Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC Afternoon Briefing


SUBJECTS: Fishing in Torres Strait; Representation through the Voice; Robodebt; APVMA

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Let's go to the Torres Strait now - that's not something we often get to say on this program. Agriculture Minister Murray Watt is there on the second day of his visit to the remote islands - the Senator is on Horn Island, in fact, and joins us live from there. Welcome Senator, pretty unusual I think to have conversations from locations like that, so we appreciate you making the effort.

I think you're there for discussions, among other things, about management of fisheries between Australia and Papua New Guinea. Illegal fishing is always a problem in that part of our nation. What more is being done or what are you announcing there to combat that and manage these fisheries?

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: G'day, Greg, it's good to be with you from one of the most remote parts of Australia. I'm speaking to you from Horn Island Airport right near Thursday Island. I've spent the day with the Queensland Agriculture Minister Mark Furner in some of the outer islands. We actually got to within 40 nautical miles of Papua New Guinea today to see some of the efforts that are being put in around fisheries management and biosecurity in the Torres Strait.

You're right, one of the reasons for the visit and I guess in my capacity as the Fisheries Minister was to come and meet with representatives from the Queensland Government and the Torres Strait about how we can be working together more effectively to manage the sustainability of fish stocks in the Torres Strait.

This is a really important fishery for a number of reasons. There's commercial fishing operations that operate here. There's obviously a lot of recreational fishing as well. But it's also a very important food source for Torres Strait Islanders. In fact one of the people we met with made the point that really for Torres Strait Islanders the waters around here are their farm. That's where they get a lot of their staple diet. So making sure that we are combating illegal fishing, whether that be illegal foreign fishing or Australians who are doing the wrong thing, is really important for those reasons and continuing to undertake scientific research and actions to rebuild fish stocks is vital as well.

GREG JENNETT: And is there any suggestion that commercial fishing might be wound back on its quotas to better preserve, you know, an indigenous food source, for argument's sake? What sort of proposals are you examining there?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah look, there are no specific proposals at this point that we're considering around further restrictions in the Torres Strait. There have been some restrictions undertaken at different points and in time and where that is necessary we'd be willing to do so.

We are working with the Queensland Government though a little bit further south to restrict what's known as gill net fishing on parts of the Great Barrier Reef, essentially off Cairns, to restrict some of the commercial fisher operations that are happening there, because the evidence is that they are also having an impact on other species, like dugongs, turtles, sharks, including some threatened species.

We always want to be making sure that we're monitoring these things. I was actually pleased to learn while I've been up here that there are actually some species where we're seeing a rebuilding of fishing stocks. So things like Spanish mackerel which fell to below 30 per cent of its historic population is now back above 30 per cent. There's a species called black teatfish which is a form of sea cucumber. They've actually just had the first fishery of that for the last 20 years because the stocks got to a point that that could be done in a sustainable manner. But obviously we want to make sure that these fisheries are around for thousands of years to come, just as they have supported people's lifestyles and eating habits for the past thousands of years.

GREG JENNETT: Yeah, I want to move on and cover off a couple of other matters in a moment, but one more on fisheries. For those not familiar, and I'd count myself in this, what are the current practices on combating illegal fishing when it comes to detection, maybe impoundment, prosecution, turn backs, how frequently is that done around where you are?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah look, this is something that's actually done each and every week in the Torres Strait and in fact around pretty much all through the northern waters. I remember a few years as a humble backbencher undertaking some visits with Defence Force and Border Force personnel to see the work they're doing off the coast of Darwin. So that kind of thing happens there as well. Unfortunately because the fish stocks in the Torres Strait and other parts of Northern Australia are incredibly valuable we do see encroachment by fishers from overseas and each and every week we have Border Force personnel, our Fisheries personnel, going out on to the water to try to stop that from happening. I managed to see while I was here some of what are known as banana boats - really long boats with power engines on them that have been seized. It's a difficult job because, you know, there are people who are pretty expert at getting away from people and it's on the open waters. But we've got some fantastic staff who do that every day. And you're right, we do see prosecutions, we see boat seizures, we see all sorts of other actions taken to deter people from undertaking what has to be called illegal activity.

GREG JENNETT: All right. I'm sure you're picking up while you're there, Murray Watt, sentiment towards the Voice. I imagine that's inescapable. The circumstances of Torres Strait Island are somewhat unique, offshore relatively low population. How would Torres Strait Islander representation be calculated and embedded within a national Voice body so as to be effectively heard?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah it's a really important point, Greg, because for anyone who has spent time here you'd be aware that Torres Strait Islander culture is very different to mainland Aboriginal culture, and there's a lot of different history that needs to be recognised as well.

I have taken the opportunity while I've been up here, and in my meetings with community leaders, to ask them about their views on the Voice, what they're thinking about, what they want to know more about. And, you know, like much of the country people are interested in hearing a bit more about it but there's certainly some strong enthusiasm from the Torres Strait Islanders that I've met with for having a more direct way of having a say over government decisions, which of course is what the Voice is really about.

GREG JENNETT: But you're not able to give any assurances, are you, about their representation in such a body because we literally don't have those details yet, do we

MURRAY WATT: Well we certainly have made clear that there will be representation from Torres Strait Islanders on the Voice in terms of its composition, just as we've made clear that there will be representation from remote Aboriginal communities. Obviously no decisions have been made as yet as to exactly how many or exactly what that representation will look like because they're matters that the Parliament will need to decide, should the referendum succeed. But there has been guarantees made that we will have representation from the Torres Strait Islanders, communities, and that is important to them because, you know, just as someone living in Sydney has different needs to someone who lives in Melbourne, someone who lives on Erub Island or Badu Island, where I was today, has different needs to mainland Aboriginal communities.

I think what I found in those discussions that I was having is that while people do have avenues to make their views known through, you know, the usual election process, there is a lot of enthusiasm on the Torres Strait for, as I say, a more direct say. You know, there are issues like the fisheries things that we've been talking about and unfortunately in the Torres Strait, as with Aboriginal communities on the mainland, we do see lower life expectancy, poorer health outcomes. There are real issues around cost of living because of the cost of getting food to these remote communities, and people are really keen to have the opportunity to give advice to government about what we might be able to do about that, because they want to see better decisions from government.

GREG JENNETT: All right. Let me take you to very much a Canberra issue I suppose, this is the aftermath of the Robodebt Royal Commission, Murray Watt. We've seen former Human Services Secretary Kathryn Campbell suspended without pay. Is this an indication that the Government and its advisors have deemed her employment untenable?

MURRAY WATT: Well I have seen some of that coverage while I've been away today and obviously I don't want to talk about the circumstances of any particular individual. I think from what I've seen, the appropriate action has been taken by the Prime Minister and Cabinet Department in acting on those recommendations and findings of the Royal Commission. And I think that again raises the issues about the sort of policy direction that the former Government set, setting out what was described by the Royal Commission as a crude and cruel system which was neither fair nor legal. So I think it is appropriate that there are some consequences as a result of that, and we need to remember that's the kind of government that the Coalition used to run. I'm not sure if you saw this, Greg, but even last week we had another example of this in my portfolio of Agriculture where our national pesticides regulator, which has been under scrutiny for a while, this was the body that Barnaby Joyce relocated to his own electorate in another example of National Party pork-barrelling. That has now come crashing down and the independent review we had undertaken demonstrated that that decision led to some very serious problems at our national pesticide regulator. So unfortunately this has been a pattern across the Coalition, poor governance decisions which have led to poor outcomes, and sadly the Robodebt one will be one that will forever be ingrained on people's minds.

GREG JENNETT: Yeah, well I appreciate you are some way away, at least physically anyway, from the details of what's going on in that case but appreciate you sharing your thoughts on that, and everything else there from Horn Island today, Murray Watt, thanks for joining us on the program.

MURRAY WATT: Esso, as they say in the Torres Strait.

GREG JENNETT: OK. All the best, go well.