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Source: Australian Minister of Agriculture and Water Resources

TOM CONNELL: David Littleproud, thanks for your time. We’ve got this drought package going through cabinet this afternoon. What can you tell us about it?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look, it’ll be significantly about stimulating these local economies, these small towns that are supporting our farmers. It’ll be also about continuing the sustainability of our agriculture sector, in continuing the support to your primary producers. And it’ll also lay another foundation stone for our states to actually commit some hard earned cash as well, to complement the packages we put out there.

We’ve had over $7.5 billion we as a federal government have committed. Two and a half in the here and now in making sure farmers can have money in their pockets, money in the community’s pockets, because the drought extends past the farm gate; it goes into these local economies.

But we’re the first government that’s actually looked to the next drought, and how do we tackle it? Learn the lessons in the here and now, and prepare for the next drought through the drought future fund, which is out having consultation now, and how that $100 million a year will be spent. So we’ll continue to make steps towards our increased measures towards tackling this drought as the drought continues. We’ve always said that. This will be another tranche, and if it doesn’t rain, then we’ll have to go again and we’re just saying all the stakeholders need to come with us. We need to work together collectively to make sure that we have a drought response that tackles this, to get as many people through, and gets these communities through it with them.

TOM CONNELL: Okay. So you mentioned the states there – we’ve currently got a divide where the federal government looks after welfare for humans – farmers and so on – the states looks after welfare for animals. Is that going to remain, and this is going to basically be a call on them to provide more than just animal welfare?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, look obviously we’ve had a bipartisan agreement from all the states around our responsibilities to the drought, and we expect them to continue on with that. But we’ve also called on them to come further, particularly around rate relief, to pay the rates to councils of small businesses who are also hurting, and also farmers, to these local councils, and give payroll tax relief in addition to their responsibilities around animal welfare. They own those responsibilities at a state level. And we’re saying there’s an opportunity for them to step up with us and make big and significant contributions to these local economies, and particularly when you look at the meat processing sector. Their drought is coming, because when it does rain – and it will rain – there’ll be a real shortage of supply for them of livestock to be able to slaughter. And invariably they’re some of the biggest employers in our communities. And if you lose 200 or 300 jobs out of these towns, that will decimate these towns – when it rains, it’ll be another kick.

So what the states could do is come on this journey right here and now and give payroll tax relief to those small businesses to give them some support, to prepare for when the rain comes. But we need everybody to put the shoulder to the wheel. We’ve never shirked our responsibility, we’re going to continue to ramp up our response, and that’s why – as I say – this will be a significant stimulus, it’ll be about the continued sustainability of agriculture sector. But lay that foundation stone for the states to come with us.

TOM CONNELL: Okay. So when you’re talking about rate relief there, you’re saying that’s up to the states? There had been talk of maybe the federal government subsidising that, obviously the councils are struggling as it is. You want the states to provide a subsidy to mean that people on the land are surrounding areas don’t have to pay rates or get rate relief?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: That’s exactly right. Local government is the product of state government, and in fact there’s every opportunity for the states to provide that. They’re the mechanism that funds local government through the constitution. This would be a real opportunity for the states to step up and give rate relief, not only to the farmers but to the small businesses that support them. And also payroll tax. This is a real opportunity, a game changer for them to give a stimulus that would really piggyback off the stimulus that we’re about to put out into these communities.

TOM CONNELL: So no subsidy from the federal government in terms of those rates?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, I think this is where there’s an opportunity for us to double down, by state and federal governments to have a bigger impact. The stimulus that we’ll be putting out is very significant and it will be an opportunity for the states to complement that and piggyback in complementing with rate relief and payroll tax relief. So this is an opportunity for leadership. We’re not bashing them, we’re just saying: please, look at what we announce tomorrow, and here’s an opportunity for you to work with us to put your hand in your pocket, and really have a significant impact in these small communities.

TOM CONNELL: That stimulus- are we talking about a measure here the Nationals party room actually passed, which was another $1.3 billion added into the Drought Communities Programme? Is that or something similar going to happen?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well, there’s a suite of measures. But let me say, the one thing that the federal government will not be doing is making the money that we announce tomorrow contingent on state governments matching it. We think there’s a risk of the states actually not matching us. We’re going to cut the cheque. We’re going to cut the cheque and we’re going to get the money out, because that’s what these local economies need now. They need stimulation, and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re not going to play politics, we’re going to get on with the job and deliver, and hopefully the states will complement us with things like rate relief and also payroll tax. So there’s a real opportunity, but this is a significant package and one that we will not make contingent on the states matching us, because it may not happen, and then the only losers of that are the small communities and the farmers out there.

TOM CONNELL: Right. So it sounds as though then that was hinting at a yes, that the Drought Communities Programme could be expanded, or another round of money put into that. And then you hope the states come to the party on rates. Is that what we’re looking at?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: There’s a suite of measures that go across the whole local economies, and it’s very important we get that right. We understand the intricacies of these local economies. They’re very finely tuned compared to big capital city economies. So our suite of measures go to the very heart of that, in making sure that we get people working and doing the jobs and keeping the economy going by putting money through those economies as quickly as we can so there’s a suite of measures but it’s a significant package that we don’t want to be contingent on someone else matching us.

TOM CONNELL: [Talks over] Is it in the order of that $1.3 billion the Nationals called for?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well the $1.3 billion is contingent on the states cutting half of that. We’re not saying any way, shape or form that the state governments have to match us. We don’t want to get into petty politics. We’re simply going to say we’ve got a suite of measures that will go to the heart of stimulating these economies as well as maintaining the sustainability of agriculture. That will go straight into these economies without anyone having to match us. We’re just going to get on with the job and we’re just saying please, take the politics out of this, lead with us. Take our hands, state governments, and do your bit with us. 

