Doorstop with the Hon Michael McCormack MP, the Hon David Littleproud MP and the Hon Dr John McVeigh MP
The Hon Michael McCormack MP, Deputy Prime Minister: It's good to be in Forbes. Good to be here in one sense but not in another, it's good to be here with Mayor of Forbes Graeme Miller, we've got our neighbouring Mayor Ken Keith from Parkes Shire.
We're here at HE Silos, it's a third generation family, it was started by Ivan and Patcie in Hillston in 1969, passed it on to Jenny and Steve Morrison and they've also got their son and daughter in the company, Josh and Stevie, so it's very much a family, generational company. This company will be taking advantage of some of the announcements that the Prime Minister is about to make as far as the drought is concerned. Forbes is one of the many, many shires right throughout New South Wales, right throughout Queensland, right throughout Victoria, for which the drought is biting very, very hard.
Two years ago, two years ago exactly, this Shire was more than a quarter underwater with the Lachlan River in flood. So that just goes to show the extent of Australia's landscape, Australia's climate, what damage it can do. At the moment, we're facing this increasing, increasing drought. It's having a dreadful effect on families, on farmers, on communities and the announcements that the Prime Minister is about to make, takes the Federal Government's total package of drought measures to $1.8 billion.
We will continue to work closely with the NFF, with New South Wales farmers and with other groups as well, Victorian farmers, with AgForce in Queensland and with farmers on the ground and local governments such as here at Forbes, to monitor the situation, to increasingly make sure that we do what we can as far as helping is concerned. Certainly the New South Wales Government and the Federal Government and other governments too, are working very closely in hand to make sure we do whatever we can.
But Prime Minister, welcome to the Riverina electorate and I'll let you make some announcements.
Prime Minister: Thanks very much Michael and I want to thank you and my colleagues for being here today. We're going to hear from the Minister for Agriculture and the Minister for Regional Development in a moment as well. But what we are doing is ensuring that we provide help for farmers right now, support right now. We're also making changes to ensure that farmers are even more resilient.
Our farmers are the best in the world, and they know as we all do, that we live in the land of droughts and flooding rains. As the Mayor was saying to us a moment ago and as Michael reminded us, two years ago, 27 per cent of this Shire was underwater. Now it's in the worst drought since the 1960s. So it is a tough climate, but our farmers are tough and we support them.
Now, I want to announce a number of important measures that we're taking today. As John McVeigh will describe in more detail, we're going to put $75 million more into the Drought Communities Program. This is designed to go to local councils, to spend on local infrastructure. We've just been talking about improving the infrastructure for people to come in and pick up water from the town's stand pipe when they've run out of water on their place, a whole range of things.
We're going to be giving $1 million to 60 councils, two in Victoria, 36 in New South Wales, 22 in Queensland. That's going to be putting money into these communities, it's critically important at this time.
As you know, we are working very closely with the NFF, with other organisations, with state governments, with local governments and we're going to enhance that coordination, appoint Major General Stephen Day as the National Drought Coordinator. He's already talking to Pip Job the New South Wales Drought Coordinator today. I've discussed this with Gladys Berejiklian and with Pip, and they really welcome getting additional federal coordination and leadership to make sure that we're all working together and of course getting the feedback from farmers and farming communities, so that we make the right policy decisions.
We're going to double the amount of concessional loans that will be available to farmers. These are really important, from $1 million up to $2 million. That's really important, to ensure that people can get access to concessional finance, to make the investments they need, to make themselves more resilient and so far as they can, drought-proof.
Now, one of the most important things to do if you're on the land in Australia, is to prepare for drought. Because you know, as we were saying a moment ago, this is not the first drought and it certainly won't be the last. Fodder storage and grain storage is absolutely critical. Now, at the moment, silos like this or indeed a hayshed can be written off over three years. We are changing the law to make that able to be written off over one year. That's providing even more incentive for farmers to put themselves in a position where they are absolutely giving themselves the best chance of getting through a drought, being able to hand-feed with fodder or grain that they've put away when prices were lower, rather than having to pay the very high prices that you obviously get at the height of a drought, as we see at the moment.
