Interview with Warwick Long, ABC Country Hour Victoria

11 October 2021

WARWICK LONG: But we'll talk to wool industry, which was called into a meeting by the Federal Agriculture Minister last week and told to sort itself out by Christmas. Division and anger over spending by producer-owned organisation Australian Wool Innovation and the ability of the industry to embrace new technology or defend itself against animal welfare claims have been rife in recent years. And Minister David Littleproud says change will now be coming to how AWI will be allowed to operate, but he wants the industry to sort itself out first. I spoke to the Minister a short time ago.
Minister, welcome to the Country Hour.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, thanks for having me.

WARWICK LONG: You met with the wool industry last week, the round table. You told us you were going to do that. What did you say?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, look, I made it clear this is their industry, they need to lead it, and they needed to leave all the issues and all the personalities at the door and to work on a basis of growing industry. And the polarisation between groups, and particularly AWI, had to stop. And I've been clear with AWI around that, that there are cultural and structural issues that need to be addressed. And to their credit, Jock Laurie didn't throw his toys out of the cot. He said: yep, okay, well let's find a way in which to address that, the culture and structure. The culture is what he and the board have to address. The structure, I intend to address.

WARWICK LONG: I spoke to some of the people on the call. They said that you told them you shouldn't have to sort out AWI and the wool industry's problems, but you felt you needed to.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I had to, because the leadership of the fragmentation of the industry, and particularly around AWI. Now I do have to get involved, and AWI is involved, because the Australian taxpayer pays half the bill there, and I represent this Australian taxpayer. But with respect to the industry coming together, I challenge them, and in fact, I've written to all those stakeholders to tell me what consultation looks like. Define it for me, so that there is a process that is transparent, that they know where their levy dollars are being paid- being spent and why it's being spent. So that's where industry needs to lead. With respect to AWI, I'll be changing, as a result of this feedback from stakeholders and peak bodies, I'll be changing the funding agreements with- not just AWI, but all the RDCs, all 15 commodities, and say: this is what good process looks like. This is the final piece of the innovation reforms that we're putting in place. And that's about making sure we get back to that first principle of value to levy payer, value to the taxpayer.

WARWICK LONG: You told the wool industry to sort out their problems by Christmas, because you didn't want to deal with these issues in caretaker mode before the next election. Do you think the wool industry will heed this warning?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, it's not just them. What that is, my statements were around the fact that I wanted to finish that, the structural reforms to the RDC. So that's my work to do, to be candid, and I'll be doing that. If they don't come back with any changes or any advice on the consultation process, well I'll get what they're given. But by Christmas, I intend to have all the reforms of our research development, our innovation systems complete, because we've got to be honest, we're going to election next year, and I want to make sure that I leave a legacy of reforming this. This is the final piece of it. But industry has a role to play, and they can.

WARWICK LONG: We're speaking to Agriculture Minister David Littleproud. He's just met with the wool industry about some of the problems in the industry and also the way forward on some of the issues. Minister, let's turn quickly to some of those issues now. Are you happy with the government investment in the controversial WoolQ program?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's a decision that AWI was able to make. It's well within their remit. But I think there are questions that need to be asked about reviewing and stopping and going further in understanding where that's evolved to. And I think any good corporate governance would could that through the lens of: well, am I getting value to the levy payer and to the taxpayer? They were well within their rights to start the process, but I think it's important that they actually demonstrate in a transparent way to the levy payers and to the taxpayer about whether this actually has legs or not. If it doesn't, that's okay. We shouldn't lambaste anyone for failing. If they've had a go, that is a decision that needs to be…

WARWICK LONG: Do you think we're at the point where they need- they should realise it's time to exit the investment in WoolQ?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's why I think a mature industry and a good culture of AWI would transparently sit back down with those stakeholders, as I do, and explain where they are, what the decision making process is, and the why. That's all we're saying. And I don't think any of those producer groups are being unreasonable. They simply want to understand the why.

WARWICK LONG: Is the government looking at how to get more shearers into the country?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we already have. So, shearing has been classified as a critical skill, and therefore anyone can bring a shearer in at the moment, with the exemption from the Australian border force commissioner, so he can provide that exemption for a visa. So if people find someone from a country where- no matter where they are- we're waiting on advice back from the Immigration Minister in terms of whether there's some further reforms of PLS and SWP that can be implemented. But effectively, the way that we are transitioning into that system, there is an opportunity to do that. The ag visa will pick these up for the countries that sign up and we're just finalising some of those bilaterals now. And so as soon as those countries sign up, well, there'll be an opportunity to bring those workers in through the ag visa as well.

WARWICK LONG: Would you be part of a government that banned the practise of mulesing? There's a number of lobby groups and corporations trying to put pressure on you right now.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, no, I'm not going to ban mulesing. I think that's the role of AWI, is to provide a solution, a scientific and technical solution. That's what the levy payer is paying for. And that's what I've made very clear. And that's why I want to make sure policy direction from the government is very clear to AWI: I'm not banning it, so do your job and get it fixed. Find a solution, give the industry comfort, give markets comfort around how we can do this, and do this safely, with animal welfare at the centre of it.

WARWICK LONG: You've now had to call the wool industry in for a meeting. There's outrage in the dairy industry because a select group of people have not even offered a lower or zero levy option for the upcoming dairy pole. So are these examples of why your structural change to how RDCs operate is needed?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think, unfortunately, there's always going to be some tension. We would understand that. People- and levy payers have got to understand their bright idea may not get prioritised every year. And that's- we've got to be pragmatic about that. But this is where the process has to be transparent. When you're spending that levy payer dollar, as well as taxpayers' dollar, is understanding and explaining why. And I don't think that's fair. And that's why I want to fix that process, so that there is better communications, understanding of why they've chosen one over the other. But there's good- the structures are in place for levy payers. And with respect to the dairy, there is a process whereby the recommendations put by that group that came up with the levy recommendations, growers can in fact look to change that. And that process is available to them.
And that's why, again, as the government is trying to make sure there's an environment for that to be challenged, that there's a transparent way, that ultimately there is democracy, which is at the cornerstone of our decisions on these things, there is a process.
Now, whether there's been a fall down in this in terms of the consultation group that has put forward these levies, then those are the questions that we'll answer in the future. But there's a mechanism already in place for those in the dairy industry that don't like what's happened, to actually challenge it.

WARWICK LONG: In your opinion, should have the dairy industry just offered a lower or zero option?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think- obviously I don't like to get into the middle of this. I think this is where if you've got a mature industry that is consulting widely with its producers, understanding their producers' financial predicament, where the industry is and making sure they're getting value for money, I think what would be wise is that process would then give cover and comfort and understanding to the levy payer as to why.

WARWICK LONG: Would you call in dairy like you called in wool?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I haven't had the necessity at the moment. The industry themselves are trying to work through this. I'm going to give them scope. I don't need to be in every bun fight. I've got enough to work through myself. But if industry wants it- and obviously, I made it clear to the wool industry, after talking to Jock Laurie, that I would make myself available to bring them together. And to his credit, he said, yes, I think that's a good idea. Now, if wool wants me to do it- sorry, dairy wants me to do it, well, I'm happy to do that as well.

WARWICK LONG: Thanks for coming back on the Country Hour.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Anytime mate. Great to be with you.
[End of excerpt]

WARWICK LONG: That is the Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud speaking there.