Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News


SUBJECTS: Beef Australia 2024; Future Drought Fund; Exports to China.

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Welcome back to the program. Let's go live now to the Minister for Agriculture, Murray Watt. He joins us from Beef Week in Queensland. Murray Watt, thanks for your time. I know that you've announced this half-a-billion dollar commitment as part of the Future Drought Fund today with the Prime Minister. Your opposite number, David Littleproud, he's reacted saying this is a backflip. He said that you Labor opposed this initiative back in 2019. What do you say to him?

SENATOR MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: I say that David Littleproud is always negative. He's in a competition with Peter Dutton to see who can be the most negative politician in the country. The reality is that the Future Drought Fund has been delivering some good outcomes for our farmers and rural communities. But the Productivity Commission review that was undertaken showed that it needed major change compared to what we had under the Coalition, and that's exactly what we've done.

What we're doing through this new version of the Future Drought Fund is actually trying to extend a lot of the knowledge that's been developed so far about how farmers can manage drought and make themselves resilient for drought, and we want to spread that information beyond individual farms to entire farming communities. It's all very well to learn about something that works on a particular farm but given the amount of public investment we're putting into this, about $520 million, we obviously want to make sure that that benefits farming communities more broadly and, of course, making sure that rural communities are really ready in a social sense.

Obviously, when drought hits communities, it really has a big impact on farm incomes, but it can destroy towns as well with the mental health impacts and all the other stresses. So, we'll be putting a lot more money in that direction than we ever saw under the Coalition.

GILBERT: Okay. Well, David Littleproud, he's saying that it's not new money, that the whole process - the fund - they put in place when they were in government. I guess in a way, it's nice to have the Coalition on board with the plan, regardless of who was the creator of it.

WATT: Yeah, I don't think that the farmers that I'm speaking to here in Rockhampton and the rural communities that I get around in, they're not actually interested in some kind of competition about whose idea it was. They just want to see good governments do good things. And, you know, this is a program that has delivered some outcomes already, but we think it can be a lot better. The Productivity Commission also found, not surprisingly, that the former government because it just didn't really even accept climate change was a thing, that the whole idea about building climate resilience for our farmers wasn't a factor for the Coalition. It is in this Future Drought Fund.

So, I think that what we've done by overhauling this fund is actually building on what was there already, making it even better for farmers and rural communities. And in the end, I don't think anyone cares whose idea it is.

GILBERT: What's the mood like among the exporters when it comes to China? It's been one of our biggest customers. We see another near miss, this time in the Yellow Sea, with criticisms from the Prime Minister down about the behaviour of the Chinese military on this occasion. But I'm wondering, what's the mood among exporters as your government sought to ease the trade tensions with that country?

WATT: Yeah, look, I mean, certainly the mood here in Rockhampton at Beef Week is very, very positive and optimistic overall. We've got good prices recovering for cattle, we've got good export numbers, good production numbers. And the two things that people have been constantly coming up to both me and the Prime Minister to say thank you for - our reopening of the China market by stabilising our relationship with China, developing new markets as well, but also, a lot of people acknowledge the work that's been undertaken around biosecurity as well.

Obviously, we were only a few weeks into being in government when we had that threat of foot and mouth disease in Indonesia. We saw Peter Dutton, Susan McDonald and other National Party figures call for our exports to close to Indonesia, which would have been a devastating blow to our industry. We kept those exports open. We worked with the industry. We worked with Indonesia to keep that trade flowing. But more broadly, with exports, it's terrific, I think, for the sector that we are starting to reopen some of those Chinese markets, we know that there's still work to do, particularly for lobster and some meat abattoirs that there are still blockages. But Don Farrell and I have kept up the pressure on the Chinese government to really fix all of those things as quickly as possible.

GILBERT: Is it all on a precarious footing, given some of the instability or the tensions we're seeing in relation to that near miss criticised by the Prime Minister, and Richard Marles, and others?

WATT: Yeah, you would have seen the Prime Minister's remarks on that here this morning in the press conference at Beef Australia. And we obviously are very unhappy with what has occurred in this particular incident, and the appropriate representations have been made to the Chinese government. But I think this is a good example of the importance of dialogue. We did get to a point under the former government that the relationship with China completely broke down. Literally, they would not pick up the phone when Australian Ministers called. And that's something that we've worked really hard on, which is now providing benefits to our beef producers, but at the same time upholding our security and our national interests. And as you would have heard both the Prime Minister and Penny Wong say many times, the way we're approaching this relationship with China is that we cooperate where we can, we agree where we can, but we will disagree where we must. We will always stand up for Australia's national interests.

GILBERT: Agriculture Minister Murray Watt, joining us live from Rockhampton at Beef Week. Thanks for your time. Appreciate it.

WATT: I'll get back to a steak, Kieran.