Media conference in Toowoomba with Brent Finlay

1 July 2020

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: …The second pillar is looking after the communities, the communities to support the farmers. Investing over $500 million into infrastructure, into local communities, putting it through councils and Building Better Regions funds to not only preserve the jobs that are there, but to create the new jobs to diversify the economic base of those communities to support the farming sector.

And the third pillar is around the future and the Future Fund today is a very important part. So that $100 million will go out every year and will not be reviewed for another eight years and we'll look at that at the end of ten years. But it's legislated, it will go out and it's been undertaken by an expert panel, not by me; they've decided where this money should go, not the Australian Government. We put this through the Parliament. We've made sure that this has been bipartisan. But this is about understanding that we build the resilience into the Australian agricultural sector so that there isn't a reliance on the Australian taxpayer every time there's a drought. You've got to understand that the very next drought starts the very first day after it stops raining. There is a mutual obligation not only on the Australian Government, on the state governments, but also on the farming sector themselves, to make sure that they live up to the responsibilities before they ask the Australian taxpayer for support.

Proudly, we have a system that is there to support them as a last resort and that will continue. But we need to build the resilience so that there isn't that reliance on the Australian taxpayer.

So I'll hand over to Brent to go through some of the details. But effectively this goes into three parts. Equipping the tools that farmers need, whether that's through climate or financial support, through natural resource management as well as the research and development to support our communities. And the communities have played an important part in that and also investing in those people and the leadership of our next generation and those in making sure that the research and development is extended throughout it.

So Brent, thanks for all the work that you've done. This is a huge step forward in drought policy in this country; one that we've never seen before. We are the first government to say that we are looking for future droughts not just looking at the existing drought and Brent's played an integral role in the consultation process around the country in making sure that as many people had their say as possible. So Brent, I'll get you to go into details.

BRENT FINLAY: Thanks, Minister. And it's great to be here today, to be here in Toowoomba. Toowoomba was actually one of the areas where we came to across Australia to actually do the public consultation. So today, some of the programs that are announced, their foundation was in places like Toowoomba or Charters Towers or Merredin in Western Australia. Now, we cover the whole country through that consultation process.

Today, the Minister's already touched on a few of the programs. There's nine programs that are being released today and very much encourage those to go to the Department of Agriculture website to look at the full detail of those programs. Now, a lot of the programs around planning and it's planning for drought, planning to build resilience, not only through farm businesses, but also through communities and through the regions; regional planning for the future droughts to build that resilience.

The Minister touched on research and adoption. Really important, a key part of this fund is gathering the research that's been done around resilience, not only in Australia but around the world, and to see how that can actually be applied and through the extension of that research, to actually make our farm businesses, our communities and the landscapes that we farm in far stronger.

Another key issue we heard of here in Toowoomba but also across Australia was around climate and climate information, climate data; collecting that data. So important to actually give those data tools the forecasting, the short term, the medium term, the longer-term forecasting to actually bring that together so that farmers, communities can access it at a local scale, also a regional scale.

So that data [indistinct] is data from Australia but it's also international data, international climate forecasting data. And we heard that consistently, that farmers wanted to see that. The national resource management, the landscapes in which we manage our farms. So programs that are associated with that and some of those programs will have a grants component between 20,000 and 200,000 to undertake works in our landscapes, in our farming landscapes, really importantly.

When the Minister asked me to chair this committee, one of the things I spoke to him about was the importance of communities and no farmer I know doesn't want to live in a strong community. So to be able to support the communities, to build that resilience in communities is so important. And part of that is the networks that revolve around those communities in times of crisis and how we can support that, how we can develop the networks, how we can actually increase the skills of the leaders that are in those communities; really important.

Strong communities now can handle a lot that's thrown at them and we've seen that over the last couple of years in this country and over the last couple of hundred years in this country. So, to help build that is really, really important. It's also supporting those leaders that are in those communities, but also the new leaders and the emerging leaders to try and help gather and build their skill sets so that they actually become the new leaders. Now, we heard consistently about the leaders in communities becoming tired, or we turn to the same people all the time. So it's about developing, you know, who are going to be the new leaders to come forward.

So, again, it's exciting today, $100 million a year to go into rural and regional Australia, this year, next year and the years after that. It's a great opportunity for everybody that's involved or interested in agriculture, but interested in those communities, those regions. It's about the contest for ideas; and that's what we're asking today is for all those ideas to start to come, to be put on the table. And we want transformational ideas; it's not business as usual. And this is about the future, it is the future of our front, a great opportunity. And very proud to be here today with the Minister. Thank you.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Any questions?

QUESTION: [Indistinct].

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: [Indistinct] have a question for Brent first?

