Press conference in Rockhampton, QLD

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
PRESS CONFERENCE
ROCKHAMPTON
TUESDAY, 26 SEPTEMBER 2023

SUBJECTS: Drought preparedness, National Drought Forum, Future Drought Fund, Employment White Paper, natural disasters, climate change, livestock prices, bushfire season, full employment.

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: Thanks everyone for coming along today. It's an absolute pleasure to be back here on Belmont Station, somewhere just outside of Rocky that I've got to know very well over the years, well before becoming the Agriculture Minister. And I want to again commend Central Queensland University and AgForce for this incredible facility that is doing so much research about how we can improve the productivity, particularly of our livestock industry, but of agriculture more broadly. And importantly, some of the work that CQU and AgForce are doing here really focuses on drought and that's the purpose of our visit here to Central Queensland today. Can I welcome with me, the Federal Treasurer Jim Chalmers, Assistant Minister Anthony Chisholm, Queensland Minister, Mark Furner. We've got Mayor Tony Williams, Tony Mahar from the NFF, Mike Guerin from AgForce and many others as well – really to start talking about what we're doing collectively to get ready for drought, which we know is coming sometime sooner or later. As I say, what we know from the Bureau of Meteorology is – especially now that we've had El Nino declared, as well as a positive Indian Ocean Dipole – what that really means for farmers and rural communities is drier conditions, hotter conditions and an increasingly likely chance of drought coming before we know it. And what's most important is that we don't just react once these things happen, it's always better to plan ahead. And I think if there's one thing you've learned from the Albanese government is that we like to look over the horizon about what's coming at us and taking action ahead of time rather than knee jerk reactions once things start to happen.

As part of that, we've chosen to hold a National Drought Forum here in Rockhampton today. And what that has done is brought together about 180 leaders from the farm sector, from government, from the banking organisations, from the community sector – all sorts of people who have a role to play when droughts hit. And what we're wanting to do is harness their ideas about what more we can be doing as governments to make sure that we are fully prepared for drought. You might have seen yesterday in Canberra, we held a summit about national bushfire preparedness, and again, that's about getting ready ahead of time. And now we're doing it here with the agriculture sector in particular, trying to get ready ahead of time when it comes to drought. And already there's been some really good ideas put forward that we can think about as we're framing up our future drought policies.

The other thing I did want to mention before handing over to Jim, is that we've also announced today, with Mark Furner the Queensland Minister, the release of the first five Queensland Regional Drought Resilience plans. These plans are being jointly funded by state and federal governments. In the federal government's case, that funding is coming from our Future Drought Fund, which spends and allocates about $100 million each and every year in drought preparedness. And the point of these plans, whether they're here in Queensland or other states, is again about getting local communities and local regions together, thinking about what their communities need to be prepared for drought, whether it's coming next month, next year or next decade. Because it's obviously good for farmers and rural communities if we can be taking those steps ahead of time. It preserves the dignity of our farmers if they can be more self-reliant when droughts hit. And of course, from a taxpayer perspective, the more we can be taking action ahead of time – that reduces the drain on the public purse, which is always going to be needed when people face drought situations. So it's terrific today that we're announcing the first five plans in Queensland, and they cover Fitzroy and Capricornia, Burdekin and Charters Towers, Darling Downs, Torres Strait and Cape York and southwest Queensland. There's been a lot of work to do and I know Dave is available to have a chat about what that's meant at a local level. I might leave it at that, happy to take questions but I might hand over to Jim Chalmers in the meantime. And it's great to have Jim in Central Queensland again.

