Address to the GrainGrowers Innovation Generation Conference

Wagga Wagga

Well, thank you very much Michael. And it’s Monday morning and usually at this time of the morning we’re dreading the week ahead and thinking: what’s going to be in it for us? What is the week going to present? It’s always, you know, always one of those dreary types of things. You have to start working. Well, I know you farmers work each and every day, seven days a week a job. And I was reminded of that when I went to visit my late, great aunt, dear old Nelly, when she told me that I was the family failure because I actually hadn’t taken up farming.

At the time I was the editor of the local newspaper here and I had 58 journalists who I was directly responsible for. It was a big paper at the time, and certainly still is a big paper, but of course with 58 staff and a newspaper with staff in total over 200 plus it goes to show the vibrancy of the newspapers back then. But on her death bed, Aunt Nelly told me that I was the family failure because I hadn’t, like my father and his father before him and his father before him, taken up duty on the land. And in the McCormack family that was seen to be the thing that we had to do. And I went home and I said to Dad: ‘gee, Aunt Nelly just told me that I was the family failure because I hadn’t taken up farming’, and Dad said ‘oh, I never really agreed with Aunt Nelly much but sometimes she made some sense’.

[Laughter]

I’m glad that the conference is in Wagga Wagga. It’s that cold in Canberra at the moment the politicians have had their hands in their own pockets.

[Laughter]

I’ll be going back there this afternoon for Cabinet tomorrow, but then of off up to Brisbane where it’s a little bit warmer and then down to Adelaide, so it’s going to be a busy week. But you’ve also got a busy three days ahead of you. And I’m just the warm-up act for somebody who is truly inspirational. I’m actually in awe, whenever I’m in the same room as him, and that’s Mark Donaldson, VC. And he’ll be too modest to tell you that there are only nine living Victoria Cross recipients in the world and that’s pretty amazing that we have one of them in our midst today. And of the four Australian VCs, we’ve got Keith Payne from the Vietnam War, we’ve got Mark Donaldson who we’re going to hear from shortly, Dan Kieghran and Ben Roberts-Smith. Each and every one of them went to Kapooka. Each and every one of them went to the home of the soldier in Wagga Wagga.

So we’re pretty privileged and proud of the fact that this is a military city. We’ve got an Air Force base at Forest Hill, where if you spend any time in the RAF, you end up at Forest Hill. We’ve also got, of course, as I said Blamey Barracks, Kapooka where Mark did his training, won two out of the three awards and of course went on to serve with remarkable distinction in the khaki. But you’ve also got a Navy base. And not many people realise that we’ve got a Navy base in Wagga even though we’re – let’s face it – 350 kilometres at least from the nearest drop of seawater. But we’ve got a Navy base here in Wagga Wagga, where there’s quite a presence. It’s at the RAF base, so we’re pretty proud of that, but we’re also pretty proud of the fact that we are a grain-growing capital. We are a grain-growing centre and like my father and like so many others - hand up those in the room who are from the Riverina? Quite a few, excellent. Well done.

Well, that’s fantastic. So I better watch what I say because you’re potential voters. For or against me, so I better make sure I’m on message. But the fact is it is a grain-growing capital, and the fact is, as you all know, you all come from what you think, what you know are grain-growing capitals because Australia is very much front and centre of a grain-growing nation. And at this point in time, in world affairs, it’s a pretty important place to be, because you know that when your seasons are strong, when you do well, our nation does well.

And, I note your conference theme is innovation generation. The Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull talks about innovation all the time. It’s one of his favourite key words. And generation, of course, is something we all know is pretty important too. Rod Birch knows it. I spoke to him on the plane coming over last night from Sydney. He’s of course all the way from WA. Your board knows all about how important innovation is but also generation. Now, statistics are important. I certainly realised that when nine days out from the last Census they gave me - they put me in charge of the Census - and of course we all know how well that went.

[Laughter]

It was a baptism of fire into the ministry, let me tell you.  But I can tell you that 91.5 per cent of households actually filled in the Census which was on a par with any previous census so never mind the fact that the computers just crashed for an hour or so on the night and then stayed out for about 48 hours. But anyway, not to worry. It was a decent statistical analysis snapshot of the nation on that given night in August 2016. But the fact is as well statistics are important. I read a report recently which showed that the average age of the Australian farmer is the wrong side of 60. Now, for anybody who’s above 60 in the room, I apologise and I’m closing in on it but- fair way away yet. But the fact is it’s the wrong side of 60.

But in 10 years’ time, the same report suggested that the average age of the Australian farmer would come down to – believe it or not – to 38. Thirty eight. And I think if I took an average snapshot of this room – and I appreciate that you’re a young, vibrant, dynamic group – and the crowd attending this conference will probably get a little bit older as the conference goes on, but the fact is, so many more people who have tertiary degrees are getting into farming. So many more women are getting into farming. We heard earlier on from Cindy Cassidy. I find Cindy absolutely inspirational, former Farmer of the Year. She’s amazing. Comes from a little town called Ariah Park, about 90 kilometres north-west of Wagga Wagga. But the fact is more women are getting into farming. They’re getting into farming and grain-growing because there is a buck to be made out of it.

