Interview with Lucy Barbour, ABC Landline

Television Transcript
Title: Lucy Barbour interviews Minister Murray Watt
Description: Lucy Barbour interviews Minister Murray Watt discussing biosecurity threats, climate change and live animal exports.
Channel: ABC News
Program: Landline
Date Broadcast: 5 June 2022
Time Broadcast: 4:15 PM - 4:24 PM

LUCY BARBOUR: Hi, I'm Lucy Barbour. Australia's new agriculture Minister is a Queensland Senator and a former lawyer. Murray Watt is facing a number of big challenges in his new role. There's the threat of foot and the mouth disease, a massive workforce shortage and an energy crisis. The new Minister joins us now. Murray Watt, Congratulations on the role. What are you going to tackle first?

MURRAY WATT: Thanks, Lucy. I'm really excited to take on this role with such an incredible sector that's so important for our country. Look, in terms of priorities, I think there's obviously a couple of really immediate issues and you've flagged some of them yourself. The workforce shortages that the industry is facing and has been facing for some time. There are some serious biosecurity threats, particularly foot and mouth disease, as well as lumpy skin disease that we need to ensure that we're guarding against. And I suppose more long term, some of the things I want to make priorities are how we work with the sector around some of the climate change issues that are emerging and how we ensure the sector grabs the opportunities that come from change and climate change action. And I think the other one that I really want to make a focus is how we can continue taking agriculture further up the value chain, more value adding, more processing, so that we're really seizing the full value of our incredible products that we already produce.

LUCY BARBOUR: In multiple interviews so far, you still haven't said when Labor will implement its policy to phase out live sheep exports. Why is that?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, look, I suppose it's because that was the policy that we took to the election. We were very clear that unlike the previous election where we had set a time frame for phasing out live sheep exports, this time we wanted to make sure that we were doing that in consultation with the industry, the Western Australian government and a range of other important stakeholders. We recognise that this is a pretty significant change for the industry and it's something that we want to do in an orderly, consultative fashion. So we were very clear heading into the election that we weren't setting a time frame, and I don't intend to impose one in the first few days since I've taken on the role, but I certainly will be committing to consulting very closely with everyone who is affected by this.

LUCY BARBOUR: Any plans to ban live cattle exports?

MURRAY WATT: No, none at all. We have no plans to extend the ban to live cattle exports. As I say, we were very clear in terms of our policy that it related to live sheep exports. I think the only thing I would say is that wherever there are opportunities to be doing more onshore processing, whether it be sheep, cattle or any other product, then that's something that we're very keen to do. Obviously, the idea of making more things in Australia was a really central plank of our election platform and that applies to agricultural products as much as anything else.

LUCY BARBOUR: With lumpy skin disease, foot and mouth disease on our doorstep. What specific new measures is Labor going to take to improve biosecurity?

MURRAY WATT: Well, again, we went to the election committing to ensure that we provided long term, sustainable funding for biosecurity. It is an issue that we take seriously. And all of the discussions I had a relating to agriculture with members of the sector even before I took on the portfolio, biosecurity always rated very highly as a priority. We also committed through the election to deliver more sniffer dogs and other sort of quarantine measures at airports and ports and things like that, which we'll be delivering. But frankly, I also want to take advice from the sector and from my Department about what else we can be doing. Yesterday, I actually managed to have a briefing from Australia's chief veterinary officer, who's just returned from Indonesia, to get a better update about what the situation is in terms of these diseases. And I've already asked the Department to have a more extensive briefing on this next week so that I can really get on top of it in a detailed way and understand a bit better what other measures we can be taking.

LUCY BARBOUR: So from that briefing that you've already had, will Labor be providing new funding for biosecurity?

MURRAY WATT: Look, we haven't committed to do that at this stage, and obviously that's something I'd need to talk about with my Ministerial colleagues, but it's very clear to me that this is a huge threat to our industry. And of course, it's not just cattle that this could affect. Pretty much anything with hooves can end up with foot and mouth disease. And I was speaking to the head of the Grain Growers Council this morning, and he was reminding me that this has massive implications for them as well. If we aren't producing as much beef, sheep, pigs, other animal products, then there won't be as much of a need for feed as well. So it's something that we do need to take seriously, and I'll be working very hard on it.

LUCY BARBOUR: Minister Watt, energy prices are absolutely soaring. What help, if any, can you provide to farmers?

MURRAY WATT: Yes, it's a huge issue. And in the meeting I had with the NFF yesterday afternoon, which was the first meeting I had with any stakeholder in the sector. Energy prices and input costs was also an issue that was raised, along with everything else that we've already discussed. Clearly, Chris Bowen, my Ministerial colleague, the Minister for Energy, has already said that we're looking at all options around what we can do, particularly in the relation to the gas crisis, but about energy prices in general, I'm not going to pretend that we have the answers on day one. And again, it's something that we're talking very closely with all parts of the economy as well as our departments about. But unfortunately, this is one of the legacies that we've been left by the former government. We're paying the price now for ten years of lacking an energy policy, and we really need to get it sorted out as quickly as we can.

LUCY BARBOUR: China has smashed Australian agriculture when it comes to trading barley, wine, lobsters. What are you going to do about that?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, look, those sanctions and trade bans from China have obviously had a massive effect on a number of our agricultural sectors, and in some cases, some sectors have been able to respond by finding new markets. But I know that it's been very difficult for many producers and others here in this country. Anthony Albanese, as the Prime Minister, has already made clear that really we want to remove, I suppose, the politics lift some of these sanctions first before we can really look at any sort of normalisation of the relationship.

LUCY BARBOUR: Now, Labor's obviously got more ambitious climate targets than the Coalition. When it comes to drought, because we will have one sooner than we'd all like, I'm quite sure. What is your plan for dealing with it?

MURRAY WATT: Well, you're right. We do have much more ambitious climate targets than the former government, and frankly, I think that will be a good thing for the agriculture sector. There are so many opportunities in the sector from making the shift towards a net zero economy. And again, that was something really high on the agenda in my discussions with the NFF yesterday. Obviously, every major agricultural group in the country is on board for net zero by 2050 at the latest. So there's a lot of enthusiasm for making this shift. In terms of drought, you're right. We are in a fortunate position at the moment in some respects. In some places we've actually had probably more rain than we would have liked and aren't dealing with drought as much in most parts of the country at the moment. So to be brutally frank, it's something that I want to talk about a little bit more with our Department about how we make sure that we are ready for the next drought, because we can guarantee that there's going to be one before too long.

LUCY BARBOUR: So is it fair to say that at this stage Labor doesn't have a policy for drought?

MURRAY WATT: Well, it's something that's an evolution. It hasn't been as much of a priority, I think, for either the former government or the new government, given the amount of rain that we've had around the country at the moment. That's not to say, of course, that there aren't parts of the country which are still experiencing drought. There are. But that's something that I don't want to sort of commit to on what is it, day three in this role?

LUCY BARBOUR: To be fair, the Coalition did have the Future Drought Fund, but Labor will no doubt be giving us more on this in time.

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, we will. I mean, I've asked a lot of questions about the Future Drought Fund at senate estimates, which I think you might have covered back in the day, Lucy, because we were concerned that the Future Drought Fund at one point at least was being used by the former government as one of their big shiny announcements that wasn't really delivering as much to farmers as what was being promised. So I've already had contact with members of the board of the Future Drought Fund and again, it's something I'm looking forward to talking with them more about.

LUCY BARBOUR: Murray Watt, thanks so much for your time.

MURRAY WATT: Thanks, Lucy. Good to talk.