JIM CHALMERS, TREASURER: Thanks very much Murray, and particularly for choosing Rocky for the National Drought Forum today – and I acknowledge Tony in the role of the NFF in that as well – a really important opportunity that we had earlier today, Thanks to everyone from Belmont Station for hosting us here but I think more broadly, and more importantly, thanks to all of you for the jobs and the opportunities and the prosperity that you create, particularly in our primary industries. Regional Australia is absolutely central to our national prosperity and it's absolutely central to our economic plan. And we saw that in the Employment White Paper that the government released yesterday in Adelaide. We want our economy to be more dynamic and more inclusive and that means that the agriculture sector in particular has a really important role to play in that. Regions like this have had a really proud history and we want them to have a working future as well. And so much of our thinking is about how we ensure that regional communities like this one can be beneficiaries rather than victims of the big changes that we anticipate in our economy and in our society – and that's really the motivation behind that White Paper on jobs and opportunities. And because regional Australia and primary industries are so central to our prosperity, it plays a central role in that White Paper on jobs and opportunities as well. We want to make sure that we are investing in really important communities like this one, to keep generating those jobs and those opportunities and keep generating that national wealth as well. We recognise in the Albanese Labor government, that wealth in this country is not just generated in the cities and suburbs, it's generated in the regions as well and in industries like that which is represented here today. So we are grateful for that, we recognise that, we acknowledge that but more than that, we're making sure that regional Australia is central to that White Paper that we released. We want to make sure that there are more opportunities for more people in more parts of Australia, and that includes regional Australia, of course, and also beautiful communities like this one in regional Queensland.

Over the next few days, we'll be covering, I think, more than 3,000 kilometres from Brisbane to here today, to Longreach to Winton to Bundy, before we get home later in the week. And this 'bush blitz' is really about recognising the central role of regional communities in our economy, and also talking about the central role of primary industries in particular, in that Employment White Paper. Now, obviously, drought is a big part of the picture, we want to make sure that we are serving communities’ immediate needs at the same time as we act in the service of our generational obligations and responsibilities as well. And when it comes to climate change and drought, that brings all of that together.

Today, I've released the Productivity Commission's Report Review on the Future Drought Fund. We see the Future Drought Fund as a really important initiative but that doesn't mean that it can't be improved. And so what the Productivity Commission has given us, are some really important suggestions about how we make that important fund work even more effectively on your behalf. Obviously, drought is a huge challenge to communities like this one, also to the national economy and the national budget. And we want to make sure that we're acting with foresight, collaboration, consultation, making sure that we're all working together to meet that challenge, to rise to the challenge of drought. But more than that, maximise the immense opportunities in communities like this one. So thanks for having us here today, we'll hear from Mark Furner, and then after that happy to take some questions.

MARK FURNER, QUEENSLAND AGRICULTURE MINISTER: Thanks, Jim. It's great to be back here at Belmont Station. It was only the beginning of this year that we announced the Queensland Agriculture Low Emissions Roadmap. We stood here with AgForce and Queensland Farmers' Federation making that announcement. So, acutely aware of why we're here today making these collaborative announcements in regards to drought assistance for our farmers. It's good to be surrounded by Queenslanders, the Commonwealth Treasurer and certainly Minister Murray Watt and Queensland Senator Anthony Chisholm, but also the local Mayor here of Rockhampton. I know Tony Mahar would love to be a Queenslander, but certainly we'll adopt him but it's good to have him here and other stakeholders in the agriculture sector. When you consider drought and the collaboration that we work with the Commonwealth, it's so significant in terms of what we provide. Certainly a couple of years ago, the position that Queensland took in regards to drought preparedness was to shift to prepare for the drought before you actually are in drought. So therefore, farmers right now can apply for drought assistance through the Commonwealth and also the Queensland Government by having a drought preparedness plan, and from there on it's grants and low emissions funding to assist in preparation of being, in terms of drought. So we are acutely aware of the importance of the drought that's ahead of us despite the fact that Queensland is below 10 per cent drought declared, we understand that the next drought is just around the corner. So that's why it's so important to stand with the Commonwealth and make this funding announcement assistance around preparing yourself for conditions as we head into the summer period and also in drought. So, great to be here with the Treasurer, the Minister and Senator, and other stakeholders that know the importance of assisting farmers, particularly in times like this. Thank you.

JOURNALIST: Can you tell us about those five funds, those five regions of funds, and what that requires?

MARK FURNER: Well, it's about assisting the communities – similar to our funding in regards to helping out the communities, up to $300,000 in grants of those five communities. So it's a demonstration of not only assisting the farmers, but also the regions, working with the collaboration of those councils but working with the communities that wrap themselves around those particular areas.

