Joint media conference with Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack

26 August 2020

DAVID LITTLEPROUD
Today is a very important day for Australian agriculture. Today we are announcing that the ACCC will undertake a review, firstly, into the dairy code of conduct to investigate whether it should now be extended from the farm gate to processors through to the supermarkets to continue to make sure that there is fairness for our dairy farmers. But while we are doing that, we are also now going to extend it to all perishable agricultural goods – that is seafood, eggs, chicken, meat, horticulture, to make sure that there is fairness in the market.
 
The National Party believes in free trade, believes in markets, but we believe in fair markets. We are making sure that after continued evidence and claims by farmers that they have been mistreated by the processing sector and the supermarkets – it is time for us to clear that up. This is not going to go on forever. This is a three-month inquiry and we are saying to farmers that you can have confidence to come forward and to give your evidence in confidence to the ACCC where supermarkets and processors will not know that you have done it. You can have the confidence that it will be held in confidence and then once we are able to understand the extent of what the problem is, quantify and validate it, then we will consider what the next step may be.
 
And that may be an agricultural perishable code of conduct that gives them protection. This isn’t about regulating prices, this is just fair prices, a fair go for everybody. I do not think we should be frightened that this will put pressure at the supermarket checkout.  This just means that when farmers go and negotiate with supermarkets that it is done in an equitable way, that there is guidelines for everyone to note.  There will be no increased regulatory burden.  We will simply be making sure that the rules are clear.
 
Everyone plays by it, but if someone steps out and uses their market power against the goodwill and the nature of those negotiations then there has to be consequences. So I just say to the agricultural sector, this is about protecting you in a sensible way that is not over the top, making sure that we can continue to grow agriculture in a fair way.  Not in a regulated way. This will not be a regulation crisis.  This is simply making sure that you get fair prices. That is the Australian way and that is the National Party way.
 
MICHAEL McCORMACK
Well, it’s great to be here with the Deputy Leader of the National Party and the hardworking Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud. This is an important milestone day because the ACCC is going to do a body of work – a three-month inquiry – as the Agriculture Minister has just indicated, to ensure that there is fairness in this sector. We want our farmers who have always been price takers, not necessarily price makers, to get a fair go.
 
Of course, consumers who go to the supermarket, they also want to know that there’s going to be continuity of supply.  They also want to know that Australian farmers are being given a fair go when it comes to producing the fine produce that consumers so readily rely on.  We know that in the National Party that this is important policy work. We know that it is an important delivery outcome.
 
We have worked with the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, to bring this about. David and the team have worked so hard to ensure that it has been brought about. And one of the things that I am so pleased about is that the farmers are going to have confidentiality arrangements when they do, if they do, provide advice, provide claims, provide evidence to this inquiry.  This is so important, to be able to do it in such a way that it won’t impinge upon their future work, their future outcomes is such an important thing for those farmers.
 
I spoke to one of the largest dairy procedures in my own electorate, Simone Jolliffe who, with her husband, Neil, have 250 cows at Euberta.  She welcomes the announcement today.  She welcomes what the Nationals and the Government are doing.  She has been a head of dairy’s peak body, one of the peak bodies, for some time. She has experience in that regard, so she knows what it’s like at an organisational level.  She knows what it’s like when you’re down there milking the cows early in the morning and all she and her colleagues want is a fair price for their labour, for their sweat. And I know that this inquiry in dairy, in grocery and perishables is going to be so important for her and so many other people right across the nation.
 
JOURNALIST
What kind of underhand tactics do you think has gone on in some of these other industries, like horticulture as well?
 
MICHAEL McCORMACK
Well, what we want to do is make sure that there is fairness of price, fairness of delivery and fairness of outcomes.  And so whatever has gone on in the past, well, we want to make sure that it doesn’t go on in the future. And so that’s why there are those confidential arrangements put in place so that if people do have claims and allegations, that they can bring them forward in a way that is not going to harm their outcomes in the future.  So let’s see what comes about from this inquiry.  The ACCC, it is going to do this body of work and if there are things that are found to be, as you’ve just said, underhanded, well that will be stamped out.
 
JOURNALIST
Minister, just following on from that question, I think everyone’s pretty across what’s going on in the dairy industry, but what’s going on with those other perishables?
 
