Doorstop at Strathmore Farm, Trangie, NSW
Assistant Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, The Hon. Mark Coulton MP: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you. I'm very pleased to host the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull today, along with the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack, the Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, the Local Government and Infrastructure Minister John McVeigh, and the Regional Telecommunications and Regional Health and Sport Minister, Senator Bridget McKenzie here today.
The roll up of such a large number of cabinet ministers from the Australian Government is a clear indication that the concerns that have been expressed through all our electorate offices about the condition of the drought, the deteriorating conditions we're having at the moment is taken very seriously by our Government.
I'd like to thank Philip and Ashlea Miles for hosting us here today. They've done a wonderful job and prepared some notes for the Prime Minister.
So I'd like to now hand to the Prime Minister to make a few comments, thanks.
Prime Minister: Well thank you very much Mark, and Ashlea and Philip thank you so much—and Jack and Harry, of course. Thank you so much for welcoming us.
We've had a really good discussion with Steven and Tracey, and your neighbours, Kim and Tony. It's been very important to hear firsthand how you're travelling here during this shocking drought.
It's affecting so much of New South Wales and much of Queensland as well. It is a really challenging environment.
We have to recognise that if we want to have, as Stephen Ray was saying, if we want to have the great food and fibre that we need, we've got to support our farmers. And we've got to understand that they're dealing with rainfall that appears to be much more volatile, and of course, the cost of maintaining livestock, as everyone knows here, during dry times, is enormous.
So we've talked about a lot of the issues that relate to that. We've talked about how to make it easier for people to freight fodder in from interstate. We've talked about the type of assistance that can be given in terms of freight. We've talked about the support that can be given to enable farmers to be more resilient, to make it easier for them to access the many types of support that are provided. But which often, you have to face pretty daunting piles of paperwork to fill in. I think everyone here understands that.
But above all, this is about listening and learning. This is the heartland of Australia.
Agriculture is the ultimate renewable industry of Australia. We have the most enormous markets that are available to us in our region, growing at an extraordinary pace.
There's never been greater opportunities for Australian agriculture. Our free trade agreements have opened up one big market after another, and there's a lot more to come.
So it's vital that we put ourselves in a position where we support agriculture and we enable our farmers to produce more food and fibre, recognising though, that we are living in the land of droughts and flooding rains. You know, this is a dry continent; it's a continent of great climate variability.
So we have to make sure we do everything we can to use all of the science that's available and all of the research and intelligence we can bring to bear to farm more sustainability, more resiliently and ensure that we support the men and women that put the food on the table and that put the fibre on our backs and above all, again as I say, are undertaking the ultimate long term renewable industry, delivering the food and fibre that Australians need, and of course the world needs.
So Philip and Ashlea, thank you so much. You're not only very generous hosts, but you've got so many good ideas that you've brought together. Ashlea has brought together her expertise as a schoolteacher to make sure that we've been well instructed.
Thank you so much. And I will now ask the Deputy Prime Minister to say a few words and no doubt we can have some questions and some discussion.
Deputy Prime Minister, The Hon. Michael McCormack MP: Thank you, Prime Minister. And thank you, Mark, for inviting us to this great farm run by Philip and Ashlea Miles and their sons, Jack and Harry.
This is a family farming operation, so similar right across Australia. And we can't make it rain as politicians, but we certainly can listen, that's what we've done this morning.
We have heard from Philip and Ashlea about some of the solutions that they think we could possibly put in place to help ease the burden—and it is a burden—right throughout western Queensland, right throughout north-west, indeed all of New South Wales and Victoria.
We are in the potential grip of a drought that is going to really have an impact on our farms, on our ability to make sure that we can maximise the potential made by the free trade agreements that we've been able to arrange in our Asian neighbouring countries.
In parts of David Littleproud's electorate, they're in their seventh year of dry times. This is very, very substantial. It has a great impact not just on the farmers' resilience, but also on their mental health. So whatever we can do in that regard, we will endeavour to try to ease their burden.
People need our farmers, and they are the very best as Malcolm Turnbull has just indicated. People need our farmers three times a day, every day. There's many other occupations where people don't quite need them that readily, on a daily basis, but we need our farmers three times a day, every day.