We're also ensuring—and David will describe the way we're going to do this—providing more weather advice, making sure the Bureau of Meteorology is able to provide more detailed, local advice to farmers about the weather, what the prospects are. Very big decisions have got to be taken by farmers; how long do you hand-feed for? If you hand-feed for too long, you loose a lot of money. If you destock at the wrong time and it starts to rain, you will find it very expensive to restock. These are very difficult questions and obviously the best weather advice and information is vitally important.
So this is an example of the way in which we are constantly lending additional support to our farmers.
I want to thank all the farmers who are battling this drought so courageously and resiliently and innovatively. I want them for the feedback they're providing us, and above all I want to thank all Australians for the love and support they're providing our farmers. From the little kids—little Maisie in Western Australia, who gave her pocket money, two years pocket money, $193, she gave that to help the farmers on the east coast. To young Jack from the primary school in Freshwater who started the ‘Give a Fiver for a Farmer' campaign and raised 10 times as much as he thought he ever could. But so many examples of Australians providing that support for our farmers.
We need them and I want to say to our farmers, we have your back. There is no ‘set-and-forget' we are constantly working to ensure that you get every support you can.
Of course, let's all pray for rain. Now, I'll ask John and David to say—John, won't don't you tell us a bit about the community drought money that we talked about?
The Hon. Dr John McVeigh MP, Minister for Regional Development, Territories & Local Government: Thank you Prime Minister. Well, the Drought Communities Program recognises very much, as does the Turnbull Government, that this drought is as tough at the main street as it is in the paddock. It's tough on the farm, it's tough in town. So the Drought Communities Program works directly with councils, injecting money into councils—60 as the Prime Minister mentioned initially—so such that local projects can get underway, pump some money into local communities who are doing it tough.
We're talking about community infrastructure projects, we're talking about water projects, both for stock and for human consumption, even drought events that recognise how tough it is. We really want councils to come up with their priorities, liaise direct with my Department and we're ready to get that money going now.
As the Prime Minister said, 36 councils here in New South Wales, where this drought is really biting hard, 22 in Queensland, 2 in Victoria and we will continue to do more. In fact the Deputy Prime Minister and I have already started talking today about the next round of councils that will be receiving assistance through this program, under this $75 million extension to the existing Drought Communities Program.
Prime Minister: Thank you. David, just talk about all of these measures but in particular what we're doing with water?
The Hon. David Littleproud MP, Minister for Agriculture & Water Resources: In particular Prime Minister, the suite of measures that we've announced previously have been about the ‘here and now', about keeping farmers' dignity, about putting food on their table. The measures we are now announcing about the future, about preparedness and the resilience of our agriculture sector into the future.
Proudly, we're about to announce nearly $100 million for the Great Artesian Basin, one of the iconic natural resources of this country, to roll out and actually endeavour to pursue that program even further. I'm calling on the states, who will have to come on this journey with us, to put their hand in their pocket and to match us. Also, in terms of looking in terms of new water infrastructure for those drought-stricken communities, $70 million will go into that part of it as well, to identify those pipes, those dams, that we can help to build the resilience, to build a future for agriculture, the sustainability of agriculture, and the productivity and profitability of agriculture.
Water is the main story of agriculture. The story of agriculture is a good one. The story of agriculture is “just add rain, just add water”. We should be positive about our future and what we have done for this nation's economy and what we will do for it in the future.
To complement the measures we've taken, water is a significant piece that we're going to continue to invest in, identifying though projects, protecting and enhancing the Great Artesian Basin, making sure that we work with the Bureau of Meteorology and getting climate guides for our farmers so they can make critical decisions around their stocking density and when they should sell and shouldn't. These are giving them the right tools to be able to make the right decisions for their businesses and for their families. These are important measures that we see.
As well as complementing that, in lifting the region's corporations loan from $1 million to $2 million, to give our farmers options, more ability to look at how they can diversify their financial base into the regional investment corporation, so these suite of measures we are undertaking are the ones about building that resilience, diversifying the risk, but continuing to make sure that we give the dignity and respect that our farmers deserve, complementing the Farm Household Assistance Program, as well as the rural financial councils that we are continuing to put in.
Prime Minister: Thank you. Michael, did you want to say anything else as the local member?
