Address to the NFF National Conference, 5 April 2022

5 April 2022

Well, thanks, Liz. Can I acknowledge the traditional owners and all the people on the land in which we meet? Can I acknowledge each and every one of you for the contribution you've made to your country, particularly over the last couple of years? But in particular, can I single out the President and CEO of NFF for their leadership, their leadership of Australian agriculture, and let me say how important that is to have a strong peak body that can walk the halls of Canberra and has the currency and validity of what Fiona and Tony have been able to articulate on behalf of you.

It's a great achievement because the fragmentation of your representative bodies only weakens agriculture, so it's important you have a united voice, a strong voice, that carries the weight of Australian agriculture. And to create a vision, a goal of $100 billion by 2030 was an ambitious one. And to think that where we've come from, in just six years, from around $47 billion to now, for the first time in our nation's history, we will tick $80 billion.

That is an achievement in the face of fire, flood, drought, cyclone, mice, and this little thing called COVID. We've done the job. We've paid the bills. We've kept the country going. And that's an acknowledgement that I think Australians have been wanting to, the importance of regional, rural Australia.

And I acknowledge now the ambitious plan that NFF has put in front of us as an election commitment. Well, I'm not going to make election commitments and promises. We're going to act. And we acted in this year's Budget: $21 billion worth of investment in regional and rural Australia. Australians have awoken to the important role that regional rural Australia plays, and particularly agriculture plays, and that's about putting the environment and infrastructure around you and then getting the hell out of your life as quickly as you possibly can.

That's about making sure we have trade agreements. And this time last week, free trade agreement number 16 with India – 1.3 billion people, a burgeoning middle class that you will now be able to tap into. We've had challenges with some of our trading partners, we acknowledge that, but we will never take a step back on our values and principles of this country, our democracy.

Over 100,000 Australians have lost their lives defending it. We won't trade it away, but what we will do is give you the opportunity to trade elsewhere. These trade agreements that are giving us the opportunities [indistinct] left and right. We have. We’ve open up new markets and [indistinct] a free trade agreement with the UK, with Indonesia, $270 million that are [indistinct] on our doorstep. These are the types of free trade agreements that are giving you opportunity.

We're putting more boots on the ground in terms of agricultural counsellors, breaking down technical barriers, making it easier, and we have a digital platform for our trading system that allows you to have your own profile, to engage with the Department of Agriculture, so that they can tell you where you can export to, to simplify, to empower you not to be forced to sell to a couple of big supermarkets here in Australia [indistinct], but to give you the power to decide, to give you the opportunity to grow your wealth. And we're doing that also by protecting your brand.

Over $1.1 billion worth of investment in biosecurity in the last three budgets done over the last 18 months. We're embracing technology and intelligence to protect you and protect your brand. 3D x-ray scans going over every one of 144 million parcels that go through Australia Post. The artificial intelligence that we designed here in Australia, and now we're taking that to the world, partnering with New Zealand. So we’ll know [indistinct] back before you leave New Zealand.

We're also making sure that we're facing up to the evolving threats that keep coming [indistinct]. We need industry to work with us. We’re going to have to take some bold steps and we have to continue to be agile. And that's why, in the Budget, a further $61 million to address this, to make sure we have greater surveillance, but also have boots on the ground in Indonesia and now already in Timor. Some of these threats will blow in, literally, and that is where we need coordination and effort between state and federal governments and industry.

We all have a role to play. But we have – and the thing that I am proud of – is the fact that Tony articulated quite clearly the number of incursions we've found that shows that $1.1 billion is working [indistinct]. The system is starting to step up to the evolving threat because we're evolving with it. And I'm proud to say yesterday, I met with the Inspector-General for Biosecurity. He made it very clear that we’ve made a financial commitment and even in the Department of Agriculture the tools to do their job for the threats that we face at the moment at the moment, and we need to continue to evolve with that. And we will move towards a cost recovery model.

But unlike agriculture, there have been many industries that rely on the Department of Agriculture that are forced to bring their products in. And they haven't done it as easy, as what the agriculture sector has. And so we've worked through that, and we've got them to appreciate that a cost recovery model will come to where the risk is greatest. But we need to understand that they've been going through some pretty trying times, and that we're going to face that in a responsible way to those employers to make sure that they pay for the risk that they present to Australian agriculture and to the environment.

But also on the Budget, we made over $21 billion for the infrastructure commitments, and we have identified regions of growth. We've done that also with Northern Australia [indistinct]. We have picked too many winners too far across the country. It's time to identify and prioritise. This isn't saying that those wages that we picked in this budget don't get any. There are many programs that are eligible for it, but this is about shifting the dollar and shifting the dollar quickly. We are spending more money. This is Australian taxpayers’ money that we are spending and we must get a return on investment. And to get a return on investment, we need to shift the dollar quickly in terms of taking risky investment because it's not the good old taxpayer that has to pay for everything.

