Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC RN Breakfast


SUBJECTS: Cost of living priorities; supermarket prices; Review of Food and Grocery Code; cyclone preparedness; impact of natural disasters on agriculture; live export ship through Red Sea; Governor General appointment

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Labor MPs are returning early to Canberra this week as the Albanese Government looks to start the year on the front foot, with new cost-of-living measures top of the agenda. The Government will be hoping to keep the focus on how it can help with the cost-of-living stresses that people are experiencing after a summer marked by international conflict and national disasters.

Now those disasters may not be over yet, with the tropical low off the coast of Queensland expected to develop into a cyclone in a matter of hours. Murray Watt is the Federal Minister for Agriculture and Emergency Management, and our guest this morning. Murray Watt, welcome to the program.


PATRICIA KARVELAS: Thank you very much.  Now, the Prime Minister will address the National Press Club this week. Will he be offering new cost-of-living measures before the May budget?

MURRAY WATT: Well obviously we will be having a caucus meeting in Canberra this Wednesday at which we'll be discussing cost-of-living relief. I'll leave it for the Prime Minister to decide which announcements he makes and when, but I think the fact that we are having this caucus meeting is another demonstration that providing cost-of-living relief that doesn't add to inflation is the number one priority for the Albanese Government this year. So I'm looking forward to bringing, you know, some ideas - our caucus colleagues will be bringing forward some ideas as well, and I think that we'll have a really good discussion, which will be for the benefit of all Australians.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Is it just about the optics - looking like you're focusing on these issues - or is this genuinely a meeting to come up with new ideas?

MURRAY WATT: I don't think the Prime Minister would have called this caucus meeting if it wasn't for a good reason, and I think we are serious about listening to every possible idea when it comes to cost-of-living relief, and we respect the discussions that our caucus members have been having in their communities over the last few weeks, and I expect some good ideas will come forward as well. So I think that this meeting will be much more than just a photo op - it's a serious meeting to deal with the number one issue facing the community. And I expect that it will build on some of the cost-of-living relief measures that we've already introduced, and unfortunately which were always opposed by Peter Dutton and the Coalition.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Prime Minister has already put a bit of a focus on supermarkets and looking at the powers of the ACCC in relation to prices, but that's going to take some time. How do you deliver on prices in a more urgent way?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I think one of the really pleasing aspects of this debate has been that even as a result of the Prime Minister elevating this issue and making it clear that he wants to see supermarkets do better, we actually are starting to see some prices come down in supermarkets. Within 24 hours of the Prime Minister appointing Craig Emerson to do the Review of the Food and Grocery Code, we saw Coles reduce some of its lines by 20 per cent. So even just elevating this issue to the Prime Minister and making it clear what the Government expects is having a result.

Obviously there's a lot more to be done, but the Prime Minister and the Treasurer have made clear that they're open to granting the ACCC additional powers to be able to do more to build on the work that Craig is doing, and I think this is again a really clear sign that the Government stands with Australians at the check outs in the sense that we want to make sure that people are getting fair prices. And obviously as the Agriculture Minister, I've got an interest as well in making sure that farmers get treated much more fairly by supermarkets as well.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Opposition says the Government is putting a band aid on a bullet hole and needs to cut spending to tame inflation. Is that something you think needs to be considered - cutting spending further?

MURRAY WATT: Well, it's a bit rich coming from a government which ran up the biggest budget deficit in Australian history, and that we have actually managed to turn around and deliver one surplus, with the prospect of a second one at the end of this financial year.

I think our record demonstrates that we have been taking serious action when it comes to spending restraint; reducing the deficit, reducing the debt, which of course means reduced interest payments for the Australian taxpayer.

I mean I think the Opposition just can't help themselves but be negative in every possible situation. Again, you know, they want to have it both ways. They say that we should be providing cost-of-living relief, and yet every time we've done so they've voted against it. They've voted against energy rebates, they've voted against cheaper medicines, they've voted against more housing to take pressure off the housing shortage that we're seeing in Australia. There's no consistency from the Opposition on many of these issues.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Bureau of Meteorology is expecting what will be Cyclone Kiralee to cross the Coast of Townsville, possibly as a Category 3 storm. We're talking about a much more heavily populated area than where Jasper hit. Is this going to be more damaging? What are you worried about?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, this is obviously a very serious system that is developing off the Queensland coast, and it's a little early to know at this stage exactly where it would be likely to hit landfall. It does seem more likely than not that it will pass the Queensland coast probably later this week, but we'd be starting to see some of the effects of it starting to impact on the coastline by mid-week. It could be anywhere from Cooktown to Mackay - that's obviously a very big stretch of land. But, you know, we would obviously be concerned if there was to be any further impact on those areas that were already hit by Tropical Cyclone Jasper, and that are very much still in recovery mode.

