PRIME MINISTER: Thanks to you all for coming out here this morning and I particularly thank Fiona for arranging this breakfast this morning. As you know, we’re sitting this week and it’d be very… it’d be impossible, frankly, to be here at any other time. So I thank you for coming out this morning and joining me so I could share a few thoughts with you. Can I also thank the Vice President David Jochinke and CEO Tony Mahar as well.
It’s great to be here with you. Tony Pasin is here as a colleague, it’s great to see him here. I was just with him down in Murray Bridge and out through the river lands in South Australia just on the weekend and over the course of the last eight weeks, I’ve had a great opportunity to get from one end of the country to the other. And that has included quite a bit of time actually working through issues that is impacting on rural and regional Australia, in particular the agricultural sector.
Last night I was handing out the Prime Minister’s science awards and it was quite a tremendous evening, but I feel like it’s a continuation of the same conference this morning, the same event. Because the best scientists I know are working in the agricultural sector. They’re farmers, they’re working out there on the land. They’re understanding it, and they have been doing it for generations and generations. The best environmentalists in Australia are farmers. No one knows it better than they do and no one understands it better about how you’ve got to strike the balance between caring for the environment, ensuring the productive use of the resources that we have available. And importantly, the contribution to the social cohesion and community of rural and regional towns all around the country. Farmers get this. You’ve always got this and we get it that you get it. That’s why I’m very pleased to be here with you today.
One of the things that I’m sure you will be appreciative of is that we live in a country that has a strong economy. And that doesn’t happen by accident. It only happens where you don’t take your economy for granted and that you have policies that are designed to keep growing the economy. Because, you know, you can’t have greater fairness without greater prosperity. That’s always been Australia’s story. The two working together. It’s no good having policies that are trying to argue about how you carve up an ever-diminishing pie. You want to grow they pie so there’s more for everybody. You don’t lift some up by pulling others down. That’s what we believe as a Government.
You don’t help your environment by pulling your farmers down. You don’t help your communities by pulling your farmers down, you actually try and lift everybody up. And the agricultural sector in rural and regional parts in our country I think have always understood that you get much further together than you get apart. In our rural communities, our regional communities, that has always been understood and I think it’s something that this place, here in Canberra, needs to focus more on. Actually solving and working through problems together, rather than trying to drive people apart.
That strong economy is of course a function of many things. Lower taxes, which our Government has championed and just this week passing through the Parliament will be further reductions in taxes for business of less than $50 million in turnover to just over 25 per cent. From 30 per cent where we started down to 25 per cent for businesses, and that would be encompassing businesses, rural and regional businesses, agricultural businesses all across the country. It’s a tax cut for farmers and it’s a tax cut we have fought for every single day since we have been elected to ensure that is what invested on a farm which may have a turnover of less than $10 million – the instant asset write-off, the pool depreciation, the GST on the cash basis – it wasn’t there before. It was only reserved for the smallest of businesses. And we have recognised that small and family businesses, which are farming businesses, deserve to have a government that supports them by lowering your tax. We belief that you should keep more of what you’ve earned. Because we believe that you are better placed to invest what you’ve earned than the government is. You’ll invest it in your farm. You’ll invest it in your future. You’ll invest it in your family, in your children’s education. You’ll invest it in your community, and so that’s why I want you can have it so you can invest it rather than it coming down here to Canberra.
Now, no disrespect to the public officials and the government departments. You work closely with them too. But you know, if I’ve got to choose where the money is better off to stay – in communities, in the hands of rural and regional businesses, for farmers – that’s where it should remain. That’s why we believe taxes should be lower. But we also think your markets should be bigger and yesterday, the TPP-11 passed our Parliament. Your sector more than any other knows the opportunities of trade. We have always been an open, trading nation. That is one of the pillars of our national prosperity. We are in our 27th year of consecutive, economic growth. It’s a world record. The fact we are an open, trading nation is one of the most important reasons for that success. And our Government will never give up on expanding our limits for trade. Wherever we have to go, wherever that negotiation is taking place, wherever the opportunity is. Simon Birmingham, before that Steven Ciobo and before that Andrew Robb, out there crunching deals to ensure there are more markets for where you can sell what you grow and what you produce. That’s what… we believe it. Because without it, Australia’s prosperity is diminished. The economy does not grow.