You know that, and I know that, and I know, as the son of a generational farming family I know how important it is for government to make sure that we do everything that we can to help you. Not get in the way, and that’s why we’re endeavouring at every possible turn to make sure that we are trying to reduce red tape, trying to reduce the regulatory burden on farmers. And as the new Infrastructure and Transport Minister, I appreciate too the importance that good connectivity makes to your operations and what you do.

And just in the recent May Budget, we announced a new program - $3.5 billion dedicated to it - called Roads of Strategic Importance. And that’s going to be a vital fund that’s going to make sure that we’ve put down bitumen on those roads which perhaps would otherwise not have gained federal funding in the past. Those secondary byways, those linkage points connecting regional communities to make sure that, you know, in many of the grain belt communities that some of those last miles, some of those first miles, you need some of those grains getting – wheat and barley and whatever else – to silos, to port faster, to make sure that we can take full advantage of our free trade agreements with Japan, South Korea, China and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. A $13 trillion opportunity that my government, the Liberal and Nationals government has been able to broker just in recent times.

Now, trade is so important. Trade means jobs. More trade, means more jobs and more jobs and more trade means profit into your pockets. Now, I appreciate you are from all over Australia. Hands up those who are visiting Wagga Wagga for the very first time? Yeah, quite a few. I hope you are not the voters, but if you are that’s fine, voters in the Riverina Region. But look, it’s a great place. Please try to get out and visit some of the sights but make sure that when you’re at conference, usually, apart from probably Mark Donaldson’s speech which is going to be truly inspirational. I wish I had time to actually stop and listen to it for a bit longer. I’m not quite sure how long Mark is going to speak for, and probably I’ve got about 3 minutes, 39 seconds left. I just noticed the counter there. And you’re probably waiting to see me off and to hear somebody who is truly inspirational.

But the fact is, you will learn, like any conference, probably as much around the coffee urn or the water cooler as you probably will on the conference floor. But I know you’re doing a lot of visits. I know you’re doing a lot of field trips and I know that also you’re probably going to mix with people who you probably haven’t met but make sure you swap a lot of business cards. Make sure you keep in touch because I think sometimes it’s at these sorts of conferences; and I’ve been all sorts of them when I was a newspaper editor, when I owned my own small business and certainly now in politics. I find that it’s often the contacts that you make and that you meet at events such as this which can help you down the track and can help you when things aren’t going particularly well.

And at the moment if I didn’t talk about the elephant in the room, drought, then I probably wouldn’t be doing my job as a government minister. And I know that we’re doing what we can at the moment to help those farmers through drought. Sometimes farmers don’t want a handout; they just want a hand up. They want a bit of assistance. We’ve been able to extend the Farm Household Assistance Program by a year to four years. The Minister for Water Resources and Agriculture David Littleproud has tweaked the criteria such that it is actually easier for you to fill out the form if that is necessary. But what we’ve also done is put quite a few million dollars, in fact $22 million on the table, for both rural financial counselling assistance but also programs to get financial councillors – and mental health people if indeed that’s what’s necessary. Financial councillors to sit around the kitchen table with farmers and their partners to talk about how they can perhaps better structure their own finances or to help them through this period. I know the state governments are doing what they can as well. Governments can’t make it rain unfortunately, but we can try and do everything that we possibly can to help you through this.

But if there are things in the regulatory space that you feel – whether it’s a national vehicle heavy vehicle regulations or indeed red tape on your business - or indeed the drought assistance packages that you think we aren’t addressing, please let my office know. It’s not hard to find me - just do a Google search.Let us know, because that’s what we are doing. We are basically public service. We’re there to help people cope with situations such as drought; situations such as red tape regulation. And I know when I was the Small Business Minister for 18 months and I went out and about the countryside and I spoke at forums such as this, groups as large as this and as small as half a dozen, and some of the best ideas come from people such as yourself who scratch their head and think: ‘well, he asked me what I wanted, he asked me how he could better help us, and I’ve got an idea so I might shoot that email through to him and you never know, it might just work’.

And that’s how things such as the Instant Asset Write-Off, that’s how the extension of the Farm Household Assistance, that’s how those sorts of things happen: because people actually bothered to send an email, to take the time and effort to send an email, to tell politicians and to tell their Parliamentarians that they wanted something changed. It can happen. I know that certainly we need to innovate; we need to have that generational change. I take my hat off to GrainGrowers Co-CEO David McKeon for the hard work that he does, to GrainGrowers Co-CEO Michael Southan, to Rod [Birch] and all the board. I know how hard you are working for and on behalf of the industry because when grain-growing is going well in the nation, generally the nation is going well. I appreciate this season’s going to be a little bit tough, but for those of you who manage to get a crop off, I wish you well. I wish you well in your deliberations and whatever challenges you face.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for hearing me. I wish you well for the next three days. Welcome to Wagga Wagga and with that I officially announce your conference open.

Thank you very much.

Sam Edwards