MURRAY WATT: I can just elaborate a little bit more on that. Mark's right, what we've tried to do with these drought resilience plans, is make sure that they're very responsive to local needs. And those five different regions that I just took you through, in Queensland alone, are all very different communities. They have different types of agricultural production, different climates. And so some of them have had a real focus on what kind of community and mental health support is required and communities. Others have thought about what kind of infrastructure might be needed into the future, to make their communities more drought resilient. Others have talked about how they can manage their environment differently. So there's all sorts of different ideas that have come through those resilience plans that are really relevant to those local needs. But someone who knows more about it than any of us is actually Dave from TNQ Drought Hub and he might be able to give you a community perspective on it as well.

DAVID PHELPS, TNQ DROUGHT HUB: Senator Watt, thank you so much for inviting me to answer some of those questions. My background with drought extends well, for a lifetime really, having grown up on the farm but most importantly during the most recent drought across western Queensland. I was involved not just with government assistance but also through Rotary and the Western Queensland Drought Appeal, really helping the community there right from the Gulf down to Cunnamulla, Longreach for instance, helping the communities there really find their voice. And that's so crucial, it's so absolutely empowering for communities to have good leaders, for communities to be backed by policymakers, and by the resources to ensure that you have social connectivity, to ensure that you have, for instance, the region's needs and requirements for resilience, really, really backed and shining through. Because it is those communities that understand their own region the best, understand their own social needs, their own culture the best. And when that's backed by good policy, by good resourcing, and by programs such as the Future Drought Fund, it makes a huge difference. And so I really applaud governments at all levels for backing communities, empowering them, and for making their lives better.

JOURNALIST: Are you expecting, given that you work in the Drought Hub, that with this El Nino your work flow is probably going to explode a little bit in the coming months? Are you doing anything extra to prepare or anything like that?

DAVID PHELPS: We're absolutely going to be backing in our communities, because that's where it really matters at times like this. What we really found in the central west of Queensland, for instance, during the most recent drought, is that everyone starts to do it tough when 'ag' production declines due to drought, then that flows into town businesses who do it tougher and regional economies decline as well. And I think one of the key things around the Regional Drought Resilience Plans, for instance, and also the Future Drought Fund, is backing those communities to diversify their economy, to find jobs in other areas, to look beyond agriculture, for instance, or look within agriculture for other opportunities to actually build resilience and be better prepared. In terms of the Drought Hubs themselves, all eight hubs across Australia, I know we're looking to support things like community barbecues and events – go and flip some burgers ourselves so that we can be there and actually have a yarn to people and hear their immediate concerns, be there as part of that whole community connectivity. But just as important to connect those communities to nationwide programs, and to ideas that are coming from other communities and other districts back into their own district and community.

JOURNALIST: When David was talking, he was talking about the loss of agriculture and things like that. Obviously, you were saying about significant modelling and significant production loss. Can you talk a little bit to that?

JIM CHALMERS: Drought is a billion-dollar threat to our economy, and it impacts disproportionately in parts of Australia that we're really counting on and so we take the challenge of drought very seriously, more broadly, natural disasters and climate change. We're expecting conditions to get harsher, rather than less harsh, and that means we need to all work together to rise to the challenge of drought and natural disasters and climate change. We are investing a lot of money into communities like this one around Australia to make sure that we can meet this challenge, and to do that in the most collaborative way possible. Drought and natural disaster are a huge threat to local communities, to the national economy and to the national budget. We recognise that and that's why we want to work closely with so many people represented here.

JOURNALIST: So it's safe to say that this is happening here today but that's not the end of any type of consultation [inaudible] and you'll keep talking to producers?

JIM CHALMERS: One of the many advantages of having an agriculture minister of the calibre of Murray Watt is that there would not be a Cabinet meeting where Murray doesn't put forcefully the concerns in communities like this one around drought and climate change. It is absolutely central. If you made a list of the major challenges to our economy in the coming months and years and decades, then obviously climate change and drought would be at or near the top of that list. Communities like this one are front and centre in our considerations. But in addition to making sure that we're doing all of the work that we can to prepare and protect communities like this one, we also are putting the thinking into making sure that we can be major beneficiaries of the changes we expect in our economy. We want people in regional communities and workers more broadly to be able to find great opportunities, and we want employers to be able to find great workers so that we can prosper together into the future. That's the motivation behind the jobs and opportunities White Paper, and it's the reason why we're here today.

