Daily Telegraph Bush Summit - Cooma, NSW

28 Aug 2020
Prime Minister

PRIME MINISTER: Well, thank you very much Ben. It’s tremendous to be here once again. And to the Daily Telegraph. Can I commend you are again on the initiative that you've taken. We've always known you're for Sydney. And what I think you've demonstrated here with this tremendous initiative is that you're not just for Sydney, you’re for the bush as well. And this is an important gathering together as we come together today. It's great to have Michael McCormack the Deputy Prime Minister here with us. A very good friend. And thank you, Michael, for the tremendous leadership you've shown to regional Australia and the passion for it. And that was on display this week, particularly in the parliament and with the many issues and challenges that we're facing. Can I acknowledge the Indigenous owners and I acknowledge the Indigenous people of our country and particularly the country around here the Ngarigo people and I acknowledge the their elders past and present and importantly for the future. Can I also acknowledge any veterans that are here with us here today and serving members of our defence forces and say thank you for your service.

Can I acknowledge the many other ministers and the Leader of the Opposition and others who'll be joining you over the course of these discussions. Can I particularly acknowledge Shane Stone who is here with me, who heads up the Drought and Flood Relief Agency. I've asked Shane to do many difficult jobs in my time, he's asked me to do a few hard jobs on occasion, too. And so we travelled here together and Shane I want to thank you and all of your team and we'll be talking a bit more about that today and your presentation from one end of the country. And it's tremendous to have you here with me here today. Shane Fitzsimmons will be here of course, a good friend and has done a tremendous. job, particularly the bushfires and now moving into new roles. Can I acknowledge the new member for Eden-Monaro. Can I also, I see there's also a former Eden-Monaro member here as well, it’s great to see you here as well.

So many people coming together today and if I was to go through the long list, Ben, I suspect there won't be much more time for questions or the presentation, but it's a tribute to you as to how many people you've been able to draw together here today. And I thank you very much for doing that.

It's a pleasure to be back of course, for the second Daily Telegraph Bush Summit and last year, we had a lot to deal with and that hasn't changed. Drought, floods, fire. And of course, there has been more and the drought that was strangling the life out of so many communities across Australia. And while it has abated, that's true in some respects, as Shane reminds me constantly when you go to the sub soil, when you get beneath the surface, we know that that's still a very real challenge that is being faced in rural and regional communities all around the country. As Michael also reminds me, and while you do see a bit of green, a bit of green, not a green Michael, but a bit of green about the place as you move around. And those of us like me who grew up in the suburbs, you can look at the surface and think it's all okay. It's just, it's good to know that we have the right advice that is helping us understand that these challenges continue. Here in Cooma you also missed much of the rains in March and April but last month and this month well, you've got a lot more. And that's good to see. It was great to see as we came along and driving along here, that things were better, but it's clearly got a long way to go.

This year, Australia, like the rest of the world, is enduring the most significant downturn in our lifetime. That's the challenge now. The COVID-19 pandemic has touched everyone anywhere in the world in some way, shape or form. And I'd like to take this opportunity to thank particularly regional Australians, as the Deputy Prime Minister was doing this, who have felt a heavy burden during this pandemic in a different way than people in Melbourne have been impacted, particularly at the moment. But a very heavy burden nonetheless. I know that state borders are putting enormous stress and strain on Australians, especially those in regional and border communities, including by limiting access to essential health care, keeping people from their work, restricting farmers’ accesses to their property and their markets. I've had hundreds of letters and emails from cross-border communities over the recent weeks and months, as have my colleagues. And they've shared those with me. And today we learnt of the just unthinkable and heartbreaking case where a young family had to take their daughter, I think it was, to Sydney and sadly passed away.

