DPM address to the Rural Press Club, Victoria

JOURNALIST

Thank you, James. Andrew Miller, Stock and Land. I was heartened by hearing you talking about Murray Basin Rail project. Effectively, the State Government's walked away from it. They said, Senator Allen said “we’ll have to wait for another Government before we fund any further upgrades". Does this mean, in fact, that you are looking at further standardisation of Sea Lake and Manangatang but also standardisation for the line past Ballarat from Maryborough to Gheringhap? Obviously, it's of great interest to many grain growers in the region.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Yeah, sure. And, as I said, it would cost a billion dollars, probably about $1.2, to do it with every one of those spurs, every one of those rail corridors that ultimately my good friend Anne Webster and many farmers would like. But we've put $240.2 million on the table. We've just added another $200 million to that five million, of which is for planning and for those sorts of things to happen. We've asked the State Government Jacinta Allan, to partner up, to pull out, write a check for the same amount so that we can get on with that important work; so that we can get the right planning done, get the right business case done. We know it's going to work. We know it's got to work. We know it's got to happen. But given the fact that there is a reluctance by the Victorian State Government and given the fact that the Victorian State Government has said that you might need to get another Government, well, that's a sure sign to the voters of what to do at the next election which I believe is in November next year.

JOURNALIST

Thank you so much. Good afternoon. Kim O'Keeffe, the Mayor of Greater Shepparton and Chair of Regional Cities Victoria. Regional Cities Victoria has 10 local - sorry, 10 mayors and 10 CEOs that sit on that committee. So it's great to be here today. Thank you so much for that presentation. It's very exciting to see the focus on regional Victoria and obviously post-COVID and also bushfires that we've had to deal with this last 12 months. My question to you is how will the Government look to work with regional councils in a recovery effort post-COVID and the bushfires? Thank you.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Thanks for that. Well, with the Local Roads and Community Infrastructure Program, we have put that on the top of a 100 per cent top-up to the Roads to Recovery. So last July we doubled the Roads to Recovery funding and then a couple of months later we put in place that Local Roads and Community Infrastructure. So there's $1.5 billion for the 537 councils across Australia. Pleasingly, all 537 councils have come on board and given us their projects, given us their ideas of where they're going to spend that money.

And, look, I'm a regional member. I understand full well just how local councils can utilise that money when it's direct funded from the Federal Government straight to their works, straight to their projects, straight to their programs. It doesn't have to go through state bureaucracies. It doesn't get pruned off by state bureaucrats. It goes direct and every cent that goes out of the Federal Government goes into a project in the local area. It's not just keeping local workers, it's also local procurements, local small businesses. So that's the whole idea of it.

I also want to make sure that when we do put in infrastructure money in place, I've put in measures to ensure that money's just not going to tier 1 companies.  It's also going to those local small businesses. And that's why I'm so proud of the Inland Rail project, that as identified that Parkes Narromine section, you know, $110 million, you know, benefitting 99 small businesses. That's the sort of infrastructure rollout that is going to help those local areas, those communities.

I come from local community, albeit it's Wagga Wagga, it's a city of around 70,000. So it's, you know, it's a large community which has always got, you know, safety in numbers, so to speak. But I want to make sure it's not just the 70,000 population towns, it's the smaller towns, it's the towns that have got whether 500 or 5,000 people, that they benefit too from the infrastructure rollout. And as the Nationals leader and as somebody who cares, is very passionate about regional Australia, that's what my focus is on and going to be, this budget.

JOURNALIST

Thank you. Natalie Kotsios, The Weekly Times. Just keeping on the theme of Inland Rail, obviously it's one of the landmark projects for this Government and, indeed for the National Party. However, we are in a situation where, in Victoria, there's parts of that line that are still plagued with mud holes. In New South Wales there's ongoing issues with deciding the route in terms of dealing with landholders. In Queensland, the line doesn't go all the way to the port of Brisbane as it is at the moment.

Some have criticised it as having the potential to end up just being a white elephant and really not living up to its potential. Given it's already running over budget, what are you doing to actually keep this on track and make sure it can be as good as once hoped?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

I'm working so hard on this project, I'm making myself hoarse, Natalie. Now, I don't want to live in a banana republic.  What I mean by "banana", build absolutely nothing, anywhere near anything.  Some Governments, they have that philosophy. They just kick everything into the long grass. I know when I became the Infrastructure Minister, we had an Inland Rail project and, yes, it had an amount of money attached to it, around about $9.2 billion. That was done on a desktop analysis without all the intricate planning and engineering scopes that needed to be done.