Deputy Prime Minister: Yeah, look, this is one of the areas which is so badly affected by drought, right throughout the Riverina electorate. But I want those local farmers, those local communities to know that we have their back.
I'm working very, very closely with the Prime Minister, with the Agriculture Minister, with the Regional Development Minister to make sure we've got the measures right. This third suite of measures now takes the federal commitment to $1.8 billion and there is more work to do. You've heard that this morning. We're very much focused on making sure that we're with our farming communities all the way. Agriculture is a very big part of the Riverina and Central West and we'll make sure we will continue to closely monitor and I will too, as the local member and make sure we certainly continue to have the farmers' back.
Prime Minister: Good, thank you. Any questions for us?
Journalist: Prime Minister, by increasing the amount available for low interest loans up to a billion dollars, is that wise, to encourage farmers to go further into debt?
Prime Minister: Farmers are very good businessmen and women and what they're doing, their loans are concessional. They don't require principal repayment for the first five years and the interest rate is somewhat lower than you would be able to get from a bank. But farmers take on debt very prudently and of course the assessment of the loan takes into account their situation. So, don't underestimate the business sense and savviness of our Australian farmers.
Journalist: Prime Minister, is there a consideration at all to looking at capital city storage dams and transferring some of that water to drought-affected communities like here in New South Wales?
Prime Minister: Water, transporting water is always very expensive. 1,000 litres of water, it weighs a ton as a cubic meter, so it's got a low value to weight and to volume. So water infrastructure has got to be very carefully assessed. But again, I can assure you that we are putting the funds there so that the right, the smart investments in water, for infrastructure and to provide greater resilience, are being made.
Journalist: With regards to the [inaudible] how immediate will these measures take effect? Because those projects will obviously have to be applied for and built?
Prime Minister: Well, the money—I'll ask John to say further—but this money is money that will be used by councils typically for jobs that are available now. I mean, as Graham the Mayor was saying, the Mayor of Forbes was talking about upgrading the facilities with the stand pipes. So when people are coming in to get a load of water, which the council is providing free for people who are running out of water on their place, that's the kind of thing that you can have. How long would it take you to hook into that job, Graeme?
Graeme Morrison, Co-Owner, He Silos: Immediately.
Prime Minister: Immediately. There you go. There you go, that's when it will be spent, immediately.
Journalist: Prime Minister, you've changed the emissions reduction targets at issue with the National Energy Guarantee days after you told the Cabinet that it was necessary. Is it a sign you're panicking?
Prime Minister: What we're doing is focused on price. As you would have seen in the video I posted this morning, everything we have done in the past on energy and everything we are doing now, including implementing the ACCC's recommendations—an inquiry, by the way, we initiated 18 months ago—all of that is focused on getting energy prices down.
Now, we're working with our colleagues to ensure that every element, including the National Energy Guarantee, is going to work even better to deliver lower energy prices. That's what it's all about.
Journalist: Your critics say though the numbers against you are rising, is that concerning on a personal level about leadership?
Prime Minister: I'm focused on getting energy prices down, I'll leave you to all of the speculation. But the goal is cheaper electricity. That's the difference between our side of politics and Labor.
The Labor Party only has a plan for higher electricity prices, unsustainable levels of a Renewable Energy Target, they want to have a 50 per cent RET. You know what? We've got to stop subsidising one technology or another and you don't have to take my word for it.
That's what all the experts say, that's what Rod Sims says. We've got to focus on price, so we're for lower price for energy.
Journalist: But why are power prices now a federal issue? Hasn't it always been a state issue? Why is it now in your hands?
Prime Minister: Well, it's shared, it's absolutely shared. You're absolutely right that the states have got many of the biggest levers in terms of energy. But there is also a federal role and there is a need for federal leadership and there always has been, always will be. We work very closely with the states.
Journalist: On Farm Household Allowance, have the changes being announced today been as a result of a low uptake, continued low uptake of the VHA application? Because there were concerns about the laborious task it was to apply for and the embarrassment for farmers to discuss their finances with a rural financial counsellor?
