Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a press conference at the National Drought Summit at Old Parliament House in Canberra, Friday, October 26, 2018. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Drought Summit Press Conference

Transcript
26 Oct 2018
Old Parliament House, Canberra
Prime Minister
Drought relief and resilience; Banking Royal Commission; Saudi Arabia
E&OE

Photo:  AAP Image/Lukas Coch

PRIME MINISTER: Can I start off by thanking all of those who have come from all around Australia today. State and territory leaders, farmers, charity workers, drought coordinators, people who just love rural and regional Australia like Macca. The whole community has come together to focus on our drought relief, our drought recovery and our drought resilience into the future. It has been, I think, a very important day for Australia and a very important session. The spirit of contribution of all those who attended today, I think, was very well received. It was a great opportunity to come together. I can’t recall the last time that when all state and territory leaders, Commonwealth, local government, all of those leaders in the ag sector have come together to focus on an issue like this. And I think that is a very meaningful thing to do, you know, it was all about one important thing and that was getting on the same page. About how we are dealing with the drought, how we are planning to ensure that we have resilience against drought well into the future.

The common operating picture, as Major General Day has talked about, which you can see being shown up here on the screen. This is what getting on the same page means. Whether it is on issues of climate, whether it’s on issues of forecasts, the economic circumstances in towns and regions where services are being delivered. Everybody from around the country, regardless of what state and territory, what shire you’re in, wherever you are. You will now be able to reference a single information point to work out where is the best place to apply your effort in what you are doing to ensure that we are dealing with our drought relief response and recovery and resilience into the future. The common operating picture will continue to be populated through the financial taskforce set up by the Treasurer and the Minister for Agriculture working together with major financial institutions to ensure that the information that they have is also coming online. That the charity information is populating this common operating picture. Because if you're all looking at the same map, if you’re all looking at the same information, if you’re all referencing the same data, then you can all make decisions that work together. That is what drought coordination response is all about. So I want to congratulate Major General Day for that excellent piece of work which is now an important tool for Australians all around the country as we deal with the drought as a national task.

Now as you know today we made a number of announcements and I set those out at the beginning of the presentation and the Summit today. That was the establishment of a Future Drought Fund, starting off with $3.9 billion, assigned from the Future Fund into this very task, protected forever with the returns of the Fund being reinvested to ensure it grows up to $5 billion. But $100 million draw down to enable that to be invested in important drought infrastructure projects and other important resilience projects on an ongoing basis. So we are investing in future drought resilience year on year on year forever, protected by legislation, that Drought Fund, that Drought Future Fund, to enable this country to always have that reserve to draw on in times of drought. Secondly, the extension of the Drought Communities Program. That program will now be $81.5 million extending out into another 21 other councils, 21 shires all across the country and particularly into South Australia. Because we know the drought is creeping. It’s creeping across state boundaries and that enables us to try and get ahead and get support into those communities before the drought fully hits and they are able to restore and provide some resilience against the economics of drought in their local communities.

The mental health support of $15.3 million, that’s on top of the additional investment that has already been put in place for mental health support, which also includes the additional funding we have provided to Headspace, a significant portion of which is being designed to be delivered remotely, online through the Headspace networks. But you know, almost half of Headspaces network is outside the major metropolitan areas. It’s an important resource, mental health resource for young people all around the country. Drought community support, investing through those incredible charitable organisations. Whether it’s the CWA or others which are out there in contact with those communities and know where the people are hurting most and they can provide that support to them which they’re already providing and we’re going to significantly expand their capability. Now that means things, support through voucher systems which means the money gets spent in the town. Because this drought isn’t just about farms, it’s about rural and regional communities and a lifestyle that we are seeking to protect forever which is such an important part of Australia.

The on-farm water infrastructure rebate is $50 million invested in that rebate scheme which is backing in the investment which is being made by farmers drought-proofing their own properties. Now that’s not only good for resilience into the future, but it’s fantastic for the local towns again which is where they get their supplies from to put that infrastructure in place on their properties. And of course, the Farm Hub, which is a suggestion of the National Farmers Federation and Fiona and that will be set up online and will be run by the National Farmers Federation.

