Keynote Address: 2015 AgForce State Conference—Making the most of investing in Australian Agriculture



30 October 2015

Cloncurry, Queensland

Well thank you Peter for that kind introduction, and as I look out it's a little bit like church on a Sunday morning, you know, you've got everybody in place and they're sitting up the back and the front two rows empty.

But it is great to be here in Cloncurry and you just really needed to hear from a politician at the start of your conference who comes from, to start with, New South Wales. To start with, you know, comes from Aussie rules territory. But I've got to say, it is great to be here. And I'm here in north Queensland at the same time as Josh Frydenberg, who is the new Minister for Northern Australia, Energy and Resources.

But some people have said what would a boy from Kooyong really know about Northern Australia, but I have to say, I really applaud the appointment of Josh Frydenberg to the position. And I applaud it for the reasons that he comes with a fresh set eyes. He comes with enthusiasm. He comes with passion. And Josh Frydenberg is one of the members of the Government front bench who has a great future ahead of him. So down the track one day, when he does indeed climb the tree, hopefully all the way to the prime ministership—and Josh is a great mate of mine—hopefully he will take his experiences from Northern Australia with him.

Now I do need at the outset to acknowledge a few people here today. I'm not quite sure whether Bob Katter's in the room, is he? No, he's not. Anyway, Bob and his son Robbie will be here later today—and look, Bob and I don't always see eye to eye, but I have to say, in true North Queensland fashion, you don't die wondering what Bob Katter thinks. And perhaps that's refreshing in Canberra. And so I will acknowledge that from the outset.

Robbie Katter, his son, the State Member for Mount Isa, is doing a good job. And I know he's got the passion and the enthusiasm to represent western Queensland to the very best of his ability.

Brent Finlay, the National Farmers Federation President, is he here? Brent, are you here? Wow, I've got all these acknowledgements and no one's here. Russell Lethbridge, I know Russell's here, Russell's the president of AgForce for the northern region, I know he's here, I had a conversation with him this morning. His enthusiasm, his passion for this area is evident. He was telling me about the buoyancy of the confidence across the north. Now I know that's not properly spread throughout everybody in the room, and I know it's not properly spread throughout everybody in the area, but it's a lot better now than perhaps it was 12 months ago.

It's a lot better, one reason is because over the past 12 months, as the Australian Government, we've been able to secure important preferential trade agreements with a handful of our largest trading partners. I always call trade agreements preferential rather than free. This Government has achieved preferential trade agreements with the likes of South Korea, with the likes of Japan. With China. China. I mean, that absolute burgeoning middle class of the biggest trading countries globally, one of the biggest economies in the world. And we ladies and gentleman have a preferential trade agreement with China, with Beijing.

I also need to point out that we've recently signed a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Now, that's something which wasn't achieved without controversy, certainly in some commodity areas, but it will also lead to huge benefits and more opportunities for farmers. And so we as a government committed ourselves to making sure that we signed those really big Asian preferential trade agreements with Japan, with South Korea, with China, right at the outset when we were elected in September 2013. And we've done just that.

And I have to take my hat off to Andrew Robb, the Trade Minister, because he's  forged those arrangements, brokered those deals when nobody else before him could possibly have achieved them.

I need to acknowledge Charles Burke, the AgForce CEO, I know he's here today, and of course AgForce members, and yes, you are all great advocates for doing what we know you do best.

And an Aboriginal woman down my way recently told me that at some point or another in your life you will need a pastor, you will need a lawyer, you will need a policeman, you will need a nurse, you will need a doctor—she didn't want to say politicians, she didn't want to take it that far. But she said at one point in your time you're going to need those sorts of people in those sorts of professions, at one point or another.

But three times a day, every day, you need a  farmer. Three times a day every day we are fortunate to have food on our plates, and the people who put food on our plates are Australian farmers. And you people know that you do a wonderful job.

I would have been a fourth generation farmer in the Wagga Wagga area in the Riverina. But I chose journalism from a young age instead—and certainly for myself it was a great leap of faith.

And I have to say on my 90 something plus great-aunt's death bed, she was 90 plus years old, she looked at me and she- and I was the only one who visited her, and she looked at me and she said “you know you are the family failure.” She said “I can't believe that you haven't taken up the land. I can't believe that you were brought up, raised on the family farm, and you're walking off to take up journalism.” And she said you really are the family failure.

