Interview with Warwick Long, ABC Victoria Country Hour

4 November 2022


SUBJECTS: Apple imports; trade; supermarket costs; National Carp Control Plan; primary producers impacted by floods; flood updates

WARWICK LONG, HOST: Let’s turn our attention to what we started the program speaking about yesterday and that is the recommendation to allow U.S apple imports into Australia. There’s been concerns raised by industry over many things; the subsidies that the U.S uses to export produce, meaning an unlevel playing field, the talk of using antibiotic sprays to deal with things like fire blight and pest and disease in the U.S, which are not in Australia, and the threat that is posed by that pest and disease to Australia.

To join me now to talk through some of those concerns is Murray Watt who is the Federal Agriculture Minister and the Minister for Emergency Management. Murray Watt, welcome back to the Country Hour.
WARWICK LONG: Should we start - what’s your response to the recommendation to allow U.S apple imports into Australia?
MURRAY WATT: Yeah look, I can understand some of the concerns that apple growers have been expressing about the future of their industry. That is completely reasonable that people are concerned about this, but what I can assure both apple producers and all Australians of, is that the strictest biosecurity standards possible will apply to any imports that we end up receiving of U.S apples, just as those very strict rules already apply to imports from other countries like New Zealand and China and Japan. So we obviously take biosecurity extremely seriously in this country, and you probably saw even in the most recent Federal Budget we’ve kicked in another $134 million to further tighten our biosecurity regime.

But the reality is if we do want to be able to trade with other countries and if we want to be able to sell our beef, our dairy, our sheep, our wheat, our wool to other countries, then that does also mean from time to time we need to allow other countries to import to us as well. So we are trying to take – 
WARWICK LONG: There is suggestion that citrus from Australia to the US was effectively traded off against U.S apples coming back the other way. Is that the case?
MURRAY WATT: I wouldn’t quite put it that way, Warwick, but certainly we have an interest in exporting a range of other products, including citrus, to the U.S, and the reality is that it’s very unlikely we can open up markets in other countries for other products if we are not also willing to consider taking their imports in some cases as well. And I think what we need to make sure of is that when we are thinking about allowing imports from other countries, whether it be the U.S or anywhere else, that we make sure that we do it on our terms and in particular have very strong biosecurity regimes, and that is certainly what we’re intending to do here.
WARWICK LONG: As Apple and Pear Australia, the industry body that represents the apple growers of Australia - they say they understand the science behind and they accept the science behind the importation measures but they don’t trust the Government work at the boards to keep out pest and disease, citing Varroa mite, guava root nematode and other incursions in recent years as areas where border protection has failed. What assurances can you give them that it will be different this time?

MURRAY WATT: Well I suppose the assurances I can give them are that, first of all, we do continue to have one of the world’s strongest biosecurity systems, and sure there are examples where from time to time it hasn’t picked up everything, but if you think about the range of plant, animal and other diseases that are in other parts of the world, I think Australia’s biosecurity system has stood the test of time pretty well. But in addition, as I say, we’ve taken the opportunity in the most recent Federal Budget to strengthen our biosecurity measures even further with extra biosecurity officers, extra detector dogs, the livestock traceability system that we’re implementing as well.
The other thing to bear in mind for this particular issue is that the requirements of any trade will be that inspections need to be conducted of consignments of apples on the U.S side of the border before they even get transported to Australia, and they will be inspected again on arrival. So we’ll certainly be doing everything we possibly can to ensure that the sorts of diseases that are out there don’t get brought back into Australia. And I have every confidence in our biosecurity officers that they’ll do the right thing.
WARWICK LONG: There is also concerns from industry and, as I mentioned in the introduction to you, to control things like fire blight, which is not in Australia, growers need to use things like antibiotic sprays, which are not allowed to be used by Australian apple growers. Is that an unfair playing field if they’re using products in America to grow apples that aren’t allowed by growers here?
MURRAY WATT: Well I think, again, if you look around the world and look at the entire trading system overall, different countries do things in different ways. We have standards in Australia that apply for very good reasons and very often they actually add a premium to the product. And I’d be certainly encouraging apple growers to spruik very loudly the quality and the green nature of much of their production as a competitive advantage over apples that come in from any part of the world. So I certainly haven’t given up hope on the Australian apple industry. I think we all think that Australian apples are the best in the world. They’re super crunchy, they’re super sweet; that will go on and I think that making sure that we keep producing the best product we possibly can is good for our domestic sales.

