Bushfires continue to burn across NSW and Queensland, the death toll has risen, and the damage to properties, wildlife and the environment is devastating. With conditions predicted to worsen over the summer, climate change has inevitably come into the frame.
The Prime Minister and Opposition leader have said policy arguments should be avoided until the immediate crisis has passed, but many - including former emergency chiefs and some victims - disagree. And Greens and Nationals have had vitriolic exchanges.
The Nationals David Littleproud has ministerial responsibility for water, drought, and natural disaster and emergency management. In this podcast, he says while “the man on the street” can link climate change and the bushfires, but “as elected officials, we’ve got a responsibility” to wait for the right time to have such discussions.
After announcing the government’s drought package last week, Littleproud criticises the states for not stepping up their efforts, and says they have done “three-fifths of bugger all”.
Transcript (edited for clarity)
Michelle Grattan: As horrendous fires burn across New South Wales and Queensland, hard on the heels of the ongoing drought, the debate about climate change has inevitably been fuelled.
Though bushfires have always been part of the Australian landscape, the fire seasons are now starting earlier and lasting longer.
Both government and opposition have said political arguments about climate policy and other issues should be avoided until the crisis is over. Although some of those on the ground, including some who’ve lost their properties, disagree with this. And the week saw an unedifying exchange of insults break out between Greens and Nationals. Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack condemned and I quote, “the ravings of… woke capital city greenies” after the Greens MP Adam Bandt raised climate change. Later, Greens Senator Jordan Steel-John called the coalition and the opposition “arsonists”.
To talk about the fire situation and other issues we have with us today the Nationals David Littleproud, whose portfolio includes responsibility for water, drought and natural disaster and emergency management.
David Littleproud were preparations adequate to meet these fires? For example, in some of the last few years, there have allegedly been shortfalls in hazard reduction in New South Wales. And there are claims, but also denials about whether firefighting resources have been cut in that state.
David Littleproud: Well, look, we meticulously plan with the states whose primary responsibility is emergency management. Our role is a coordination one and to make sure that we’ve meticulously planned for these types of events because we have to share resources and we’ve proven we’ve been able to do that in this event.
The defence force has been mobilised and we’ve bring brought a number of firefighters from other states into these hot spots in New South Wales and Queensland, and we’ll continue to do that. In terms of fire, in terms of reductions of fuel loads, that’s obviously the remit of the states and that’s their responsibility and the expectation is they deliver on that.
I was fortunate enough to meet one of the rural firefighters, volunteer firefighters on the Sunshine Coast on Sunday. And one of their concerns is, yes, there is an ability to do it, but the window to be able to do it by state governments has been narrowed. And when you’re a volunteer organisation that doesn’t always fit with your lifestyle, you’ve got family commitments and therefore not as much of the fuel load is being burned in the cooler months than what could have been.
So we’ve got to look at this and learn. I don’t think it’s healthy at this time to point the finger about who did what when. I think it’s important that we always learn from these events and we calmly, methodically will get those learnings, and we will act on them. And I think that is a good relationship between federal and state government. Our role to coordinate that after this event, to make sure that there’s better outcomes moving forward.
MG: Now, while people are concentrated on the moment, of course, nevertheless, it’s important to taken lessons quickly, isn’t it? Because we are at the beginning of a fire season. So there’ll be more problems next week, next month, whenever.
DL: Oh, totally. And that’s why the meticulous planning that took place many months ago has got us to this juncture where we have been prepared and gladly, you know, we proved that last night over Sydney. Sadly and tragically, we’ve had five fatalities. And our job is to try to minimise that to zero.
We all have a role to play. And then I think it’s important that people appreciate this. It’s not just governments, but individuals as well. Disaster planning starts at the home. If you’ve got a disaster plan, then that feeds into your local community, that feeds into your state, that feeds into your nation. And everyone has a responsibility to do that, because a lot of these professional firefighters are volunteers. They’re putting their lives on the line for us. And it’s important as a mark of respect and responsibility of each and every one of us that are in those fire zones to have that plan in place and enact on it as soon as those brave men and women tell you to do so.