TOM CONNELL: Alright, we’ll see what the final announcement comes up with. I wanted to ask you about the Farm Household Allowance payments and just clarify the position for legislation that’s not yet passed. So anyone cut off since July of this year – it’s about 600 farmers so far – new legislation would mean they can claim that payment for four in any 10-year rather than a lifetime period. What happens if they have still been given that payment in four of the past 10 years when that new evaluation comes in, will they still be cut off? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So we’ve made it very clear, Tom, and the legislation allows us to do that and the Labor Party knows that, everybody knows that the reason that effectively that if you come off your four years in this drought you will get a supplementary payment and then that supplementary payment will go through to effectively June next year. Now if in May we still haven’t had any rain, the Prime Minister’s made it clear, I’ve made it very clear, Senator McKenzie who’s the Minister Responsible for Farm Household Allowance has made it clear that we will continue to make those supplementary payments again and again until this drought breaks. We’re not going to turn our back on anybody.

TOM CONNELL: [Talks over] is that the full amount of Farm Household Allowance? That’s what the supplementary payment is made up of?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: So under the legislation it equates to around six months of the full year FHA payment so what will happen is that you’ll get the full six months in a cash lump sum. And if in May it hasn’t rained, then the Government will stand shoulder to shoulder with every one of those farmers that are on FHA and we will make another supplementary payment because we made sure that the legislation had that mechanism in it. But we got an expert review done of the Farm Household Allowance by Georgie Somerset who led that, who is the chair of AgForce, the peak agricultural body in Queensland, and she said that instead of having a three in the lifetime of your existence as a farmer, three years you get it, you now change it to four in ten. So we’ve respected that, but we’ve also understood the severity of this drought and we will not turn our back on anybody.

TOM CONNELL: [Talks over] Yeah- but- okay. So just on this supplementary element, though, you say if it doesn’t rain we’ll do that. How do you decide that exactly? I mean, that’s a bit of a vague way to say it if it doesn’t rain. Is that a ministerial responsibility? Is it a household by household comes across your desk and you decide they can get another lump payment, what happens? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well obviously the Agriculture Minister, Bridget McKenzie, will be able to make those assessments. But obviously we get data already stipulating how droughts define and that’s effectively rainfall deficiency over a 24-month period and a 12-month period within that is below average. So there’s mechanisms within that, and even within the FHA itself there are hardship provisions that give the Minister the ability to provide that approval of the continuation under those supplementary payments. So, in essence the reality is those supplementary payments will be able to be made if the drought doesn’t break. And obviously we are already doing that by cutting data from the Bureau of Meteorology to understand exactly where it hasn’t rained and where that trigger event under the 24-month period exists.

TOM CONNELL: Okay. I mean, it sounds as though it’ll be up to the Minister with some information provided as well. It’s hard to imagine in the current climate thought, they’re going to say no to people applying for this payment.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Totally Tom. And that’s why it’s been disappointing that the Australian Labor Party has tried to politicise this. That has put uncertainty into people’s minds. It’s always been certain. They saw the legislation and I thought we were bigger than that. I thought our Parliament was bigger than that. And sadly they’ve tried to add some confusion out there. The reality was it’s always in the legislation that these supplementary payments were there. The Government has been quite clear that we will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with every farmer and no one will be disadvantaged. We’re going to get through this drought together, hand in hand, and those FHA supplementary payments will continue until we can get everyone through it.

TOM CONNELL: [Talks over] But still [indistinct] six months payment in a full financial year, so they’re still getting less money? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Uh, no, every six months they will get a top up if it has not rained. So whether that falls over a calendar year or a financial year, I think you’re grasping at straws now. The reality is every six months we will continue to make sure that that money will go out into people’s pockets.

TOM CONNELL: Okay. I want to just ask finally Minister we’re hearing some talk of the drought response could include moving the portfolio to Prime Minister and Cabinet, making Scott Morrison the Minister responsible. Is there any truth to that?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No, there’s been no discussions at Cabinet about that at all. Obviously we’re going to continue to make sure that our response is effective. And where that sits at the moment, it sits across a number of portfolios and that makes it challenging. But how do we coordinate that is probably more the question to make sure that our whole of government approach to this drought is effective. And that’s not only looking at new programs, but looking at our existing envelope of how we deliver programs. Can they be repurposed in an agile way to have an outcome and an impact on these communities? So obviously we’re trying to work through the effectiveness of this.

TOM CONNELL: Right. But on where this sits, sorry, we’re nearly out of time, but on where this sits there’s- do you think there’s any logic, the size of this task right now that it could be moved to Prime Minister and Cabinet and that would help response to the drought? 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Well look, everything’s on the table and we- we’ve made that clear that what is important to us is that the programs that we roll out are effective, that are hitting the mark to those that need it. And whatever mechanism that takes. I don’t think anyone really cares, and you know what, I don’t think any farmer or any community out there gives a rats either. All they want to know is that their Government is standing there with them and they’re getting these programs rolled out. Egos aside, I think this is more about the farmer than about the machinations of Canberra and where mechanisms of this may sit.

TOM CONNELL: Right. But when you say everything’s on the table, including the prospect of moving drought response to PM&C and making Scott Morrison the Minister responsible?

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: No he won’t be responsible. I’m the Minister Responsible for Drought and the Prime Minister made that appointment after 18 May. I’ll be charged with the responsibility, but I have a responsibility at the moment to cross over a number of portfolios to make sure there’s coordination and that the whole of government approach to this drought is effective and that’s what I’ll continue to do. That’s my role and that’s what the Prime Minister’s charged me with after our election win. 

TOM CONNELL: Drought Minister David Littleproud, thanks for your time today. 

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: Good to be with you mate.

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