SUBJECTS: Drought policy
GRAHAM RICHARDSON: Welcome back to Richo. I am glad you stuck with us because I've spoken to Joel Fitzgibbon, I think we did that at about 7.30. I think it really is a very interesting interview. He is the Shadow Minister for Agricultural tour. He is a long-term mate of mine but apart from being a long-term mate of mine, I think he is effective. Labor doesn't have the reputation of being the farmers' friend. But this a bloke who has a lot of farmers in his electorate. He knows how to talk to them, knows how to handle them and I think he cares a great deal about what is happening with this drought. I hope to interview the Minister, David Littleproud in the next week or two but make sure you have a look at this, I think is pretty special. Joel Fitzgibbon, welcome to the program.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES, FORESTRY AND RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: Great to be with you, Graham.
RICHARDSON: I note you are in Melbourne which is a long way away from the Hunter Valley where I know you live. The Hunter Valley is in pretty bad drought as is 100 per cent of NSW and most of Queensland. That’s pretty true isn’t it?
FITZGIBBON: It’s very bad mate. I have been representing the Upper Hunter for 22 years in the Parliament. I have never seen it so bad. And not only farmers are hurting but of course regional economies are hurting because when farming comes down, economic activity is down and people get hurt everywhere.
RICHARDSON: So the shopkeepers and all the rest of it. They are all suffering.
RICHARDSON: It must be terrible. What do you say to farmers who are just praying for rain when there is no prospect of it at the moment? I mean, they don't seem to think it will come any time soon. What do you say to them?
FITZGIBBON: You've got to be a good listener, Richo. That’s the main thing. They have to understand that or they have to know that we understand what they are going through and that's important to them. Farmers certainly, the majority of farmers, the overwhelming majority of farmers aren't really looking for handouts or economic assistance from the Government. They want recognition that they make a really important contribution it our economy and our society. They produce the food we eat. And also recognition that they are doing it tough. What I've tried to do is sort of take a bipartisan approach and basically send the message to the Turnbull Government that whenever they put forward meaningful responses, assistance packages, we will give it every support.
RICHARDSON: But that $190 million the other day. I know that’s not the only amount they have put in in the last few years, but still it's pretty small, isn't it? When you think what they can find money for, it's certainly not much money for farmers?
FITZGIBBON: Yeah, Richo, I think it's modest. There are a few problems. It has that smell of political panic about it. Only a month ago, they were telling us at Senate Estimates and elsewhere that there is nothing to see here, Farm Household Allowance is sufficient it’s well targeted. People aren't having problems. They were claiming an 84 per cent success rate or support rate amongst farmers. It’s just not true. I have been telling them for four years Richo that this Farm Household Allowance payment is not working. You may recall Barnaby Joyce doctoring his Hansard. That was a question from me about Farmhouse Allowance four years ago. Joyce couldn’t even explain it to the Parliament so he embellished which politicians want to do on occasions when they do not know the real answer. Later, he doctored his Hansard. The point is this has been going on for four years. They recently had a review and they found nothing wrong with the system and suddenly on Sunday, Malcolm pops up and says we are going to change the asset test but not only that, we are going to provide this supplementary $12,000 payment. Well, they haven't explained why 12, they haven't explained why they are splitting it into two payments which seems a little bit strange.
RICHARDSON: When you've got to hand feed your cattle, 12 grand is not much money, is it?
FITZGIBBON: Well, typically a truckload of feed for the average farm is about $16,000. It's really strange, because Malcolm then doubled down and said this is not for feed. This is for food on the table. He talked about it's for the ‘body and soul’ for the farmers. I don't - it sounded a bit like a day spa to me. I don't know what that meant. But look, they need to feed their livestock. I don't understand why six now and six next March. Malcolm said March is coming soon. Gee, if you are a farmer in this terrible drought, March is a long, long way away.
RICHARDSON: It is, and you have to worry about mental health with a lot of them too. The pressures on them must be enormous. What is it at the moment, what are you hearing from them about the banks and their attitude? Because in the past, they have been appalling. Given the caning the banks have taken I am hoping they are being a bit more understanding at the present time.
