Interview with Paul Culliver, ABC Capricornia

30 August 2022


SUBJECTS: Jobs and Skills Summit, Drought Grants, Greens’ Proposal for an Energy Transition Authority. 

PAUL CULLIVER, HOST: Well despite the fact that, yes, we’re in for some rain this week, we’ve had some weird rain all the way through winter and yet, of course, you would know it’s just not been enough which means we’re still in drought in Central Queensland. 
Murray Watt is the Queensland Labor Senator, he’s also Minister for Agriculture. Murray Watt, good morning to you. 

MURRAY WATT: G’day, Paul. How are you going?

PAUL CULLIVER: I’m very well. What are the drought grants available to people in Central Queensland? 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, so these droughts (grants) which we just announced as the new Federal Government are particularly targeted at assisting communities that are preparing for times of drought. One of the things we know is that the best time to prepare for drought is actually when communities aren’t in drought, and what this funding is really directed at doing is assisting communities prepare for future droughts, especially when they’re in better times. Of course, much of Central Queensland is still drought-declared and most regions within Central Queensland will still be affected and able to claim these grants. But they’re particularly directed at assisting communities to prepare for future droughts in addition to the support that’s already there for farmers who are experiencing droughts right now.

PAUL CULLIVER: Yeah, so what are the kind of things that you would spend this money on? 

MURRAY WATT: This kind of money - and the grants are basically in the order of $200,000 to $500,000 for each particular community (group) who’s successful - they could be used for a variety of things - things like training, building capacity in local communities, small infrastructure projects. One thing you could be using this funding for is for bringing in trainers, whether it be from locally or from out of town, to help work with farmers about building resilience in their community, helping community leaders and Chambers of Commerce building resilience in their communities as well. Because one of the things, I think, that we’ve all sort of seen over the years is that it’s very important to provide assistance to farmers and rural communities when they’re in drought, but the best thing we can actually do is to help people prepare for future droughts because that, of course, reduces the financial impact of future droughts on farms, on local communities and on taxpayers in terms of the support that we provide during those drought ridden times.

PAUL CULLIVER: Obviously, Central Queensland areas are still very much in drought, so they are eligible. But I’m curious about whether the eligible areas are just those that are currently in drought because, of course, anywhere in Australia could be in drought at some point and does need to build that resilience. 

MURRAY WATT: That’s right, Paul, and, as I say, what we’re trying to do with these particular grants is prepare for future droughts in addition to dealing with circumstances that we’re facing now. But in the Central Queensland region, there’s a number of council areas that are eligible; so Banana Shire, Central Highlands, Gladstone, Livingstone, Rockhampton and Woorabinda. Now, a number of those councils are still drought-declared despite the rain we’ve seen across Queensland, but there are also a very wide range of other council areas across Queensland that are not currently in drought and who are eligible for this support as well. You know, as far north as the Cape York and the Torres Strait right through North Queensland and out to the most western communities in Queensland as well. So, as I say, what this is really about doing, these particular grants, is preparing for future droughts, so communities that are currently drought-ridden are eligible, but also communities that are not currently in drought, because sadly we know that one day the rain will stop and the droughts will begin again, and we want to make sure that we’re as well-prepared as we can be.

PAUL CULLIVER: All right. Specifically, who should be applying and how can they do that? 

MURRAY WATT: Well it’s basically open to a wide range of community grants, and the best thing for people to do is to go to the federal Department of Agriculture website. There’s information available there. The applications will be open for a few weeks, and we really encourage people to come up with some interesting ideas on what they can do to use these grants to prepare their communities for future droughts.

PAUL CULLIVER: Murray Watt the Minister for Agriculture, your guest on ABC Capricornia this morning. Of course, we’re just a few days away from the Jobs and Skills Summit in Canberra. Of course, yesterday, the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese talking about lifting the cap on skilled migrant visas and trying to fast track people who want to come to this country and, of course, do productive work in our country. What role do you think agricultural visas getting fast tracked and reducing that red tape is going to play? 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah. One of the things that really surprised me, Paul, coming into Government was how large the backlog of visa applications is. When we lost Government – when Labor lost Government in 2013, the backlog for visa applications was in the order of about 200,000. That has now blown out to nearly a million. So, it’s any wonder that employers are struggling to bring in people from overseas to work, whether it be on farms or other areas as well when you’ve got such a massive backlog, and that’s certainly something that we’ve got to deal with. 

