SUBJECTS: Drought policy; Agriculture roundtable, division and dysfunction in Turnbull Government
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES, FORESTRY AND RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: Australian farming communities are being affected by a shocking and protracted drought and Australian farmers are suffering more today than should be necessary because of five years of policy inaction by the Abbott and Turnbull Governments. Now today, the Minister is holding a roundtable but that roundtable will not tell the Minister or the Prime Minister anything we don’t already know about drought or anything about what we need to do about drought. A serious roundtable would have been one which involved State Governments. We can only develop new and effective drought policy in cooperation and in coordination with the States. Sadly, the Abbott and Turnbull Governments abolished the COAG process five years ago. Now we have an intergovernmental agreement on drought, a five-year agreement which expired nine days ago. There is nothing in its place because the Government abolished the COAG process. Now the Minister today has said something about Farm Household Allowance and how difficult it is for farmers to access that allowance. We have been telling the Government for up to four years about the difficulty farmers are having accessing Farm Household Allowance. You might recall that Barnaby Joyce mislead the Parliament answering a question from the Opposition about the difficulty in accessing Farm Household Allowance. Now the Minister has finally decided there’s a problem but is yet to offer a solution. If we are going to start the drought reform process again then we have to resurrect the COAG process and we have to lay as the foundation the idea that drought is no longer an abnormal event, it is the new normal. We have to start building from the idea that a necessary part of the equation will be mitigation, adaptation and of course building resilience for our farmers and our farming communities. Farmers have suffered long enough waiting for the Turnbull Government to take action. The time for talking is over, the time for wasting money on pork-barrelling exercises, like the Regional Investment Corporation and the APVMA relocation, are over. That is money, tens of millions of dollars wasted, which could be spent helping our farmers and farming communities.
JOURNALIST: Shadow Minister, you touched on it just before, but what priority measures do you think Government needs to put in place to deal with these drought conditions we are seeing.
FITZGIBBON: Well, the first priority for the Government is to rebuild the COAG process it abolished. In 2013 the States and the Commonwealth signed an historic agreement. They decided that with the support of the National Farmers Federation and other key farm leadership groups, that we needed a new approach to drought policy and over the last five years that process should have been further progressed by COAG, but Barnaby Joyce with the imprimatur of Malcolm Turnbull abolished the COAAG process. We need to resurrect that, bring the States back into play. They are now at the moment desperately scrambling to do things at the State level to fill the vacuum left by the Turnbull Government. We need to put that process in place, we need to accept that drought is a new normal and that mitigation, adaptation and building resilience have to be our key focus.
JOURNALIST: Do you agree with the Government that the big banks need to have a social conscience and put in place the farm management deposit offset accounts.
FITZGIBBON: Well after five years of doing nothing, David Littleproud now wants to blame the banks. This is the same David Littleproud who with Malcolm Turnbull voted 23 times against establishing a royal commission into the banks. Yes, banks need to sharpen their pencil but farmers need government to do something too and in five years the Turnbull Government has done nothing to help drought affected Australian farmers.
JOURNALIST: How much damage has the banking royal commission done to the big banks in rural and regional areas
FITZGIBBON: I think the banks are very conscious of the damage the royal commission has done to their reputation, in particular in the way they have dealt with many in our farming communities. That is why the Labor Party is opposed to the idea of giving a $17billion tax cut to the banks when we have struggling farming families without any real assistance from the Turnbull Government.
JOURNALIST: You accuse the Government playing politics with this issue because there is an election coming, but aren’t you playing politics as well?
FITZGIBBON: I extended a hand of bipartisanship to Barnaby Joyce on this and other agriculture policy areas five years ago and of course Barnaby Joyce rejected that proposition. We have tens of million dollars being wasted on pork barrelling exercise in the agriculture sector, the Regional Investment Corporation, the AMPVA, money which could be practically going to help farming families today. Instead, what is David Littleproud doing? He is having a roundtable.
JOURNALIST: And just a final question, a damning review of the wool industry is being released today. Do you think that it’s time for change at the top?
FITZGIBBON: It’s certainly time to review our research organisations in the agriculture sector. I’ve been saying for some time that ten years on from the last review, a review of our regional, our research and development corporations in agriculture, is overdue. Research money is too scarce. We need to be ensuring that that money, every dollar, is invested in the research which is going to lift productivity in the agriculture sector into the future.
Can I just say, in drought policy we have a divided and dysfunctional Government. On energy policy and energy prices we have a divided and dysfunctional Government. Generally speaking in this country we have a dysfunctional and divided Government.