Interview with Leigh Sales, ABC 7.30

24 October 2019

LEIGH SALES: Minister, thanks for your time.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. Great to be with you.

LEIGH SALES: Just a basic question to start – how many farmers in Australia are affected by drought?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: By drought? Well, look, in essence, we all are across the eastern seaboard - there’s over 80,000 primary producers right across the country. The majority of our primary producers are on the eastern seaboard, so they’re in the tens of thousands. And the essence is that the degree that they are impacted varies from state to state and from region to region, and that’s why our strategy has to be one that is evolving. Our three pillar strategy is evolving to make sure that we add another layer to that as this drought escalates and we continue to do that.

LEIGH SALES: Of that 80,000, how many people are needing sort of, I guess, active government assistance?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: There’s a suite of measures. So, obviously, there’s around 20 measures that the Federal Government has enacted. The main one around Farm Household Allowance. There’s-

LEIGH SALES: [Interrupts] But how many people- sorry, because I want it to be clear to viewers. How many farms of the 80,000 are requiring active government assistance?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, at this stage, for Farm House Allowance, which is one of the suite of measures, the one of 20 suite of measures, there’s around 3000 or 4000 that have been on it. There’s another 6 or 7 that have come off it over a period of time. This has been something that’s been in place for some considerable time. But it’s only one of the suite of measures under the three pillars of the here and now, the community, and the future in part of our policy of tackling this drought, and something that has been in action for some time. The drought has lingered on for up to eight years now in some parts.

LEIGH SALES: Well, on that point, the National Farmers' Federation has been criticising the absence of a cohesive national drought policy. This Government has been in power since 2013. As you point out, we were already into the drought when you were elected. Why have so many announcements been made ad hoc as if the crisis is unexpected?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, tackling drought is like going up a set of stairs. As the drought escalates, you take another step up. But it is based on the three foundation pillars of the here and now- putting money in farmers’ pockets through Farm Household Allowance, concessional loans, saving them tens of thousands of dollars of interest. The second pillar around understanding communities also hurt; that drought just doesn’t stay at the farm gate, it goes right in the community. So we’ve stimulated the communities. But for the first time, we’ve done a proper job about our third pillar of looking to the future. Previously, we’ve given over $500 million in tax concessions through farm management deposits to try and build resilience. But now, we started with the Future Drought Fund that will pay a dividend in the good and bad, as well as building the water infrastructure to capture the rain when it comes and harvest it properly and be able to build resilience between periods of droughts.

So, we have a drought strategy in action and I can speak with some authority, because my electorate has been in drought longer than any other in this country. So, I can speak with some authority that our drought strategy is in action and is working. But we will not stop there and we would ask the states, who also have commitments in this, to come with us.

LEIGH SALES: As I mentioned, the National Farmers' Federation has been really critical. We’ve heard farmers themselves be critical. People like Barnaby Joyce have been critical. I’m just wondering if every time you and other senior Government ministers say: well look, we’re doing such a great job with the drought response, are you risking making farmers who are affected angrier and angrier because they don’t feel like that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, obviously, the only thing that will fix this is rain and I can’t make it rain. I haven’t met anyone that can. The reality is that, as I’ve said, tackling drought is like going up a set of stairs – as it escalates, you take another step. And that’s what we’ve continued to do, we will continue to undertake that process. And that’s why we go out and listen. And while people want to criticise us for going out and listening, that’s how we get an effective response. And it changes and it’s more complex in addressing drought than other natural disasters because you’re just not rebuilding a road or bridge. A drought depletes landscapes and bank balances and then it creeps through the economies of these small communities. So that’s why you have to escalate your response and that’s what we’ve been doing.

LEIGH SALES: You mentioned rain. Is part of the problem that we have developed our drought policy thinking: well, we just have to tide people over until it rains. Does that thinking need a wholesale review?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. Because that’s why we have the third pillar around the future. We’ve made sure that we continue to invest. Previously with tax concessions around getting farmers in the good years to put money away in the farm management deposits and invest in infrastructure to store fodder; now taking it a step further with the Future Fund that’ll give them even greater tools around research and development and making sure that extension work is extended to them so they understand what those tools are and how they can be benefitted by that research.

So, we are continuing to move with this and we are looking to the next drought while still addressing this drought through our first pillar.

LEIGH SALES: The Government has a report from the National Drought Coordinator, Major General Stephen Day. Why is it being kept a secret?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, obviously we are working through that in terms of our next response and we’ll be making-

LEIGH SALES: [Interrupts] Yeah but he’s paid by the taxpayer to do work for the taxpayer - why can’t the taxpayer see it, particularly given the urgency of the situation?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, the taxpayer will see it and very soon. Very soon. In fact, next week, Cabinet will meet to look at our next suite of measures. We’ve also- we’re working with the NFF to make sure that we respect them and we wanted to work with them to see if they could add anything to our drought strategy, our three pillars. And we’ll work with them constructively and anyone else that wants to be constructive in terms of formulating further additions to our drought strategy.

LEIGH SALES: Is this the kind of issue, and the steps you take next, the kind of thing that could split the Coalition along National-Liberal lines? Your colleague Barnaby Joyce certainly seemed to be implying so.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think we’re all passionate, particularly National Party members who are feeling it greatly because we’re on the ground, our electorates are invariably the ones that are being impacted by this and we want to see that our people are looked after. And it’s not just the Federal Government that has a responsibility, it’s also the states and we’ve got to be clear on that – that that’s a partnership – and the states have to step up. And we intend to continue to do that. We’ve made a commitment we’ll do more. We’ve said that. The Prime Minister has been very clear on that. And it’s important that we continue to work constructively with one another and anyone else that wants to come forward and help promote ideas that will ease the burden.

LEIGH SALES: David Littleproud, thank you very much.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Great to be with you.

LEIGH SALES: Thanks very much, Minister.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No worries. Thanks.