Interview with Matt Doran, ABC Afternoon Briefing


SUBJECTS: Live animal exports; ex-Tropical Cyclone Kirrily; Queensland disaster assistance

MATT DORAN, HOST: Meanwhile the Federal Agriculture Department says it has not made a decision about the fate of the MV Bahijah. The live animal export ship with about 15,000 sheep and cattle on board arrived off WA's coast on Monday after the Department ordered it to return due to tensions in the Red Sea. Department Secretary, Adam Fennessy, gave an update a short time ago. 

[Excerpt] ADAM FENNESSY, DAFF SECRETARY: There should be no doubt that Australia's biosecurity and the health and welfare of the livestock on board are our highest priorities. After standing offshore yesterday, and yesterday evening, and replacing the animal bedding, the vessel has returned to port and is berthed in Fremantle. 

The vessel is taking on further provisions today including additional fodder and fuel. The exporter's registered veterinarian remains on board around continues to report daily on the health and welfare of the livestock. 

My department continues to assess the application to re export the livestock provided by the exporter.  [End of Excerpt] 

MATT DORAN: For more on this, the Federal Agriculture Minister, Murray Watt, joined us from Cloncurry in Western Queensland. 

Murray Watt, welcome back to Afternoon Briefing. We've just heard from the Secretary of your Department talking about this situation with the sheep export ship that is off of WA at the moment. What's your understanding going forward about the options that are there for resolving this situation? 

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: That's right, Matt. I didn't see the press conference myself; I was actually in a helicopter here in North West Queensland, but I understand the Secretary of the Department has just done a press conference. 

One thing that's really important to understand about this process is that the Department of Agriculture is the independent regulator of live animal exports, and that's why the decision-making in this process rests exclusively with them. You probably have seen there's a number of groups; farmers groups, animal welfare groups, who've been calling on me to personally intervene, but under Australian law the responsibility 100 per cent lies with the Department, and it would be illegal, literally, for me to intervene personally in this case. 

But having said all that, I know that the Department is working around the clock, literally, to try to get this situation resolved, and I understand the Secretary made clear today that he's certainly determined to try to resolve the situation as quickly as possible, but also that in resolving the situation that Australian biosecurity and animal welfare are the Department's highest priorities. So they will continue working with the exporter to try to come to a resolution. It's important to know that the exporter was directed to turn around the voyage a couple of weeks ago and took a couple of weeks to then present an option to the Department as to what could be done. Now that that's occurred, the Department has been working on it, and hopefully we can see a resolution of this quickly. 

MATT DORAN: Because of the situation that's facing this ship and some of the restrictions or pressures that are currently on global shipping routes, there is this discussion about potentially the ship taking a longer voyage, a 60 day voyage, to get these sheep to where they are destined to go. That would be unprecedented for a live export journey, wouldn't it, such a long duration at sea? 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah I'm not sure that it would necessarily be unprecedented, but it would certainly be a particularly long voyage for these animals, if that were to be the decision of the Department, and that is one of the reasons they are still working through this issue to ensure that, if that is what they end up deciding to approve, that it can be done in a safe and humane way. Obviously no Australian Government is going to allow a shipment of any kind of animal to be sent in a way that is going to put those animals' lives in danger, and they are exactly the issues that the Department is working through. 

MATT DORAN: Do you think from a welfare perspective, and quite frankly from a public perspective, with all the discussion we've had about live exports over the last couple of years that it's appropriate to even be considering a journey as lengthy as that? 

MURRAY WATT: Well, I guess I want to be careful here to not sort of intervene and express a view about something that is by law a decision of the Department. But I do have confidence in the Department to take into account these types of animal welfare issues when they are making the decision about what should happen from here, and again the responsibility primarily lies with the exporter here to come up with a solution that can comply with Australian biosecurity requirements, and our animal welfare laws. 

You have referred there, Matt, to the broader debate about live animal exports, and you'd be aware, I'm sure, that our Government has gone to the last two elections with a commitment to phase out the live export industry when it comes to sheep, and that is a commitment that we still intend to uphold. But while it is legal in Australia to export sheep by ship, then of course we would expect the law to be complied with by the exporters, and also by the Department in making their decisions. 