FITZGIBBON: I will do the unpopular thing Richo. David Littleproud the now Minister has fallen back into Barnaby Joyce mode. His idea now is if you are not doing enough as a Government, just look for somebody else to blame. He is bashing up the banks even though I think he voted against a Royal Commission into the banks on about 23 occasions. But the banks have been pretty generous, despite all of their faults and there are many faults, we have seen that in the Royal Commission but they are stumping up donations. They are changing some of their rules. I was just talking to one of the major banks today. They have suspended any idea of penalty payments for farmers making late interest rate payments and all those penalties that usually go with it. In fact some of them are talking about suspending payments. I think the banks are having a bit of a crack. For the banks, the farm sector is a big market. So they want the farm sector to survive. It's in their interests to help where they can and I think they are having a bit of a crack. I think it's probably a bit of an opportunity for them to restore their reputation. I think they are taking that opportunity.
RICHARDSON: One can only hope so. But what do the farmers do next? I mean, when you are talking to them in your electorate? I know how dry the Hunter is, I have seen it, it's terrible. What do you say to them? I don’t understand how you give them hope because even if rain came tomorrow, how long does it take before that translates into feed?
FITZGIBBON: That's a really good point. It depends what is their choice of production. But of course, if you are growing a crop, you still have to wait for the right time to plant a crop. So even if there is rain tomorrow, you don't plant just because there is rain. There is a cycle there so that’s problematic. If you are grazing cattle, if it rains tomorrow, you don’t suddenly have ground cover the next day or even the next week, it’s a slow process. Even if we had substantial rain over the course of the next week, we know that the farmers generally are going to be challenged for a long, long time to come.
RICHARDSON: Of course, that affects GDP too, doesn’t it? You've got wool exports, wheat exports, meat exports there’s a lot in this.
FITZGIBBON: Not dramatically, given the farm sector is just less than 3 per cent of our economy, of course it does. It certainly as we said earlier, hits local economies very, very hard. A few people have made the point to me today, in a light hearted way, but a light hearted spirit is not so bad sometimes in these situations. I know farmers would appreciate it. We were joking today about a few busloads of heavy drinkers and eaters. Just go to the towns, frequent the pubs, I saw somebody say get a haircut, whatever it takes, spend some money in the local communities because that's what they really need.
RICHARDSON: Yeah. Of course, given that the spread of the drought, is there enough feed to bring in? And why doesn't the Government itself, and I don't know what Labor's policy is on this? What about the government trying to provide feed? What about the government buying it. It seems to me that at the moment, it's very haphazard. Much of it is donations and people trying to do the right thing. Because a lot of farmers just can't afford to feed their cattle. If that means we lose the herds or we lose the flocks, then we are in all sorts of strife aren’t we?
FITZGIBBON: Thank goodness Graham governments don't grow food. That's a good thing. And there is a bit of a myth about Australia, people think of us as a land of abundant water and soil resources. We are anything but. We live in the driest inhabited continent in the world and our soil resources are somewhat limited particularly like the Murray Darling Basin. So a country like Australia can only grow so much food. This is why governments dispensed with the idea of freight subsidies because if you are giving a subsidy to move grain or some sort of food from Western Australia to Queensland or NSW, or even from one state to another, South Australia to NSW, then the grain will follow the subsidy. What happens then of course is that the prices rise everywhere for feed but they rise in particular in the exporting regions. So, they are distorting and problematic. It doesn't make a lot of sense. As human beings, we do whatever it takes, if we can move some feed from one side of the country to the other we do and we have been doing so. That is astronomically putting up the price of feed for everyone. The only thing is we need to do whatever we can in the short term with income assistance but I have said many times, Graham, we need to start thinking seriously about the fact that the climate is becoming more challenging. Let's have an argument another day about what is causing it, it's changing, it is becoming drier and hotter. Drought is becoming the new normal. The best thing a government can do, is accept that, acknowledge that and get on with getting more farmers, many are doing so, embracing the science and the very best and latest farm methods which will make them more resilient to droughts. It is about lifting the carbon in the soil which encourages more moisture retention in the soil. These sorts of things will be very, very important. And you know, five years ago, all the major political parties agreed with the support of the National Farmers’ Federation to dispense with all the current drought programs because they were costing about $1 billion a year and not really changing anything. We decided to dispense with those and concentrate on resilience, and help farmers to live through droughts. But five years ago Barnaby Joyce decided to abolish all of that and he get rid of the COAG committee leading it. He was just going to build dams. And of course dams are no answer to the situation.
