Interview with Paul Culliver, ABC Capricornia

1 November 2022


SUBJECTS: Federal Budget; Rockhampton Ring Road; guava root knot nematode; biosecurity; foot and mouth disease update

PAUL CULLIVER, HOST: I might say good morning to the Senator for Queensland and Minister for Agriculture, Murray Watt, who is in Rockhampton at the moment. Good morning to you, Senator.


PAUL CULLIVER: Can we start with the Rocky Ring Road? I think there’s a question that perhaps Labor members are going to receive for a long time to come. Of course, the funding not there to start production of the Rocky Road in January 2023. We know that LNP Members aren’t taking this lying down, we know the Rocky Council is not taking this lying down, they’re very unhappy with this. We now know from Senate Estimates that it looks like it could be at least three years. Is there a chance, is there a way that the Labor Government can work with the community to bring that production time forward?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I think the first point, Paul, is that this project will be going ahead. There have been all sorts of claims made by Michelle Landry and Matt Canavan over the last few days that we’ve cut the project altogether - that is simply not true. There are actually projects in Sydney and Melbourne that we have cut altogether because they were a gross waste of taxpayers’ money, and we don’t feel that way about this Ring Road.
The issue is that when the tenders went out, they came back in $700 million over budget. So for the likes of the LNP Members saying we should push on and do this, they’re telling Rockhampton taxpayers that they should pay nearly double the price.
What we want to do is, basically, smooth out the infrastructure pipeline. So there is money in the Budget. The project will go ahead. And let’s not forget, this project actually started with the planning work under a Labor Government last time we were in power. So we are committed to doing it. But what we’re also committed to doing is using taxpayers’ money wisely.
But, look, I had a good meeting with Tony Williams, the Mayor, yesterday afternoon. Also with the state MPs. And we will always work with local government, state government around schedules for projects. And the key issue is that if this overheated construction market can just calm down a little bit then there actually is the money to pay for it. There are the workers to build it and the materials.
Because, I mean, one of the other things people haven’t realised is that one of the reasons the tenders are so high is not just the overheated market but also a lot of the workers are going to have to be flown in from Brisbane. There’s got to be workers camps built, they’ll be putting pressure on housing markets. It’s just – it’s a really difficult time to be building a project of this size.

PAUL CULLIVER: One thing people are raising is do we really think that prices are going to go down on this project?

MURRAY WATT: Well what I do think is going to happen is that inflation won’t stay at the price– at the rate that it is at the moment. We are obviously going through inflation as a country and as a world that we haven’t seen for 40-50 years at the moment. And one of the other challenges is that because there’s so much work around in the construction market both here in Central Queensland and right around the country is that you don’t get that many people tendering for work.
If this project can just wait that little bit longer so that there aren’t more tenderers competing for the price, then we’re liking to get a price than what we’ve got at the moment.

PAUL CULLIVER: You think the price can come in under $1.7 billion?

MURRAY WATT: I think it possibly can. I mean, I’m not Nostradamus; I can’t predict exactly what the price is going to be. But what I do know is that right now is delivering the highest prices you could possibly imagine for construction projects. And that’s why, you know, what we want to do is make sure that the money is there so the project can go ahead but actually begin it at a time when there are actually the workers here to build the project, when there are the materials, and that is likely to deliver it at a lower price.
I mean, frankly, if the former Government had done anything about the skills crisis that this country is experiencing at any point over 10 years, we may not be in this situation. They had 10 years in government when they could have begun this project, when the construction market wasn’t as overheated. They didn’t. And now this is the situation we’re currently in.

PAUL CULLIVER: I’m not sure if Mayor Williams mentioned this to you yesterday, but there’s been one idea which is that it could take place over six years instead of three, and that might– by obviously metering out the cost over six years doubling that length of time, is that something that could be entertained?

MURRAY WATT: As I say, we will always sit down and work with councils and state governments about the scheduling of projects. And the issue is that between local, state and federal governments there are so many projects that are underway at the moment, and there are times that you can bring certain projects forward, push other ones back. And that’s what we’ve done in this situation.
What we’ve done is simply push it back a little bit so there are the funds, the workers, the materials to build it. But as I say, I had a really good discussion with Tony yesterday, and happy to keep working with him and the state government on it.

PAUL CULLIVER: Sure. Can we talk about grain. Look, here in Central Queensland we’re seeing some really good crops but obviously a lot of water around, and that’s even more of the case in other parts, certainly to the south of here. Some really good crops but challenges to get that crop off and get that crop out. Pair that with some really good prices for some of our grain growers compared with what’s happening in Russia and the Ukraine, Russia now reneging on a deal to get grain out of the Ukraine, there’s real fears about what that’s going to do to global price of grain. Where does Australia play a role there in meeting that famine risk and that demand to feed the world?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, look, there’s an incredible opportunity for Australian grain farmers. And, you know, at one level it’s a very sorry state of affairs that the world finds itself in, but Ukraine is obviously one of the major grain exporters in the world. Not that long ago I actually had a Zoom call with the Ukrainian Minister for Agriculture to talk about these issues and to hear about what Australia and other countries could do to get that grain movement happening and assist Ukraine with it. And we’re continuing those discussions.
But, you know, Australian grain farmers at the moment, generally speaking, are having incredibly good conditions. You know, there are obviously some parts of the country that are getting a lot more rain than what they want, which is destroying crops and making it hard to get tractors in and out without getting bogged and things like that. But overall incredibly good conditions with incredibly high yield and prices. So I think there is an opportunity for us to export more.
The issue, of course, is that we’re a little bit limited by the infrastructure that we have as a country, you know, whether we’re talking about road, rail and ports. There’s only so much grain we can get out of the country, and everything that I’m hearing from farmers is that that infrastructure is running pretty much at full capacity.
But look, we will always take effort opportunity we can to export as much Australian product as we possibly can while making sure that we can still make our own bread and things like that here. But it’s a really good time to be a grain farmer in Australia at the moment.

