Transcript - Television Interview - ABC Weekend Breakfast - Saturday 7 April 2018

07 April 2018

SUBJECT/S: Live exports, Murray Goulburn, Trade, Liddell Power Station, Aspirations of agriculture industry.

HOST JOHANNA NICHOLSON: For more on this and other political news of the week we are talking now with Joel Fitzgibbon. On that issue of live exports. Why are we again seeing Australian animals die in this sort of a way in this live export trade?

JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES, FORESTRY AND RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: Well, we shouldn't be. One thing is very clear, and that is that business-as-usual is unacceptable. We need change, we need reform. If the industry wants to be sustainable, it needs community support. Community support is falling away rapidly because we continue to see these incidents. I have to say I'm very pleased, Minister Littleproud has been in very regular contact with me since this incident and he has been making all the right noises. He understands that change needs to occur. We had an exchange with him as recently as this morning. We also need broader reform. We can't just focus on this particular voyage and this particular incident. There is a ship due to leave Perth on Monday. I'm travelling to Perth tomorrow, in part for that reason. So he's focusing very much on what Emanuel have to do before that ship will be allowed to leave the port. Now, that's a good thing, but, focusing on one voyage isn't reform. We need broader reform, but I think he understands that.

HOST ANDREW GEOGHEGAN: Okay. You talk about reform. What sort of precautions then do you think need to be taken? Making sure there is a vet on every ship, for instance? Perhaps not carrying out live exports during summer, it depends on where it's going of course, whether it's summer here or summer in the Northern Hemisphere. What would you like to see happen?

FITZGIBBON: In the sheep trade, obviously heat is a very big issue, so too is stocking densities. There is always a vet on board, this is nothing new but a vet for 60,000 sheep is obviously not enough. We need to look at the standards. My real concern is that the Minister advised me, I think on Friday, that the Department had looked at this particular voyage and that no breach of the current standards had been found. This is a new debate because in the past we have been having a debate about whether they did or did not breach the standards. But now we're saying, despite this horrible footage, which, by the way, I haven't seen but we will soon, despite all of that, no breach of the standards were found. Now, the Minister agreed this morning, and I really welcome it, that mortality rate is not an acceptable measure of animal welfare. 2,200 or so sheep died on that voyage, but many others suffered for a long, long time without meeting death. Maybe the sheep that died were the lucky ones. So I really welcome that acknowledgement. In the past we had Barnaby Joyce giving unqualified support to the industry, criticising Labor because we had the audacity back in 2011 to act when there was an incident. When you do that you send all the wrong messages and create a culture in the industry, a culture of risk and complacency. We cant have that and I welcome that Minister Littlerproud is taking a much different approach.

GEOGHEGAN: It sounds like there is a bipartisan agreement on this that change needs to happen. What practically needs to be done?

FITZGIBBON: I would like the government to go a step further. Again I welcome what Minister Littleproud is doing with respect to this company. I welcome his acknowledgement that the standards need review. We went to the last election, Labor, promising an Inspector General of Animal Welfare and Live Exports, an independent person focused on the industry, and an Independent Office of Animal Welfare. Sadly, I actually appointed a person to that position as Minister before we lost the 2013 election, and, sadly, Barnaby Joyce abolished the position. We've gone backwards. David Littleproud doesn't have to embrace my six-point plan but I'd like him to look more broadly and embrace something like that which gives the public confidence there is an independent cop on the beat and making sure the right thing has been done.

NICHOLSON: Now we've seen an escalation in the trade war between China and the United States. How concerned are you about this and perhaps Australias ag industry being part of the collateral damage?

FITZGIBBON: Very concerned, not just about agricultural but trade generally. I represent a coal mining electorate obviously. You know we used to say when America sneezes Australia catches a cold. Now we are in the middle of the two biggest economies in the world effectively at war with one another on the trade front and that can only be bad news for us. We have to be very smart about how we handle this. How we negotiate it. And of course very smart about our relationships with both of these countries.

NICHOLSON: Do you think we are being smart?

FITZGIBBON: We have seen a lot of overt criticism and I suppose, the spreading of fear about China in various ways in recent months, if not years. I think that's very dangerous for Australia. We need to be an independent country with an independent foreign policy, showing an informed view about these things. We can't be looking to be taking sides.

