Media conference with Michael McCormack at Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga

12 April 2021

QUESTION: Minister, can you just explain exactly what you have announced this morning?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. This, at Charles Sturt Uni, is one of eight new drought innovation hubs that we're investing in as part of the $64 million and part of the $100 million dividend every year that's being paid out through the Future Drought Fund. This will be a physical platform for research and development, not only to drought, but also to be a physical platform for our innovation systems, our research development corporations, our 15 commodity groups now also have a physical in which the research can happen right here in Wagga Wagga, right out in front of where our farmers are. We want them to adopt this technology and I'll be a challenging our RDCs now to invest that $1.1 billion that they're charged with of Australian taxpayers' money, and levy payers' money, to use these innovation hubs, to use the best and brightest, to bring our young people home. The new jobs of agriculture are right here in Wagga and right across the regional Australia.            

So I'll be challenging them to invest their research dollars into these hubs as well and I'll be saying to them as well, why aren't you out in the regions? There's no reason why your head offices should be in capital cities. There should be no reason why you're not even in one of these hubs. So, I'll be challenging our RDCs as part of our reforms around making sure that this investment is a significant one that we all play a part in.             

We're also launching today the growAG website. And this is our global platform to link our research to the rest of the world, to bring the world here, let them know what we're doing. No one's known what we've done. We've got the best and brightest here in Australia and no one has understood the research and development we're doing in agriculture and it is some of the best in the world. And so what we're trying to do is attract investment dollars on top of the $1.1 billion that the Federal Government and levy payers pay. We think there's more money that can come into this and we can really make this the next pillar of agriculture, whereby our research and development is the best in the world and we're bringing new jobs into the region.             

So an exciting opportunity of having a physical platform, but now a digital platform that's our global gateway to the world in letting them invest here in Australia in agricultural research. So a significant step in the reforms after we set that out with EY in trying to understand how we become number one. And we made a real commitment since we've got that report to follow it and to make sure we implement it. And this is a significant investment, an $8 million investment here with Charles Sturt University, one of eight. And I'm proud to say there'll be more investment in your research and development right across the country, particularly by making sure that we get commercialisation of all the great work that they're doing.

QUESTION: That $8 million investment, is that purely for this site here in Wagga Wagga or is that across this entire drought hub network?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: This is just for Wagga Wagga; $8 million for Wagga Wagga, for Charles Sturt University. And we'll be making another seven other announcements across the country. I made one in Toowoomba, USQ in Toowoomba, and they are another successful one. But there are, in every state, there will be one of these drought innovation hubs. But we also see the opportunity to ramp up for agricultural research and development. We want to get them out of the cities and into the regional universities, because if we do that, we empower the research to be adopted by our farmers right across the country. And that's what's going to increase our production to that 100 billion, is giving our farmers the tools. So it's important we continue to ramp this investment into our regional universities, trust them to deliver the best research, and then have it adopted by our farmers.

QUESTION: And what does that $8 million buy exactly?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Boots on the ground and effectively, we'll be actually complementing that very soon with some more competitive grants for our hubs, to commercialise some of the research so they'll be able to also listen to our farmers. This is the important thing is we want to know what's important to farmers. What's the research the want? Not what our scientists want, but actually what our farmers would use. And that's why it's important we have them out in the regions. So the $8 million will put boots on the ground and some of these will actually have- some of our hubs will actually have people out in communities like Longreach and Roma and Stanthorpe, whereby they'll have effectively extension offices that the states have left go, they've forgotten about. And so we'll now have boots on the ground, listening to farmers, sitting at kitchen tables, sitting in town halls, listening to the research that farmers find important and need to make them more profitable.

