Loving Life Radio with Damien Fisher

Damien Fisher: Well of course, just recently we heard from our Federal Member for Page Kevin Hogan, and it's a pleasure to welcome the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia and the leader of the Federal National Party, he's Michael McCormack and he's on the line this morning. Deputy Prime Minister, good morning to you.

Michael McCormack: Good morning Damien.

Damien Fisher: Appreciate your time this morning. Obviously the announcement yesterday by the Government and the Nationals of course was welcoming news for farmers.

Michael McCormack: Very welcomed and certainly it actually responds to what they were asking for and I know a lot of farmers, a lot of regional businesses indeed- let's not forget the regional businesses which are farm related, ag-related. For them, they are also hurting badly through this drought and we've got a measure there where they can apply for up to $0.5 million of concessional loans and by that, they don't have to pay any interest for two years on those government-backed loans through the Regional Investment Corporation. Now, we're not saying that they have to go and take those loans.

We don't want people to get into any more debt than they may already be, but if they feel they have the capacity to take a loan, to do that, then we encourage them certainly to make themselves available of that offer so long as they've spoken to obviously their rural financial counsellor, perhaps, or their accountant or their bank. It's a good way of them being able to back themselves through this process, through this prolonged dry spell and when we come out the other side—which we will when the rains return—that they're ready to get up and really thrive through their businesses again.

Damien Fisher: Are you able to guarantee that they're- the red tape- I mean obviously there's always going to be red tape, but it's not going to be as hard for our farmers [indistinct] to get the money [indistinct] on the table as it may have been, say, two or three years ago?

Michael McCormack: Well that's certainly right, and you know we want to back our farmers. They're the most resilient and, you know, you've got some great cockies in and around that Kyogle area. That's why that's also one of the councils which is going to receive the million dollars' top up. So they've already received a million dollars, through the process are going to receive another million dollars as well as a top up of their Roads to Recovery funding, because we know when you invest money in those towns, in those communities through Roads to Recovery or through a program such as the million dollars for the Drought Community Support Program, that it stays around town, that they invest in the town, that it- even if the road gangs come into to seal a road or to maintain a road, then they're spending money in the town through accommodation, through food and all that sort of thing. And certainly with the, you know, the upgrade of little facilities such as a memorial hall or whatever the case might be that a local council decides that they need to- or want to spend their million dollars on, then that keeps money generating around the town to- keeps employment through the towns and that's really, really important.

And of course we're getting on with building dams. We're making sure that we've got that drought resilience measures in place for the next drought. So this is the first time a Government has actually addressed the drought that will inevitably follow this one. So we're looking to the future where we're trying to futureproof our country as far as droughts are concerned in the best way possible. But it is a struggle and we realize as well as anybody, and Kevin does too because he lives in a drought community, he talks to people all the time, whether they're farmers across the kitchen table, whether they're shop owners across the counter. We know it. We understand it and hopefully yesterday we've gone another step in the way to addressing it.

Damien Fisher: Obviously, [indistinct] what we need but what's the Federal Government doing at the moment in regards to the, you know, [indistinct] the Clarence River? Is that [indistinct]- isn't that going move on from [indistinct]?

Michael McCormack: The- you mean as far as water storage infrastructure is concerned? Yeah look, well, we've got $1.5 billion we're spending on water infrastructure at the moment and obviously we're working with state governments- I'm working with Melinda Pavey very closely as far as what we- what we need to do. We get a priority list from each state and then when we address those we see which water- particular water projects the state wants to invest in. Of course, they've put Wyangala Dam in the central west and Dungowan Dam in the north as their priority projects, Mole River of course, the business case there. But what we're going to do there is actually put the capacity of 1- 1.2 Sydney Harbours inland to build that amount of water up for those farming communities and indeed for those town supplies.

Now, urban water is all- has always been the remit of state governments. But, you know, when you build dams there's always going to be an urban water component of it and appreciating the fact that Bradfield came out with his scheme in 1938, wasn't taken up then when probably it would have been a lot easier to build then than it is certainly now. But there are elements of the scheme which we can address and certainly- I'm in Hughenden in northern Queensland at the moment, talking to the local mayor Jane McNamara and others around here. Appreciate it's a long, long way from the Clarence and from where your listeners are, but what we need to do is make sure we build the right water infrastructure in the right places to service the needs going forward.