MG: So for the rest of this season, can you improve individuals’ planning in any way centrally, as it were? Is there any more help you can give to people getting those fire plans into ready shape?
DL: Well, I think the states have done that and continue to do that. And I think what these events have highlighted is that people have become organically aware of the risk. So they’re already doing that. And the framework has been put in place by the states to make sure that happens. At a national level obviously, we’ve acted even further and the prime minister has made it clear that we’ll mobilise the defence force when required. And when asked, you’ve got to understand, we can’t put them on the front line. That’s a professional’s job. That’s by these volunteers or full time firefighters to undertake. We’d be putting our defence force in harm’s way, but they can do supportive roles like creating fire breaks, being able to support in terms of carting water and and also accommodation and food for our firefighters. So there’s practical measures that the federal government will undertake, and we do that in a coordinated role with the states. And that’s been a good thing. It’s been bipartisan. And so it should be because this is about Australian safety.
MG: Now, you mentioned that a lot of these firefighters are volunteers. Are we getting enough volunteers? Do you find that it’s hard to recruit them or do the states find that?
DL: Well, I think obviously there’s a challenge. And that’s not just for firefighters. It goes right back to the local footy club. It’s beholden on all of us to be part of the community. And obviously, we’d love to see more volunteers - there’s around 60 or 70,000 strong volunteers across the country that keep us safe. And it’s important we continue to acknowledge that. We resource them properly and support them. And obviously, it’s as I say, governments can’t do it all. It also comes back to each and every one of us. We’re part of a society, we’re part of a community and our involvement and our contribution can be just as significant as that of a federal or state or local government. And I think we as a society need to look at ourselves and say, can we can we contribute?
In fact, I’m keen to become part of my local rural fire group. Unfortunately, I’m part of an auxiliary group. But I mean, there’s a small rural fire branch just to the west of me that I could become of. And I’m very keen to be part of that and be able to contribute in some small way. And I think we should all think about that.
MG: So you haven’t in the past, but you want to- you intend to in the future?
DL: I’ve lived in urban towns where there’s always been auxillary firefighters. So obviously, I’ve moved to a small property and now the opportunity to look at and be able to contribute in some small way.
MG: Now, your leader, Michael McCormack, came under some intense criticism for his comment about and I quote, “the ravings of…woke capital city greenies” when Adam Bandt had been talking about climate change, coal and so on. Is this talking to the Nationals base or was it just a burst of bad temper, or what was all that about? And what do you think of it?
DL: Well, look, I was there when Michael first said this, and it’s a degree of frustration. Michael was seeing firsthand, the emotion, the grief and the anxiety of those people that are in this firing line and those that have lost much from these fires. There is a time and place. And as political leaders, we’ve all got a responsibility to enact that at the right time. And to weaponise an event in the way that some have is not right. And I think there was a frustration by Michael, who had seen that grief, anxiety on those people’s faces, to try and say now’s not the time. Now is not the time. We’re in the here and now.
And in fact, Michael was part of the operational committee that as we as a federal government was working through. He understood the need for us to take action and to have a sideshow created for a political advantage was something that he expressed his frustration. It was about pure emotion of understanding the gravity of what we were going through.
And I don’t begrudge anyone having a belief that’s contrary to mine. But there’s a time and place in which to do that. And fortunately, there’s some that wanted to weaponise this event, which I feel is sad. But, you know, we can always make sure that we create an environment for constructive conversation in this nation. And I think that’s what Michael was getting frustrated by.
MG: Isn’t it inevitable, though, that when we have this sort of catastrophic event, people will immediately want to talk about climate change and other issues related to it? Isn’t that just how things are?
DL: That’s the beauty of living in democracy. We get to air our views and beliefs. But with that democracy also comes a responsibility of timing. And, you know, when we were actively in the middle of seeing Sydney, one of our largest cities, come under a catastrophic risk of fire, that was not the time. And political leaders in particular have a greater responsibility. I get that the man on the street wants to air that. That’s great. But as political leaders, as elected officials, we have that responsibility to set that standard and and allow, yes, definitely the man on the street to express his views. But as elected officials, we’ve got a responsibility to do that at the right time, in the right environment. In the middle of it, of an event like this, I don’t think was right time to raise it. And the frustration is there that Michael saw, because he saw the pain and the anxiety on these people’s faces firsthand.