QUESTION: So does that, jobs? What are you talking about or is-?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: There'll be jobs, exactly. This is jobs for regional Australia. In fact, you're going to see jobs in a lot of these nodes out there that wouldn't have seen it before. And this is the exciting thing, but it's also ramping up the capacity of research here in our major- in our hubs. And that's important as well. So we'll be making sure there's boots on the ground to undertake that research that farmers see as important. And that's why you can amplify it even further by getting the RDCs to work with these hubs and not just drought research, but the research that farmers are looking for in terms of increased productivity. So this is about efficiency, getting rid of duplication of research. We're wasting a lot of money on duplication, where RDCs are all researching the same thing when we can have- get rid of that duplication and get value for money for the levy payer and the taxpayer. And this is just making sure that we get ourselves to number one sooner.

QUESTION: So, will the jobs be created by individual RDCs when they're embarking on a research project or can you say there will be 25 jobs here [indistinct] that will be created as a result of this. 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Each hub's different. So obviously it'll depend on the university in terms of how they roll that out. I know that in the one in Queensland, there will be new jobs in Stanthorpe and Roma and Longreach, and actually down in Narrabri and in fact in Lismore. So each university has a unique bid, because you've got understand geographically we're a big country and therefore each hub will have their own way in which they'll make this investment. But what we're trying to do then is say to the research development(*) corporations, your opportunity is to funnel some of that 1.1 billion. I'd like to see all of it come to regional universities to be candid. I think we've got the best and brightest out here. And I think if we make those investments in regional universities, that's what creates jobs. Money creates the jobs. And when it's going in every year, 1.1 billion, that's a lot of jobs that can be created in regional Australia. But what we had to do was give them the environment and the platform to do that. And that's what we're doing today, is investing in Charles Sturt University, University of Southern Queensland, making sure that we create that physical platform for them to do that.

QUESTION: Is this announcement in relation to the fact that the Federal Government's been criticised in recent days for not doing enough when it comes to drought policy and having a cohesive policy across the entire country?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, we have a national drought strategy that has three simple things. One in which we support the farmer in the here and now, and that's the Farm Household Allowance, putting money into people's pockets so that they can have the dignity and respect to be able to put bread and food- bread and butter on the table. It's about the communities that support them in making sure we understand that drought extends past the farm gate into the small businesses in the main street. And it's also about the future, the Future Drought Fund. We're the first government to say that the drought starts the very first day after it stops raining, and you have to prepare for that. So we created a $5 billion future fund. Tell me any other government that's ever come up with that idea. Sorry, your question has no veracity whatsoever. There is nearly $11 billion that the Australian taxpayer has committed to Australian farmers and the communities that are impacted by them through this drought. No government has done any more than this one. So the question has no premise of veracity whatsoever. 

QUESTION: How long will the Wagga hub be able to sustain itself on the back of that $8 million grant? How many years?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well the Future Fund dividend of $100 million goes on for perpetuity. We made sure it was legislated. The other mob said, let's just put it in appropriation bills. And what happens when the other mob gets in is the Treasurer of the other mob normally goes, oh, we've run out of money. Where can I take it from? There's $100 million dividend coming out of this drought fund, I might just put that into something in the city. We've legislated. The $100 million goes out every year. 
           
And this will be the premise, the basis of where that funding should go every year. And in fact I can't determine where that $400 million goes. But the board of the Future Fund wants to see this actually amplified. And in fact, more money go into our research and development. And that's why we'll be making some further announcements very soon about grant money.
           
But also, that's why it's important our RDCs start to invest in this, because we're just giving the baseline. The opportunity for growth is significant if we coordinate this with our Research Development Corporations. If some of that $1.1 billion, in fact, all at $1.1 billion came into our regional universities, we'd be [indistinct].

QUESTION: Minister, you were talking about jobs, boots on the ground. The Australia's reporting Andrew Laming hasn't recalled his nomination for pre-selection for Bowman. Would you expect him to do that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's a matter for Andrew Laming. But as a Queenslander, let me tell you that the LNP will have a vetting process and I would expect that process to run its course.

QUESTION: Well, a number of women in the Coalition have said that they don't feel comfortable with him in the party room. So, do you think that he should be dumped immediately?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think I'll leave the LNP in Queensland to make that determination, which I think could be as early as today. 