The TPP-11 means improved access for our farmers when they need it most. This landmark agreement strips 98 per cent of tariffs for eleven countries with a combined GDP of more than $13.8 thousand billion dollars and close to half a billion customers. Now as a Government, we believed it was important to fight for it. I remember I was in Germany at a G20 meeting. After everyone said, “It’s all done, this Trans Pacific Partnership.” In fact that Labor Party mocked us, it was like the dead parrot sketch out of Monty Python. That was the joke they were saying about the TPP. We didn’t believe it, because we believe in trade and we said, “We’re going to fight for this.” And our Government did, and Malcolm did and Steven did, and we teamed up together with the Kiwis and the Japanese and Prime Minister Abe in particular. And Prime Minister Turnbull pursued that with a dogged determination that I will also pursue these arrangements and they got the deal. And it stuck. And now we’re the fourth country to ratify that agreement, and there are two more to go and then it comes into effect. The modelling also shows Australia is forecast to see some $15.6 thousand million, $15.6 billion in net annual benefits to national income within just over the next decade from this agreement. So I would call that a good deal. I would call that a deal that is worth pursuing, to ensure that we can realise the opportunities that are out there.
Now I want to have a fair dinkum conversation with you about labour on farms. There has been a lot of talk about this and I want us to have a really honest conversation about it today. Our Government does support moving towards an agricultural visa. There has never been any question about that. There have been plenty of people who want to kick up dust about it, commentating on it. We have never, ever said we don’t think that’s a good idea. But we have to go about it in the right way, and it’s not a silver bullet and it doesn’t solve all the problems in relation to the forthcoming harvest. I want to see fruit picked. I want to see the strawberries picked, I want to see the mangoes picked, I want to make sure that this gets off the vine and it gets to market. And we’ve got a three step plan to achieve that for the harvest. You can’t just introduce and agricultural visa overnight and then all of a sudden everyone turns up and they’re on the farm picking fruit. That’s not how it works.
I’m a former Immigration Minister. It is true that I barely know one end of the sheep from another, or one end of the paddock from another. But I tell you what, I know a lot about how to get things done here. That’s my record, whether it’s on the budget, whether it’s on social services. We now have the lowest level of welfare dependency of the working age population of this country in more than 25 years. On immigration, you know of our successes with Operation Sovereign Borders. So I get it. I don’t know how your farm works, but I do know how this place works and I do know how you can get things done here. So this is how I believe we can solve this problem coming into the harvest. Yes, we will work to establish an agricultural visa. That is the long-term solution that is even the medium-term solution. And we need to work to that and make sure it has integrity and we need to make sure that it can deliver against the requirements of the Australian people when it comes to our immigration programme. But this what we need to do to deal with the problem in the short term.
Now at no stage did I say the only thing that we were going to do to is get Australians into Australian jobs and I still believe that and I’ll never resolve from it. If someone is out there and they are fit and they are able and they are willing to work and they live in those communities, they should be taking those jobs. Because it wasn’t that long ago that they did. I was up in Glass House Mountain a few weeks ago and I was talking to the strawberry farmers and they told me that it wasn’t that long ago that it was the locals picking the strawberries. About ten or fifteen years ago, they said. But it’s not happening now.
And I know down in Tasmania when it comes to the apple orchards that they have had the problems of getting local young people who weren’t in work to come and do this work. And I get that, I’ve always known that. But it doesn’t mean you give up on it. It doesn’t mean you say, “Oh that’s all right, they can sit at home and not have to take work that they should be taking in their local communities, that supports their local communities and just pick up the dole.” That’s not ok, so I’m never going to say it is. And every opportunity I have to connect a young person to a job in their town, I will do it. But I’m not naive. I don’t think and never have I said that I think that’s going to solve the immediate problem.
