Interview with Jaynie Seal, Sky News

3 December 2021

JAYNIE SEAL: Good morning. This week the Future Drought Fund, the $23 million package, was announced to support drought resilience in agricultural landscapes. Joining us live is Minister for Agriculture and Deputy Leader of the Nationals, David Littleproud. Good morning to you, minister. 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Good morning. Jaynie. Good to be with you. 

JAYNIE SEAL: Great to see you as well. Tell us about the fund. 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, look, this is part of the dividend that’s paid out of the $5 billion Future Fund, and there’s 100 million every year that goes out. It’s decided by an independent board, not by the minister. That’s an act of parliament. We’re putting these into programs not just into innovation, into resilience, but also into just tactile things, so looking at landscapes and how we can do pilots in natural resource management areas to educate farmers. Because what we’ve lost is the extension of a lot of that work. 

And so this is about landscape and soil management. And what we’re trying to demonstrate is on a local region what are the benefits and what are the techniques that will actually improve maintaining moisture in soil and it’s also data that we’ll collect that will go into what we’re trying to achieve with soil carbon abatement. That’s the real kicker here, is if we can get that measurement down from $30 to $3 a tonne – a hectare in measurement we’ll be able to give farmers another income stream. But this is more about what groundcover looks like, what are the best groundcovers for you locally. 

And this is what we tried to do with the drought fund. It’s never been a Canberra solution; it has to be a local solution. And if we go out to these local natural resource management areas and let them drive it and let farmers feel and touch it, they’re more likely to adopt it. 

JAYNIE SEAL: And, minister, Aussie farmers have been needing more overseas skilled workers for some time now. And as we’ve been hearing, there is a temporary – well, a small travel ban due to the new Omicron variant. How is this impacting farmers, and do we know anymore on the travel ban, if it’s going to be extended or not? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: It’s a little bit of a watch and wait at the moment. I think the world’s trying to work out what this new strain really means. We’ve put a ban on nine south African countries. We’ll continue to monitor that, but we’ve still got those schemes available to us through the Pacific. There’s 25,000 men and women sitting in 10 Pacific nations ready to come now. We’re also in the final stages of bilateral negotiations with four countries that are moving very closely towards the ag visa to complement and supplement the Pacific Scheme. 

So there is labour here, and recent ABARES data does show that we’ve been able to reduce that strain and that constrain on agriculture – that is growing, and growing significant, which our GDP figures showed this month. But there is still a lot more work to do in that structural change. And we’re going to have to watch Delta and Omicron, all these types of variants and actually learn to live with this as best we can. 

JAYNIE SEAL: Yeah, it’s certainly an evolving situation. Australian agriculture, minister, it continues to lead our economic recovery. Some good figures including for our winter crop production. 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, look, despite some of the floods in New South Wales and my part of the world around Goondiwindi, we did get much of the crop off around Goondiwindi, which is really good. But New South Wales has had some real damage. Western Australia has had a great year. Our GDP figures show that year on year the September quarter agricultural GDP has gone up 44 per cent. That’s an amazing result. And just to put it into perspective, about 10 years ago Australian agriculture was about $43 billion industry. It is now predicted at the end of this financial year it will hit $73 billion. So Australian farmers have been doing heavy lifting. And while many industries have been put under the doona during Covid-19, farmers have just got on with the job and continued to grow.

And our exports – this is the most exciting thing – our exports have grown 47 per cent. We are a nation of 26 million people. We produce enough food and fibre for 80 million. So we really do need to make sure that we can’t to open up those new markets for our farmers, and that’s having real results. Because prices have never been higher nearly across the board. So everyone’s feeling it. They’re getting it back in their pockets. If we could just get Mother Nature to play nice with us for a little bit longer we’ll all get a bit of a recharge from what’s been a pretty tough couple of years. 

JAYNIE SEAL: Yeah, absolutely. And as you mentioned before, not so great with what we’re seeing in the eastern parts of the country with the flooding. With the grain and wheat quality, it’s likely to be downgraded in those flood-affected areas, really set to have significant losses for the state’s agriculture sector, and we’re certainly in an La Nina pattern, which is obviously heavier rainfall than expected for the summer season. So what do we need to look out for with potential issues? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Yeah, look, we’re going to work with the New South Wales government. So obviously once the flood waters abate and it’s safe for their people to get in and make assessments we’ll work with the New South Wales government around damages to those that have been incurred, particularly in the farming sector. We’ve done this on a number of occasions. So we can only make those assessments when it’s safe to get people in and to do that, and we work collaboratively with local and state governments to do that. 

We’ve got to understand that, yes, we are in an La Nina pattern, but we’ve also got to appreciate that the very next drought starts the very next day after the stops range, and that’s what you’ve got to prepare for. And that’s what the Future Drought Fund is about – it’s about trying to build that resilience, build those programs that give us the tools to be prepared for the next change in the climate. And that’s what farmers have done so well. 

And I think the fact that we’ve been able to grow agriculture so fast and so quick in spite of drought and fire and flood shows that we are adopting much of those tools. And if we make those investments then our farmers adopt those tools and it’s actually having dividends to the Australian economy. So we’re ready for the next change, but we’ve got to understand probably between now and April things are going to be wet, and we’ve got to make sure we store as much of that water and do as much as we can because the next drought’s probably around the corner. 

JAYNIE SEAL: And, minister, I do have to ask you about the last two weeks in Canberra parliament. We did see a lot of action in parliament, not a lot of major legislation passed. What was achieved in the final sitting fortnight? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look, there’s been a lot of bills. In fact, there’s been one that I got through on the APVMA, to modernise the APVMA, that does the approval of farm vet chemicals. Very important in modernising that and having a governance board to make sure that it’s run properly and that the financial burden doesn’t go back on the farmers. We’ve been able to pass a number of other bills. We’ve put in place the religious discrimination, that’s being debated. That’s going to take some time. That’s a very complex bill, and we want to create the environment and time for that to happen. So that’s going to take up some time between now and when we come back in February. And I’m sure in February we’ll be able to finalise that religious – sorry, my earpiece has gone – the religious discrimination bill. So we’ll have that hopefully finished in February and move on with a number of business-as-usual bills in getting – keeping the country moving. 

And I think the fact that our economy is still growing and our unemployment rate is continuing to drop shows that we’ve been able to keep this economy and keeping this country not only safe but economically moving forward. 

JAYNIE SEAL: And, minister, we saw, too, senior Liberals resign, including the Health Minister. Alan Tudge stood aside yesterday due to abuse allegations regarding the consensual affair in 2017. What impact does this have on the Liberal Party and your Coalition? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think the Prime Minister’s made the right call in asking Mr Tudge to stand aside. There’s a process that he’s put in place to make sure that due process is followed and that transparency is shone on this. I think that’s the right thing to do. And I don’t think further comments is going to be beneficial to any party in this. I think it just needs to be investigated, addressed and then obviously, depending on the outcome of that inquiry, then obviously actions will take place. 

JAYNIE SEAL: Minister for Agriculture and Deputy Leader of the Nationals, David Littleproud, always great to see you.