Interview with Nadia Mitsopoulos, ABC Perth Mornings


SUBJECTS: New fire rating systems, bushfire preparedness; Alternative Commonwealth Capabilities for Crisis Response Discussion Paper; sheep exports and prices; the Voice.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS, HOST: Well Western Australia, just like the rest of the country, is expecting a hotter, drier and early bushfire season this year. And as authorities prepare, there are a few pressing issues that are swirling around. Now, as you heard earlier - you've been hearing in the news and in AM - there are concerns about a new multi-million dollar fire warning system which is ‘miscalculating the danger and unnecessarily alarming the public’. There are also concerns that we're over-reliant on the Defence Force to help with natural disasters like fires. And not everyone is keen on an idea to have a new paid firefighting service to work through the bushfire season. So it's very timely that I have Murray Watt on the phone. He is the Federal Emergency Management Minister. Good morning, Minister, and thank you for joining me.
MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Good morning, Nadia, good to talk with you and your listeners.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Look, just a couple of things to talk about this morning. A former fire scientist and there's also some local councils like Mundaring here in WA, who've raised concerns about a new fire warning system because it's exaggerating the risks, potentially alarming communities. Are there some teething problems there?
MURRAY WATT: Yes well I'm certainly aware of those reports that have come out today and I was actually in Mundaring not that long ago with Tania Lawrence, meeting with a lot of the council and fire authorities and volunteers in that area. Basically, what we've done here over the last couple of years is bring forward the finalisation of a new fire danger rating system. And at the risk of sounding like I'm playing semantics, it's important to note that what we're talking about here is a fire danger rating system, not warning. So it's about advising the public about the level of risk rather than getting warnings out in the midst of a fire.
Moving to a new fire danger rating system was actually a big recommendation from the Bushfire Royal Commission that was held after Black Summer. It's something that had been kicked around for a long time, but no one had ever really grabbed it and run with it, and we've managed to actually get it finalised with the states and territories over the last couple of years. Obviously, when you bring in a new system like this that covers the entire nation, there are going to be some teething problems, and it does seem that there's still a little bit of work to do to refine the rating system. And what it comes down to is making sure that the information that is needed around vegetation types, vegetation levels is available. So we'll keep refining that and I know there's work going on with the States at the moment.

But I do want to make the point that what we've done with this new system is replace the old system of advising of fire danger risk levels that actually went back to the 1960s. So I don't think it'd be a wise thing to go back to an outdated system, which is what we had before. What we do need to do is move to a more sophisticated system like what we've got in place and with every year that goes by it's going to become more reliable, more accurate and more useful. But it's a massive improvement on what we've had to date.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Because what you don't want is to lose public confidence, which is what's happening because A, you're over-warning, but also you don't have that information when it comes to the vegetation, which also is important when you're assessing what the warning should be.
MURRAY WATT: No we certainly don't want to lose public confidence in this because of course this is actually about building confidence in the system. And as I say, the advice that I've received is that even the system as it currently stands is in general terms far more accurate, far more reliable than the system we had previously. I'm not going to say it's 100 percent perfect and as I say, we'll keep refining it, but we want to be able to provide people with the most accurate possible advice about the level of risk that they're facing and even the system as it currently stands is actually doing that. So I know that there's been some criticism of that - people are entitled to make their criticisms - but I don't think we're at a point where we've seen a massive loss of public confidence. It's a much more reliable system than what we've got at the moment, and we'll keep working to make it even better.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: And I guess you don't want to unnecessarily alarm the public because obviously if there's a catastrophic fire warning and it's not catastrophic, then that will influence people to evacuate, but also can have impacts on prescribed burns, for instance.
MURRAY WATT: Yeah, that's right. I mean this is exactly why we've moved to this new system, is to be able to provide people with more accurate advice and I'm confident that overall, it is already doing that. As I say, I'm not going to say it's 100 percent perfect, but it's a significant improvement on what we've got. But those sorts of reasons that you've gone through are why we do need to keep refining it. And I think your more general point about not alarming people - it's something that I'm really conscious of heading into this fire season. We've been doing obviously a lot of work with WA Minister Stephen Dawson, the Commissioner Darren Klemm and their teams over the last few months and I know there's a lot of anxiety out there about the coming fire season. As I say, I've been to Mundaring, I've been to the Wooroloo fires, the areas that were affected and those memories are still very much in people's minds. So I do want to make sure that we don't overhype this and make people unnecessarily concerned. And having accurate fire danger ratings is part of that.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: 21 to 9, you're listening to the Minister for Emergency Management, Murray Watt. A couple of weeks ago I spoke to your Labor colleague, Julian Hill, who chairs a Parliamentary Defence Subcommittee and a report that it released said we are over-reliant on Defence Force personnel to assist with natural disasters and that is threatening our national security. Do you agree?
MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I think we are heading in that way, Nadia, and Julian and the committee that he's part of is the latest in a number of similar warnings that we've received. The Defence Strategic Review that the Government undertook over the last year or so came to the same conclusion and certainly anecdotally I've been getting that advice for quite some time now.