MICHAEL McCORMACK
Well, what we’re going to see through this three-month inquiry is just that – if there are things going on in other perishables, in meat and all the other outcomes that David Littleproud has just indicated – eggs, poultry, whatever the case might be – then we want to hear about it.  The ACCC wants that evidence to be able to form their decision-making as part of this process of getting a fair price for farmers.
 
JOURNALIST
If you are ruling out regulation what are you suggesting that you might do at the end of this inquiry to address some of these imbalances?
 
MICHAEL McCORMACK
Well, as always, we will take on board the ACCC’s advice and David Littleproud as the Minister, the appropriate Minister, will act upon it. And if things aren’t as they ought to be, well then there’ll be penalties, there will be repercussions.
 
JOURNALIST
Can you give any more details?
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD
This has been a long time in the making because we continue to hear from farmers through Senate inquiries or through evidence to the ACCC, you know, the big supermarkets have used their market power to get them into contracts and then to pull them out from under their nose after they’ve made significant investments, capital investments that have then sent them broke and so what this is about is fairness and about acting in good faith.
So there is currently already a horticultural code of conduct and there’s a dairy code of conduct that only goes from farm gate to the processor.  The processors tell us of that some of the challenges that they have to put pressure back on the farm gate is growing into actions of the supermarkets.  So this is also an opportunity for processors to come forward and talk about what supermarkets have done to them.
 
JOURNALIST
So will you extend the code to supermarkets, is that what you’re –
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD
Well, there already is a voluntary grocery code of conduct, but let me just say that that is voluntary and the fines are very small.  And it is designed for big companies like Nestle and Unilever to be able to have and act in negotiating in good faith with the supermarkets.  It doesn’t protect small family farms. They don’t have the financial means if they have been wronged to test that in a court of law.
 
What we are saying is we need to create a framework, if there is evidence that we can validate that supermarkets have mistreated farmers in some of their actions, we can work through that and that we may get to a juncture whereby a perishable goods code of conduct with supermarkets is created.  That will be up to the ACCC, but that may be one of the mechanisms that they recommend. And this is not simply putting regulations but putting guidelines around the supermarkets and how they should treat and how they should act in good faith in negotiations with farmers to make sure they don’t abuse market power.  They’re about 67 per cent of the grocery market at the moment, the big two supermarkets, so they wield a lot of power. And when you are a little small family farmer, you don’t have the financial means or resources in which to protect yourself.  And Government shouldn’t interfere in marketplaces, they should simply make sure that the guidelines are there to protect everyone, that there is fairness and that is what we are trying to ascertain the extent of any misappropriate behaviour by anyone through the supply chain against those family farms. They are the backbone of regional Australia. They are the backbone of the agricultural sector. This is not doing anything other than making sure there is fairness and a level playing field.
 
JOURNALIST
Deputy Prime Minister, just on the National Press Club today, the Deputy Head of Mission from China is going to be appearing. On the menu we’ve got wagyu, we’ve got barley and we’ve got a shiraz from McLaren Vale.  Is it good that we showcase some Aussie products that the Chinese market may be missing out on?
 
MICHAEL McCORMACK
Well, absolutely and as always, the Chinese are our largest trading partner and it’s always good to showcase Australia’s fine products, whether it’s wines, whether it’s beef, whatever the case might be.  I’m sure that some of those products probably emanate from Maranoa and Riverina, two fine electorates producing food and fibre that is the envy of the world.  And there’s something that I know China as our largest trading partner also recognises and acknowledges that Australian food and Australian fibre is something that they can’t do without. We need China as much as China needs us. I have said that all along.  We want to make sure that we continue trading with our largest trading partner because our farmers would want nothing else.
 
JOURNALIST
Do you think China’s increasingly hostile language towards Australia is a mistake?
 
MICHAEL McCORMACK
We will always work through relationships with China in a diplomatic fashion, as we always do.  As I say, there are 149 billion reasons why we need to continue those relationships with China.  They’ve got a bourgeoning middle class. They want our protein and we’re there ready and willing to give it to them.
 
JOURNALIST
Are you concerned they’re targeting Australia’s agricultural sector?
 
MICHAEL McCORMACK
Well, we will always work through these things in a diplomatic fashion. I know the Trade Minister, Simon Birmingham, is working very hard to make sure that not only the trade we’ve already got in existing arrangements is there for the future but to build on those, not just with China but with other nations as well. And that’s why that work with the international freight assistance mechanism has been put in place through COVID-19 to ensure that we can look at other markets. That we can, whether it’s a Geraldton lobster or sheep meat from Victoria, or whatever the case might be, that we get it out, not only to China but to other markets as well.
 