RICHARDSON: I was going to ask you that. I know Barnaby Joyce’s catch cry was build a dam and everything will be okay. A. Are we going to build any dams? And B. what effect would it have on the drought?
FITZGIBBON: It’s just dumbed down populism. It's a 19th Century solution to a 21st Century problem. Throughout the 50s we thought dams were the answer. We know now and are more enlightened that they have an enormous environmental impact in an adverse way. They are very expensive and take a long time to build. Because they are expensive someone has to be guarantee some form of return. The government or the private sector. Of course that means that water has to be so expensive, farmers could never afford them. As I said, they take up to 20 years to build by the time you get the environmental approvals and then construct the thing, I made the point recently on ABC Q&A - if you can just increase the carbon content in our soil over an acre of land, then you will create about 250,000 litres of water in terms of moisture retention in the soil. So, that's about a 10th of an Olympic sized swimming pool. You don't need to build a dam. You just need to have the right programs to improve our soils. Richo, for more than 100 years we have been adopting European farming methods in marginal land. Once you get across the Great Dividing Range it is pretty tough and that has become more difficult. We have been depleting our natural resource base with these European farming methods and at the same time the climate has become more challenging. So too many farmers are moving from the marginal column to the unviable column. We have to help them get them back to at least the marginal column. Government has a real role to play there. I made an announcement last week about dispatching our agriculture based research and development corporations to lead that work. We have to get more farmers taking this up. Now in the drought at the moment, there are many farmers, and I have visited a lot of them, including one just on Monday where they are getting through this drought okay because they have embraced these new practices. Under the Coalition Government now Richo, we have lost five years on that project. We need to kick start it again.
RICHARDSON: Well, I wish you well in getting it started but it's not going to be easy. Do you get resistance from the farm community to these new techniques?
FITZGIBBON: One of the things we - one of the mistakes we make is we treat all farmers the same. Like any cohort in our communities, farmers aren't all the same. Many of them are embracing these new methods. Others would like to and just are so busy just – doing and getting by and haven’t had the opportunity. It is those people we have to focus on. Government does have a role to play, both on building the science and then getting the new farming methods right down inside the farm gate. It is no good having the science and the research done if it is not flowing down onto the farm and that's what we need to do. It's the only - building resilience and putting farmers in a position where they can be both resistant to drought but even better, continue to be profitable throughout drought. That's the aim of Government and the current Government sadly for five years, COAG agreed five years ago that should be the focus but Barnaby Joyce came to the position, got rid of all those processes and said ‘Oh I’ll will just build dams’. I said Richo, “he will never build a dam and he never did.
RICHARDSON: He didn’t did he and I don't think he would build one now. I don't think he gives a damn. Now the last question. David Littleproud does at least acknowledge there is some climate change happening. He says farmers live with it every day. I have heard him say that. That is at least some sort of a change from the National Party, isn't it?
FITZGIBBON: He has been refreshing. He has been much better than Joyce who just decided that was all bullshit as he would put it and he would go and build dams. Littleproud has given this a lot more thought. He is of course restricted by those on his right. I have no doubt that he has been slapped down by some of his colleagues for being a bit too progressive. But gee, I say to David Littleproud tonight, through you and I have said it to him privately, "Let's do this" Let’s for the first time embrace a drought reform package that will be effective and meaningful what a great opportunity for both of us to do that together.
RICHARDSON: If only we could get some bipartisan politics. It is very hard to get these days. Joel, can I thank you very much for your time. I know you were stretched to do it but I appreciate it very much. I might be interviewing David Littleproud next week. We will see what he has to say about some of this.
FITZGIBBON: Always a pleasure.