The issue we have is that our Defence Forces play a really important role in disasters, and we obviously mobilised them to assist in the Kimberley Floods. They've been used in other places in WA over the years as well. But the reality is that their core job as Defence Forces is to defend the nation, and every time we take them out to work in a disaster, that is time that they're not spending training and preparing for their core job. Now I want to be clear, we're never going to get to a point where we're going to say the Defence Forces are not available. Again, the conversations I was having with Stephen Dawson earlier this year through the Kimberly floods, it was clear they needed the kind of aircraft, the kind of personnel that only the Defence Force has. And in that situation, we will always respond – in fact, right now we've got Defence Force personnel and equipment in the Northern Territory dealing with their disasters. But the point is that because we are seeing more of these disasters and we're going to see more through climate change, we need to make sure that we don't over-rely on the Defence Forces and stretch them too far.
So we are doing a couple of things on that; in the short term, we went to the election saying that we would fund an organisation called Disaster Relief Australia, which is a veteran volunteer organisation, and they send people out - deploy veterans - to do quite similar work in many cases to the cleanup and recovery work that the Defence Forces do. We've had them out in the field already across the country-
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Do we have them in WA?
MURRAY WATT: I was just thinking about that. My recollection is that there were some in the Kimberley, but I'd need to double-check that. I certainly know that they've been in northwest Queensland and Lismore, Rochester in Victoria, I'd need to double-check in WA. But in the longer term, what we're also doing is doing a big piece of policy work around how do we properly resource our personnel needs for the kind of disasters that we're going to be facing in the future. And that's where there's a range of options under consideration. I don't really think it's likely we'll get to a point that we have like a national SES Service or Fire Service. We don't want to sort of duplicate the work that the States already do. But if we're going to say that we can't quite rely on the Defence Forces as much as we have, there's got to be some alternatives-
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: OK, so are we talking about a paid service here, then? Something that ramps up over summer?
MURRAY WATT: Yeah, potentially. That is certainly an option that's under consideration. As I say, we're already funding Disaster Relief Australia to do more. There are other types of groups out there that do similar work that they might be resourced as well. Increasing the number of paid firefighters who are on hand through the season is an option. No decision has been made about that yet-
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: So would they potentially be maybe people who are already part of the State Emergency Service that then joins this new organisation who then get paid to respond to bushfires? Is that the kind of thing you're talking about?
MURRAY WATT: Well that is one- potentially it could happen that way, or it could be a matter of us working with the States and Territories to support them, to convert some of their volunteer forces into paid personnel for certain parts of the year as well. As I say, I don't want to sort of immediately leap to the conclusion that we're going to set up some sort of new federal force because we don't want to deplete the volunteers that the States and Territories really still need. But there's a whole bunch of different options that we're considering, and I'd really welcome anyone's views on what we need to do to make sure that we're really disaster-ready for the future.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Oh, I'm sure our listeners will let us know this morning on 1300 222 720. Lots of calls coming in and I will get to them. Murray Watt, the Minister for Emergency Management, is my guest this morning. So, would that be federally funded, and would it come out of existing funds?
MURRAY WATT: Again, I don't want to sort of sound too evasive, but these are exactly the questions we're considering at the moment, so we haven't sort of made any decisions about that. Obviously there's a cost to the Federal Government every time we use the Defence Forces, and it may be that we reallocate some of that sort of- or not so much reallocate the funding, but what we don't have to spend on the Defence Forces might be available to use elsewhere, but it's a little bit early to say for sure. And these are exactly the kind of questions that we're considering at the moment.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: And do all the fire commissioners across the country agree with this? Because my understanding is they may not all be on board.
MURRAY WATT: I think it's fair to say that all the commissioners acknowledge that the Defence Forces have been very strained over the last couple of years, as have their own volunteers and paid personnel. Everywhere I go in the country, because of the number and intensity of disasters we've had, there has been a lot of fatigue for people, whether they're paid or volunteer or Defence Forces. I think what has been important – there was a little bit of concern, I think, amongst some of the commissioners that we might be talking about almost a complete withdrawal of the Defence Forces from disasters. And that's not what we're talking about. So I've given those assurances to each of the ministers, and I know my officials have done that with the commissioners as well. So I think as long as we can demonstrate to people that we will provide the Defence Forces, it's really moving them to being a last resort than a first port of call. And as I say, right now we've got some in the Northern Territory. So that sort of shows that we're not talking about taking them out overall, it's about using them where they're really needed and finding alternatives when there are alternatives available.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: And Minister, while I've got you a couple of other issues to talk to you about, if you don't mind, and if you could just put your agriculture hat on as the Agriculture Minister because there's a few issues swirling around here in that space. Farmers here were pretty annoyed at the Government's decision to block extra flights in and out of Australia by Qatar. They say that would have provided extra freight capacity that they needed to export lamb. Would you have liked to have seen those extra flights for that reason?
