The Crest of the Commonwealth of Australia Treasury Portfolio Ministers
Picture of Wayne Swan

Wayne Swan

Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer

3 December 2007 - 27 June 2013

19 July 2012

Doorstop interview

Joint interview with
The Hon Bob Katter MP
Member for Kennedy

SUBJECTS: Far North Queensland Economy, Tourism, Farming Industry, G20 Finance Ministers' Meeting, Bruce Highway, Campbell Newman's Job Cuts, Cairns Entertainment Precinct

TREASURER:

It's great to be in Cairns today. I've come up here to get an update on what's happening in the economy. I've come up here to see Bob and to meet with a number of very important industry organisations, there's a dozen out here this morning. And we're going down to Mission Beach after this.

I just wanted to say a couple of things about the area , because for me this one of my favourite parts of Queensland. It's one of my favourite parts of the country. I know that people up here have done it tough, really rough in recent years. Not just the fall-out from Cyclone Yasi, but a number of industries up here have been doing it tough in recent years. I know particularly in tourism it's been pretty tough. So I did want to come up here and talk to the business community. Last night I attended a roundtable with a number of organisations - the Bank of Cairns, the Chamber of Commerce. Once again this morning with Bob, we met the Chamber of Commerce, met with dairy farmers, people who are producing fruit and vegetables and a wide range of people from the tablelands as well as last night from the Cape.

Can I say I'm pretty optimistic about the prospects of this region. Certainly everybody up here has made the point to me that this would be a great place to have a G20 Finance Ministers' Meeting. It will certainly be one way of really putting the area on the map and as a G20 Finance Minister I couldn't think of a better place to come. The Government is still looking at all of the arrangements for the G20 Finance Ministers' Meeting, but I reckon Cairns has got a really good bid. So we'll work our way through all of these issues and look to get an update on how qualified the region is to host one of those meetings.

Also I've had a report on what's going on in tourism at the moment. It's good to see that the town is full of people at the moment. I'm told by the operators that it's quite strong at the moment but they made the point to me that things are still, underneath it all, pretty fragile and we've got a big task ahead of us to make sure we get more visitors back to the region, particularly from Asia, where I've just come back from. I've just come back from a trip to Hong Kong and China. And what we've seen is really strong growth in Chinese tourism to Australia, specifically to this region. But we've got to do a lot more to make sure that the region gets a share of what's going to be a really big growth market.

Secondly, I've had a briefing today on agriculture organised by Bob. I've heard from our dairy farmers, I've also heard from many of the people that are producing mangoes and other fruits and vegies about how tough they're doing it at the moment. It was an important meeting and it did leave a pretty lasting impression on me. We're going down to Mission Beach as well. We've got some challenges down there and the federal government has made $5 million available to put in place arrangements for some safe anchorage down there at Mission Beach. But over and above that, I think there's a lot happening that the federal government is already doing here and also the payments through the Schoolkids Bonus and so on are all flowing through to the region. People have also talked to me about infrastructure in terms of roads and so on for the future and I've taken all of that on board.

So with those few words I might just throw to Bob.

KATTER:

We put on public record our thanks to the federal government. When I took over the southern part of Cairns it seemed to me that only $70 million had been spent on the southern approaches to Cairns [as part of the Bruce Highway upgrade]. I was responsible for the northern approaches to Townsville and we got close to $700 million. So I was very very disappointed that the deal that Cairns had been getting by prior representation and very aggressively we've moved into it. We've got $120 million coming down this year for the first of our overpasses and we've got $5 million for the break water. There is no safe harbour. If you get into trouble between Cairns and Townsville, there is nowhere for you to go at the present moment. Now right in the middle of the Paradise Coast there will now be safe harbour. And as for me, I've been working for that for 28 years so we're deeply appreciative Wayne that the federal government has come good to build that break water for the $5 million. We hope that state government doesn't buggerise us around there. We just want to get in and do it.

Now also one of our big drawbacks on tourism, people are scared to come up here during the wet season, cause they get trapped and they can't get out during the wet season. Because the coastal road gets cut. Now the inland route we need another $60 million to complete it from the state government. The state government hasn't been too bad on this I've got to say. But we've got money for Myrtle Creek from the federal government. Again that is a very, very important component of making the alternative route all-weather. So when they come up here they know they can get back. And of course our produce can get out all year round which has not been the case up to date because the inland route does not really exist. So three issues, we're very, very appreciative and we hope to be moving forward even more aggressively as time goes on.

The burning questions of survival of agriculture I put to Wayne today. I have no hesitation in saying there are great challenges for the federal government in this area. The report that said that the answer is to sell our country off to foreigners, foreign corporate farming, there hasn't been a corporate farm in this nation's history that has made a quid. I defy anyone to point out to me a single case where a corporate farm has made a quid. They've all gone broke and left. Heaven only knows our own hardworking farmers can't make a quid now. So how's a corporation going to make a quid? But if that's the only answer, well it's a very sad day for us as Australians.