I was quite discouraged by this honest statement from my great aunt because I was the only one of her great nephews and nieces to actually go and visit poor old aunt Nellie. And I went home and I conveyed this information to my father who said at the time “I never really liked aunt Nellie, she came from your mum's side.” But he did say now and again she actually makes some sense.

But I tell you what, I went on to become the newspaper editor in my twenties with 58 journalists working underneath me. To go from there to Canberra is a big transition. Fortunately I still get to advocate for and on behalf of my local communities and we all want to build the capacity of our local communities.

But not everybody understands in Canberra what is happening out at Cloncurry, what is happening out at Mount Isa, what's happening in Julia Creek or Wagga Wagga or in the Mallee or- and the more that those who perhaps need to be educated are coming out to these sorts of places the more better.

Because we need people in Canberra who make important policy decisions—and I'm not just talking about the politicians but indeed also the bureaucrats—to come out to these places and to see the hardships, to see the resilience, to see the confidence indeed that is out here. And you have to have confidence to be able to farm in these sorts of areas in outback Australia. You have to have resilience and you have to have a risk-taking nature about you because it's not always easy, not always smooth sailing.

But I am here representing, as Peter pointed out, the Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss, who of course is a fellow Queenslander of yours, and a very proud Queenslander at that. Warren frequently points out that Queensland always does better in the State of Origin than New South Wales.

But Warren is also very proud of rural and regional Australia and The Nationals representation of those areas. And there's no fiercer advocate for rural and regional Australia than Warren Truss. He's been doing it for 25 years in Canberra, he was doing it before that in local government and no doubt I'm sure he'll want to be doing it for as long as there's breath in his body. Because that's the sort of bloke Warren is.

I'm very pleased to be his Assistant Minister because he does give you a bit of reign, he give you the opportunity to come to places like this to be able to talk up the narrative that the Coalition is getting on the job of supporting the good folk out here.

And certainly Minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce is another one of the team who is passionate advocate of Australian agriculture. He has excelled in the Agriculture portfolio and has the runs on the board to prove for it. We've seen foreign investment rules tightened, multiple trade agreements established and he's delivered and implemented far reaching changes to biosecurity protections to ensure our country and vital farming industries are protected against disease. He's also driven and developed the Agriculture Competitiveness White Paper which includes a comprehensive drought package

I know that we can always do more as far as it comes to drought. But certainly our drought policy including the family assistance package that we've put into place and access to concessional loans, they are a good start. And certainly we hope that the climate does what it needs to do and be able to give you a bit of welcome rain. It may well come tomorrow but your races are on, we'd have to wait and see.

The Federal Government is also spending a record $50 billion on infrastructure across the country—road and rail and port linkages which are so important, but other infrastructure as well—all important water infrastructure, so vital to areas such as yours. And water is our most valuable resource. The mining people will tell you that what they extract out of the ground is and I'm certainly- they're probably right there too. But water is what makes this country tick. Because without it you can't indeed run mining operations and you certainly can't grow food and fibre.

We are looking making improvements to competition policy and that's very important. The Nationals during the recent Coalition negotiations with the Liberal Party when they changed prime minister certainly made sure the competition policy was something that we wanted the Commonwealth Government going forward to look at carefully in order to make sure that everybody gets a fair go and that there is a level playing field when it comes to competition policy.

Country of Origin food marketing is an issues people will always say we need to constantly work at and to constantly monitor but we have to put in place food labelling which better represents not just consumers but also the farmers. Then of course there is Murray-Darling Basin water reform. The Basin is so crucial for my part of the world. It's indeed important for all of eastern Australia and event more important that we get Murray-Darling water reform right.

For those in the room who aren't aware today, Warren Truss announced this this morning $25 million has been committed by the Australian and the Queensland governments to fund the upgrade of the Flinders Highway between Hughenden  and Cloncurry.

That money which has been committed by the Australian Government toward the upgrade and rehabilitation and widening of approximately 24 kilometres of the highway. It mightn't sound a lot but I tell you what when you get the linkages right it makes all the difference to the rest of the road network. The upgrade Mr Truss said “will reduce vehicle operating and maintenance costs, increase the safety and improved travel time for road users.”

The Flinders Highway is an important supply chain serving the north-west and north-east Queensland and is a key strategic link serving communities and supporting economic development in Northern Australia. So todays announcement is good news for Cloncurry and the northwest region.

This announcement is all part of the wider package of road infrastructure and rail infrastructure. Warren Truss is committed to achieving to building the Brisbane to Melbourne inland rail—it is one of those key platforms that I think in years and decades to come will be one of those legacy projects that people will look back and say “that's what Warren Truss achieved.” And if they call it the Truss Line that will be entirely appropriate.