One of the things that came out of today’s summit was that, you know, in many cases, information is almost as important as water and how we connect information on the services and support and the planning right around the country so we can invest, target and coordinate our effort to assist our communities get to the other side and then thrive on the other side. And so information sharing, information coordination, is a key outtake. But the other one is on implementation, and Major General Day as our Coordinator-General on our drought response has been pulling all this together and today, I have announced that I am appointing David Littleproud to be the Minister for Drought Preparation and Response. And Major General Day will work together with Minister Littleproud to ensure the actions that are required at the Ministerial level are coordinated and addressed right across all portfolios on a whole of government basis. So that will give Major General Day another great support and assistance in addition to myself as Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, but an all-day Minister there who can support him in the work that he is doing to coordinate across portfolios.

So it has been a very important day today. It has focused on response, the relief, the recovery and the resilience into the future. We have been listening, we are planning, and we are acting right across a raft of issues. Right across the spectrum, and that was incredibly well received today by those who were in attendance. And we all go from this place better informed, better equipped, better connected to make sure that the communities that everybody is going back to today can be assured of even greater support into the future. I’m going to ask the Deputy Prime Minister to speak and then Fiona and then we’re happy to take questions.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Well thank you Prime Minister, and thank you again for making drought your number one priority and we see that. On that day you were elected Liberal leader, before you were sworn in as Prime Minister, we were both on the same page. The number one priority had to be our drought stricken communities, because our farmers, our rural and regional communities, they underpin Australia. They really do. When our agricultural sector is strong, so too is regional Australia. When regional Australia is strong, so too is our nation. So I was very, very pleased that you called, arranged and organised this Summit. It was such an important event.

The fact is, I think we’ve come away from today with a sense of purpose and determination and resolve. We stand shoulder to shoulder, side by side, with our farmers, with our rural and regional communities. We’ve done that in past months, we’re doing it now and we’ll continue to do it in the future. Not just for the weeks and the months ahead when it might rain again, but indeed in the years ahead. And the Future Drought Fund does just that. It does just that. It’s going to make sure that we’ve got the available resources, not just capital, but resources as well on the ground when the next drought occurs after this one. And unfortunately, part of Australia is always in drought, so it’s going to be an annual commitment, an annual commitment forever, protected by legislation to make sure that the Government has the back of rural and regional Australia. That the Government continues to have the back of our farmers.

Our farmers are the best in the world, make no mistake. Our farmers are the most resilient in the world but they need a bit of a hand up at the moment. Not a handout, but a hand up, and we’re providing that. The Future Drought Fund does just that. We’ve heard today, it was a very robust discussion at times. We have heard from stakeholders, we’ve heard from charities, we’ve heard from people such as Michael Jeffery, a former Governor-General, who remind us how just how important water and particularly soil is to the national conversation about drought and how we better prepare our nation for those dry times. But I was very, very pleased as well to hear from the Premiers, and not only did they turn up but the Premiers and Chief Ministers came and they stayed and they listened, and they also spoke. And they spoke and they also heard too about the importance of that inter-governmental agreement, which I know Fiona Simpson talked about a number of times at this morning’s summit.

Making sure that we are all, as the Prime Minister has just said, on the same page when it comes to this issue, this drought and future droughts. Making sure that at all levels of government, local, state and federal, that we are all on the same page when it comes to helping our farming communities, our rural and regional communities through these troubled times. And I’m pleased also that we‘re involving the charities and we are also making sure that councils, 21 additional councils, are going to receive the resources and the backing that they need to keep some of that money flowing through the communities, through the towns, and to keep workers in the towns, because that is all important. I would like to hand over to somebody who is not only a leading advocate for drought, not only a leading voice in drought and making sure that we are better prepared in the future, but somebody who is also a farmer herself. The Chairman of the Farmer's Federation and farmer from the Liverpool Plains of New South Wales, Fiona Simpson.

