SUBJECT/S: Senate inquiry into the Australian Dairy industry; Dr Grimes letter, doctoring of Hansard, US Presidential election


HOST:  We are talking about an operation in WA who had to pour milk down the drain due to an issue with their suppliers.  What about this suggestion that Australia may have to import milk before too long if things continue the way they are? Do you agree with that?

JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES, FORESTRY AND RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: Now David, can I first say that you have travelled all the way to Washington for some excitement, and we had our own Donald Trump performance at the National Farmers’ Federation this morning from Barnaby Joyce.  He pleaded his innocence on a range of crimes.  He called the Labor Party socialists, communists, in front of the China Ambassador, and then he suggested our Australian troops won’t fight for land that is “rented out”.  I am not quite sure what he meant by that last bit but they tell me it was pretty entertaining.

HOST: Okay, we will get to some of that that, but I want to get to some of the issues you have been attacking him over in relation to former Departmental Secretary Paul Grimes.  But just on this idea of importing milk.  Are things that bad at the moment?

FITZGIBBON: No, they are not that bad David.  We produce three times more milk than we consume and the market will take care of itself before that ever occurred.  It is true that dairy farmers are doing it very tough for a whole range of reasons.  It is now 6 months since the Murray Goulburn crisis began. Barnaby Joyce is still yet to do anything to lift a finger to help.  He did announce two months ago that he would have an ACCC inquiry, that is the second inquiry.  The first inquiry isn’t yet complete.  But we learn today in that Senate hearing that you are talking about, but he is yet to produce, two months on, a Terms of Reference for his inquiry.  So I am not surprised to have heard the Farmer Power representative give him a bit of a tickle up. Market issues matter here. There are a number of things the Government can do.  They need to strengthen the regulative arrangement so that retailers cannot misuse their market power, so that producers can bargain as a group, bargain collectively to strengthen their bargaining power.  And at the end of the day, the retailers can’t go on losing, the dollar milk is a “loss leader”. They want their customers to walk past the other goods in their store to get to the milk at the back – they can suffer losses only so far – and if we get more of the profit going back to the farmers then their losses will be greater and things will turn around.

HOST: I know you don’t support the idea of a milk levy to fix this problem.  Jacquie Lambie and others have suggested this, and certainly the Farm Power group has as well, but Barnaby Joyce I did see today suggested that supermarket customers are already heading away from the dollar a litre milk and going for the more expensive options.  Is that borne out with any evidence?  Are you seeing that as well?

FITZGIBBON:  Well, Barnaby Joyce encourages customers to buy the branded milk, you know what happens then David?  More of the profit goes back to the retailer and the processor. It is no benefit to the dairy farmers so we have to deal with these market power issues. But Barnaby Joyce needs to start doing something. As they said in the hearing today, he has not lifted a finger. We heard from the ASIC or ACCC today, maybe both. The simple question was asked. Will the claw back provisions in the Murray Goulburn arrangement and the agreement they had with their farmers, were those clawback provision legal or illegal and no one seemed to answer that question and this is six months after both ASIC and the ACCC commenced their inquiries. If we can’t answer those questions, we aren’t making much progress. We need a Minister with real interest, a Minister prepared to drive a decent response.

HOST: What is your message to customers if buying the branded milk is not going to help the farmers, what should they be doing in the supermarket?

FITZGIBBON: Customers are snookered. Buy the dollar milk and they are not helping the farmers and if they buy the branded milk they are still not helping the farmers but are putting more in the pockets of the retailers and processor or whoever has the most market power at the time. I don’t think there is anything consumers can do about this issue. There is only one person well placed to help our dairy farmers and that is Barnaby Joyce, but he is yet to lift a finger.

HOST: Just to finish up on this dairy issue, you’re saying he needs to get cracking with the Terms of Reference for one of those inquiries and authorities need to establish whether it was legal or not to backdate the change of the price to the farmers. But beyond that, what further intervention can the Government make?

