Interview with Michael Rowland, ABC News Breakfast

Virginia Trioli: Leading our news today, the Prime Minister is about to unveil a new multibillion dollar package to help farmers prepare for drought. Scott Morrison is this morning hosting his state counterparts, farming groups, weather experts, and charities at a national drought summit. He’s going to announce a $5 billion fund, which will offer $100 million annually to farmers and community groups from 2020.

Michael Rowland: But legislation to create the fund will have to first pass the federal Parliament, meaning the Government will need Opposition and Crossbench support. Michael McCormack is the Deputy Prime Minister. He joins us now from Parliament House. Mr McCormack, good morning to you.

Michael McCormack: Good morning, Michael.

Michael Rowland: What are you hoping to achieve from today?

Michael McCormack: I think a listening ear is what we'll be providing with the experts, the Bureau of Meteorology, the farmers, who are going to attend this important summit. The Future Drought Fund is going to provide the recovery in the first instance – the relief, the recovery, and then, of course, the resilience that we need as a nation because there will be future droughts year on year.

Unfortunately, our nation is beset by droughts. This one is particularly prolonged and particularly severe.

Today is an important time for the Prime Minister, the other Ministers, the Agriculture Minister David Littleproud, to listen and see what else we can do as far as tackling this drought head on.

Michael Rowland: Practically, what sort of measures are we talking about?

Michael McCormack: What we're talking about is making sure that additional councils are looked at to get some money on the ground for them. We've already provided relief and assistance of $1 million to 60 councils. We’ll be looking to see how many other councils need that sort of assistance to get some money in and around those councils.

Of course, we've already simplified the Farm Household Assistance measures, where people have to go through page upon page of documents just to get some assistance. We've reduced that by up to a third.

We've provided 39 additional rural financial counsellors to sit around the kitchen table with farmers and their partners to talk through how they can easily fill out these forms. That's to complement the 116 we've already got on the ground.

So we've provided already $1.8 billion worth of measures in three tranches but what else we can do? Well, that will be determined today and there’ll also be some good announcements.

Michael Rowland: Okay, $5 billion ramping up to that figure by 2028 but only $100 million per year from 2020. Is that going to be enough?

Michael McCormack: Well, it will be enough because obviously if a drought in the future is more severe than $100 million will cope with, then we'll dig further into that and provide the sort of assistance that we need to.

But it's a good start and I appreciate the fact that these farmers, our most resilient people in all the nation, are doing it very tough at the moment. They're not after a handout. They're just after a hand up. That's what we've provided them so far and that's what we'll be continuing to provide in a bipartisan way.

This is about bipartisanship. This is about us as a nation, us as a parliament, coming together to give the relief, the recovery, and build in that resilience that the farmers and the agriculture community needs.

Michael Rowland: Okay. We've been getting lots of views from our audience. Lots of people watch us in rural and regional Australia as you probably know. One of our viewers says there is no point in handing out money as it's only temporary help. We need to build canals and reservoirs everywhere to hold and control the flow of water. Is that one of the long-term project you’ll look at?

Michael McCormack: Oh, look, absolutely. Water is our most valuable resource in this nation and we need to build more water storage infrastructure.

Just in recent times I've looked at projects Myalup Wellington in Western Australia and the Rookwood Weir; we're funding those projects $190 million and $176.1 million, respectively, by the Federal Government for those two important projects in WA and Queensland.

The CSIRO came out with a report not that long ago that identified three catchments in the Top End providing the sort of water storage infrastructure that we need to build potentially six dams. We need to build more dams to make sure that we pipeline Australia; to make sure that we have that water storage infrastructure. I'm sure going forward, we'll do just that.

We are the Government of building dams. We are the Government of making sure that we have the necessary water storage infrastructure and we’ll do just that.

Michael Rowland: Farmers have been getting, as you say, much needed assistance for some time now. One of whom is Peter Schwarz. He's a Victorian farmer. He also happens to be the federal treasurer of the National Party. The Age is reporting this morning that he's accused of gouging most of the $850,000 worth of taxpayers’ money he's got for drought proofing his farm. Are you asking questions of Peter Schwarz?

Michael McCormack: I know the Victorian Nationals have made comments to the media this morning and I'm sure they'll do the proper investigations into that, but Peter Schwarz is a good fellow. He certainly has his community front and centre of everything that he’s ever done in his life and I'm sure that I'm not right across the details. I've certainly read the report but I'm sure the Victorian Nationals have already provided comment. We'll be making more comment as that story…

Michael Rowland: He’s going to be the Victorian candidate in one of the seats but he's also the federal treasurer. He is the man responsible for the purse strings of the next federal election campaign for the National Party. Shouldn't you, as Federal Leader, also be asking questions?

Michael McCormack: I certainly will but as I say, the Victorian Nationals have said that there’s nothing untoward. I'll be making enquiries about that but I'm sure that Peter Schwarz has done everything that he needs to do, everything right. He's a very, very good man. The Victorian Nationals are standing by him and I'll make some enquiries as the day goes on.

Michael Rowland: The Crossbenchers have got to [indistinct] this week. All six of them. They could hold the balance of-they will hold the balance of power, a deciding vote, on some hotly-contested issues. One issue they're all united on is the fact that if Barnaby Joyce replaces you as Nationals’ Leader, all bets would be off. Should Barnaby Joyce be listening to them?

Michael McCormack: Well, that's a matter for the Crossbenchers. I'm just getting on with doing the important things that people want me to do and expect me to do.

And that's talking about the drought, talking about the issues that affect rural and regional Australia. That's the things I'm concentrating on. That's the things I'll go and concentrate on.

Michael Rowland: Would it be political suicide for Barnaby Joyce to try to get your job before the end of the year?

Michael McCormack: Well, Barnaby Joyce is doing his job, his role as the Drought Envoy in conjunction with Major General Stephen Day, the National Drought Coordinator.

Today, we're focused on the issues that matter and that is drought front and centre. Agriculture is the cornerstone of regional Australia. We want to concentrate on the drought. We want to talk about the drought. We want talk about the Future Drought Fund.

They’re the important things the people of Australia want us to talk about, not being inwardly looking and worrying about leadership or anything of the like, because there is no story there.

Michael Rowland: Okay. Just finally before we go, the Crossbenchers are also pushing and are united on this as well. As Deputy Prime Minister, I want your response on this setting up, finally, of a federal anti-corruption body. Is that something the Government will now do?

Michael McCormack: Again I say we're concentrating on the sorts of things that matter to people. You know, the cost of living factors; the fact that Labor just want to introduce five big taxes – on property, on electricity, on your income, on your savings; and certainly, retirees are very, very worried…

Michael Rowland: …People are also concerned about misbehaviour and corruption of officials federally…Is a body like that a good thing?

Michael McCormack: Well I don’t believe so. I don't think it's necessary and certainly, we've got other things that we're concentrating on at the moment and that's not one of them right at this point in time.

Michael Rowland: Michael McCormack, Deputy Prime Minister, really appreciate you taking the time on a busy day for you. Thanks

Michael McCormack: Thanks, Michael. All the very best.