Address to Croplife post-Budget Breakfast

CANBERRA
WEDNESDAY, 15 MAY 2024
2024-25 BUDGET - BUILDING AUSTRALIA’S SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE SECTOR

Thank you very much for a characteristically warm welcome Matt, it’s great to join you and so many other people in the room here this morning.

I am admiring the shirts on display – we know that agriculture likes a bit of merch, so it’s good to see a new version of merch this morning as well.

Well of course can I begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land we’re gathering on today? The Ngunnawal and Ngambri people. And pay my respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging.

There are a number of Parliamentary colleagues here, who I won’t list by name, maybe if you could just put up your hands so you can be publicly shamed or…whatever it might be!

To Warren, Matt and the whole team, thank you for again putting on what is a really important annual event in this sector. To have an opportunity for the minister of the day to talk about what’s in the Budget for agriculture, I think, is really important. And I’m looking forward to the questions at the end of this as well. They might even be better than the ones I get in Question Time.

Can I also just welcome the many representatives we have here from Australia’s agriculture sector? We really appreciate you taking time out of your busy diary to come along this morning, and hear more about what’s in the Budget and how we’ll be working with you over the next 12 months.

And finally to Maurice, thanks for having us at your Breakfast Room at the National Press Club, you and your team always put on a great show, so thanks again for that.

Today, I want to talk to you about the next stage in the Albanese Government’s plan to deliver a profitable, productive future for Australia’s agriculture, fisheries and forestry sector.

Over the last couple of years, this sector has risen to new heights.

The gross value of Australian farms, fisheries and forestry sector is now $90.8 billion, the third highest on record.

That is due to the hard work of Australia’s farmers, fishers, foresters, the workers in those industries and the whole ag supply chain.

And that work is, of course, supported by a government that understands the importance of an industry that feeds us, clothes us and generates enormous wealth for our country.

But with the world changing around us, we can’t rest on our laurels.

And in my previous two Budgets as Agriculture Minister, we’ve laid the groundwork to protect and grow this sector, through record investments in priority areas, like biosecurity, workforce, trade and other things as well. Delivering real results, in partnership with industry.

Today, I’ll explain how last night’s Budget takes the next step forward on what is arguably the biggest long-term challenge facing this sector, as well as being a massive opportunity – I’m of course talking about how we secure a sustainable future.

First though, I’ll start by telling you a little story about one of my first days on the job as Agriculture Minister back in June 2022.

As some of you will remember, I was due to head to Emerald in Central Queensland to visit a cotton farm and agtech providers with Fiona Simson, the then-NFF President. And Tony was there that day as well. It was my first, but very much not my last, farm visit as Agriculture Minister.

The people I’d be meeting that day were trialling new technology to make their business more profitable and more sustainable. So it was a trip I had been thinking a lot about.

I packed my bag the night before, went to bed thinking everything was in hand.

I awoke well before dawn the next morning…rolled over to check my phone and I noticed a dozen missed calls and what felt like hundreds of text messages.

So I think to myself, ‘what had happened? Is there another natural disaster?’ have I got to put the other portfolio hat on.

So I checked the clock on my phone, and realised I’d made the fatal error of early morning fliers by not setting my alarm. And my plane was due to leave in 40 minutes.

After the world’s quickest shower I raced to the airport and eventually boarded a slightly later flight.

But fortunately Emerald was fogged in that day, so I basically caught up with everyone who’d got the early morning flight anyway! I did make it to Emerald that day and I want to assure you I’ve never been late again!

In many ways, the Australian Government’s response to the threat of climate change is similar to the start of my ministerial career.

Where our predecessors had struggled to get out of bed for nearly ten years on climate change issues, under the Albanese Government we are now quickly getting up to seize the day.

The truth is that climate change is real.

The truth is that farmers and Australians living in rural and regional Australia face more severe impacts of climate change.

And the truth is, without intervention, things will get worse.

