Speech at the Royal Melbourne Show

30 September 2019

For more than 170 years we’ve been showcasing excellent Victorian food and fibre right here, and these days more than half a million people come along to sample the food and wine on offer and many more bring their kids along thankfully to see livestock up close and personal. 

For some that’s the first time they’re actually going to see a living, breathing cow that, yes folks, actually produces milk, and that’s important. I’ll come back to that point later.

I want to thank Matt Coleman for that introduction—president and acknowledge him today. Great to see local MP along with so many leaders from Victorian agriculture here in the room. Looking around there’s lots of old friends who I haven’t seen for a really long time.

There’s no better job than being Senator for our great state, and as Deputy Leader of the National Party I’m all about talking up the contribution that rural and regional Australia makes to our nation.

Today it’s so aptly on display right through rural and regional Victoria, but here we’ve centralised that into Melbourne where the country comes to the city once a year for the Royal Ag Show.

Bringing country and city together just like the Weekly Times has been doing for 150 years. The Nationals have been doing that too because we know the worth of the regions, and it’s here on display in the pavilions, in the livestock, in the spirit and in the produce that people are actually enjoying as part of the show. 

Regional Victoria is where we live, where we work, where we raise our families and where we see a really strong sustainable future.

Royal shows are about bridging that divide, and I think that divide has been growing larger in recent years between the city and the country.

We’re seeing it played out in the farce that is the animal activists thinking that it’s ok to shut down the livestock industry—worth $16 billion to our country and employing tens of thousands of Australians. They think that is something that they should be able to do. 

So the role of the show, the role of agriculture in schools—and I was very, very lucky to go to a school where that was normal—are really, really important. 

And it’s not all bad, I think when you look at city Australia’s response to the drought they’ve been very, very generous and that’s a great thing. 

They’re not as aware of what living in a drought actually is like. It’s quite normal in a drought to go to school without a shower. Everyone else in school smells the same, because you had one bath on Sunday night and mum had it first and then, after five kids, dad will get in it and the water that’s left will be put on the garden. That’s quite normal when you’re going through a drought. Of course drought tragic for our farmers and their businesses and everyone’s just hoping and praying and waiting to get through it.

That’s why it was great to be able to be out there with the PM. He did honestly just get off the plane in Sydney and get on another one out to Dalby on Friday to make the $100 million announcement. 

As Agricultural Minister I’m responsible for the Farm Household Allowance and the Rural Financial Counselling Service.

Put up your hand if you’re actually a primary producer in the room?

Right, so the Farm Household Allowance has been with us for four years. It’s a dense, complex and convoluted way to provide direct assistance to farming families. That’s its role, it’s not a business program, it’s not to supplement to running the farm, it’s to actually make sure the kids can still do sport, that you can still buy groceries and the electricity bill gets paid as you wait out the drought. 

It’s been really tough in terms of how social security has managed it. 

So we did a review last year that delivered six recommendations. Our government has responded to each and every one of those. We’re making it easier and more accessible to apply, getting rid of some of the rules around it. For example, currently farmers may end up accruing debts at the end of it – they won’t anymore. We’re making sure farmers have support and case management to make sure they can develop sound business plans about how they are going to run their business and to underpin decisions they are going to make. 

At the end of the day 89 per cent of the farmers—12,500 who’ve been on Farm Household Allowance—have actually said it’s made a positive impact on the financial viability of their farm.

It is doing its job but we want more people to apply for it. Nearly 35,000 Australian farmers are estimated by my department to able to apply.
They don’t because the gossip around home is: don’t bother, you won’t be able to, the rules are too tough, you’ll die before you finish the paperwork, the drought will be over…

But the reality is that it’s not. So we’ve really simplified the process.

I’m doing that by changing the way we treat on-farm and off -farm assets, and on-farm and off-farm income. 

Right now under Farm Household Allowance, after we’ve been telling farmers for years to diversify their assets and not have it all in the land, so they’ve gone –maybe in good times—and purchased a flat in Melbourne or Sydney or Brisbane. 

Right now if that flat is worth more than $390,000 you automatically don’t qualify for FHA because the off-farm asset is at $390,000. 

So what we’re doing under the changes I’m proposing is bringing that into the on-farm asset assessment which is at $5.5 million.

That’s going to make it easier for our farmers who have done the right thing and diversified their asset class to actually increase their viability. 

The other simple change, right now, if you’re going through hardship and wanting to apply for Farm Household Allowance both you and your partner have to fill out over 100 pages of application.

Given that most farmers—80% of them—are actually partnered that’s a lot of unnecessary paperwork for a couple to fill out. 

So we’re making it that only one application needs to be done per farm. 

These are simple things we can change right now, as well as a whole suite of initiatives we will be putting through parliament. 