So that's why it has now got a bigger price tag on it. But that bigger price tag comes with the added benefit of making sure that Australian companies are benefitting from that additional money.  We're using Australian steel, and I know there's a lot of talk about Whyalla at the moment. But Australian steel, Australian workers, Australian know-how, Australian engineering, Australian signalling. I'm proud of the Inland Rail but when I took over, we didn't have any of the intergovernmental agreements signed up. And I can remember sitting in a coffee shop with Jacinta Allan signing the Victorian one.

Not an easy task for a National Party Federal Minister to convince a Labor State Minister that this was a project needing to be done. But I did that. I also did it with John Barilaro in New South Wales and did it with Mark Bailey in Queensland. So two out of the three states were Labor states. They understood the benefits that Inland Rail would bring. They understood just how this was going to benefit the nation.

And we did talk about these things and we can procrastinate about these things, but I'm getting on and I'm actually building. Yes, when you have a 1,700-kilometre corridor of commerce, which the Inland Rail is, it is going to impact people's properties and lives. There's no questioning the fact it's going to go through hundreds of people's properties. But we'll work with them.

We've set up community consultative committees and as we narrow the actual preferred route from a five, six kilometre stretch into a more 60 metre corridor, that eliminates many of those farmers whose properties may then not be impacted. Yes, there still will be farmers who will be impacted but, you know, if we have had this theory when we were building the Hume Freeway well, we never would have had that dual lane from Sydney to Melbourne all the way, which has saved people's lives. 

I can remember driving to the football grand final in Sydney, admittedly it's probably not the football you like here. Hey, I follow Hawthorn too. But you know in 1982 – and the Hume Highway was a goat track and it was unsafe.  These days, four-lane, divided all the way. Beautiful road. It saves people's lives. The Inland Rail, it will also transform the way we do things, the way we move freight.  And we'll get a lot of trucks off the road. So that's good for the environment. That's good for the roads. That's good for our logistical task and we're getting on with the job, we're building it.

JOURNALIST

David Campbell from Agribusiness Freelance. Thank you for your speech, Deputy Prime Minister, and commiserations on dealing with man flu; you're holding up very well. I'm, for one of my past sins, speaking as a past non-executive director of Annual Health Australia and it's been interesting watching in the pandemic how reassuring it is for agriculture that we have very good plans in place for both animal and plant industries to deal with disease outbreaks and biosecurity.

And so biosecurity has become something that's become much more publicly aware, I think, through the pandemic. A number of friends of mine here in Melbourne were shocked to learn last year that we got through an outbreak of avian flu in Victoria. We had to euthanase 60,000 birds and I said to them we really couldn't do that with people. But, you know, that was done very well, and managed extremely well between federal and state authorities and the industry involved.

Biosecurity remains an issue for rural industries, as you know. How do you plan on building on this awareness now to really take this further? There's been a lot of work in the last few years – the Biosecurity Act in 2015. But how do you see this going forward now in building on that pace because it remains one of the key issues and threats to our industries?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

Yes, look, it does and thank you, Dave. I actually turned the first sod of the Mickleham facility, the new biosecurity facility. I suppose it's not that new anymore. Biosecurity for our animal and plant health is every bit as important as closing the borders was down for our human health, I've got to tell you. And David Littleproud, the Agriculture Minister, and I had a very, very long chat yesterday about what we need to do as far as this year's budget, as far as biosecurity and upping the ante when it comes to that, you can never spend enough money on biosecurity, on making sure that we've got the right number of people, got the right provisions in place at our ports and elsewhere.  And you only have to watch some of those shows on television where people try to smuggle in pork in their handbags and my god you know, those people should be whacked heavily and hard with fines and being sent straight back home. Because, you know, any incursion, whether it's Asian bean incursion, foot and mouth disease, fire blight in our apples, could be disastrous, not just for our, you know, that particular relevant sector of industry but, indeed, agriculture per se.

