Media Conference in Mildura, Victoria

8 October 2019

ANNE WEBSTER: …the e-mails that I've made, the many hassling requests for the Minister to come down here and address the issues around water. We've obviously got some critical issues for our farmers and our producers locally. It's not just water pricing, but obviously we have a drought, we have seasonal workforce issues - like, it's really mammoth this year. And so, I'm very, very pleased that David has made time to come down here and to meet with stakeholders. We've asked specific industry leaders to come and meet with him and to present their views. This is about our farmers having a voice and the Minister listening. 

So, I'm really pleased to welcome you. Thanks, sir.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. Thanks, Anne. And it has been Anne's leadership that's brought me here. Three weeks ago, she brought industry representatives to me in Canberra and I gave them the commitment to come out and listen, as I've done since becoming Water Minister. I obviously get out and listen to these groups and their concerns. But we already acted. We've already instituted a review by the ACCC and I'll respect that work and allow the ACCC to get on with it. 

But that doesn't preclude me from getting out and continuing to listen to grower groups and farmers about their concerns about every aspect of the Basin Plan. This isn't a perfect plan, never said it has, but we are 80 per cent of the way through it. The last 20 per cent can be achieved by going nowhere near farmers. By simply using the smarts of the 21st century and infrastructure to deliver the last 20 per cent and we can get the Government out of everyone's lives. And we can listen to that in far more comfort.

But obviously there are some serious concerns raised about the marketplace and I heard those six months ago and that's why we instituted the ACCC to have a look at that and I'll let them continue on with that and we'll respect that. I'll need the states to work with me with whatever recommendations they come up with. 

But we're also proud to announce today that there'll be more jobs coming to Mildura. Anne, through her leadership, was able to secure an office from the MDBA here in Mildura. More than 20 jobs coming to Mildura, 20 new families coming here. The Inspector-General has now announced that he will be making Mildura one of the two offices in which they use, and it's important, the Inspector-General Mick Keelty has made it clear he wants his people to be up and down the Basin as well, and Mildura strategically is geographically best-positioned to house his people to make sure there's accountability. And his role is about building the trust, not just between farmers, but between states to make sure everyone is doing as they said they will. And if there is somebody that's done the wrong thing, they get called out. And we've got to say, there's people that have done the wrong thing. Like any program, there are people that take shortcuts. You're going to find them and you've got to deal with them. And this is why we're being pre-emptive with this, with Mick Keelty. This is why positioning some of his people here in Mildura will make a significant difference about rebuilding that trust. 

So, this is about continuing on and making sure communities understand the importance of what we're trying to do. We understand it doesn't take away also from the work that the Social and Economic Panel is also doing. I know they've been here. They are run separate from the Government, they are independent from the Government but I will be taking their advice, and that's why I'll continue to get around and listen with members like Anne to give me the directions that we need to implement a plan with as minimal impacts as we possibly can on communities like Mildura and all those up and down the Basin.

QUESTION: Can you tell us who you'll be meeting with today?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look, industry groups, particularly from the horticultural industry. And they're ones that Anne have championed their cause to me, and that's why Anne brought to me only in the last three weeks and I gave them the commitment to come out and listen. In fact, I gave them the commitment to see them the next week in Canberra because we were stuck in Canberra. But once that fell through, Anne was very insistent that I get out here into her electorate and listen to them with her about their concerns. 

QUESTION: Why is it being described as a secret meeting?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, there's nothing secret about it. I'm talking to you. Any meeting I undertake is more than happy to be in the sphere of the public eye. But obviously, those conversations that we'll have will be ones that we have in a closed room so that people can feel as though they can say what they need to say to me. I don't think anyone should feel they have to hold back because there's media there. But the reality is they'll be sitting there at the table, giving me their insights into what they're seeing. 

And isn't that great - that we live in a country where a Minister can come to a small country town and sit around and listen and learn? And I'm not the beholder of wisdom and knowledge and I want to learn from these people and see what I can do and basically go from here and give them commitments to continue to work with them and with any other group.

QUESTION: Minister, you're going out to the miller, I believe, this afternoon?


QUESTION: To meet the farmers and the stakeholders there?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Definitely. So obviously, not only the water but the drought is an issue and it's important we continue to work through. Our strategy is out there. Our drought strategy is quite clear. There are three parts to our drought policy. There's a here and now, and that's about keeping people in business. That's through Farm Household Allowance - $37,000 into farming families' pockets to keep bread and butter on the table, more rural financial counsellors, concessional loans that can save people up to $67,000 in interest between the commercial rate and our rate. 

It's about communities. So that's about the Community Drought Program. It's also about their mental health - $30m extra mental health. 

But it's also the third component of our strategy is about the future. The Drought Future Fund - a $5 billion fund giving a $100 million dividend to go into drought preparedness programs. That's on top of the over $500 million we put out a year in tax concessions for resilience programs like instant asset write-offs for fodder, infrastructure or farm management deposits. So, we have a drought strategy and we're enacting it. And responding to drought is like going up a set of stairs. As drought escalates, you take another step up and this Government has taken another step up every time we have seen the drought hasn't abated. We'll continue to do that. The Treasurer and I were quite clear as we got around last week that we'll continue to act. And he's now gone away and we will have a meeting to make sure that our next response is targeted to what people told us on our trip.