MATT DORAN: You've mentioned there the Government's policy on phasing out this trade, does this situation and the attention it's getting sort of bring forward any discussions or fast track your considerations as to exactly when that phase out, what date that phase out would take place? 

MURRAY WATT: Well, those issues about the date by which we would phase out the trade and the terms of it is exactly the kind of thing that the Government is thinking about at the moment. You're probably aware that last year I appointed an independent panel to provide advice to me on how and when we should end the trade of live sheep exports by sea. I received that report towards the end of October last year, and that is currently being considered by Government. You know, these are big decisions - we don't enter into it lightly, it is a big decision for a government to cease a particular trade. And we've always said that we want to do it in an orderly manner in consultation with industry, because we recognise that this is going to be a significant adjustment for many people, particularly in Western Australia. So where we're conscious that people would like to know what the outcome will be, and obviously we are just wanting to make sure that we take the time to do this properly, and to do it in a way that actually sets up the sheep industry in Western Australia for success. We've always said that we think that there are massive opportunities to actually move towards more onshore processing of sheep. Our exports of sheep meats internationally are going through the roof at a time when we are seeing a declining number of live sheep being exported, so we want to make sure that we can take advantage of those opportunities, do more value adding onshore and create more jobs and more export dollars for Australia. 

MATT DORAN: Murray Watt, let's take off your Agriculture hat and put on your Emergency Management hat. You are joining us this afternoon from Cloncurry in Western Queensland, which has been bearing the brunt of ex Tropical Cyclone Kirrily. Just what sort of damage has there been as this former tropical cyclone has moved so far inland and affected many people out there? 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah I've spent the day, Matt, here in North West Queensland meeting with graziers, meeting with council representatives to really get a firsthand picture of what the impact of this disaster has been. 

One of the things I think that's been interesting about the two tropical cyclones that have hit Queensland this year is that the damage has primarily been from the flooding that has occurred after those cyclones rather than from the cyclones themselves. You will have seen that's what occurred when it came to Tropical Cyclone Jasper in Far North Queensland late last year, and it's happened again now with Kirrily with widespread flooding across North West Queensland. 

It is pleasing to see a lot of the water is starting to go down. You may have seen some footage of a pub in a little town called Kynuna which is between Cloncurry and Winton. The pub was underwater the other day, and that water has now come down. But the major impact of what was being reported to me and that I saw was a huge amount of fencing of cattle properties being destroyed and washed away. There is certainly concern about the loss of livestock, but it's a little too early to tell the kind of numbers we might be talking about, and there's definitely been extensive damage to roads, train lines, bridges and that kind of infrastructure, which is interrupting supply chains. 

So really, that's been the point of being here today, is to see firsthand what might need to be done, but we have already activated some assistance with the Queensland Government for councils and for individuals who've been hit by this, but I'm sure that there will be a need for further support as we go forward. 

MATT DORAN: This is going to be a lengthy and difficult clean up job, isn't it? Because you know, when we're talking about lost fencing in an area like this, it's not just, you know, a couple of metres down the road - this is fencing for kilometres and kilometres stretching as far as the eye can see. Just how long do you expect this sort of recovery situation will take? 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah that was certainly the major concern from the graziers who I met with today, Matt, and you know, these are massive properties that, as you say, cover several hundred square kilometres at a time with many hundreds of kilometres of fencing that have been destroyed, and you know, cattle ranchers are pretty busy people at the best of times. There was one family I met today, a young family who were running a cattle property, they've got one small child, they've got another on the way, and they were planning to finally get around to building a proper house on their property. And now they've got to deal with this.  So it's a lot of work that's going to be imposed on people that they weren't planning for. And we're going to have a think about ways that we might be able to support that recovery going forward. 

MATT DORAN: Murray Watt, a lot of work still to do in this space, and no doubt we'll talk to you more about this issue in the coming weeks. Thanks for joining us. 

MURRAY WATT: Thanks, Matt.