Minister David Littleproud’s opening address at the ABARES Outlook conference

3 March 2020

HOST: My next speaker this morning is a name and a face familiar probably, I imagine, to everybody in this room. He is of course, again, the Federal Minister for Agriculture as well as, as we've heard, holding the portfolios of Drought and Emergency Management. Now, you're probably aware of recent changes in the portfolio and a lot of talk in the media, a lot of talk here in Canberra about the political machinations and the power deals done behind doors. However, a little birdie told me that the real reason that David Littleproud was so keen to get back into the Ag portfolio was so that he could be here today to give us this next address.

So let's make that dream a reality. Please welcome the Federal Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud.

[Applause]

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: I fear on that note I'm going to disappoint.

Can I firstly acknowledge the Traditional Owners, the Ngunnawal People, for having us on their country. Can I acknowledge ABARES for again, in their 50th year of this Outlook conference, in bringing the information to the primary production sector. And can I also acknowledge Fiona Simpson, the NFF President, for her leadership and the NFF's vision in setting that ambitious goal of $100 billion by 2030.

And the first act that I took after meeting with the NFF when becoming the Agriculture Minister back in 2017, for the first time, was to sign up to that vision. You have to have a goal. You have to be able to support your industries to reach that goal. And my job, as the Federal Agriculture Minister, is to put the environment and the infrastructure around you to achieve it. And in that, can I acknowledge you as well for your investment in agriculture. It's you that do the heavy lifting in making this such an important industry to our economy, and to our nation.

Now, we've faced some challenges over the last couple of years: drought, fire, and now coronavirus. It's not our first rodeo and won't be our last. We'll be calm, methodical, we'll make sure that we put the environment and framework and infrastructure around you; around you to make sure that we get through this. Obviously, the coronavirus is an exponential threat, not only to Australia but right around the world. Australia has led the way in its response, in keeping Australians safe, and making sure that we keep the channels of trade open. And we'll continue to do that. And I've tasked the Department secretary with making sure that our agricultural counsellors in all our embassies, and high commissioners, who are there to get us market access, to make sure commodity-by-commodity we are breaking down the non-tariff barriers, after we've already been able to achieve so many free trade agreements; but to get rid of the technical barriers, accelerate their work, because that will be the important competitive advantage that we need as an agricultural sector to grow us to $100 billion by 2030.

And we'll continue to work with the Chief Medical Officer in making sure that every decision we make is predicated on science and is done calmly and methodically. And obviously with the fires, that has decimated particularly those in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. But the resilience and determination of farmers that I've met is something that has changed me in understanding the psyche of the Australian farmer.

I remember coming back from Cobargo, pulling up and seeing the Australian Defence Force building a fence for a farmer. His name was Greg. I pulled up and had a yarn to Greg. And he was psychologically buggered, and he said so. He said: mate, a day ago I was going to walk out the door and never come back. I couldn't do it. This morning, 30 ADF staff rolled in with star pickets and wire and they're rebuilding a fence. And he said: bugger it, I'm going to have another crack. It was just one simple, small act from you the Australian people, through the Australian Defence Force, that has kept our farmers going through some of the most horrific conditions you could imagine.

That's coupled on top of the drought that many had been suffering for many years. And in fact, in my own electorate for up to eight years. And we continued to make sure that we're not turning our back on the drought or forgetting the challenge of the drought, either. Over $8 billion dollars we've put out there, and for the first time, we seriously are looking to the next drought. Because the next drought starts the very first day after it stops raining. And we all have a role and a responsibility to play in that. We've created a $5 billion Future Fund that will pay a $100 million dividend every year. And I've tasked Brent Finlay with that plan. It sits on the table of Parliament as we sit now. And once the Parliament passes it, it will become law. And that will be a $100 million investment in you: in your business, in your future, to make sure that we give you the tools to adapt to a changing climate. To ensure that we give you what you need to prepare for future droughts.

