SUBJECT: Drought policy.
TIM SHAW: Joel Fitzgibbon is the Shadow Minister for Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry and Shadow Minister for Rural and Regional Affairs and he is my calling card pulse of what Labor is thinking about the devastation. Ninety nine per cent of NSW is drought affected or is in drought. Queensland hasn’t had a good decent drop of rain for five years and I want to ask the former Defence Minister in the Labor Government Joel Fitzgibbon what he would do in Government in response to the Berejiklian Government topping up to a billion dollars now in drought relief. I’m pleased to say in the great centre of the universe in Cessnock he reckons, I reckon it’s Canberra, Joel Fitzgibbon is on the line. How is Cessnock this morning Joel Fitzgibbon?
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES, FORESTRY AND RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: Tim as you know we do make the world’s finest wines so I think I will just leave my case right there.
SHAW: Righto, righto, I will get on to the wine in a minute. I have a few Canberrans who have finished Dry July. Now the NSW Government, talk about dry, NSW is so dry. They have announced an extra $500 million in drought support including nearly $200 million of transport subsidies. Joel Fitzgibbon, too little too late?
FITZGIBBON: The drought is as bad as you could have possibly imagined. I don’t want to say too little, too late as it sounds a little bit political and the last thing we want to is politicise the plight faced by our farmers. But what is certainly true is that every time we spend one dollar in what is effectively farm welfare, we admit defeat. I mean our farmers don’t want it. They are hardworking and proud. The economy can’t afford it and it is another sign of policy failure both at the National and State level. There is something else that can’t afford it either and that is our natural resource base because again it is an admission we have let those resources deplete to the point where farming is becoming almost impossible in parts of our country.
SHAW: That is a very important point. We have experts from all over Australia. The CSIRO, we have land management experts, water experts. Are we getting to a point, Joel Fitzgibbon that we need some of that expertise to go on to a farmer’s property - three or four generations and say - mate, you are farmed out - based on weather patterns, based on rain fall over the last x number of years, this in not arable enough for you to be able to produce the outcomes you as a dedicated Australian farmer are hoping for? Are we getting to that point Joel?
FITZGIBBON: It’s certainly the sort of conversation we have to have Tim and why it is so important we don’t have politics creep in to this conversation. I mean have a look at our history as a country. There is this myth we have abundant soil and water resources - no we are the driest inhabited continent in the world. Our quality soil resources are very limited confined largely to the Murray Darling Basin on the mainland and for a couple of hundred years we have been killing those soils with European farming methods. Think again about how a lot of people came to own their land, soldier settlements for example, land issued by Government. Not great land Tim in many circumstances otherwise Government wouldn’t be giving it away. And then in the 50s we had a brain explosion and we decided we should grow more food by building dams and then we expanded farm land under irrigation and when we finally worked out we were killing the environment we had to pull water back leaving people in desperate situations. Now of course the climate is getting drier and hotter. So we have changing circumstances and when you have changing circumstances, you have to change your approach. Back in 2008, Governments plural, both State and Commonwealth and political leadership around the country in the farm sector agreed we did have to change. In 2013 there was a historic agreement between the Commonwealth and the States to get rid of all the welfare programs and start fresh with a focus on building resilience on farms. Regenerative farming, holistic farming, sustainable farming but unfortunately when Barnaby Joyce became the Minister in 2013 he just threw out all of those COAG processes and we have just lost five years. Having lost five years, the NSW Government and others now have no choice given the dire circumstances to start throwing money at the thing again.
SHAW: Do you know I spoke to Dave and he is a farmer. He’s meeting up with Pip Job. Now she is the NSW Drought Coordinator. I wanted her on the show this week and she is unavailable. I respect that as she has a lot of people to see. Let me tell you what Dave the farmer has told me. They have had 74 mm of rain at Cumnock in NSW since last November, the worst in four generations this family has seen Joel Fitzgibbon. They are feeding everything, wheat, hay, cottonseed, pellets, molasses all of this costing around $450 a tonne delivered. Calving cows need 10-12 kilos a day, lambing ewes need 800 grams to a kilo a day. The freight is killing them. Cotton coming from Hillston, only hay that they can find is coming from Central Victoria. If we weren’t drought ravaged the trucking industry wouldn’t be billing the millions and millions and millions of dollars that they are now billing to get this feed to the farmers. Now should the Australian Defence Force, those great men and women who are being trained to defend our nations, should we get them out as farm hand help during this incredibly difficult time? Because I heard Gladys Berejiklian tell you and I on the news yesterday – we’ve been waiting, we’ve realised now this drought is going to extend right through winter and there will be no winter crops. It’s going to go past summer 2019. I mean when do we get to a point when we say enough, we need every hand on deck to relieve these farmers in these desperate communities?
