Transcript: Press Conference - Tinamba, Victoria

With:

The Hon Darren Chester MP, Minister for Veterans Affairs, Minister for Defence Personnel; Member for Gippsland

E&OE

Subjects: Water infrastructure; Gippsland road infrastructure; drought; financial services royal commission

DARREN CHESTER:

It’s terrific to have the Deputy Prime Minister here, Michael McCormack, my great friend and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development. The purpose of the visit today is to give Michael a chance to meet with our local councillors on their infrastructure priorities for Gippsland. And the number one infrastructure priority right now in Gippsland is that the State Government find $33 million required to finish the duplication of Princes Highway. We’re also travelling through the [indistinct] 2030 project with [indistinct], giving Michael a chance to see the fruits of Federal Government funding, which in the seeming  order $230 million spent in [indistinct] irrigation industry is giving economic benefits to farmers but also environmental benefits to our local rivers and lakes. So it’s great to see the product of investment from the past, which is between State, Federal and Local investment but also gives opportunities for further funding being required here at the Macalister Irrigation District to see more benefits flowing right throughout the region.

And later on, Michael and I will be meeting with some drought affected farmers. Michael’s very aware of the impact of the drought here in Gippsland as he receives regular briefings from me on the impact. And the feedback we’re getting from our farmers, they greatly appreciate the federal government support that’s already been made available, but the basic cost structure of doing business is really concerning them. And so Michael’s been meeting with farmers and gaining an appreciation of how those costs are impacting on their viability. So it’s terrific to have Michael in the region, he’s a great champion of regional Australia and it’s great to have you here in Gippsland so you get to see what good country looks like. It’s important for a bloke from Riverina to get out more and see how wonderful Gippsland is.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

It is great to be here with Darren Chester, my good friend and colleague, the Member for Gippsland, the Minister for Veterans Affairs. And I know how Darren is working so hard not just in his Ministerial portfolio but indeed at a local level, because all politics is local. We’ve been here today at Tinamba. We’ve also been to Latrobe and spoke with the local council there about a project that they’ve got in mind, a motorsports project, an events centre project, to help ease the impact of the Hazelwood closure. It will help ease the impact of the drought. And the drought is biting hard. It’s biting hard not just on farmers but on small businesses right throughout Gippsland, indeed right through Victoria and New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia too. Wherever you go on the eastern states, the drought is having an impact. It’s taking its toll on hope, on confidence, and on prosperity. It’s not just the farmers who are affected. It’s also those small businesses who either directly or indirectly rely on agriculture to be its best self. When you’ve got an extended dry period, as we have, it is tough.

But we are doing everything we can as a Federal Government. We must, we can and we will do more. We’ve already put $1.9 billion on the table. We’ve got a $3.9 billion Future Drought Fund to help drought-proof our nation even further. But it’s good to be here with farmers - dairy farmers such as Alan Clyne – very experienced, his family farms have been here for more than 100 years through his father and others – and Hans Van Wees who came over here from New Zealand because he saw hope and a dollar to be made in dairy farming in Australia.

They have benefited already from the Macalister Irrigation District modernisation. The fact is if we get this modernisation project finished, as it stands 36,000 megalitres of water can be saved. Now, we’ve already increased the efficiency of flows, the seepage, the leakage. It was 60 per cent efficiencies. We’ve increased that to 80 per cent. There’s the potential to do even greater, to do even more and the Federal Government stands ready to help out with this. We put $675,000 on the table for a business case, a feasibility study into the latest modernisation. As you heard Darren Chester mention, there’s already been $200 million spent so far. And of course when Hans arrived here in Australia, it was open channels, leaking, seepage, evaporation, all those things – those issues have been addressed.

But we look forward to extending that. We look forward to even further modernisation. As Darren said the fact is the Princes Highway remains a viable part of this area. Whether it’s dairy farmers, whether it’s any farmers indeed, whether it’s everybody who either lives here or visits here, they want the very best road to get them home sooner and safer. The Princes Highway needs to be duplicated. That job needs to be finished between Traralgon and Sale. We’ve already put $132 million on the table to do just that. We call on the Victorian State Labor Government to do its job as well. It’s an 80-20 split, 80 federal and 20 per cent state. We need the State Government to stump up and finish the job. We need them to finish the job that has been started and for productivity gains to help that great task. But it’s also for tourists and for just the efficiency of the road - to get people to where they need to be and to avoid preventable accidents. We don’t want to see more deaths on the Princes Highway, indeed, any highway. I know how much Darren has been an advocate for road safety, and so I stand alongside him. I want to make sure that this road duplication between those two towns is finished and I want to make sure it happens in good time.

