Media conference in Townsville

7 October 2021

PHILLIP THOMPSON: …and prawns, and I say that hesitantly because I'm allergic to prawns. So I won't be doing any kissing of any prawns today, and I'll appreciate it if no one throws any at me because I'll get very sick. But this is good for the region, this is good for aquaculture, and this builds on the already commitment of $4.9 million that we announced just across the road for aquaculture there. Aquaculture and definitely in prawn farms and what JCU will be doing is world-leading, world-first right here in Townsville, and that's to build our capability to ensure that our prawn farmers, are not just developing, but growing exponentially to drive this part of the economy. We know that aquaculture is leading, we know it is growing. And with this grant of $378,000 of our contribution, and with the CRC's great work in JCU, this will be leading not just in Townsville, but this will be driving the rest of the world in best practice.
I'll throw to David for more.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, thanks, Phil. It's great to be back in Townsville and the JCU. I was in the JCU Cairns campus yesterday offering $2.5 million to build up our innovation hubs. And the research that's going to happen right here is world-leading, and that's why we're continuing to go to regional universities like JCU to help our farmers, to give them the tools of the 21st century to produce the best food and fibre in the world. And JCU have the best minds in the world to be able to provide those tools. So, the commitment today is a partnership not only through the Northern Australia CRC, but also through the Fish Research Development Corporation, which the Federal Government and those producers fund to give over an $800,000 commitment, in partnership with JCU and the prawn farmers themselves, to make sure that they have cutting edge research that'll give them the breeding techniques, the breeding strains that many other industries already have but the aquaculture industry doesn't, particularly the prawn industry doesn't. So what this is about is building on the work that JCU has already done for the prawn industry and being able to provide a real time test of these strains, whether they're prevalent in some of these prawns, so that farmers can make real time decisions about where they sell into which market. But this will go further in being able to understand the breeding strains that need to happen to ensure that our farmers have more resilient prawns, so that they're more resistant to these viruses and strains and pathogens. And that's what this new research catches up to many other industries that are already doing these breeding programs. But this is a world first.
So JCU, in partnership with the prawn industry and also the Federal Government, is making a commitment in the prawn industry that is expected to grow by some 400 per cent by 2030. Such is the appetite for prawns, and the best prawns are right here, but we have to give our prawn farmers the tools to be able to do that. This is a simple investment, not only in them, but the minds, the best minds in, not only Australia, but the world. And I've got to say Professor Condon here is the best in the world and I'm proud to say she's Australian and proud to say, more importantly, she's not at a sandstone university in the capital city. She's right here in Townsville, right near the industry, so that our farmers will adopt this technology. And that's the idea of the innovation hubs, is to get our research up in regional universities to be able to have our best minds in front of farmers so they'll adopt this technology, and lo and behold, create the new jobs within agriculture. Agriculture is sexy again, because it's not just the production at the farm, it's also these new jobs that are making such a significant difference for our farmers and also providing a pathway for the new jobs of those students that are sitting here today to know that there is a pathway in agriculture in the new jobs of agriculture that they can play and have a career not just in capital cities, but in great regional communities like Townsville.
So, thank you for your work. It's a great announcement that's going to build on the capacity of JCU, and I've got to congratulate our research development corporations. I have made it clear of the $1.1 billion worth of research dollars that goes out every year that the Australian taxpayer and levy payers put forward, that they are starting and have to start to put that money into regional universities. And Fish Research Development Corporation has started out with this investment today, and we'll continue to build on that because that's about making sure that every dollar that's put out there, goes to these universities that continue to build regional universities' capacity and capability to support agriculture.
So, if you want to give some details because I'm not a scientist, but you are the world's best.

KELLY CONDON: Thank you, Minister. Thank you, everybody. What we are going to be doing here at JCU is providing the tools that will assist the Australian prawn farming industry to lift to a higher level of technology that most land agriculture already has in place. We'll be studying particular viruses and with the hope, and with the goal, of making the tools for farmers to be able to genetically select the animals that are resistant to those particular strains of viruses. And also measure the impacts of those viruses under higher water temperature and higher salinity as a potential indication of what will happen with future global warming. These tools are very important for the industry to progress, and the industry is important for Northern Australia.
Farmed prawns are one of the most efficient protein producing sectors globally, and Australia has one of the best reputations for producing healthy and environmentally sustainable aquaculture prawns. This work will, you know, it will progress for years of the benefits that will come to the industry. As well as that, it's giving regional students and regional scientists the ability to increase capacity and for us to become a world centre in the study of things that impact on our local economies. We don't need to rely on universities in Brisbane and Sydney to tell us how to do the research in the area that we live in and that we rely on for the future of our children.
Has anyone got any questions?

QUESTION: What sort of diseases are going to be under the microscope for this program?

KELLY CONDON: We have three particular diseases. All three of them are viruses that are present in the water all the time in Australian industry. It's called gill-associated virus and infectious hypodermal haematopoietic necrosis and Wenzhou shrimp virus too.

QUESTION: What are the impacts of these viruses normally on the industry?

KELLY CONDON: The impacts on the viruses vary. When they are first discovered, they caused- were associated with a large number of mortalities on farm. More likely now, they reduce the profitability of farming. The prawns grow slower. The farmers need to purchase more food stock. It takes longer for them to get the prawns out of the hatchery and stock. That means that prawns are in the water at the wrong temperature for them to grow optimally. So, it leads to a whole range of increased costs, which reduces the efficiency of the industry, reduces profitability, reduces the investment.

QUESTION: So this research that you're doing is kind of going to have a lot of major impacts on the industry and on the cost. So how would you help the longevity of the industry in the future?

KELLY CONDON: A few things on this. We will increase the understanding of the particular viruses. So we suspect that there are a couple of different strains within those broad groups that are really the ones that impact. A bit like the Delta strain of COVID, we suspect there is a Delta strain of GAV. But industry, at the moment, doesn't know which strain of GAV they have when they have an issue, and then they can't respond appropriately. Sometimes they don't need to respond at all, but we don't even have the test to tell them that. So that's one thing.
For longevity, it will allow farms to expand. It will provide regional jobs. It will improve our food security as a region. We import more than 60 per cent of the seafood that we eat in Australia. We are an island country that imports most of the seafood we eat, when we have perfectly good access to much better environments for growing them than anywhere else in the world.

ANNE STUNZNER: Anne Stunzner, the CEO of the CRC for Developing Northern Australia. If the Northern Australian prawn industry wants to reach its goals of lifting its production annually from 4500 tonnes to 16,000 tonnes, then disease needs to be managed in a co-ordinated way. The work by Dr Condon will enable farmers to access this set of tools to reach this goal.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Any questions?

QUESTION: nope.
[Laughter]

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So do you want Canberra questions or are you… Yeah. Okay.… diseases later on.

QUESTION: So, France's Trade Minister refused to meet with Dan Tehan in Paris this week. Is this fight ultimately going to hurt Australian farmers as an FTA would secure new markets?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No. You've got to understand that France is one of 27 member states in the EU. We are working with all those member states around a free trade agreement with the EU, and that will include agriculture. And we've been able to secure one recently with the UK, and now this is the next phase of the free trade agreement. It will be number 16 that this Government has secured. So we'll work through that pragmatically. We understand the disappointment of the French Government but there's needs to be some pragmatism and some honesty about this, about how we move forward. And we have great relationships with France so there's been a lot of Australians that have gone and lost their lives on French soil and we're proud of the fact that we've supported them and then we're understanding the disappointment they have. But at some juncture we're going to have to move forward and we believe that an EU free trade agreement would be a good juncture. And also pleased to see that the Ambassador has been recalled to Canberra, which shows that, I think, after the disappointment, I understand that we need to move on and continue to work together.

QUESTION: And do you agree with your colleague, Keith Pitt, that the Government should become a financier of the last resort for coal mining industry in return for net zero?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think it's a bit early. I mean, we need to understand what the technology roadmap looks like. We shouldn't be asking for anything until we understand what that is, what the technology mix will be. And we've got to understand that if we commit to net zero by 2050, there will not be a switch overnight in terms of our coal exports or our power generation. That will take time. We need to understand what that looks like and need to understand new technology like carbon capture storage, what that will do not only here in Australia but internationally. You see that the Biden Administration is partnering with the Australian Government in that carbon capture storage journey. And if that's able to prove that we can reduce emissions - and that's what we've got to get back to first principles. The first principles is we need to reduce emissions. How we do that is, as the Prime Minister has said, is about reducing emissions through technology, not taxes. We should back the best minds in the world that are here in Australia, that are here at universities like this to give us the technology mix to look right across our sectors, whether that be agriculture, resources, transport and how we reduce those emissions and how we protect the jobs and create the new jobs. So until we see in the technology roadmap from Angus Taylor and the Prime Minister, the National Party has been clear. We'll be pragmatic. We want to work through it. But regional Australia has footed the bill so far, and it's time to square the ledger.
We're happy to be part of the solution and we think we can be part of the solution. But that has to be provided to us in detail. And then, obviously, we'll work through anything that needs to be in terms of compensation or whatever it may be in squaring that ledger, whether it be for the coal industry or agriculture or transport. We'll work through that pragmatically once we see the detail, but until we see that detail, it's a little premature to be demanding anything.

QUESTION: Just on Keith Pitt's proposal there as well. Yes or no question. Do you and the majority of the party room support net zero? And is that a signal that the Nats might be on board with net zero?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, it's not a yes or no answer because we haven't seen the detail. Aspirationally, I think everybody wants to get us to net zero emissions by 2050. That's an aspirational goal. I think most Australians, nearly all Australians have. What we'll do is we want to be honest with the Australian public. We want to be honest with the global community about how we get there and who pays for it. You've got to understand there's about 130 countries that have signed up to net zero by 2050, but only 14 have a detailed plan that they've shared with the world about how to get there. So there's a lot of platitudes flying around out there at the moment and also from the Opposition. They've already signed up, but have not told the Australian public how they're going to get there or who pays for it. We're going to look people square in the eye and we're going to say this is how we get there. This is how we achieve it. As we achieve Kyoto, as we're going to achieve Paris. And this self-loathing that goes on in this country that we're not doing our bit in the world has to stop. We're actually one of the few countries that will meet both Kyoto and Paris. And if we sign up to net zero by 2050, we'll be fair dinkum about it and we'll deliver it. And that's why we need to make sure that not just Australia does it, but the rest of the world follows us as well. So, I think we need to see the detail, but we want to be honest and transparent. We'll have a plan that the Australian public will have confidence in that we know that we'll deliver.

QUESTION: How good is to see the cotton industry booming after China's decrease of cotton imports?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, you've got to understand not just cotton, but all agricultural products. Despite the challenges we've had with China and we're going through the procedure of WTO appeals, we've seen that agricultural exports have continued, because we produce world class food and fibre. We don't produce a bulk commodity. We produce high quality, and therefore we've been able to send boats left and right into new markets, and I'm proud to say that my department with the agricultural counsellors I have in 22 embassies and high commissions around the world have got better market access.
We've been able to send boats in for the first time for grain into Mexico, into Saudi Arabia. And with cotton, we've been able to get new markets to be able to go into Bangladesh and Vietnam. So you've got to understand Australia produces high quality, but we will not trade away our principles. And we've made it clear to China. My door is always open and my phone's always on to my counterpart. I've made a number of offers to have conversation and dialogue with them, and the best way to resolve any differences is through dialogue. And we continue to make sure they understand our hand is always out for that, but we will not trade away our principles. There's been over 100,000 Australians who have lost their lives defending our democracy, our values, our principles, and that legacy should not be traded away and it will not be traded away by this Government for those that want to change the values and principles of this country from afar.

QUESTION: Meat prices are set to skyrocket and farmers are blaming crippling restrictions on abattoirs. Will the Government be easing them? Are you putting pressure on the states?
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, you’ve got to understand. Health orders are determined by chief health officers and premiers, not by the Federal Government. And I think what Australians are now getting a real understanding of is this thing called Federation. While the premiers and ministers across the state have all pointed to Canberra and blame Canberra, the real reality is I think it's been sheeted home that we don't have the levers to pull. They do. And so the reality is we're saying to these premiers, you need to lead. You need to bring Federation together. Lines that are put on a map there 120 years ago don't fit modern Australia. It's important to understand we need to lead together.
And even here in Queensland, it's important we put our arm out and get that jab because Delta is coming. And when it comes, we're going to feel the lockdown pain that those southern states- not just financially, but more importantly, mentally, those people in Victoria and New South Wales, they're Australians. They're our fellow Australians. And our bit to support them now is to get our arm out, to get ourselves up to that 80 per cent and then to stick to a plan. And the premiers and chief health officer have all been screaming for national leadership. Well, we created this thing called National Cabinet, and the Prime Minister gets them in a room and says: This is our plan, a safe COVID plan to get you out from underneath the doona. And they all sit in the room and say, yup, we signed up, PM. We're with you. He goes out and announces. He looks left and right. There's nowhere to be seen, the premiers.
The individualism has to stop. It is time for the nation to come together, to understand that we will only get out of this and we have to live with COVID, but we can only do that if we work together as a nation, not as individuals. And I know that's hard in Queensland, because we haven't had the pressures they have in southern states. But if we don't work together and we don't have leadership, then federation will have failed us. And particularly when you look at the meat sector, where it's probably running at about 60 per cent its full capacity, then we've got challenges, and we can't get the states to give the health orders to bring in workers. We've got 25,000 men and women sitting on the tarmac in ten Pacific nations, been there since September, and we still can't get the premiers and Chief Health Officer to give the health orders to let them come in. I congratulate Queensland today in announcing they'll have some more quarantine hubs for agriculture workers, but it's taken them 12 months to get to this juncture. Instead of pointing the finger at Canberra and saying it was all our fault, maybe they should have done their job to start with. Mark Furner has failed farmers, and unfortunately what I've got to say is, you know, Australian agriculture and Queensland agriculture, I mean, who needs enemies when you've got friends like Mark Furner? The reality is this should have been sorted some time ago, and this is where we just need leadership. And unfortunately, we haven't had the leaders, but we get plenty of blame, but we pay the bill.

