Media conference at ABARES Outlook Conference, Canberra

3 March 2020

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, despite some of the biggest headwinds agriculture's faced - we've seen agricultural income drop from 62 billion to 59. That just shows the resilience of the agricultural sector. The fact that we faced up to floods in north-west Queensland; we lost nearly 500,000 head; then we've gone into drought, a prolonged drought in some parts for over eight years; and now with the fires and the coronavirus, agriculture has shown that it has solid foundations in which to grow and to start to reach that hundred billion goal by 2030.

And we'll continue to make sure that we put the environment and infrastructure around the agriculture sector to do that, because it's important to this nation's economy and it’s important to regional and rural Australia. And what these conferences, while they will highlight some of the challenges, we can't fall into the trap of talking agriculture down because when we do that we talk young people out of a future in agriculture. 

And there is a bright future for agriculture whether that be on the farm or the new jobs; the new jobs of innovation, the science, technology that we are world leading in, but we can do better. I want to challenge our innovation systems to do better, to be number one by 2030. It's not a lofty goal because what we're relying on is our Australian scientists, our people, the best and brightest in the world to simply do better about collaborating and commercialising what they do to make this a centre of excellence for the world, right here in Australia for agriculture science and technology. 

It's also about making sure that we do our bit for the environment. Our farmers are the greatest environmental stewards of their land and they should be rewarded for that and so we'll be working up by the end of the year, I've got an assurance by the department and from ANU that we can get a model put up by the end of the year on a Biodiversity Stewardship Fund. 

We cannot mess around with this. This is an opportunity for farmers to be rewarded for the stewardship of their land and they should by. Government shouldn't try and impose draconian vegetation management laws and put that- bank that credit in their pockets – it’s farmers doing the heavy lifting and I intend to put in place a mechanism that rewards them for that. 

So there's enormous opportunities for agriculture. I think we've got to make sure each and every one of us articulates quite clearly, be loud and proud about the fact that we are a significant portion of the Australian economy that's doing a lot of heavy lifting and we'll do a lot more with just a bit of rain.

QUESTION: Minister, the Biodiversity Stewardship Fund, you mentioned a seal, that's one thing you mentioned I believe.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I'm sorry?

QUESTION: I think you mentioned a seal saying that you've achieved a level of biodiversity. But it's the idea also that farmers would get paid by the government for …

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. So, so obviously there's a blunt instrument at the moment called carbon farming and I have some concerns about how that's been rolled out. And you can see that in my own electorate there's unintended consequences where it's become a passive income stream for big corporates and individuals who don't live out there. They're simply locking up country and never going near it again. 

Now the biodiversity of that property is actually diminishing because no one is managing it. There's pests and weeds going right through there and effectively they're just taking a passive income stream. We've got to be smarter about this and this gives farmers an opportunity to be rewarded for improving the biodiversity through the abatement of carbon - they should be paid a premium if their biodiversity improves. But if we get a market mechanism, an accreditation system that's nationally and internationally recognised then they should be able to market their product as being the best in the world and improving biodiversity and that's, that's something that consumers around the world want. 

So we've got an opportunity to lead the world on this, to be able to send our products into, into other countries with this seal so that consumers around the world know that our farmers are the best environmental stewards in the world and they'll be paid a premium for it. So that's the opportunity. 

We're a nation of 25 million people; we produce enough for 75 million. We had to trade with the world; this will give us a competitive advantage that no other nation has at the moment.

QUESTION: But paid a premium by whom Minister? By the government? Or?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So, exactly. So we will be abating carbon, so there's a cost of carbon through the climate solution fund. This is real action, this is the real action piece that we're working through and I've had discussions with ANU about how that would work. There'll be a market mechanism where people obviously, big, big polluters are now wanting to buy carbon and those that have been able to abate it. 

So this is a mechanism that I'm asking the University of ANU to be able to go and work through for me and they've been- they've got a lot of work already done and I suspect that they'll be able to have this up and going before the end of the year - that's what they've said they should be able to get the first iteration up for. 

