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Transcript of doorstop interview: Parliament House, Canberra: 10 September 2009: Australian wheat harvest; Grain Freight Review; Austrade report; foreign ownership of grain companies; visits to wheat regions.

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The Hon. Tony Burke MP

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

Tony Burke - doorstop interview - wheat issues, Parliament House, Canberra

10 September 2009

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Tony Burke Doorstop Interview Parliament House, Canberra


SUBJECTS: Australian wheat harvest; Grain Freight Review; Austrade report; foreign ownership of grain companies; visits to wheat regions

TONY BURKE: There’s been a number of people wanting an update on how we’re going around the country with the wheat harvest and the winter crops generally. So I just wanted to provide an opportunity to give you that information. First of all, we’ve had long overdue rains in northern NSW and in southern QLD. The rain has been needed there for a long time and we have had significant rainfall there over the last week. So a lot of crops that had looked like they were going to fall over are now showing some strength in southern QLD and northern NSW. But the rain hasn’t been uniform across those areas and some patches there are still doing it fairly tough. Throughout central NSW the rainfall has not been good and hasn’t been coming through in the sorts of figures that we really hoped to have. So unless we get some good rainfall coming through soon in central NSW, we will be looking at some downgrading in the projections there. It’s a different story though in the grains belt of Western Australia, throughout South Australia and throughout most of Victoria. Victoria this time is looking at having what used to be regarded as an average crop but for many years has simply been unknown in Victoria. South Australia is holding up similarly and Western Australia is looking very good. Now all of these projections and the official figures, to give you the likely tonnage, get released [next week]. When those figures come out they’ll be able to provide the tonnage across the estimates, but certainly the last report we had was estimating in the order of 22 million tonnes. Last year our total was 21 million tonnes and at the moment in areas where we thought there had been significant downgrading, the rainfall has come through in time. Of course, the crops doing well still doesn’t get you over the line. We remember last time we would have had an absolute bumper harvest that ultimately was downgraded - not because of drought, but because of rain. It was the rain, right at the end, at harvest time that caused the significant downgrade. So that’s essentially just a bit of a thumbnail sketch as to how the wheat crop is going at the moment.

JOURNALIST: Will we be likely to see a ‘23’, Minister?

TONY BURKE: I’m not going to provide that, in advance of the report that comes out [later]. Neither ABARE nor the markets would probably thank me for doing something like that.

JOURNALIST: Are you concerned there has been some significant crop damage already from that rain last week? Have you been given any reports of wipe-outs in the central-to- northern parts of NSW?

TONY BURKE: The language I’ve been given doesn’t go to the word of ‘wipe-outs’. The language

I’ve been given, through central and southern NSW, is little rain recorded across those whole regions and little forecast for the coming week. Crops there are in urgent need of good rains if we are to get to average yields.

JOURNALIST: So what do you think it means for those farmers that don’t get a crop this year? What do you think it means and is the Government preparing already for what looks like some more failures?

TONY BURKE: The nature of the wheat crop nation-wide has always been that people don’t expect to get a crop in every consecutive year. The challenge that we’ve faced for some time now is the number of years consecutively that people can afford to have a poor crop or no crop is getting beyond what people reasonably thought they needed to plan for.

JOURNALIST: If we could get an above average crop Minister, do you think the transport, freight networks, the ports are up to dealing with it? There were some issues with demurrage and issues with freight last year. Do you think those have been surmounted? Or do you think that more needs to be done?

TONY BURKE: Certainly, if we were happy with the status quo we wouldn’t have committed to the Grain Freight Rail Review that we’ve commissioned. The pace of being able to move on better infrastructure on rail is not something that happens between the arrival of a report in time for the next harvest. So there is no doubt that the grain lines don’t have the strength that we would have liked to see them have. But the review needed to work out the way forward [and that] is something that is being dealt with by Minister Albanese, but obviously kept a close eye on by us.

JOURNALIST: The WA Report has been released and it said that there is no justification for investing the millions that would be required into upgrading the rail networks. Do you agree with that conclusion or do you think that there might be some issues with that?

TONY BURKE: I don’t quite agree with the summary that you’ve given for the WA Report. The WA Report has resulted in getting some work done now on trying to find avenues for investment. Certainly there’s not a recommendation that Government foot the whole bill on that. But the concept of avenues for investment is something that, from my understanding when I was last told, was still being explored.

JOURNALIST: Minister, have you seen the Austrade Report that has been pulled from the Government website and the website into the Export Subsidies?


JOURNALIST: What was your view of that report?

TONY BURKE: I was surprised to see Austrade letterhead on something that was supporting subsidies. That certainly isn’t consistent with how Austrade tends to be throughout the world. I was surprised that went forward as that is not consistent with how Australia normally argues on trade. I wasn’t surprised to later hear that it in fact did not reflect the views of Austrade.

JOURNALIST: So is the Government therefore gagging Austrade by taking the submission off the Senate website?

TONY BURKE: Well the Government hasn’t done anything. What you refer to there is a decision made by Austrade themselves based on whether something that has been submitted by a junior official actually reflected the views of the organisation.

JOURNALIST: So there were no calls from the Government saying ‘can you review whether this really reflects your views’?

TONY BURKE: You would have to talk to the Trade Minister about that.

JOURNALIST: Foreign ownership of grains firms, is that something you expect to see more of out here? Any cause for concern?

TONY BURKE: In a global economy you find increased interest from overseas in agriculture in Australia and increased Australian opportunities in investing overseas. It goes in both directions and the quality of the innovation of Australia agriculture is one of the reasons why that interest is there.

There has been an increase in that interest globally following the developments in the food prices last year and many nations which are food importers are seeing co-investment as something they want to deal in for their own food security. But agriculture, like everything else in the national economy, is affected by global markets.

JOURNALIST: Have you seen any wheat growing areas recently? Have you made a visit in to any areas, or are you planning to do so in the coming weeks?

TONY BURKE: In terms of precisely where I am in the next few days, other than Parliamentary sitting, I don’t have my diary in front of me. I am out in agricultural areas pretty much constantly. A week doesn’t go by, when we don’t have to be in Canberra, pretty much without exception I’m in one agricultural region or another.

JOURNALIST: Wheat growing zones though?

TONY BURKE: Wheat growing zones are a big part of that. Understandably, in the course of this year there has been a particularly high priority on dairy areas. I think everyone will understand why I’ve been doing that. But there have been, in recent months, visits to wheat growing areas and there will continue to be in the future but that’s the same for every commodity.