I want to step aside and let James Geraghty. Unfortunately our fruit and vegetable growers have already gone. But James, speaking on behalf of farmers to say a few words.

GERAGHTY:

Thanks Bob. We met with Wayne this morning. Raised issues to do with our industry, the dairy industry on the table, which has been decimated since deregulation back in 2000. We appreciate the time Wayne. We appreciate the offer to bring the agriculture minister up here and we look forward to meeting with him. If there's one comment I can make to save the dairy industry on the table is buy a brand of product and buy local product. Thank you.

JOURNALIST:

Wayne, when can we expect an announcement about the Finance Ministers' meeting?

TREASURER:

It'll be a few weeks at least, we've got to go through a process. Lots of people are pretty eager to at least put their bids in if you like. So we've got to go through all of those issues, but we'll get it to you as soon as we can.

JOURNALIST:

Does Cairns have any competition?

TREASURER:

Of course. Of course it's got competition. But it's a pretty strong bid.

JOURNALIST:

We're hearing new rumours of a leadership challenge. What can be done to stop those?

TREASURER:

Well those reports aren't worth the paper that they are written on. We seem to get them all the time, they're not true. Nevertheless if that's the way some journalists want to do it, that's what they do. But they're not worth the paper they're written on.

JOURNALIST:

There's been reports this morning of a high level of homelessness in Cairns. Is that one of the issues that was raised with you? Is there much the federal government can do about it?

TREASURER:

I'm certainly concerned about homelessness - one of the reasons for example the Federal Government has put so much into social housing in recent years and a lot into programs dealing with homelessness. I haven't been briefed on that by anyone here as yet, but I'm sure I will be as I go through the day.

JOURNALIST:

Treasurer, we've heard lots about the dining boom and the shift of China into buying up farm land in Australia. From your point of view how much do you think the hip pocket affect it will have on Australians if we're direct exporting all our prime produce?

TREASURER:

First of all it is true that the growing middle-classes in Asia are going to produce a lot more demand for Australian agricultural product. The key is to make sure that our farmers can make a living and export as well as supply to our local market. Now what I've heard from some of our farmers this morning is that some of them are doing it tough and they mightn't be around to take advantage of the export opportunities which will arise from that growing middle class. That issue has been raised very squarely with me today. But agriculture more broadly will in this country become very strong for Australia on the back of that demand. But we've got to meet the challenges that many of our farmers are facing now in a number of sectors. It will be the case that there will be some foreign investment coming into Australia in agriculture just as there is foreign investment in mines and energy. It's important that that foreign investment is screened - at the moment, state-owned enterprises from anywhere in the world are required to be screened when they are investing in agriculture. That's the screening process already in place. We've also said that we are considering establishing a register more broadly across Australia in terms of the foreign ownership of our rural communities and we're working our way through that issue at the moment. In addition to that, we've also done some more work through the Australian Bureau of Statistics to try to get an accurate handle on who owns what. The most important thing we've got to get secure is a good flow of finance to our farming community in the first place. One of the issues that was raised pretty fairly and squarely to me this morning by Bob was his worry that many banks are simply turning off finance to farmers in this region. I was pretty concerned to hear that today, that is a threat to the viability of our farmers before they get to the point of accessing these export markets in places like China. So I'm going to follow through on these issues that were raised with us this morning.

JOURNALIST:

Just on China still, you've recently been to China. What progress has been made on convincing Chinese authorities that the Australian dollar should be convertible to the Yuan?

TREASURER:

I think we made a lot of progress in China. We've already got the indirect convertibility onshore through the US dollar. That breakthrough was achieved last November. In March this year, our Reserve Bank engaged in a swap of currencies with the People's Bank of China worth $30 billion for Australia. So they're two very important steps that we've made. We've agreed on a process working with the People's Bank, the Australian Treasury and the Reserve Bank of Australia to see how we can further progress direct convertibility from our dollar to RMB.

JOURNALIST:

Treasurer, are you concerned the fall in iron-ore price will affect the revenues of the MRRT?

TREASURER:

I think it's always been the case that price is one of the factors which impacts revenue through the MRRT as well as volumes and so on, I've said that on a number of occasions. But you can't sit around and do your calculations on revenues based on what they happen to be in one week. There's been some changes in prices through this year and we adjusted our estimates for the MRRT in the Budget this year. We'll adjust them in the normal way through the mid-year budget update which occurs towards the end of the year.

JOURNALIST:

You've made another commitment to Mission Beach. What funding commitment can you make to the Bruce Highway today?