Prime Minister: Well, I've been talking directly with farmers about that. In fact only the day before yesterday I was talking to one farming family who had some issues with the Farm Household Allowance and I've talked to many others. There is obviously paperwork involved. Our goal is to reduce it and provide all the support you need. That's why David has employed these rural financial counsellors. I'll just ask David to say something about that, because it's really important to reach out to one of the rural financial counsellors, because they actually know how to do it, rather than try to wade through it all yourself. David?
Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources: Thank you PM. The demand for the HFA has increased significantly as the awareness of this drought and what's available to farmers has been made aware to them. The reality is, we're putting boots on the ground. We made an $8.4 million investment in more councillors to be put on the ground to be able to go and help farmers sit at their kitchen table, so that they don't self-assess, they don't feel it's too onerous to do. But we get these people to sit around the table and help them do the application. We're working with Human Services and the Minister for Human Services to make the process even less onerous and streamline it even further. The reality is we do have to make sure, we understand that we're using taxpayers money. But we've got to get that balance right in streamlining the paperwork, putting boots on the ground and to be able to put people around people's kitchen table and help them undertake that process.
We've seen an explosion in the number of applications and that's a good thing. I would say to each and every farmer; “Do not self-assess. We are here to support you.” We are going to be here, shoulder to shoulder with you to get you through this, not only for the here and now but for the future, with the measures that we're announcing today and we'll continue to work through this process. This is an evolving situation that we will have to be agile with and we are continuing to be agile with.
Journalist: So these are reactions to the drought at the moment, where's the long-term drought policy from the federal government?
Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources: We've already put $2.5 billion on the table for infrastructure. We're coupling that again today with nearly $100 million, not only the $23 million-odd to the GABSI, to ensure that program continues. It's about putting stock water out through a lot of these paddocks, but making sure we're looking for those new programs, those new projects that will build the water infrastructure for the future. Not only to get us through droughts, but to get greater productivity and production in the agriculture sector.
The story of agriculture is a good one. We should still be positive about agriculture. This is a great industry, our young people are starting to come home. We're bringing our young people home, because there's a quid to be made out here. The reality is, it will rain and when it does rain, you're going to make a dollar and that's a great thing. Our young people should understand that pick-and-shovel jobs are still here, but the exciting this is there are new jobs as well in research and development and even manufacturing.
So agriculture is a good story and I just hope that those people in the city don't think that we're a basket case. The reality is we've got a great deal to be proud of in the agriculture sector and we're going to shout it from the rooftops. Because when it does rain, we will drive this economy to the next level.
Journalist: Prime Minister just on company tax cuts, just one on company tax cuts?
Prime Minister: Yeah, then I'm going to say something about what the GABSI is, just in case. Okay, you ask me about company tax cuts and we'll wrap up with the GABSI.
Journalist: Easily done, company tax cuts are due to go before the Senate this week?
Prime Minister: Yes.
Journalist: If they vote against it, are the tax cuts dead?
Prime Minister: Negotiations continue. Look, we are determined to ensure that our company tax system, our business tax system is competitive. You know, this business here, this family business, three generations -
Deputy Prime Minister: Award-winning.
Prime Minister: An award-winning family business, with its' own Australian technology we were talking about, that the youngest generation is securing and protecting, with technology that has been developed here, right here, and we just saw some of it in operation. This company benefits from our company tax cuts.
It is a good example of a medium-sized, Australian, family-owned business with a turnover of under $50 million that is benefitting from our company tax cuts. What that means is, they can invest, they can do more and they can grow.
Just on the GABSI, to leave you with that. The GABSI is about the Great Artesian Basin, this is one of the largest underground water systems in the world. Because it's under so much pressure, when you drill a bore into it, the water comes out from its own force. In years past, in many parts of New South Wales and Queensland and elsewhere, bores were drilled and they were just allowed to be free-flowing. Of course was a mistake, that's unsustainable and we've got a program to cap those bores so that the water can then be used on a sustainable basis. This is a good example of one of the many things we're doing to ensure that we do everything we can to make Australia as drought-resilient—you can't be ‘drought-proof' entirely—but you can certainly go a long way to do that by using water wisely.
Thanks very much, thank you. I'd just like to say that we pay tribute to the life and work of Kofi Annan. We mourn his passing, he was a great international statesman and we send our condolences and love to his family.