QUESTION: I was just going to ask Brent, if that's okay. With those discussions you had with our communities around climate, what were you thinking [indistinct]… many farmers recovering the drought, is that they are starting to get more concerned about climate change. Is that part of what [indistinct]…?

BRENT FINLAY: [Indistinct]… it's certainly part of the funding plan, the overarching plan, it talks about climate change and climate variability. And that came up regularly, just about every session we did across Australia - and we did a lot in the six-week consultation. But it was around the planning, having an understanding of what's coming to our changing climate and how we can actually better prepare for that. And how we are more resilient, whether it's our farming systems or the communities in which we farm.

QUESTION: Can you just explain how the climate tool will work?

BRENT FINLAY: Well, the climate tool is actually going to- it's gathering the data, so it's all the domestic data that's in Australia. So, obviously from the Bureau of Meteorology, it's also from CSIRO, other organisations within Australia. But also looking at the climate data internationally. And one of the things we heard through our public consultation is the importance of the UK Met Bureau as a leading agency in the world now for climate. So to bring them together, it'll be put through a service provider, and farmers and communities will have access to that data in a spill.

QUESTION: [Indistinct]…

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Right, Canberra questions.

QUESTION: So, regarding this drought announcement, is this just more of the same? Does it show that there's nothing as a government you really can do to combat drought?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, drought's always going to be here. It's been since we first put a till in the soil, and you can't run away from that - that's the stark reality of the climate that we live in. We're going to face future droughts, and that's why we're the first government that's faced it up, not just to this drought, but to the future droughts that'll come, preparing the Australian agricultural sector and the communities that support them to be able to get through that. And that's what this fund is, complemented by a range and a suite of other measures. Over $8 billion the Australian taxpayer is putting out there.

But what we're going to also need to move towards, and I think the Australian agriculture sector has done this in many respects, is around mutual obligation. There is responsibilities for the agricultural sector to step up, and to make sure before they put out their hand for the Australian taxpayer to help them, they need to hit a number of measures and a number of practices, to say to the Australian taxpayer we are here as a last resort. We have always proudly had a safety net in this country, and we provide that at the moment. But we all have a mutual obligation to undertake that, and that's what we're equipping our farmers to do. And now it'll be up to the sector to embrace this, embrace the research, the develop of technology, and get on with the job.

QUESTION: Why should farmers be subsidised to learn how to manage their finances further?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, this is about making sure that we equip them not just with financial information but climatic information that's localised and regionalised so they can make better decisions. As I say, no matter whether you're in the agricultural sector or anywhere else in Australia, there is a safety net and that safety net is there for people who need it. Now, the Australian agricultural sector faces conditions that most other sectors don't - we face the climate - and we've done that proudly for many years. But what we're trying to do is to say that that reliance on the Australian taxpayer, that safety net, will be less required into the future. And that's what these programs are designed to undertake - to create greater resilience within the agricultural sector, coupled with other measure that will complement it.

QUESTION: And it also includes millions of dollars to help farmers network better. Is that really necessary?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, one of the things we've seen since state governments have taken away extension of research and development is the fact that the uptake of some of the brightest minds in agriculture in the world - right here in Australia - some of the- their work hasn't been taken up because state governments have walked away from that extension work of having people out on the ground, going through the farm gate, sitting around the kitchen table and explain to them is lost. So the best way that we see is to be able to empower farmers to teach farmers - their peers to be able to pass on that knowledge. And in fact, part of the research and development money is to create two new drought resilience extension hubs out where the drought is. And because the state governments have walked away from that we see this as an opportunity to step up, but to empower farmers to teach fellow farmers. Because once they feel and touch it, and they invariably see it in their bank account, they get a bit more excited about it as we all do.

QUESTION: What do you and your government doing about the Australian abattoirs suspended from selling beef to China?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: We've put back all the information required by Chinese officials to them in Beijing, and my department and those agricultural counsellors in Beijing are working with Chinese officials around getting some response to that. China is under no requirement to make a response straight up, but we are working through the translation of our document into their language as quickly as we can so that there's appreciation and understanding. We're hoping that they'll be able to come back to us in the near future and remove those temporary bans. We have been able to rectify those things that they believe those abattoirs have done wrong - one of which I must add is a majority owned Chinese company. So it is a timely lesson to all exporters to get your labelling right, to get all the specifications right that exporting countries expect of us.

QUESTION: Is there any indication when those meatworks might resume exports.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, there's not. And obviously we need to allow Chinese officials, and give them the respect, to work through the information we've provided. They will probably require further information, may even require inspection, and those are the types of issues that we'll work through constructively with Chinese officials as quickly as we can to get those four abattoirs up and going again. But understand, there are a number of other abattoirs around Australia still export a considerable amount of meat into China.