This is heartbreaking stuff. And I can understand people's frustration and indeed anger. This is one of a few other stories that have been raised. Andrea is a teacher from Serviceton in Victoria. I hope I've pronounced that correctly. 1.8km from the border, teachers in border-town South Australia. She was not deemed an essential worker. So a class is without their teacher. Les wrote to me about his 89-year-old dad who lives by himself. He and his wife Linda, visit every fortnight to care for him. And now they can't, and that worries them no end, understandably.  Mark has a house and a cattle property on two sides, both sides of the Queensland, New South Wales border. He can't tend to the animals. He says this is harder than the drought when he had to truck water everywhere. I've got hundreds of stories like that and I have no doubt you have more. Real lives all a long way from capital cities. Some restrictions, they've been so difficult to navigate decision making hasn't always been clear nor timely, and that must be improved. And there has been an absence in some cases of due process rights of people as these arrangements have been put in place. Now through the National Cabinet, and what's known as the national coordinating mechanism which sits in the Department of Home Affairs, there has been some progress, but I'd like to tell you there's more because much more needs to be done to ensure that these border movements are made easier. But ultimately to ensure that we get the borders open again.

I do thank premiers, particularly in New South Wales and South Australia, who have engaged with the Commonwealth government to try and resolve many of these issues. And there has been resolution of some. And to address particular problems of particular cases, as I've been raising those and my colleagues have been raising those with Premiers. I thank them for that. And we need, though, to focus on getting to a place where we don't have borders and that they are unnecessary. Keeping Australia as open as possible while managing the twin health crises of economics and health.

So the next step is we've got to get these principles established to ease the impact of these restrictions. We've got to get this done. We've got to put aside the disagreements we've had so far about this. And we've got to get arrangements that can be workable, but also to protect people's health. I'm not suggesting for a second that there aren't health issues here to be managed and there aren’t risks on the health side of opening the borders. Of course there are. But there are risks on both sides that have to be weighted and assessed, and balanced. Living with the virus until there is a vaccine requires that balanced assessment. The risk of COVID-19 does not justify anything on its own. Everything always has to be measured in the relative impacts. On borders I've made this point consistently - that while the scale of the victory outbreak meant that border restrictions between New South Wales and Victoria were regrettably necessary, and they were and are and remain, this does not diminish the principle that border restrictions, especially where there are no, or very low cases in regional areas, they cannot and should not be sustained. Australia was not built to have internal borders. In fact, the very point of federation was not to have them. That was the point of Australia. That was plan A for Australia. I'm for plan A. And so was Alfred Deakin, a Victorian father of Federation, who said when he was referring – in fact to external affairs powers which has been topical of late: “The whole scope and spirit of the Constitution, require that say for the purposes of their domestic policies within their own domains the states should be blended and absorbed into one political entity. They may still appear in some respects as a body of allied states, but…to the world without it, they have become and must remain a nation, a commonwealth, one and indivisible.”

Now he puts it better than I do. But that is so true, we must be one and indivisible as a nation. Whether we're from the bush, whether we're from the city, whether we're from Queensland, the territory, Western Australia, we must be Australians first. And must not allow this crisis, this pandemic, to force us to retreat into provincialism. That's not the answer. And that's why I've tasked the Commonwealth chief medical officer to work with the medical expert panel to get a clear, clinical definition of a hot spot. Now, this will be essential for states and territories to establish containment strategies and move away from border restrictions.

Now, that work was tasked out of the last National Cabinet meeting and agreed by the National Cabinet that the medical expert panel should have such a definition. And we will have one. Whether it's the Commonwealth one, or one agreed by the states. But there will be. And that will be necessary, I think, with the transparency of arrangements that are put in place by states and territories. Now, clear and easily understandable hotspot definition has been used in overseas jurisdictions since the beginning of the pandemic. And they can be used in a similar way here in Australian states and territories. I was speaking only to the Danish prime minister this week about how they would do it. And it's instructive.

In many of the border communities, residents are simply trying to move from one COVID-free region to another COVID-free region. And so we need to get borders open based on a common set of fair simple principles taking in to account the advice of health professionals that is conveyed transparently. That doesn't mean there can't be borders. That doesn't mean there can't be border restrictions. And it doesn't mean the border restrictions in circumstances are not necessary. This is not a binary topic. It is one that has to be considered sensibly, reasonably and the balance right.