And so what I ask you to do and I implore you to do this today – and I know that Fiona will as well – and that is, I need you to register the jobs that you need filled on the National Harvest Labour Information Service, 1800 062 332, or go to jobsearch.gov.au/harvest.
I need you to register those jobs because I need to know where are the jobs? When do they start? How long do they run for? What are you paying them? What’s the deal?
Now, where there’s a mismatch between the jobs that are needed and those that are available to do it, we will be moving quite quickly because we’re doing it even now as we speak, parallel with this other process to ensure that the Working Holiday Maker Visa Program and the Pacific Labour Scheme and the Seasonal Worker Program – those two Pacific Island Schemes are very important to us and I’ve spoken to many farmers around the country who use them and they’re successful.
Can they meet all the demand? Unlikely. But then my first port of call when it comes to our partners in the Pacific – and I don’t want to see that program undermined because it’s a very important part of Australia’s national policy and relationships and it’s also good for the agricultural sector. But the reason why I need to know where the shortages are is we just can’t work off a hunch: “We might need a few more here.” I need to know where the jobs are because we will ensure that any relaxation we have around the rules for Working Holiday Makers Visas or any of these other schemes will be targeted to the areas where those shortages are. One of the biggest frustrations I have had as a Minister in this Government, and continues now as Prime Minister, is getting an accurate read on labour shortages. I hear plenty of anecdotes but I don’t see enough hard data.
Now, if we’re going to make these changes – and we will – I’m going to make sure they’re targeted to the areas where the labour shortages are because if they’re not, you know what we end up doing? We relax the visas and we get more Uber drivers in Melbourne. Well, that’s not getting any fruit off any trees anywhere so it must be targeted and I need you and I implore you to work with me, with David Coleman, with Alan Tudge and David Littleproud – and in particular, Michael McCormack because it has been Michael McCormack and I who have been working on this plan from the day we signed up as a Coalition under our respective leaderships.
Michael and I have been working to this plan from that very day and it’s a sensible plan. It acknowledges that we need an agricultural visa but it acknowledges, more importantly, that we have a more immediate issue to address and we all know – if we’re being really honest with each other – what some of the concerns are when you start liberalising the visas for agricultural workers because do you know who tells me about it? Farmers do. Farmers tell me this. They say, “We’re doing the right thing. We pay our people right and we look after them and we follow the rules. But so-and-so down the road is not.” Or: “I know of this case somewhere else.” And having been a former Minister for Border Protection, I know too because I’ve ordered the raids and I know what goes on and I won’t put up with it and you won’t put up with it either, I know, as an industry because I know when you hear those stories about abuse of workers and cash work and illegal work, you’re very disappointed because that’s not your show, that’s not your industry, that’s not your sector, that’s not how you do things.
And as the Prime Minister, and as the Ministers responsible, they need to protect the integrity of this program because, you know, Australians will lose patience with visa programs that fail and allow themselves to be rorted and abused. And so, we have to work together to ensure that when we get to the point where we can have this new visa, that it’s one Australians can support because they know that we’ve done everything we can to get Australians into those jobs, that we’ve done everything we can and will do to ensure that we’re targeting the measures to those jobs in the areas where it’s needed and that we ensure that the integrity of the system where the people who are coming and working are being treated properly, being paid properly and I think we all agree with all of those objectives, I’m quite certain we do and I reckon we can get this done so I’m asking you, and I’m sure I’ll be overwhelmed at the positive response to work with us to get this done.
We can get it done, I’m looking forward to getting it done, we know what the need is, we totally get it, we’ve got a plan to do it and I want to congratulate Michael McCormack more than anyone else for being the champion of working through this issue in a constructive and practical way because everyone can stand up and say, “We’re going to do this, we’ll do that.”