They provide the food, they provide the fibre, not just for Australia's domestic ends, but also for our Asian neighbours, indeed for all of the world. So we want to be able to as a Government, as Liberals and Nationals, be there to support those farmers who support us so well.
I know Philip and Ashlea and all their neighbours, and many other farmers besides are doing it tough at the moment. Please be assured, we're out listening, we will do what we can to help you through this.
While we can't make it rain, we can certainly listen. We've done that today and we'll certainly have more discussions about what we can do to help you in the future.
Journalist: PM you've spoken about how farmers are doing it tough, and you want to listen and do things better for them, but what can the Commonwealth actually do to help farmers who are doing it tough at the moment?
Prime Minister: Well, we do provide—maybe you might ask the Agriculture Minister. I'll just make a brief introduction then. This is David Littleproud, Agriculture Minister, and he will provide a more fulsome answer. But yes, we do provide income support. There are a number of other programs that provide support.
But ultimately, again as we were talking inside with Ashlea and Philip, you've got to ensure that we do everything we can to ensure that farmers are resilient. Because the reality that you face is that rainfall is very—has always been variable in Australia, it appears to be getting more variable, certainly in this part of the world, and back where Luce and I are in the Hunter. And how do you manage that, do you run fewer stock? Some people I was talking to yesterday in the Hunter were talking about that, but of course if you have fewer stock, you have lower income. That's a challenge.
Are we providing enough incentives for people to store grain and hay and make silage, and so forth so that you've got something to back you up, but of course, then if you have a 7-year drought, or you have years of drought, no one is really going to be able to store enough hay to cover that.
So look, it's a mix of things. But I think the important thing for people in regional and rural Australia to know is that we understand how big a challenge this is. We really do. And we're out here listening. Because we have learnt more in there, with Steven and Tracey, and Ashlea and Philip, and Kim and Tony. You know, all farmers, we've learnt so much from them, just as I learnt yesterday talking with some very experienced farmers, a couple of very experienced farmers in the pub at Murrurundi. This is all about—our job is to listen, to learn and then to make sure we provide the support we can.
But David, why don't you talk about some of the programs you've got underway at the moment?
Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, The Hon. David Littleproud MP: Yeah thanks, PM.
Well in the life of this government, we've put over $1 billion on the table not only to help farmers, but regional communities. It's not just farmers that hurt during these droughts, it's the small businesses in these little communities that also hurt. It's important we reach beyond just the farm gate. We've put on concessional loans, also farm household assistance. 7,900 families have taken that up. 2,400 of those have taken it up until the end period of 3 years. And of those, 85 per cent have come off it and said that it has been a positive experience because it's not just putting money in their pockets to be able to buy the bread and butter for the family. They're assigned to a case worker to help them build resilience and restructure their business to help them get through the drought and go into the next one.
We have looked proactively in building that resilience piece.
We have looked into pest and weeds. Over $25 million into pests and weeds, so we can build the resilience so that when it does rain, they get greater productivity, greater production.
And also In terms of the communities. We've given money to local governments to be able to go and do up the local hall, to build up the sports ground, but using local contractors, using local businesses to do that. So we've been pragmatic.
But what we're here to do is to listen. And it's time to take stock of what we have done, to look to what we can do better. But we also have to make sure that the states understand they have to come on this journey with us. We have a clear delineation of responsibility in terms of drought, and it's important we work collaboratively together. And I intend to do that, both in Queensland and New South Wales, and right across into Victoria.
It's important we have that air of collaboration and cooperation, and we have done that on a number of other levels and I'm making sure once we come away from this, we'll have frank and open conversations with the states to make sure this journey is a collective one that we do together.
Journalist: PM, are you seeing the effects of climate change here?
Prime Minister: Well, the climate is changing. I know it becomes a political debate. But there's no doubt that our climate is getting warmer. One of the things that we're doing in areas, I'm not sure about in this district—are more tropical grasses being grown around here Ashlea? Premier Digit, and so forth, for the graziers?
Ashlea Miles: We probably still focus on the traditional ones.
Prime Minister: You can see in areas where, you know, which were more temperate, cooler areas, increasingly we're growing grasses that are more suitable in hotter areas. So there's response.
But I don't think, I don't know many people in rural New South Wales that I talk to that don't think that the climate is getting drier and rainfall is becoming more volatile.