Global temperatures are higher now than they ever have been in history.

And it is costing our farmers every single day.

Drought is now impacting on farmers in Western Australia, Tasmania and elsewhere.

And as many of you have heard me say before, ABARES conservatively has estimated that on average farmers had lost more than $30,000 per annum due to climate change over the last 20 years, with that figure expected to rise.

And the recent Ag2050 Scenario report by the CSIRO highlighted the need for industry to adapt to climate change to continue its growth trajectory.

Bizarrely, despite the overwhelming expert and anecdotal evidence from farmers that climate change is impacting agricultural production, we still see some – including some who claim to speak for farmers in Parliament - try to paint any action on climate as being risky for agribusinesses.

In my view, the bigger risk is doing nothing.

Doing nothing won’t mean more of the same, it will mean a lot less.

But climate change also presents a bigger opportunity for our industry.

Previous political leaders described climate change as the great moral challenge of our time.

I see it as the great production opportunity of our time.

If we get this right, not only will the food and fibre we produce be better for longer, but we will also have yet another competitive advantage over our international competitors.

The more productive the industry is, the more profitable it will be in the long run.

Now I’m not telling you all something you don’t already know, and I’ve had many conversations like this with many of you in the room.

Just last week I was at Beef 2024 in Rockhampton and there were two main topics of conversation that people raised with me; protecting the Great Artesian Basin and lifting industry sustainability.

Literally everywhere I was moving across the showgrounds in Rockhampton, those were the issues people were wanting to talk to me about. Many of the panels were about that. And many of the individual meetings I had with stakeholders were about those issues.

And that shows to me that your industry can see the benefits in becoming more sustainable.

The productivity gains through soil management, the market access gains through better provenance and the profit gains through offering a better product.

We do have a distinct competitive advantage in this area that we can leverage over our international competitors.

And that’s because across the country we have world-leading research teams and strong investment in R&D from government and industry.

Just last month I visited the University of New England to see the incredible work being undertaken at their Armidale campus, including carbon measurement and testing of different additives that can reduce methane emissions in cattle.

We’ve seen similar work done to reduce emissions in everything from grains, to horticulture, rice, cotton and more.

And I really pay tribute to all who’ve been on that journey, and begun that journey.

Our government is not going to leave it to farmers or the ag supply chain, to turn climate change from a challenge to an opportunity on their own. We’re not going to leave you to do that on your own. We’re not going to make it the sector’s issue to solve.

As the government, it is our responsibility to the ag sector – and the wider Australian public – to help businesses reduce their emissions.

And this is why working with the sector to lift its sustainability is the focus of this year’s agriculture Budget.

As I said at the start, doing this now is the natural next step for our Government given the work that has already been done in previous budgets.

As I said, this is my third Budget as Agriculture Minister. The first two have had other, urgent priorities. Like funding Australia’s first ever Sustainable Biosecurity Funding model, rescuing a biosecurity budget that had been badly damaged by ongoing cuts and we’ve now pumped in a billion new dollars to protect this industry from pests and disease.

In previous budgets we’ve also worked on other priorities, like rebuilding the agricultural workforce, after its collapse through COVID-19. More to do, but a lot has happened already.

We’ve fixed a structural deficit that was left behind for us, in the Agriculture Department’s funding. And Matt’s already referred to the hard work that had to be undertaken to make that happen, and thanks to the Departmental Officers who were involved in that.

We’ve restored trade links that were shredded, while diversifying into new ones.

We’ve invested serious money to improve the traceability of sheep and goats.

We’ve supported our fisheries sector through country of origin labelling that had been long called for.

And we’ve invested significantly in the forestry sector so it modernises for the future.

So having done those things in the previous two budgets, we can now really get moving on helping the sector to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

That’s why the centrepiece of last night’s agriculture budget was nearly $520 million to support programs and initiatives in a rejuvenated Future Drought Fund.

Australians do all understand that when it comes to drought it’s a case of when, not if.

