Media Conference, Townsville

PHILLIP THOMPSON: Phillip Thompson, Federal Member for Herbert. It’s great to welcome back Minister Littleproud back into North Queensland, back to Townsville. He’s a frequent flyer to the region. He was only out here not so long ago when we were out at JCU doing a great announcement there. Of course, the only Senator in North Queensland, Senator Susan McDonald, here today as well for this great announcement; and, of course, one of the most hardworking and competent candidates that you’ll see throughout the country, Andrew Wilcox. He comes with a great wealth of experience. He has been the Mayor of the Whitsundays and now being the Liberal–National candidate for Dawson. That’s a good, strong candidate we have that knows that we need to be putting the regions first. We know that we need to be looking after our mining, our agriculture and, like today, when we’re talking about water security.

Townsville knows very well about what long-term water security means and what is needed. This announcement today, that I’ll leave for Minister Littleproud, is about talking and working with our universities who are best placed here in the north to look after water security. This announcement through the CRCNA, with matched funding from JCU and CQU, will shore up water security, will work with our farmers to ensure water security is good and also help out rural and remote Indigenous communities. So, this announcement is great for the region, great for northern Australia but especially great for Townsville because it puts our researchers back where they should be, and that’s leading the way. So, I’ll handover to Minister Littleproud for more of the announcement.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Thanks, Phil. It’s good to be back with my good mate Phil Thompson. Can I tell you, this guy fought for our country and now he’s fighting for Townsville, and there’s no prouder guy that goes to Canberra and supports his community than I’ve seen in Phil Thompson, so thank you for what you do. To Andrew Wilcox who also is now going to try to represent Townsville too, it’s good to be with you, mate, and my good friend Susan MacDonald. It’s great to be here in the north. And again, we’re here to spread some money around and to make sure is that we make this investment in Northern Territory Australia.

The exponential growth of agriculture will come in northern Australia. Our production systems in the south are mature and they can only get small incremental growth. The big growth will come in northern Australia. So, the commitment today of $5 million from the Federal Government partnering with $5 million from Charles Darwin University, JCU and CQU will go into new research that will help farmers understand how they can get their production systems up and going, making sure they can grow agriculture, whether that be cotton, whether that be feet lots, whether that be broadacre grain, this is about giving them the science and the tools in the twenty‑first century to grow their businesses to create jobs in northern Australia. This is where the jobs of the future will come, and this research is going into water. Water research is what will grow agriculture. The story of agriculture is just add water and while we don’t own the management of water, we are saying we are giving the states the tools and our farmers the tools to understand this to manage it sustainably to work with our First Australians to make sure they’re part of the conversation to ensure we get bang for buck. And we’re saying this will implement that the CSIRO have done in developing northern Australia water production, the $3.5 billion that we’ve got on the table that we’re asking the states to come and take to come and develop northern Australia, dig some holes, plumb the north and to grow agriculture. This will underpin a lot of that work, but it will go to the farm gate, and it will be these researchers sitting at the farm kitchen table understanding what they need to do.

But, more importantly, the thing that I’m most excited about is the investment in our regional universities. This complements my innovation hubs, and I’m all about taking the research out of the sandstone universities and putting them here in the regions. This is about building the capacity and capability of our regional universities, bringing our young kids to these universities because they know they’re going to get the best education and have a career pathway. And that’s where we, as a Federal Government should be investing our agriculture research and now this water research into the best minds in the world, right here in the north for JCU, CQU and CDU. So, very exciting partnership and the fact that these universities are putting their money where their mouth speaks volumes about the worth they see in northern Australia as well. That is a great partnership and can I say to those universities: Thank you. You have taken a leap of faith, but you will be part of northern Australia’s growth success story. So, Nick did you want to say a few words?

