Media Conference in Brisbane

22 July 2020

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well today the Federal Government is making an additional $2 billion commitment to the drought. We, in the agricultural sector had faced fires, floods, drought and had been the pillar of this nation's economy since the start of COVID and will get us out of the recession quicker than any other industry apart from resources. So it's important we continue to support Australian agricultural sector. This $2 billion in additional loans through the Regional Investment Corporation, very important. We are allowing farmers to refinance up to $2 million of their existing debt or use it for restocking and replanting and pay no interest and no repayment for two years. We started that in November last year and we're going to extend that out to 30 September this year. So we're saying to farmers: Here is your opportunity to recover from the drought, to get money back in your pocket, to take out of the big banks' pocket and put it back in yours. On 6 per cent of [indistinct] commercial money, you're saving around $120,000 a year. That's an important investment the Australian taxpayer is making in our agricultural sector. We're then saying after 30 September, that concessional loans will go back to 1.92 per cent, which is still very competitive, in fact, over a five-year period, probably save you close to $100,000. Again, taking out of the big banks' pocket and putting it back into farming communities and farmers themselves.

So this is a big investment, continuing to understand that the drought takes time to recover from. And in fact, this is about opportunities for the farmers, not just to refinance, but to replant and to restock. So an important step in the Regional Investment Corporation, has been swamped by applications. In fact, we are a victim of our own success. When the Regional Investment Corporation was stood up, we expected around 300 applications a year. We are getting that each month. So the Federal Government is making an additional $50 million commitment to the Regional Investment Corporation to put boots on the ground, to be able to get through these applications quicker. We understand that is taking time and we're working with our partners and banks and the agricultural sector to try and streamline that and speed it up. So a $50 million commitment to make sure that we're backing the loans with practical results of putting boots on the ground to get through this.

So Bruce and to Karen who are in charge of the RIC. Karen as the chair and Bruce is the CEO. I'll let them make a few comments about the details of this but this is a significant investment by Australian taxpayers in the agricultural sector and we're saying to farmers - take the opportunity to be part of this. We're giving you a heads up that this is- this concessional rate will end on 30 September but this is an opportunity for you to get back up on your feet after one of the worst droughts in living memory. Karen, did you want to say something?

KAREN SMITH-POMEROY: Yeah. Sure. Thank you.

Thank you, Minister. I'd just like to say that I'm really pleased to have the additional support provided by the Federal Government. We have been swamped, as the Minister said, with applications over the last few months. But it's really important that we're able to continue to help the farming communities, particularly those affected by drought, but also to help them to build resilience for the future. So we really look forward to the opportunity to provide better assistance and further assistance to the broader community over the next little while. And as the Minister said, the interest rates are still very competitive, notwithstanding that we'll finish the interest only period at the end of September.

BRUCE KING: Thanks Minister. At the RIC, we certainly welcomed the recent announcement of this additional support from the Federal Government. It's a fantastic opportunity for farmers and graziers across the nation to step up and continue to take advantage of some fantastic concessional rates through this government program. We know that there's been some improvements in seasons across areas like New South Wales, but we also recognise that there's ongoing drought in areas like Western Australia, north western Queensland and down in the southern parts of New South Wales. We'd really encourage those farmers to step up and take advantage of this fantastic facility while it's here. It's a great opportunity for them to build some resilience into their business, to help them to prepare for, manage for and recover from the drought that exists at the moment.

Thank you.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Any questions?

QUESTION: So you mentioned the ongoing drought; what about those farmers who are hesitant to take on more debt at this time?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well this is an opportunity for them to refinance existing debt and save money and not have to pay any interest or repayments. So we're looking at for those existing farmers that have existing debt to refinance. But there's also the opportunity for them to take on debt without paying interest or repayments for two years, to rebuild their herds, to replant a crop because it takes time to get your progeny up and to get it to market. This is an opportunity to ease our cash flow burden. So this is two pronged. It's about existing debt but also new debt, that's no repayments to let your cash flow repair. That's the practical reality of how we're going to get the agricultural sector back up and going after this drought. And the Australian taxpayer is being very generous in asking not to pay any interest or repayments for two years, is one of the most generous schemes I think any government has been able to put in front of its agricultural sector.

QUESTION: You mentioned about 300 applications per month. What's the average times that they've been processed?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah. I might let Bruce - you've got all the stats.

BRUCE KING: Thanks. Certainly, we're, as the Minister said, we're set up to handle between 350 and 500 loans in any one year. We've- following the announcement back in November last year of the zero interest period, we've been experiencing applications between 200 and 300 a month. We know that it has been taking a little bit longer than expected for us to be able to get back and approve those loans. At the moment, it's taking around six months- six months or slightly longer for us to- for us to get the funds into the client's account. But it's important for anyone that's considering a buy-in to understand that we will be letting them- we aim to let them know the amount of time it takes for them to hear whether a loan's been approved or declined is usually within three months.

QUESTION: And what's due- what's causing that hold up?

