Interview with Matt Doran, ABC Afternoon Briefing


SUBJECTS: Preparation for bushfires and floods, Tropical Cyclone Jasper, crackdown on illegal fishing.

MATT DORAN, HOST: Authorities have been warning Australians to prepare for a troubling summer, and it seems like some of those predictions are already coming to pass.

In South Australia multiple fires are burning across the state fuelled by temperatures in excess of 40 degrees, dry lightning, winds up to 100 kilometres an hour, and there are tens of thousands of people without power this afternoon.

In New South Wales, temperature records are tumbling with extreme heat wave and fire danger warnings in place across many parts of the state, and locals are being warned to batten down the hatches and prepare for flooding, as Category 4 Tropical Cyclone Jasper continues its slow march towards the New South Wales not the New South Wales   the Northern Queensland coast.

The Federal Emergency Management Minister is Murray Watt. He joins me live from Brisbane this afternoon. Senator, thanks for joining us on Afternoon Briefing.

I understand you've just been in some briefings about the situation across the country, but we'll start with the cyclone off the coast of Queensland. What can you tell us about how that's tracking?

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Yeah good afternoon, Matt. I've just been briefed again by our federal emergency management officials who are obviously working very closely with each of the states and territories that's facing disaster situations at the moment.

Here in Queensland we're keeping a very close eye on Tropical Cyclone Jasper. It's still a fair way off the Queensland coast, and it's still uncertain whether it will make landfall, but obviously as always, we're hoping for the best while preparing for the worst.

We now have a federal emergency management official based in the Queensland Disaster Coordination Centre to make sure that we're working closely with them. At the moment the system is at a Category 4 level. It is expected that as it gets closer to the Queensland coast, it will develop to the Category 5, more intense still, but then as time goes on it's expected to weaken, which is a good thing. And as I say, it's still not entirely clear whether it will make landfall.

The latest predictions are that if it does make landfall it would be likely to be somewhere between Townsville and Cooktown where, of course, there are still very large population centres between Townsville, Cairns, and places like that, and that would be most likely to be the second half of next week if it does happen.

So I guess the message for everyone living in Far North Queensland is that now's the time to be prepared. At least we do have some warning that this might be coming, so people have got a few days now to get themselves ready.

That is obviously a part of Australia that is very familiar with cyclones, but now's the time for people to be securing loose items around their homes, clearing gutters, making sure they haven't got loose roof tiles and having emergency kits ready to go just in case the worst does happen.

MATT DORAN: Yeah, some time to prepare there, which is clearly welcome. We know that Australians across the country have been told to prepare for this summer wherever they are, based on the circumstances that various parts of the country find themselves in. We're certainly seeing that play out in South Australia this afternoon; multiple fires burning, tens of thousands of people without power. What's your understanding of the latest situation there?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, obviously there are very hot conditions and windy conditions going through much of South Australia at the moment, Matt, and a lot of South Australia is currently facing catastrophic fire danger rating, as are parts of Victoria. And over the course of this weekend we expect those very hot conditions to continue well into New South Wales as well.

At this stage, while there are a number of fires underway in South Australia, the authorities do seem to be coping. We have the nationally leased large aerial water bomber tanker down in South Australia at the moment to assist the South Australian Government with their efforts, but we do need to keep a really close eye on the situation as these hot and windy conditions continue over the next couple of days.

But then, as we've seen already in other parts of the country, we could be moving immediately from fires to floods in South Australia. So I know that the authorities there are putting a lot of work in to be ready for that as well. And as you say, this is an indication of the very serious conditions we face in many parts of the country this summer, and that's exactly why all of us have been preparing so much for this over the last few months, whether that's federal, state and local officials.

MATT DORAN: Preparing, but obviously there's always going to be questions about whether or not everyone is ready for this, there's only so much preparation you can do. To see these sort of conditions in early December - we were talking a couple of weeks ago when there was also fires burning in other parts of the country. Is there a concern that this is indicative that this summer ahead of us across the country is just going to be incredibly difficult?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I guess we've known for some time, Matt, that we are likely to face very hot, very dry conditions in much of the country this summer, with the emergence of those El Niño weather conditions and also the Indian Ocean Dipole on the other side of the country, and that is exactly why federal and state officials have been working together so hard for the last few months.

You might remember a couple of months ago we held the first ever National Emergency Management Summit in Canberra over two days to bring together not just emergency authorities from the different levels of government, but also representatives of the private sector, the community sector, all the other groups who end up getting involved when we have a massive disaster. So that we could really put people through some scenarios, make sure that everyone had good information about what resources were available and what they needed to be doing more of.

So as you say, you can never be a hundred percent sure of what kind of conditions you're going to face, but you can be well-prepared, and I'm confident that the work of all of our officials and different levels of the government have put in does mean that the country is as well prepared as we possibly can be.

MATT DORAN: There was a lot of rain along some parts of the East Coast last week or so, I think here in Canberra copped quite a downpour, where Lake Burley Griffin started to reach into the some of the parks that were there around the lake. Does that help or hinder the cause? Does that make it less likely that we'll see those particularly dangerous bushfire conditions in the coming months?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I obviously experienced some of that heavy rain in Canberra when I was down there for Parliament recently, Matt, and much of the country has had quite good rainfall over the last few weeks. I think that has given people some level of comfort that we might not be facing serious bushfires, and I'm afraid to say that that's not correct.

In fact what it will have done is actually accelerate the vegetation growth that we were already seeing in large parts of the country, and given that grass and other vegetation that little bit extra room to breathe and room to move and room to grow, and that the issue we're going to be facing is that overall, given the conditions across the country are going to be very hot and very dry, we expect that that vegetation will dry out quite quickly. So, if anything, it's actually probably made the situation more difficult, and again, just underlines why we've had to put so much effort into being as well prepared as we possibly can be.

MATT DORAN: You wear multiple hats in this Government. I'm going to ask you to put on another one with my next question, and that is in the agriculture portfolio. You've made an announcement today that there's going to be a crackdown on illegally imported seafood in the lead up to the festive season. How much of a problem is this?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah look, it's actually a world wide problem, Matt, and I know that this time of year Australians love their seafood and are thinking a lot about seafood, and all up across the world every year there's about $20 billion, or even more, lost in terms of fisheries’ resources due to illegal fishing.

We experience it ourselves in the waters across Australia, particularly to our northern borders, and that's something that we work hard on across government with Border Force, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, and other agencies as well, doing surveillance to try to track down and then prosecute those who are caught for illegal fishing.

But it's obviously a very serious environmental issue as well, because with climate change affecting water temperatures and other environmental pressures on our ocean, the last thing that we need is to have illegal fishers doing the wrong thing and taking unsustainable amounts of our fisheries' stocks out of our waters.

So on top of the work that we've already been doing, we've just released a report today that we're seeking public feedback on about further steps that can be taken to crack down on illegal fishing, and one thing in particular that we want to focus on is what's called traceability - trying to work out the origin of fish that then go on sale in Australia and are exported out of Australia, to make sure that they're not coming from illegal sources. At the moment there probably is some more work to be done to really get that information about where fish has come from, and the conditions in which it has been fished, and that's another step that we can taking to try to reduce the amount of illegal fishing that's happening around the world and around our country.

MATT DORAN: Well Murray Watt, there are a lot of calls on your time this afternoon. We thank you for answering our call. Thanks for joining us.

MURRAY WATT: Thanks, Matt. Good to talk.