Media Conference, Toowoomba

23 December 2020


DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, good to be here. Let me just say that obviously Australian agriculture has had a pretty tough year. We've had fires, we've had drought, but we've also had COVID-19, and we've had some challenging issues around exports. But despite that, Australian agriculture will now estimate to be worth $65 billion by the end of this financial year, when only eight months ago, it's predicted to be around $60 billion.

So it's important that we continue to accelerate towards our export markets in making sure that we open up new markets, as well as ensuring that we support those that we are already in. So today, the Australian Government is announcing $72.7 million to support our Australian agricultural exports. In the Budget, we announced $330 million to start a market platform, a trading platform that will ensure that there's one touch mechanism for our trade. And in the budget before that, we put on six additional agricultural counsellors, taking it to 22 agricultural counsellors in embassies and high commissions around the world. And their job is really to get market access at government to government level.

But part of this $72 million today will be about accelerating at business-to-business level. We will be ramping up Austrade - so more than 2000 exporters will have a key account support from Austrade so that business to business negotiations can be supported by the Australian Government. We're also increasing the number of agricultural counsellors by a further three, they will be roving agricultural counsellors who will basically go into opportunity markets and to try and secure a government to government access and to work through some of the phytosanitary issues. And as part of this package, we're also announcing further money to increase the number of scientists that work through the phytosanitary and biosecurity issues that hold back market access. So this is about expediting trade, giving our, our agricultural exporters the opportunity to diversify.

There's also a grants process and program for our exporters so that they can tell us the markets they want to go into, and the infrastructure and support they will need to be able to achieve access into those markets. So this is a tailored package that complements what the Government's already done. It acknowledges the challenges that we've had in barley and wine and in beef, and we're making sure that we'll continue to work through with industry to tailor our packages into the future.

But agricultural exports are imperative. We're a nation of 25 million people. We produce enough food for 75 million. So if we don't engage with the world, we don't trade with the world. We don't need the number of farmers that we have now, we don't need regional communities that support them. So, the Government is serious about making sure that we support our farmers when we talk about diversification, and now, it will be a commercial decision for those exporters to make around where they send their commodity into. But this is a further pay down on our Ag2030 Plan.

QUESTION: How significant is business to business support given the situation we've got with China at the moment? Because we have sort of heard anecdotally here that relations on the ground are still good, but there's this overarching sort of trade tension. How important is that connection?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah look, and I think we have to acknowledge the fact that a business to business level there is some very good relationships, And I have to congratulate many of our exporters for establishing those and creating those over many years. And that's played a pivotal role in maintaining our exports into some of those more challenging markets, and that will continue to. But we also need to be able to give them the opportunity to diversify. If there are decisions that go against a particular industry, that we give them the opportunity to send their product into another market. And we saw that with barley. I think we were able to send the boat left and right instead of to China when they imposed the tariff. We were able to send it into the Middle East, and in fact we've just been able to secure 750,000 extra tonnes of wheat into Saudi Arabia.

So that's the important aspect - being able to facilitate that, having people on the ground through Austrade is so important to those exporters here in Australia to be able to facilitate that at a business to business level, and to then try and streamline that through our agricultural counsellors at a government level around the market access and the paperwork.

QUESTION: Yeah. How soon are these funds rolling out?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: These programs are building on existing. So, early in the New Year these programs will be up and going, the grants process should be up and going early in the new year - so we don't intend to hold back on it. It's an existing program we're just adding to. So that's why we saw this as a quick and easy win to support our Australian agricultural exporters and to give them an opportunity into 2021.

QUESTION: We've heard that Singapore isn't taking flights coming in from the UK with that strain. What's the Government going to be doing to help people come home?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. Well, we've been- we've already been doing this, and I think there's been a number of- there's tens of thousands we've already brought home, and we acknowledge there are still tens of thousands wanting to come home. And we empathise with them, particularly during the festive season, during Christmas, when you want to be with your family. But we have been constrained by the caps that- the quarantine caps that states have imposed. We respect that, that's their right, that's their sovereign right. They have to be comfortable about the quarantine caps that they put in place, that they can effectively undertake quarantine.