QUESTION: I'm just wondering, when- is there a known point at when the Wagga drought research innovation hub would have to have its funding renewed to continue its work? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, this is a four-year investment and then obviously, we will continue to top that up as part of the Future Drought Fund and any other programs that we want to run out. I think it's going to be important that as we start to build these hubs, I think it's important to appreciate that we'll have to probably invest more, probably also into physical infrastructure. And that's not a bad problem to have, particularly if they're in regional centres. So, that's the exciting thing that I think if we build this, it will come and it will grow. And then that's what I think we should be excited about, that our farmers should be excited about because they're going to finally get to see, feel and touch the research that they're meant to use, instead of being locked away in some sandstone university in a capital city.

QUESTION: So just to clarify that $8 million doesn't built the physical building, it's all for research and development?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Exactly. So, the physical infrastructure is already in part of their bid. The universities already have a physical infrastructure there. But as we continue to grow this, I think, there's going to be a need in the future for us to co-invest in infrastructure on these universities and in some of the nodes that we have across the country as well, not just at the university themselves. And that's why we'll work with the universities in these hubs. But this is the exciting thing, is that I think these hubs, this is day one of our hubs actually ramping up into something quite significant right across regional Australia. And that's the piece that I'm excited about, is about regional universities getting their fair share and actually being front and centre of agricultural research. 

QUESTION: How soon will farmers who are paying these RDC levies get to see the results when it comes to this research?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, they're already seeing it, the research that's already been done, but this actually builds on it and that's what it's about, is making sure that we get that value for money. And I think that making sure there's no further duplication, that's why growAG's an important piece of the cog as well. growAG's important so that we can eliminate the duplication, the reform around a single body oversighting our RDCs and making sure that there isn't duplication, that commercialisation is ramped up because that's the other opportunity. 

It's not just RDC money, but the commercialisation. International players coming here, spending their money on our research. That - and they've never really had that opportunity that it's been coordinated for them before. And that's the exciting piece about getting them to cut a cheque rather than just the Australian taxpayer and the levy payer. We can also get a cheque cut by a lot of commercial entities and foreign states.

QUESTION: Kay Hull mentioned that siloed approach. Would you say that RDCs have worked in the silo mentality for many years?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: In the past, I think they have. And that's something that was identified in the EY report. You can't sugar coat it. But the leadership that they've shown in coming on this journey with me, in making sure that we're reformed shows the maturity of our RDCs; that they were prepared to understand that there was more work that needed to be done, that we had to get back to first principles, which is value to the levy payer, value to the taxpayer to get commercialisation and to stop duplication. It's as simple as that. It's not rocket science. And they've led it with me because doing nothing was not an option and I made that clear to them. And then to have what Kay Hull and AgriFutures have done with the growAG platform is - it is an enormous step forward in reducing that duplication.

QUESTION: I've just got a couple of questions for the Deputy Prime Minister, if that's all right. So, Minister McCormack …

MICHAEL MCCORMACK: [Talks over] Yep.

QUESTION: … with regards to vaccines and the federal rollout, will the Federal Government put a timeframe on when Australians will be vaccinated?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK: No, well the Prime Minister has quite clearly indicated last night, we're not going to put a timeframe on it, but we'd like as many Australians, all Australians to be as vaccinated as soon as possible. And of course, last week we secured an extra 20 million Pfizer doses. 
           
This is the largest peacetime logistical exercise in Australia's history. And I urge and encourage Australians to get vaccinated. And I'm so pleased and proud that David Littleproud and I are colleagues of Mark Coulton, the Regional Health Minister, who's made sure that regional Australians will be vaccinated at the same time and in the same schedule and at the same pace as our metropolitan friends.

QUESTION: You've acknowledged that the Prime Minister won't put a timeline on the rollout, do you think - or is the Government trying to avoid further responsibility for further delays?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK: Well, we've secured enough vaccines to cover all Australians and indeed, our South Pacific Island friends as well. We've done the right thing. And the important thing too is to acknowledge that if you want to live anywhere in the world, Australia is the best place to live. And if you want to live anywhere in Australia, regional Australia is the safest place as far as COVID-19 is concerned. 