NICK KLOMP: Very briefly, thanks, Minister. Hi, everyone. My name is Professor Nick Klomp. I’m the Vice‑Chancellor and President of CQ University. CQ University is delighted about the announcement today. CQ University, of course, has world‑class researchers in agriculture, but the opportunity to join forces with JCU and CDU in this joint approach supported by the CRC of Northern Australia to represent the needs of northern Australia, we’ve had the three northern Australia universities working together is just an incredible opportunity. When you look at the northern Australia and all the opportunities, one of the things that strikes you as immediately obvious is agriculture, and if you’re thinking about agriculture you’ve got to think about water security. Of course, water security is more than just that phrase. You’ve got to think about allocation, the smart use of water, sensing, appropriate crops, appropriate livestock, and then you need to think about international markets and other opportunities and supply chains. Northern Australia has a whole lot of challenges there, and to bring the brain trust of these three great universities together, supported by the CRC Northern Australia, we’re really very excited.

One last thing: water security is really important but, of course, northern Australia has many other challenges, so we aim to prove to the CRC of Northern Australia and to the Commonwealth Government that when we join forces like this, JCU, CDU and CQ University can provide solutions and innovative approaches to all sorts of other challenges in northern Australia. Let’s think about rural health. Let’s think about all the different guises of agriculture, all the technologies and other things required. I think it starts at water security, so I’m delighted by this announcement. But we’ve got plenty of other challenges in northern Australia and we stand ready to work together to provide those solutions for the population of northern Australia.

SANDRA HARDING: Sandra Harding, Vice‑Chancellor and President, James Cook University. Look, I would simply want to echo the words of the Minister and Nick Klomp, the Vice‑Chancellor of Central Queensland University. We know how important it is that our area, that our region, that northern Australia grows and prospers from here. And who better to rely upon than the three universities that are headquartered in the north that, in fact, are here to this thing – place matters. We can have many other people come into the north to work for a short time on province of the north, including water security, but this is our home. Place is important. We have people here who are expert in various areas who we know want to work very, very hard to ensure economic development and industrial prosperity occurs across the north. This is why our universities were started in the first place. We’re here as a group of three universities today to make this real and to ensure that not only in terms of water security the project we’re working on now, but in a whole range of other ways, we can work together bring to bring the sort of power and intensity and prosperity to the north that each of us promises. Thank you.

STEVE ROGERS: Thank you. The Minister has just told me I’m the token Territorian here. So, Charles Darwin University again is extremely excited to be part of this initiative with our colleagues at CQU, JCU and the CRC for Northern Australia. Again, echoing the comments of my colleagues, de‑risking the north for investment is a critical part of growing our economy. Water security is important. We’ve talked about agriculture. But let’s think about mining, energy, hydrogen production, all are going to require secure supplies of water. It’s a really exciting time. The Minister referred to the regional universities being the powerhouse of northern Australia going forward. I think we’ll live up to that challenge going forward. And thank you for the opportunity and thank you to the CRC for Northern Australia. We are very excited and look forward to moving this forward and developing northern Australia. Thank you.

ANNE STÜNZNER: Anne Stünzner, CEO CRCNA. I’m not really very good at this so please be patient with me. I just wanted to say thank you very much this morning for coming down and how delighted the CRCNA is at partnering with the three northern universities. As the Minister said, water underpins all of agricultural growth in the future in northern Australia and this project will underpin de‑risking agenda in the north and take the risk out of investment in northern Australia and fundamentally it will lift that economic barometer 3,000 kilometres north. We look forward to seeing the outcomes that come out of this project and we hope that it’s one of many where we can partner with the northern Australia universities alliance. Thank you.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Any questions?

JOURNALIST: You were here a couple of weeks ago as well with another announcement for aquaculture here in Townsville. Talk to me about what the Federal Government sees the future of this region playing now with this water security announcement as well?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, it’s going to underpin northern Australia’s growth. It’s going to underpin Australia’s growth. The exponential growth of our economy in agriculture and resources is going to happen here. It’s not going to happen in Sydney or Melbourne or western Victoria. It’s going to happen right here. And this is what the Australian Government is saying. We are going to put our money, your money, Australian taxpayers’ money on the table to ensure that we create the jobs, we create the pathways for young northern Australians who have left and gone south, to stay here. There have been generations that have been taken out of northern Australia. It’s time to bring them home. It’s time to bring them back here to give them the career pathways where they be in agriculture and mining, tourism, even in defence. Those opportunities are there. But we have to put the environment around it. And we have to fill in the infrastructure gaps to help those supply chains fill in to make sure there’s continuity, there’s confidence and we de‑risk those investments. That’s what the NAIF is about. That’s what the Northern Australia Development Fund, the $112 million, is about; $68 million has now been put out around telecommunications, just for northern Australia. We’re going to give you the tools of the 21st century to be able to create wealth up here.