MG: When we get through this immediate event, won’t these things though, intensify the political pressure on the government around the climate change issue over the next year, two years?
DL: Well, obviously, but that’s the time to have that conversation. But let me say, we are doing our bit. We’re continuing to show that- it’s unrealistic to think that Australia by itself can make the most impact on the globe for climate change. But what we’ve said is let’s lead the world by example. And we’re doing that by signing up to our international commitments and making sure that we’re going to have a trajectory getting there. And that’s what our responsibility as a good global citizen is, is to say, yes, we’re going to lead by example. We’re going to get on with the job. But anyone that has an unrealistic expectation that we can solve it by ourselves is kidding themselves. But it’s important that we lead the world, and that’s what we’re showing.
MG: I don’t think one can argue we’re leading the world, surely-
DL: By example-
MG: We are doing things. But many other countries are doing somewhat more. Admittedly, some are doing less.
DL: Totally but by example, and what you’ve going to do is lead by example and show the commitment. And that’s what we’re showing, is a commitment to lead and do that by example. And obviously, we’re going to make sure we do that in a responsible way that the economy can support. Because if you don’t have an economy that supports it, it’s not worth a brass razoo. It’ll all fall over. So this is about calm, methodical policy to make sure we get there to support our economy, but to show the world by example that we are doing what we said we would by actions. And that’s how you lead by example in a good global community.
MG: One issue, of course, in this whole climate debate is coal. Now, before the election, the government promised a study into the potential for a coal fired power station in Queensland. Your home state. There’s been some delay in this, it appears, where’s all that up to?
DL: Look that’s a question for the resource minister obviously, and energy minister. But as I understand, that election commitment has been upheld and we’re going to get on with the business case of that, as you’d expect. If we go to the election with a commitment, then we have to stand in front of the Australian people and say we’ve delivered and as I understand, that is been progressed.
MG: Now coming back to the fire issue. In April, Greg Mullins, former New South Wales fire and rescue chief and a number of others wrote to the prime minister asking for a meeting to discuss how the government could respond better to climate change and prepare for disasters like the one we’re seeing. They complained in a follow up letter that they were having trouble coordinating and meeting with Angus Taylor, the Environment Minister, and yourself. Can you explain why this meeting didn’t happen?
DL: Because I was never asked. Sadly, my office has checked all our records and Mr Mullins has never sought a meeting with me. In fact, my office took the preemptive steps after seeing these reports in the media to reach out to Mr Mullins to say I’m prepared to meet with him. As I should. I’m the appropriate minister. But we have no correspondence of request of meeting from Mr Mullins. So it’s disappointing that media are suggesting that I haven’t accepted a media request because I would. I met with a number of stakeholders and prepared to continue to do that. Obviously, to get the best policy setting, you have to listen to a diverse range of ideas. So we’ve already initiated a mechanism to meet with Mr Mullins.
MG: And when will that be?
DL: In the coming weeks, and have no problems with that. But it’s disappointing that there is an assertion-
MG: This has been locked in firmly now?
DL: We’ve been in contact with Mr Mullins, in fact, some weeks before this week about trying to set up a period in which we could meet with him. And there’s no problems with that. I mean, that disappointingly muddies the air around real practical outcomes. And that’s the thing is I’m happy to listen. And I’m not passing dispersions on what his premises of his concerns are. But I’m also looking for what are his solutions? And anyone that comes through my door- it’s always easy- I get plenty of people coming through telling me what’s wrong. But often when you say, “well, how do I fix it?” is the challenge. So I’m very keen to meet with Mr Mullins, who has extensive experience, and I’d be keen to listen and to learn. I’m not the beholder of all wisdom and knowledge, but I’ve got to be the arbitrator of getting all that knowledge into one remit to formulate a proper policy that benefits every Australian.
