of it. But we've also seen families leave those communities. So what we're trying to do is limit this to rejuvenate landscape that is unproductive and get our farmers to be rewarded for it with new plantings, or if they've had their maps put - their vegetation maps that don't allow them to clear - if they manage that, they'll get a biodiversity payment. So there'll be two payments if they go under the ERF: one's under the ERF, the second one under a trading platform that we created. And a third leg that we're looking at for payments to farmers is the biodiversity seal to get them a premium on their market.

FRAN KELLY: Okay, but you say this is still going to be under the Emissions Reduction Fund? It's not going to be out of the hands of the Government?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, it's still under the ERF. And obviously the biodiversity piece is a market mechanism that corporates want to pay. So, they'll pay a premium for that biodiversity improvement as well, because we're the first ones in the world to measure it and to be able to prove its value. So, that's where the extra payment will come from - business, the business sector in trying to reduce emissions, but also improving the biodiversity environmental landscape of which farmers manage over 50 per cent.

FRAN KELLY: So if this is a market mechanism, it's akin to an emissions trading scheme just by another name, isn't it? Biodiversity trading scheme.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, it's not, Fran. No, because under the carbon abatement will be under the ERF. The biodiversity, which is a plus on top of the carbon is a market mechanism. That's the market mechanism that we're creating to incentivise…

FRAN KELLY: But that's also about emissions, too? Is that what you're saying, ultimately?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. It's about improving, it's about improving the environment and making sure that our farmers are rewarded. We paid the bill for the social conscience of this country in meeting Paris and meeting Kyoto and its time to square the ledger for farmers. Not just carbon abatement, but measuring the improvement in our environment. I think that's actually world leading, that we haven't just looked at a blunt instrument on carbon abatement. We've actually said to the, to the marketplace, we can not only abate carbon, we can improve our environment. And I think that also plays into the productivity of our land, it means that our farmers will get rewarded for those parts of- and rejuvenating those parts of their land that are unproductive at the moment.

FRAN KELLY: And where do you think the price will sit? What will be the price of a biodiversity scheme as it's traded?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's where we're at our infancy now in trying to create a market platform. And we're having conversations with the Business Council of Australia about what that'll look like. But effectively, farmers will make those bids back into the market. So they'll be told that this is what the opportunity is to make improvements on their land. They will then put this on the trading platform and then it'll be up to those corporates around the country who wish to participate to pay that price. So …

FRAN KELLY: But how big do you think- do you expect this market to get? You must have sort of looked at this and where it's heading. How big a market to you expect? How- What's the dollar value of this market going to be?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. We're at our infancy on that because we've only just started the pilots. So we've gone effectively from the laboratory now out into the field, and our first pilots are only just announced, our six regions. And effectively, once we get what those farmers will see, there's obviously a cost in doing the plantings and maintaining them, and then obviously the farmer will want a reward on that. So we're effectively at the pilot stage of estimating the size of this, but potentially there is significant amounts. I mean, if we were to, if we were to seize around 60 per cent of the agricultural landscape to be rejuvenated that's unused at the moment, you could move towards neutrality for agriculture without us doing anything else. So this is where we're saying...

FRAN KELLY: A carbon neutrality. So it is a carbon- it's a carbon scheme?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, it's both carbon through our normal ERF, plus there's a market, there's a- it's a market mechanism on top of that…

FRAN KELLY: Okay.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD:… to trying to reward farmers for doing more.

FRAN KELLY: Can we move to borders now, Minister? A growing number of medical experts, state and business leaders saying Australia can't wait until the middle of next year to open up to the world, we have to learn to live with COVID and treat it like any other public health challenge. Why is it beyond the wit of our Government?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, it's not beyond our wit, but we're- our primary responsibility as a Government is to keep our people safe. We've shown that with India and we're in no hurry to open our borders until we can get that assurity that we can keep people safe. Vaccinated- vaccinations have gone across the country and we can give that confidence to also state premiers and territory leaders. Because there's no point in open up international borders if we still have premiers with restrictions in between states. So we need to get them confidence because, constitutionally, they have a big role to play in this. This isn't just the Federal Government that rolls in and signs over all the, all the ownership of this. We have to work with the states, they own the health protocols of people coming in and between the states. As we've seen, we've seen lockdowns between the…

