Doorstop - Giffard, Victoria

Journalist: First of all, what will farmers in Gippsland see from your visit today?

Michael McCormack: Hopefully they will see that I care. I know that they know Darren Chester has got me down here to talk to farmers and more importantly to listen to them; to talk to councils and more importantly to see just how bad this drought is; how it’s affecting local communities—not just farmers but also local small businesses. Darren Chester has been telling me how bad the drought is in Victoria. Of course there has been a lot of focus on NSW and Queensland droughts, and South Australia’s too, later, with their farmers struggling too—but Victoria has had it for a long long time now. It’s been very dry here at Giffard. You only have to look around the paddocks here and the property looks like a moonscape.

They are going to have to go through pasture regeneration. That’s not going to be easy. That takes a lot of money. It’s important that Governments recognise this. We’re doing what we can as far as the Federal Government is concerned. We’ve put $1.9 billion on the table for Farm Household Assistance and other measures and we have a $3.9 billion Future Drought Fund which we’ve established. It will tell us what we need to do for future droughts but also takes some lessons from this one.

It will rain again and there will be hope and prosperity in the future. We just need to work through this drought.

Journalist: You touched on it a little bit in your answer. Gippsland has felt like a forgotten region when it comes to drought, even though it has been in drought for more than a year. We’ve seen you visit lots of places across regional Australia. You were in Mildura last week. Why has it taken so long for you to visit this region?

Michael McCormack: I’ve been very busy, as you say, and Australia is a very big nation. I have always planned to come here. Darren has invited me and our diaries matched up so I have come here today. But as I say, it’s very very dry. Tomorrow I am going to Menindee Lakes to have a look there. The situation there is critical too. But I’ve also been asked to come to the flood situation in Townsville. It wasn’t that long ago I was in Northern Queensland where half of the State was on fire. So Australia is a big country and I spend a lot of time getting around. I also have a very big electorate myself and parts of my electorate—Forbes, Parkes and West Wyalong—are not dissimilar to this landscape in that they are bone dry. The sheep and cattle are doing it tough. A lot of the farmers have destocked and of course they are going to need to replenish those herds and mobs and it will be tough for them. But also it is tough for the small businesses which rely directly or indirectly on agriculture for doing well.

I’m pleased to say that last year Australia’s agricultural output was nearly on a par with the previous year. So our farmers are resilient, but this next 12 months will be very very tough.

Journalist: Has the Federal Government met with the Victorian Government or Premier Daniel Andrews to discuss more of a partnership approach with drought support in Gippsland?

Michael McCormack: I know Major-General Stephen Day has been down here and I know that co-ordination is happening. I know that David Littleproud as the Agriculture Minister, the Minister assisting the Prime Minister on the drought, has been in discussions with his State counterparts. Those discussions will be ongoing.

Journalist: When we talk about drought we can’t ignore climate change either, and that’s set to be a very big issue at this election. There has been a call (inaudible) for more action on climate change. What is the Federal Government doing to combat climate change?

Michael McCormack: Some of these groups are really not what they say they are. I have to just refer a word of caution there. I’m not saying that particular group you mention; there are a lot of quasi-farmer groups which are coming out these days and giving themselves a fancy title; they are GetUp by any other name, quite frankly. We need to address the climate, of course we do and we are. We are more than meeting our Paris obligations. We are more than meeting the emissions targets that were set. What we don’t want to do is what some green groups and indeed some MPs would have us do, and that is to stop farming practices altogether. There has been a call just this week to ban cotton farming; calls to lower emissions by lowering the dairy herd, the beef cattle herd. I mean that is just ridiculous. We live in a 21st Century world. We don’t want to have to go back to the caves. By the same token we need to make sure that we take care of our environment. We are doing that. We need to give the plane the benefit of the doubt.

We also need to make sure that we drought-proof Australia for the future. That’s why I’m pleased the Nationals in Government have been able to put half a billion dollars on the table to build more water storage infrastructure, to build more dams, to lengthen weirs, to increase pipelines, to put pipes where they haven’t been previously - to increase agriculture, to make sure that every drop of water that falls out of the sky can be harnessed either for the environment or for farming purposes.

We don’t do enough of that at the moment. We need more water storage infrastructure, and we’ve got a fund to do just that.