MG: Now let’s turn to the drought, which, of course, is another major area in your responsibility. After months of pressure, the government has released the drought strategy report by the former coordinator general for drought Stephen Day. The Day report says, and I quote, “as a consequence of climate change, drought is likely to be more regular, longer in duration and broader in area”. Do you agree with this? And what will it mean for the pattern of farming in Australia in coming decades? Will, for example, we see fewer family farms as areas are consolidated into big company holdings? And will we see less farming on marginal land?
DL: Well, this is already organically happening. I’m sorry to break it to metropolitan Australians, but you’re just catching up to us. The climate’s been adapting since we first put a till the soil. And the reality is our farmers are using cutting edge technology and science to adapt and they’re organically having these conversations. And in fact, a large wheat producer down in northern New South Wales said to me the other day that they’re now working their business model on not 600 millimetres of rain, but 450. And they go into their bank working through how they can make sure their business is viable. These aren’t people that sit on hay bales chewing straw every day. These are professional men and women that are running multi-million dollar businesses. So with all due respect, we are ahead of the game. Over A$1.1 billion a year from farmers and governments go into research and development to give them the tools to adapt. We now look to the future with the Future Fund and A$100 million a year will go to that and some of that will go into more research and development around drought.
So organically, these business decisions are happening and farmers themselves are doing it because you know what? They’re like everyone else in this country. They get up in the morning and what blows their hair back is to make a quid. And they are very passionate, not just about what they produce, but also about providing an income for their family. So I think you’ll find that there’s continuation of these types of decisions the primary producers are making every day. And I think your question around will there be fewer family farms is correct, but that’s also around the fact of the scale of economy.
And having been an agri-business bank manager that sat around kitchen tables, I think you’ll see fewer family farms but the family farms are bigger. And what you will also see is the family farm is the most productive and profitable. Corporate Australia will come and go from agriculture. There’ll be a few stayers, but invariably you’ll see a lot. They’ll come and go. And I’ve seen it over 20 years of banking, the most productive and profitable is always the family farm. But you do need the scale. And what you are seeing now is that there will be fewer family farms, but they’ll be larger in scale and what they produce because there is a future in it.
And in fact, you’re seeing the future in agriculture by some really interesting statistics. Farm equity has never been higher than what it is now. And over the last five consecutive years, we have seen an increase in land values, agricultural land values. Last year alone was 10.7 per cent. The reason for that - even in the middle of one of the worst droughts we’ve ever had - is that when it does rain, there’s gonna be a lot of money made in agriculture. And that’s why you’re seeing, the larger the scale, particularly the family operations, they’re expanding and buying out the smaller family farms. So they’re slowly building their aggregations. And for corporates to build large aggregations is very difficult. So that’s why I’m very confident of the future agriculture and the future of the family farm.
MG: So was the high value of rural land one reason why the government in its drought package didn’t embrace the proposal put by the National Farmers Federation for exit payments for farmers?
DL: Well, it’s one of the reasons. Our job as a federal government is to support and to be that safety net for those out there now and to keep as many going, those family farms, as we possibly can. We’ve got to be honest, there’ll be some that may not get through. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. This is difficult, but we live in a great country where there is a safety net and that’s a safety net that we as a government are providing and we’re comfortable to continue to do that. But the reality is, yes, farm equity has never been higher and people can have those organic conversations with their financiers now and in some cases are having it and leaving with considerable money in their pockets, paying out their debts. And, you know, the banks have been rather conservative over the years in lending to agriculture because the vagaries of it. And because of the appetite for agriculture and where it’s going - the profitability once it rains - means that that has really forced up land prices because the economics is there. The trade agreements we put in place have been so important. I mean, five to ten years ago, I remember a bank manager and people didn’t understand this free trade thing. I thought it was nonsense. You know, we should lock our borders up, it just does doesn’t work.
Now, the free trade agreements are one of the most important things to farmers. In fact, I went and did a feed run with with a drought stricken farmer just before I first became elected three years ago. And I said to this lady, Kate, I said, you know, do you see a future in agriculture?
