Interview with Sally Rope, ABC Gold Coast

29 August 2022

9:11AM, MONDAY, 29 AUGUST 2022

SUBJECTS: Biosecurity risks and outbreaks, white spot disease and the Jobs and Skills Summit

SALLY ROPE, HOST: Each Monday we like to chat to one of our Federal politicians. Now its been a little bit topsy turvey for the past couple of weeks. We've had people on, off and sick and we've swapped stuff around. We like the alternate the Government and the Opposition and a short time ago I caught up with Federal Labor Senator, Murray Watt. Senator Murray Watt, Federal Minister for Agriculture and Minister for Emergency Management, good morning.

MURRAY WATT: G’day, Sally. Good to be with you.

SALLY ROPE: No extra ministries there that we need to know about?

MURRAY WATT: [Laughter] Not that I’m aware of, no! We’re trying to be a good government and try to make sure that only one Minister is responsible for things and so far so good on that front.

SALLY ROPE: Today marks 100 days of the Albanese Government. Let’s take a little bit of a look back. What do you think you’ve done well?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I think today is a pretty significant milestone for the Government to get to. The first 100 days of any government is a real milestone to see how they’re progressing, and I think there’s some very real achievements that we can point to at a very early stage of the term, things like the Government supporting an increase to the minimum wage, which many workers, whether it be on the Gold Coast or right around the country, really need. We’re making progress on fixing aged care.

In my portfolio, we’ve seen some really good cooperation with the states and territories on things like disaster management and managing foot and mouth disease. Obviously, we’re well on the way to legislating climate emission targets, something that the country just was incapable of doing under the previous government. But beyond the individual achievements, I think it’s also the way the Government is operating I think that’s really different. We’re getting things done, we’re doing what we said we would do. We’re cooperating really well, whether it be with states and territories, industry, unions, the general community, and I actually think that’s really provided the country with a breath of a fresh air. It’s what the country really wanted after years of conflict, was a government that could bring people together and act on some of those really short term challenges that we’ve got, while also thinking about some long term reform in areas like climate change and the Voice to Parliament, so there’s a lot more to be done, but I do think that the Government is off to a good start. I get a lot of feedback from people saying we’ve really hit the ground running and, as I say, I think people have really picked up that change of tone in the way the Government is operating. So, hopefully, it can continue for the country’s benefit.

SALLY ROPE: And looking back, what do you wish you’d done better? Do you think there are places where you can still afford to improve?

MURRAY WATT: Look, I think things like the cost of living are a serious challenge for people, and some of these things haven’t just arisen overnight. The reality is that whether we’re talking about the trillion dollars of debt that we’ve inherited or the rising cost of living for people, or wages not increasing, the lack of action of climate change – they’re all things that really built up over 10 years of delay from the previous government and the reality is they are going to take a bit of time to change. So we’re very focused on those bread and butter things like cost of living. It is something that people raise with me a lot, and we’re hopeful that out of even things like the Jobs and Skills Summit we’re holding this week we can start doing some things about that.

SALLY ROPE: As Agriculture Minister, you’ve had to hit the ground running, definitely. You’ve had to get your head around foot and mouth disease, varroa mite - we’ve spoken about both of those in this segment before. Now white spot disease has been detected in a prawn farm in northern New South Wales – the first outbreak in New South Wales. Are you concerned about that, especially as we edge closer to Christmas?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, it is disappointing to see a new outbreak of white spot, but the good thing is at this point in time it has been contained to one prawn hatchery around Yamba. Obviously, a few years ago the northern Gold Coast suffered its own serious white spot outbreak and I remember meeting with prawn farmers at the time who really lost everything through that. So, I think the fact that we’ve seen this happen again is a sign that the biosecurity challenges we face as a country just keep getting bigger. I think I’ve spoken to you before about the fact that with the increased trade and travel that we’re now seeing from people post-COVID and even things like people moving to online shopping means that we see more and more biosecurity threats entering the country, and it’s a real credit, I think, to the people who have been managing this particular incident that it has been contained to that one property. That’s certainly the intention, is to try to keep this that way, and, of course, we don’t want to see it travel north up to the Logan Gold Coast area like it did a few years ago. But, yeah, it’s a serious challenge and it shows why we’ve all got to take these biosecurity issues really seriously.