Higher rainfall in recent years has allowed some relief in much of the country, but not in all of it. And as I say, we are already seeing drought impact on some parts of the country right now.

But also right now, we are providing support to farmers and rural communities who are experiencing drought, including through the Farm Household Allowance, concessional loans, rural financial counselling, mental health support and the tax incentives that have allowed farmers to put away nearly $6 billion in Farm Management Deposits, to draw on through the tough times.

But we also need to do more to prepare for drought, not just respond to it, not just have those sort of supports in place when drought arises.

That’s why the rejuvenated Future Drought Fund will provide for 10 on-ground programs, with a much stronger focus on broader climate resilience, greater public benefit through wider sharing of what works, support for longer-term trials, and a new program to assist First Nations communities deal with drought.

I could go on about what’s in the Future Drought Fund, but we obviously released that last week and happy to take some questions on that if people are interested.

Of course, longer and more frequent droughts are only one example of what we’re likely to see result from climate change.

The ongoing battle against a changing climate will be fought on many fronts.

The Albanese Government recognises that we all need to do our part, including government.

Now I’ve said before that we have an incredible opportunity, having moved beyond the days where governments questioned if climate change was real, to bring government and industry together to chart a lower-emission, more sustainable future for Australia’s agriculture sector.

Our work on these issues has accelerated over the last 12 months, particularly through the development of the Ag and Land Sector decarbonisation plan.

And I thank the Departmental Officers who have been putting in a power of work to move that ahead. I also want to thank everyone in this room who has participated in the development of that plan. There’s a lot of enthusiasm for it in the sector - I can feel it, I can hear it, when I’ve been talking to you about it. And I do look forward to releasing that plan later this year.

In the meantime, we’re using this Budget to make some down-payments on the direction that’s emerged through our widespread consultation on this plan.

What we’ve heard repeatedly through this – and what I’ve heard repeated through the last couple of years - is that farmers and the whole sector are up for change. They recognise the challenge, they recognise the opportunity. But they want to know what they need to do, how they can measure their impact in a way that’s going to be recognised and who they can trust to help them through the task.

That’s exactly what last night’s Budget investments focus on.  

To ensure the agriculture and land sectors can meaningfully contribute to the whole-of-economy transition to net zero – and it’s worth reminding people that we’re not talking about setting an emissions production target for this sector, but it will have to play a role in contributing to the whole of economy emissions reduction targets that we’ve set in legislation. So to ensure that this sector can meaningfully contribute to those targets, our Government is going to be investing $63.8 million over 4 years to support initial emissions reduction efforts.

Now I would expect that over the next few months as we develop the sector plan more, we will have more to say, but we didn’t want to wait for that plan to come out before we started doing things, and that’s why that initial funding is on the table to get moving.

Through that, we want to build the capacity of farmers, land managers and their advisors to integrate carbon emissions reduction knowledge and practices into their core business decisions and activities.

The development of the plan signals our intention to work in partnership with industry, supporting you to meet your own and our Government’s ambition for a climate-smart sector, building trust and creating a joint vision around how to create an internationally competitive industry that not only navigates, but thrives, in a low emissions future.

Next week I will join Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen in Toowoomba to host the inaugural Sustainable Agriculture Summit. Bringing together industry leaders, scientists, researchers, community groups and policy experts to chart a united path forward on climate smart ag policy.

And I look forward to seeing many of you there.

Of course, let’s address the sheep in the room. While I would always hope we can all be on the same page on every issue about improving the sustainability of the ag sector, the truth is that there are some things we don’t always agree on.

And that’s okay. It’s a democracy.

And of course, the most obvious example of that is the announcement that I made on the weekend in Perth to phase out live export of sheep by sea on May 1, 2028.

[door closes]

Just as well I didn’t talk about it early in the speech!

[laughter and interjection]

Thanks for your opinion Xavier.