FRAN KELLY: Yeah, but the Federal Government controls who comes in- into- internationally. I mean, that's what we're talking about here. And we're talk about how we set up some kind of a plan or a timeline with targets for that. We've got the business calling in on this. We've got the CEO of Virgin Australia, Jayne Hrdlicka, saying she wants the border reopened when a large part of the population is vaccinated. She said that, quote: some people may die, but it'll be way smaller than with the flu. Now, that sounds brutal on the face of it, but if you think about it we do live with many hundreds of people dying from influenza every year. So business wants some kind of certainty around this and they think the middle of next year, a gradual reopening is too far off and too uncertain. Fair enough?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well the, well the Federal Government will take its advice from the chief medical officer, not from CEOs, from corporate companies in Australia. That is what has kept Australia safe, that is the role that we have played as the Federal Government. We have listened to the scientific evidence to make sure that Australia, in fact, is leading the world. If you look at us in comparison to the rest of the world, I would, I would not want to be anywhere else other than Australia at the moment. And I think we need to put that into context and Australians need to reflect that the actions that we've taken in closing the international borders has kept them safe. And then obviously we all have a role to play…

FRAN KELLY: Well that's true, but that can't go on forever. I mean, you're hearing these terms coming from business - Fortress Australia, the hermit nation. We're going to be speaking with the New South Wales Treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, in a moment. He wants the Federal Government to link border opening dates to vaccination targets. His boss, Gladys Berejiklian, says once the majority of people are vaccinated in her state, about five million adults, the borders should reopen. Is that a good idea? Those kind of targets?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: If, if the chief medical officer gives us the advice to that extent, then obviously we will. But obviously, we'd also need to see that the chief medical officers of all the states and territories would also sign off on that. Because, while we can stamp the visas, we can only stamp them once the health protocols are agreed by the states. They own that ability and obviously we need to work with them in concert and collaboration. And I think New South Wales, in fact, has led the way in terms of their reaction to COVID-19, particularly with state borders. They've been more proactive…

FRAN KELLY: Sure.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD:… with the local lockdowns rather than parochial state lockdowns.

FRAN KELLY: But, but why are we talking about state borders now? Shouldn't we be talking about the vaccine rollout? And the Federal Government is in charge of a fair whack of this, including the vaccine rollout for aged care and disability care. The Disability Royal Commission yesterday heard that fewer than 5 per cent of people living in residential disability homes have been vaccinated in the first three months, less than a thousand people have had one jab. Just six people in South Australia, eight people in Tasmania. Bill Shorten calls that a national disgrace. What do you call it?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think the sensationalisation by Bill Shorten is just desperate politics. The reality…

FRAN KELLY: Sensationalising it? Really? Did you listen to- did you hear some of the evidence put before the Disability Royal Commission?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, Fran, it's important I finish the answer. It's sensationalism when you put this into context. There has been no cases of disability workers or people in disability. The fact that you've just gone into me for the last two minutes about international borders and state borders and the actions we've taken has meant that we haven't had to rush into getting people to put their arms out for jabs. We've been able to do it in a calm, methodical way to make sure people had confidence. And obviously, the science has evolved during COVID-19 where we've seen that some of those vaccines are more appropriate for others. That's because Australia hadn't, hadn't had an emergency of so many cases where our health system was falling down. We've acted responsibly and we've been able to work through this. To sensationalise it now is simple politics.

FRAN KELLY: Is it good enough that less than 1000 people with disability in residential disability care are vaccinated at this point? Is that good enough?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yes, because it's part of the scheduled rollout. And this is where we've taken- looked at it at a risk profile. And the fact that we haven't had cases here in Australia to the extent of everywhere else in the world, we could make sure that we can do this rollout properly with confidence and instill confidence in the community in every sector. So there are no cases within the disability sector, and that is the truth of the actions we've taken. So it's not just…

FRAN KELLY: Well, just to, just to pick you up on that, Minister. There have been, there have been eight NDIS participants who have died from COVID, so I don't know that we can say there are- there have been no cases. There might be none right this moment, but I don't know if we can say there have been none.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's because we've taken the action in keeping the borders safe, to give us the time to build up the health system and to roll out the vaccines with confidence to the community. That is the actions we've taken.

FRAN KELLY: Okay.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Again, I think it's important Australians reflect and compare and contrast Australia to the rest of the world. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else bar Australia at the moment.

FRAN KELLY: David Littleproud, thanks very much for joining us again on Breakfast.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, Fran.