Journalist: On the drought bipartisanship issue, after the federal election in May and we see who comes into power federally, are you prepared to commit to working with whoever that majority Party will be in order to be able to look at drought policy across this country and how it can be improved upon, looking at a date of 2020?

Michael McCormack: Sure. That’s why we have a Future Drought Fund. That’s why we have put $3.9 billion on the table and we’re going to increase that to $5 billion so that we have a drought plan, we have a vision for the future, and that drought fund will be calling on the proceeds every year, because at some stage every year across Australia there is some part of the nation which is very very dry. There’s never a year goes by that there’s not part of Australia in drought. That has been occurring from time immemorial. That will continue, but we need to make sure that we’ve got the right fund. We have. We’ve put that measure in place and we’ll be working towards making sure that we can capitalise on it.

Journalist: Now there’s a fund in place as you say and it’s retrospectively backdated to 1 July 2018. A lot of farmers have their third year in drought….

Michael McCormack: Some farmers in Queensland are actually in their seventh year of drought, but we’ve been there for them.

Journalist: …but they have been working to mitigate drought for a long time.

Michael McCormack: Sure.

Journalist: Looking at only the last six months in a retrospective way, how can the Federal Government actually really free up capital and free up some cash for farmers to be able to reinvest?

Michael McCormack: We’re doing that. Major-General Day is about to give us a report on his travels around the countryside and what he’s heard. The fact is, we’ve been there. The Federal Government looks after the farmers; State Governments as part of their remit look after the animals and their welfare and the landscape and its welfare. So we are more than meeting what we should be doing. But of course there’s much more than we can and will and must do. We will address these issues.

We can’t make it rain—that’s the one thing Governments can’t do, as much as I would like to. The fact is that it’s very very dry. And when we get the rain, it’s going to come down in torrents; it’s going to come down in absolute buckets and we’ll be cursing the fact that we’ve got probably too much rain. That’s why I’m pleased that we’ve got the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund with half a billion dollars more, taking it to a total of $1.3 billion. That’s going to make a real difference in the future.

Journalist: We heard on ABC radio this morning the chairman of the dairy processor Norco, Greg McNamara, calling for a national food plan, particularly to help with the dairy crisis. Would the Government consider implementing a national food plan?

Michael McCormack: It’s not such a bad idea. We have national plans for other things. Food: Let’s face it—we all eat. Food is one of our most important sectors. Growing food, growing fibre: our farmers need to be recognised for the job that they do. So if to ensure we know where our food is coming from, and educating our future generations is part of the plan, then that’s something that is not such a bad thing. The Government is investing heavily into our farmers, into our farming practices.

I say again, our farmers utilise, they maximise every drop of water they get. The environment doesn’t have to be as accountable as the farmers do. And when the rains do come back, it’s always the environment which ounces back the quickest. The birds return, the frogs return; our farmers don’t always return and so with our small businesses—they find it really tough. You only have to look at some of the main streets, the High Streets in many of these country towns that have a lot of shops shut.

Journalist: (inaudible)…issues that farmers are facing in that workload, and a lot of Government funding has been put into employment packages to offer farmers employment off-farm, spraying weeds, fixing fences on public land….

Michael McCormack: …including dog fences…

Journalist: Exactly. What about looking at it from the perspective of the farmers (inaudible) work on the farm to fix fences and spray weeds, because that’s actually about planning…

Michael McCormack: It is, and a lot of the $1 million we’ve given to each of 81 local government areas across the nation—those decisions are being made at a local level. It’s local decision-making. Whilst the drought is afflicting much of the nation the needs and wants and expectations in each local community, in each local government area, are different. They vary from local government area to local government area. So we have given the councils that money to make their own decisions about where they feel it’s best needed to go.

Journalist: On the national food plan, you were saying (inaudible) in demand for our food overseas. Why don’t we already have a national food plan in place?

Michael McCormack: We do grow the very best food in the world and we do have structures in place—we’ve got very good stakeholder groups: VFF, NSW Farmers, the National Farmers Federation as well as irrigators’ councils and horticultural associations. We do it very well. It’s not such a bad idea.

