My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management, Senator Ruston. Can the minister outline how Australia's agricultural sector and other critical rural and regional sectors such as resources are supporting economic growth during these difficult economic times resulting from the coronavirus pandemic?
Senator RUSTON (South Australia—Minister for Families and Social Services and Manager of Government Business in the Senate) (14:43):
Can I thank Senator Canavan for his question and acknowledge the extraordinary contribution he's made in demonstrating the incredible economic support and contribution that these two sectors make to the Australian economy—and noting that these two sectors that he refers to are in rural and regional Australia. Now more than ever it is absolutely important that our resources and our agricultural sectors are part of the road to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, because, despite the challenges that we have been seeing over the last couple of months, it is very pleasing to be able to report that Australia has achieved, once again, record trade surpluses of $10.6 billion. That means that we have now had 27 consecutive months of trade surpluses, and I acknowledge the extraordinary work of Senator Birmingham as the trade minister, and his predecessors, in making sure that our trade continues to support our Australian economy, even through these really tough times.
We understand as a government the importance of our international markets and market access, to make sure that we support our agricultural producers and other exporters. Hugely important to areas are agriculture, fisheries and our forestry sectors, which do continue to remain strong despite the crises that we have been confronting, not just the coronavirus but the drought that has been part of the Australian landscape for so long. This has been largely achieved through the amazing efforts of the free trade agreements that have been put in place, because they do provide extraordinary benefits to agriculture, fisheries and forestry. They provide new market opportunities by reducing tariffs and making sure that our price competitiveness and our efficiency and innovation levels the playing field for Australian producers in the international marketplace. Only last week, we saw Indonesia complete its ratification process for our closer economic partnership agreement with that country.
Senator Canavan, a supplementary question?
Senator CANAVAN (Queensland—Deputy Leader of the Nationals in the Senate) (14:45):
Minister, how is the Liberal-National government supporting further investment in agriculture to help grow Australia's exports further?
Senator RUSTON (South Australia—Minister for Families and Social Services and Manager of Government Business in the Senate) (14:45):
The government continues to support our agriculture and resource sectors through increased investment, investment in excess of $1.5 billion through programs—the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund and the National Water Infrastructure Loan Facility, which is funding 22 new water infrastructure projects across Australia. More water means more produce—more produce that Australia can export so that we can make sure that we continue to have the income for Australia to maintain our standard of living. There are investments in things like the Rookwood Weir, $176 million, up in your area, in the Fitzroy Basin; $242 million to the Dungowan Dam; $325 million to build Wyangala Dam in New South Wales; and $100 million to further modernise the Tasmanian irrigation system. We will continue to support these irrigation projects, because they are the backbone of Australia's agricultural sector.
Senator Canavan, a final supplementary question?
Senator CANAVAN (Queensland—Deputy Leader of the Nationals in the Senate) (14:46):
Can the minister explain how important timely approval processes are to encouraging future investments in sectors like agriculture and resources and what measures the government is implementing to help improve approval times?
Senator RUSTON (South Australia—Minister for Families and Social Services and Manager of Government Business in the Senate) (14:47):
It is absolutely essential that Australia remains at the forefront of an efficient agricultural producer. We obviously face unprecedented times at the moment by changing global market conditions, international competition, new technologies, climate and water risks, and global disruptions, such as the pandemic that we are currently facing.
Delays in environmental approval processes add millions of dollars to the cost of major projects. That is why this government is absolutely focused on busting the congestion, to break through these multimillion-dollar backlogs of environmental assessments, to make sure that we continue to deliver these projects, recognising that it's very important that we continue to make sure that our environmental protections are in place but do not delay projects, to make sure that we continue to support our economy with these very important projects. I can advise that we have improved that process from 19 per cent in December to 87 per cent in March, and we are on target to 100 per cent approval by June 2020.