SALLY ROPE: On ABC Gold Coast and ABC Sunshine Coast this morning, chatting with Senator Murray Watt, Federal Minister for Agriculture and Minister for Emergency Management. We catch up with him every couple of weeks on this program. A 70 per cent chance of a third La Niña event, according to the Bureau of Meteorology, and that to be happening in September October. As Minister for Emergency Management, where do you even start with information like that?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, again, I think that is a real concern because I know really most of south east Queensland and Northern New South Wales has copped a battering over the last couple of years from floods and heavy rain and to think that we are potentially facing another La Niña event is a real worry for people. All the catchments are still very wet from the previous rain, so it won’t take a huge amount of rain for us to see more flooding again. What we’ve been doing is really just trying to make sure that we are thoroughly prepared for this summer. Again, I think what we all saw under the previous government was the work just never seemed to be done around preparation and there was this very reactive approach where things would have to happen before we would see the Government swing into action.
What we’ve been doing in contrast is already starting the work with states and territories to make sure that everybody’s ready. You know, the reality is that we are going to see floods in the future in Australia, there’s nothing that we can necessarily do about that, but what we can do is make sure that all the authorities are prepared. So, over the last couple of weeks, officials from my emergency management department have been travelling around the countryside meeting with their state and territory counterparts to make sure that everyone has very well developed plans so that if the worse does happen, we are really ready this time.

SALLY ROPE: Are you confident, though, that we will be ready this time? 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, look, I’m as confident as you can be. I think the thing about natural disasters is that there’s always something that’s a bit unexpected. If you look back at those floods that we saw earlier in the year in south east Queensland and Northern New South Wales, just the intensity of the rainfall that we experienced over a very short period of time is highly unusual, and we basically had that rain cloud that just sat over south east Queensland and dumped a huge bucket of rain before doing the same thing in Northern New South Wales. All of the meteorological information didn’t necessarily predict that. So, there are unexpected things, but I think what you can do is try to get systems in place so that people are ready to respond if the worst happens. Really, that’s the approach we’re trying to take as a new government, is actually that we are better prepared for the events that we know are going to come whether we like it or not, and that we respond much more quickly than we’ve seen in the past.

SALLY ROPE: I mean, there’s a whole lot of people who haven’t recovered from the last event let alone going through a third. Some farmers say it will just be the end of them. We’ve already seen flooding impacting food supply. How much of a concern is that? I mean, I’m sure you can afford a $10 lettuce, but not all of us can?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah look, it’s had a really big impact on people’s prices at the checkout. About three or four weeks ago I actually met with farmers in the Lockyer Valley, went out there and had a bit of a chat to people to understand what they’re going through. And obviously, we have provided some financial assistance to those farmers over the last few months, and there’s more that will be coming, but the fact that they had their crops wiped out twice had not only an impact on them, it also impacted on everyone when they went to buy their lettuce. So, those sorts of issues are another real pressure on cost of living and, again, it’s why we need to do as much as we can to build resilience in our community.

I guess, that’s one of the other things that we as a new government are trying to do, is to invest a lot more in disaster mitigation, whether it be flood levees or drainage improvements or bushfire evacuation centres – the kind of things that can reduce the damage when we do see these events occurring.

SALLY ROPE: How much of an issue is the state by state approach? I mean, being right on the border here, we’re seeing it on both sides of us, yet you’ve got two different governments responding to issues in two different ways. How much of an issue is that for you?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I think it’s fair to say that different states have different capability when it comes to dealing with disasters and maybe it’s just because I’m a Queenslander, but I do think that the Queensland Government for a long time has done pretty much the best in the country, and I guess that’s also because of the sheer number of natural disasters that we face in Queensland. There’s a huge capability that has been developed over years. I am hopeful that as a result of the flood inquiry that the New South Wales commissioned, that there will be some significant improvements on the New South Wales’ side of the border. I think all of us were a little concerned by what we saw in those floods that happened in Lismore and the rest of the Northern Rivers region, but the flood inquiry that was recently tabled, their report, did have some big recommendations about changing how New South Wales Government goes and approaches these disasters, so hopefully those recommendations are implemented and that way people on the New South Wales’ side of the border can also experience a really fast and professional response.