TREASURER:

We've already made some big funding commitments to the Bruce Highway. It's what we were talking about before. I think it's actually a bit more than $120 [million]. I think it's something like $150 [million]. We've put $2.8 [billion] into this project which I think is two or three times more than the previous government put in over twelve years. We understand that there's more work to be done on the Bruce. I personally have driven the Bruce Highway between Brisbane and Cairns in my lifetime on numerous occasions. I understand that upgrading the Bruce is a really big task but we've put a lot of resources into the Bruce and we'll keep working on doing that. It's vital linkage for Queensland, it's a vital linkage for the nation. Every time we get events like Cyclone Yasi and the natural disasters we had last year, it's a real reminder of how vulnerable we are and why we've got to continue some of that work.

JOURNALIST:

What do you think of the Coalition (inaudible)?

TREASURER:

It's turned into a farce. Mr Truss admitted today that there isn't any money that the Coalition's got available for the Bruce at all. So you'd have to wonder what the Coalition is actually doing driving up the Bruce. The other issue that has actually been raised with me while I've been here, it was raised last night, was the concern in the local community about the massive job cuts been planned by the Newman Government and their direct impact on regional communities. The loss of 20,000, up to 20,000 public sector workers is something that will be very significantly felt in this region and particularly in Cairns. I think there's a real concern in the community, not only of employees, but also services by the State Government in this area which is more vulnerable than most other regional areas in Queensland.

KATTER:

If I can just come in on that cause this is a burning issue. Our party, Katter's Australia Party, before the election, we had to give this a lot of thought because they said the public service is inflated. And we decided unanimously that we would launch a policy of no replacement and providing an exit package. That would achieve the same ends without any pain. I know 3,000 people and it's going to be 20,000 people if the Premier's to be listened to. 3,000 people now that will not be able to make their repayments on their cars next week. They will not be able to meet the rent on the house next week. That will put significant strain on their marriages and their relationships next week and this will extend to 20,000 families in Queensland. Why do you have to inflict this pain? I would claim, Wayne would disagree, that the most efficient government in history was the Bjelke-Petersen Government. We never sacked anybody. We never sacked anybody. Where we had to do it, it was done by a non-replacement and you get rid of an awful lot of people with the policy of non-replacement. Why would you do this? You do this to make yourself look tough. Well I don't think you look tough. I think you look despicable.

TREASURER:

The thing was that Mr Newman said that no public servant had anything to fear. And now 20,000 public servants have got a hell of a lot to fear and that's the problem. As Bob's said, this has come out of the blue - directly contrary to what the Premier said would be the case prior to the election and it's having a dramatic impact on a lot of families.

KATTER:

And I've got to back that up. Alex Scott, the State Secretary of the public service union came to see our party and he said he had got agreement from the LNP that there would be no cut backs in the public service. And Alex believed that. I mean, I looked over it once and rolled my eyes – I didn't believe it. But Alex believed it. And he told all of his members that there was no problem with voting for the LNP because he had got a promise out of the LNP leader that there would be no cut backs in the public service. Well two weeks before the election he said he wouldn't be in favour of foreign fly-ins to man the mines in Queensland, six weeks after it, he announced that there would be foreign workers flying in to man the mines in Queensland. On this issue he most certainly, absolutely told the public service union before the election that there would be no cut backs. Within two months after the election, 3,000 to go and an announcement by him that 20,000 will go.

JOURNALIST:

What do you think about workers being flown in to work in the town on (inaudible)

KATTER:

I think it's absolutely disgraceful. With all due respect to Wayne, I disagree violently with the Government flying in workers from overseas. I mean Gina Rinehart is saying in Queensland and she can't get anyone in the Galilee Basin. Well there are 299,000 people registered for full-time employment in this state but can't get any full-time employment. 200,000 can't get any employment at all. And what she can't find - a few thousand people to man a mine, hey come on, she's having us on. She's having us on. There is absolutely no doubt that she's having us on. I just don't know how rich Clive Palmer and she and these people want to be. I mean obviously they're going to fly these people there, obviously there going to be working below award-wage. They'll have contractual agreements to dodge around the award, you can count on it. I think that some unions have sold out. The CFMEU and the ETU in Victoria most certainly have. Some of them I suspect have sold out big time

JOURNALIST:

On the Cairns Entertainment Precinct which the federal government has budgeted $40 million for and has said that it's still pledging that. Where does that stand right now (inaudible)?

TREASURER:

We thought it was a really, really important commitment to put $40 million forward for the Cairns Entertainment Precinct. Because that's exactly what a tourism centre really needs to create jobs, sustain tourism. So I was shocked when the State Government ripped money out and the Council said they were going to cancel their involvement as well. Our money is on the table for a joint commitment across federal government, state government and council for an entertainment centre here in Cairns. So the money's there with the local council, federal government, state government . But it's up to them. Our money's there. We understand how important jobs are in this region.

JOURNALIST:

Is there an expiry on that?

TREASURER:

We'll have to wait and see what they say, but our money is still available for our commitment in the region because we understand the importance of jobs in the region.

Thanks.