Interview with Kathryn Robinson, ABC RN Drive


SUBJECTS: Global food security; EU Free Trade Agreement; China trade; Trade relationship with India

KATHRYN ROBINSON, HOST: Well, from Rome to Mumbai, the Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt has had a busy week. In Italy talks on a trade deal with the EU remain just that – talks. But in India, the Federal Government is celebrating six months since a free trade deal with New Delhi came into effect. Murray Watt joins you now from Mumbai.

Hi there, Murray. Thanks for your time.


KATHRYN ROBINSON: Look let’s go to Rome first, which is where we spoke a couple of days ago. You were attending the 43rd  UN Food and Agriculture Conference. It’s a timely issue with the parliamentary inquiry on this very topic continuing its hearings tomorrow in Sydney. What was your biggest takeaway from the Rome conference?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah there’s no doubt, Kathryn, that food security is an issue that pretty much every country around the world is talking about at the moment, and I guess that’s really in response to two things. The conflict in Ukraine has massively disrupted supply chains right across the world. We’ve obviously seen that in Australia in many ways and you can only imagine how disruptive that’s been for places closer to Ukraine like Europe and Africa in terms of food supply. But also, I think, the ongoing effects of climate change are really bringing these issues of food security to the fore. Everyone around the world is grappling with the impact of climate change on their food production and, of course, all of the predictions are that it’s going to get more difficult to grow food. So there’s a huge amount of interest in sustainable agriculture practices and I think that’s a real opportunity for Australia. There’s great interest overseas in what we’ve done around water management, around reducing fertiliser usage and all other sorts of other practices to become more sustainable, but food security is absolutely on everyone's lips at these agriculture meetings.

KATHRYN ROBINSON: Just at a more granular level, the New South Wales Farmers’ Association is addressing the parliamentary inquiry tomorrow. In their submission they say, and I’ll quote ‘there’s no national climate change policy for agriculture. There’s no sustainable funding source for biosecurity and there is no lead agency responsible for addressing problems in our food system’ and the list goes on. What is the Government doing right now to address these issues?

MURRAY WATT: Well I’d probably agree with some, but not all of what New South Wales Farmers’ have said there. We, obviously, this year in the Federal Budget for the very first time delivered the sustainable long-term biosecurity funding that farmer groups have been calling for many years. And our agriculture department in Canberra has begun work on preparing some national policy around sustainable agriculture. Unfortunately, climate change and sustainability, of course, weren’t big priorities for the previous Government, but we’ve taken them up with gusto and we will be working with the sector to develop those policies over the next 12 months or so.

I think probably the key issue, though, which I do accept there is work to be done is around food supply chains in Australia. We’ve been having discussions with industry groups, both in the agricultural sector but the transport sector as well. Obviously with my other hat of emergency management, we’ve seen the disruption we can have to food supply chains particularly through natural disasters. So I think it’s fair to say that there is some work to be done there and I’m looking forward to the recommendations of that food security inquiry to give us some pointers on a way forward.

KATHRYN ROBINSON: OK. If we can go to exports and those exports to China, which were clamped down on a couple of years ago when we were slapped with some bans. While you were in Europe, you met with your Chinese counterpart. There has been progress on the barley front, but other trade disputes remain unresolved. Did you get any assurances from Renjian Tang?

MURRAY WATT: I wouldn’t say that I got any assurances and, to be honest, I didn’t really go into the meeting expecting that to happen. Obviously these sorts of trade negotiations are generally led by Don Farrell as the Trade Minister in Australia and his counterpart in China, but it was certainly a good opportunity to influence the Chinese Agriculture Minister who is clearly one of the most powerful people in China, and he undertook to take up those issues again with his colleagues. He acknowledged that there does remain strong demand in China for the agricultural products that have been impeded. So I took that as a positive sign as well. And in the process, we also undertook to explore ways for cooperation between our two countries in agriculture.

Again, China is very keen to learn from us about our sustainable agricultural techniques, water management, salinity, soils management, and I think by continuing to build those cooperative relationships, that has a benefit for our trade relationship as well. But I certainly think that at the end of our meeting, the Chinese Agriculture Minister was in no doubt that Australia still wants to see those remaining trade impediments removed. As you say, there are some good negotiations on underway between our countries to resolve the barley issues. We’re hopeful a similar approach will be taken in relation to wine. We have managed to get China to reduce its impediments around timber, cotton, some horticulture products, but there still do remain issues in beef and a few other sectors as well. So we’ve just got to keep plugging away on that.