She said, mate, I don’t even know who you are. Couldn’t care less. The most important person to me in the Australian government at that time was Andrew Robb, because he was the trade minister. And she said to me, the fact that I’m sitting here throwing feed down these cattle’s throat is because of him. Because I know that once I get through this, those things are worth a lot of money. And I’m going to make a quid. I’m going to make a lot of money and I’m gonna be able to bring my kids back.
We’ve lost generations of young people out of outer community. It’s time to bring them home. And you can only do that if there’s money to be made. And finally, finally, there’s money be made because of the trading routes. We’re a nation of 25 billion people. We’ve produce enough food for 75. If we don’t engage the world, if we don’t trade with the world, we don’t need farmers out there. But we can trade with the world. And our commodity prices are showing that there is money to be made. The story of agriculture is just add rain and when it rains, we’re going to make a lot of money and we’re gonna drive this nation’s economy in a big way.
MG: So do you think that the narrative by quite a lot of people, politicians, commentators and so on, around this drought is a wrong narrative?
DL: Look, make no mistake, the gravity of it is severe, but we can’t perpetrate our own misery and turn off generations of agriculture. Agriculture is sexy again. This isn’t our first rodeo and it won’t be our last. I can tell you I’ve seen a few during my 43 years in Chinchilla. But you know what? Invariably, we find ways to get them through. And in fact, the agricultural sector has come a long way. Even when I was in the bank, I remember opening up cheques for interest rate subsidies. A$150,000 cheques to put into farmers accounts. They don’t do that anymore because they become more resilient. They’ve become more productive and profitable, and they’re able to support themselves.
But we have this safety net from the Australian and that’s the reason why we’ve got the trade agreements and we’ve got to understand that. So I think there’s a huge future and we’ve just got to be careful. While the gravity of this is significant, it is important to understand that when it rains, and we get some normal years. They’re going to make a lot of money.
MG: Do you think that in dealing with this drought, we need better coordination between federal and state governments? Because you often hear from the feds oh well, we’re responsible for that and states are responsible for this. But you get the feeling that maybe there’s not the linkage that should be there?
DL: Well, and you’re so right. I mean, we, in a bipartisan way, with all the states, agreed to the responsibilities we each had. Unfortunately there’s this thing called politics. And it’s become politically expedient for the states to duck and weave and to effectively use us as their ATM. and abrogate a lot of their responsibility. The facts are they’re to look after animal welfare, freight and fodder. Ours is to look after farmer welfare. But we’re having a delve into that. We’ve said after this last package, you could actually come along way with us and compliment our package with providing rate relief to small businesses and farmers, as well as get rid of crown leasehold for for a year and then payroll tax.
You could compliment our package and that would have such a significant impact because the drought, you can understand, extends pass a farm gate. It gets into these little communities. And this is the challenge for metropolitan Australians to understand is it’s different to addressing a fire or flood where you can just go back and rebuild something. With a drought it’s intricate because there’s so many different moving parts of the local economy. Of these small economies that have to be worked through and you have to touch every point of that. So there’s not just one measure that you can put in place, and that’s hard for people to appreciate.
And, you know, there’s a lot of gratuitous advice out there. Bringing in one of them is to bring in the defence force to cart freight and fodder. And even though that’s a state’s responsibility, I’ll stand up for the states on this one. What you would do is by doing that, by just having men and women in khakis running through towns, carting high end water to farmers, you would take away the livelihoods of the mum and dad operators who have small trucking, carting businesses in those communities and variably employ three or four people. And if you take them out of the community, the compounding of impact is so, so intense. So that’s the thing is we get these simplistic notions from a lot of people and they’re well intended. And in simplistic terms, it sounds right. But in practical application, it has an unintended consequence that destroys a lot of these little communes.
I live in a town of 800 people. You lose a couple of the local carters who employ a few people. That’s someone that doesn’t spend the money at the local IGA, doesn’t go to the local butcher, doesn’t go the pub on a Friday night and it just compounds. You lose a teacher, you lose you lose a policeman. So it’s an intricate, intricate policy setting. And you’ve got to understand the intricacies of these small communities and how those economies come together.