It is reasonable for Australians, particularly regional Australians, to have access to medical assistance, to get to work and to access their own properties. Where permits are required it is reasonable for Australians to expect that their applications would be dealt with quickly and that there is an appeal process. Borders cost communities and the economies they constrain. They must be proportionate these restrictions to the risk it presents. And like any restriction in a pandemic they must only be there where health evidence transparently supports that position and only for as long and as it is absolutely necessary. Borders are not substitutes as New South Wales, I believe, has demonstrated for the core defenses against the virus.

International quarantine, testing, tracing, COVIDSafe behaviours, the distancing, staying home if you're sick, getting tested and outbreak containment, particularly at that local level. We saw a tremendous result of that in north-western Tasmania early on in the pandemic. Local outbreak containment. Very effective. It protected Tasmania more broadly from what could have been a far more serious situation.

Now, the freight movement code which the DPM has put in place and congratulations for doing that, Michael. He knows there's still bugs and things. We've got to get out of that. Still bit too many bits of paper, but Big Mac will get it sorted. I've no doubt about that. We're seeing improvements in some areas, but there need to be more. And David Littleproud is leading the agriculture ministers, Deputy Leader of the Nationals, and finalising an agricultural workers code as a priority. We agreed that last Friday that will be taken forward and we'll be dealing with that next Friday at the National Cabinet. At the same time we're opening borders there needs to be a principle based approach to easing restrictions, particularly as, say, Melbourne comes up at a level four and back the level three and hopefully in the rest of Victoria, level three back into more eased restrictions. The principles for easing restrictions need to be simple, they need to be transparent. They've got to be driven by data, they've got to be location specific, they've got to be co-designed with industry where appropriate. You got to talk to the businesses and the industries that are involved. They've got to be well communicated. They've got to be based on a demonstrated preparedness, ensuring that the public risk management practices are all in place. We do not want to see a reversion take place when you're trying to come out. And so we have to do that safely. And our job, federal, state and territory governments is to achieve this. And I know there are frustrations, but I can assure you when we all get in the room again, we'll be working to try and sort this out. We are achieving this to save lives and livelihoods. And there are key things we need to do. A health strategy, an economic strategy and ongoing behaviour changes. And that is all but the Australia be part of the plan. We are still in the midst of this battle. And so we need to keep pushing on with our response and particularly on the fight to save jobs and build jobs and rebuild businesses and industries, which I will turn to now.

Regional and agriculture driven COVID recovery. That's what we want to see. And from my first days as prime minister, just over two years ago, when the DPM and I and Bridget McKenzie, I think at the time, and David Littleproud was there from memory as well. And Scotty Buchholz was with us. And we went up and through Longreach and we made it out to Quilpie. And I met the Tully family up there and I'll never forget that. And from there to more recently, being out in fire-affected Wingello north of Goulburn early this year after the fires. What remains with me to this day about all of these and there were certainly other visits up through North Queensland during the floods with Shane. I'm always struck by the positive outlook, despite the circumstances of regional and rural Australians. You're patient. You understand the longer game. You watch out for your neighbours. It's an earthy determination to outlast whatever hand you’re often dealt. That stoicism, that capacity to adapt, that strength that is required when faced with adversity as well as the untold costs and of the hidden and masked pain that you endure. That is an inspiration to all Australians, I think, as we face the challenges of this particular pandemic. And here at this bush summit I believe that that gives us the basis of taking a similar approach to the issues we're all facing.

So I want to talk about a few more things we are doing to invest in that capacity, to build on that plan, that resilience and support for regional Australia, and particularly the agricultural sector. Our Ag2030 plan a $100 billion industry by 2030. The government's backing the industry's bold plan to see agriculture in Australia grow to become a $100 billion sector by 2030. It's ambitious. It's especially given the many challenges we face of drought, floods, fire, COVID-19, facing another cyclone season this year. But we're not shying away from doing what we can to help the industry achieve. Last year at the Bush Summit, I announced there would be a national plan to support agriculture, fisheries and forestry achieve that goal. And while the pandemic is, as I'm sure you would understand, has delayed that formal plan, I can assure you that the Minister David Littleproud is working to ensure we get that plan in place and work towards achieving that goal.