Now, they're still getting case rates at tens of thousands overseas. Well, today there's six new cases; yesterday, eight cases. The day before that, six cases. The day before that, there was only five new cases. Compare that to anywhere else in the world where they're getting thousands, if not tens of thousands of new community transmission cases each and every day. I know where I'd rather live, that's Australia. It's regional Australia.

QUESTION: You're talking about Australia being, you know, the best place in the world to be dealing with coronavirus. And I think the vaccine rollout is a key part of that. The Government acknowledges that. So, don't-- doesn't the Government have a responsibility to follow up on that sales pitch, that Australia is the best place in the world with the vaccine delivery?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK: It's not just a sales pitch. It's actually- it's actually keeping Australians safe. It's actually keeping Australians in jobs and making sure the economy continues to have the outcomes that it needs, to have the health outcomes that it needs. And that's why we've been very clear and very articulate in what we've said all the way through. It was unfortunate that some of the cases, some of the vials were held up overseas and it almost became a case of every country scrambling to do what it could for itself. 
           
But what we've done is we've also got that sovereign manufacturing capability at CSL in Melbourne. We'll make sure that we produce the right number of vaccines. We'll make sure that we purchase the right number of vaccines so that every Australian and everyone in the Pacific Rim indeed receives a vaccine. 
           
And that's because we're a responsible country and that's because we're a caring country. And that's because we put Australian and Pacific Island people first and we'll do that in a responsible way. We'll do that in as quick as possible way as we can. We've got, of course, Linfox and DHL transferring those vaccines right across the country. You heard David Littleproud before, talking about the drought resilience hubs and how Australia geographically is a huge country. We'll just compare Australia to any European country as far as size wise and you can see how large this task is for getting vaccines, not only right across regional Australia, but indeed, very remote Australia. And I'm proud as the Deputy Prime Minister to say, we've not had cases in Aboriginal communities, in remote Indigenous communities. And I'll tell you what, that's a pretty, pretty proud effort by Australia. We've kept those communities COVID-free and we're getting the vaccine out as quick as we can.

QUESTION: Okay. Talking about the Federal Government behaving responsibly. Did the Federal Government, particularly the Energy Minister, Angus Taylor, pressure the Australian Energy Market Operator to back its plan for a gas-fired recovery?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK: Well, of course, the gas-fired recovery is just part, one part of our overall energy mix. Yes, we've- we're very much banking on a gas-fired recovery. But, also coal is going to play an important part, as are renewables. We want to have a diverse mix - 

QUESTION: Sorry, I'll just ask again. You can say that you don't know if you don't know. But, in terms of the pressure put by the government on the Australian Energy Market Operator, are you aware of that happening? 

MICHAEL MCCORMACK: I'll back Angus Taylor every day of the week. He's doing a good job. We're making sure that we've got the right emphasis, in the right places, to get the right amount of energy that we need for Australians. The important thing is to have reliable, affordable energy. That's what we've always been focussed on as a government, that's what we'll continue to do. 

QUESTION: And do you believe that that's the right approach for the Government, despite energy experts continuing to argue gas isn't the best plan for the nation? 

MICHAEL MCCORMACK: Well, you can ask experts about anything. But we're running the country, we're the Government and of course, it's always easy to find an expert who's going to have a view contrary to the Government. I'm sure there'll be probably people with contrary views to what we're doing as far as decentralisation are concerned. And you can see the benefits of decentralisation right where we stand. There's many critics of decentralisation, there's many critics of our energy policies. But, we were the elected government. We went to the election with our policies clearly spelled out and enunciated. And we're making sure that through COVID, through drought, through bushfires, that we place the right emphasis in the right areas and we get Australians through all the things that are set against us.