So, this is a suite of measures. There’s no one silver bullet, but it’s not all Government, I’ve got to say. What we’re trying to do is partner and if we partner with the private sector, we get a better return on investment for the Australian taxpayer. We’re going to create the jobs here, create the jobs and grow our nation’s pie. And that pie will grow from the north and I see that. And that’s why this investment is strategic. And there will be more announcements we’ll have to make because people are taking this up. All of our programs are now being taken up, particularly if you look at the NAIF or the Northern Australia Development Fund, there is oversubscription, so we’re now have to look at how do we recalibrate and reset and take it to the next level, which I think is exciting for northern Australia.

JOURNALIST: Can you talk about the practical steps this announcement will take towards improving water security for farmers and irrigators?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So, this is about making sure that every drop counts and effectively our farmers are the earlier adopters of technology and we’ve had to be. But water underpins that. The story of agriculture is just to add water and if you give it to them, they will grow. What we’re saying with this is that we’re going to give our farmers the tools, the science, the technology to understand what will give them the production and profitability of utilising that water to it’s enth, and that’s what we are using the best minds right here in northern Australia to be able to educate our farmers. Once our farmers see and feel and touch this work, then they adopt it. But they don’t adopt it when it’s undertaken by a university in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. It’s too far away and they couldn’t care less.

But when you’ve got real people, real university minds out there at the kitchen table, explaining this to farmers, they adopt it because they see the value in it. And this is the granular work that now needs to happen. We have all these pie-in-the-sky programs, but these are the real granular ones that get to the nuts and bolts of making sure that agriculture grows, making sure that farmers understand the profitability in different crops like cotton. If you look at a crop like cotton, you bring in a cotton gin, you bring in new workers that have to process this. You bring in feedlots. There’s a huge workforce that’s required on that as well. But you have to underpin that with water security and making sure that you can account for every drop, and that’s what the science will do; is give that investment confidence, de‑risk investment that these people are about to make millions of dollars in you and your communities.

JOURNALIST: We’ve already got one major irrigation program kind of bubbling away at Hughenden with the Hughenden irrigation program. What kind of difference will this funding make to future endeavours like that in other parts of Northern Queensland?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, it’s not just Northern Queensland. It’s Northern Territory as well and Western Australia. And we’ve got to work with our jurisdiction partners here, and they’ve got to be bold and courageous. We are. The universities are. Farmers are prepared to do that. But, you know, there’s been 20 dams built in this country since 2003; 16 of those have been in Tasmania. The reality is that the eastern seaboard has done three-fifths of bugger‑all in building dams or plumbing this country. So, what we’re trying to do to underpin this with is the research from CSIRO or this research to give them the confidence to come forward and to take our money, the $3.5 billion, and dig a hole, dig a hole and let northern Australia grow. But this will go more to a granular level of getting our farmers to understand how they can use that water. What are the industries that will drive that where they’ll get efficiency and productivity and profitability out of using that water. We’re trying to put the environment around northern Australia, but we do need our jurisdiction partners to take this up.

While this is about agriculture, can I say, for you here in Townsville, anyone along the eastern seaboard the frightening thing for the fact that the states have not dug a hole and have not stored water for you is that by 2030 there will be a 37 per cent reduction in storage capacity per person per megalitre of water, which means that your ability to turn a tap on by 2030 is going to be constrained, because no‑one’s bothered to dig a hole to store water to put down your pipes, let alone worry about agriculture. So, the Federal Government is doing all we can. We’re throwing cash at this. We’re throwing research at this. We’re saying, “This is how we can do it”, and we’ve got to look at ways in this country of saying “Why can’t we?”, rather than, “How can we?” That mindset has to change, and it has to change with the states to come with us, to come with universities, to come with farmers; and lo and behold northern Australia will roll this country to a new level we haven’t seen before.