What's guiding that plan is, first, the foundation of trade and growing trade. Trade grows the economy and it creates jobs. We don't get rich selling stuff to ourself. That's what we're about as an outward looking, externally faced trading nation. And when we came to government, preferential access to markets accounted for around 26 per cent for our two-way trade. That's now more than 70 per cent. People looking for more options for trade. All the 70 per cent of that trade is now covered by those agreements. We've recently completed the Indonesian agreement. There's a digital commerce agreement with Singapore. The EU agreement is the one we're working on now. The UK as well, they're the next cabs off the rank. Market access means more trade. It means more money in farming pockets and jobs in regional communities. And that's because the farm sector exports around two thirds of its output. Our trade strategy has meant that the farm sector is withstanding the blow of COVID-19, keeping supply chains open for our high value agricultural and fisheries exports, despite widespread disruption to the global air freight sector. And again, I commend the Deputy Prime Minister. Our International Freight Assistance Mechanism, which is designed with the Minister for Trade, is facilitating a one billion dollar support to exports by supporting nearly 4000 flights from nine Australian locations to 63 international destinations, maintaining thousands of regional jobs and regional food security in the process. What's known as the IFAM initiative has supported shipments of chilled lamb from western Victoria and the Middle East. Tuna shipments from Ulladulla to Japan. Shipments of abalone, lobster, oysters, lettuce and dairy from Tasmania to China, Taiwan and Singapore. And we will continue to defend the interests of our agricultural exports to see disruptions to any trade with Chinese consumers more recently.

We are disappointed about the actions against our barley exports and indeed with our beef processing. There's been a further announcement today, but these are not new, new initiatives. These have been happening for some months. And they don't just happen overnight. They come forward over a number of weeks. Also, the announcement investigation into our wine producers and we'll work with industry on those issues and address the facts of each case. And I'm optimistic that we will resolve those issues, not least because trade with China brings benefits to both countries.

Our high quality beef, lamb, seafood and wine exports to China have grown in recent years for a very simple reason. They're good. Chinese consumers like them and they've got reason to. Same reason we like it. We sell things that they want to buy. We buy things they want to sell. It's a two-way relationship. It's in both our interests for it to be maintained and that's what we'll continue to do. Just as imports from of manufactured goods assist us, particularly when it comes to important agricultural equipment on occasions which boost the productivity of our farmers.

Our AG 2030 plan is also guided by the principle of sustainability and I'm determined to get our farmers the tools to adapt to a changing climate, and build a sustainable agricultural base for the future. An essential part of that is understanding the centrality of soils to agricultural productivity. I mentioned this last year and we all owe a great debt to Major General Michael Jeffery for many things, many, many things as a former government and military leader. But as our first National Soils Advocate he was a champion for the sustainability and integrated management of our soils, water, vegetation and animals over many years. His passion on this is infectious. And this year it's with a heavy heart that I announce that General Jeffery has made a decision to step aside because of his ill health. However, the work continues and that's what always that matters to me. And so I'm pleased to announce that the Honourable Penny Wensley has been appointed Australia's new National Soils Advocate. And she will continue that great work. Penny grew up in Toowoomba and is a former diplomat and of course, a former and esteemed governor of Queensland. And I know she will continue to General Jeffrey's great work to protect, maintain and restore the health of our landscapes, and support sustainability of food security in our farming communities. And I look forward to working with Penny as we progress our national soils strategy which will be delivered as part of the 21-22 Budget. We don't just want better a approach to soils, as you all know we need a better approach to water and achieving that is fundamental to achieve in 2030. Our national water grid is about taking a national approach towards security and better protect Australia's farmers and regional communities against future droughts. That's what the Deputy Prime Minister has set out. Michael McCormack has set out in establishing this national water grid. His initiative. It's an authority in developing a future pipeline of projects so that regional communities and farmers get the water infrastructure they need. And establishing that grid as the Commonwealth water infrastructure delivery agent, it's time now for the states and territories to get cracking on with their part of the job or working with us to deliver that water infrastructure. Now four projects have been delivered and we have committed to 18 others. And it's now time to move on to critical projects from feasibility to construction.