I don't want to mess around with it. The reality is time for talks over. Farmers will get draconian vegetation management laws like Queensland and every state if the other mob get in. And what they want to do is they want to lock up the country and then they're going to put it in their pockets the hard work of Australian farmers for their carbon abatement - that's how they're going to reach 2050, their 2050 target of zero. They're going to they're going to get Australian agriculture do the heavy lifting for them. 

That's not the right way to do it; that's not fair on Australian farmers - they should be rewarded for the bit that they do. We're only 13 per cent of total emissions so let's, let's look at this realistically, let's reward our farmers and let's not have a situation where you're locking up the productivity of this country's agriculture sector by draconian laws like we have in Queensland.

QUESTION: So are you're talking about a set price for this carbon capture? Or?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. No. Obviously, the market mechanism - and ANU is working through this and has a number of mechanisms already in play that they're working through. So, I've been advised by them that we can have something in the coming months and that's why I'm confident after consultation with them that in the coming in the coming six months- six to eight months, we'll have something to be able to, to be able to put out in the marketplace.

QUESTION: Minister, will your government consider some sort of economic stimulus to help those trades affected by coronavirus?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well obviously we're looking at the coronavirus very closely and we've been leading the world in our response in keeping Australians safe. Our chief medical officer's advice is one that has meant that while we haven't been popular in some parts of the world for what we've done, it's been proven to be the right course of action. 

We'll calmly and methodically look at the impacts to those industries that have been impacted by the coronavirus - and still will, and this is unfolding. And so we're continuing to meet as a government and as an executive to ensure that those industries that are impacted - the support that we need to keep the economy on track - is stimulated where needed. 

But we're not rushing into anything, there's no decisions being made. We're going to do this in a calm, methodical way and that's-

QUESTION: [Interrupts] What about the rock lobster industry? The bums coming out of it pretty much overnight because of coronavirus. Will be doing something to support the rock lobster industry?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well we already are and that's because the investment we made a couple of years ago - a $50 million investment when I first became Agriculture Minister in the trade sector and putting six new agricultural counsellors in the embassies and high commissions around the world.

We're opening up new markets and we’ve actually already started that with United Arab Emirates to look at being able to send boats and planes in there with our seafood. So because we've already made that investment we've got that framework in being able to support, and be agile enough to support our primary production sector in sending our product into multiple markets. 

And that's been the power of the trade agreements we put in place but also now it's about getting rid of the technical barriers and the non- tariff barriers and that's what these agricultural counsellors have been tasked to undertake. And I've told the department secretary I expect a work plan from our agricultural counsellors around the world on how we're going to address the perception of, not just the bushfires, but then how do we make sure that our markets remain open for our agricultural sector. 

QUESTION: In regards to that market access though, I mean has enough work really been done to buffer farmers against the impacts of coronavirus if we're so reliant on exports to China?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we didn't stop at China - we've got South Korea, we've got Japan. But the TPP 11 - that little trade agreement that the Labor Party said don't bother about, it's all too hard - just a $13.2 trillion marketplace that they wanted to walk away on and we got. We got Hong Kong, Peru, and now Indonesia - 264 million people on our doorstep ready to trade with us.

I'd say to you, we've done a fair bit but we're not stopping. We're making sure now that our agricultural counsellors are getting rid of the technical barriers; we're getting rid of the tariffs and getting better market access and quotas. We've done the heavy lifting which puts us ahead of a lot other nations because we've had the foresight to stick to our guns and go after these trade agreements 

QUESTION: But all of those, that can't happen overnight in terms of replacing the impact of any export loss to China over coronavirus. Have we focused on it too much, on China too much in regards to that trade?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well individual farmers and producers will make the determination what market they send to and that's their decision. Our job is to put the environment around them; to give them options to spread their risk and that's why we've been able to be agile enough to say when the seafood industry is going through a hard time because of the reliance in China, we're opening up a market in the United Arab Emirates. 

We're being agile enough to work with them but individual decisions of producers are their own, not the Australian Government’s. We're not going to produce it for them; we're not going to make a decision about market they should sell in. Our job is just to put the environment around them to make that decision and let them spread risk - and that's what we've done. And I think any one that says we haven't done enough on trade really wants to have a hard look at it.