FIONA SIMPSON, PRESIDENT OF THE NATIONAL FARMERS FEDERATION: Thanks very much, Michael McCormack. Thank you Prime Minister, thank you for the invitation and thank you for holding the Drought Summit today. As President of Australia's largest farmer advocacy body I often say that we want the whole of government to be behind us. We want the whole of government support for a strategic focus on our industry, and today not only did we have the whole of government approach from the Federal Government, but we had all the Premiers in the room, the Ag Ministers, right down to local government and stakeholders as well. Never does that happen. Never in my memory can I remember that happening. And I think that is an extraordinary day for agriculture.

Australian agriculture is a very strong industry. We have been strong in the past, we often talk about Australia riding on the sheep's back in in some sort of, you know, nice way. But in actual fact it is not just about folklore. Australian agriculture is an industry of the future. We believe that we can reach $100 billion farm value production in 2030. But we do need government to stand beside us and support us and not just supporting the agricultural industry, but also supporting our rural and regional industries through periods of drought. In the farming community, we know that drought is an inevitable part of our business cycle. Just as we have very good times in agriculture, so do we sometimes have very challenging times and that’s through a lack of rainfall and increasing heat, decreasing soil moisture and a number of factors that make up the map, such as Stephen Day is showing.

So we know that drought policy is a tricky thing. It is not just about one thing. Drought policy is about cohesion, it is about collaboration, it is about all three tiers of government working together with industry to focus on resilience, to focus on preparation, to focus on support during those emergency times when things are critical for many people as they are right now, at the moment. And we very, very much welcome not just the opportunity to talk about some of those issues today and all stand together, but also to some of the announcements that the Government has made. The Drought Future Fund, the $5 million amount which will accrue is an amazing opportunity for us to plan for the future of agriculture through drought. For the future rural and regional communities through drought. To plan for resilience, and to plan on how we are going to keep our industry and our communities strong. Never before have we had this amount set aside, never before have we had the ability to focus into the future and plan for the sorts of spending that we would like in this space. So that is an amazing announcement, thank you Prime Minister.

The extra money to charities will be very welcome for those people doing it particularly tough. The extra money for mental health support in our regions. The extra money for councils. The extra 21 councils that are going to benefit from this. There is already an amazing array of projects that are happening in our rural and regional communities because of this extra funding. It is an amazing scheme, as is the extra money, the $50 million for emergency stock water infrastructure. As I travel around this week, I have been to Roma in the middle of Queensland, and again water infrastructure is something, and spending money on water infrastructure, is something that we know can really help landowners become more resilient in the drying cycle and in the inevitable drought cycle.

Lastly, the drought hub we believe will be an incredible resource for the community to be able to come to one-stop. It is a one-stop shop to be able to get information. Drought support is delivered through many tiers of government, many different agencies, many different stakeholders. It is an incredibly confusing space. At the moment people have to log on to a number of different websites, go to a number of different help desks to try to get assistance. We hope that the drought hub will be a great initiative to enable us to streamline the assistance that is being offered. We hope that the drought hub will be a great initiative to enable us to streamline the assistance that is being offered.

So again, the agricultural industry, it was great to see so many farmers in the room today. It was great to see so many stakeholders in the room today. As I said, three tiers of government.

We really thank the Prime Minister and thank the Government for the support. We know that the Government is really beside us as we go through what is at the moment a really challenging period for our industry and for rural and regional Australia. Thank you very much.

PRIME MINISTER: Okay, happy to take some questions on the Drought Summit and the Ministers and of course Major General Day is here to respond as well. So we’ll start with questions on the Summit. Yes?

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister how will you ensure that Australia remains competitive and that these finances are just used to prop up farmers who have been able to innovate and adapt?

PRIME MINISTER: That’s a very good question and it was a key issue that was discussed today at the Summit. In terms of ensuring that we are making farm businesses stronger businesses, this is about them being strong, profitable, competitive, productive businesses. This Fund, that is the Drought Future Fund, will particularly be investing in broader scale water infrastructure in particular, which goes beyond the farm. That can be dealing with every from large-scale water storage, dams, things of that nature. We’ll have more to say about that. But this is about the bigger set infrastructure and broader resilience projects that can be put in place and funded from those funds.