We’ve had a lot of studies and need to build more water infrastructure, not just reports.  We've invested in 55 such studies, we're focused on delivering the projects that stack up and delivering the water. It's essential work because our climate is becoming warmer and dryer. A direct consequence of climate change. We're grateful for the rains of recent times, of course. But we know that even in areas where there is a green veneer, that below the grass, as I've said, the soil is still very dry. And of course, we know, there are regions still in profound drought. I want to acknowledge the tremendous work of Major General Stephen Day when he was National Drought Coordinator and as I referred to it today, to Shane Stone, the coordinator general of the National Drought and North Queensland Flood Response and Recovery Agency. Now in that agency they're focused on three things.

First, responding to the immediate need of providing relief. Practical measures that help farmers and communities right now and help them hold on until the drought breaks. Second, to sustain communities so they were still there when the drought was over. And third, which is a longer term work, making our country more drought resilient.

And you can't ever make a country full drought-proof but you can make it more drought resilient. And so we are better prepared for the next drought when it comes. That means deepening our understanding better, integrating our management, soil vegetation, water, it means having and sharing better data and the latest technology. It means connecting industries and communities to make sure they have the information they need to make the decisions that will help them survive and flourish. All of our efforts were backed by substantive commitment of $10m for 26 separate measures to support our drought response. And I acknowledge particularly the work of David Littleproud, Minister for Drought, for his leadership in ensuring we were getting the funds to where it needed to get to. With the drought and indeed, the flood, bushfire recovery and even the pandemic, we have take an approach that listens first, identifies needs and gaps and then fills them. And if we have to make changes then we do. It's why in June we extended the farm household allowance payment for those who had exhausted their entitlements. 

And that has helped more than 15,000 farmers and their partners. And we're making the investments in the longer term. The $5bn Future Drought Fund is an important part of the government's drought response, resilience and preparedness plan. That plan means sustainable investment will make, there will be sustainable investment of some $100 million out of that Future Fund available each year for projects that help our farmers and communities become more prepared for and resilience to the impacts of drought. The Future Drought Fund is not about responding to the current drought. It's about being better prepared for the next one. And just last month, the Minister for Agriculture, David Littleproud, announced the first suite of programmes under the fund. Together, they're worth almost $90 million. And they're designed to help with everything from business deals to climate data, research and innovation hubs and community resilience projects.

Now two of these programs open today. That's the $7.45m Drought Resilience Leaders Programme, and the $3.5m Networks to Build Drought Resilience Programme, which is open for applications today.

These projects are about supporting people, develop their leadership skills and put those skills to use in helping farmers and agricultural communities prepare for future droughts. And it's about helping establishing mentoring relationships so that the lessons and skills acquired over decades are passed on to the next generation. And as we respond to the drought, it's been clear to me that the people who know what's really needed are the people who live it every day.

And that's why today we're announcing the establishment of a Regional Recovery Officer Network across the country. A national drought and flood agency that Shane leads has put in place 19 regional recovery officers right across the country. A further four positions are being added to the team immediately. Many of them- a number of them are here with him today. These Regional Recovery Offices are our drought boots on the ground ensuring the governments understand the unique challenges farmers and communities in regions, that they're listening, that they're reporting, that they're working across government and across community to develop solutions and solutions that work.

