Interview with Fran Kelly, ABC RN

23 June 2021

FRAN KELLY: Well, it looked as though it was going to add to the degree of difficulty, but now the reports are a climate pact between the Coalition parties - that's the Liberal Party and the National Party - could still be achieved, with some senior Nationals open to a deal on net zero by 2050.

The return of Barnaby Joyce to the Leadership of the Nats has firmed up opposition to such a target in some sections of the party, but now Bridget McKenzie says Australia, quote: must meet our international obligations - although she's calling for hard negotiations to ensure our interests are looked after. And the Deputy Leader of the National Party, David Littleproud, has indicated the Nats could support net zero once they see the economic modelling, and they know what's in it for the farmers. David Littleproud is in our Parliament House studios. Minister, welcome back to Breakfast.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks for having me, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: Is net zero by 2050 achievable under Barnaby Joyce as Leader? If so, what will it take?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, obviously we want to see the detail, so that we can be honest with not only our Members of Parliament, but also the Australian public about how we get there and who pays for it. So, we- [audio skips] has said, as a Government, we want to go down a technology route - I think we've been quite consistent in that. And obviously we want to see the modelling of that; and then, what other parts - particularly what role agriculture can play; if there's financial benefits - whether that be through soil carbon, carbon farming that needs some amendment because there's been some perverse outcomes from that around large productive land just locked up but there is, there is smart ways that we can do that - but what role agriculture can play, we don't want to close it off. And, and those are the sort of things that we have to get the detail so that we can be honest with the Australian people about making that commitment. Because there's about 130…

FRAN KELLY: Okay. But, hang on. It seems to me that this phrase, we want to see the detail - I've been hearing it now for a couple of years - it seems to be a bit of a delaying tactic. Because, what detail, exactly, do you want to see? This is a plan out to 2050. The technologies that will ultimately get us there are probably- are not even up and going yet, and green hydrogen is one of them. You want to see the modelling. Why on earth haven't you seen the modelling before now? And questions like what role will agriculture play - I mean, you were on this programme just a couple of weeks ago talking about the biodiversity carbon credits for instance.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So…

FRAN KELLY: I mean all these pieces are here. What is it exactly that you want the Prime Minister to show you before the, the Nats will say, yeah okay, we're going to commit to this target. The Government's already provided a road map.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Exactly. But what we need to be able- as you said, there's technologies that are emerging. We have to be honest about what capacity we think that that will achieve. And that's…

FRAN KELLY: Yeah. But some of that's guesswork, isn't it? I mean, eight years ago, we wouldn't have known that batteries could be as, as useful as they, as they were, as they are now in storage and the amount of storage they can provide for instance.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Exactly, Fran. That's why we're engaging with people like Alan Finkel, to make sure that if we do make a commitment we, we have currency around that.

FRAN KELLY: Yeah.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: We're able to say to the Australian people, so, so that work has to be done and I, and I…

FRAN KELLY: But why hasn't it been done by now? For Heaven's sake, we've been talking about this for years.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well I think- Well, Fran, with respect if you'd like me to answer the questions I'm prepared to answer them. What is happening is that that work is being done to make sure that there is comfort in current- in the currency of what they believe they can achieve - and I think that's, that's the right thing to do. Not, not just blindly sign up to something and then turn around in 10 years' time and say, sorry, got that wrong. I mean, we can't blindly sign up to something when we can't be honest with the Australian people. The other mob had a crack at that at the last election and they were told to go away, and they're doing it again. They can't tell us how to get there and who's going to pay. Australian people ultimately want us to be honest with them, and so too does a global community. There's 130 nations that have signed up to net zero emissions by 2050, only about 14 have an articulated pathway to get there. So if we're going to do this, we have to be honest with the Australian people and the global community because we're a trading nation.