Now that ties in with the work that’s being done on the on farm water infrastructure rebates. That’s a 25 per cent rebate. So that means the farm is putting in themselves and the co-investment that these measures are designed to support is what, I think, goes to your question. The other issue we talked today about was cluster fencing. Now cluster fencing - as David knows, he introduced me to the concept when I was up at Quilpie - what this does is bring together a series of farmers together with a co-invest, not only with the Commonwealth and the State Government and on occasion local governments, but they also then take up the responsibility for maintaining the fences into the future. When I was heading out into Quilpie that day, I remember we were looking at, we were looking out the window and we saw all these old fences that were all broken down and they were all run down. Then we saw the new ones and those new fences, those dog fences and dealing with pests and weeds, this was a really big part of future-proofing the farms. But they need to be maintained, so our approach is one of co-investment with farms themselves, farming communities themselves.

Then you of course have the charitable sector support and the relief. Now, that is really there to provide some immediate-term relief. But the longer term and medium-term investments, we are making with farmers.

JOURNALIST: Just looking at that map, you’ve got water on one side and not a lot of water on the other side. Will this particular fund be investing in new dams and new pipelines to get the water where we need it? Or will that be separate?

PRIME MINISTER: Well that is one of the things it will be supporting. We will have more to say down the track about our water infrastructure plans. We are very committed to these as well as you know, we have had a Water Infrastructure Fund now - and Michael may wish to make a comment on that - where we have been investing in weirs and a whole range of other important projects, like near Rockhampton, where I was not that long ago.

So we are big believers in investing in the water storage in those catchment areas, to make sure that we just don't see it evaporate and run out to sea. We’ve to make better use of our water. We’ve got the CSIRO report which identifies a large number of those opportunities that need investment. But as the Victorian Premier said today, that needs to be done with co-investment between the states and Commonwealth. And we will be prepared to step up to that. In Queensland they need to be prepared to step up to that, we can’t have a moratorium on dams, we need to get dams done. I’m not suggesting there necessarily is, but there needs to be a commitment to work together to put that infrastructure in place.

JOURNALIST: Was everyone on the same page in the meeting on the two issues of the role of climate change driving climate variability, which you spoke about earlier and also the need for a national intergovernmental drought policy?

PRIME MINISTER: I think everyone was on the same page when it came to having a clear plan to deal with the drought response, that focused, as we have said, on relief, recovery and resilience. As the former Governor-General put it, Michael Jeffery; “We’ve got to know which hill to attack, you’ve got to attack the right hill”, which I thought Major General David particularly got the metaphor. Because he’s been making sure we do attack the right hill on these issues. So I think there was that commonality, people were on the same page and I think when we went through this material, but also the material from ABEAR and from the Bureau of Meteorology, one of the things about this drought season, this drought period compared to others, is the much stronger financial conditions in which this drought is taking place. So the prices people are getting for livestock, the strong arrangements we have in place for trade which is supporting those prices is to some extent mitigating what could be far worse impact in these communities.

So I thought there was a good common understanding. But again I thought Daniel Andrews put it well when he came in and said; “I’m not here really to have an ideological discussion about climate change.” The changing climate, of course, was a matter that was acknowledged and that was discussed in the communique which has gone out today acknowledges that as well, as does our Government.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister would you put more money into the Bureau of Meteorology? One of the things farmers complain about is the unreliability of the forecasts.

PRIME MINISTER: Already have. Check out the last Budget, we’ve put some of the biggest investments into the Bureau of Meteorology to upgrade their IT and their ICT platforms that we’ve seen in a very long time. This was the key issue that was brought to us by the Bureau of Meteorology over the past two Budgets, we’ve funded over two Budgets. The important thing about that ICT platform is that it connects into what the farmers need on the ground. It’s addressing the digital needs, I mean it was a rickety old machine and it needed serious re-investment to upgraded. It was a big commitment in our most recent Budget and we’re following through on that.

JOURNALIST: Why is there a disconnect between what farmers will say today, despite that money? Why are they still not feeling the forecasts are preparing them for the climate?