JOURNALIST:

[Inaudible question]

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

We’ve put $675,000 on the table for a feasibility study, and yes that was completed in December 2018 so it’s only just a few short weeks ago really. We stand ready to see the results of that. We stand ready to work with the Victorian State Government, indeed, any partners to make sure that these projects are completed. We stand ready as a Government which is prepared to put down money for water infrastructure. We’ve just recently as part of the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund put another half a billion dollars on the table. That takes that money, that fund to $1.3 billion.

We want to make sure that if there’s water infrastructure projects, that they get developed, that once we get the business cases, once they stack up, that we put money down on the table and get them finished.

JOURNALIST:

But you aren’t able to put a [indistinct] for phase two today, is that something [indistinct]...

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:            

I’m talking with farmers, I’m talking with local authorities, talking with councils. I want to make sure that the Victorian Government knows how important it is too. Darren Chester is a big advocate for it, as am I.

JOURNALIST:

When you’re looking at water infrastructure through the region you’ve also got the Bairnsdale District which desperately needs some water storage - rural water storage [indistinct] in order to be able to develop  the agricultures it needs. You’ll be going to the Stradbroke region this afternoon, which is also desperate for that type of resource. What can the Federal Government do to deliver the hopes of farmers in those regions?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:            

We’ve had the funds in the past where we actually provide on farm pipelines and on farm water saving measures on farming infrastructure…

JOURNALIST:

[Interrupts] But not in those regions.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:            

Again I say, the Federal Government and the Nationals in the Federal Government are all for water infrastructure. We’re all for more water storage. We’re all for the sorts of infrastructure that’s going to enhance agriculture. Despite the fact that we are in an extended drought period, agriculture still stacked up last year with almost the same level of output as the previous year. That says something about our farmers. That says something about their resilience, also their water management practices. So Australia’s got the very best farmers in the world. Darren continues to tell me that Gippsland has the very best farmers in Australia. And so we want to make sure that we give these farmers every bit of assistance we can.

JOURNALIST:

This is a bipartisan issue, not a political issue?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

No, I don’t want to play politics on the Princes Highway. I don’t want to play politics on water infrastructure. But we’ve put real money on the table, both in business cases, in money on the table for the Princes Highway; we just want others to play their part as well. The fact is we provide 80 per cent of the funds for the Princes Highway. The fact is, we’ve put good money on the table for water infrastructure and we stand ready as a Federal Government to partner up with any State Government willing to partner up with us.

JOURNALIST:

Will you keep, sort of, progressing with the next two stages of that highway upgrade even if any of the states [indistinct].

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

We have provided 80 per cent of the funding. It is up to the State Government to put their 20 per cent on the table. As Darren said, $33 million, that’s the ask from the State Government. We’ve put $132 million on the table. We need to make sure that the highway is duplicated. We need to make sure that the job that’s been started is finished.

JOURNALIST:

So you said that…

DARREN CHESTER:

It’s important to note in relation to the Princes Highway that the State Government owns the road, the State Government’s responsible for the design and construction process. The Federal Government has no capacity to start the project unless the State Government puts its money on the table. We simply can’t do it; we don’t own the asset. So our money is on the table, and that’s the way we approach these projects. The State Government claims it’s not getting a fair share of infrastructure funding in Victoria, then how do you make the claim if you’re sending money back to Canberra? It’s economic madness for the State Government to not find $33 million to finish the project and to save lives and create productivity throughout our region.

JOURNALIST:    

So that needs to be in this budget then?

DARREN CHESTER:

Well there’s no question that the State Government has the capacity to fund it. They just got to find the political will to do it.

JOURNALIST:

So if they’re looking towards drought recovery 2020 on, hopefully, everyone has got their fingers crossed that there will be rain sometime this year, we hope, even though the Bureau of Met yesterday put out a statement very clearly saying El Nino for the next six months. What commitment can you make, going back to my original question, ongoing to be able to reassure farmers that they can look towards future development options in Stradbroke and East Gippsland region; particularly around Bairnsdale, when I’m talking about Stradbroke.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Sure. The Future Drought Fund, the parameters around that are quite open at the moment. So whether that’s providing on-farm water pipelines, on-farm water infrastructure, the fact is we have put down $3.9 billion on the table for droughts in the future. The fact is that fund is going to build up to $5 billion and no matter where you are in Australia, at some stage, every year, there’s going to be a prolonged dry period, because that’s just the way Australia is: droughts are followed by flooding rains. Dorothea Mackellar says that’s the country in which we live. And we want to make sure that when we do have those flooding rains that we can store more water for the times when it is dry. We as a Federal Government and certainly Darren and I, and others in the National Party - we’re always going to be there for the farmers, we’re always going to be there to make sure that whether it’s farming investment, from things such as the pipelines, from things such as lining channels, right up to building big dams and extending and lengthening weirs, we stand ready to do it. It’s just a matter of having willing partners in State Governments to ensure that we get that delivery of the Infrastructure that we need.