FRAN KELLY: Yeah. But if you're talking about honesty with the Australian people, you're have to be honest about modelling of the costs of not doing it, of not getting zero net emissions by 2050; and the impact of that. And the International Energy Agency has already given us a blueprint on that.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's- those are part of the conversation, Fran. And that's why this has to be done in a calm, methodical way - working through the process, working through the science, making sure that it has currency. And when it has currency, then both our Party Room and, I'm sure, the Liberal Party Room will have something in front of it, and obviously will then have a conversation with our Coalition partners about what that looks like, and how regional and rural Australia plays a role in that.

And the Prime Minister's been quite clear. He said, that regional rural Australia cannot pay the bill again on this. We've already done the heavy lifting, so we're prepared, but we're being pragmatic - we think agriculture could be part of the solution. I mean, we were on this before it became popular with, particular, biodiversity, stewardship and, and soil carbon abatement. So the works been done on that to try and get a measurement that is cheap to be able to do, particularly for soil carbon. So if we can do that, I mean, there is pathways in which agriculture can be part of the solution, but also what the broader economy looks like. And I think we just need to cool our jets and just let this be worked through in a process whereby we can be honest with the Australian people about how we achieve this.

FRAN KELLY: Okay. So- Well, you've said yesterday you want, as you say, to see the detail and you want to see what you can get for farmers who help reduce emissions. Now, you mentioned there you're already trialling the scheme about biodiversity credits, there's already carbon offsets. In fact, I think carbon's the 52 most valuable form of farm commodity traded in Australia - so there's already money coming in there. Are you hoping to leverage the change of National Party leadership to supercharge that? And is it a pathway for the, for the Nats to adopt net zero emissions and farmers to get even more money making options?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, our job is to represent regional and rural Australia, and our job is to put more money in regional and rural Australia's pocket. And that's why, obviously, when we had the discussion with our Coalition partner, we want to make sure that anything that's done is done to support that. So, we will be pragmatic…

FRAN KELLY: Yeah. But I'm just asking you, beyond the biodiversity and the carbon credits - the nine papers are reporting today that the Prime Minister's looking favourably on some form of financial reward for farmers - beyond those two schemes, what other moneymaking options are there for farmers from this?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, they're the primary ones, unless there's anything else, and that's something that's already commenced in terms of its infancy. You've got to understand that the work was put- money was put aside for the soil carbon abatement, but also for the biodiversity stewardship. So, money's already been set aside to make sure we- couldn't (*) do proof of concept. And this is, this is what you've got to understand - everyone's in a hurry, but we- we've just got to make sure that we get the proof of concept so that people, like Alan Finkel, can tell us, well, this is where we can get to. And we can be honest about that - here and around the world, to everybody - that Australia, if we make that commitment then we're going to live up to it - like we lived up to Kyoto, like we lived up to Paris. We want to be able to demonstrate to everybody that we're fair dinkum.

FRAN KELLY: And when you say, you know, we've just got to cool our jets on this. I mean Matt Canavan, for one, doesn't accept stronger action. He said just less than two months ago now, you know, that going to net zero emissions would smash regional economies. Now, he's reaffirming that view, but saying the Prime Minister's position of preferring net zero goes far enough - he doesn't want to lock it in. What about your new boss, Barnaby Joyce? Is he on board with potentially supporting net zero emissions by 2050 if farmers can be rewarded? Because from the outside, it looks like he just won the leadership on the basis of opposing that target. Or was it just a Trojan horse?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, I think, I think what you have to say is Barnaby was quite clear in his first press conference that he wanted to see the detail, he wanted to see the modelling, and he wanted to see the impact on regional and rural Australia, on farmers and the resource sector, and how that, how that can play out and what that would look like. But it would ultimately be the decision of our Party Room, and I think he's been quite open about that from his very first press conference.

So, there would be a Party Room, the National Party Party Room that the majority will make a decision about it. And that's, that's the democracy that we live in. There will always be divergent views within any party, as there is within the Labor Party. I suspect if you ask Joel Fitzgibbon about the Labor Party's decision and position, would be, would be very divergent from, from some in it. So, so that's, that's not a bad thing…

FRAN KELLY: Sure. Well, you're the Deputy Leader of the Party. Where do you judge the mood of the Party Room? Is it with the Matt Canavan net zero would smash regional economies side? Or something different?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think it's, it's a little bit premature until the Party Room has something in front of them to be able to make a decision. And that's what I think we want to be able to do. I don't think anyone in the National Party is turning their back on this. We want to have a pragmatic discussion...

