Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC Afternoon Briefing


SUBJECTS: AFAC Seasonal Outlook; bushfire preparedness; Murray-Darling Basin Plan; Pistol & Boo

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Emergency Management Minister Murray Watt is responsible for national preparations. He's also Agriculture Minister. So, with a few stories around in both portfolios, we caught up with Murray Watt from the Brisbane Convention Centre.

Murray Watt, thanks for coming back on. These are very sobering warnings that are being issued today about the heightened summer bushfire risks. The area involved is simply enormous, isn't it? Especially drier, flatter grasslands west of the great divide. Isn't it the reality that, unlike recent intense coastal forest fires, many of these might not be able to be fought or controlled, because of those terrain reasons I just described?

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Yeah well, Greg, we are certainly facing a different kind of fire outlook this spring to what we've seen in past years. And we certainly have known for some time that this year we are going to be facing the most significant fire season that we've seen since Black Summer. And today's information and outlook through spring demonstrates very graphically what kind of challenge we're going to be facing. As you say, there's a very large swathe of the country that faces increased fire risk compared to usual through spring. And that's, of course, before we get to the prime fire season through summer that we tend to see big fires in southern states. But you're right, the fire risk that we do face this time is more likely to be grassfires. And that's why, when you look at the map, a lot of the areas at risk are very much inland. So, western NSW, western Queensland, central Australia, with parts of Victoria as well.

But I guess the most important thing for your viewers is to know that people have been working on being ready for this season for several months now. We've known that there was going to be a risk of this kind. We now have much better information as to exactly which areas are at risk, and that has really informed our preparations heading into this fire season.

GREG JENNETT: I see you've identified the building up of a national stockpile of things including shelter, generation back-up and food. Where exactly are those stockpiles and how complete are they against the inventories you think you'll need?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah well, this is another step that the Albanese Government has taken, Greg, to make sure that we're much better prepared as a country for future disasters. I think we've all seen in past years the mad scramble that goes on for temporary housing, water purification equipment and all sorts of other equipment that's needed in disaster situations. And what we're doing for the first time is building a national stockpile of those types of items to be able to supplement what states and territories have available when disasters hit. We're in the middle of a tender process at the moment to establish that stockpile. And that will not only determine the provider, but it will also determine the location or locations for that stockpile. So we expect to be able to say more about that before too long and certainly before this disaster season gets underway.

GREG JENNETT: Right, that was going to be my next question. If you're only at tender phase, what gives you confidence that those national stockpiles would actually be ready by, let's say, December?

MURRAY WATT: It's always been the intention of this process to make sure that it is available for this season and it's something that we will keep building on into future years. The stockpile that we have ready for this year won't necessarily be the end of the matter. It is something that we intend to try to expand in the future and as I say, it is really intended to be a supplementary tool to what states and territories already do. I've personally been into the Queensland Government's- effectively their stockpile, and they have a lot of equipment ready to go, as do every other state and territory. But we do think that there is a national role here to be able to top up what the states and territories have available and to be able to dispatch equipment, temporary housing and things like that, wherever it might be needed around the country.

GREG JENNETT: All right, can I take you to the somewhat-associated issue of water management, Murray Watt? The National Farmers’ Federation is simply livid at Tanya Plibersek's Murray-Darling Basin Plan, particularly the water buyback element of it. ‘Autocratic’ and ‘dictatorship’ are words that they're using. Why did your Ministerial colleague jump at the gun on this? And does this mark the end of your what I think could be described as pretty solid relationship with primary industry up to now?

MURRAY WATT: Look, I think that Tanya has done a very good job of managing what is a very difficult issue for our country. Unfortunately for Tanya, as the Water Minister, she has inherited a complete mess from the former Coalition Government, which did absolutely nothing to advance the Murray-Darling Basin in the nearly ten years that they were in government. I've spoken over the last 24 hours with the National Farmers’ Federation President and CEO, and I understand that they're very upset and disappointed in this plan, but they recognise that this is a policy that we took to the election, that we would deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan in full.

