Agriculture minister David Littleproud addresses the audience at Friday’s NTCA conference in Alice Springs, alongside fellow panelists Emma White from the Kimberley Cattlemens’ Association; outgoing NTCA president Tom Stockwell; Cattle Council of Australia President Howard Smith and Meat & Livestock Chair Dr Michelle Allan, and moderated by ABC NT Country Hour host Matt Brann.
AFTER a full day engaging with Northern Territory cattle producers at last Friday’s NTCA conference, recently appointed federal agriculture minister David Littleproud was asked during a final panel session to nominate the key take away message he had received.
“Roads, roads, roads” was the message the came through ‘loud and clear’, he said, reinforcing the views expressed earlier in the day by many including NTCA president Tom Stockwell and large-scale northern pastoralist Peter Hughes.
Mr Hughes commented that while the conference had been focused heavily on emerging technology, without bitumen roads everything else was a waste of time.
He nominated in particular the sealing of the Plenty Highway from Boulia to Alice Springs, and a further bitumen road connecting Alice Springs to Western Australia, as a critical project that could drive northern cattle industry productivity forward.
“The cattle industry in WA is years behind where we are in the east but if we can get that road through and they can get access to cattle from Alice Springs and a bitumen road over there, feedlots would start to build there and more processing plants.
“With gravel roads, they get them up to a standard where they can put bitumen on, but then every radio in the country and every truckie in the country knows where the good gravel road is and they wreck it in about six weeks.
“It is just waste of time spending money on those dirt roads, because they just cant’ stand up to the transports that are around today. What we need is good arterial roads.”
Mr Littleproud said the Coalition Government had been the first to commit to he northern beef roads program, to which it has so far allocated $100 million, and said he heard “loudly and clearly from industry” that it wanted the Government to continue that approach.
“All I can say is sit tight for May 8 (Federal Budget night) and be tuned to the treasurer.”
Would the Federal Government be better off funding and completing one major project, rather than just thinly spreading money across a lot of different projects, panel moderator Matt Brann from the ABC asked.
“I tend to agree there is some validity in that and that is where we need to have that conversation with the States,” Mr Littleproud said.
He added that the standard agreement funding for such roads is an 80pc-20pc split between the Federal Government and the State Governments involved. He said it was important to acknowledge the Federal Government did not have an open chequebook, and that the States also needed to cooperate for projects to be funded.
“It is a journey and a commitment we all need to make, it is not just the Fed Govt being everybody’s ATM, there needs to be a commitment by the states to come in on this journey with us, but I think that is a valid suggestion about do we make that one or two strategic investments in a particular corridor.”
By his own admission not many Northern Territory cattle producers would have known who he was just four months ago, before his surprise elevation from backbencher to Federal Agriculture Minister in a cabinet reshuffle just prior to Christmas.
While conceding he was surprised by the promotion himself, the member for the vast western Queensland seat of Maranoa told producers at the conference he was determined to use the opportunity to focus on not only driving returns at the farm gate, but supporting the small regional communities that support agriculture as well.
Mr Littleproud said he had been passionate about agriculture since his childhood growing up on his family’s mixed farming operation in Chinchilla. His father Brian Littleproud, in addition to being a farmer, was also a teacher who went on to become a long serving State front bencher and Minister in Queensland National Party Governments in the 1980s and 1990s.
After schooling in Toowoomba David became an agribusiness banker with NAB, working in rural towns such as Cunnamulla, St George, Charleville, Stanthorpe and Warwick, before joining Suncorp as a regional agribusiness manger.
“When I left school ag wasn’t doing so well, dad told me to get a job and come back, but the reality was I was fortunate enough to be in agri banking, sitting around farmers kitchen tables, looking at their profit and losses, understanding this business, being part of their livelihoods and their lives, it is something I was very proud of.”
He told the audience that in additional to being the Federal Agriculture Minister he is still a small business owner as well, and pays the wages of four people every Friday.
“I am fortunate enough to have an external income, because some times it is damn tough,” he explained.
“I know if agriculture is strong then it is easier for me to pay those wages every Friday.
“I am not about just putting money back in the farm gate. I am also for those small regional communities that I have lived in all my life.
“I am proud to say that agriculture is going to play an integral part in that and that is what blows my hair back in the morning when I get up as the agriculture minister, to make sure that we get more money back to the farm gate.”
Mr Littleproud said a key part of the Coalition’s strategy to improve agricultural returns in Australia was to work on free trade agreements and removing technical barriers to trade.
“That is something I take very seriously I intend to take one my first trips overseas straight after Easter to Indonesia and Vietnam,” he told the conference.
Mr Littleproud opened his speech by acknowledging the contribution the late John Underwood had made to the development of the northern Territory cattle industry.
He said the visit was his second to the NT since becoming Agriculture Minister late late last year
He said it was important for the agricultural sector in Australia to be “proud and loud” about what the ethically and environmentally responsible way in which it produces the world’s best food and fibre, because it was important metropolitan Australia understood this.
“That is something we should never let anyone in this country ever forget, because if we don’t let them forget we will get better policy outcomes at all level of Government
“It is up to us to tell metropolitan Australia the great story we have.”