KATHRYN ROBINSON: OK. With respect to a free trade deal with the EU when we last spoke, you mentioned that you were looking forward to having some discussions on the sidelines of this UN conference with your EU counterparts. Is Canberra any closer to securing a trade deal? Have any of those blockages been unblocked?

MURRAY WATT: I think that every time we meet with the EU we make progress, and I do think that we got a positive hearing in Rome in the meetings that I had with the EU Agriculture Minister and agriculture ministers from a range of different countries; France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, a bunch of others as well. And it was certainly a very useful opportunity to convey that Australia is not satisfied with the deal that the EU has on the table at the moment. There did seem to be a bit of a misconception among some of the Ministers that we were very close to reaching a deal, so I think it was important to be able to communicate that the deal currently is well short of what we can agree to. We’ve tried to be reasonable through these negotiations. We’ve made compromises at our end and we just need the EU to do the same. So, you know, we’re not there yet, but I think that every round of these negotiations we make progress and Don Farrell as the Trade Minister has locked in some further discussions with his counterpart in about a week or so in Europe. So I think that will take things along further as well.

KATHRYN ROBINSON: When you say ‘well short’, are you referring to the access to the commercial markets for beef or is there a lot more involved there

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, there’s a number of products that we think that the offer the EU is prepared to make at the moment just isn’t good enough and, frankly, my job is to get out there across the world and fight for Aussie farmers so that was what I was doing in Europe. And basically in particular the key commodities where there is a difference of opinion are beef, sheepmeat, sugar and dairy. Now they’re sensitive industries for the EU and their farmers obviously have strong views about not necessarily wanting to have competition from good quality clean Australian produce. But the point we’ve been able to make is that the EU market is so enormous that even if we were to be given the market access that we’re looking for, that is just a sliver of the EU market. It’s not as if we’re going to do Irish farmers or German farmers or French farmers out of business. There’s enough to go around. And what we can be doing is meeting the demand that there is for high quality premium product. That’s where we want to slot in because that’s obviously good for our producers, but it also meets European tastes and consumer demands as well.

KATHRYN ROBINSON: Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt is talking about his trips this week to Italy and India as Australia negotiates a trade deal with the EU and celebrates more than six months since the deal with New Delhi came into effect, here on RN Drive. Senator, on India, the trade deal came into effect late December last year. This will allow Australian exporters to move into an export market that’s valued at more than $24 billion. Do you have a gauge yet or a value yet on how much Australian businesses have so far benefited from these lower tariffs?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah the figures that we have most recently show that there’s been about $12 billion worth of Australian produce that has come into India since the agreement was reached just six months ago. So that shows you the enormous value of this market here in India. This is my first time in India and the energy and enthusiasm for Australia has to be felt to be believed. There is incredible enthusiasm, again, for trying to get good quality Australian produce into the country to meet the growing middle class that is here in India. I’ll give you one little factoid that I learned over here; there are as many 17-year-olds in India as the entire Australian population. So it is a huge and growing and young population that wants to take advantage of good quality products and they’re prepared to pay for it.

We’ve recently been able to open market access for the first time for Australian avocados. I actually have spent some time in Indian markets and supermarkets today here in Mumbai and I saw Australian avocados on sale. They’re selling for about $10 to $12 per avocado.


MURRAY WATT: So people are prepared to pay good prices for them and people are literally taking to smashed avocado on toast here in India. So we obviously want to be able to sell as many avocados. I’ve seen table grapes on sale. We’ve got lamb. We’ve got seafood. We’ve got wine. But, you know, the opportunities are just boundless in a market like India.

So, we’ve been trying to – I’ve had a number of meetings with India Government Ministers while we’re here and also meeting with importers and what we really want to do is take advantage of the opportunities that have been created through that trade agreement while negotiating an even better agreement later in the year because there are still some products that are pretty much banned or we’re unable to get in and we want to start seeing some open market access there as well.

But, having said that, I’m very clear with the India Government that we do want this to be a genuine two-way relationship. It’s not all – it’s got to be give and take. And again India is really fascinated with some of the work we’ve been doing around agricultural sustainability, how we can lift the productivity of their herds and we’ve got a lot to offer in that way.

KATHRYN ROBINSON: A two way relationship. Murray Watt, Federal Agriculture Minister, thank you very much for your time.

MURRAY WATT: Great to talk, Kathryn.