This is one of the things that you've always got to remember—you look at average rainfall statistics, the average is meaningless, really, because if it always comes in one month, the average may be the same, but you're in diabolical trouble both when it floods and then when it doesn't rain for the rest of the year. So we all understand that.
But we've got to recognise we've got in this wide brown land of droughts and flooding rains, we have to be resilient and we have to recognise the nature of the climate we face and make sure that we've got all of the tools, both from government and in terms of animal husbandry or in agricultural practices to deal with it.
Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources: Can I just say on that, at the last Agricultural Ministerial Council of all the states, we have agreed to put an investment into, transitioning farmers into a changing environment, changing climate.
So we see this as a real issue that we need to address and we're taking those steps. So the Government was able to bring the states together on the journey, and we're also doing that through our research development corporations. We're spending over $300 odd million a year putting that into research development corporations to make sure that they're making that investment into the new cutting edge technology that we need to understand, we'll be impacted by changing climate.
Journalist: PM, I've covered maybe ten prime ministers coming out here each time in diabolical circumstances. As you drove out here from Dubbo you would have seen to your left, paddocks of saltbush. I was talking to the farmer who owns some of them. He is finishing his weather's off without any supplementary feeding. Yet we can't get any traction on that. I believe Peter Andrews has visited your properties in the Hunter.
Prime Minister: Yes, I know Peter well.
Journalist: Wherever you go, wherever he's done his natural sequence farming, it's far more resilient. Even less holistic methods like fodder factories. Why is it that we can't seem to get a federal holistic response to create low interest long term loans for some of these things that on the ground are working? I can take you to 20 farms where people aren't struggling. Yet these are the things that don't get researched by the corporations and all these things. There just seems to me, over 30 years, to be a big disconnect.
Prime Minister: Okay, well that's a long question. I think everyone here would be familiar with natural sequence farming and Peter Andrews' work. The proposition that you want water to move more slowly across the landscape, so that it can create that soil moisture, I think, is increasingly well understood and we did-
Journalist: Out here some water would be good.
Prime Minister: Pardon?
Journalist: Out here some water would be good.
Prime Minister: Yeah, what is your name, sir?
Prime Minister: Well, you're dead right. The problem is that when you get into periods of such a long drought, all the best—your best practices can make you a bit more resilient but you're still going to be faced with periods where there is literally no grass. There's nothing for your stock to eat and the soil moisture is receded so deep into the ground you're not in the position to put a crop in.
Again, you can see, David and I, where is John McVeigh? Here he is. John McVeigh, I'm keeping on boosting him, he's got a doctorate in agricultural science, so hopefully he knows more than all of us. But-
Deputy Prime Minister: I assure you he does.
Prime Minister: He's assured us that he does. At least the Deputy Prime Minister says he does.
But really, we've got to be open to all of that science and I mean, David, do you want to talk about this? Can I just say to you—every property is different. It depends a lot on your topography. It really does. The, slowing down water courses and ensuring that water has the time to work its way into the ground is a good thing, but there's different parts of the country where that's not—that isn't as applicable. That's my only point.
Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources: To add to that, PM, we have made over a $1 billion investment in Landcare. The reality is, that you don't want Canberra and Brisbane telling you how to do it. It has to be local models devised at a local level and that's the model we've gone down. We're open to all suggestions moving forward to how we make it better as well.
But the reality is, the last thing you want is someone from Canberra telling you how you should do it out here in Trangie. I don't want it in Longreach and I don't want it in Cobar. The reality is that locals know best, because they live in the environment. They know what's best for the environment.
John Ryan: I work for Landcare one day a week and I could probably have a pretty interesting discussion about money that's not hitting the ground.
Prime Minister: What's your name, sir?
John Ryan: John Ryan.
Prime Minister: John works for Landcare and he's got some very strong views about this and we're going to talk to you and we're listening to you too. Good to see you.
Journalist: PM, can I just jump in? Sally Bright from ABC Rural. You're out here to listen to what people need. In the most recent Budget there was no funding made available for times of drought? So what money is going to be available if we find that there is need for considerable investment?
Prime Minister: Well, thank you.
I thought I was going to have to give it a bite. Pretty confronting, that microphone. What's its name?
Look, there are big programs and they respond to circumstances. But David, why don't you just add a little bit to that?
Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources: Look we have. We've put a billion dollars on the table and we continue to make the investment. That's why we're out here, listening to see what we can do better and what can change.
The Budget did put money on the table. You know what? The alternative Budget gave not one brass razoo to agriculture. So what we've done is, not only have we looked into the drought, including putting a billion dollars on the table, but we're investing in more markets, opening up the options. Spreading the chance globally for our farmers to get a better—
Prime Minister: Yep.
Journalist: But it is going to be tricky to meet those markets if we don't have production? This is the issue, if people are having to totally destock because they cannot afford to keep feeding those stock? How are we going to meet our exports?
Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources: Well, the Government can't make it rain. The reality is, all we can do is put the environment and infrastructure around our farmers.
Prime Minister: That's right.
Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources: We are on that journey, by making sure those trade agreements—and I think if you ask anyone around the commodity prices that they're receiving now, and what they did five years ago, I think they'd be pretty happy. So the story of agricultural is to add rain in the right quantities, at the right places, at the right time.
Prime Minister: But you've got to have somebody to sell it to.
Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources: Yeah.
Prime Minister: That's why markets are vitally important.
Journalist: But you have to have a product to sell them and if we have to slaughter all these cattle because people are not going to be able to afford to feed them, if they're having to bring in fodder from South Australia, they're not going to be able to do that for very long before they hit a wall.
Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources: That's why we've made that investment; a billion dollar investment in keeping farmers going during tough times of drought. No one was doing that before we turned up in 2013. Let me make that clear to you; there wasn't anything in the cupboard for drought relief before the Coalition came. So we put a billion dollars on the table and we're out here to see how we can do that better and what needs to change.
You don't want us to just make an arbitrary decision out of Canberra, that would then impact where it has no relevance to people out here. This is a calm, decisive approach to drought. We're going to do it in a calm, decisive way, because if you don't, invariably you get the wrong decisions made.
Journalist: When you are here in the central west—
Prime Minister: Hang on, you had one.
Journalist: I was actually going to say we do understand the significance of the drought and we are going to cover it, but there is another issue that I want to ask you about.
Prime Minister: Okay, just one more on the drought and then we'll move on to other issues.
Journalist: It's not just about saving cattle though is it? It's about saving farmers as well at this point, it's pretty drastic.
Prime Minister: Yes, of course. Absolutely, of course it is. We're putting record funding into mental health and support services. We agree, it's very much a holistic issue, but the challenge with people—if you're in the livestock business, if you're in the sheep and cattle business for example—the problem is, as you were saying, it costs a lot to keep your stock alive. If you sell them and destock and then it rains, of course, the prices go up and it's very hard to restock. I've been personally, Luce and I have tried several approaches to this and they all present challenges. You know, selling your stock early means you're not spending money on fodder, but it means it's very expensive to restock when it rains. Hanging on is very expensive and you're just praying for rain. So it's hard to get it right. But I think one thing that we did discuss with Ashlea and Philip and their neighbours is, we already do provide incentives, you know, tax incentives for investing in hay sheds and silage and various, anything to do with fodder. “Fodder infrastructure” as the DPM says, that's right. You know, maybe we should do more, that's one of the things we've talked about, but of course, that basically prepares you for the next drought, doesn't help you get through this one.
Journalist: Prime Minister how do you respond to claims someone in the Coalition pressured a colleague to have an abortion?
Prime Minister: I'm not aware of anybody doing that, anyone.
Journalist: If that occurred, what would your response be?
Prime Minister: Well, hang on. I'm not aware of anybody doing that. I can absolutely give you that assurance.
Journalist: Deputy Prime Minister, it was an allegation made against your Party, what's your response to that?
Deputy Prime Minister: Well, if there are allegations made against somebody, they should be made between the parties concerned. Like the Prime Minister, I know of no such allegations. Of course, I've seen what I've seen last night. But I stand—in a party of National Party people and indeed in a Coalition—of the finest people to represent regional Australians, to represent all Australians.
Each and every one of those people, in the National Party and the wider Coalition, are committed to making sure we build a better Australia. That's what we do each and every day. So, if there are allegations that people are making, perhaps they should take that up on a personal level with the people they're levelling the allegations against.
Journalist: Do either of you believe Barnaby Joyce should have resigned sooner? He said he knew he should, he would have to resign as soon as he found out Vikki Campion was pregnant.
