Interview with Ben Fordham, 2GB

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
RADIO INTERVIEW
2GB WITH BEN FORDHAM
TUESDAY, 16 MAY 2023

SUBJECTS: Australia’s sustainable biosecurity funding; biosecurity levy; roads

BEN FORDHAM, HOST: Murray Watt is the Federal Agriculture Minister and he's on the line. Minister, good morning to you. 

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: G'day, Ben. Good to talk to you. 

BEN FORDHAM: You're killing two birds with one stone here, angering the farmers and the truckies all at once? 

MURRAY WATT: Well I suppose I'd probably put it a different way, Ben. What we're trying to do is to make sure that we can maintain our roads, and obviously trucks are essentially for getting freight around and all sorts of other things, but they do cause damage on our roads, and we need to find ways of paying for the maintenance of that. 

And when it comes to the biosecurity funding, I remember the conversations we were having when foot and mouth disease was hitting Indonesia, Ben, and that's a massive risk to our agriculture sector. So we've got to find a way to pay for more biosecurity protections, and actually what we're doing is increasing charges on importers far higher than we are on farmers. But I think it's fair enough to ask taxpayers to make a contribution, and farmers, to keep out these sorts of diseases. Obviously, farmers benefit more than probably anyone from strong biosecurity protections, and I think if we're going to ask your listeners, whether they be truckies or taxi drivers or anyone else to make a contribution to their taxes, it's only fair that we ask farmers to make a very small contribution.  

Even after these changes, farmers will only be paying 6 percent of the cost of our biosecurity operations. Importers will be paying nearly 50 percent, and taxpayers picking up the rest. 

I think it is a pretty modest ask from farmers given the benefits that they receive from the biosecurity system. But obviously we want to make sure that everyone chips in, because we all benefit from strong biosecurity. 

BEN FORDHAM: All right. Let's have a listen to some of those farmers: Alan, Brett, and Wyatt. 

[Excerpt]

ALAN: The way they are going about it is all wrong. Everybody benefits from biosecurity, everyone should contribute. The farmers don't create the risk. 

BRETT: We're paying thousands of dollars every year because somebody imported a bunch of flowers, and they did not contribute towards biosecurity. 

WYATT: It's a real kick in the guts, because we have the cleanest and the most genuine product in the world, as it is. 

[End of Excerpt]

BEN FORDHAM: Minister, what they're saying to us is, ‘we've survived drought and first and floods, and coronavirus, and now we're being slugged again’, and they don't understand why the Aussie farmers, of all people, need to be paying for their competitors to bring in products from overseas. 

MURRAY WATT: Well, I think, Ben, that ignores the fact that which do make importers pay - so those people who do import fresh flowers or fresh produce - they actually do pay through a cost recovery system, and unfortunately the Coalition didn't put up those fees over the time that it was in office, and we are fixing that. So we are actually putting up importers' fees from 1 July this year, and we are continuing to look at other ways to raise funds from importers. So it's not as if we're only going after farmers. And as I say, what this actually means in practice for farmers, if we're talking about an apple grower, they will pay less than a fifth of a cent extra per kilogram; per cattle farmer it's 50 cents a head for cattle. So we're not talking about massive charges being imposed on farmers. 

And, you know, I have to say a number of the farm lobby groups that I've spoken to recognise that we do need to spend more on biosecurity, and that it's reasonable to ask farmers to make a very small contribution. 

BEN FORDHAM: Well, let me just pick up on that, because you usually enjoy quite a bit of support from those farming bodies, but I note here the National Farmers’ Federation says, ‘farmers hoping to see an increase in biosecurity funding have been dealt a bitter sweet hand with a surprise rate on farmers' hip pockets to bankroll the system’. New South Wales farmers say, 'We already pay a large amount in fees and charges, and through the investment of levy dollars, many of our levy dollars, many of our levy dollars to biosecurity to help support Australia's biosecurity system. Double dipping into agriculture is not the way to do it’. 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah look, I mean obviously there are some groups who have said that they're not entirely thrilled about paying a bit more, but I think if you look at the NFF's response, they've also recognised that this means for the very first time in Australia's history we will have sustainable long term biosecurity funding. 

The budget that we inherited was on track to have a 20 per cent cut to biosecurity funding. We've turned that around by increasing biosecurity funding by about $250 million a year. So that will provide massive protections for our agriculture sector going forward. 

So, I think, you know, most of the farm groups have acknowledged a very big increase in biosecurity funding. Some aren't thrilled by the new levy that's being imposed; there are others who have been okay about it. 

BEN FORDHAM: All right. Well they're two of the big ones; the National Farmers Federation and New South Wales Farmers. 

Let's go to the heavy vehicle road user charge which is going up as well. We heard from truckies, AJ, Adam and Les.

[Excerpt]

AJ: We probably use anywhere from 60 to 70,000 litres of diesel a week, so our fuel bill's probably, you know, up over 100,000 easy, each week. 

ADAM: I already know a lot of guys who have been pushed over the edge this year due to fuel and tolls and stuff like that. Can't afford to run them anymore, it's getting beyond a joke. 

LES: “Go on the dole.” I think that's all it tells us: “go on the dole and you'll get more money”, 'cause the harder we work, the more we have to give the money away. 

[End of Excerpt]

BEN FORDHAM: You'd acknowledge, Minister, that when the truckies' costs go up, we're all going to pay more? 

MURRAY WATT: Well, obviously that money's got to be paid for, but I also recognise, like the forecasts from Treasury in the Budget have inflation coming down over the next 12 months, and obviously inflation does look like it has peaked, so we've already started    

BEN FORDHAM: OK. But on this charge, when you talk about "someone's going to pay", the someone is the consumer? 

MURRAY WATT: Well, obviously it's very common for those sort of costs to be passed on, and we recognise that, but we need to recognise that those truckies also want to make sure that they drive on safe roads that are well maintained, and that's got to be paid for. So the options we have are to increase a charge like that, which has been done by a range of governments over the years, not just us, or we have to keep hitting the taxpayer for it. So, you know, money doesn't grow on trees unfortunately, and if people want to have well maintained roads, we've got to find ways to pay for it. 

This is a charge that was agreed with each of the State and Territory Governments, including the former New South Wales Coalition Government, the Tasmanian Liberal Government and all of the State Labor Governments, and I acknowledge that people don't necessarily like paying more, but if we want to have well maintained roads, we've got to find ways to pay for it. 

BEN FORDHAM: All right. I appreciate your honesty on the question of costs being passed on to the consumer. We appreciate you jumping on the line this morning. We'll talk again soon. 

MURRAY WATT: No worries, Ben.