QUESTION: Is it right to say climate change is causing these droughts? The fact is we've had droughts for 150 years, as long as rainfall levels have been recorded. We had the drought- the Federation drought, the World War II drought, we had the millennium drought, much worse than this so far. But are we proclaiming climate change is the cause or is it the political pressure of having to do that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, look, I think the science is clear that it has had- man has had some impact on this and I don't run away from that. So, I'm not a scientist and I trust the science but we need to get away from the philosophical debate and get on with action. Unfortunately, there are political commentators from the left and right that are using this as a weapon for their own philosophical views rather than actual outcomes. Now, I believe there's climate change. I believe man has had an impact on that. I'm on the record. I'm not going to run away from that and I respect those that have a differing view. 

But the philosophy needs to go away and the action needs to start. That's about making sure we equip our farmers with the tools to adapt and we've done that. Over a billion dollars goes from farmers and governments into research and development to give them the tools, the new genetics, the new crop varieties to be more resistant. Those are the types of tactile things that farmers want. Farmers in drought don't care about the philosophy. They actually want delivery and that's why we've delivered over $7 billion in drought support. We'll continue to do that and we'll make sure that we get as many people through this drought as we possibly can.

QUESTION: Some of those that you're meeting with today would have built their businesses up on the temporary water trade. What's the difference between what they've done and what Duxton Water is accused of doing?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, obviously that's why I've asked the ACCC to have a look at that. Fourteen per cent of entitlement owners don't own land. Now, when land and water were separated, was the original intent of that, of the marketplace, was the original intent of that is to allow those that might be sitting in a high rise in Melbourne to speculate on a commodity that is different to wheat or gold. This is a commodity that sustains life, that creates life. So it's a different commodity to what we normally see in wheat or gold. And therefore, I'm asking the ACCC to have a look at that. That is where we need to understand how this market has evolved and is it right - is it right for this nation? Is it right for our farmers? 

When I get that information back and their assessment. Governments only interfere in marketplaces when there's an imbalance, and we should stay out of it otherwise. But if there's an imbalance and the ACCC says that, then we will have to act. I'll have to bring the states with me. I don't own all the chips in this. I will have to make sure the states come with me. But I think for the first time, we have cooperation with the states. I actually congratulate the water ministers from the Basin states. The maturity and leadership that they have shown on this and a number of other matters have meant that we are getting to a point where we are getting out of people's lives as quickly as we can with this plan. And that is all the water ministers' aim in this, is to get out of your lives as quickly as we possibly can.

QUESTION: Would you encourage New South Wales to follow Victoria's lead and require all new horticulture developments to be assessed by the Minister?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look, I think Lisa Neville has shown real leadership on this matter and a number of others. I think Melinda Pavey is already showing leadership with her department and being quite strong also, and I have to congratulate her on her leadership. I read today about holding her department to account on new water infrastructure. Lo and behold, we've got a Minister that's going to hold the bureaucracy to account, good on her. So I'll leave that for Minister Pavey to work through. That's for the matter for her jurisdiction. You do not want Canberra telling them what they should be doing, but I have faith and confidence in Melinda Pavey to be able to make the right decisions, and I think Lisa Neville has shown the leadership for her state. 

QUESTION: I think Ita Buttrose, Chair of the ABC, has also come out this morning and said we should be building more dams. What's your take on that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, Ita is a very smart lady. And let me make this clear: since 2003, there have been 20 dams built in this country, 16 of those have been in Tasmania. Sadly, what's happened is that we will see a 37 per cent reduction in storage capacity per person per megalitre in this country, unless we get on with the job of building water infrastructure. That has been the responsibility since federation of states, to build water infrastructure. It is illegal for myself or anyone in the Federal Government to pick a shovel up and dig a hole in this country unless the states allows. But we will not shirk from our responsibility. We will partner with states, and in fact New South Wales are the first state that are now going to show some leadership and say that they want to build some infrastructure, and I think the Deputy Premier has been quite proactive on that, and I think you'll see some announcements in the near future where there has been a leadership role by them in partnership with us.

We've had $3.2 billion sitting there for years. No one want to take it, but lo and behold, we've now got some leadership in New South Wales because we have to get on, not just for agriculture, but for urban amenity. That 37 per cent reduction in urban supply means that that will impinge on your ability to turn the tap on at home, to be able have a drink of water, and have a bath. 

QUESTION: Because that's not just rain- lack of rainfall, that's the increased consumption. 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Increase in population. And let me say, yes, people talk about desalination, but not everyone's lucky enough to live on the ocean. There are large number of communities that are inland, that cannot benefit from desalination. So we need the states to plan, and I think you'll see that the New South Wales Government is finally doing that, and I congratulate that for them. But the other states need to have a good hard look at themselves because this, this will be a problem that will face us. By 2030, a 37 per cent reduction in storage capacity per person is frightening.