And quite apart from the environmental benefits of doing so, it's actually really important for agriculture as well. The Murray-Darling Basin is obviously the biggest food bowl in our entire country, and if we don't do something to preserve that basin and ensure that that river system is protected for the future, that will be disastrous for Australian agriculture overall. But the plan that Tanya has put forward and has now been able to sign with all but one state and territory involved, is a sensible plan. As she has said, there's now more funding available under this plan than what we saw before. There's more time to deliver it, to do it in consultation with communities, and importantly, there are more options for how we deliver it. So we understand this is going to be a difficult task, but we're keen to work with the farming sector on it.

GREG JENNETT: You say more funding is available, I know that farmers and rural communities crave, if nothing else, certainty. Can you give them some certainty on indicative numbers? How many dollars are set aside for water buybacks and community adjustment programs?

MURRAY WATT: Well, just as Tanya has not revealed those figures, I'm certainly not proposing to either, Greg, because when we're talking about potential voluntary water purchases, that has to be done in a commercial environment. And we don't intend to go out and disclose exactly how much money we've got available to do so. But what we do want to do is make sure that any voluntary buybacks are done with a view to good value for money for taxpayers. But as Tanya said yesterday, there are other options for how we can be delivering this as well. There are over 100 new ideas that have been presented from the farm sector and other community groups about how we can achieve those water recovery targets. And I know that Tanya and her department are working through those at the moment.

We do want to see water infrastructure projects and water saving and water efficiency measures delivered as part of this as well, but I can assure people that substantial funds have been put aside for that, and also to support any communities that are disadvantaged through a structural adjustment process.

GREG JENNETT: Alright, will you have the numbers in the Senate? Have you gauged that?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I know that's something that Tanya and her team have been working on. We would certainly be hopeful that there's a lot in this plan to satisfy both the Opposition and the Crossbenchers. The Opposition have been saying for some time that we need more time to deliver the Murray-Darling Basin Plan - that has now been committed to, because we couldn't deliver it in the original timeframe. For the Crossbenchers, we've said that we're very committed to delivering this plan and the environmental benefits that will come from it, so we would certainly be hopeful of receiving support for that in the Senate.

GREG JENNETT: All right, well, the Nationals seem pretty resolutely against it, according to David Littleproud, anyway, when he spoke to us yesterday.

Look, I can't let you go, Murray Watt, without a question about your department deciding not to pursue American actress Amber Heard over her alleged perjury, misleading of the court, with her brazenly illegal importation of Pistol and Boo, the terriers. But what exactly were the reasons for abandoning this? Was it flimsy evidence or was it cost, what were the reasons?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I've looked into this this morning, Greg, in anticipation of your interview, and Pistol and Boo seems to be a topic that every Australian Agriculture Minister deals with, whatever year it is. But this was a very serious biosecurity breach by Amber Heard at the time, trying to bring in two dogs into Australia without the relevant clearances. Fortunately, they were stopped, and that's a good thing. What this case referred to, though, and revolved around was the allegations of perjury from Amber Heard in another trial that was conducted overseas. Essentially, our department worked with the Commonwealth Director of Prosecutions on it and the DPP decided that there simply- it wouldn't succeed as a case. So for that reason, it has been dropped. But the important thing is that Australian biosecurity was upheld at the time and it will always be no matter which party is in government.

GREG JENNETT: Okay, so no subtle messaging here to well-healed pet and private jet owners then, you're telling us, Murray Watt?

MURRAY WATT: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. You can try and get into Australia in a private jet or a commercial airliner. If you do the wrong thing, you'll be caught, you'll be penalised, and you won't be allowed to bring biosecurity risk material in.

GREG JENNETT: All right, well, Amber Heard might be grateful for small mercies. I know with the acquisition of another dog, she named it Barnaby. Let's wait and see if future additions to the family include mutts called Murray,

Murray Watt, well thank you and leave it there.

MURRAY WATT: Thanks, Greg. Good to talk.