PRIME MINISTER: Well forecasts are exactly that. The Bureau of Meteorology will always provide the normal qualifications, frankly that just as economic forecasters in my old job, you would always find would qualify on the variabilities. But the science that goes into that and the ICT platforms that we have heavily invested in - more than any previous government- is providing the tools that the BOM needs to ensure that not only do they pull his forecast together, but they can disseminate them digitally to put that information in the hands, on the laptops, on the iPads of the farmers who are out there, connecting that into what they are doing on their farms each and every day.

Now if you go and look at what is happening in agtech and fintech and how it connects all of that data, all of that information is from proving enormously helpful in how farmers are planning and how they’re working with their financial backers to ensure they can mitigate the risks and get the lowest-cost to finance. So, it’s a big investment and it’s a very worthy one.

JOURNALIST: Can I go off topic just very briefly? Because I’ve got to run.

[Laughter]

PRIME MINISTER: Well unless there are any other questions on drought, given it’s a Drought Summit.

JOURNALIST: You’ve brought together a lot of the states and territories, farmers in the past have found it difficult, if they farm either side of the border, with the responses that the different states have to drought. What can you offer them today, after having all these people come here, that there will be greater consistency irrespective of where you farm in this country?

PRIME MINISTER: Yeah well Fiona, you might want to comment on this. This actually was raised in today's meeting and that’s why I want to thank again the state premiers and chief ministers out of the ACT and Northern Territory for being here and being here all day and listening. Because these issues were raised.

One of the things, I must admit, that I found helpful as a Prime Minister is that I have lots of individual conversations with people on this topic, as Stephen does all the time and as my colleagues do. But to have all those conversations and inputs happening in the one place at the one time, so we could all be the same information at the same time – as policymakers, as decision makers, as those who are researching in the field, those who are running farms and coordinating responses - this was enormously helpful. The states and territories can go away with a much better understanding of some of those frustrations. But here was a cracker, which we dealt with a few weeks ago; the issue of the heavy vehicle regulations which was actually stopping hay getting from one side of a border to another. We got rid of it. We got rid of it. Scotty Buchholz got rid of it in a week, based on the feedback we got from Fiona. So yes, doing that is important. But I might ask Fiona to comment.

PRESIDENT, NATIONAL FARMERS FEDERATION: Certainly, Prime Minister and you’ll be pleased to know I am storing up a couple of other little things that only the Prime Minister can do that I am looking forward to discussing with you in coming weeks.

[Laughter]

No look, that was really one of the things we brought to the table, it’s a technical sort of discussion around the intergovernmental agreement. So the drought relief through the States, through the Federal Government, how they work together pretty much, is administered by the intergovernmental agreement. It’s NFF’s view that we do need an overhaul of that agreement. We do need to look very carefully at how we work together. There are people [inaudible] that work on either side of the state boundary who make it incredibly complicated, but also when we’re looking at mapping, when we’re looking at trigger maps, when we’re looking at determining when people are drought and the sorts of things that might be available to them at different stages of the business cycle, it’s incredibly difficult if we don't have national and consistent terms, if we don't have nationally consistent triggers and nationally consistent information.

So today I raised and we had a lot of really good discussion on a range of topics today, but some of the technical things, one of them was around the IGA. David has committed – I’m not sure of the timeline, David - David has committed that is something that we will have another look at, because we certainly need to strengthen that. We need to look at how we work together. We need to make sure that those differences across borders don’t matter to people when they’re in the throes of drought and that it’s much easier to operate businesses. Because as the Prime Minister says, farming is operating businesses. We want to make it as easy as possible. We want to make it as streamlined as possible.

The Productivity Commission and others keep talking about the red tape in agriculture. We don't want to be tied up in that when we are dealing with drought, when we are dealing with businesses and we’re dealing with stock and animals and water and all the important things. We want to get on with the job.

PRIME MINISTER: So the intergovernmental agreement was discussed between the Premiers, Chief Ministers and I this morning and it has been the subject of review by Ag Ministers. Recommendations for how that might be upgraded and updated will be considered by COAG later in the year. So it will be a good opportunity for Fiona and the NFF and other stakeholders to be feeding in there.