We are getting on with the job of building the right infrastructure to unlock the North's potential. The Northern Australia White Paper establishes the roadmap for achieving this vision by 2035 and we are starting work straight away. The National Water Infrastructure Development Fund has $200 million committed to the facilitate greater investment in northern water infrastructure, to accelerate invest in water infrastructure about $5 million will be provided all detailed examination, economic feasibility of the Nullinga dam—and that's important.

Dams were a dirty word during the six years of the previous Labor government. Dams have been an absent feature of the water infrastructure policy discussion in Canberra for far too long now, for almost three decades. But dams are important pieces of infrastructure, they ensure water security in dry times, they ensure that we're open to help those irrigation farms, help those beef farms, help those mining communities and indeed help the built up areas to have a steady water supply.

We are getting on with the job of cutting unnecessary red tape, the regulatory burden by creating each and every year a red tape repeal day when we've gone right through the legislative books to remove the unnecessary red tape to help small businesses which we know helps this nation tick. Small business is the lifeblood of our nation, of our regional towns such as this one. This government knows and understands small business is the engine room of the economy and to help in any way that we can by reducing that red tape is what we're all about.

Barnaby Joyce, my great mate, the former Queensland Senator who came across the border to the New England area of northern New South Wales, still supports the maroons in the State of Origin. He has excelled in the agriculture portfolio when Labor really didn't have anybody in a ministerial position who actually lived in a regional area, Barnaby Joyce is excelling in the agricultural portfolio, turning commodity prices around particularly beef and lamb, don't say he did it wholly and solely, I don't say he did it individually but certainly Barnaby Joyce's work to  ensure the right policy conditions are being put in to place have certainly helped to lift those all-important prices at the farm gate.

The ban on live exports which was, I have to say, the most inexcusable piece of government policy that was ever, certainly in my time, but farmers tell me ever, ever introduced to the Australian Parliament. We have turned that on its head and are looking to not only just send more cattle overseas to those markets in Indonesia and the existing markets, but indeed increase the scale and breadth of the markets that we have the capacity of sending live animals to. No country in the world has the strong, quality-assured supply chain that we do, from basically the paddock to the plate, and we have that in place. There will always be those incidents unfortunately where sometimes some people do the wrong thing, but overall you have to not only support our live animal exports, but we have to increase the markets into which they go.

And certainly as one of the proudest projects that I started in my previous role as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance was the Post Entry Quarantine Facility at Mickleham just near the Melbourne Airport . Now it's a long, long way removed from Cloncurry in north-west Queensland, but let me tell you, but this facility will go a long way to enhancing Australia's biosecurity protections. What it will do is make sure that anything coming into our country, be it bees or vegetable matter, it will go through the proper biosecurity measures and protections. To ensure also that industries keep disease free, to ensure that we keep out of our country all those nasties that aren't in any systems now the Post Entry Quarantine Facility will do just that because they certainly would decimate industries if they were ever introduced to Australia.

Barnaby, of course, as I mentioned before, has developed and enhanced the Ag White Paper—and the farm production value of 2013–14, I appreciate it's an odd statistic, was $51 billion. It contributes only a slight proportion of Australia's GDP, gross domestic product, and 15 per cent of total Australian merchandise exports. But we all know that we grow food and fibre not just to feed our nation but others in the region. And certainly the Ag White Paper is designed to better support farmers, doing its bit to support regional areas, and doing its bit to support Queensland. One theme of the White Paper is a fairer go for farm businesses. Under the White Paper we have committed $11.4 million to boost ACCC engagement with the agriculture sector, including, and this is really important, a new commissioner dedicated just to agriculture. This will better ensure the ACCC is always aware of what goes on, and indeed if there are unfair advantage practices taking place that the ACCC will act.

And that also ties in- dovetails in with reducing red tape to assist small business. Building the infrastructure of the 21st century is what the Coalition Government is about. Supporting rural and regional Australia is what certainly the Turnbull-Truss Government is constantly committed to, and I look forward very much to mixing with some of you as the morning goes on.

I do thank you for allowing me to address your conference. I commend you for the work that you've done in the past, the work that you're doing now, and certainly the dedication which you will show in the future to building a better north-west Queensland, to supporting your state, supporting your nation, and indeed improving and enhancing on those international trademarks that we've been able to ensure in recent months and weeks. So good luck for the remainder of your conference and good luck for the future. Thank you very much.