And we need to make sure that we've got the right initiatives in place and we've also got the right –you know, that people are prepared to act as far as making sure that the states also do their fair share. I can remember when I was a kid, I used to drive to the Murrumbidgee irrigation area and you'd go in there and there would be inspectors who'd stop you, check your car for fruit.  That doesn't happen anymore. And I think sometimes - I think actually the states have dropped the ball largely, particularly Labor states, when it comes to making sure that their irrigation areas are, you know, free of fruit fly and the rest.

And I think it's a real disappointment. But rest assured, as I said yesterday, David Littleproud and I had a very long chat about biosecurity. I'm hoping that we'll see some good measures in the budget.  I know this is a big issue for Darren Chester as well, who's raised it with me. We've spoken about it often, as has Damian Drum and Anne Webster and other – and Steph, you know, she talks to me often about just how important biosecurity is.

JOURNALIST

Thanks, Minister. Matt Dalgleish from Thomas Elder Markets. Recently I was up in a webinar, or a session at Longreach in Queensland and connectivity and the NBN was a hot topic for them there, as it is in lots of regional Australia. I know that this morning on social media the Elon Musk rollout of Starlink is progressing now, and obviously by what they're saying there, they're expecting really good connectivity to regional Australia. Is it time for regional communities to forget about the NBN and leave the technology to the private sector now and just kind of look to see what's happening there or do we still have faith that the NBN will be able to get the right kind of connectivity in the inland bush.

MICHAEL McCORMACK

No and yes. Now, if I was in Question Time that's how I'd probably answer that but I'll be nice to you Matt. Look, we're not going to desert NBN. It's a huge investment. It's an investment that I think paid dividends last year. And look, when we took over the Government in 2013 – and you'll always hear politicians playing the blame game and I don't want to be seen to be playing the blame game – but the NBN was a mess and it was – you know, we tried as best we could to get a mix of technologies to get the right service, to get the right connectivity right across the nation.

And I've got to say, successive Ministers, Paul Fletcher, and Mark Coulton being the latest, have done a good job in making sure that we had that connectivity. Yes, you know, we've even invested and we've funded 1,200 mobile blackspot towers and built 900 of them, and we're getting that mobile technology out which, of course, helps to back all the rest as well. We will make sure that obviously as technologies change and as better inventions come online that we continue to invest in that as well.

Cybersecurity is also going to be a huge thing, not just getting the right connectivity but making sure that the system is safe as, you know, our good friends in other countries try to sometimes infiltrate our Local Governments, our businesses and, indeed, the Federal sphere.  We need to make sure that we've got the right cybersecurity measures in place as well, and we'll do that. But, as I said, last year, when people were working from home like never before, the system held up and we did very well. It's not to say we can't do more in the future. It's not to say we won't continue to fund it.

JOURNALIST

I'll keep it very brief. You're probably aware of the situation with Van Dairies in Tasmania and the former CEO has called it a regulatory failure given the fact there are troubles down there.  Is there enough rigorous scrutiny of foreign investment to ensure promises made by overseas companies are carried out. And there is an example there of what has been described as regulatory failure and the failure of the investor to carry out and to keep to the promises he made when that investment was approved by the FIRB?

MICHAEL McCORMACK

That footage was very alarming and disturbing and no one likes to see animals being mistreated, whether it's a dairy situation, whether it's indeed an abattoir. You know, animals need to be treated properly and humanely, and that footage was very alarming and disturbing. I'm very proud of what we've done as far as foreign investment is concerned since we took back Government in 2013.

Just prior to us actually taking back Government in 2013, you could have bought $252 million worth of farmland, worth of agribusiness and not even raised a murmur with Foreign Investment Review Board. That was the trigger. It was $248 million. Went up to $252 million just after we took Government. Labor's plan was to make it a billion dollars before it triggered the Foreign Investment Review Board to review any foreign potential acquisition.

Well, we changed that so that it was $15 million for accumulated farmland and $55 million for agribusiness. So some would argue that that's still too high. I think it strikes the right balance because we need foreign investment. We need foreign capital. It's made the nation what it is, and it's certainly provided agriculture with the right impetus. But, as you say, you know, we need to obviously keep and be mindful of when foreign investors do come in and buy farmland, buy agribusinesses, buy dairies, that they do the right thing, not just by domestic suppliers, not just by our country but, indeed, you know, business practices that are generally accepted to be right and proper in this country. Yes, of course they do need to have that oversight and, thankfully, their nefarious activities were exposed.

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