Interview with Matt Webber, ABC Gold Coast

Radio Transcript
Prepared: Tuesday 14 June 2022
Title: Matt Webber interview with Minister Murray Watt
Description: Matt Webber interview with Minister Murray Watt discussing agricultural trade with China, wage increases, Fair Work Australia, the cost of living and economic situation
Channel: ABC Gold Coast
Program: Mornings with Matt Webber
Date Broadcast: 13 June 2022
Time Broadcast: 9:13AM - 9:25AM

MATT WEBBER: Now, this time every Monday we like to talk to one of our Federal politicians; usually, ALP and LNP take turns. Last week Angie Bell, the member for Moncrieff on the Gold Coast, was my guest. This week Senator Murray Watt, ALP Senator for Queensland and now, of course, Minister for Agriculture, joins me. Good morning, Senator. 

MURRAY WATT: G’day mate. Good to be with you.

MATT WEBBER: Good to have your company too. Thank you for being here. China – our Defence Minister Richard Marles, attending the first meeting of any kind, I believe, since about 2020, between Australia and China, at least in any official kind of capacity in its entirety. What was discussed? 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, well, this is obviously a significant development, Matt. Unfortunately, relationships between the Chinese Government and the Australian Government had broken down very badly over the last couple of years, and that is an issue, because, of course, China is still our biggest trading partner across a whole range of different products and services, including tourism, which is important on the Gold Coast. And I think it was a positive move that there was this meeting. We have continued to make clear both in this meeting and elsewhere that really for the relationship to recover properly, it will be important for China to lift the sanctions that it’s imposed on a range of Australian products. 

So, I think we’re trying to get the balance right. It’s obviously in both countries’ interests for dialogue to occur and for the relationship to improve, but we’re very clear with China that we will always stand up for Australia’s values and interests and that might be about rules around trade. It could be about human rights, the South China Sea; we can’t back off on those sorts of things that are important to Australia, but, of course, if there’s an opportunity to improve the relationship, that would be a good thing.

MATT WEBBER: I think we all understand the symbolic relevance of being seen to be in a room with China and across a table, if you like, but realising tangible benefits – I mean, how do you distinguish the symbolic from the real in this instance? We have a sanctions program still in play for – I’ve already mentioned a couple of them on the program – wine, barley, lobsters, for instance. I mean, these are all things that are now on your watch as Minister for Agriculture, I’m guessing. How do you realise a tangible benefit for the benefit of Australian producers over the short and long term? 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, that’s right, Matt, and I’m acutely aware that as the new Agriculture Minister those sanctions continue to apply to a number of important Australian food products and agricultural items. So, we would like to see those lifted, as I say. I mean, I think, really, the important thing about the meeting over the weekend was simply that there was a start. We’re not going to get to a point where sanctions are lifted without some dialogue occurring and I would like to think that the discussions that occurred over the weekend might be the beginning, but, of course, as I say, the ball really is in China’s court as to what they’re prepared to do to demonstrate that they’re serious about treating Australia fairly and not punishing our farmers and producers.

MATT WEBBER: ABC Gold Coast Mornings. Senator Murray Watt with us. To economic matters, you submitted about a week ago, a 5.1 percent wage increase to the Fair Work Commission, and this was foreshadowed ahead of the election. That has now been realised. Interest rates have leapt northwards: 0.35 of a per cent up to 0.85 of a per cent towards the tail end – earlier last week. Most lenders have passed on the full value of the May rate hike, and this is kind of playing into that discussion of cost-of-living pressures that we were expecting. Now we see USA experiencing 40-year high inflation. These are testing times economically. What Government controls and levers are in play beyond the usual to manage things going forward? 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, there’s no doubt, Matt, that we’ve inherited a very serious economic set of situations, whether it be the high and rising inflation; we’ve got rising interest rates; falling real wages; and, of course, the Federal Budget is heaving with a trillion dollars of debt that the Liberal and National Parties racked up with very little to show for it. So, it is a very difficult economic situation that we face and Australians face at the moment. 

One of the things that we’re trying to do, from the very beginning, is be really up-front with Australians about the seriousness of these challenges. Unfortunately, I think for the last few years, serious problems within the Australian economy were papered over and we were constantly told that things were better than they are, and I think it’s much better for us to be really up-front with people about what the situation is and how we’re going to have to work together with responsibly address those challenges.

MATT WEBBER: But beyond the traditional levers, as I mentioned, interest rates and the Reserve Bank and playing its role and managing things from that perspective, what are some of the macro, even the micro, economic measures that you can look at to manage what is shaping up to being a significantly challenging time on cost-of-living grounds? 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, well, one of the things we’ve already begun doing is going through the federal budget line by line to try to eliminate the waste that we saw under the previous Government. Clearly, we need to get a point where Federal spending through the budget is reigned in and is under control and we’re trying to do that, as I say, by going through each budget item and each department line by line. We have obviously already flagged that in October’s Budget we will providing further cost-of-living relief in both delivering some of our election commitments around cheaper child care, cheaper power prices, cheaper medicines. So, there’s a range of things that we’ll begin implementing from the October Budget which I think will help. 

