Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC RN Breakfast


SUBJECTS: Israel-Hamas conflict; Tropical Cyclone Jasper; national summer bushfire preparations; China trade.

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: The reality of an El Niño is starting to bite, with Cyclone Jasper expected to make landfall in North Queensland today. As the rest of the Australia swelters through heatwaves and firefighters battle blazes in Western Australia.

The cyclone is now a Category 1 system, but it's expected to re-intensify and make landfall later today. Murray Watt is the Minister for Agriculture and Emergency Management, and he's my guest this morning. Welcome back to the program.

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: G'day Patricia, good to be with you.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Before we get to this Cyclone Jasper, a really significant story that's broken this morning; the Prime Ministers of Australia, New Zealand and Canada have issued quite a rare joint statement on the war in Gaza. They've criticised both sides and called for efforts towards a sustainable ceasefire. Why has Anthony Albanese joined with these leaders to do this?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I think you're right, Patricia, it is a significant statement to be made by three leaders of like minded countries, countries that Australia shares a lot in common with. And really, it's a show, or a statement that shows that we want to work with like minded countries towards what would be a just and enduring peace. Of course, I think the whole world has been pleased to see the release of hostages and the pause in hostilities that we've seen over the last couple of weeks, but what we need to do is move towards a sustainable ceasefire, and Australia will always have more effect in global relations when we join with like minded partners, and that's what we've done with this statement today.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Is Israel losing support?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I think that everyone who watches this conflict unfold on their television screens is really disturbed about the loss of life that we're seeing go on at the moment.

We have been utterly consistent from the very beginning of this conflict in saying that any ceasefire needs to be  can't be one sided, of course we need to see Hamas release the remaining hostages, and we've been absolutely unequivocal in our condemnation of Hamas's efforts. Equally, we have always made the point that while we recognise Israel's right to exist and right to defend itself, how they do so matters, and that Israel must respect International Humanitarian Law. So I think that's the value that a country like Australia can play is by really taking that even handed approach that does call out the abhorrent behaviour by Hamas, but also as a friend of Israel, calls on them to respect International Humanitarian Law. The world is watching what is unfolding, and Israel, like every country, has a responsibility to meet those International Law tests.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Simon Birmingham just told AM that this statement tries to be all things to all people. Is that what it is?

MURRAY WATT: No, I don't think it is, and as I say, it's a reflection of the position that the government has had from the very outset of this conflict. I think it's unfortunate that the Opposition has sought to make politics throughout this conflict, has sought to find points of division within the Australian community and in government policy that just don't exist.  I don't really see how a country like Australia could say anything other than what the Government is saying, which is that Hamas's behaviour is abhorrent - they need to release their hostages, equally Israel has a responsibility to meet International Humanitarian Law. I mean is Simon Birmingham saying that those things don't apply? I would be surprised if a party that aspires to be the Australian Government doesn't believe that all countries should follow International Humanitarian Law, or that all the hostages shouldn't be released.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Well, what Israel says it wants to do- beyond the release of hostages, which is clearly in the statement, Israel says its military campaign will not stop until it destroys Hamas, and a ceasefire is now being called for by our Government, not linked to the destroying of Hamas.

MURRAY WATT: Well, you may have seen within the statement that was issued by the three leaders this morning, Patricia, one of the direct statements is that there is no role for Hamas in the future governance of Gaza. So the Australian Government is taking a very strong position against Hamas. And you know, we recognise that they're a terrorist organisation, they do not have a legitimate claim to lead the government within Gaza, so we are making that strong point as well.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Is this a response to the demonstrations we've seen on the streets every single week growing in swelling numbers?

MURRAY WATT: No, I don't think it is. As I say, I think that really this is a reflection of our position, and what's different about this is that we've now got a joint statement that demonstrates that the Australian Government's position is not an outlier - some of our closest allies share our views on these matters. To have the Governments of Canada and New Zealand express very similar positions to what the Australian Government has done from the beginning, I think adds weight to our views.