Damien Fisher: [Inaudible question]

Michael McCormack: No, look, I'm not saying that. What I'm saying is that we need to build the right water in the right catchments to service those areas and indeed if there's a component of that through pipes, through weirs, through channels that ultimately feeds its way into the Murray-Darling, well, well and good. But at the moment we need to build water infrastructure in the right places to ensure that we have it in the right catchments. Now appreciate that, you know, we've done a lot of- a lot of plumbing of Australia, both through on farm and off farm infrastructure in recent years, but the last 16 dams in Australia were built in- 16 of the last 20 dams were built in Tasmania. We've built the Scottsdale Dam in north-east Tasmania within 12 months and it's already half-full. And so if we can do it in Tasmania, and of course that's the state of the Franklin protests of course, then we can do it elsewhere. But to go full hog on the Bradfield Scheme which was proposed in 1938 and not taken up then, that would be probably just asking just a tad too much. There are elements of it that we are already underway and looking at what we can do as far as that's concerned.

But turning rivers such as those magnificent northern rivers in New South Wales back on themselves is probably not going to happen in the short term and you can probably well appreciate—and your listeners could too—in today's day and age, those things are very, very difficult to do, and if it wasn't done in 1938 when it was proposed then perhaps, you know, it's probably not going to be done now. And filling up Lake Eyre to ensure that the south-west of New South Wales and Victoria gets watered

in [inaudible] is probably not something that the Federal Government would be able to do, given the environmental implications and cultural considerations that obviously these days- and let alone the geotechnical expertise that would need to be- we'd need to re-plumb the entire nation. But we're doing things that are important. We're doing- we're building Dungowan Dam. We're doing various measures of increasing weirs and doing all the like where the catchments are needing it and certainly that's going to make a difference for the next drought that will ultimately follow this one.

Damien Fisher: [Indistinct] the Murray Darling Basin Authority, would you support the Government scrapping that and going into a royal commission to point out [indistinct]?

Michael McCormack: Not at all. I would not support a- I would not support that being put back through the Parliament or being scrapped. Look, that was agreed to by all the states and territories. It's not the perfect plan.  No one ever said it was. It has- very much has an environmental look over the whole thing. But to go and scrap the plan now, what are we going to replace it with? Are we going to have states fighting against states again? Are we going to have valleys fighting against valleys, indeed farmers fighting against farmers? That's what we ultimately would end up with. To go and put that back through the Parliament we'll get a much more of an environmental plan than we've probably even got now with water flowing past some farmers who are crying out for resource, crying out for productive water.

That's why I was so pleased yesterday that Steven Marshall, the South Australian Premier, agreed to crank up his desalination plant to provide 100 gigalitres of water, offset upstream of course, to grow fodder up and down the Murray. So that's real leadership by Steven Marshall and that's real leadership by the Federal Government to be able to put that in place. That's what we need at this time.

What we don't need is panic. What we need to do is hold our nerve. I appreciate that irrigation farmers are doing it tough. I work with them, I talk with them, I'm in an area where irrigation around the Murrumbidgee Irrigation and Coleambally Irrigation Areas is absolute king, and they grow more food and fibre in that area than many, many of the other irrigation areas across Australia. But  indeed, what we need to do is have a plan that can work. We need to make sure that we don't have people buying water out of catchments that- and then hoarding it and selling it off at exorbitant prices and that's why we've got Mick Keelty in Mildura yesterday, that's why we've got the ACCC running the ruler over it. David Littleproud is very much conscious of this. We will address that as a Government. We are addressing it as a Government. We won't make- we won't have people gouging our water market. And if they do, well, look out, but what we don't need is knee jerk reactions by people playing politics and suggesting that we just should blow the whole plan up.

Damien Fisher: So you believe it's been working?

Michael McCormack: I don't- I'm not saying it's been working, but when it doesn't rain- when it doesn't rain, you know, it's very, very tough and I appreciate that from an irrigator's point of view. I do understand that we can't make it rain. We can help and soothe our communities through the best way possible until it rains again and make sure we've got the right water infrastructure in the right places such that when it does rain again we can store it and use it for future droughts. But to go blowing the plan up would indeed be folly.

Damien Fisher: Look, we're out of time but do appreciate you calling through this morning and wish you all the very best. All we can do is hope for rain, pray for rain.

Michael McCormack: Indeed, and I know Kevin Hogan is very conscious of that and he's very much getting out in his community as a good local member would and assuring them that the Government has their back. Thank you very much, I really appreciate the conversation.

Damien Fisher: [Inaudible].