But, look, I mean, the reality is some of these issues are beyond any individual Government’s control. Some of the global circumstances that we’re seeing around food shortages are definitely impacting on food prices. The floods that we saw in South East Queensland that pretty much wiped out the Lockyer Valley – I mean, there’s a reason that people are paying more for their lettuce at the moment, and a lot of that is about the floods that we experienced in the Lockyer Valley. I met some of the farmers from the Lockyer Valley last week and they’re in a terrible situation, and the shortage of those sorts of products is being felt by people when they go to the supermarkets. 

So, we’ll certainly do everything we can to try to assist people with cost-of-living relief and, as I say, delivering some of our election commitments will be a big part of that, but I don’t want to pretend that some of these problems are going to go away overnight because it’s going to take some time to address them.

MATT WEBBER: The idea of inheritance, Senator Murray Watt – we received a number of text messages on this very issue on the program last week, a number of people pointing out, perhaps pretty fairly too, that it’s all well and good to say you’ve inherited an ordinary set of budgetary circumstances, but you have been in the room. You have been in the Canberra bubble observing this for a decade. Is it fair for people to expect you to arrive to Government with a firmer idea, a clearer picture, of what is required to at least nurse us through these challenging economic times that are predicted? 

MURRAY WATT: Well, I think to an extent, I think that is a fair comment. But all we can rely on when we’re in Opposition is the official forecasts that the Government of the day put out. And what we’ve now discovered since taking office is that the inflation challenge is worse than what was factored in by the former Government. Wages are predicted to grow less fast than what the former Government predicted and we’re not in a position – we weren’t in a position from Opposition to contradict any of those figures. 

I think the other thing is that we never signed up to every set of expenses that the former Government incurred. We talk very often, Matt, about the rorts and waste that the former Government went about spending, whether it be JobKeeper paid to companies that didn’t need it and who used it for bonuses rather than actually keeping their workers on. We’ve got all the rorts and all the scandals that racked up billions of dollars that we were very critical of. So, you know, I think it’s fair to say that there are some things we went along with from the previous Government, but we were pretty vocal about the things that we didn’t, and had the former Government not done those we would have been in a better economic situation than we are now.

MATT WEBBER: Twenty-one minutes past 9. Senator Murray Watt with me. As I mentioned, you’re new to the Agriculture portfolio and, you know, obviously still finding your feet in a new role, of course, but you were out and about last week and I did notice from your own web presence and your website there that you’re painting a pretty rosy picture for agricultural production and exports; a record $65 billion in agricultural exports predicted for 2022–23 and total production predicted to top $80 billion for a second year running. And this is painting a pretty rosy picture, but that against a backdrop of pretty challenging economic times, I’m sort of struggling to see how these things can coexist. Can you explain? 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, it is a funny situation we’re in, Matt, and I even was hearing this from the farmers who I met with in Emerald last week. I made a point of getting on-farm as the new Minister within the first week of getting appointed to the new role and got onto a cotton farm in Emerald, which was really a fascinating experience, and I learnt a lot from it. I mean, we’ve got this double-whammy, if you like, where at the same time in many products farmers are getting record prices. As you say, we’re now looking at record exports from agriculture over the next 12 months and very high production levels, and so you’d think that farmers have never been doing it better, but the issue then is that there’s also rising costs. Just as you and I are paying more for our fruit and vegetables at the supermarkets, farmers are paying a lot more for things like fertiliser, for diesel, all those types of inputs that really drive up the cost of production. And again, that’s one of the reasons why we’re all paying more for fruit and veggies when we go to the supermarket. 

In addition to that, there’s other challenges, you know, we’ve had a massive workforce shortage in agriculture for at least a couple of years that hadn’t been fixed. So, it’s getting harder for farmers to find the people to pick the fruit, pick the veggies, and again that’s leading to shortages and increased costs. So, yeah, it’s a funny situation to be in where there’s a lot of money coming in for our product, but it’s also costing a lot to actually get it out. So, that’s a very big pressure on our farm sector and, therefore, the rest of us when we go to the shops.

MATT WEBBER: What are you going to do about the labour shortages though? That falls on your shoulders to a significant degree, does it not? 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I’ve begun discussing this not only with my ministerial colleagues who have responsibility for it, but it’s pretty much been the number one topic that’s come up in every conversation I’ve had with farm groups and also unions. One of the things I’m going to be trying to do as the Minister is bring all people who’ve got an interest in this to the table, rather than just playing favourites. And, I mean, what we said in the run-up to the election was that we want to expand the Pacific Labour Scheme. It’s a very successful program that has brought in people from the Pacific Islands to help with some of the fruit picking, vegetable picking and other roles. And, you know, it may be that we need to look at some other options beyond that as well. I’m looking forward to having discussions with people about that in the next few weeks.

MATT WEBBER: We’ll talk in a couple of weeks again, Senator. Thank you. 

MURRAY WATT: Good on you, Matt.