BRUCE KING: Simply the amount of demand that we've had. As the Minister said at the start of this, we've had more than more than 10 times the number of applications per month than we were expecting and that's translated into the building of a bit of a backlog of loans. And what we're really excited about, alongside this announcement of the additional loan funding, is some additional operational funding which will allow us to put more staff on the ground to get through and start to process those loans much more quickly.

QUESTION: And Minister, on your plans for the Farm Biodiversity Stewardship Program, do you envisage it will be governments or private enterprise that will pay farmers to boost biodiversity on farms?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, there's a marketplace out there and what we're trying to do, and in fact, I'll be going in tender very soon. I gave the department instructions today to create and understand what a marketplace will look like because there is a corporate capital that's available and interested in biodiversity and the stewardship of our land. And that's the whole idea. If we don't have to burden the Australian taxpayer, reward farmers for their stewardship and use a market mechanism, that rewards and achieves the goals that we as a government and as a nation and as a global citizen all want to achieve around better environment and a healthier environment, but reward farmers for it. It can be done in the marketplace. That's the essence of where we're trying to achieve. There are international commitments that the Federal Government has committed too around reduction in carbon. We have a Climate Solutions Fund. And obviously, if there's opportunities to expand on carbon farming and improve it, because it's a very blunt instrument at the moment, that's had some perverse outcomes particularly in western Queensland, where we've simply seen people come in, buy cheap land and lock it up and not manage it. That isn't a good environmental outcome because what we're seeing is pest and weeds aren't being managed. It's just become a passive income stream for investors to make income rather than actively manage the environment in which their the stewards of.

So this is about making sure there is a market solution to it and there is capital around that's very interested in parking it. And if Australia leads the way in this, we'll lead the world and set the example but also take advantage of being part of a very big opportunity to attract some significant financial capital and reward farmers for doing what they do best.

QUESTION: And just on that Victorian situation, have you been in annual talks with the Australian Land COAG?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So I've been speaking with individual state ministers around the issues that we have there. In fact, I will be convening a ministerial council meeting of all state ministers and myself because there are a number of issues around COVID, with our processing plants but also in terms of the movement of labour, and we need to make sure that we are fluid and be able to keep up pace with how this situation continues to evolve. 
What we can take comfort in, in all our processing plants is that they have the highest standards in the world. [Indistinct] to this, and in fact, we planned to make sure that there are protocols put in place as soon as there's an outbreak in any abattoir across this country and our meat processing sector has led the way on that. I'm very proud of the way that they actually came to government rather than we go to them when COVID-19 started. So Australians should take great comfort that our meat processing sector is very safe. Our food security is one of the best in the world, we can have great comfort that they will continue to make sure that supply continues despite what happens with COVID. And we work as a federation of states to ensure that not only that any capacity needs that need to be shared can be achieved, but also that our workforce is protected and continue to keep the supply chains going.

QUESTION: And when does that meeting happen?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, we're working through the logistics but it'll be over teleconference, so it can be done quite quickly, but we're working through obviously each individual minister's state, each individual state minister's diary. And we'll work through that and get that up and going as quickly as we can. I think there's a lot of agreement and understanding what needs to be done. I think it's just clarification, but most of the protocols are already in place and I think we can take great comfort from that.

QUESTION: And the Victorian Government has, I think, all but ruled out a regional lockdown amid the rising number of cases in country Victoria. Do you think that will be necessary? Is that something that you will look at?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well I think you've got to always be guided by the Chief Medical Officer and the medical advice. That's what public officials and politicians must undertake. We don't have the expertise. We've got to be guided by their recommendations. I think the fact that we've been able to increase and improve our tracing and to be a lot quicker, gives us more flexibility in terms of the lockdowns to be more targeted, and I think that helps because we've got to not just an attack this on a health front, but also, we've got to attack it on an economic front because it's having a significant impact on our economy. And so, the more that we can keep the economy open, the better, but obviously we need to be guided by the Chief Medical Officer and the advice and the restrictions that we should place should always be predicated off their best advice.

QUESTION: And has there been any update with the four abattoirs that were blacklisted by China?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: We're still working through with Beijing now, my officials from the Department of Agriculture are working through with Chinese officials. We've answered their questions and we continue to have dialogue with them. But it is at their discretion, and we continue to encourage them to seek any further advice and clarification they want. It's important to understand and appreciate that one of those abattoirs in fact is majority Chinese-owned. So this notion that there was retaliatory action is not the case. They've actually placed this because they believe that there was some labelling issues, and it's a timely reminder to all our exporters to make sure they meet the specifications that, whether it be China or any other trading partner requests of them, that they meet it to the tee. And that's really the lesson here for everybody, but we're working as quickly as we can to make sure Chinese officials understand the issues that we've addressed and that we can give them comfort that we've got this issue sorted.

QUESTION: And there's no timeline when that could hope to be expected [indistinct]?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: That's at the discretion of Chinese officials and we respect that. That's the protocol that we both accept. But we're obviously encouraging them to come to some determination so that there is certainty for those processing plants and we can continue to provide them with the best beef in the world.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thank you. Thanks guys.