But really, if we're talking about a Category 3 system, that could have pretty serious effects wherever it crosses landfall. So we've already started the work with the Queensland Government to make sure that all agencies are ready. I spoke to the Queensland Premier about this yesterday to make sure that our processes are aligned and that we're all working on this together. And more work on that will occur over the course of the day, more meetings convened by the National Emergency Management Agency. Just working with the Queensland Government in particular, but all state governments about what support would be needed, what pre positioning of assets and personnel would be needed. We want to make sure that we are fully prepared, and there's a lot of work going into making sure that that happens.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: You've spent much of the summer coordinating the response to the terrible disasters across the country, including the flooding in your home state of Queensland. What's the damage been to our agriculture sector? How hard has it been hit and what kind of impact will that have an inflation?

MURRAY WATT: There's certainly been an impact on the agriculture sector in Far North Queensland. There are some crops, you know, things like pawpaws, tropical fruits, which were directly impacted, but the additional impact is on supply chains. There's a highway that runs through the Tablelands west of Cairns called the Palmerston Highway, which is incredibly badly damaged, and that's a key supply route to move the frequent produce from that part of Australia down into the markets. So at this stage we haven't being seen any direct signs of an impact on fruit and veggie costs and inflation, but of course whenever we see these natural disasters, if they're big enough, there is always that risk

PATRICIA KARVELAS: So you expect that it will happen?

MURRAY WATT: I wouldn't necessarily expect so. As I say, it's good that we're not seeing that impact happen so far, but it's certainly a possibility, and that's why the Queensland Government I know is working around the clock to try to get those supply chain routes back up and running. You might have seen over the weekend the highway between Cairns and Port Douglas was re-opened, and that also was terribly damaged by those storms. So that's a really good sign. It's probably more relevant to the tourism sector being able to get back up on its feet rather than agriculture, but these are all positive signs that the recovery is starting to happen, but there's a hell of a lot of work yet to be done.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: How much has the assistance you've had to provide eaten into your ability to do more on the cost-of-living elsewhere?

MURRAY WATT: We don't see them as mutually exclusive. As I say, providing cost-of-living relief that doesn't add to inflation is very much the number one priority of the Government. But that doesn't mean that we won't provide support to people who are going through these disasters.

We have now spent tens of millions of dollars providing direct financial assistance to those who've been through the summer storms and floods, and that number will no doubt increase, but of course there will be a lot more to be spent when it comes to that repairing of infrastructure. We've invested a lot in the tourism recovery in Far North Queensland - it's obviously a backbone industry for Far North Queensland and is a bit of a tourist gateway for the whole country, with people coming to see the Reef and then moving on to other parts of the country.

So, you know, we will always provide that support that is needed regardless of cost-of-living pressures, but you know, cost-of-living relief remains the number one priority.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just finally, your department has ordered a live export ship carrying thousands of Australian sheep and cattle to turn back after it was supposed to travel to Jordan via the Red Sea. What's the latest on that tanker you can tell us?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, this is another sign that the Red Sea conflict is impacting on Australia in all sorts of ways. You may have seen that there was a live export ship with sheep and cattle bound for Jordan which was going to run into difficulty trying to get through to its destination. There were, understandably, animal welfare concerns raised about the treatment of those animals if the journey had to be significantly extended, and as a result of that, the Department of Agriculture, which is the regulator of live exports, has ordered that ship to turn around and come back to Australia. We didn't want to see an animal welfare program arise because of an extended journey that the ship might not have been prepared for. So I don't have the exact position of that ship with me at the moment, but it has been turned around and it will be heading back to Australia shortly.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: What assurances are you getting about the conditions on board? Are animal welfare standards being upheld?

MURRAY WATT: That's certainly the advice of my department, which as I say, is the regulator of these things. We want to make sure that animal welfare is always at the forefront of live exports, whether we're talking about sheep or cattle. You'd be familiar, I'm sure, that our Government went to the last two elections with a commitment to phase out the export of live sheep, and that's a commitment we intend to carry out. And maintaining animal welfare is a key reason for doing so. I should say, in phasing out that trade, we also see massive opportunities to increase onshore processing of sheep in Australia, which means more jobs for Australians, better regional economies. But the animal welfare issue is always central.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just a quick one. Would you like to see an Indigenous person appointed Governor General?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I think that would be a great thing to see for Australia some time. I think-

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Well there's an opportunity this year, I understand.

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, and you know, again, I'm not going to overstep my boundaries, that's ultimately the Prime Minister's decision-

PATRICIA KARVELAS: But you'd like to see it?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I think there are many great Indigenous Australians who would make a terrific Governor General, but you know, equally there are lots of others who are non Indigenous who would as well. We'll wait and see. We haven't got too long to wait.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: OK, Murray Watt, lovely to speak to you.


PATRICIA KARVELAS: Murray Watt, the Federal Minister for Agriculture and Emergency Management.