Interview with Fran Kelly, ABC RN

15 February 2021

FRAN KELLY: Divisions over climate policy could re-emerge today when the Nationals hold Party Room talks ahead of a full coalition meeting tomorrow. A number of the Nats, including Barnaby Joyce and Matt Canavan, have vowed to, quote: fight like hell, the Prime Minister's embrace of a net zero emissions target by 2050. They say such a target would, quote: betray regional Australia and be catastrophic for the party unless agriculture, and possibly mining too, are carved out of any emissions reduction strategy. The Deputy Nationals Leader, David Littleproud, says a credible pathway to net zero emissions could be achieved this year, with farmers well placed to cash in on the carbon abatement measures that must be part of any plan to decarbonise the economy. David Littleproud is also the Federal Agriculture Minister, he's in our Parliament House studios. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: Minister, unlike some of your colleagues, you are open to setting up a firm target of net zero by 2050. Will the Prime Minister be able to land a formal commitment by the end of this year? Will he- will the Nats eventually get on board?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we believe not at any cost, but we do believe in trying to live up to our international commitments. Agriculture in particular has done a lot of heavy lifting and we've met Kyoto and we'll meet Paris and beat Paris as a result of the heavy lifting that agriculture has done back when we signed up to Kyoto. It took away a lot of their rights, their property rights, and they weren't compensated for that. The federal government at that point actually compensated the states and the states didn't hand that money back to farmers.

So, we're saying we want to be part of the solution. We think we can be part of the solution, but not only costs. And you don't sign up to anything until such time as you see the details. And that's what the National Party's position is - let's see the details, let's understand it. But we're not going to blindly sign up for something we haven't seen.

FRAN KELLY: Okay. Well, not all of your colleagues are saying we want to be part of the solution. I gave earlier those quotes from Matt Canavan and Barnaby Joyce. Some are saying they want a carve out. So, what would it take to get the Nats on board? When you say we want to be part of the solution, what does the solution look like to you?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we think technology and science. I think the Prime Minister's made it very clear that he also believes that science and technology is the answer, not taxes. And that…

FRAN KELLY: Well, I think everyone agrees that technology is, is the answer. So, what does that mean when it comes to agriculture?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, when it comes to agriculture, it comes to around being able to measure carbon in soils - that hasn't been cracked yet. And Angus Taylor had got $14 million to start that work, and I know that that's about to commence around being able to work through the methodology of that. We've also been working through improving our carbon farming model. It's a very blunt instrument at the moment that has some unintended consequences, particularly for those areas particularly in south west Queensland, north west New South Wales where investors are- passive investors coming in, buying up large tracts of land and then just throwing away the key - there's no management.

So, what we've tried to do, and I've started a biodiversity stewardship programme where there has to be active management of these programmes. So, farmers aren't turning their back on it, they just want it to be part of the mix. But they don't want perverse outcomes where large tracts of land are locked up, and small communities hurt where families move out. So, those are some of the practical solutions, as well as when we look at mining, carbon capture storage - that has the capacity and the potential to reduce emissions by up to 90 per cent. And when you've got the Biden administration also looking to go down this track, there's an opportunity for us to partner with them to look at that technology.

Because if we get back to first principles; if the end game is to reduce emissions, if you take all the noise out of the room, then we should look at every opportunity, whether that be carbon capture storage, whether it be through soil abatement of carbon, or whether that be through carbon farming with a biodiversity piece on it where a premium can be paid - that's the technology mix that we should look at. And that's where our farmers and regional Australians have an opportunity to play part of it. But we've done the heavy lifting and we shouldn't be disadvantaged.

FRAN KELLY: Okay.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: And the Prime Minister at the Press Club made that clear - Regional Australia wouldn't pay the price again.