FITZGIBBON: Tim in the 21st Century, our Australian Defence Force are highly skilled, trained and not so badly paid professionals. We don’t want to, having invested the money in them, turn them to farm labouring. They need to be focused on their first job at hand and that is defending the nation and our interests. The point you make is still relevant. I can take you to farms throughout NSW and Queensland where farmers are doing quite well having spent years going back to the sort of farming that is in tune and in harmony with our ecosystems, building moisture in their soils, creating more ground cover, planting trees and more efficiently using their water. Now I’m not saying that some farmers aren’t just simply doing it well enough but I think there is greater leadership role for Government, mainly at the Federal level to take all of our farmers down the path to more sustainable farming practices. Now there can be some upfront costs in that and governments probably need to find a way of helping them make that investment. That is a much better use of taxpayers’ money than handing out welfare payments to farmers who don’t want those welfare payments in the first place. We have to accept that drought is no longer an abnormal event. It’s probably the new normal unfortunately and we have to make some smart decisions about how we make farming more sustainable and Tim we have to get out of this obsession with volume. We have limited natural resources. We can only grow so much food. Instead of focusing on more and more commodities into commodity markets where we are price takers on export markets, we need to focus on premium products where we secure a premium return for the farmers and for the nation.
SHAW: As Minister in a Shorten led Labor Government, what would you be doing in the first 12 months in regard to agriculture and in regard to rural and regional Australia? What would be the three top policy areas you would focus on noting that NSW is in drought to the level that it is and Queensland is not far behind. What would you do as Minister?
FITZGIBBON: Well I know it sounds a little bit like forming a committee, but it is important that we put the COAG process back together. The State Governments are the main managers of our land resources in this country so the Commonwealth needs to be working in collaboration with them. We need to go back to the 2013 Intergovernmental Agreement which said- look we need to get rid of welfare and all those subsidy programs and we need to start focusing on building resilience and building business expertise et cetera in the farm sector. Now that was torn up by Barnaby Joyce. We need to rebuild that and rebuild that quickly because we have just lost five years and it is a time when we don’t have a moment to lose. Then we do need to find ways – look I wrote an opinion piece last week on getting agriculture education back into our schools. Because we want young people, smart young people, educated in the discipline to want to be farming and we need that to be taking new modern farming techniques to the farm enterprises. I’m not saying there isn’t an uptake by current farmers, technology and new business approaches and new ways of managing the land, but it is not the normal time and we need to make it the normal. We need to get smart, young kids into farming and in terms of the agriculture sector generally, workforce is one of our biggest challenges. We can’t get young Australians to work on our farms anymore. We have to make it more interesting for them. It’s a win-win. Higher value, higher technology and more complex farms attracting good, young people to make them profitable into the future.
SHAW: Farmers got up at 4am this morning and they got the wife and the daughters out rolling bales of hay off there to feed their desperately starving stock. We have Senator Bridget McKenzie at the National Press Club tomorrow, Deputy Leader of the Nationals. Their absolute voting base is rural Australia and her speech is titled ‘shooting for success’ . Well we have farmers today shooting their animals and I have found out yesterday, Steve Mathews, fourth generation sheep and grain farmer from Lockhart in the Riverina. Do you know what? We are losing a farmer every four days taking his life because he can’t cope anymore. What is your message to the Federal Government today? Instead of the Agriculture Minister swanning around the rest of the world, shouldn’t he be here? What is your message to Malcolm Turnbull’s Government today to support these farmers?
FITZGIBBON: Well you keep inviting me to do so Tim so I will take the debate and make political point. We need less drought tours by Prime Ministers and the selfies and the camera shots for the 6 o’clock news that go with it. We can’t make up for the lost five years but we can start today to put that COAG process back together and work out ways of helping farmers embrace new methods to make us more sustainably profitable. Now a farmer doing it tough today in the middle of the drought doesn’t have a second or cent to spend on that project but Governments can start the process to ensure we have to look at this as a long-term problem and we have to start today having lost 5 years. We have to concede having lost five years that packages like that released by Gladys Berejiklian yesterday wouldn’t be necessary because now they are in crisis - and when you are in crisis you are not in a position to start looking at those new farming methods.
SHAW: Mate, thanks so much for your time and I appreciate your perspective and we will talk again soon.
FITZGIBBON: A great pleasure Tim.