JOURNALIST
Minister, did you say yesterday that you couldn’t lie and say you never had ambitions to lead the Nationals. Mr McCormack, how do you feel about that?
 
MICHAEL McCORMACK
Well, we’re here together. I mean, we’re great mates. David and I have been mates ever since we got into the Parliament together when David was first elected and we will continue to do that.  But the focus for David and I, as you have seen today, is the people that we serve, the people we represent, those hardworking farmers who get up every morning at the crack of dawn – even before it – to grow the food and fibre that our nation and other nations need. That’s the focus of David Littleproud. That’s the focus of Michael McCormack. That’s the focus of every one of The Nationals in Government. That will continue to be our focus going forward.
 
JOURNALIST
Do you see him as your successor?
 
MICHAEL McCORMACK
Well, look, that will be a matter for the party room. I’ve always said that the leadership of the National Party is a matter for the party room. I am humbled to be the Leader of the National Party, I know David is humbled to serve as the Deputy Leader of the National Party.  They are positions that have served our party well for a hundred years. The National Party, through its forebears the Country Party, have served regional people and the nation well for a hundred years.  And you know what?  We’ll be there for the next hundred years too. David and I won’t be there for the next hundred years, but we’re going to be here for a long, long time to come serving our people, serving our nation in the best interests of regional Australia.
 
JOURNALIST
You’ve constantly told your colleagues to stop backgrounding, put your name to it. They’re still doing it. What does that say about your ability to unite the party?
 
MICHAEL McCORMACK
Well, our party is united and we’re here today, David and I making an announcement that I know the National Party are very pleased about.  I know the National Party have fought hard for this outcome.  We always fight for fairness for farmers, for fairness for prices. And we will always do that, for and on behalf of regional Australia. Let’s leave the personality and the politics aside. The people in regional Australia do not want to think that politicians are talking about themselves. They want to know that we’re there representing the interests of regional Australia and David and I and the rest of the Nationals team always are.
 
JOURNALIST
Have they ever questioned your ability to lead, your constituents?
 
MICHAEL McCORMACK
No, I don’t believe so. I mean, I’m not going to get 100 per cent of the vote in the Riverina. You only have to get 50 per cent plus one. I am very, very pleased and humbled that they have sent me to Parliament four times to serve their interests. And I know that the people of the Riverina are pleased that I am in there, fighting hard for and on behalf of their interests each and every day of every week. And I know that the people of Maranoa are just as pleased to have David Littleproud representing their interests. But it is a greater challenge as well.  It is also in the national interest.  And there are wonderful opportunities.  I said just the other day, there are jobs in regional Australia if people just go and look for them and not just in the agricultural and mining sectors.  There are so many jobs in regional Australia and for those people who are living in cities, bursting at the seams, for those people who want a fresher and brighter outlook, go to a regional centre. Have a look.  There are jobs there. There are opportunities waiting. Regional Australia is big enough in which to get a good cup of coffee and it’s small enough to still care.
 
JOURNALIST
Mr McCormack, do you think if public money is being spent on manufacturing that it should be spent in Australia, paying Australians?
 
MICHAEL McCORMACK
Well, I know Karen Andrews is doing a great job in having an industry blueprint for the future for the post-COVID world in which we will eventually live in. And I know that she’s working very hard with the Small Business Minister, Michaelia Cash, to boost manufacturing, working with The Nationals, of course because we know how important manufacturing is to our nation’s relief and recovery efforts out the back of COVID-19.
 
And, of course, we are spending a lot of money on manufacturing here, but of course, there are many businesses, too, which feed into Australian input, which feed into Australian manufacturing which may well be based offshore.  But what we want to do is make sure that we get best value for taxpayers’ dollars and that’s what we do for every decision made around the Cabinet table around which David and I sit and around which David and I make decisions for and on behalf of not just regional Australia, but in the national interest.
 
JOURNALIST
Are we at the point where we need to mandate things like trains being built in Australia, especially in the regions where youth unemployment is up around 20 per cent in some places?
 