There is the text of the agreement, it’s not a particularly long document. It largely separates who is responsible for what. That’s quite helpful. A lot of issues, I think, raised today about what is the accountability then, for those things actually happening and what’s the process for that? Particularly resolving it across state boundaries. So that work is very much under way and acknowledged.

JOURNALIST: Bill Shorten today suggested banks should be stripped of their rights to manage superannuation.

PRIME MINISTER: Are we done with drought? It seems so, let’s move to other issues.

JOURNALIST: Bill Shorten today suggested banks should be stripped of their rights to manage superannuation. Do you agree?

PRIME MINISTER: Well I’m going to wait for the recommendations of the banking royal commission, which Bill Shorten seems to want to ignore and second-guess and override, that proper process, which is underway.

Bill Shorten will always argue the case for union based industry funds and try to provide a competitive advantage for them. He says he wants to run the country like a union, he must want to run the financial system like one too.

JOURNALIST: On a related note Labor published its Royal Commission submission to the interim report... but they’ve directly contravened the rules set out by Commissioner Hayne in bringing up past issues of behavior and talking about unrelated things to the policy questions that he raised. What’s your response to that?

PRIME MINISTER:  Bill Shorten doesn't respect the Royal Commission. For Bill Shorten the Royal Commission was only ever a political exercise, for him. Our Government has initiated this Royal Commission. Commissioner Hayne, I think, is doing an extraordinary job of keeping it very focused and ensuring it’s being done in a very timely fashion. We respect the job that he is doing and we respect the work that all of those working for the royal commission are doing. I mean Bill Shorten has been quite offensive, I think, to that process and those who are doing very good work. I mean they are working very hard, they’ve reviewed all the submissions, all of them and there’s over 8,000 of them. They’ve been doing that work and for that to just be sort of dismissed like Bill Shorten has done, I think has shown quite a lot of disrespect. But at the end of the day, it’s just exposed that for him, this was always just about politics. It wasn’t actually about helping people.

We’re focused on that in terms of dealing respectfully with the royal commission. We commissioned it, we initiated it. We’ll work with it once the recommendations are provided and we’ll take further action. Because we’ve already taken a lot of action in this space, whether it’s been the Financial Complaints Authority or the banking executive accountability regime, the additional penalties at the disposal of ASIC, the employment of Dan Crennan as a deputy commissioner of ASIC which enables them to go and prosecute, because that was highlighted by Commissioner Hayne in his first interim report as being a real issue. So, we’ve given the resources and the people to go and do that.

JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten also said that bank executives who were in charge when the banks were ripping Australians off should consider handing back their bonuses. Is that something you’d support as well?

PRIME MINISTER: We’ve already legislated it. I introduced the banking executive accountability regime. Bill Shorten talked about it when Trio and all these things were happening on his watch and he did absolutely nothing about it, while Labor was there.

The banking and financial industry, in all these cases that you’re hearing about, they were happening when Bill Shorten was the Financial Services Minister.

Did he call a royal commission? No.

Did he introduce tougher rules to deal with banking executives? No.

You know, he’s a lion in Opposition and a mouse when he’s in Government. What we’ve done is we’ve taken the big stick, we’ve got the legislation in place, we’ve passed it. And they argued the toss over it. We had to actually twist their arm to get them to vote for it. I mean these guys, they’re all talk, no action.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister on Saudi Arabia, will the Government put a moratorium on defence equipment sales and intelligence sharing with the Saudi regime?

PRIME MINISTER: The Foreign Minister and the Trade Minister and I are monitoring these issues incredibly closely. As you know, we’ve withdrawn our involvement in some important trade events that are occurring in Saudi Arabia. We’re working closely with our partners around the world on this topic. We’re appalled beyond description by what has happened and we expect Saudi officials and others to fully cooperate with what is the process of justice which is underway. We will be taking any and all necessary steps that we think are needed to pursue that path and pursue that outcome.

So thank you all very much, again, thank you to all those who attended from around Australia today. We’re backing in Australians, rural and regional communities and we’re going to ensure that they continue to have the relief and that they continue to have the recovery and that they have the resilience in the future that makes Australia even stronger.

Thank you.