JOURNALIST: Is there a time frame that you’re sort of looking at with these projects?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I’ve just been told there will be someone on the ground up in the Ord in the next couple of months—in the next month or so, in 40-degree heat and 90 per cent humidity. I understand how that rain falls out of the monsoon so we can get that science and that technology of most efficient use of that water. That is what these universities are good at. And while it’s hard work, that sort of research underpins those investment decisions that our farmers and industry will take in coming up here and spending millions upon millions of dollars and bringing people with them to grow the jobs up here. That’s the exciting thing. These jobs will be real because the agriculture sector will need these jobs. They’re skilled jobs. They’re running million-dollar machines. So, this is not straw between the teeth sort of stuff sitting on hay bales. These are multimillion-dollar businesses running state‑of‑the‑art machinery. And that’s the exciting thing. We’re going to see a whole new range of industries and jobs brought to northern Australia from this.

JOURNALIST: Five million dollars from the Federal Government and that’s being matched by the universities collectively or each individually?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, collectively. So, it’s 50–50 partnership between we and the three universities, which is a significant investment for three regional universities. And just to put into context how important we see this is, the CRC budget is $75 million of which we put in, so we’re making a fairly significant investment in water. We understand that water will be one of the key drivers with this and we’ve been doing some really good research whether it’s been aquaculture or, in fact, looking at the sugar industry yesterday. Our CRC, I think, up here for northern Australia has really got northern Australia because we’ve got people on the ground here and we’re doing research that’s going to matter. And while I control the Research Development Corporations and agriculture, 15 commodities, $1.1 billion, I’ve got to say what the CRC has done up here in northern Australia has been just as meaningful if not more meaningful in the research that they’ve decided to partner with key partners like James Cook, CQU and CDU and that’s the important thing. And what I’m saying to my RDCs now is take a look at the Northern Australia CRC and start to put some of that $1.1 billion into these universities as well because that builds the capacity of our regional universities, gives our kids a place to come and study that is world-leading, but gives them a career pathway after. That’s the exciting thing about what our regional universities can do. I’ve got nothing against sandstone universities. It’s just that they’re not up here.

JOURNALIST: Speaking of sandstone universities and more announcements for the north in terms of funding, when is the election?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: That’s at the discretion of the Prime Minister. It will be next year. And look, it has to be before June and, obviously, we’re working through the fact that we’re preparing for a budget, but that’s at the discretion of the Prime Minister and we’re obviously trying to put our case that what we’ve been able to achieve over the last three years, not only in keeping Australians safe, but we’ve built an economy through a pandemic that has decimated the world economy. Australians have done better than anyone else and we’re ready to take you out of it. And that’s the big question for Australians to think about. Who’s best place to take you out of this pandemic, to keep you in employment, to keep your costs down, your electricity costs down your mortgage costs down and, basically, give you the standard of living that you enjoy and to take our country to another level? The fact that we’ve come through one of the worst pandemics in world history and Australia is still standing, in fact, Australia is leading, speaks volumes about not what just the Australian Government has done, but I think the Australian people and how they’ve responded, and I think we should be proud as a nation. That’s what we’ll be saying to the Australian people. Give us another crack and we’ll take you to the next level.

JOURNALIST: Just finally from me, how important is that regional communities like North Queensland, northern Australia are involved in these projects and especially off the back I guess of yesterday when you [indistinct].

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Look, you get plenty of gratuitous advice from bureaucrats in Canberra and they’re wonderful people, but when they don’t live up here, they don’t understand the opportunities and what drives these communities. And I think the best way a Government can spend Australian taxpayers’ money is to and listen learn from the people on the ground because invariably they know better and if they give you the direction because invariably they will partner with their own cash, their own courage and conviction of their own wallet speaks volumes about how we can get a return on investment for the Australian taxpayer. And that’s why it’s important, no matter the agency, through northern Australia I’m now committed to making sure that there’s only limited people sitting in Canberra. They should be up here. They should be living in northern Australia whether that be the CRC whether that be the NAIF or the Office of Northern Australia. There should only be a few in Canberra. The rest should be living here, going to the local footy scene, local residents, living and breathing amongst them, because that’s how you learn. You learn, you listen, and you act, and that’s really what I want to see moving forward empowering the communities up here because that’s how I can get a return on investment for the Australian taxpayer.