SALLY ROPE: But Sydney’s such a long way from Tweed Heads. Is there an argument, say, for some sort of cross border department when it comes to emergencies like this?

MURRAY WATT: I thought you were going to say ‘should we be changing the border?’, and that’s a whole other discussion!

SALLY ROPE: Look, we’ve spoken about that before, just making the Gold Coast area just Tweed Land, but any way we won’t get into that. 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, that’s a big issue for a Monday morning. But, no –

SALLY ROPE: But New South Wales has a cross border commissioner.


SALLY ROPE: Is there an argument for some sort of cross border department that can sort of deal with both sides so the public have one place that they can go?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, look, there is already a fairly high degree of cooperation cross-border in a disaster situation, so it’s very common to see Queensland essentially lend people and other resources to New South Wales if something bad happens and vice versa. But, yeah, look, that’s a good suggestion. I’m happy to have a chat with our people about whether there’s more that we can do there. That’s sort of role of the Federal Government, though, I suppose, to ensure that there is coordination between the different states. I don’t think that we really want to get to a situation where we have a federal government that tries to run all of emergency services across the country. The states have developed some pretty good experience and expertise about this. Really, what we can do is to step in and try to coordinate that, especially when we do see those cross border disasters. So, yeah, look, I’m happy to have a chat with our people to see if that can be improved.

SALLY ROPE: On ABC Gold Coast and ABC Sunshine Coast, Murray Watt is who we are chatting with, Federal Minister for Agriculture and Minister for Emergency Management. Finally, before I let you go, Mr Watt, Federal Government’s Jobs Summit, you mentioned it a little bit earlier. It’s happening this week, do you get to go?

MURRAY WATT: Yes, I’ll be certainly attending for quite a bit of the Summit. Space is pretty tight there, so we’re all being asked to come at the times that we’re needed, and obviously the agriculture sector is one sector that has had some very serious workforce shortages for a number of years. Again, it’s not something that’s happened since the election, it’s been in place for a while. Some of the previous measures that we saw the former government try just didn’t work. So it’s now our responsibility to work with farmers, work with unions, work with everyone who has got an interest in this, and I’m very hopeful that we can get some positive steps forward. Even just getting some of these different groups talking for the first time in a very long time is a positive step and, again, it goes to that point about cooperation that I was talking about, that our Government is really trying to push forward, and it’s yielding results in a range of areas and I’m certainly hopeful that it will yield some results on skill shortages because I know it’s a massive issue affecting pretty much every industry on the Gold Coast and right around the country.

SALLY ROPE: Only 100 people get to go, though, that doesn’t seem like a lot.

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, we’ve had to keep invitation list fairly tight just to, partly, to make it manageable, but also in these post COVID years trying to keep the people – what do you call it - social distancing and things like that. But what we’ve all done as Ministers is hold a number of roundtables in the run up to the summit. I’ve personally held four in different parts of the country focused on the needs of agriculture. Pretty much every other Minister has done the same to make sure that we have a much broader range of voices. On the Gold Coast I’ve caught up with the head of Destination Gold Coast recently to have a chat about the tourism industry’s needs, so there’s a range of other ideas that will be fed in to the peak Summit if you like that’ll be happening later this week.

SALLY ROPE: Well, no doubt, that will be something that we’ll be hearing a lot about across ABC radio, TV and online at the end of the week.

MURRAY WATT: I’d say so.

SALLY ROPE: Murray Watt, Senator Murray Watt, Federal Minister for Agriculture and Minister for Emergency Management, thank you again for your time, as always.

MURRAY WATT: No worries, Sally, nice to talk.