JOURNALIST: Can you tell us a little bit more about the White Paper, specifically its provisions aimed at supporting regional workforces?

JIM CHALMERS: There's some really important parts of the White Paper on jobs and opportunities which goes specifically to the regions and so one of the 10 areas of policy is about how do we make sure in regions like this one that we are broadening and deepening the industrial base – whether it's the net zero authority, whether it's investment in infrastructure, whether it's our efforts on climate change and the energy transformation, whether it's making sure that the National Reconstruction Fund pays particular attention to the regions, whether it's our efforts to instil a culture of lifelong learning and retraining and reskilling. One of the really valuable things about spending time here on Belmont Station is understanding the intersection between science and opportunity, and we need to turn these ideas into jobs and opportunities. So much of our agenda in research, but in skills and training, in co-investment by the various funds, in so many different ways, we see regional Australia as front and centre in our prospects for the future and that's why it's front centre in our White Paper and our economic plan more broadly.

JOURNALIST: Mutton prices have hit their lowest price since 2007 today, has the government's plan to ban live sheep exports flooded the market?

MURRAY WATT: No, I don't believe so. And if you actually listen to people like Meat and Livestock Australia and other industry groups, they along with my department, the advice that I receive is that there is no doubt that sheep prices and mutton prices are falling. The major issue is because of oversupply. And in fact, Tony had some good graphs this morning that showed that we have seen an increase in livestock production in Australia over the last couple of years and that isn't really a surprise because people are restocking as they've come out of drought. Unfortunately, what that means is that the market is oversupplied at the moment. It's not just sheep, it's cattle as well, and that has had an impact on prices. On the other hand, grain growers are still getting pretty good prices. So unfortunately for our farmers, markets do determine things like prices, and unfortunately some of our livestock prices have fallen as a result of that.

JOURNALIST: What were your key takeaways from the emergency preparedness summit?

MURRAY WATT: So as I said we held the summit yesterday and it's carrying on today with the Prime Minister addressing the summit in Canberra today. I think the key takeaways were that there's a lot of enthusiasm right across the community for making sure that we are much better prepared for the disaster season that we face. I think a lot of people were surprised to learn that for all of the coverage of bushfires, actually heatwave is a really big risk for Australian communities this year. There is no doubt that we're going to be facing bushfires and we need to be as ready as possible for them, but heat waves are the silent killer of people and they can affect many, many parts of the country but I think it's been really productive to have government, industry and community all on the same page, all with a shared understanding of the risks that we're facing this year. And today, there's a hypothetical scenario being put to everyone at that summit to basically put everyone through our paces and make sure that we're ready and identify any gaps that might remain.

JOURNALIST: Minister Watt, the Darling Downs is seeing major bushfires and early drought already, farmers are a little bit concerned. What would you say to them?

MURRAY WATT: I think everywhere in rural Australia this year has a right to be a bit concerned about the seasonal conditions we're facing. Obviously, we've been through a couple of years of very heavy rainfall and floods but if you look at the Bureau of Meteorology is projections, there's many parts of rural Australia, including the Darling Downs, that do face much drier weather and bushfire risk this year. So as a government, we've been doing everything we possibly can to make sure that we're as ready as possible and we need farmers and landowners to be as ready as possible as well. Fortunately, farmers and landowners are very used to these kinds of conditions. Most of them have a bushfire preparedness plan but I'll be saying to people if you haven't got that plan up and running already, now's the time to get ready.

JOURNALIST: Is Australia in drought and what is our drought policy?