FRAN KELLY: So, what you're saying there is different, I think, to what some of your colleagues have said. You're saying that farmers don't want to be carved out, they don't want agriculture to be carved out of a 2050 net zero emissions reduction plan, they want to be dealt in? Is that what you're saying?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, you've got to be able to quantify it first. So you can't sign up until we know exactly what we can abate from things like soil carbon, from…

FRAN KELLY: That's very hard at the moment, isn't it? Because there's not a measurement that is recognised internationally, therefore it can't be sort of traded, in a sense. How…

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. That's what we're trying to achieve. And that's and that's the heavy lifting that we're doing now, as a government, investing in that technology to make sure that we can understand it. We can lead the world and we should be proud of that. I think the fact that we're making significant investments in that, we're backing the best and brightest in the world to come up with those solutions. And then to be able to quantify and have veracity, not just here in Australia, but globally I think says a lot about Australia - what we've done, what we've achieved, but what we're trying to do in the future and protecting our economy and living up to international commitments.

FRAN KELLY: How much money could a farmer make from offsetting emissions? Through either soil carbon or improving the stewardship by biodiversity?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, this is where you've got to be able to measure and quantify it. And that's the piece that's being done now, the Biodiversity Stewardships Program…

FRAN KELLY: But could a farmer make a living off that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, it'd be supplementary. I mean, the best way for a farmer to make a living is to continue to produce the best food and fibre in the world, and to be able to have market access. But what we're trying to do is, is not only allow them to participate in carbon farming, and reducing emissions, being paid for that, but be able to market their products as having a biodiversity seal that gains a premium on the world market. Those are the types of things, the smarts that we're trying to back. Australian farmers but backing scientists and those around the country that are leading the way in coming up in being able to quantify it. Because it means nothing unless you can quantify it.

And that's what the Government's saying, is let's quantify this, let's go to the world with proving that we can do this. We've got a great record in meeting Kyoto, we'll meet Paris, and in fact beat Paris. So, we've got a strong record that Australians should be very proud of, but we need to continue to maintain that reputation by doing it with fact and quantifying it.

FRAN KELLY: Can I just ask you a bit more about the stewardship plan? Because obviously you say to make a living for farmers have got to get more out of their land. But we spoke to a young farmer, Anika Molesworth, last week and I've spoken to others in the past who are mindful of the fact that some land is getting unproductive because of climate change. There's drought lines that are meaning that some areas look like they won't be able to produce what they have produced in the past. And there is a movement, a stewardship movement, calling on government to recognise farmers, to stay in the land, stay in the communities and tend to the land, which is not the same as being a farmer. Is that part, of part of your plan? Part of your thinking?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: We'll that's exactly what the Biodiversity Stewardship Program's about, is about building on carbon farming. But instead of a blunt instrument of just abating carbon, to improve our biodiversity. Because if you, if you do that, you not just get the payment for the abatement of carbon, there's a premium that can be paid on top of that for the improvement in biodiversity. So that's about managing the landscape, and our farmers have done that, and they're doing that. They're evolving to do that, and that's…

FRAN KELLY: But so, what I'm getting at, Minister, so could be a scenario where someone's land is no longer viable because of the change in climate, and they can still form and get an income through biodiversity stewardship.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I don't think we're at that juncture just yet. I think that the work in which our farmers are continuing to evolve and the research and development in new varieties of crops and new genetics is meaning that we're able to evolve as the climate's evolving. But we're trying to do our bit as well and participate. Agriculture wants to be part of the solution. And I think that's also on the science and technology side of better genetics, better varieties and understanding our landscape better. And that's why we've invested $88 million dollars into eight new drought hubs around the country that will give our farmers the tools they need to make those real time decisions…
FRAN KELLY: Okay. What do you think about this idea from the Menzies Research Centre, which is out today, suggesting a HECS-style loan scheme to help farmers sequester more carbon and make their land more productive? Is that a good idea?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, again, you have to put all these ideas into the mix, and look at…

FRAN KELLY: Are you thinking of that idea?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, not at the moment, but I think obviously we're happy to look at any of the solutions that are put forward. You have to be pragmatic in this. And at the end of the day what people want is honesty, not platitudes. If you're going to sign up to something, you can sign up to it once you've told the Australian people how you get there.