MG: Well, one issue that raises is your concessional loan scheme for businesses, which you’ve announced. That’s restricted to agriculture related businesses. But some businesses in towns will be very much hit by the drought, even though they’re not directly related. Some food shops, for example, which may have to extend debt to their customers. Is that unfair that they don’t fall into that concessional loans scheme?
DL: Well, obviously, we’re going to continue to evolve. And we’re the first government to acknowledge small business through this A$500,000 loan. And this isn’t necessarily- and it’s the same for farmers. And everyone is running around saying giving farmers more debt isn’t the right thing. This isn’t necessarily saying giving farmers more debt. This is saying re-finance up to A$2 million dollars of your existing debt to the Regional Investment Corporation and pay nothing, not a cent for two years. That, that I was talking to farm only this week they’re paying 5 per cent. That’s A$200,000 that we’re putting back into farmers pockets now. And others say, well, why don’t we just give him the A$200,000? Well, if we give them, that’s a subsidy and then removes all their free trade agreements that we put in place. That’s the complexity of this.
So they’re saying for a small business, we’re saying up to A$500,000 you can go to re-finance your loan and pay no interest, no repayments for two years. And we’ve said at the end of that two years, if things are still dry, we’re gonna have to revisit that. As we may have to revisit the extent of the number of small businesses that come on to this-
MG: Because it’s an arbitrary line. Some of these agri-businesses might, in fact, be doing reasonably well because say stock and station agents who are dealing in land, which might be being sold, animals that are going to market, etc. and yet other businesses won’t be doing well.
DL: But invariably you can go down the mechanics business, the local seed merchant, they’re the guys also that are impacted that when there’s no rain, there’s no planning, you don’t get the machine fixed, you don’t get your ute fixed. And so. What it’s about is, is to stimulate them to one, keep those people they’ve got employed, employed. But also give them the ability to clean up - even some of those accounts that aren’t with the bank - that has a stimulus of going around, because invariably they’re with other businesses in town. So this is the first step in understanding that those small businesses that support agriculture production through products and services, their cash flows are aligned to the farm.
MG: But it would be extended to other small businesses if the drought continues?
DL: We have obviously said everything’s on the table in terms of where we get to. And that’s the thing is this drought, everyone thinks this is it. This is the first thing. And it’s all too little, too late. It doesn’t acknowledge all the stuff that we’ve put in place over the last two or three years to get to now over A$8 billion worth of commitments. And we’ve said we’re going to continue to go further. And I think I get the emotion out there. And the federal government is playing its role. And that’s why I say there’s a real opportunity for the states to stand with us shoulder to shoulder. They own local government. They could pay the rates to local governments so they small businesses and farmers- and payroll taxes.
You know, the next big kicker, is the drought is going to hit- the drought is coming to our meat processing sector when it rains. They haven’t got to drought them because they’ve got plenty of supply of stock. But when it rains, they’re going to have a real issue around supply stocks. So their drought is coming. But what the scary thing with that is, is you go to some of these small towns that have an abattoir of 4-500 employees in a town of 6-7,000 people. They don’t have a job. And that’s why payroll tax is so important.
For the states to do something now is to build some buffering for those meat processors, because you lose 400 or 500 people out of a town of 5-6,000 people, that that is a real kick that will destroy a lot of these communities and take them into a new perspective that we haven’t seen before.
So it’s important that we all come together and we do our bit. And it’s important the states actually acknowledge that. Andthey’ve been hiding underneath the political coverage of commentators smashing me and smashing the prime minister rather than us all saying, hey, we will get a responsibility in this. I’m not shirking my responsibility. The prime minister is not. But we’re just saying states you could show that you’re not either by doing your bit as well.
MG: So what’s been the response in the last week since the package was announced?
DL: Zero. From the states?
DL: Zero. I’ve actually written to the states twice asking them to consider this.
MG: And they haven’t replied to those letters?
DL: No, and even publicly asked for some support, even on a food and fibre tariff for electricity, because a lot of them are government owned corporations that are providing to their regional areas where they’re taking significant dividends in Queensland alone. And A$1.8 billion dividend they take back at a generation and distribution to the Queensland coffers. But yet energy costs in regional Queensland, because we don’t have competition, is significantly higher than metro. So while they discount it to some extent now, they could go even further to build some impetus into these economies to keep them going.