QUESTION: Minister, from the Emergency Recovery portfolio - the US spends 15 per cent of their disaster relief budget on mitigation and preparation, I understand in Australia it's closer to 3 per cent. Given that you've just spent $2 billion responding to the bushfires do you think it's time for Australia to spend more in preparing for adverse climate change effects?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we already are, and what the United States does is …

QUESTION: [Interrupts] More than 3 per cent?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, well what the United States do is their own business. I don't think you want to benchmark yourself against a nation of 200 or 300 million people with a country of 25 million people. They are uniquely different. 

We spend around $1.3 billion a year on average in terms of disaster payments but what we've said is we've created a national disaster risk reduction framework, for want of a better term. But we want to stick to that about betterment. And this is the opportunity that we have with the states; is to work with them and say instead of building a road back to the same standards just to repair it we should be thinking about betterment. How we build it better to stand up to future disasters and larger disasters. 

That's a question we should be asking on every piece that the states put up to me and I've had conversation with the states, they've finally signed off on that framework at the last MinCo. But there's more work to be done. 

It's going to take real cash and that's why the Prime Minister and I have been very clear from the start, this is about building back better. We're prepared to do that with common sense because the investment you make now will save us in the long run. But not just money - the more important thing is this will help save lives and that's the most important aspect of this. It's not financial, it's about the lives of Australians that are saved.

QUESTION: Minister, you're mentioning holes in the ground. What are we talking about? Dams?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Dams, yes. Sorry, that's a Queensland term. Dig a hole, yeah, sorry.

QUESTION: Okay. So what do you hope to achieve there? I know your portfolio doesn't cover all that.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No.

QUESTION: But, nonetheless, what would you like to see achieved?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look, the Deputy Prime Minister has carriage over water infrastructure, and the national water grid is obviously up and going, and we want to be able to make those decisions for [indistinct] science. 

There's been too much inaction. There has been 20 dams built in this country since 2003, 16 of those have been in Tasmania. The states are doing three fifths of bugger all. Now I'm sorry, you say we're blaming the states, they're blaming us. Well you know what, at some point you've got to stand up and live up to your responsibilities. 

Our forefathers gave the constitutional power of water resources to the states – they’ve got to do something about it. We're not saying you're on your own, we're cutting a cheque - come and get it. But no one wants to get off their off their backside and doing anything about this. There's an opportunity to lead. We've got money on the table but, I mean, with all due respect to the states the time for talk’s over. 

I mean, I think the punter out there has had a gutful of it because- I don't think any of us have got credibility because they're sitting on their hands; no one wants to take the money; and no one's seeing a DA or an excavator go and dig a hole. I mean, it's just insanity. This is an opportunity for us to lead. This is one of most critical aspects of Australia's future is our water security. And it's not just about survival, it’s actually about growing the country and it's just common sense. And you know what, those two words is exactly what everyone wants out of their politicians - whether they state, local, or federal - they just want some common sense. 

QUESTION: Just coming back to this issue of biodiversity stewardship and so on because you mentioned the carbon farming as it is. There's some people locking up, corporates locking up areas, leaving the pests and so on. So you're talking about sort of a bit of an overhaul of this? Is this part of an overhaul?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well this is looking at it in a far more sophisticated way. I mean in my part of world you only have to go to places like Charleville, or Quilpie and Cunnamulla, and then down even into north-west New South Wales, where we are seeing families leave, sell out their properties because the country's not all that dear. And these opportunists see it as a way to make a passive income without a huge capital outlay. And that's not a productive way to do this; it's not a great thing for those economies, those local communities when you take families out. 

It's a great system if it's used in balance with production and management and that's where obviously the Energy Minister Angus Taylor has remit over this, but I've had conversations with him about the concerns my communities have in northwest New South Wales, and we'll work through that. And that's why this Biodiversity Stewardship Fund is an opportune way to re-look at it in a more sophisticated way.

Thanks guys.