Interview with David Claughton, ABC NSW Country Hour


SUBJECT/S: ABARES 2023 Outlook; $96bn ag production; China trade; White spot disease; prawn industry

MICHAEL CONDON, HOST: Well, the Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt says a lack of a cost-sharing agreement with the fishing industry is holding up income support that could otherwise be flowing to the New South Wales prawn sector, battling with the White Spot disease outbreak. He was at ABARES yesterday and met with the fishing industry to discuss support measures. David Claughton spoke to him a short time ago about that issue, also about China trade and the record $96bn figure for Ag production, which the Minister says reflects good conditions over the last few months.

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: It sure is, David, and that really reflects the really good conditions that most of the industry has been experiencing over the last twelve months. Of course, there are definitely parts of Australia that have received too much rain and are really struggling with floods. But overall, the high level of rainfall we've seen across the country has meant really bumper seasons for so many parts of the Ag sector. That figure, the $96bn one, includes fisheries and forestry as well. And it just shows how healthy our primary industries are across the country. And it's really good news after years of drought that people are starting to experience some better times. 
I'm conscious, though, that even though prices are generally pretty high, and the ABARES figures also show that in a range of industries like broadacre cropping and dairy farms, people are experiencing very high incomes as well, and that's a good thing. But we know that there are still some challenges in agriculture, whether it be biosecurity threats or the ongoing workforce shortages we've seen for years. And of course, changing climate, having impact on people's yields, input costs. So there's still a lot to work on. But overall, the industry is in pretty good shape at the moment, and that's a real credit to everyone who works in it.

DAVID CLAUGHTON, JOURNALIST: As the Agriculture Minister, what can you tell us about China trade issues? We're waiting for the Trade Minister to go there, perhaps there'll be some announcements off the back of that. But what are you hearing about meat, wine, lobster, barley, all those sectors?

MURRAY WATT: Well I think there's definitely some encouraging developments in resuming some of that stalled trade with China. It's obviously been really devastating for a range of producers to lose such an important market. And it's worth remembering that even with the trade barriers that we've had over the last few years with China, it remains our biggest agricultural market and just shows you how important it is. And look, we're certainly starting to hear whispers of improvements when it comes to things like lobster, around beef, around dairy, there's a bit of a way to go yet, I think, on things like barley and wine where some of those disputes have been a bit deeper. But look, we as a government are certainly doing what we can to stabilise that relationship, and we think it's mutually beneficial. It's good for Australia, it's good for China, if things can get on an even keel. But there's a little way to go yet, and I don't want to pretend that this is all going to be fixed overnight. I think the other important thing to remember as well is that over the last few years, we've put a lot of work into opening new markets as well. I think if there's one thing that Australian producers learned from the issues with China is that it's a bit dangerous to put all your eggs in one basket. And we've provided a range of grants to different farm groups to open up new markets for a range of products, and that's starting to bear some fruit as well.

DAVID CLAUGHTON: Let's look at a couple of biosecurity things that are affecting New South Wales particularly. White Spot - that was found in 2016 in Queensland - now there's another outbreak in New South Wales affecting a few prawn farms there, and also the prawn trawler industry is getting tied up in that. So what's your - there have been calls for income support are you thinking about that?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah it is a real concern what we're seeing happen around the Clarence at the moment with White Spot and as a Queensland Senator, I actually met with and went to the prawn farms that were affected in the Logan River back in 2016 and I saw the devastation that that caused. So this is something that could cause a lot of damage and it's important that we get on top of it quickly. 

Yesterday in Canberra, I met with representatives from the Australian Prawn Farmers Association, both to hear about how the management of the incursion was going and the need for financial support. I need to be clear with people that the management of a biosecurity outbreak and the financial support primarily is a state government responsibility and I am in discussions with the New South Wales Minister to make sure that they really do meet their obligations there. But equally, we don't want to stand by and leave people in the lurch. So I was able to take the prawn farmers through some assistance that is available at the Commonwealth level; whether that be financial counselling, farm household allowance, low-interest loans and those kind of things. I think one of the difficulties when it comes to the seafood industry generally, including prawns, is that that industry does not have a biosecurity deed in the way that other industries do, like livestock industries and plant industries-

DAVID CLAUGHTON: You mean a cost sharing arrangement?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah cost sharing arrangements. So industries like livestock and plant crops and things like that have biosecurity cost sharing arrangements in place where the federal government, the state government and the industry itself all plays a role in funding support. Unfortunately, I was surprised to learn when I became Minister that no such arrangement is in place for the seafood industry. And I think this shows why it's really important that we get that happening, so that when we do see these sorts of incidents occur where everyone knows where they stand, there is money available to compensate people, rather than everyone scrambling around, which is the sort of situation we're in at the moment.

DAVID CLAUGHTON: So are you saying that's not on the table at the moment? You can't deliver on that?

MURRAY WATT: Well, as I say, there is support available at the Commonwealth level at the moment, but we need to be careful that state governments don't duck their responsibilities. There's been a very long-standing-

DAVID CLAUGHTON: But it's possible that could be joint support, isn't it?

MURRAY WATT: I've said to the New South Wales Minister that I'm open to considering support for people who are affected, we're not going to be hard-nosed about this. But equally, the primary responsibility here sits with the New South Wales Government. There's a long-standing convention that in the absence of a cost sharing arrangement, it's state governments who need to step up to the plate with financial assistance because they're also responsible for managing biosecurity issues within the international borders. So I'm not going to sit back and ‘say nothing from us’. But we also do need to make sure that the New South Wales Government don't make this someone else's problem. But in the longer term, what we do need to do is try to come to some sort of cost sharing arrangement in the way that we have been able to do with many other primary industries.

MICHAEL CONDON: Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt talking there to David Claughton.