QUESTION: Any- on emergency management, why didn't the government spend $50 million grant towards drought mitigation funds in the financial year?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Because the Director-General of Emergency Management Australia gave me advice that it wasn't required because of the unprecedented amount that the Australian Government has spent on natural disasters - whether it be through the floods in north west Queensland, the fires - and in fact we'd already committed $130 million. which was matched by the states, that is being spent now. Now if that advice changes and the Director-General comes back to me and requests that $50 million be spent then it will be spent. But I take the advice of the experts - this is Australian taxpayers money. I just don't go flitting it around. throwing it out in fistful of fifties every Friday handing it out to everyone that wants it - I have to be careful with their money. And if the Director-General gives me the advice that there are programs in which we can spend that money, then we will spend it.

QUESTION: A lot of communities though are desperate for that kind of money. How can you explain that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we are. The $130 million that goes out in mitigation programs who are working with the states already have. In fact, here in Queensland we partnered with the State Government $10 million each. to create a program where people can get grants of up to $3000 to build, and do repairs, and upgrade their home to be prepared for cyclones - that were saving them on their insurance premiums of $300 a year. This is on top of the $1 billion that's being spent out of the $2 billion on the fires - that we said we'd only spend $500 million by 30 June. It's- nearly $3 billion is committed to the floods in north west Queensland. It's the eight- over $8 billion committed in the drought. We're going to continue to put this money out, where it's targeted and where it's needed, through the programs. And we'll work with the states to try to isolate those areas that need to be worked on, and we'll do that constructively with those programs and a suite of others.

QUESTION: Has the review of Inland Rail Forestry Route been completed?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, it hasn't. And as I understand, that will take some time and it needs to be done properly. The deputy prime minister has listened to the calls of those farmers, quite rightly it crossed Millmerran in that flood plain, that wanted a transparent process. Let's just be honest about this, the fact that we are still messing around with flood plain studies, with other routes is a fact, is a failure of ARTC. They have botched this from the start, they have been abhorrent in the way that they have dealt with people, and quite candidly they have stuffed it. This is an opportunity to get it right and this is an opportunity for them, really, to take a step back and let some real people have a look at this and do it in a transparent way. Because no one has confidence in them, they've been contemptuous to those communities in not listening to them. And in fact they've had to provide much of the science, much of the hydrology that they couldn't even do themselves despite having five of the biggest experts in the world is quite candidly nothing short of disappointing.

QUESTION; When's the review due?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, that's the- the deputy prime minister's making sure, as the transport minister, that every effort is being made to the transparency of that process, to give confidence that community. Because if we don't get that I fear what will happen is this will be protracted even longer, and will end up in the courts. So this is an opportunity to get this right and people should just calm down because all that those farmers in Millmerran are asking for is due process. We are a fair nation, and that is all they are asking for - nothing more, nothing else - and if they're provided that then the best science is provided, the best engineering solutions is provided, then we'll all get on with building Inland Rail in this part of the state. But the reality is the rest of it's moving on - it's not going to slow things down.

QUESTION: And you're saying that ARTC haven't transparent. But if your government can't even set a date for when that review's due, is that very transparent?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I understand that the deputy prime minister's going to announce that very soon, but it's about making sure that you get that framework right. Because what people have lost confidence in is ARTC. In all of the reviews that they've created, and the mechanisms, and how they've done it has been nothing short of tricky. I mean, you wouldn't trust these-

QUESTION: [Interrupts] Is the government being tricky by not outlining what they're doing?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I'll answer the question. And that is why we have tried to put a framework around an organisation that has been charged with the responsibility of doing this. They have failed the Australian Government, in my mind, in how they have dealt with the farmers in Millmerran, and particularly in Goondiwindi. This is their opportunity to get out of the road and get it done properly, but we need to give confidence to that community that this is the right process. Just because ARTC have got it wrong, doesn't mean we will get it wrong. We're going to make sure that we get this right now so we can move on with building Inland Rail.

QUESTION: David, on the new dairy code of conduct, the ACCC has expressed concern about the compliance being done. They're going to do a lot of monitoring to ensure that there is compliance. What's your response to that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. Well, we've committed over $8 million to a dairy unit within the ACCC, and look, I think it's time the ACCC put the foot on the accelerator. I'm hearing considerably new stories every day about processes, and the way that they're dealing with farmers. What this dairy code of conduct has done has opened up a Pandora's Box and highlighted, highlighted all the issues that dairy farmers have expressed to us around the processors, and also the supermarkets - let's not forget them, they're sitting in the background there as well. But the ACCC really now, if there's not enough evidence for them to go swinging, well really what's the good of them. I think it's time for them to step up. This has unearthed a lot of information, I'm hearing stuff particularly in north Queensland that is frightening me around how processors are dealing with them, and how companies like Lactalis are also dealing with their producers. The ACCC need to get on the front foot and prove that they are a tough cop on the beat. Thanks guys.