So we'll continue to work with the states around trying to expedite that - an increased capacity. We have to acknowledge also that New South Wales, in fact, has done most of the heavy lifting with respect to quarantine caps. And it's concerning today that we're hearing New South Wales politicians saying that, in retribution to some of the border closures, that they may stop taking in the numbers of quarantine caps for other states.

We need we need everyone to lead, we need everyone to work together in this time. And that's not just New South Wales that has to do the heavy lifting; all the states, and they have to be- and they have to work together, and that's also around our border closures and our actual quarantining- sorry, your phone.

QUESTION: I just wanted to- this thing is giving me the absolute sh**. There we go. Anything specific around that Singapore setpack, that setback that their Government's going to do? Is there anything?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, obviously, we're working through that. It's only just come to light and the Foreign Minister's obviously working through those issues with respect to Singapore. We have to respect their sovereignty as they respect ours - so, they're a strategic partner of Australia. We'll continue, and I know that we've made a decision not to cancel any UK flights, and that would continue to be the case. But we, again, need to work and have the states allow us to have those quarantine caps that will allow those people to come home to Australia.

QUESTION: And just locally, how concerned are you about the cost of those border checkpoints coming back up? And bring us up to speed where you're at with that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, look, I wrote to the Queensland Premier about a month and a half ago, asking her to reimburse the local councils that are on the Queensland border. These were her restrictions, her border closures. But those councils expended hundreds of thousands of dollars each in terms of the infrastructure to support those border closures. She's now rejected a request to, in fact, reimburse those councils for that money. So the ratepayers in each of those shires will now have a tax, will have a Palaszczuk tax put on them because she will not reimburse them.

They don't have big rate bases. They don't have thousands upon thousands of ratepayers in which to absorb this. In fact, one of them has only around 100 ratepayers and they're being asked to spend this money for the Queensland Government. It'll be the ratepayers that will have a Palaszczuk tax in the New Year as a result of the Premier not wanting to reimburse the councils for the support that they're providing for her decision. It's outrageous. And I just say to the Premier: please, in this festive season, time of Christmas, just think about what you're doing to these- not just to these councils, but to those communities, because they're bearing the cost for your decisions.

QUESTION: David, just on COVID vaccines. The Opposition's called for it to be rolled out as soon as it's approved. I mean, in Cabinet, is that a decision you'd be willing to take, to argue, to be rolled out as soon as it's approved?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: We'll take the best advice from the TGA. We won't rush it. We're going to get this right. Australia has fared better than any other country in the world with respect to this. We are well placed. We want to make sure that any vaccine that we make available to the Australian people is safe. And we will do that in a timely manner that the experts tell us will work and will keep Australians safe.

We've done an outstanding job as a nation. The public has responded to every request that not only Federal but State Governments have asked of them. And I think it's important that we don't panic, we don't rush, we do this right, and we keep people safe. And I think that it'd be disappointing that we get politicians that are desperate around trying to have relevance and get themselves into media make statements that aren't in the national interest in the long term. We just need to take a deep breath, work through this. And I understand the frustrations of the, of the border closures and that's why we need the Premiers to lead and work together around localised lock downs rather than state lock downs.

QUESTION: Is that expert advice still suggesting March for the vaccine rollout?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: March is still the advice on which we're getting and we're working towards. We're making sure that we can do that in an orderly fashion. We're working through those that need the priority of getting it first and then working through the general population. We want to be able to give the Australian public confidence that we've got this right. That's our responsibility as an Australian Government - not to rush it, not to panic, but to do it right. And that's what we intend to do.

QUESTION: David, just on trade. [Indistinct] concern with China is working with [indistinct] iron shipments [indistinct], by muscling out Australian miners in other areas like the Congo. Is that on your radar as a government?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, obviously, we're working through a number of these issues around resources, not just iron ore, but also coal - considerable concern around some of the actions. And that's why it's important that China be transparent. It's their responsibility as a global trading nation. Otherwise, the world is watching and they're becoming anxious about some of the decisions. And we need to make sure that they work within the rules based trading system that we've all signed up to, the bilateral agreements and the WTO rules - we all live by them. So it's important that China does the right thing. There's nothing against them trying to obviously find other sources, but Australia has the best quality and the most quantity to be able to provide. And obviously, China will work through those sovereign issues themselves, but they need to be transparent on all their matters of trade with us and the rest of the world.

Thanks, guys. Merry Christmas.