And I have to also again acknowledge the NFF for their leadership in sitting down with us, and their peak bodies from around the country, their state bodies, in looking at our funding envelope. We're going to look at it in a mature and sensible way. Over $8 billion-worth of programs from the Federal Government alone. That's not counting what the states do, and some states do more than others. But we're going to look at it in a mature way and look at that envelope: how can we do it better? How can we use that envelope better? How will that empower our primary production sector to get through droughts in the future? And they will come. So that's about ensuring that our National Drought Strategy continues as a framework to work from, and that's about the here and now, supporting farmers and the communities who are doing it tough, supporting the communities who support the farmers, and the future. And that's about the Future Drought Fund, but it's also about digging some holes.

Constitutionally, it is illegal for myself or the Prime Minister, or even the Federal Government to go and dig a hole in this country to go and store water. Constitutional power ownership of water resources has been given to our states by our forefathers, and we respect that. We're not going to walk away from our responsibility, but we're going to cut a cheque. We're going to write a cheque to start digging some holes and plumbing this nation. But we need the states to work with us, so we're putting our hand up. It's time and it's- all you really couldn't care less about the Constitution. You just want some holes dug and you want some security in your water. So it's time for leadership from the states and from us, and we're leading with a cheque. We're saying the time for action is now. Because if we build that, we build the infrastructure, we not just build the resilience, we build regional rural Australia. And when you look at this outlook conference and what we've said our agriculture industry's achieved despite all this hardship, is something we should be damn proud of. We should be proud and loud about what we've achieved in the face of some of the most horrendous conditions this country the agricultural sector has faced.

These are times for us to not just reflect on the hard times, but the future and where we want to take it, and where we want to get to that 100 billion and what part each of us play in that. But most importantly, the most important ingredient of that, is our human capital. We've lost generations of young people out of agriculture in regional and rural Australia because we've talked ourselves down. It's time to talk ourselves up, be loud and proud, and make sure that everybody that consumes anything that you produce knows full well how we do it and how well we do it. That's the important thing that we need to start to articulate, and make sure we assert that message to every Australian and to everyone around the world that consumes our products. And two of the main focuses after coming back to the agricultural portfolio that I've made clear that was unfinished business, and I made the Department Secretary fully aware that I don't intend to stick around on this - I want it done now - is the Biodiversity Stewardship Fund. Farmers should be rewarded for the stewardship of their land. They should be monetarily awarded for their carbon abatement, but should be paid a premium for the improvement of their biodiversity. We shouldn't have a blunt instrument about just abating carbon. They should be rewarded for the improvement in their biodiversity, and we should we should reward them through a mechanism like the Climate Solutions Fund. But we've also got an opportunity for them to market that product if they reach that level of biodiversity. We should have a nationally and internationally recognised seal, an accreditation, that if you produce beef in this country or grain, or sugar, you've reached that biodiversity standard. You should have a seal that is internationally and nationally recognised that demands a higher price. Because consumers around the world want to know the provenance of their food and fibre. No one's doing this. So we can either lead the world or we can try and catch up to the world. This is an opportunity for us to take the lead and to continue to solidify Australian produce as the best and greenest in the world. And the acceleration of that I expect, and I've told the department sector, I expect that by the end of the year. We're not messing around. In this game, you never know how long you'll be in the chair. So I'm pretty keen to make sure I leave a legacy to the next generation.

And the last piece is about bringing our young people home. It's about modernising our innovation systems. We are number 20 in the world for research and development in science, technology, and ag. We have the same number of researchers than the United States and the Netherlands. They are four and six in the world. We're better than them. We're world's best. So I've asked the department secretary- and we started this body of work before the last election. In working with our RDCs, working with our education sector to change that, to become number one by 2030. And we should be. We've got the best in the world, but we've got to change how we do things. We've got to collaborate better. We've got an opportunity to commercialise our work. We are lazy at that. And I've got to be honest - in fact, I visited Argentina last year, and the Argentinians said we have the brightest in the world but we are bone lazy when it comes to commercialising our work; the work that we do. There is a craving for our people's work. And we should be a centre of excellence in the world, right here in Australia for research and development technology in agriculture. That is our aim. That is where we need to create another pillar of agriculture. The new jobs of agriculture, to bring our young people home. Not everyone has the ability to go back on the farm, but they have an ability to have a career and a lifestyle and bring them home into regional rural Australia. Agriculture is sexy again. Agriculture has a huge future. The story of agriculture is: just add rain. Thanks for having me. 

ENDS