But also, I mean, we’re obviously keen to work with the apple industry to increase our exports of Australian apples as well. Currently, we actually export less than one per cent of all of the apples grown in Australia. There are other markets out there that are interested in taking our apples and I want to work with the industry to take advantage of those opportunities.
WARWICK LONG: Just on that note, Assistant Trade Minister Tim Ayres raised the ire of fruit growers yesterday in response to a similar question saying that growers should just export more. Growers say ‘well, U.S fruit is subsidised by up to 65 per cent to export, as well as other fruit-producing nations’. Is that what holds back Australian exports like apples, the fact that they’re competing in an unfair market?
MURRAY WATT: Look, I’m sure that affects some producers, whether it be apples or other crops as well but every country that we try to export our products to have their own rules. In some cases that are some subsidies. In some cases, there are biosecurity regimes that other companies impose and they don’t like, necessarily, things that we do. So it’s a complex system that we have to navigate our way through, but I can assure the industry that we will be really cooperating with them as much as we possibly can. I’ve had industry figures talk with me about the opportunities they see in other countries, whether it be Japan and other parts of Asia, and with a bit of help from Government we can potentially open up those markets even more, and that’s what I’m going to be focusing on going forward.
WARWICK LONG: Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt is with you here on the Country Hour. Minister, on a couple of other issues, if I may, there are many stories – we had this on the Country Hour yesterday: a letter from Coles to suppliers has raised questions about the actions of supermarkets lately. That letter asks farmers to pass on the savings to the supermarket if it does get savings in the cost of production but also asks those same farmers to absorb any increase in input costs. Is that fair or right for a supermarket to do?
MURRAY WATT: Well, I think that all Australians expect our big retailers to treat our farming community respectfully and well, and I don’t think we can have a situation of double standards where retailers expect to take all of the positives and none of the negatives. We know that farmers are struggling at the moment with higher input costs and that is leading to increased costs of production, which does have to be passed on, in some cases at least, to retailers and to consumers, and I think retailers have got an obligation there as well. So my position really is that we need to have a level playing field as much as we can, and producers need some bargaining power in their negotiations with retailers and they can’t be expected to cop all of the bad stuff and none of the good stuff.
WARWICK LONG: Can Government do something here? Will you speak to Coles? 
MURRAY WATT: Look, I probably need to get across the issue a little bit more, Warwick, at the moment. It only got raised with me for the first time today. But what I’ve sort of said to you is the general principle that we will be adopting and I’m certainly happy to work with farm groups and others to keep our retailers to account. Obviously, all Australians buy their groceries and don’t want to pay any more than they possibly have to, but we need to make sure that producers get a fair go in this system as well.
WARWICK LONG: And then if floods and other emergencies that you’ve had to deal with as Emergency Management Minister aren’t enough, a hailstorm hit a lot of Goulburn Valley fruit growers which grows somewhere between 30 and 40 per cent of Australia’s apples and up to 90 per cent of Australia’s pears earlier this week. Growers say they’re going to need some form of assistance from some level of government. Will you look at that as the Federal Government?
MURRAY WATT: Yeah we’d, of course, be happy to look at that and work in partnership with the Victorian Government about that. I think people can see that we’ve already been acting very cooperatively with the Victorian Government to help relieve farmers who have suffered damage from the floods recently, and we take exactly the same approach when it comes to other forms of disasters as well.
WARWICK LONG: And Minister, I’m being as cheeky as I can and taking as much time as I can as well. Murray Watt is with you – 
MURRAY WATT: As you should, Warwick!

