Interview with Josh Becker, ABC South East NSW


SUBJECTS: Bushfire preparedness, eradication of varroa mite, the Voice Referendum

JOSH BECKER, HOST: Well at this point in the season, it's very dry conditions across parts of the South East, parts of the Hunter, and even parts of the North Coast, and many suggesting that we could be in for what could be a very major drought event if there isn't rain any time soon, which poses a big risk for the bushfire season ahead. Murray Watt is the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries, Forestry, and also the Minister for Emergency Management, joins us on the line today. Murray Watt, good morning.


JOSH BECKER: Good to have you on the show. Now, are we prepared for this bushfire season that should be kicking off very soon, unfortunately?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I think we are, Josh. Obviously, there's been a huge amount of work go in - really, even since the last disaster season was still going - to get ready for this year, because we've known for some time that we are likely to be facing hotter and drier conditions this year compared to what we've seen in the last couple of years, especially on the South Coast. So, between the Federal emergency agencies, State and local, as I say, there's been a lot of work under way to prepare, and pleasingly, I think many people in the South Coast region have been taking it upon themselves to also make sure that they're ready.

This is obviously a region that suffered very badly from the Black Summer bushfires, and I think many people   that's still pretty fresh in people's minds. And if there's one upside from that, I guess what it means is that people do know that this is a region that can be hit by bushfires, and therefore, it's really important for individual property owners to prepare just as much as it is for governments as well.

JOSH BECKER: There's been a bit of a worry from locals saying that   I think the RFS revealed that only about 20 per cent of hazard reduction burns had gone ahead this year, partly due to wet conditions, but they're concerned about whether that shows that we're not prepared enough?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I think unfortunately because of the wet conditions that we have seen in the last couple of years, that has made it much more difficult for the New South Wales fire services to do the usual amount of hazard reduction that they normally would, but I'm also aware that the New South Wales Government has thrown extra resources at this in the last few weeks and last couple of months to really get that hazard reduction up as high as possible. Unfortunately, you know, we are really dependent on the weather conditions that people face, and when the moisture is still in the ground and makes it impossible to do that hazard reduction, then you really can't do much about that, but it is pleasing to see the New South Wales Government putting more resources into this to try to do as much as possible before it becomes so dry that we can't continue those hazard reduction burns.

But beyond that, that's obviously only one method of preparation. We've been doing a lot of work with the States to make sure that we've got aerial fire tankers, is the water bombing aircraft in place and ready to go, and I know there's been a lot of other work done as well. So I think considering the weather conditions we've had, everything possible has been done, and that will continue right up until we really hit fire season.

JOSH BECKER: Murray Watt's with us, the Minister for Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry. On another issue, varroa mite continues to spread across southern New South Wales. Has the eradication of it failed, is it time to move to managing life with varroa mite?

MURRAY WATT: I don't think we're at this point yet, Josh. Obviously it's concerning to see the continued spread of varroa mite into different parts of New South Wales, and obviously we've recently had some news that it's getting dangerously close to the Victorian border as well. Again, and this is something that I know the New South Wales Government has been putting a lot of work into to try to contain, I'm going to be briefed on that myself today by the Federal Department of Agriculture officials, just to make sure we've got the most up to date information, but, yeah, I think it's a bit too soon to be saying that we should give up on eradication. It might get to that point, but at the moment that's still the key focus.

JOSH BECKER: Your Department launched an investigation called Operation Decker a few months ago into illegal importation of live bees and its connection to varroa outbreak what does that say about our biosecurity efforts if someone's able to bring live bees back into the country and cause an outbreak like the varroa?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah well I think what it also shows is that we take these sort of things seriously, and when we pick up information about people doing the wrong thing, we will investigate, and we will punish people who do the wrong thing. Unfortunately the reality is that no biosecurity system in the entire world can stop every single thing coming into the country, but we obviously do as much as we can to keep nasty pests and diseases out, with huge spending and a huge effort from our biosecurity officials at ports and airports, and other places as well. But you know, the reality is, as I say, it's not a fool proof system   we can't stop every single thing coming in, but we do everything we possibly can to keep them out, and when we get information that people have done the wrong thing, we come down really hard on them. Even in the last 12 months we've significantly increased the penalties that people face when they commit biosecurity offences, and if we're talking about, for instance, passengers in aeroplanes bringing the wrong thing in, sometimes those fines are much higher than the air fares that people are paying to come in and out of the country.

So we're doing what we can, but we also need people to do the right thing and understand that if they bring the wrong material in, that can pose a really huge risk to our agriculture industry as well as to our natural environment.