JOURNALIST: Speaking of having more staff working for the NAIF in Northern Queensland, how is the process of getting those staff in Sydney, I think it is, to the north?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: You’ve got to appreciate the NAIF is a very sophisticated organisation in terms of the assessments they need to make, so some of those skills you simply can’t pull off the street and put into the NAIF office to make assessments on multimillion-dollar deals, sometimes in the millions of dollars. So, what we’re trying to do is slowly move that across from those that are making those assessments in Sydney up into northern Australia. There will be a new CEO appointed. My expectation is that that CEO will live in northern Australia – not fly in, fly out from Brisbane, but live here and have a family here. That’s my expectation and I think that in trying to get that skills base in NAIF, has meant that we’ve had to compromise. But I think we’re building northern Australia to the scale that it’s time for these people to move up here and to be up here.

The National Party has got a strong record, the Coalition has a strong record, whether that be the APVMA moving out of Canberra to Armidale; the Murray–Darling Basin Authority I moved out of Canberra right up and down the Murray–Darling from Goondiwindi down to South Australia. So, we’ll continue to move but you’ve got to respect the people who are there, the skills they’ve got, but where the expectation moving forward is, if you’re going to be part of the NAIF, if you’re going to be part of the Office of Northern Australia, if you’re going to be part of the northern Australia CRC you’re going to live up here and you’re going to be part of the community and you’re going to enjoy the lifestyle. I can tell you there’s plenty of people living in Sydney and Melbourne at the moment who probably think it’s not a bad way to live. They’ve been living under the doona for the last six months or two years, really, so come up here and enjoy the lifestyle.

JOURNALIST: You mentioned that it would be benefiting miners and farmers. How can we ensure that farmers aren’t going to have to be fighting mining companies for the benefits of this water supply?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, there’s always been a sharing environment between farmers, industry, the environment and ultimately you that needs to turn on the tap every morning. So, there’s always been a sharing arrangement in that. It’s always done sensibly in that human consumption is always given priority and then whatever is left is given for consumptive use for industry and the environment. They are hard and longstanding rules of water policy that have been around for years, but what this will do is feed into the understanding of that further to make sure that we are getting the best use of that water, that we are actually accounting for every drop, and we are getting value for every drop and that’s really what this does.

JOURNALIST: I have a question for Phil about Labor being in town for [indistinct].

PHILLIP THOMPSON: Who’s in town?

JOURNALIST: [indistinct].

PHILLIP THOMPSON: I didn’t know that. Fantastic.

JOURNALIST: They’re talking about child care today and child care affordability. Do you think they’ve missed the mark about what North Queensland needs or what’s the Federal Government – 

PHILLIP THOMPSON: Who’s here?

JOURNALIST: [indistinct].

PHILLIP THOMPSON: That’s it?

JOURNALIST: And John.

PHILLIP THOMPSON: Oh, okay. I’m not too concerned about what Labor candidates are up to or what the Senator from the Gold Coast moonlighting in Cairns are up to – in Townsville. I know child care is tough. I’ve got two kids in child care, a three‑year‑old and a one‑year‑old. You know, it’s expensive. It’s tough and I know that if they’re down here talking about it, I’m happy to meet with them if they want to have a discussion about what their policy could be.

JOURNALIST: Do you think it could be more affordable?

PHILLIP THOMPSON: I think everything could be more affordable, mate. I think milk could be more affordable as well. But I know that, you know, through the pandemic it’s been quite tough having kids in day care and child care and it’s been tough for a long time and there’s been different helping with subsidies and things like that have been rolled out. I see the bill every fortnight. I know it hits the hip‑pocket of many around Australia so interested to see what they come up with or whether they’re just going to come down and throw more mud at the Government.

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