QUESTION: I'll just ask finally on that topic. You said you'd back Angus Taylor. If it's true that he pressured the energy market operator through discussions to back this particular plan, is that an appropriate way for the government to behave?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK: We said all along that we'd have a gas-fired recovery as one part of our energy mix. Angus Taylor is the Energy Minister. And you know what? We don't send politicians to Canberra to have bureaucrats running the show. We send politicians to Canberra to make decisions for and on behalf of Australians. And that's what we're doing; whether it's through the travel agents, where we're backing through COVID-19, whether it's through our farmers who are the world's best. We're making sure, as National Party members, that we're backing them all the way. We're making sure that when it comes to funding regional programs, that we do the right thing and that ministers make the decisions. Not bureaucrats, not people who aren't elected, who are faceless people who sit behind a desk and albeit do a very, very good job for and on behalf of the department. But it's the ministers who make the decisions. It's the politicians who are sent to Canberra to represent their regions, who are the ones entrusted to do that job.

QUESTION: Surely, [indistinct] would be, you know, a little silly not to take the advice of a bureaucrat, who perhaps knows their stuff a little bit more than the Minister? 

MICHAEL MCCORMACK: Well, that's your view. As I say, I back Angus Taylor. He's- he is the elected Minister for Energy. He's doing a very good job to keep energy prices down, to put downward pressure. Now we can go, as David calls them, that other mob; they could put a carbon tax in, we can push energy prices up. We can make sure that we don't have the right mix of energy to continue to run Tomago, and other- and aluminium smelters, to run Gladstone. But, you know what? As Liberals and Nationals, we'll always back affordable, reliable energy. We'll make sure that we continue to put downward pressure on energy prices; whether it's for households, whether it's for businesses, whether it's for farms, for factories and we'll do it in a responsible way to make sure that we also have that- those environmental outcomes.

QUESTION: Just one final question, just because we're talking about the responsibility of politicians to go to Canberra…

MICHAEL MCCORMACK: Sorry, could you start the question again?

QUESTION: Yes. So, you're talking about the responsibility of politicians to go to Canberra to represent their electorates, represent the Australian people. How concerned are you about the latest allegations levelled at Ben Roberts-Smith, which aired on 60 Minutes last night and in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK: [Interrupts] Look, I didn't watch the episode. Ben Roberts-Smith, of course, has our highest honour, the Victoria Cross. I'll allow the processes that are in place to play out. That's only fair. I mean, Ben Roberts-Smith was sent to Afghanistan, to the Middle East to do a job for and on behalf of Australians. And he certainly did that. He was honoured with the highest award of valour that any Australian could possibly receive. And if there are allegations against him, then they should play out in the proper processes. Everybody is certainly innocent until proven otherwise in this country and the media should respect that and appreciate that there's a lot to play out in this regard. 
           
It also would be remiss of me not to point out as well that my gratitude to the Tourism Minister, Dan Tehan, for making sure that we've made the necessary changes, thanks to the Nationals, to travel agents. Now, I fought very hard, as did David around the Cabinet table and our National Party Cabinet colleagues, to make sure that we had the right measures in place for our travel agents, many of whom are women, running business operations in regional Australia. The fact is, there's thousands upon thousands of travel agents who were going to be at risk, but for the efforts of the National Party and particularly Kevin Hogan and Pat Conaghan, who advocated all the way through to make sure that we had the right measures in place and the right funding to keep our travel agents afloat. They've been hard hit by the aviation downturn. Aviation, of course, was hit first and hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. And of course, we've been able to, as National Party members, make sure that the travel agents got the right assistance - $128 million in the first package, which because of arrangements through the Australian Taxation Office, didn't go out to all the travel agents who so desperately needed that financial assistance. Well, we went back to the table, as you'd expect National Party members to do. And we got another $132 million to make sure that those small operators, particularly in regional Australia, are going to get the assistance through a tiered system that they so desperately need to keep afloat. I mean, poor old travel agents, it's a bit difficult for them when all they're doing largely at the moment is refunding people's tourism packages and programs. 
           
So, I'm delighted that as part of the of the Government's assistance through COVID-19 recovery that those travel agents have $260 million and that will be going to the many of those regional operators, who do such a fine job. And as part of the $1.2 billion tourism package, 800,000 flights, half price flights to get people back in the air, to get them to those areas that so desperately need people, tourists alike.