We need the private sector, the private capital to come in and partner with us. But by de-risking the supply chains, infrastructure gaps, making sure that we get the product either from a pit or a paddock through a port or the airplane is imperative. And the quicker we do that, the more efficient we do that, the more money you make. The quicker we repay the debt; the more people we employ. Governments don’t create jobs, you do. The only jobs we create you pay for. So it’s important that we put that infrastructure and we prioritise those areas of growth, those regions of growth that will accelerate our growth. They’ll continue to take our economy to being the envy of the world coming out of the biggest pandemic we have seen in generations. We’ve got a lot to be proud of, but we’ve got a lot to do.

$7.4 billion in water infrastructure. This has to be a partnership with the states. But you know what? We’re not going to ask them to come and check anymore, we’re just going to ask them to approve it. The time for talk is over. The time to burn some diesel and dig some holes is now. And the Australian Government is saying we will pay it, we will [indistinct] those investments to build the water infrastructure that will take this nation and take agriculture to the next level.

This isn’t just about agriculture. [Indistinct] say that by 2030 that we have 37 per cent reduction in storage capacity per person per mega-litre of water for you people that live in capital cities, because the population has gone up but no one’s bothered to invest in water infrastructure. So your amenity, even living in Canberra or Brisbane or Sydney or Melbourne, will be challenged by your ability to turn the tap off because they don’t have the storage capacity. The time to talk is over. We’ve cut the cheque. It’s time for states to dig the holes.

We're the first country in the world to be able to measure biodiversity. If I leave one legacy, apart from the Ag Visa, the Biodiversity Stewardship Programme is one that I am most proud of. No other country in the world has been able to crack the code but us. And we own this intellectual property and the rest of the world now wants it. We're going to pay farmers not just for carbon. That's a blunt issue. That's a theme a couple of decades old now. Australians are smarter and we’ve moved post that.

We’re going to reward farmers financially, not just for carbon abatement, but we've created a voluntary market where they can be paid for biodiversity. We'll be launching a brand seal that you’ll be able to put on your beef, on your wool, on your grain, on your sugar. It’ll be recognised around the world. We're not waiting for the world to set the rules. We're setting them now. We're setting them with the best minds in Australia right here in creating a Biodiversity Stewardship Programme that is world class and world first and it’s now time for corporate Australia to step up.

To step up and to actually, as part of their [indistinct], is to be honest with their shareholders and be honest about where they are purchasing their carbon credits and their biodiversity certification credits that we have created as part of our legislation, to not shirt their responsibilities, not to buy an acre of the Amazon that they can't validate, but to support Australian agriculture in a sustainable way. A sustainable way where it doesn't take away productive landscape but rewards farmers, the stewardship, the landscape that they need to manage, that isn’t productive and gives them a passive income stream. We're done. We're the first ones there.

And it's not just the good old taxpayer that has to put liquidity into this. This is corporate Australia’s opportunity to shine, to support regional Australia, but to get their social conscience where it should be, and to do it publicly and transparently. I’m pleased to say we're ahead of the curve on that.

In terms of telecommunications, there's been billions of dollars spent in telecommunications, in this budget alone another $1.3 billion. We’ve spent a lot of your money on regional telecommunications. Some of the traditional providers have really vacated space. We shouldn't continue to put money into platforms that continue to let us down. So it's time to think differently about how we use that $1.3 billion and the more money that will come to ensure that we have the tools of the 21st century. There will be hard conversations with some of our traditional providers. We can regulate our way out of this or we can get some competition.

It's time for us to shift the dial in terms of telecommunications, to think differently, because if we keep doing the same thing over and over again, we'll get the same results. And this is your money that we are putting out there and we haven't got the results. With over 1200 mobile phone towers that we've put up over the last three years, that risk in becoming [indistinct]. So it's time to think about how we do this properly into the future and how we spend your money to get a return on investment. And can I say labour force is the biggest constraint on our industry at the moment. I'm proud to say that I never gave up on an Ag Visa.

The National Party never gave up on an Ag Visa. We had to fight bloody hard for it, but we won it. And let me tell you, we put it in place on the 1 October. It isn't capped. It's not a capped programme. This is a demand driven programme that you, the farmer will decide. It complements the Pacific schemes of those 50,000 men and women who are sitting on the tarmac in many Pacific nations now ready to come. But it's broader than agriculture. You can go into other industries.

This is specifically for you; skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers. And Vietnam is the first country to sign up. And what an [indistinct] is, Is the implementation process. It’s now up to [indistinct] to sign a [indistinct] with the approved employers and the labour hire companies that we value to give them the go ahead to walk into Vietnam and start bringing the workers in. It’s nothing new, we’ve already [indistinct]. So we're ready to go. It'll be a demand driven process. This is important that we got this on the table. This is about delivering, not promising.

And that's why today and over the last four off years I've been Agriculture Minister, I didn’t want to be promising the world, I want to leave a legacy. A legacy, no matter what happens after the election, no matter whether I'm sitting in the chair or someone else is sitting in the chair. The only legacy that I can stand by is one that I know who comes after me maintains the direction that I put in place. That's a legacy to me. That's a legacy to an industry that I love and work no other place but in.

I represent regional and rural Australia. And can I say that the greatest professional honour that I've ever been given is to become your Agriculture Minister. To represent agriculture, not for anything that I’d lead but just for everything you do. So on behalf of a grateful nation, for all you've done and all you will do, thank you.