MURRAY WATT: Well, as I say, I support the decision the Government has made, and the Minister has made, to act in our overall national interest when it came to Qatar Airways. And I think one point that hasn't been really recognised is that there's absolutely no restriction on the number of air freight flights that Qatar Airways can fly. So if Qatar Airways wants to - and if there's a market to fill air freight with more sheep meat or other products into WA or anywhere else in the country - they've got every right to do that. So that is still an option.
I think the concern people have had is the ability to use, if you like, the belly of planes that are used for passenger services. But there are many more airlines – commercial airlines, that are already running international flights in and out of Perth and other cities as well. So there is capacity there and as I say, there is no limitation whatsoever on Qatar Airways running air freight flight. So think there is capacity there, we'd like to see Qatar Airways take up more of it and if there's a market for it, I'd encourage people to be talking to Qatar Airways about that-
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Isn't that your job?
MURRAY WATT: Yeah well, I mean, our Government is obviously talking regularly to all of the airlines about those kind of things. But I guess what I'm saying is that if people feel that Qatar could be doing more as well, then they're welcome to make those representations in addition to what we're doing as a government.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Minister, the WA sheep industry argues your policy to end the live sheep trade has created a lack of confidence in the industry. Prices have plummeted to a point where some sheep are selling for $1 a head. Some farmers are now thinking about shooting sheep to avoid animal welfare issues. How much responsibility do you take for this situation?
MURRAY WATT: Well I acknowledge, and I have previously acknowledged that the government's policy to phase out live sheep exports has caused angst in the farming community in Western Australia - I'm on the record having done that many times, but I've also said that we want to work with the industry to make this transition as painless as possible, and if at all possible, to expand onshore processing of sheep meat, which is more jobs in Australia and more money for farmers, processors and others-
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: But they argue that's not viable in WA. And I've got people like Paul, a farmer, who's saying he's shooting sheep because he's not got markets for them. And that's on your head, he says.
Yeah well, I suppose I respectfully disagree with Paul about that. I absolutely acknowledge that sheep prices have fallen significantly, but it's not just on the west coast, it's the east coast as well. Cattle prices around the country have fallen significantly as well. And that's nothing to do with a position on live exports of sheep or cattle. The issue we've got with the sheep industry right around the country is, frankly, there is an oversupply. Because of the good conditions that people have had over the last couple of years - weather conditions, prices - there has been a build-up in the overall flock across the country, on both sides of the country. I think there's a lot of people who are looking at trying to offload sheep because of a concern about a coming drought. So what that has meant is it's supply and demand. And we've got a lot more sheep available than what anyone at the moment wants to buy. So I think that that is the fundamental problem. I mean, if the issue was about a position on live sheep exports from WA, well, why is the sheep price falling on the east coast as well? Why is the cattle price falling? It's basically the market in operation. And I don't want to sound insensitive to that, that's a real issue for people and we need to work with the industry about that. But it's really about the oversupply of the market that we've got at the moment.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Finally Minister, head of the PGA here in WA, Tony Seabrook, says if Australia voted yes in the upcoming referendum, it would be like putting WA's Cultural Heritage laws on steroids. Now that's his quote. He says it'd be a threat to private property rights and the future of farming. How valid are those concerns?
MURRAY WATT: Well I'm afraid Tony Seabrook is 100 percent wrong on that. That is just a complete misrepresentation of what the Voice is about. And it's really unfortunate that we keep seeing this misinformation being pushed out, whether it be by politicians or certain people in the community. The Voice is simply an advisory body. It doesn't make any decisions. The Parliament and the Government at the federal level would still have the responsibility for making decisions, but we think that they'd make better decisions if they actually listened to the people who are affected by it, and that's being Indigenous people. So I'm sorry, but Tony Seabrook is 100 percent wrong and it's a real shame that people like him keep saying these things that are dead wrong.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: Well, it's going to be a very interesting because some of your federal colleagues have acknowledged it's going to be hard, it is an uphill battle for the Yes camp to get it through WA. Is that how you see it?
MURRAY WATT: Yeah look, I mean, obviously my WA colleagues would have a better sense of WA than me, but I come from Queensland and it's a challenging environment in Queensland as well. But what I'd also say is that right around the country, there's a very large number of people who are still making up their minds. There's a lot of people who are still working out what this all means. And that's why I think it's important that all of us are honest with people about what this is and what it is not. Really, what we're talking about through this referendum is an opportunity simply to recognise our Indigenous people, our first people in the Constitution - oldest living civilisation in the world, recognising that. And then listening to them through a Voice to Parliament so that we can get better results. There's been governments of all persuasions over the years who've spent a lot of money on Indigenous affairs, and we've still got big gaps in life expectancy, suicide rates, employment, education. We've got to do something different, because really what the No Camp is saying is that nothing should change, that we should just keep going with the way things are. And I reckon we can do a lot better than that by listening to people.
NADIA MITSOPOULOS: I'll leave it there. Really appreciate your time.
MURRAY WATT: Thanks Nadia.