But if you’re not focused on the outcome, actually getting the result, then what’s the point? And that’s what I’ve found in Michael and the team that I’ve been working with and my regional team of Liberals like Tony and Rowan Ramsey and the whole fleet of working together to ensure that we get the right outcome on these issues. Now, in the time that I have available – which is not much, I really want to say thank you to Fiona and the NFF and to all of those who have been working so hard to ensure that we deliver on the ground for farmers and regional and rural communities that have been affected by the drought. When I went to Quilpie, I frankly didn’t realise people get so excited about me wearing a cap, it’s not that uncommon, now I have like a hundred caps, everywhere I’ve been since, everyone’s given me a cap. Which is nice, I like them, they’re great but…
[INAUDIBLE INTERJECTION FROM AUDIENCE]
PRIME MINISTER: Sorry? [laughs] A little later. But when I went to Quilpie and really – it seems funny to say this but – really enjoyed the day, met some wonderful families and the reason why I wanted to go to Quilpie, and it was one of the first things Michael and I talked about, was the drought has been affecting parts of my home state in the New South Wales terribly but in Queensland and out in Quilpie they’ve been doing it for a lot longer – six years and more. And I wanted to talk to people who’d been able to get themselves through that last six years and understand how they were achieving it because I thought if I can understand how they got through six years then that’s going to help me work out, well, how can I help those who are in the earlier stages and how they’re going to get through?
And I went up there not really knowing what to expect as a suburban mortgage belt boy from Sydney and what I was so pleased to see and so enthused to see was the optimism, the hope, the belief, the community, the resilience and the success under the most trying of circumstances and it filled me with hope. And I think, you know, when it comes to how we’re dealing with the drought, one thing we’ve got to keep giving people is hope. And I stood there out at Quilpie on that property and they showed me a picture of the field adjacent to where we were at the moment which was pretty brown and they showed me a picture where the grass was up to your thigh. So they understand as you do, it comes back, it goes in seasons, this one’s particularly tough – tougher than most, maybe than any in anyone’s living memory for some parts – but the hope remains, the commitment to the lifestyle remains, the passion for what that means for rural and regional communities remains, and that’s what our Government is investing in. We’re investing in that hope and that resilience and that determination.
I particularly want to thanks the CWA who’s here today, there are many charities and I probably offended many now by only mentioning the CWA and I hope I haven’t because I think they deserve great acknowledgement for the work that they’ve been doing in these communities as the many, many charitable organisations are out there doing. And I want to thank them, we need to coordinate that better, we need to target it better, on Friday week we will be having the drought summit and that’s really the job to get “a common operating picture”, as Major General Day would say, about what’s the situation, what’s the next step, how do we rebuild, what’s the long-term plan, issues around water infrastructure, issues about immediate relief and having the vision towards the longer term plan around fodder storage and fodder reserves and resilience both financially, environmentally, structurally. They’re the questions for next week and I want to thank Fiona for the NFF’s engagement on all of those issues.
Now, there’s one issue that I think probably encapsulates our attitude about how to deal with things when it comes to responding to the drought. It’s the issue we talked about with the heavy vehicle regulation and Scotty Buchholz. The issue was raised, you know, it’s a pretty simple thing. The hay bales, they come down and they spread. Now, that was news to me but that’s what happens and we’ve got these rules which meant the trucks couldn’t cross the line and they were getting fined. Numpty stuff. Total numpty stuff and it had to be fixed and within a very short period of time, Scotty and the team at the Heavy Vehicle Regulation Authority, working together with Government, just got it done. Just got it done.
Now, Ronald Reagan used to say, you get a lot more done when you don’t care who gets the credit. He was right about that. Credits. It doesn’t matter. What matters is we work together to get through the drought, what matters is we work together to deal with the real challenges that we face – whether it’s in labour shortages, whether it’s in science and technology and how we support the sector, whether it’s the finance of how we work for our rural and regional communities, whether it’s opening up new markets and opportunities for our farmers all around the world. You know, we stick together, we work together, we bring Australians together then this country’s just going to get stronger and stronger and stronger and as always, it’s going to be significantly off the back of the people who are in this room. Thank you very much for your attention.