The Government has actually invested in Norco. We certainly (inaudible) co-operatives in what they do and how they do it. As I say, it’s not such a bad idea. I will look forward to sitting down and having a discussion with the proponent, look forward to the Agriculture Minister doing the same. We need to make sure that we invest in good plans for the future to make sure we have the right vision for our nation and that we can capitalise on the Free Trade Agreements. I have to say we have been very robust in our free trade agenda, growing markets. Peru was added last year. I know Mark Coulton is doing an outstanding job as the Assistant Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, working with Simon Birmingham in making sure we open up even more trade opportunities for our farmers. At the end of the day it will rain again. The paddocks that we see in front and behind us, which are very bare at the moment, will bounce back. Our farmers are the most resilient people in Australia. They will get back on their feet and when they do, look out—they will be able to feed the world as they always have in the past.

Journalist: As you will know there are bushfires through this region at the moment. I have been contacted by a number of firies and farmers—apparently the emergency apps just are not up to the work that they are expecting them to do, those people on the front line. They feel there is a real complacency in the community. So would you be able to push forward an investigation into those apps and their delivery?

Michael McCormack: So they are emergency apps provided by the State Government, are they? I know Linda Reynolds is doing an outstanding job as the Minister responsible for the emergency services. She has been to Tasmania and is providing me with updates from the Tasmanian fires, from fires on the mainland and the floods in Townsville on a very very regular basis. Look, I’m sure that’s something we could chase up. The fact is when it comes to communications, when emergency strikes, we have put in place, either funded or installed, 867 mobile phone towers right throughout Australia. Bridget McKenzie, Senator for Victoria, Minister for Regional Services, is doing an outstanding job in that regard, following on the work that Senator Fiona Nash did. We believe as Nationals that we need more mobile phone towers. The fact is that we have invested heavily in that, and we will do more in the future.

Journalist: Just on Aussie Farms, the Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has announced that he will revoke the charity status of Aussie Farms. Where is that up to? And do there need to be tougher livestock theft penalties when we’ve heard that goats have been stolen in Gippsland and there’s only a $150 fine?

Michael McCormack: In answer to your last question, yes—but that would be the remit of the State Government. They impose these sorts of fines and penalties if they go before Magistrates’ Courts which are governed essentially on a State by State basis. If you rustled cattle you once used to hang by the nearest tree. I’m not calling for people to be hung by the nearest tree but there should be tougher penalties. Indeed when there is trespassing on farmland for purposes other than just stealing a sheep or a goat, they are trying to shut them down; they’re trying to take video so they can do a name and shame on those farmers when sometimes the farmers are meeting every one of their animal welfare obligations, then it’s a disgrace and it needs to be looked at and the penalties need to be looked at.

Farm maps Australia, the website which wanted to name the farmers and has done on its website—their charity status should be revoked. I have written to the Minister responsible and I know the Agriculture Minister has done the same. They are not doing it…

Journalist: …Has it been revoked yet?

Michael McCormack: I’m not quite sure it has been revoked yet. The Minister responsible is certainly looking at it. The fact is both David Littleproud and I have both been calling for the charity status to be revoked—that’s not a charity; they are actually collecting funds under dubious means in my opinion.

We have a lot of animal activists out there doing the wrong thing by our farmers. We have a lot of farmers who are doing the right thing by their communities, by their state and by their nation. They provide the food and clothing for our nation and they are meeting all their animal welfare obligations. They are ticking all the boxes as far as the environment is concerned. Why should they have their farming practices stopped by a few latte-sipping greenies who quite frankly have probably never gone over the Great Dividing Range to see just how well these farmers are treating their animals.

Journalist: Just on that, is the Federal Government prepared to investigate the ABC and some of its journalists’ roles in closing down the live export trade a few years ago?

Michael McCormack: Look, the Federal Government will always look at these sorts of things. I think there should be some sort of investigation into exactly what went on with the live trade. I know it’s always easy to slap down the ABC which I think does a great job for regional Australia; I think the ABC gets a bad rap sometimes from some sections of the community. We see the ABC at its best when there are natural disasters. You only have to look at how the ABC has broadcast during the Tasmanian fires and the updates they have done in Townsville situation to know how lucky we are to have the ABC in our regional areas. I encourage even more cameras, even more microphones to get out to places such as this to do these sorts of interviews with journalists on the ground and people who actually care about their communities, and that’s what these two fine people are doing today.

Thank you very much.

Journalists: Thank you very much.