Really, in terms of the agriculture workforce, and the same applies for most industries, we think there’s going to need to be a combination of measures. The first step should always be making sure that we’re offering locals training opportunities. And there are increasingly skilled jobs that need filling in agriculture, and there’s no reason why we can’t be providing training to locals to make sure that they have the skills that are needed to use the technology that is increasingly happening on farms. But also, of course, you know, we accept that there is going to be a role for migration. We could train up every single Australian for every single job and probably still fall short, so what we need to do is start clearing those backlogs of those visa applications and making Australia a more attractive place for people to migrate to. One of the things that the Prime Minister has talked about is trying to shift our migration program away from temporary migration to permanent migration. We think that if we can start encouraging people to start thinking about moving to Australia permanently, that’s actually going to be much more attractive to people to move here, whether they want to work on farms or in other industries. So, we’re very hopeful that this Jobs and Skills Summit will come up with some good outcomes, whether it be in agriculture or other industries. You know, we haven’t had a situation where employers and unions are encouraged to work together to come up with solutions, and some of the media reports we’re already seeing look like we’re going to produce some outcomes by facilitating that kind of cooperation.

PAUL CULLIVER: All right. And on a different issue, we had the Senator for Queensland with the Greens, Penny Allman Payne, on the radio yesterday. She was talking about the Greens’ plan for a national energy transition authority, the idea that coal communities – places like Central Queensland, Latrobe Valley, the Hunter and other places – need a national authority to see workers transition to new jobs, to see that transition become orderly and find a way that our economies don’t suffer. Is that something that the Labor Government is happy to negotiate on? 

MURRAY WATT: Well, that’s not our policy, Paul, and, really, that’s because we’re already doing some of those things that the Greens are talking about. We went to the election with two big policies that are relevant in this space; for starters, to create a new government body called Jobs and Skills Australia, and their role is about managing the future needs of the workforce and changes to the workforce. We’ve already introduced legislation to establish that body. We did that within the first couple of sitting weeks. So, whether it be mining or other industries that are facing changes, that new body, Jobs and Skills Australia, will have the role of working with communities, employers and unions around changes that are coming to make sure that communities are protected. 

And the second thing, of course, that we did was we went to the election with our energy plan, Powering Australia, which is all about creating new jobs as a result of this energy transition. And I think one of the most exciting aspects of that is that by far most of the jobs that we expect to see created as we move increasingly towards renewable energy are going to be in the regions. That plan predicts, based on modelling, that there will be over 600,000 new jobs created in Australia as a result of the transition towards renewable energy and five out of six of them will be in the regions. 

So I think you know, Paul, from my time in Central Queensland, I’ve spent a lot of time with companies, unions and workers, talking about the changes we’re seeing in the energy market, and we want to make sure that Central Queensland is a net gain – there’s a net gain for Central Queensland, rather than a bad story, which some people are predicting.

PAUL CULLIVER: Sure, but you don’t see any merit in the idea that there could be an organisation that would specifically be tasked with looking at that transition in resources and energy? 

MURRAY WATT: We don’t think that that is necessary at this point because, as I say, we’ve already got the body, we’re on the way to establishing the body that will do exactly that kind of work, just as they’d do that work in Central Queensland for manufacturing or other industries that are experiencing changes. You know, I think one of the problems is that under the former Government, there was no planning for the future. There was no Jobs and Skills Australia or any organisation that was bringing Government together with employers and unions to talk about the future of the workplace, but that’s exactly what this body will do. 

The other thing worth mentioning, Paul, is that Central Queensland communities and mining communities in particular will be well-represented at the Jobs and Skills Summit. Mayor Anne Baker, the Mayor of Isaac Regional Council, is invited to attend and the reason that she was invited is that we wanted to make sure we had a voice for some of those mining communities that are undergoing change. So, I suppose what I’m saying is that I’m confident that between the new body that we’re establishing and participation and people like Anne and other unions and employers in the sector, I think we will be able to make sure that communities are really looked after and that they have a positive future rather than a negative one.

PAUL CULLIVER: All right, Minister, thanks for your time today. 

MURRAY WATT: No worries, Paul. Good to talk.