GEOGHEGAN: This past week we saw shareholders in the food processing firm Murray Goulburn vote in favour of a takeover from Saputo, the Canadian processor. Do you think this was the only option available and does it raise further concerns about so-called selling the farm in Australia?

FITZGIBBON: Sadly, it was the only option available and you have to be supportive of the shareholders, who were the most affected. But it didn't need to be. Murray Goulburn made some very poor business decisions and it had a shocking impact on its suppliers, on its farmers. At the height of that problem I reached out to Barnaby Joyce and said, "There is another way of doing this. Join me in putting pressure on the board", which had the power at the time to redirect some of its dividends away from its investors back to its farmers. The prospectus that raised the funds for the half-floating of Murray Goulburn allowed the board to do that. If Barnaby Joyce had joined with me, the farmers would have stuck around. Murray Goulburn's demise in the end came because the farmers deserted it. It didn't need to be. In the absence of other options we have to be welcoming of the new player, albeit, a foreign player because the alternative is much worse.

NICHOLSON: That is what Fiona Simpson from the National Farmers Federation was saying. Essentially there was no choice and this is actually a good thing for the dairy industry.

FITZGIBBON: Yes. This is where there needs to be bipartisanship. We have seen the government playing politics with the Foreign Investment Review Board in recent times reducing thresholds as a pitch to the electorate but - Fiona Simson made the point - we have a small trading nation, 25 million people, or less, limited savings. In all of our history we've relied on the capital of others to develop our economy. That's as true today, if not more true than ever before. We can't be playing politics with foreign investment. We are desperate for it, particularly in the agriculture sector.

NICHOLSON: Now, the Liddell Power Station is close to your heart being in your electorate.


NICHOLSON: When would you like to see that power station close?

FITZGIBBON: I don't think it is a debate about when it closes really. AGL has done what no company has ever done before, given seven years notice of its intention to close. But importantly what it's also committed to is replacing that capacity in the Upper Hunter, in my electorate, with new technologies - large-scale solar, battery storage, et cetera. We want that investment in the Upper Hunter, we want to remain the powerhouse in New South Wales. We want to continue to create jobs in the power sector. That AGL investment now is at risk because Malcolm Turnbull is playing politics with Liddell. AGL has to take its shareholders with it, demonstrate it's done its due diligence. And shareholders will be saying what about what Malcolm Turnbull is doing? He wants to extend Liddell for three years. How is that going to affect the return on our investment?

GEOGHEGAN: In this ongoing debate about transition to renewable energy, jobs are often brought up of course as perhaps being the loss there. How do you apply that in your electorate where you do have Liddell and that transition out of coal?

FITZGIBBON: Two points. AGL has given a guarantee that there'll be no job losses. A lot of people of course will be near retirement age and moving on. The others will move to the sister power station across the road, Bayswater. A coal-fired generator that will be around for another 20 years I'd like to think Im pretty confident that will be the case. What do we want to do? Do we want to extend some jobs for two or three years at Liddell? Or do we want to create the new jobs in the new renewable sector, jobs that will the last next 30 or 40 years? From my perspective, Malcolm Turnbull is putting jobs at risk. He is standing interfering with AGL's plan, with my plan, to make that transition to allow us to remain the powerhouse of New South Wales, but to create and maintain jobs for decades, not for two or three years.

NICHOLSON: Just briefly, and finally, Joel Fitzgibbon there is a discussion paper looking ahead to 2030 Accelerating Growth In Australian Agriculture. How do we do that in a sustainable way?

FITZGIBBON: This is a critically important thing. It is a good discussion paper but I'm sick of discussion papers, we have thousands of them. The key point in agriculture is sustainable profitability. We have a whole new generation of farmers now who understand it, who are embracing the best land management practices, doing more to care for our soil and water resources. That's also important. There's something else we need to do too. We need to get out of the mentality of focusing only on volume. Commodities in the commodity markets where we're price takers. We need to capture more value and start concentrating - allocating those natural resources to the products which give us a premium.

GEOGHEGAN : But also ensuring food security at the same time?

FITZGIBBON: Absolutely. People say we could never have a food security problem, we export two-thirds of everything we grow. That's largely true. But we're living in interesting times, our climate change, our natural resources are depleting because of overuse and poor land management practices. We have to be on the ball here.

NICHOLSON: Thanks for coming in this morning.

FITZGIBBON: A great pleasure.