WARWICK LONG: – the Federal Minister for Agriculture. Released today the long-awaited National Carp Plan, which was released out today. It doesn’t call for the release of the much talked about carp– the koi herpes virus to effectively eliminate large numbers of carp. It says more research is needed there. But is there much you can tell us about the release of this document and what you expect it to do to our waterways?
MURRAY WATT: Yeah look, we’re still working our way through this as well, Warwick. We only received this document for the first time ourselves today, and it’s over 4000 pages altogether, so it will take a little bit of time to work its way through. But my observation from a quick read of the paper was that it does suggest that there is research that shows that using that virus would be an effective control measure for carp, but, of course, we’ve got to think about the wider impacts of introducing that kind of a virus more widely as well. It seemed to me that the recommendations were that you could consider using it in a more targeted manner, rather than just going and plonking it into every river system right around the country.
But there’s still some more work to be done here. We’ve got to get the National Biosecurity Committee, which includes the most senior biosecurity people from the federal and state governments, to have a good look at this now as well. But I think it is a really solid piece of work based on really good evidence, so I think it’s a really helpful contribution to what’s been a very challenging issue for a long time.
WARWICK LONG: Yeah, so it sounds like you support the idea of more research and you’re not taking the koi herpes virus off the table.
MURRAY WATT: No, as I say, I think we’ve still got to take a bit of time to work our way through this report, so I’m not really in a position to give you a categorical answer at this point in time, but what it seemed to me from this report is that it did seem to have some evidence that using this virus would be effective if all we were thinking about is focusing on reducing carp numbers, but, of course, we’ve always got to think about the wider impacts of introducing these sorts of species as well, so it might be that there’s more research needed into that before we go following it holus bolus.
WARWICK LONG: And as Minister for Emergency Management, obviously flooding continuing in areas of New South Wales again, the clean up continuing in Victoria. We’re about to head to Rochester to hear about that clean up for agriculture there, but are you expecting to either tour or be back through some of the flood-affected areas of Victoria any time soon?
MURRAY WATT: Yeah I am planning to do that pretty soon, Warwick. Obviously, I was with the Prime Minister about 10 days ago in Bendigo and I also personally went to Seymour, and I’ve certainly been staying in touch with people in places like Shepparton, even if it’s had to be by online conferences and stuff like that. I am hoping to get back soon. Of course, one of the challenges that we’re seeing floods in so many different parts of the country, so I’ve sort of been into almost every state on the eastern seaboard over the last week or two to look at the flood damage. Western New South Wales a couple of times, there’s obviously flooding in some parts of Queensland and Tasmania as well, but I’m certainly doing my best to stay on top of what’s happening in Victoria, and I can assure people we will be providing whatever support is necessary.
WARWICK LONG: Are you worried about fatigue? The flooding emergencies and the length of emergency management that has been constantly on alert in Australia has been there for some time.
MURRAY WATT: Yeah, no, I’m very concerned about the level of fatigue we see in these communities, Warwick. I see it in the Government officials that I deal with, I see it in the SES personnel who I meet with, the councils, the residents, the farmers. You can really see these communities who have been hit time after time are very fatigued.

And while it’s a New South Wales example, rather than Victoria, when I was in Forbes recently with the Prime Minister people there were telling us the fact that they’d experienced five floods already this calendar year, and right now it’s looking at flooding again as we speak. It just shows you that these things aren’t going away and it’s having a big impact on people.

I guess that’s why I’m really keen to make sure people know we are standing with communities. We know what they’re going through. The state governments, I think, have been doing a good job of getting resources out early and, of course, we’re backing them in with more Defence Force personnel, but, unfortunately, it’s going to be another difficult summer now we’re facing our third La Niña and I think everyone needs to hang in there and really stick by each other in these tough times.
WARWICK LONG: A lot of issues to talk about and we thank you for your time, Minister. Thanks for joining us.
MURRAY WATT: Good on you, Warwick.