Now, there are many other issues, Ben, that I wanted to raise today, but time's going to beat us today. And I can post those for people to read on a later occasion because I do want to get to questions. The announcements we've made today go further to our preparedness, to our resilience. But they also go to the immediate need. The comments I made today about addressing the challenges of a pandemic, but they're also intended to address the opportunities on the other side of the pandemic. And whether it's in the bush or whether it's in the cities. Wherever you are in Australia today, we will get through this. We are getting through this better than most and many of the countries in the world today. And there's a reason for that. And it's you. The way Australians respond to crisis. And so much of I think of the character of our nation in a crisis has been formed in the stories and livelihoods of rural and regional Australians. Even those of us from the city will look romantically and sentimentally out to those amazing stories of rural and regional Australia. And many of us these days who live in cities can speak of our own generations in times past, who came from rural and regional Australia like mine but many generations ago. That's where we draw our strength from. And those stories are being lived out today, as they were hundreds of years ago, and indeed in our Indigenous communities over thousands upon thousands of years. That's where we draw our strength from. And that is why we will prevail.

Additional speech extracts

Innovation is also a key element of our Ag2030 plan.

Australian farmers are amongst the most innovative and adaptive in the world.

Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, has been the driver behind making sure Australian farmers continue to be the best in the world.

That means bridging the gaps in research, development and the adoption of new practices, tools and technologies - and bringing researchers and farmers and agricultural businesses closer together.

That’s why we’re investing $86 million to establish eight Adoption and Innovation Hubs around the country.

Hubs will be established in each of Australia’s key climatic and agricultural zones - and I am pleased that one of the zones will be here in Southern NSW.

Hubs will be coordinated by a lead regional university – a new National Centre for Drought Resilience Adoption and Innovation.

We’ll establish the Hubs, and the new National Centre, though open competitive processes over the coming months.

As well, integral to our Ag-2030 Plan is building the economic capacity of our regions through infrastructure and stronger supply chains.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, and I want our regions and producers to be able to access the capital, infrastructure and connectivity they need to compete effectively.

As part of our response to COVID-19, we’re boosting and bringing forward investment in infrastructure to help communities weather the crisis and recover.

We have committed $1.5 billion to shovel-ready, priority transport infrastructure projects identified by states and territories and small, road safety projects across Australia, with many of these projects in our regions. This is an additional $4.2 billion of accelerated projects announced with the states at the end of 2019.

We've also provided a $1.8 billion boost across Australia for road and community projects delivered through local governments.

Since last November, my Government has brought forward or injected additional investment totalling nearly $9.3 billion in infrastructure construction activity.

We’re changing the way freight moves along the eastern seaboard by building the Inland Rail from Melbourne to Brisbane.

This project just doesn’t benefit producers - it benefits consumers - lowering the costs of transportation, and reducing the time it takes for produce to leave the market and reach the dinner table.

Nationals Leader, Michael McCormack is very much a leader in the Fischer and indeed Anderson mould. One of the great sons of Southern NSW was Tim Fischer - and he’d be delighted to know we are boosting railway networks - including making investments in regional railways in Victoria.

And integral to connecting our regional communities is 21st century telecommunications - and that’s why we have committed $380 million to the Mobile Black Spot Program where more than 1,200 new mobile towers have been funded to date, with 861 now on air.

We’re also connecting regional communities health care professionals through Medicare subsidised telehealth services, and via their local general practices, with thousands more doctors and nurses heading to rural practices over the next decade.

So we are putting in place a comprehensive plan: more trade; better water management; a soils plan; drought resilience; and investments in infrastructure and regional supply chains.

All of which are about building the long term capability of our regions and investing in their potential.

The Region

I now want to say a few words about this region.

It’s been a tough year following the Black Summer bushfires.

This region suffered terribly during summer – but there has been tremendous work since then.

I know Andrew Colvin and the National Bushfire Recovery Agency have been working closely with the community to drive recovery.

There’s been relief to the Snowy Monaro Regional Council to rebuild assets, and provide economic support and funding for wildlife rescue.

$65 million is being provided to help the forestry industry recover.

Bushfire recovery grants are also helping local communities and businesses get back on their feet - well over 600 local businesses benefiting from grants.

And looking to the future, this region will benefit enormously from the Snowy 2.0 project.
Snowy 2.0 will create thousands of new jobs, support investment in the local region and take pressure off power prices.

More than 500 people are already at work on Snowy 2.0 and we expect it will create around 4,000 direct jobs over the life of the project.

I am sure I will be here many more times as this project unfolds.