MURRAY WATT: Some parts of the country are currently in drought and as Mark mentioned, just under 10 per cent of Queensland is currently drought declared and there are similarly other parts of the country going through drought at the moment but I think what we know is that it's going to be much broader and much bigger the drought that we're facing over the coming months and years. And that's why again, we've made it such a priority to have this forum to get people together before the worst happens so we can be fully prepared. On that Tony Mahar from the NFF might like to add to this because we've been very proud to partner with the NFF in hosting this forum today and they've been very valued partners.

TONY MAHAR, NATIONAL FARMERS’ FEDERATION: Can I just say thank you to Minister Watt for his support for the drought forum. It is in partnership. Great to see Treasurer Jim Chalmers up here. Drought and preparedness for natural disasters, but particularly drought, need a whole-of-government approach and that includes state government. So thank you, Mark, for your support of this. What we're doing here in Rockhampton today is to bring government at the Commonwealth level, at the state level, industry – so peak bodies like AgForce and thanks to Mike and the AgForce team at Belmont farm here. Research is a critically important part. Responding to drought, preparing for drought needs to be done when we're not in drought. As Murray said, 10 per cent of Queensland is in drought, there's a range of farmers right across this country that are dealing with not only diabolical prices in terms of livestock, but incredibly challenging conditions from a crop perspective. So it's incredibly timely, that we have a conversation today. We're not going to solve drought policy today, in Rockhampton, we are going to have a conversation with all the affected people, all the stakeholders that have a say and an influence on how we prepare, how we respond and how we recover from what is a regular occurrence on the agricultural landscape. So it is great to have Jim Chalmers here. Thanks again for coming Treasurer and Murray Watt, thanks for your support.

JIM CHALMERS: I've just got two questions from Canberra to cover, and then I think we're happy enough to call it a day. So the first question is about climate and the second question is about full employment.

One of the reasons why I've asked the Commonwealth Treasury to reconstitute their ability to model climate change is to understand the impact of climate change on specific industries and also on specific communities. We know already that the impact of climate change on primary industries, if there is no change in approach, looks like being something like a 4 per cent hit to production between now and the 40-year Intergenerational Report period. We don't want to see important industries and important communities suffering unnecessarily from the harsh impacts of climate change. That's why our policy on climate change the energy transformation, and all the things we've been talking today about like drought are so important. Climate change is an existential threat to communities and to industries, and that's why we're acting in a decisive way. And also trying to show the necessary foresight for getting ahead as far as we can on some of these challenges that we anticipate in our economy but more than that, making sure that people can be beneficiaries of the changes in our economy rather than necessarily victims of it.

And the second issue was around full employment and some comments made this morning by the Opposition. Our goal when it comes to employment is a secure, fairly paid job for everyone who wants one without having to look for too long. That objective is distinct but complementary to some of the narrower, technical definitions of full employment. I've been working closely with the new Governor of the Reserve Bank, Michele Bullock, we've discussed on a number of occasions, the government's approach to full employment and the Reserve Bank's approach to full employment. And as Governor Bullock has said publicly, we are on the same page when it comes to the government's long-term aspiration for a decent job for everyone who wants one without having to look for too long. The Opposition is out there in their usual, divisive, angry and negative way bagging our objective for full employment. Now if Angus Taylor doesn't think that everyone who wants a job should be able to get a decent job, then he should say what his alternative is, and if he wants unemployment to be higher, then he should say how much. How many people would Angus Taylor like to see hit the fence in the labour market in order to satisfy these political games that he's playing now? Now, it's possible to have a definition of the NAIRU at the same time distinct but complementary to the government's longer-term objectives. We want to drive down our understanding of full employment over time, we want to create more jobs, we want to keep unemployment as low as we can, as inflation moderates. We're committed to the two to three per cent inflation target – we've said that publicly and the Opposition knows that. They shouldn't be lying about that today, and if they've got a better idea than trying to make sure that people can find work when they want to, then let's hear it. If they think unemployment should be higher than it is right now, then let's here that too. Since monthly records started being kept in 1978, there's only been 18 months where unemployment has had a `three' in front of it – 15 of those times have been under Prime Minister Albanese. We enter this period of uncertainty from a position of relative strength in our labour market, but we've got more work to do and that's what the White Paper is all about. Thanks very much.