Transcript - Doorstop - Canberra - Wednesday, 20 February 2019

SUBJECTS: Labor’s dairy announcement; dairy industry crisis; Joe Hockey; QLD floods; Christmas Island.

JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY AND SHADOW MINISTER FOR RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: Today Labor is announcing we will intervene in the dairy industry. To help our struggling farmers. Farmers are leaving the land, milk production is down, farmers are culling their cows. This cannot go on and we won’t sit back and watch this Government do nothing. It’s time for Government intervention and we are proposing what we will do as a Shorten Labor Government. This is not a radical plan, it’s a sensible plan. This situation where farmers are being paid at cost or below cost can’t go on. If we’re not careful, we will be importing powdered milk from other countries. It’s not just about minimum price, we will introduce a mandatory code of conduct to govern behaviour in the industry. We will drive energy prices down – it’s a big cost for dairy farmers - with a sensible energy policy which will restore investment certainty in that industry and we will establish a farm productivity and sustainable profitability plan for the dairy industry which will help getting the best innovation down onto the farm so the farmers can lift their productivity.
 
We are determined to help our farmers, but it is not just about our farmers, our processors are doing it tough as well.  Farmers are losing money. Processors are struggling and retailers aren’t making much money either because they chose not to make money. But we want to work with the whole value chain, all three entities, to lift the value and productivity of the dairy industry. It’s too important not to do so.
 
JOURNALIST: You talk about a floor price. What would that be?
 
FITZGIBBON: Well it would be a regionally based floor price. Every dairy region is different- different climate, some are export orientated and some do domestic markets for example and some do mainly fresh milk and others do mainly butter, cheese and other dairy products. So the authority, possibly the ACCC, would make an assessment in each region in any given period as to what it costs to produce a litre of milk and then the same body would determine what the minimum milk price should be and obviously that would be something just over the cost of milk production. That would give farmers a solid base and some certainty. If they have that they can be then confident about making an investment in their future to in turn lift their productivity.
 
JOURNALIST: The supermarkets seem to be pretty divided on this issue. You have Woolies increasing the price of fresh milk but Coles and Aldi not following suit, shouldn’t these supermarkets be working together on some sort of long term plan?  
 
FITZGIBBON: We welcome the move by Woolworths, it can do no harm, but it is not a solution to the structural issues in the dairy industryColes and Aldi should follow, as an interim measure, but the real solution here is in government leadership and intervention in the market and some structural change to make sure every entity along that value chain can remain profitable and therefore has a future.  Look, the processors need the dairy farmers as much as the dairy farmers need the processors.  They are interdependent.  So we should not fall into this war between retailers and farmers, and processors and farmers.  We want to help all of them.  And if you are going to have big structural changes, you have to start with the foundation of a viable dairy farming industry.  We need our dairy farmers.  This is a staple, perishable food critical to our community standards and health standards and we need to make sure that we get that base right.  From there, we can help build profitability in the processing sector and of course the retailers have the power to take care of themselves.
 
JOURNALIST:  Mr Fitzgibbon, there were more reports last night about the AOT Group and this time Ambassador Joe Hockey.  Should the Ambassador be recalled? 
 
FITZGIBBON:  I will let my Senate colleagues continue to prosecute that case, I have been very busy working on this dairy policy.  I haven’t watched it in detail.  Obviously, it is very very concerning and a matter to be taken very very seriously.  All parties, including those who have had the finger pointed at them, should be indeed taking this very very seriously.
 
JOURNALIST:  Will you meet with flood-affected victims today,  I think some farmers and graziers are in Canberra meeting with the Government?
 
FITZGIBBON:  I have been, and will be, meeting with farm leadership group, who are representing farmers.  I am not sure about any particular group today, but what I have tried to do is stay out of the way and let the Government do its thing.  We have indicated to the Government we stand ready to back any proposal, reasonable proposal, which helps our farmers in potentially the worst tragedy in the cattle sector in the history of our nation.  I was very pleased when Bill Shorten said yesterday that he thought probably the only way to help cattle producers is to give them cash to rebuild their stocks for investment and breeders.  So, I hope Scott Morrison takes that idea on board and we certainly stand ready in a bipartisan way to do everything we can for those affected by the floods in North Queensland.
 
JOURNALIST:  Do you think it fine for sick asylum seekers to receive medical treatment on Christmas Island as opposed to the Australian mainland?
 
FITZGIBBON:  Well let’s let this thing play out, what we don’t want to do is put further fuel into Scott Morrison’s attempt to make this issue an issue it is not.  We purport some sensible proposals, Scott Morrison will try to fiddle with, mislead about what our proposals are, skewer the impacts of those reasonable policy positions.  So I am not going to further fuel that.  Let this thing run out.  The Prime Minister is now realising that he has over-reached on this issue.  He is all over the place and I think he would be serving the Australian community much better if he came back to the Senate and spoke sensibly about the issues and joined us in a bipartisan issue on this.  Thank you.