SUBJECTS: Prime Minister’s Future Fund announcement; Drought Summit talk-fest; Allegations of misuse of taxpayer funds.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES, FORESTRY AND RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: I’ve just come from the National Drought Summit. I wasn’t amongst them, but those who came along today in the right spirit who were expecting something meaningful to come from it will be disappointed. That hope collapsed earlier this morning when the Prime Minister made an announcement about the Summit before the discussion was even held. That announcement was an attempt only to generate a $5 billion headline. But of course what it really was, was a promise to spend $100 million a year sometime after 2020 if Scott Morrison’s Government is re-elected. Now what will leave people also very disappointed is the failure of the Summit to give any meaningful attention to the issue of climate change and its links to drought. The starting point of any meaningful long term drought policy is first an acknowledgment the climate is changing and driving drought, a serious policy on carbon mitigation and in turn, a serious policy on increasing adaptation on farm. We need to urgently re-double our efforts in rolling our world’s best practice natural resource management methods and programs on to our farms. Now that is key to a long-term drought policy. We have lost five years now under this Government and we need now to play catch up. This is an urgent matter. We need direct and immediate support for farmers – we need an economic approach to incentivise the greater uptake of water infrastructure and feed storage for example. But the third tranche is an acceptance that this is being driven by climate change and we need long term resilience solutions.
JOURNALIST: $100 million per year is better than nothing. Isn’t this announcement a good thing for farmers?
FITZGIBBON: Well if Scott Morrison is re-elected and starts spending $100 million a year sometime in 2020, that’s a long way away, then he will be spending less money than he claims to have been spending in recent years. Now of course, he embellishes what he has been spending in recent years by including the full capital cost of all loans on offer to farmers whether they are taken up or not. Now we have seen these big numbers before: $4 billion claimed under the now failed Agriculture White Paper. But of course we know that $4 billion was mainly loans and there are a lot of loans sitting there that never will be lent to farmers. And we never hear about the Regional Investment Corporation anymore; that pork barrelling exercise in Orange. It was supposed to be lending to farmers but doesn’t exist, doesn’t have a home, doesn’t have a CEO, doesn’t have any staff. So I think we can take much of what the Prime Minister said today with a grain of salt.
JOURNALIST: What about the question of where this money is coming from? What is your understanding?
FITZGIBBON: Labor will be seeking some clarification as to where this $3.9 billion of investment is coming from. The Prime Minister was all over the shop this morning when asked about this, he says he is getting this from the Building Australia Fund but indeed he previously said if he closed the Building Australia Fund down he would be reallocating that money to the NDIS. So we certainly want reassurance that money won’t be put into the drought fund at the expense of people who are relying on the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
JOURNALIST: What would Labor do then following this Drought Summit? How much money would Labor put in and where would it go?
FITZGIBBON: The key to on-going drought reform is the resurrection of the CoAG process. Barnaby Joyce’s first act as the Minister after the 2013 election was to abolish the CoAG Committee that was supposed to progress the InterGovernmental Agreement [on Drought] signed before he was elected in 2013. Now we need to go back to that InterGovernmental Agreement and its six principles, much of which go to the issues I have already discussed today and work with the states to get on with developing that reform program. I just want to say something about the front pages of the Fairfax newspapers today and the allegation of the misuse of taxpayers’ funding . Now this is a very, very serious allegation and the Government cannot be allowed to get away with just flippantly dismissing it as Barnaby Joyce did this morning. The Government has to do better than that. It must act and it must, at the very least, immediately refer the matter to the independent Auditor-General for investigation. This is not just about misallocation of taxpayers’ money, it is about the relationship between the key players in the National Party. Given the weight of the allegations it should be referred to the Auditor-General immediately. Thanks everyone.