Interview with Sandy Aloisi, ABC News Radio Breakfast

Sandy Aloisi: State and Federal politicians will gather in Canberra for the National Drought Summit today, where the Prime Minister will unveil a new $5 billion package to help farmers prepare for drought. It’s the first Federal drought fund of its kind and able to also provide relief for farmers to help them recover from the so-called green drought on the East Coast and assist with their long term resilience. The initial commitment will be $3.9 billion. It’ll reach $5 billion by 2028.

Michael McCormack is Leader of the National Party and Deputy Prime Minister; he joins us on the line now from Canberra.

Michael McCormack, good morning. Thank you for your time.

Michael McCormack: That’s a pleasure Sandy.

Sandy Aloisi: Tell us about this fund; how will it work in practice?

Michael McCormack: It will be there to provide the necessary relief for recovery and of course, helping to build resilience for future droughts; for this drought and for those droughts into the future. Whether that’s providing necessary funds for on the ground activities for farmers, whether that's making sure that social cohesion is in place, putting in place measures to help rural communities.

Because it’s not always just about farmers, it's also about rural communities. Agriculture is the cornerstone of regional Australia and so this drought fund will be there to build a better regional Australia in times of drought.

We just need to understand, as I know Australia identifies, the fact that drought is crippling. But it's always ongoing, there's always a drought somewhere in Australia and so that's why we need a fund such as this to help in the future and that's exactly what it'll do.

Sandy Aloisi: So practically, how will it work? If a farmer listening to us speaking now, what can you say to him that he can look forward to in the future, when again the farm may be in drought?

Michael McCormack: Well, him or her. I’m so pleased that so many women are also taking part in agriculture because it's a positive story.

It will have a board of governors to oversee the relief efforts in the future. Droughts are always crippling and they are always generally the same, but they affect different areas at different times.

So different communities require different relief efforts, whether it's providing a farmer assistance as far as welfare measures financially or mentally - mental health of course is very important - whether that's looking at what we can do in conjunction with States for fodder relief because States look after the animals and the landscape in future droughts.

The criteria around the Future Fund needs to be laid down. It will be there. Importantly there will be a bucket of money forward for future droughts to make sure Australia has that preparedness, to make sure that Australia has the sorts of financial assistance required so we don't have to dig deep into reserves, so that we don't have to scratch and scrimp and see where we can gather the money from to help our farmers when future droughts hit.

Sandy Aloisi: So the innovation to create the fund obviously will have to pass the Parliament; will that provide a hurdle at all or do you think that there’ll be a bipartisan approach to this?

Michael McCormack: Well there’s always been a bipartisan approach to droughts and I know with goodwill that that the Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon is attending today's Summit in Old Parliament House.

He has to date shown good respect and faith with the Government in our efforts to provide, so far, $1.8 billion dollars worth of assistance. But what we need to do is make sure that we get everybody on board, Opposition obviously, Crossbenchers obviously, to get this legislation through for this Future Drought Fund; but also State Premiers and that's why we've got most of them in Canberra today; their Agriculture Ministers as well.

But not only that, Bureau of Meteorology, National Farmers Federation - it's going to be an important discussion today. We need to take all of these stakeholders, both the political and at the agriculture sector level,  on the journey with us to make sure that everybody is singing from the same hymn sheet and we all have the future of our agriculture community in mind.

I’m pleased that despite the downturn in the number of crops, that agriculture is still going to be a $60 billion output this year. The farming sector is certainly still going okay. But many of our farmers along the New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and eastern states, but also South Australia, now are doing it tough. Thankfully, Tasmania and Western Australia are doing alright.

Sandy Aloisi: Can I ask you Minister McCormack while I have you, of a story that Fairfax Media is reporting today, allegations against Treasurer of the National Party Peter Schwarz. He is accused of taking more than $800,000 from drought proofing grants for his own farm and then not spending the money on what it was intended for. What are you going to do about this? Do you know about it?

Michael McCormack: I know only what I've read, but I'll be making some inquiries today. I know that as people in the northern Victoria know, that particular project has been a long-term complex challenge. The Victorian Nationals are standing by Peter Schwarz, he's a good man. They’ve said that there’s nothing untoward. I'll be making some inquiries, of course, and getting across the details.

Sandy Aloisi: Making some inquiries, he’s the Treasurer.

Michael McCormack: Of course, and that's why I will be making some inquiries of both Peter and the Victoria Nationals. As I say, this story has broken this morning; Victorian Nationals have made remarks to the press – The Melbourne Age - to say that they're standing by Peter and that everything is as it should be.  I'll be making some inquiries and seeing what I need to find out.

Sandy Aloisi: Okay then, another question; tensions of course, swirling around The Nationals over leadership.

Michael McCormack: No, no there’s no tensions; Barnaby is there as the Drought Envoy today, I’m there as the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of The Nationals. We are…

Sandy Aloisi: …Can I tell you that this morning; he has once again said he’s not ruling himself out of any leadership equation. What’s your response to that?

Michael McCormack: I know Barnaby’s going to be concentrating on the drought today and that’s important in going forward. They're the people that we need to worry about, farmers who are doing it tough. They don't want or need to hear media speculation about leadership in the National Party. What they want to hear is…

Sandy Aloisi: …Media speculation is Barnaby Joyce is actually saying that on air, Mr McCormack.

Michael McCormack: Well I haven't heard the comment Barnaby’s made this morning, but I know he'll be concentrating as Barnaby should on being a good Drought Envoy at today's Summit. It's an important summit. More importantly, rather than talking, we need most of all at the moment to listen, to listen to our farmers, to listen to what people are going to be saying around the Summit table. That’s what Barnaby and I'll be both doing today.

Sandy Aloisi: Alright Mr McCormack, thanks for your time this morning.

Michael McCormack: Any time at all Sandy.

Sandy Aloisi: Nationals’ Leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormack there.