JOURNALIST:

Just backing on to what we were talking about before. So you were talking about how climate is like - record temperatures are a natural variability - do you believe in anthropogenic climate change?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Well I believe that we need to get planet the benefit of the doubt. I believe that climate has been changing since the day dot and we need to make sure that we have the best policies in place so that Australia plays its part.

We’re already more than meeting our emissions targets. but what we don’t know what to do is prevent farmers from doing the great job that they do; what we don’t know to do is de-industrialise Australia; what we don’t know what to do is make sure that manufacturing doesn’t have a future in Australia; what we don’t know what to do is go down the 45 per cent emissions lines and in the not too distant future, rely on 50 per cent renewables. We’ve seen how many people have lost their job at the Hazelwood closure. We’ve seen how many people lose their jobs when Governments get all too altruistic about climate and making sure that we shut down everything just to appease a few greenies in the cities. What we do want to make sure is that we get the balance right and that’s through the balance of policies make sure that we meet our emissions targets. Australia has very small part to play as far as global emissions and we’re not going to help those global emissions by making power unaffordable.

QUESTION:

You said appeasing a few greenies in the city – we’ve got some rock star Independents who are targeting blue ribbon Coalition seats and part of their priorities is action on climate change. Do you think that the traditional Coalition voter is wanting to see some real action on climate change?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

I don’t know about rock stars. Peter Garrett was probably the last rock star going to Parliament. That didn’t work out so well for him and his own party almost abandoned him and neglected him with Kevin Rudd. But anyway…

QUESTION:

…Some of the high profile Independents.

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

Independents will deliver nothing, quite frankly. Yes we have seen some high name Independents jump ship and change parties - and go onto the Crossbench - and now want to even change electorates. The Nationals in Government have proven their worth for rural and regional Australia. We look after people; we look after jobs; we look after families; just look at the rural youth independence. Look at the water infrastructure that we’re putting on the table; look at the fact that we have got $1.8 billion on the table for Farm Household Assistance and other measures to help with the drought – that wouldn’t have happened without the Nationals in the Government, making sure that rural and regional communities were well-represented, and we will continue to do that.

And you look at our Government with what we’ve been able to do with jobs, with small business. The lowest tax rate for 79 years – that doesn’t happen by chance. The fact is Josh Frydenberg is going to produce the first surplus budget on 2 April in a dozen or so years. The fact is Labor has introduced a surplus budget since 1989. Now, surpluses are all well and good. The fact is we need to make sure that we have a strong economy; that people have a job for the future; and that our best exports out of these rural areas aren’t our youngsters or we want to make sure that these young people do have the prospect of wanting to return to their local hometowns when they have been to Sydney to study or Melbourne to study or wherever the case might be. We want to make sure that we give them a reason to return; we want to make sure that there’s a future for these towns whether it’s Traralgon, whether it’s Sale, Bairnsdale, wherever the case might be, Morwell – you name it – we want to make sure that these towns have a future and we’re working now to achieve just that.

QUESTION:

Out of the Banking Royal Commission recommendations it’s very clear that there needs to be some financial literacy training across Australia and that’s also been something that a lot of farmers in the Gippsland region have been asking for with this drought so that they can feel confident in the decisions that they’re making and parameters around those decisions. Do you think that there’s a space in there for the Federal Government?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

There is. The farm debt mediation scheme, which we will establish, is a good thing. The fact is that for those agricultural loans and distress, they won’t be default interest charges on them in the future. The fact is that if there is a farming mediation, there’s going to have to be somebody experienced in agriculture putting in their time and effort into those processes. They’re good results out of the royal commission. The fact is there’s going to be additional transparency. There’s going to be hopefully, the trust restored in the financial sector and that is good. Rural and regional areas have been far too long forgotten by banks. That’s why I’m pleased that the Customer Owned Banking Association still has a presence in rural and regional areas. That’s why I’m pleased that the royal commission has made a number of recommendations which are going to be good for farmers. The fact is the royal commission has shone a spotlight on some shoddy practices in the past and they’re going to be addressed.

QUESTION:

We’re standing in the Macalister Irrigation District today and we’re looking at the potential for expanding irrigation on the south side of Macalister River. That’s what we’re here for – stage two. What is the Federal Government bringing to that?

MICHAEL MCCORMACK:

We’ve put down $675,000 for a feasibility study and that feasibility study was completed in December just last year so that’s not that long ago. We’ll have a look at that. We will stand ready and willing to talk to other stakeholders to look at what the State Governments can provide and I look forward to having further discussions with local councils, with local farmers, about what we can do in the future. Thank you very much.

[ENDS]

Hannah Maguire