The changes recognise that often farmers are cash poor and asset rich and we want to make sure that the immediate payment of cash to their kitchen table is able to happen. 

Often the complexities of how you structure your farm business means it’s not as simple for farmers as it is for other people who are interacting with the social security system.

They’ve got payslips, a note from their employer—farmers have got trusts, they’ve got complex business structures because they’re a family business. 

Centrelink needs to start to appreciate that and be able to manage that.

We’ve got rural financial counsellors to sit down at the kitchen table and assist people to work through that financial planning. 

On Friday we were able to announce that additional assistance of $740,000 for more rural financial counselling assistance. 

The big thing as I travel around and particularly in places like Queensland that have been in drought for the last seven years, and I said to farmers: “Mate it’s so dry, and it’s been like this for the past seven years?” 

And he says “Bridget, anyone that’s still left now will be here when it breaks.” 

That’s because they’ve made good business decisions along the way, and they’re just going to wait it out. 

But if you just scratch the surface and you just say “are you really ok?” that’s when the emotion comes out.

Big, strong, proud men have tears in their eyes.

For me that is the hardest bit of this drought and we’re doing everything we can with the mental health support because that’s what’s going to lead to recover being maximised.

Being healthy, being mentally healthy. Having positively focused farmers and producers out there for when the rain does come. 

It’s so important that we look after each other out there.

That’s why having an event like the Royal Melbourne Show where those of us from the regions can come and celebrate what’s fantastic about agriculture, celebrate and appreciate where we’ve been and where we want to be is exciting. 

Where we want to be is $100 billion by 2030.

That’s what the Prime Minister has tasked me with developing a strategy to deliver. 

It’s what the NFF has set out a road map for.

I’m absolutely confident that despite the drought our food and fibre industries will exceed $100 billion by 2030.

We’re going to build the partnership with industry. 

It’s about having a 21st century research and development system—we haven’t changed that for four decades, but we’re going to. 

The tax payer and the levy payer partner in our RDC system in this country, which is a partnership that I believe should continue because the tax payer gets a big bang out of farmers being productive so it’s a partnership.

That won’t be changing no matter what Joel Fitzgibbon says. 

But we need it to be focused on profitability at the farmgate not creating a load of academic papers. 

We need to re-focus our RDCs to be delivering back to the levy payers because that’s when our whole nation benefits.

We used to be super good at innovation. The world looked to Australia. They’re going to do that again.

We’re going to make sure that we have a 21st century research and development system and I’m looking forward to delivering that over the coming months and years. 

The other way we’re going to get there is not because Australia’s going to eat more. There’s a lot of people telling us to eat less!

We’re going to get there because we’re going to sell more of our beautiful, safe, clean green reliable product to more people around the world for a higher price.

Less about yield and more about maximising how much money comes back to the producer. 

I’m super excited about new markets.

There’s a lot of talk about China. Yes, they are an important economic partner for this nation and their prosperity and our prosperity is going to go hand in hand for a very, very long time. 

But it’s also important in times like this, where the international trade environment is going through challenges, that we don’t forget old friends.

Old friends that we’ve partnered with for a very, very long time.

Friends like Japan, friends like the UK and Europe, friends like Korea and increasingly exciting new powers like Vietnam and others right through South East Asia.

It was great to join Paul Mumford and other producers a couple of weeks back as we toured some of those markets and really saw the value of strong relationships over decades. 

I was visiting a cheese processing place in Japan where they actually make chocolate cheese—it’s a thing—using Australian product, and there in the ground there were trees that were planted in 1964 by Murray-Goulburn, over 50 years ago—partnership between our two countries. 

We have very old friends that we should not forget in the light of China’s richness as a market because as we know that can be variable.

The thing that probably underpins that trading platform is our reputation globally as a pest and disease free nation. 

That is getting harder to maintain, we’ve seen 172% increase just in mail in the last decade. We’ve got 22 million people crossing our borders. We’ve got ships coming and going.

There’s an exponential increase in the risk of an incursion of anything from brown marmorated stink bugs—things I didn’t know of until three months ago when I got this job—which effectively shut down trade for two weeks because it came in plastic chairs from Italy in a cargo container. 

So we basically stopped trade, sent ships back because we said; “we do not want this here”. 

That’s the sort of level of intensity we need. 

We got a lot of heat from that I might add from our importers, but it was the right decision. 

You’re hearing a lot about African swine fever. 

This is very, very concerning it’s just been reported that Timor-Leste has African swine fever, and we know that a quarter of the world’s pork or pigs will be slaughtered by the end of the year – half of that from China. 

China now has a 10 million tonne protein deficit, so that’s an opportunity, because they need protein. That does provide an opportunity for us.

But the disease is also a huge risk. There are over 2,700 pork producers in this country and that industry alone employs more than 34,000 and it’s our reputation.