FRAN KELLY: Well, it sounded like that for the last few weeks. I mean, Keith Pitt sounded pretty clear the other day on Breakfast.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, with respect, I think Keith said that we haven't seen anything. And until we see something, we're not going to commit to something - that's insanity. You actually, you actually have to be fair dinkum. You don't just blindly sign up to something. That's what, that's what the Labor Party did at the last election and they got told to go away. I mean, they've done the same thing. I mean, I would have thought that they're still- that that electoral loss would still have them in the foetal position and they wouldn't have done the same thing, but they have.

FRAN KELLY: Alright.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: But we are saying to the Australian people, we have, we have to see this, the National Party has to see this. And then our Party Room will have a mature conversation about what that looks like, and how regional and rural Australia will be impacted, or how it can be benefited.

FRAN KELLY: In Question Time yesterday, Barnaby Joyce, as the new National Party leader, was promising a laser-like focus -that was the quote - on the coal seats in the Hunter Valley and central Queensland. Doesn't that prove what many have long said? That the Nats are more the party of miners these days than farmers?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. With respect, I think that both can happen. And I think what we're saying is this is where the technology road maps important, like carbon capture storage. In fact, we've just invested $5 million in the coal fired power station Millmerran, in my own electorate, to expand their carbon capture storage. That's an exciting thing that I think, when you get back to the first principles of wanting to reduce emissions, then if you can go to the technologies - one in which the Biden administration is also trying to engage …

FRAN KELLY: If? I mean, the world's been trying to crack it for… 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD:… isn't that, isn't that a good thing?

FRAN KELLY: Yeah. I mean the world's been investing in this for a long time. And so far, we haven't had any really to, you know, to scale success in carbon capture and storage.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: But it also a mix where, not just for coal, but you can have mix of ammonia and coal in these coal fired power stations to make them even more effective. So, you know, we just shouldn't close our mind to the technologies that can reduce emissions; that can keep coal mines going here in Australia and around the world; and continue to look to invest in that technology to make things better and to live up to, not only our commitments, but to help globally.

FRAN KELLY: On another issue, you're a Queenslander, the Great Barrier Reef. UNESCO has rejected the Government's claim that it caved to political pressure when it recommended the Reef to be listed as in danger. It's also rejected the Minister, Sussan Ley's, claim that it advised her last week it would not be making such a recommendation. It all suggests the draft ruling on the Reefs has been based on science, not political interference. The Reef could be headed for endangered listing. If that doesn't focus the Nat's mind on tackling climate change, what will?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Sorry. Some of that- your question, I just didn't quite get, but I think it was around the Great Barrier Reef. Look, the UNESCO's report, let me just say, was a desktop one. And I think if it wants to continue to hold…

FRAN KELLY: Well, that's absolutely, absolutely been rejected by senior people at UNESCO.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, then they might want to demonstrate that to the Australian Government. Because there has been no inspection, as they've articulated, by the Australian Government - from what I've been advised. I'm not the Environment Minister and I'm prepared to be corrected on that. But as I've advised, there has been no formal inspection or ask of the Australian Government. So, I think there needs to be some clarification around that. But you just can't take a desktop assessment of the Great Barrier Reef, something as complex as the Great Barrier Reef, and make assertions. So …

FRAN KELLY: The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, its own report, shows that climate change has, you know, put the Reef in extreme danger.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, obviously, we are making steps, I think there's around $3 billion that have been put aside to support the Great Barrier Reef and making sure that it is there for generations to come. And I think those are the productive steps and the practical steps that this Government has taken and will continue to take. But if you're going to make assessments, you shouldn't do it from an armchair from another country…

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

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks, Fran.

FRAN KELLY: I'm sorry if you had some problems there with your audio. David Littleproud, Deputy National Party Leader and Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management.