Prime Minister: From my point of view, I've got nothing more to say on this matter—there's been plenty said on it—other than to wish them well and wish little Sebastian well. Yeah, that's it.
Journalist: Do you expect him to run again, in the New England election?
Prime Minister: Again, I think you've had acres of newsprint and hours of television on this. I think we've all had enough to say.
Journalist: On to a different topic, Commonwealth Bank will be fined $700 million for its money laundering offences. Will that end, is that the end of the matter for them or will the Government pursue its executives even though the soon-to-be created Banking Executive Accountability Regime has been created?
Prime Minister: What's been announced today is a proposal that's got to go before the court, to settle a large number of breaches of the various money laundering rules by the Commonwealth Bank. At $700 million, it would be the largest fine of this kind ever in our history. So, it's a huge, huge fine. It has to go to the court to be approved of course.
Let me say this, a couple of points; one, it demonstrates that our federal agencies are on the job. This was detected by AUSTRAC. They identified it, they pursued it. They took the Commonwealth Bank to court and they've reached this agreement on this enormous penalty. Secondly, I just want to say once again, that we will not tolerate wrongdoing in the financial services sector. Where it has occurred, we will ensure those who are responsible are held to account and we'll do everything we can—including the laws you talked about, the Banking Executive Accountability Regime—do everything we can to ensure it does not happen again.
Journalist: Prime Minister you're out here talking about the drought and yet again Barnaby Joyce is distracting what you're trying to do. How frustrating is that?
Prime Minister: He only distracted you, everyone else is asking about the drought.
Journalist: But you know, you know that we need to ask these questions.
Prime Minister: No, I know you do. But look, again I've had enough, we've all had enough to say on it. As I said, we wish them well. We wish little Sebastian well. As far as that issue is concerned, I've got nothing further to add.
Journalist: [Inaudible] One Nation?
Prime Minister: Sorry?
Prime Minister: Fencing? Great, fencing, “what do you think about the use of steel posts, rather than timber?”
Journalist: We've had farmers from regional New South Wales who have been complaining about this and we know the Queensland Government has funding for exclusion fencing under a Labor government. Will you be able to work [inaudible]?
Prime Minister: Yeah, this is for dogs you're talking about? Dog fencing?
Journalist: Dogs and kangaroos.
Prime Minister: Okay, alright. Why don't I ask the Agricultural Minister to address that one.
Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources: Now, this is for dog fencing, let's make this quite clear. This is not about kangaroos. This is exclusion fencing for dogs. The State Government has put $15 million on the table in Queensland. We put $13, alone. This is a state matter and yet we've had to push the Queensland government all the way. In fact, they are trying to take credit for an $18 million loan facility that the Longreach Regional Council devised themselves and saying that they funded it? I mean, let's get real. This is a state issue, but we've come to the party. It's time the states—and when I say they need to work with us on this drought—it's because I've seen firsthand what these dog fences do. We've seen lambing go from five, ten per cent up to 20 per cent. That's where you get the productivity back. You're actually seeing the small marsupials some back, you're seeing koalas come back, you're seeing brolgas come back. The environmental benefits of this dog fencing have been a significant investment we've made. $25.8 million across regional and rural Australia, for drought funding of pests and weeds, in the Budget alone we've extended that to another $6.6 million. So, we've put our money on the table. The states need to understand that natural resource management belongs to them, but we're pushing them all the way. We'll have that conversation with them, but come on that journey with us. Because it is important. I'm seeing the benefits of it firsthand.
Prime Minister: I might just say, we're talking—David and I and all of us—are talking to the states all the time. I was talking to Gladys Berejiklian over the weekend about the drought. I was talking to Niall Blair, the Minister and the Premier of New South Wales. So we are. Our goal is to work constructively and collaboratively. But of course as David said, most of these responsibilities in respect of natural resource management are with the states.
Now, we're just going to have one more. Or we've gotta go, have we? Righto.
Assistant Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment: We do have another hundred people waiting down the road for us.
Journalist: [Inaudible] the dysfunction in One Nation for the Government's failure to block the merger between the CFMEU and the Maritime Union of Australia?
Prime Minister: Again, I'll leave the political commentary to the expert political commentators, many of whom are arrayed before us. Congratulations, keep up the good work, we'll focus on government.
Thank you very much.