MG: Now, I want to just finish up with a couple of questions about the Nationals. Throughout these crises, we’ve seen the Nationals in some disarray. Michael McCormack been under fire for some time. Barnaby Joyce runs his own somewhat unhelpful race. And Deputy Nationals leader Bridget McKenzie has taken a hit on the dairy code. What does the party need to do to get its act together?
DL: Well, obviously, there’s 21 passionate individuals in there and they’re passionate about their communities. And we’re facing one of the biggest challenges a lot of our communities are facing ever with this drought. And obviously, there is passion about how we get credit for that. Now, I’m a little bit more comfortable that I just want outcomes. And I think that’s the most important thing that we should we should work on. Obviously, there’s a lot of people in there that want to make sure that we get credit for what- over A$8 billion we’ve committed. That’s a lot of money that we’re putting into regional Australia.
MG: So do they feel that Scott Morrison and the Liberals are just getting too much of the credit while the Nationals do quite a lot of hard work?
DL: Well, I think a good thing is there’s competitive tension in any coalition. I mean, I don’t think we should get upset about it either.
MG: I thought division was death.
DL: No well I think I’d call it competitive tension. You know, I think it’s a good thing. And I think diversity of ideas is a good thing. I think for too long, people and parties get castigated for having different ideas within it. I think we should celebrate that as a democracy. That shows to me that our democracy is working, that even within our own party, there’s a divergence of views and ideas. That’s a healthy thing. We’ve got to create an environment where we can have that discussion and then obviously all accept the outcome. But I don’t think we should we should be upset by the fact that there are people with a wide range of ideas that can come to this place and make it a better nation, and particularly for us in regional Australia, make a better regional Australia. I think that’s the most important thing we should do. I’m quite comfortable with where the National Party is. I mean, I think they’re a little bit robust nature is how we operate. You know, that’s what happens in regional Australia. You go and dance. You have a bit of a- you have it out, and have a yarn, and you go and have a beer, and you get on with the job of delivery. And that’s what the 21 of us are doing.
MG: Traditionally, though, the Nationals had very strong leaders. They were very important within the coalition for that strength of leadership. And they were very united. That’s not the picture today.
DL: Well, I think there’s a perception that obviously some have tried to run with. But I mean-
MG: It’s the history though.
DL: Well, let me add to that history, the history of what Michael McCormack has been able to achieve. We’re now over A$8 billion for drought, A$3.5 billion for water infrastructure on top of that. When it’s not and again, that again is the responsibility, the states, but they’ve done three-fifths of bugger all. And we decided to lead. We decide to say, you know what, we’re not allowed to pick a shovel up in this country and dig a hole for a dam unless you say so. But what we’ll do is we’ll give you some money to go and build that.
And Michael McCormack, when you talk about the importance of past leaders, I think have a look at what he’s achieved. He’s been a quiet achiever that, you know, might not go and blow his trumpet enough. But I think his record is quite thorough and quite sound is what he’s achieved in his 18 months as deputy prime minister for regional Australia and the National Party.
MG: Now, finally, you’re from Queensland, where the regional members of the Liberal National Party will face a tough challenge from One Nation at next year’s election. How does the party best combat Pauline Hanson’s One Nation?
DL: Well, we’ve got to articulate to the electorate exactly what I’ve just articulated, what we’ve achieved, and I know what Deb Frecklington is trying to achieve in committing to more infrastructure. The reality is what people have to understand while they get upset with the political discourse. When you go and vote for Pauline Hanson, Bob Katter, an independent. You might get a warm, fuzzy feeling for the first five minutes, but all you get is a professional complaints desk. None of them sit inside that room called cabinet that I sit in and sign the cheques. All you get is someone yelling and screaming from outside the room, that means nothing. So that’s where we’ve got to be better in articulating exactly what we’ve done and what we intend to do. But you can go down the populist route and you know, there’s a section of the community that that aligns, too. But people need to understand that all you get is a professional complaints desk.
MG: David Littleproud. Thank you very much for talking with us today.
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Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra