Interview with Michelle Grattan, The Conversation Podcast

11 February 2021

Grattan: As pressure mounts on the Morrison government from the election of the Biden administration and the approach of the Glasgow climate conference at the end of this year, Scott Morrison is indicating he wants to move to embracing a 2050 target of net zero emissions. But one hurdle is a strong and vocal group in the Nationals, which is led by former Resources Minister Matt Canavan, who's fighting with some of his colleagues tooth and nail to stop the new target with the leadership of Michael McCormack always under pressure. The argument within the Nationals has the potential to get out of hand. David Littleproud, the Nationals deputy leader and Agriculture Minister is sympathetic to the target, provided there is a credible path to get there and one that won't disadvantage. Agriculture Minister David Littleproud joins us today.

David Littleproud, like Scott Morrison, you've indicated that embracing the 2050 target must come with a plan for achieving it. In your view, is it possible that plan could be ticked off this year or will it take beyond this year?

Littleproud: Well, we hope so, but that'll depend on the advancement that technology has been able to, to verify the veracity of the technology that we're putting up. It's important that it does have standing and does have currency because we want to go to the world and we want to to the Australian public with the scientific basis of that technology so that there is understanding, there is belief in it, and we then have a trajectory. So that's really what the government has been working and we've already started that. I know that we've Angus Taylor already had 14 million dollars set aside to start a programme around trying to measure soil carbon. I've already started a biodiversity stewardship programme with 34 million dollars, so a lot of the legwork has already started. But we have to go with the science. We have to understand that. We have to be honest. This is what people want. They want honesty, not platitudes. And that's what this climate debate has become. And I think it's time now that we level with the Australian people. The Australian Labor Party tried to go through the back door at the last election by saying that they wanted it and that zero by 2050 but couldn't tell anyone how they going to get there, who was going to pay.

So, it's time for us to be honest with the Australian public. And I think the prime minister is right in what he's saying is that we need to have that plan and be honest with the Australian people. There's about 130 nations from around the world who've signed up to net zero by 2050, but only 16 of them have a pathway that they have articulated to the world and how they'd get there.

So, this is a dangerous thing why we want to compare ourselves with other nations. The most important thing is Australians, that we're honest and that's what this government is doing in tackling this issue.

Grattan: So just to be absolutely clear, the technology pathway could be ticked off by the end of the year.

Littleproud: Well, that's not in my remit. But there is a hope to accelerate that and to make sure that we can provide that as quickly as we can. The money's been set aside for a lot of that work and some of that work's already been completed. So obviously, Mr Taylor will be leading that. And it's important that that he is able to finish with that work as quickly as he can. But I think the Prime Minister's made it very clear that we will be honest with the Australian public about that pathway, how we get there and who pays for it.

Grattan: Now, would agriculture have to be exempted for the Nationals to sign up to the 2050 target, or are the better ways of protecting agriculture?

Littleproud: Well, with respect to Ag, I think it can be part of the solution, particularly when you look at soil carbon and that's around.

Grattan: So not exempted. Not exempt.

Littleproud: Well, not unless I mean, you've got to understand that Ag has already done a lot of the heavy lifting. So, there shouldn't be there shouldn't be any more disadvantage for agriculture. And that's where the science and technology can, can mean that it can play its role in making sure that it's, it's beneficial to agriculture. And agriculture plays its part. But our farmers should be rewarded for that and for their stewardship. We have, have met Kyoto and we've also going to meet Paris and beat Paris predicated on what farmers did back in the late 1990s when we signed up to Kyoto. Farmers across Australia had much of their, their property rights stripped away from them. They weren't financially rewarded for it personally. State governments were, and they put it in their pockets now that governments of all persuasions and that's my job and the other mob. So, we've all got to put a hand up on that. I think that farmers should be rewarded for the stewardship and the role that they play. And this is an opportunity to do it, to do it with science and technology. And I think that is the roadmap that I think even the agriculture sector wants to play a part of as well.

Grattan: So, you think there are benefits for farmers? Financial benefits in a more robust climate policy.

Littleproud: Ah definitely and I think when you've got carbon farming now already in place, that's a blunt instrument. It's a blunt instrument of just abating carbon. What I've tried to institute is around improvement of biodiversity as well, because we've got a perverse outcome with our carbon farming programmes at the moment, whereby passive investments are moving into south west Queensland, buying up large tracts of land for, for very cheap prices and locking it up and throwing away the key. There's no active management of the property and there's perverse impacts around pests and weeds that emanate from it. And there's also an emergency service risk for fire personnel to get in and out of these properties because they become overgrown and the roads that access them. And we're also losing families that would otherwise be on these properties.

So, it's had a perverse outcome, the carbon farming. So, we should make it more sophisticated, not just to abate carbon, but for and reward him for an improvement in biodiversity. And within much of the programmes, you can pay that premium if you can prove to improve, if you can demonstrate the improvement in biodiversity. And you also then have the opportunity to market your product globally with a with a seal, a biodiversity seal that should have international recognition. We're leading the world in trying to do this. And that's why that biodiversity stewardship programme, the 34 million so I've got ANU to work on, is so, so important in this. Is this an important part in rewarding our farmers not just for carbon abatement and improvement in biodiversity, but they can also then market their product around the world as being the very best, the gold standard in terms of environmental stewardship of their product, and that gives them a market advantage. Then if you look at the soil carbon piece of work that that that Angus Taylor is working on, that's about trying to crack the code of measuring soil carbon and how much can be abated through soils and the management of farmers, what they would have to do to do that. And if you can measure it, because you have to measure these things for it to have currency not just here in Australia, but in international markets, if we can get that measurement down to around three dollars a hectare, then farmers get very excited about playing in that space. And there's some preliminary work that also indicates that some of the management changes won't just abate carbon and also improve some of their productivity.

So, this is exciting work that we're trying to work towards that will incentivise farmers, reward them, let them play a part of it and not have a significant impact on the agricultural sector.

Grattan: So, given what you're arguing, why are the Nationals so polarised on this issue? Is it basically of a sort of surrogate leadership issue or what's driving people like Matt Canavan, for example?

Littleproud: Well, we are we are the last bastion of safety for regional Australia, because that's all we represent. All we are saying is we want to see the plan. We want to understand the plan and the trajectory of how we would get there and who's going to pay for it and what role, particularly regional Australia can play in it either through agriculture, but also looking at things like carbon capture storage for a lot of those coal fired power stations that I have four in my own electorate alone, that can reduce emissions because we've got to get back to first principles in this whole debate. The first principle is we're trying to reduce emissions. So, when you walk or get the zealots out of the room and you start talking about, well, how do we do that? You can do that also not just through agriculture, but through carbon capture storage. That technology that the Biden administration is now signing up to with, with now what Australia has already started gives us an opportunity to prolong the life of our coal fired power stations and, and keep those jobs, keep cheaper energy for our manufacturing sector and reduce emissions. And the initial studies into this show that potentially could be up to 90 per cent of emissions.

So why wouldn't we back ourselves? And if we get back to the first principle of reducing emissions, then we should look at every technology. We shouldn't, we shouldn't, we shouldn't put one industry and demonise it against another. If you can reduce emissions with technology. And that's what the Nationals are saying. Let's have let's have a look at the plan. Let's look at the technology. Let's look at our mix, particularly in our regional communities in terms of economic makeup and how do we how do we preserve and protect them and transition jobs into new industries and protect the ones that are there while reducing emissions.

Grattan: But on the 2050 target, Matt Canavan and some of the others are saying, no way, whatever you do, they're completely against that target. He's repeated that position day after day.

Littleproud: And that's his right that's the beauty of democracy. But the National Party party room hasn't got to that position yet. Our position is we want to see the plan first. Our party room hasn't got to a juncture of dismissing it. We want to see what the plan is and who pays for it. If individuals want to want to have a different view within our party room, that's a good thing. That's what democracy should look like. We shouldn't have a cookie cutter approach. I'm not I'm not fazed by that at all. I think Matt has been a warrior for obviously the causes that are dear to his heart. And that's a good thing that we have those people in our democracy. We should actually try to promote that sort of thinking and diversity in our parliament rather than trying to stifle it just because a majority think another way. But ultimately, our party room will get to a position and we will, we will obviously define as a party room. And that's what the Nationals will stick to. But we haven't got to that because we haven't seen the plan.

Grattan: Now, you move around regional communities, rural communities a lot, obviously. What sort of views are coming to you from some farmers and others about climate change as an issue about the 2050 target from ordinary people?

Littleproud: Well, it's, it's not the thing that's keeping him up at night. Obviously, they hear the noise. And I think this is the problem is the noise has been driven by, by the zealots from both sides rather than a mature conversation being able to be happen. And that's what I think the Prime Minister tried to set out at the Press Club was let's have that mature conversation about how we get there, investing in the best and brightest in the world here in Australia to come up with that trajectory through science and technology rather than just having ideological and philosophical debates that take the country nowhere. And this is the opportunity I think this is the environment that the PM is trying to set. And that's where I think as a national party, that's what we want to be part of. We want to be part of the conversation and advancing regional Australia to be part of the solution in this.

So what people are saying on the ground is they're just concerned that they don't want to be they don't want to continue to be the ones that have to do all the heavy lifting for the conscience of people, particularly in metropolitan areas that do a significant amount of the polluting. We're happy to be part of the solution, but we don't want the cost to be a burden on us. And I think what they see is the opportunity to be part of that solution, to actually make sure that our regional economies are even stronger after this, if we use the technology and smarts and allow our agricultural sector to be part of it.

Grattan: Now you're talking about coal before. Where's the study up to into the feasibility of the new coal fired power station at Collinsville in Queensland? And do you believe such a project will ever get underway?

Littleproud: Well, I can't give you an update that's outside my remit as Angus, I understand, that a business case is being prepared now, but it should, it should get up if it stacks up. And that's whether it’s coal, whether it’s anything else, it has to stack up and they have to have a proponent. So, in essence, we'll obviously see what comes out of that business case. And then from there there'll be further decisions made. But until you you've got a business case that stacks up, it's very difficult to make any commentary on a proposal and in particular that one.

Grattan: And if it needs government support to stack up?

Littleproud: Well, again, you have to you have to see what the business case says and what extent those are decisions you can only make after you have the facts in front of you have the business case in front. You have a clear understanding of it. So, until then, obviously it's on the table, but it's not something until it can be stacked up is something that the government is going to pursue until such time as we see that business case. And that's what any government should, should do. I mean, we're spending Australian taxpayers’ money here, so we need to make sure that we're spending it wisely. We're getting bang for the buck and it stacks up.

Grattan: Some of your colleagues in the coalition generally have been dismissive of those saying there won't be new coal fired power stations in Australia. You don't necessarily take that view.

Littleproud: Well, I don't like to close my mind to anything because invariably it can come back to politics. So, I don't draw a line in the sand on it or anything.

So, I think, you know, technology is taking the world to, to different levels. And it makes it, it makes it to a point where we've got to understand that that can change current thinking and current status quo. So, I think it'd be dangerous to say never. But again, it comes back to the cold, hard facts of stacking up.

Grattan: So, what's your attitude to the ANZ decision to pull out of funding the Port of Newcastle, which is said to be the world's biggest thermal coal terminal?

Littleproud: Well, they're a pathetic joke. ANZ is really big as wanting to become the moral compass of this country. I mean, this is this is a bank that, in fact, copped hundreds of millions of fine because of the unconscionable conduct that they had with their own customers. I mean, we had a banking royal commission and here we are, a bank telling the Australian people about how society should run. That is not their role. Their role was to provide capital. They have they have a very, very significant part to play in our economy. It is a privileged position that they have. Their job is to provide capital. And it's not for them to decide what is what is socially right in our society or not. That is the government's responsibility. And we get told by the people every three years of the election. So their behaviour is disgraceful, that their role is to provide capital and to and to manage risk. That risk is about the ability to repay a loan. That is the extent of which their, their function in our in our economy should, should rest with and be limited to. But for them and and these highly well-paid ideological CEOs and board members to go down this track shows the direction of that organisation is well out of step with what is the expectation that and the role that they play in our economy. It is disgraceful.

Grattan: So, are you writing off the fact that they may think financially the risk is just too great in the long run, that for them it's not a question of moralising, but money?

Littleproud: No, it's moralising. When you've got another commercial bank seeing the commercial value in a legal business that is doing nothing wrong, that is going about their lawful business within a society, for another bank to take it up shows that this is just moral posturing by ANZ and this is just about them trying to, to sweep away the wrongs that they have perpetrated on many Australians in the past. It's disgraceful. It's pitiful. And ANZ, I mean, their board really has no teeth at all if they're allowing their CEO to run away with this, really, ANZ really has no future in my mind playing in our in our society.

They have a privileged position. Their job is simply to provide capital. I get if someone wants to invest and they are investing through their own capital in investment schemes, you get to make those decisions. But their job in our society in this part is to lend money. And that is that is a very privileged position that they have been given.

Grattan: Now, your deputy leader of the Nationals and often touted as a future leader, critics of the Nationals believes that the party is too subservient to Scott Morrison, especially some of the internal critics. Is this a fair point or can you name some issues where the Nationals have, in fact, stood up and prevailed?

Littleproud: Yeah, I think, I think we're always going to have the critics. They've written us off for 100 years, but we still keep kicking. The reality is this. You only have to look back. In the last 12 months, we as a government were going to appeal the live trade decision that was handed down that rightfully denigrated what Joe Ludwig and the Labor Party did in shutting down the live cattle export industry in Indonesia overnight. And we as a National Party stood strong and said, these are our people. These are the people we represent. They are the victims in this. We do not need to put them through any further legal pain. We need to pay up and get out of their way. The National Party was able to achieve that.

We also stood very strongly making sure that the Northern Territory kept two members of parliament. Sam McMahon, the senator, our National Party senator, and they led that from the start. That was important, even though the two Labor seats, we could see that the representation to people in the Northern Territory, regional people, was going to be diminished. So, we stood by our values and principles, even under their Labor seats. The National Party stood by that and we made sure that in the end we were able to get through that there will still remain two Northern Territory seats. That's what the National Party has done. Now, whether Michael runs around and beats his chest as loud as what people would like. That's, that's for them to decide. But I think his record in leading the National Party and what we've been able to achieve, particularly just in those two to start with those two points, shows and demonstrates that we are effective. And when we hunt as a mob as the Nats, then, you know, our coalition friends have to listen because this is a brutal game of politics predicated by numbers. And until one side gets to 76 on their own, then effectively, if you're in coalition, the other, your coalition partner has a role to play.

Grattan: Of course, sometimes that you need a good dog to keep the mob together, it seems.

Littleproud: Well, I think as I just articulated just on those two points, we haven't been doing too bad.

Grattan: Do you believe the Nationals have to change or broaden their pitch as you move to the next election and indeed beyond?

Littleproud: I think we need to evolve with our communities that we represent because regional Australia and I think this is important for metropolitan people understand we're not people that sit out on hay bales with straw between our teeth. We're running some of the most sophisticated, technologically sophisticated businesses in the world. We are very, very sophisticated in terms of even the way our communities are run, in terms of, you know, all the all the amenities that you have in capital cities. We just don't have to put up with congestion and, and the proximity of people being all around us. And so, we are evolving. And I think the National Party needs to understand that a lot of our, our constituency is in urbanised areas. It's not our, our voters, not just the traditional elastic sided boot wearer anymore. It's also those in in large regional centres that we've got to appeal to. And, and that's why we're making considered decisions about things like climate change to make sure that those people, their jobs are protected no matter what. And they are not the victims of, of policies that are being predicated that come about by our cost.

Grattan: Just on that question of the large regional centres when you get into those centres. People say that there are jobs potentially available and yet there doesn't seem to be the labour to fill those jobs. What more can be done to attract people to these areas and to deal with maybe the, the blocks, for example, the lack of rental accommodation has been mentioned?

Littleproud: Well, I'm actually sitting in Dalby as we speak, and I can tell you there's a rental shortage here. We have we are seeing families from Melbourne, from Brisbane and the Gold Coast get out of these cities to get away. And I think COVID has awoken people, that it might be a better lifestyle, might be a bit safer out in regional areas than more is in congested capital cities. So, we're seeing a housing shortage just at the moment. But, but that normally fixes itself very quickly because we've got an abundance of land, but we do have issues around skill shortages. I mean, most of the shires, I've got 17 LGAs, local government areas across Maranoa, and most of those have an employment unemployment rate with a three or two in front of it. So, we are actually starved of skilled labour, not just seasonal labour. And that challenge is about how these people and how Australians are slowly awakening to the fact that the opportunities out here, I think we need to think about what are those incentives that we do provide and we do provide them already. I think there's over 6000 dollars that can, you can get if you if you're on unemployment benefits and you move to move to take up a job in another city, particularly regional areas. So, we're providing those incentives. You can't, you can't force people to move. So, it's about Australians understanding the lifestyle, the career pathways, the career opportunities that the quality education, the quality health services that you get in regional Australia.

In fact, I'm probably better and I'm safer in in my hometown near Warwick. If something happened to me, I've got I've got a hospital only minutes away from me that will look after me. And if it needs any serious attention, I'll be on a chopper within 20 minutes and I'll be on the on the roof of the, the main hospitals in Brisbane. And I won't be sitting in an ambulance on a ramp downstairs. I go straight through and get looked after. OK, so we have we're probably better health care facilities and, and opportunities in regional Australia than what we do in some of these cities. To be candid.

Grattan: What about things like the processing of visas? There seems to be a great hold up for people who've got a legitimate reason to be here, to stay here, to be given a visa, and they'd get into some of these areas. And yet the bureaucracy seems to be very slow on that front.

Littleproud: Well, the primary responsibility of any government is to keep its people safe. The world changed after 9/11. And our job is to make sure that anyone that comes to this country, they are they are thoroughly checked out.

It is a privilege to live in this country. And we need to make sure that whatever checks need to be required are done and done thoroughly and appropriately. So obviously, we'd like that accelerated where for those that do want to come here and can contribute to our nation, but we've got to make sure that we never lose sight of that first principle of keeping Australians safe.

Grattan: But these people are often here already.

Littleproud: Yeah, but obviously there are further, there are further processes that need to take place, not just in terms of security, but also financial means in making sure that they can contribute and they won't be a burden on the nation. So, it is a complex area and it's not as simplistic as people think. But obviously we would like to see and we would love to see more of them migrate to regional areas. But that's obviously something that the government is working through. And I'm sure the immigration minister is working as quickly as you can to speed those processes up.

Grattan: David Littleproud. Thank you very much for talking with us today and giving us your insights on a range of issues.