JOSH BECKER: So it sounds like there's some key meetings and briefings that you'll be undertaking today. What sort of message will the Federal Government be taking to that meeting about eradication efforts, will you be pushing the states to continue with the current process?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, and that's certainly what we've been doing up until to date. The way the system works is that the Federal takes responsibility for keeping things out of the country, but if they do get in, it generally is State Governments who lead the effort to eradicate particular pests and diseases, and that's what the New South Wales Government is doing with varroa mite. But we work very closely with them, and we obviously provide resources, we're providing a significant amount of funding to the New South Wales Government, and also to the bee industry to help them cope with the fall out from the varroa mite infestations. But yeah, we'll keep working very cooperatively with the State Government, and also the industry, to try to manage these impacts, and keep up that work as much as possible to eradicate varroa mite once and for all.

JOSH BECKER: We are seeing very, very dry conditions across the South East at the moment. According to the DPI, they say - the climatologist, Anthony Clark says - it's starting to hit thresholds across the state, particularly in the Hunter, which tells us that a major drought event is forming. What's the role for the Federal Government in drought assistance or drought preparedness for farmers at this point?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, one of the things that we've been doing since coming to office is trying to put a lot more emphasis on resilience for drought. We do know that we live in a country, you know, full of floods and droughts, and these things are inevitable that they keep on occurring. And with climate change, unfortunately, we are likely to see hotter and drier conditions in the southern part of the country more regularly. So one of the things that we have to deal with this, is the Future Drought Fund, which basically provides about $100 million in funding (a year) at the Federal Government (level) to help farmers and rural communities prepare for drought and be more resilient.

I think we have seen a bit of a mindset shift over recent years where farmers and rural communities are keen to actually have assistance to prepare for droughts so that they're ready and can be a bit more self reliant when droughts come in. That doesn't mean, of course, that we wouldn't be looking to provide assistance to people who do get into trouble if drought arises, but the more that we can be investing in preparing for drought and making communities ready for it and able to deal with it when it hits, then that obviously reduces the burden on taxpayers, if it comes to providing assistance during droughts.

So just recently, actually, the Prime Minister announced nearly $40 million in funding for a number of research institutes across the country, including in New South Wales, to continue trials on farming methods that can make farmers more resilient, and I've seen some of that work for myself in different parts of the country, with some really interesting work being done about growing different types of crops that are more resilient to drought, ways that farmers can stock up on feed and alter some of their farming practices to make sure that their soils are kept healthy and ready for drought.

So there's a lot of work happening at the moment to try to prevent people hitting the worst in drought, but unfortunately we know that at some point we are going to be facing those kind of conditions again.

JOSH BECKER: Murray Watt, I appreciate you're short on time, but it is a very significant day with the Prime Minister set to unveil the Voice to Parliament Referendum date. What's your assessment of the Yes campaign at the moment, and whether it's cutting through?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah. Obviously, at some point through the day the Prime Minister will be announcing the date for the Referendum, and that really mean that the starter's gun will be fired on this campaign. And I think what we'll see is that a lot of people start really paying more attention to this than they have been to date. We recognise people have got busy lives, lots going on, and many haven't really engaged with this issue so far, and I think there are still a lot of people who are making up their minds and looking to find out a bit more about this.

So I remain confident that the Yes case can succeed in this Referendum. There's obviously been a lot of misinformation spread by the No campaign, making up stories about what the Voice will do, and you know, it will affect everything from parking tickets to bridges, and all sorts of nonsense.

What it all boils down to is that what we're saying is that it would be a good idea to recognise our First Peoples in our nation's Constitution, the oldest living civilisation in the world, something we should be really proud of, and that we should listen to them when we're designing Government policies. All the Voice would do is provide advice to Government, and generally when you listen to people, you get better results and better value for money. There's a lot of people I know who feel that a lot of money is spent on matters involving Indigenous communities, and what we want to do is make sure that money is well-spent, and the best way to do that is by listening to the people that these things affect, and that's what the Voice would allow us to do. So I think once people understand those basic things - recognition, listening, to get better results - I think there's a lot of people who would be supportive of that kind of thing.

JOSH BECKER: We'll keep an eye on it, the date coming from the Prime Minister today. Murray Watt, thank you for joining us on ABC South East.

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

JOSH BECKER: Nice to talk to you too. Murray Watt, there. He's the Minister For Agriculture, Fisheries, Forestry, and also the Minister for Emergency Management.