You remember that there's about 130 nations that are signed up to net zero by 2050, but only 16 of them have a plan on which to get there. And the Australian people rejected the Labor Party in 2019 when they said we were going to net zero by 2050 - but couldn't tell them how, who was going to pay for. The Australian people told them, take a running jump. The Australian public want honesty, not platitudes. And that's what the government will do with science and technology, and when we've got that. We'll be honest with them. And the National Party will then make its decision predicated on what that plan is.

FRAN KELLY: Okay. It's just that some of your colleagues seem to have made the decision already. I note that you've called for a mature conversation and said that the zealots from both sides should take a deep breath and let the adults in the room actually work it through in an honest and transparent manner. So, what chance of that if the likes of that if the likes of Matt Canavan and Barnaby Joyce are threatening constantly to cross the floor, are complaining that quote: anyone talk about a 2050 aspiration will be dead by then? Is that mature conversation?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, with a bit of luck I won't either. With a bit of luck, I won't be. I'm hoping to at least ...

FRAN KELLY: Yeah, but what do you think of that sentiment?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: ... all things being equal, I'll still be around. Look, I don't think diversity's a bad thing. I mean, this is the thing, is the media wants to castigate…

FRAN KELLY: Well, hang on. Diversity, but you want a mature conversation…

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: You can.

FRAN KELLY: …you want the zealots on both sides to take a deep breath. Are they the zealots?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I'll let others judge that around the commentary of everybody. And people may see me as a zealot. I'm not particularly worried about that. But what I want to be able to look the Australian public in the eye with honesty, not a platitude, and say whether we can achieve it or not. And not at any cost, particularly for regional, rural Australia. That's what the National Party is saying. And we're not going to rush into this until such time as we see that plan. We're open to it; we believe we can be part of the solution.

FRAN KELLY: When do you think we'll see the plan?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, obviously, that's not within my remit. The Energy Minister and the Prime Minister are working on that, and they understand …
FRAN KELLY: You're the Federal Agriculture Minister, though, so presumably you're doing a lot of this work around the soil carbon and the biodiversity. When are you- when is that work coming together? What's the timeline?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, the biodiversity is the one that I hold. And in fact, the ANU has already done the work in being able to measure the improvement in biodiversity, and I'll be announcing those projects in the next month about then being able to go to real testing. So that's the thing to be able to quantify. We will now test it with pilots around the country. And we hope that in 10 or 12 months…

FRAN KELLY: Do you think we'll get a plan this year?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well again, that'll be something for the Energy Minister. It's not appropriate for me to discuss his remit, as it's not appropriate for him to talk about agriculture. So obviously the Energy Minister is committed to this, he has a full understanding of it, and I'm very supportive of what he's doing around soil carbon - I think we all are, the agriculture sector is. But we're watching closely. We believe we can part of the solution, but we're not going to rush into it until we see how we get there and who pays for it.

FRAN KELLY: So, you're not prepared to put that kind of timeline this year. You don't think we'll get it this year?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I can't give it to you within any honesty. That's something that the Energy Minister and the PM would be able to be able to quantify rather than myself. But I'll be part of the solution, part of the talks as we move forward.

FRAN KELLY: It's noticeable from this interview from others I've heard you give that you seem to be lining up. by and large with the prime minister's position on net zero, though your Leader, Michael McCormack, is talking about how he's not worried about what happens in 30 years. Are you at odds with your Leader? And why are you taking the leadership here?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, we're all leading this. The National Party's just concerned about the impacts regional Australia has to pay on this. We've already done the heavy lifting' we've already paid the price on this. We want to be part of the solution so long as we're rewarded for it - that's all we're saying. the National Party's very clear on that. But we're going to be careful about this. We'll watch through it and make sure that the decisions we make today will not just benefit Australian agriculture today, but into the future.

FRAN KELLY: Okay.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: And that's effectively where the National Party's position is.

FRAN KELLY: David Littleproud, thank you very much for joining us.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: David Littleproud is Deputy Nationals Leader and Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management.