QUESTION: Just on today's meeting, you've already said you will refer information to the ACCC. Is there anything new that could come out of today?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I don't want to pre-empt anything, but obviously, representatives from the horticulture industry made specific allegations that I referred immediately to the ACCC, and I know that they're investigating that as we speak. But they'll continue on with their longer term review of the water market in conjunction. So obviously, if there's anything new that comes out, that will be referred, and in fact that is the role that Mick Keelty as the Inspector-General can take, and that's why we want to put people here on the ground, so that industry leaders can go straight into the office here in Mildura and say to the Inspector General's staff: there is a real serious allegation we wish to make, and they will get on the job and refer it make sure that it's looked at in a serious and methodical way. 

QUESTION: But you won't make any concrete policy changes until the ACCC finished its review?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, obviously, I have to work with the states. It's not within my power to do it. If it was, it'd be a great world we live in, but unfortunately, under the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, I work with the states. But as I said, I'm very confident with the maturity and the leadership that our basin states have shown, that any reform that needs to be made will be made together and in a sensible way.

QUESTION: The new biosecurity levy that was announced in last year's budget. Can you tell us where that's out and when you expect it to be introduced?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well obviously, we're consulting with industry, particularly those industries that contribute to the risk of biosecurity. And that's what biosecurity is predicated on and who pays, is who creates the risk. So there's a review and consultation being done with those industries that create that risk, and we'll work through that with them in a sensible way to make sure those that pose the risk are charged for that.

QUESTION: Yesterday, I went to one of the sessions that your- the independent panel that you were appointed to assess the socio-economic health of the Basin was running. There was a few people talking about Lock Zero in South Australia. Is it time to revisit that? Can you see that happening? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, this panel is about the social and economic impacts. That's what they've been charged with. I've given them an extra $3.2 million to make sure that it is a thorough review. And I expect them to stick to their knitting. That's what I expect them to do, because I want to understand, for the first time since the Basin Plan has been created, a granular understanding of the impacts this has had on communities, not just the basin, so that we can equip these communities with the tools to recover and reconstruct. We've already started that. I spent nearly $26 million earlier this year in reconstructing some of those communities hardest hit. And we'll continue to work with those communities as we find that panel coming back with their findings.

QUESTION: Phil Glyde last week told me that the decision to host the MDBA in Mildura, not Wentworth, was one that was made by Cabinet. Are you able to say what went into that? Whether Wentworth was considered? 


QUESTION: Was Wentworth considered with the MDBA jobs?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well obviously, there is an assessment made on each of those communities that we have selected for the MDBA jobs being taken out of Canberra. Predicated on the amenities they provide, being able to get back to Canberra. Also, the location in terms of being able to support, not just this community, but other parts of the basin. So we're strategic in terms of being able to cover geographically, and then the services that those communities can provide. And sitting here in Mildura, I can think of no better community - as Anne Webster fought for quite clearly to be put on the list - no better place to move from Canberra to live in. I mean, sitting here on the river with a steamboat going past, just how good is that? That's better than living in Canberra, let me give a 6 to 4 on that.

QUESTION: Did Wentworth come close, though? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look, obviously there's assessments made, and towns are scored according to those amenities. I can't give you the exact figures on what they are. That's something I don't have on me. But those communities that have been picked have been picked strategically because of their location and the amenities they provide in making sure that those hundred-plus jobs that came out of Canberra and lived in the real world get to live in the best of regional Australia.

QUESTION: You had said that you'd take any substantial concerns to the ACCC as far as the water market's concerned. Is today's announcement an indication of that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Around the- about the MDBA jobs?

QUESTION: No, no, no. The water market.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: The water market? Well, I'm making no announcements. We're coming to listen and learn. Effectively, I took pre-emptive steps some months ago to ask the ACCC to go and investigate the water market. Because of the concerns I had from coming into places like Mildura with Anne Webster, listening to farmers and their concerns, we acted some months ago, but that doesn't preclude me from continuing to listen and to understand, because the ACCC will make some recommendations. And isn't it good that politicians come out and listen to real farmers and get a lens of reality; rather than reports that just come over your desk in Canberra? I'd rather hear from real people. I'm not saying the ACCC won't, but I want to make sure I get a lens of reality myself, and can actually substantiate that report with real life experience and with real people.

QUESTION: And the opening of an office here. What sort of timeframe are we talking about? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well I charged the responsibility of the MDBA to have those up and going before the end of the year. As I understand, they're looking for real estate as we speak, which is a fantastic thing for the local economy. And then, obviously, staff have been made aware that some of those jobs in Canberra will be coming to Mildura, or Griffith, or up to Goondiwindi, and so there's the opportunity for them to take those roles up and we'll continue to work to make sure that happens as quickly as we possibly can. But I know Phil Glyde, I've given him clear writing instructions that I want these offices up and going by the end of the year. And that's about some of the technical and logistical areas around making sure you can get an office - getting real estate. But it's a good thing, we're going to get some real estate here, commercial real estate, and then we're going to need some residential for those new families that have come to Mildura. That's going to put new money into this community.

Good. Thanks guys.