FITZGIBBON: Well think about this David, we have a sector here that has been struggling not just the last six months but a number of years now particularly when it hits dry climatic periods but has the Government produced a strategic plan for the industry? Has it got a plan to lift productivity in the industry? Does it have a platform for farmers to group together collectively and rebalance the market power? There are plenty of ideas out there. There are plenty of smart people in the industry willing to show leadership and at the end of the day we need strategic guidance from the Government. We need a Minister who has an interest in the sector and prepared to drag the various parties in and read the Riot Act to them. The Minister does have that authority and power and I think should use it more.

HOST: Let’s go to Paul Grimes, former head of the Agriculture Department who was sacked. There has been a letter released finally this week after several Government attempts to keep it from being released. You have been red hot on this all week. Let me just play a little about what Barnaby Joyce had to say about this letter from Paul Grimes that basically goes to his concerns about the change to the Parliamentary record, Hansard, to fix up something Barnaby Joyce has said. Here he was.

BARNABY JOYCE: What he reflected to do in that letter which later he wished to withdraw, I didn’t think it deserved to be put out there. The decision was never mine, it was the secretary of the department’s decision

JOURNALIST: He wrote to you, you could have released it if you wanted to.

JOYCE: Later on we got the call through they wanted to withdraw it. In the heat of the moment things can be said which people later on wish they never said.

HOST: Joel Fitzgibbon what do you say to that? That Paul Grimes wished for this letter to be withdrawn according to the Minister.

FITZGIBBON: More spin from Barnaby Joyce. He has misled the Australian people yet again. There is no evidence Paul Grimes wanted the letter withdrawn in fact we have email exchanges between Barnaby Joyce’s office and Paul Grimes that suggest just the contrary. Paul Grimes was bullied here, intimidated and harassed which explains in part why he backed off when he called himself the special Senate hearing. He did give us some usual information in that hearing but in the time between the calling of the inquiry and his performance there it was very clear that but in the lead up to the inquiry and during the enquiry he was bullied intimidated and harassed. I asked Barnaby Joyce a question about the ineffectiveness of his Drought Policy and the response he completely misrepresented his own policy in other words embellished it to look better. When we went back to check the Hansard to make sense of what he said, we found it has been completely changed. Then he denied changing it and he was dragged kicking and screaming to that admission. We had censure motions and additional questions and eventually he admitted the Hansard changes had been made but blamed a staff member. This is typical to the behaviour of a bully. You get yourself into a corner, you start blaming others and blame the victim and bully yourself out of that corner. Barnaby Joyce has misled the Parliament of at least two occasions, a senior respected public servant has lost his job, the taxpayers have lost a million dollars. I’m not so concerned about Barnaby Joyce’s reputation, that is done and dusted, he has dispensed with that. It has gone. I’m more concerned about the fact it no longer seems to be a crime under the Malcolm Turnbull regime at least to mislead the Parliament. When misleading the Parliament no longer is a serious crime, the very nature of our Parliamentary democracy is under threat.

HOST: Joel Fitzgibbon, let me just finally ask you while we are about to get on to US politics. From your perspective as someone who has been around politics for a long time and has watched US politics fairly closely over the years, what have you made of this campaign and what do you think is at stake on November 8 when we find out who is going to be the next president.

FITZGIBBON: I think it fair to describe it as somewhat bizarre David, we have never seen anything like it, but there is something in the water everywhere, it’s not unique to the US and what we have seen happening with Brexit and the UK Labour Party is another example. Australia’s interests are pretty clear here. We want a US Government that remains engaged in the Asia Pacific region and remains a close ally of ours and continues to promote trade liberalisation and open economies around the world. The Australia Government of either political persuasion will work with any US administration that adheres and stick to those values and I have to say I would have thought, it looks pretty obvious to me, on that a basis Hilary Clinton win would be the best result for Australia.

HOST: Shadow Agricultural Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, thanks for joining us.

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