PAUL CULLIVER: Obviously your ministerial portfolios also cover emergency management and disaster resilience however, that sort of dovetails very nicely into agriculture. Is there resilience work that we need to do about exactly that - when we have so much water around like we do right now, still having the logistics to get those crops where they need to go? Is there more work that needs to be done there?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I do think so. I mean, I think all around the country we’ve seen supply chain interruptions when we see big floods and other natural disasters. I remember in January this year, I think it was, basically people couldn’t get goods between South Australia and the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia, and there were parts of the Bruce Highway that were closed at different times as well.
So you’re probably aware, Paul, we took a commitment to the election to set up a new Disaster Ready Fund. That was overhauling that Emergency Response Fund that the former Government that didn’t do anything and racked up lots of interest for them. We’re actually going to be putting that to work by committing funding for resilience projects so that we can keep the highways open, save people’s properties. I’m actually going to be in Mackay later today talking about a flood levee that we’re going to be building there. And I know there’s projects in Central Queensland that we’ll be looking to fund of that kind as well.

PAUL CULLIVER: You’re hearing from the Labor Senator from Queensland Murray Watt, also the Minister for Agriculture. As people that have been listening to the Rural Report over the last couple of days would certainly know about – the guava root knot nematode. It’s an microscopic plant pest that’s been discovered in the NT. There are fears that it could get to Queensland or even could already be here and hasn’t been detected yet. Particularly could impact on small crops. Could you just let us know what’s being done on the biosecurity front here.

MURRAY WATT: It's a bit of a mouthful for this hour of the morning, a bit of a tongue twister - the root knot nematode. Yeah, look, it's a very serious disease that not only affects sweet potatoes but other crops as well – capsicum, cucumbers and things like that. And basically it’s a virus that gets into the roots of these plants and can produce blemishes on the product that make them unsaleable.
So it’s pretty important for our horticultural industry that we get on top of this. I don’t have any reports at this point in time that the disease has got to Queensland, and I know there are growers in Central Queensland that are watching this very closely. But our people at a federal level are working very closely with the Northern Territory about what we can do with them to help bring it under control. It's obviously at a very early stage so we’re still trying to piece together how widespread this is, you know, whether it is possible to eradicate it altogether. But some of our best biosecurity people are on to it at the moment.

PAUL CULLIVER: Do we know where it came from?

MURRAY WATT: Not at this stage. Again, it’s a bit too early to know. You know, often these sort of things do result from imports, and that’s one of the reasons why we’ve really strengthened the numbers of biosecurity officers at airports and mail centres and things like that. But it’s a bit too early to know exactly where this came from.

PAUL CULLIVER: My understanding is there’s other nematodes that are, in fact, from Australia and then there’s other that have come here and become endemic. What are the steps that you have to take here to prevent that from happening?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I think, I mean obviously it’s a bit more difficult to control endemic diseases that are already here. But containing the spread of diseases really is a state responsibility. Our job as a federal government is to try to keep these things out. And, again, that’s why we’ve beefed up the support at the airports and mail centres and things like that as a result of that foot and mouth disease scare that everyone went through recently.
And then once a disease is in Australia it’s mostly the role of the state governments to keep it under control. We, of course, support them and provide funding and things like that as well. But, yeah, I mean, I think the most important thing at this early stage is that any farmers of these crops just keep their eyes out for any unusual blemishes on their crops and then get in touch with Biosecurity Queensland to get a bit more advice.

PAUL CULLIVER: Yep. I might just mention because it was a couple of weeks ago that the extension for those airport controls introduced by you to prevent foot and mouth disease getting into this country have been extended, I think until the middle of next year at least.


PAUL CULLIVER: Is there an update? Like, do we have a sense of what’s happening in Indonesia and whether that risk has either increased or diminished?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I mean, obviously the first point is that Australia remains free of foot and mouth disease and lumpy skin disease. And it’s important that we keep messaging that to the rest of the world in terms of our trade. The reports that I have are that Indonesia is making good progress in controlling the outbreak. And actually just last week the second batch of vaccines that Australia is providing to Indonesia for foot and mouth disease actually arrived in Indonesia and they’re now being administered to cattle around Bali and Sulawesi in particular.

So one of the things – you might remember, I was in Indonesia a couple of months ago to meet with the ministers over there and it was very clear to me that they were putting a lot of emphasis particularly on Bali and controlling the outbreak there given the number of travellers to and from Bali, which is a good thing. But look, these diseases don’t get eradicated quickly. So, you know, I'm not going to pretend that this is going to be gone from Indonesia within the next six months. But we’ve made very clear to them that we’re happy to keep supporting them in any way we can

So, as I say, it was 3 million vaccines that we delivered to them last week. That came in addition to the 1 million we’d already provided. We’ve provided training now to hundreds of Indonesian vets and technical people about detecting these things, testing, and things like that. So it’s in our national interests to work with Indonesia to try to keep that outbreak under control.

PAUL CULLIVER: All right Minister, appreciate your time today.

MURRAY WATT: Good on you, Paul.

PAUL CULLIVER: Minister for Agriculture and Senator for Queensland, Murray Watt here in Rockhampton today.