So the decision I announced on the weekend, will happen on 1 May, 2028, as recommended by the 4-person panel we appointed to consult widely across the sector on how we should do this well, properly and well-funded.

And of course that announcement on the weekend was accompanied by a transition support package worth $107 million, funded in last night’s budget.

Now I have heard some say that’s not enough money. I’ve heard some say it’s too much money. I’ve heard some say we should have taken longer to phase it out. I’ve heard some say we should’ve done it immediately.

But I reckon if you went out there and talked to the average Australian, they would say that $107 million is a fair bit of their taxpayer funds going towards funding a sector that has been in decline for 20 years, that has shrunk by 90 percent over the last 20 years, while at the same time we’ve seen exports of sheep meat go through the roof. And that’s the direction we need to take this sector, just as has occurred in every other state in the country.

So since Saturday we have seen a lot of industry commentary about the announcement, and we say a bit more this morning. And that’s all fine.

But I am very confident that our government is making the right call now to set up the sheep industry in Western Australia for the future.

Of course, my political opponents are making lots of noise, ignoring the fact that live exports of sheep decreased by 1 million head when they were in office, without a single cent of assistance from government.

And they’re also ignoring the fact that their now-Deputy Liberal Leader and other frontbenchers introduced legislation to ban the trade, describing it as “inhumane”.

I guess that’s politics, overlooking the past.

But in contrast to our opponents, we are putting significant taxpayers’ funds on the table, to help the industry adjust.

As I say, $107 million for a range of initiatives, and that is nearly five times the economic impact that was estimated by the WA Government. We are putting five times – taxpayers funding – that this industry is worth on an economic basis every year. Again, I think that’s a pretty fair and reasonable package.

And as I say, that’s to assist an industry that has been in decline for 20 years, and that now represents less than one percent of WA’s agriculture industry.

And what that money will do is expand value adding and create local jobs, through more onshore processing, investing in things like cold storage and bigger feedlots, and the funding will also be about increasing market development.

A plan that improves animal welfare outcomes and gives certainty for farmers.

While live sheep exports have collapsed over the last 20 years, demand for our lamb and mutton is going through the roof - both here and overseas.

Just as other states have moved from live exports to more onshore processing, that’s the high value future for West Australia. And now we’re getting it done.

There are plenty more things I could mention contained in last night’s agriculture budget.

Like the $1.9 million we’re providing to continue existing activities for National Farm Safety Week, the AgCareer Start program and a new, skilled agricultural work liaison program.

The $1.5 million we’ve set aside to deliver out election commitment on food labelling.

The $3.4 million to develop a new National Timber Fibre Strategy, to map out the future for our forestry industry.

Or the $1.7 million we’re providing the Australian Fisheries Management Authority to protect our northern waters from the threat of illegal fishing.

This budget touches each of our priority issues and builds on the work that we’ve done before with you and industry.

The truth is that when we came to office nearly two years ago, there was a lot to be done.

This portfolio had not been well-managed.

Our predecessors were afraid to make the tough decisions required to keep the ag sector on the right path forward.

They cruelly underfunded biosecurity in this country, refusing to pass on cost increases to risk-creators, leaving the department with a $127 million dollar budget black hole, and our defences from exotic disease down.

We fixed that.

They broke the relationship with our biggest export customer, resulting in the halting of trade and zero dialogue between Australia and China.

We’ve fixed that, with a bit more work to be done.

They allowed the APVMA to become a laughing stock around the country.

And we’ve fixed that too.

Workforce shortages were allowed to fester with many farmers forced to dump crops or let them rot in the ground.

We’ve taken the first steps in fixing that, with more still to do.

So our challenge across the next 12 months will be to consolidate these gains, build on the work we’ve already done, and prepare as best as we can for the future.

A profitable, productive, sustainable future.

And that is why we are focussed on doing what we can to protect and grow Australian agriculture in this year’s Budget.

It’s a real privilege to be with you all this morning, and I’m looking forward to working with you on all those things in the year ahead.

Thank you.