MICHAEL McCORMACK
Well, again, you have to have the skilled labour force to do it in Australia, too.  And that’s why we’re working on blueprints all the time. That’s why we’re investing so heavily in skills. I had a meeting with the Prime Minister just this morning and David was at it as well, where we were focused on skills and focused on making sure that whether it’s through TAFE, whether it’s through small business, that we improve the skills regime of Australians. I know Dan Tehan and Andrew Gee have been working so hard to make our graduates from university job ready when they come out and get their tertiary degrees so that there are jobs for there for them for the future.  And we will continue to do that.  We will continue to work hard through this pandemic every day, of every week and every night too, to make sure that we get the best outcomes for Australians. And David and I will be in there focused particularly on regional Australia.
 
JOURNALIST
Will you lead the National Party to the next election?
 
MICHAEL McCORMACK
Yes.
 
JOURNALIST
Keith Pitt said this morning that you were his leader and he was ambitious for you, that’s the kiss of death around here isn’t it?
 
MICHAEL McCORMACK
Well, I’m glad that Keith’s ambitious for me. I’m sure he’s also ambitious for the people that he represents in Hinkler. I’m sure that he’s representing that fine state of Queensland.  What we need in Queensland – and Keith knows it and David knows it, he comes from Queensland too – is for those border restrictions to be eased, for practical solutions to border management so that our farmers can get their equipment over the border. These border issues are really affecting our aviation sector.  hit first, hit hardest by COVID-19. What we need to do, is have the border restrictions lifted and eased such that we can get planes back in the air, such that we can get tourism, agriculture, every other sector, firing again. This is just common sense.
 
JOURNALIST
I guess the question is also then for Minister Littleproud, are you ambitious for your leader or do you have your own ambitions?
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD
I mean, these silly games just have to stop. I mean, this is just a story created by some bored journalist, bored about reporting on COVID-19.  Now you might be bored about reporting on COVID-19, but we’re not. These are real Australians’ lives that we’re playing with and we are trying to deal with.  And I just think that everyone just needs to take a cold shower and get back to what we’re here for, which is focusing on them. The National Party is not changing their leader.  We are getting on with the job. So, you know what, it might give you some titillation while we’re here but we don’t give a rats. We are simply focused on regional Australia. We are delivering today for farmers. We delivered for regional Australia this week for the education sector. And Michael and I stood up and made sure that those farmers who were egregiously impacted by that live trade decision didn’t have to go through an appeal. That’s what the National Party is achieving in under two months, because of this leader and the others in the Cabinet. So, you know what, you can titillate all you like. We’ve had a gutful. We’re going to focus on those people out there, not you, not your silly games, but just work for them.
 
JOURNALIST
It’s not us though, it’s your colleagues that are backgrounding, again.
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD
Well, good luck to them.
 
JOURNALIST
Who do you think is doing it though?
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD
You’re the ones in the know. We don’t really care. We’re focused on outcomes. The Australian public want outcomes and they want us to deliver them. The National Party has just delivered three major outcomes in the last two months. Now that’s a functioning party that is really delivering for their constituency and I’m very proud to be the deputy leader of a party that is actually making a difference in the lives of rural and regional Australians.
 
JOURNALIST
Just on the ACCC inquiry, you’ve had your issues with the big supermarkets over the years. Have you had a discussion with them about this inquiry and what do you expect their reaction to be?
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD
I couldn’t care less what the response is.
 
JOURNALIST
So you haven’t talked to them?
 
DAVID LITTLEPROUD
No. I’ll leave that to the Treasurer. I represent the agriculture sector and when they come to me with grievances that they haven’t been fairly treated, my job’s to stand up for them. And that’s what I’ve done today and that’s what the National Party’s done today. Supermarkets are big enough and ugly enough to look after themselves. But let me say, they are the ones that created this culture, particularly in the dairy industry, destroying the livelihoods of so many dairy farmers across this country with this dollar a litre of milk stuff that I broke. We we’re having some pretty tough conversations with the CEO’s 18 months ago and I’m not against people making profits but you have to do it fairly. That’s all farmers want. They’re not a charity.  They just want a fair go and what the National Party is about is putting in that environment and giving them a fair go. I think that’s the Australian way and I don’t think anyone out there would begrudge what the National Party has achieved today.  I think they’d say this is the right thing, the right thing not just for rural and regional Australia, not just for farmers but for everybody. That’s our nation, that’s a fair nation and we live by those principles.