We’ll stop it. We’re increasing inspections of people and parcels from affected countries.

In the last six months we’ve detected 27 tonnes of cooked pork product. It blows my mind.

Mum was bringing in a suitcase for a son who’s studying at university in case he’s not going to get fed well in Australia. 

But 15% of that 27 tonnes was actually contaminated with ASF because it can survive for up to two years in cooked pork product. 

This is a real risk for us which is why I convened an emergency roundtable three weeks ago.

For the first time I put the stakeholders together in a room. I put the pork industry, I put the NFF in, I put the State vets in, I put our Chief Vet in, and then I’m thinking well I’ll put the transport guys in—because transports go everywhere.

It was a great day, there were people in the room talking to each other who hadn’t actually spoke about biosecurity risk and how they could be part of the solution. 

Biosecurity only works if we all work together to be part of the solution. 

I could talk biosecurity all day because it is a thing that is very, very scary.

The other thing I’m going to work on as Ag Minister and I know for us in Victoria with our prime horticulture industries, its important is workforce. 

I don’t directly control anything in this space, so I have to work with the Ministers who do, the Minister for Immigration to make sure that we’re getting the skilled labour force we need, the Minister for Education to make sure we’re growing the next generation of Australian’s who actually think it’s cool to work in Ag again. That’s where we’ve got to focus. 

We’ve got to make sure we’re producing Agricultural Science Noble Prize winners while at the same time getting the local TAFE or vocational education provider to move away from teaching how to stitch saddles and move towards teaching how to fly a drone.

You’re actually going to learn the high tech, globally focused knowledge and skillset that you need to work here in the Australian Agricultural sector of the 21st century. 

That’s pretty cool, it wasn’t always cool, but it is and I’m super excited about what we’re going to achieve there. 

I’m setting up a labour advisory committee. I’m going to make an announcement in the next week or so about who will be on that one. 

There’ll be an immigration specialist, one will have direct experience in actually hiring people and the difficulties around that in the Australian agricultural sector, and one will be knowledgeable around agricultural education. There’s a barrier there and we’re looking to bridge that divide. 

I was really, really lucky to go to a school where we did the hoof to hook competition. I got to stay in the lockers above the old pig pens and it was the most exciting thing that we did in the year. The city girls would be crying and the country girls would be going; “we just won the blue ribbon for carcass!”

The great thing about it was that by having that facility in that school a whole bunch of city girls grew up loving and appreciating the role of agriculture in our broader community. You cannot put a price on that.

Seventy five per cent of year six’s think that cotton from their socks come from an animal.

Twenty seven per cent of the same year group think that yoghurt comes from plants—well it kind of does but it’s got a bovine pathway. 

We need to get kids excited about Ag.

One of the most depressing statistics that I’ve seen is that 17% of Year three students think that farmers are bad for the environment.

By the time they’re in Year 10, 60% think that farmers are bad for the environment.

And farmers aren’t bad for the environment. 

Farmers manage over 60% of Australia’s land mass and they do it very, very well thank you very much. 

It’s their legacy, it’s their identity, it’s their business and they use the very best science to do that. 

So education-wise there’s a little bit to overcome.

Just in closing, I want to bring us back to the role of the agricultural show and why it’s so important to bridge that gap. 

And that’s why our government is backing not just royal shows but ag shows right throughout the country.

They perform a task of engaging local communities with agriculture, and that can have a very, very powerful impact. 

We want people in our cities and our regional centres to understand where the great quality, safe, sustainable product that’s produced out in our regions comes from.

And we put $20 million of grants on the table to help show societies at the regional and local level build their offering to the locals and become that real champion for agriculture in their local communities. 

We are also putting money into a $5million commitment to give school kids a firsthand experience on farms and that will be operating by 2020.

We’re going to fund primary school children to visit farms so they can get the taste of the excitement of modern farming, get their hands dirty, actually interact with farming families, and use satellite technology. 

And there’s another $5 million on the table to get the farms to the city kids. Here we can actually focus on science and agriculture. So we’re starting with six city schools in

NSW in 2020 to do a proof of concept.

These mini farms will get kids on microscopes and computers monitoring the growth of their plants.

I’d like to add some livestock in there because that’s where we need to help them understand that’s where their burger comes from.

Together we need to challenge the wrong ideas around farming. 

Now is the time to stand up. You have an Agriculture Minister that will back you all the way.

I’m there out in front having that conversation with the broader Australian public and investing in the things that are going to make a positive difference for generations to come. 

Have a great show.

I can’t wait to do what I’ve always wanted to do since I did some judging back in the day. 

And that’s to actually get to hang a ribbon on the interbreed champion today. 

I hope to see you out there. 

And thank you very much for what you do.