QUESTION: Just back to net zero, can we really achieve that zero if we're going to finance new mines?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, again, I think we need to see the technology roadmap, and there are new technologies that are coming all the time. As I said, carbon capture storage, not just for coal, but for gas. That means that we're reducing emissions. I think what we've got to get away from is the religion of both sides that are taking away the common sense and the pragmatic conversation about how we can achieve that through technology. And if we just got to get back to first principles, which is we want to reduce emissions, and we should be agnostic about the technology that does that and what resource or what industry that is overlaid across. That should be the pragmatic way - that we as a country come together and have a mature conversation, rather than the extremities of both sides screaming at one another like it's a religion, rather than just let the sensible people in the middle have a conversation and be honest and transparent with the Australian public about how technology can reduce emissions, protect jobs, but also create new jobs of the new technology that's going to come. Let's lead the world, and that's what Prime Minister Morrison's saying. He wants to partner with the Biden Administration, not just on carbon capture storage, but also on new thing- the new energies like hydrogen. Those are the jobs that we can continue to create and complement and supplement that we already have.

QUESTION: But I guess Australian farmers also want action on climate change. So why should the agriculture sector be excluded from any net-zero emission plans?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, no decision's been made on that. The New Zealand Government, through Prime Minister Ardern, has already excluded agriculture. You got to understand that most of the emissions come from methane that have a shelf life of around 10 to 12 years, that breaks down, and there is already innovative work that's being done through MLA, Meat Livestock Australia, around feed sources that reduces that methane component. And we're also doing innovative things through the biodiversity stewardship program that I announced, which isn't just carbon abatement. And this is the thing. We've got very lazy, and we've all just focussed on carbon abatement, but there's been some unintended consequences in the agricultural sector where the environment hasn't benefitted from it. Our biodiversity, in fact, has reduced. So what we've announced, and the pilots are now up and going, is that there'll be a carbon abatement plus a biodiversity. We are the first country in the world to be able to measure improvement in biodiversity. No one else has this intellectual property bar us. In fact, many other countries are now trying to buy it off us. So what we will be able to say to people is you just won't be buying a carbon abatement. You'll be buying something that improves the environment, the biodiversity, and our farmers will be able to put brand on their beef, on their sheep, on their grain that has a biodiversity seal that is internationally recognised. So farmers want to be part of the solution, but we're not going to foot the bill again. We've done the heavy lifting for us to meet Kyoto in Paris, and it's time to square the ledger. And Prime Minister Morrison has given the National Party comfort in saying that regional Australia will not foot that bill again, and that- we take comfort from that and we take him on his word. And as we see the technology roadmap, that's why we'll pragmatically work through it, understand it, and then obviously have that conversation.

QUESTION: And should the banking regulator APRA impose more kerbs on lending, like perhaps debt-to-income ratio, so that the housing market doesn't fall?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, look, I think APRA's played an important role in making sure that serviceability of any loan, whether it be a home loan right through to an agricultural loan, is regulated through our banks in a responsible way. I think obviously we've got to be able to be agile enough as we see changes in the market. And I think APRA have done that in a very good way. So I think let's let the regulators look through the market, understand the market and where it's heading, and ensure that the banks, as they themselves already have, much self-regulation around this. Because they don't want lose a quid. They don't lend money and lose money. So they're going to, in fact, have a lot of the self-regulation themselves. But the guidance and the data is important. And that's what the role that APRA plays. And I think we have a very strong banking system in this country, one that I think we should be very proud of, but one that continues to evolve and will be able to be agile enough to work through economic cycles to be able to protect Australians and protect our banking system.

QUESTION: Just a question on this announcement as well today, how is the Federal Government working to make sure that Australian-owned corporations can enter the aquaculture industry rather than foreign-owned corporations?
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, let me just say not all foreign ownership is bad. So long as we get the balance right, it's in the national interest that it advances Australia, and they pay their fair share of tax. So we shouldn't beat up foreign investment. Invariably they'll come, they'll invest, and sometimes they leave, and they leave a better and bigger asset. So we've got to get the balance right. And that's why we've reduced the thresholds in which Foreign Investment Review Board gets involved in foreign ownership. It was around $252 million; it's now down to agricultural farms of around 15 million before FIRB gets involved. And for agricultural businesses, it's gone from that 260, 250 million down to around 50 million. So we've got a better lens of what the thresholds and what the concentration of foreign ownership is in regions and in industries. And so our job is to make sure that working with the Foreign Investment Review Board and the Treasurer is make decisions in the national interest. And so we get that balance right, we get the right foreign investment. They help develop our agricultural assets here, but they pay their fair share of tax on the way through. It's a win-win, but the ultimate aim is to make sure, and the goal should always be to be in the national interest.
    
Thanks, guys.