Of course we can see the demonstrations that are occurring in the community, and that reflects the very real concern that is held by Jewish Australians, by Islamic Australians, by Palestinian Australians, about what is going on there. Of course, you know, the longer this conflict goes on, the stronger statements need to become, and the more powerful they become by joining with other countries, and that's what we've done here.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Let's move to the cyclone that's going to hit our country later. Cyclone Jasper is expected to make landfall as a Category 2 system. How prepared is the state?

MURRAY WATT: Oh, very prepared, Patricia. As a Queenslander, I can tell you we're pretty used to cyclones up here, and obviously in particular in North Queensland. And one of the benefits, I guess, of this cyclone is that we've known for several days now that it's coming, and that has enabled the local authorities and local residents to take the preparatory action that they need.

At a federal level, the Queensland Government has not yet asked us to provide any support - they believe at this stage that it will be within their capability. But we've had a National Emergency Management Agency person embedded in the State Disaster Coordination Centre for several days now. I will be attending the Queensland Government's Disaster Management Committee meeting this morning to make sure that we're plugged in, and we can offer any support. But yeah, look, I'm very confident that people are prepared, and you will have seen the footage of shop owners taking down signage and bringing in furniture, and if anyone still hasn't done that in Far North Queensland, now's the time, because we expect it to hit landfall later this afternoon.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Earlier the Cairns Mayor told us it has been a while since residents had faced a significant cyclone, and many have become complacent. Are you worried that that is an issue, complacency?

MURRAY WATT: I think that's always a risk in Far North Queensland, because, as I say, people are used to these sorts of systems, although the Mayor's right, it is a few years since one of this size has come through. At this stage you will have seen that it has decreased in size to Category 1. We do think there's a good chance it will grow to Category 2 by the time it hits landfall, and I think that's why the messaging coming from authorities, federal, state and local in recent days has been important. To remind people that there are some very simple steps they can take that will reduce their damage; bringing in furniture, tidying up loose items around the garden, all of those kind of things people have been made aware of, so you can only hope that that messaging is getting through, and that people stay listening to ABC Emergency over the next few hours.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Yeah, that's right, that's the place to be. Cyclone Jasper is expected to wreak havoc in North Queensland, but there are concerns that one in four homes in North Queensland - where it's predicted, of course, to make landfall - are uninsured because it's so expensive.  Can they expect government support?

MURRAY WATT: Certainly should the cyclone cause damage, then we would provide the same types of support that we do in every disaster situation. Obviously it's a bit early to know what sort of damage is involved and what payments and things like that will be needed, but you will have seen that, you know, since we've been in office we've really made an effort to speed up the payments to people and provide other support. So I'm sure that will occur if damage occurs.

But you're right, there is a genuine insurance issue in Northern Australia, and I guess one of the things I've learned in this role is that it's actually becoming a problem right across the country. Every community I've been to since I've been in the job that has suffered a flood, already was experiencing insurance difficulties before they flooded. But I think it probably is most acute in North Queensland - you know, the number of cyclones, the devastation they can wreak, there are some communities where building codes haven't been as strong as they need to be and leave people open to risk. All of those things do contribute to insurance issues. Obviously the former Government introduced a cyclone reinsurance pool, which is still very much early days, and it's a little hard to tell at this point in time whether it's going to deliver the outcomes that the former Government claimed, but it does seem to be making some impact at least to some householders with their insurance rates.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just pivoting a little, yesterday you launched the national large aerial tanker that will be used to fight severe fires. Where will it be needed this season? Can you give us an update of what you expect in terms of the worst places?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah well, this is the irony, Patricia, while we're dealing with cyclones and possibly flooding in the north, obviously much of the country is sweltering through heatwaves at the moment, and even as we speak there are a couple of parts of the country where there is extreme fire danger.

You're right, yesterday I launched the national large aerial tanker, or the big water-bombing plane, which will be placed at Richmond Air Base in Western Sydney. But we expect that to move around the country over the summer, wherever it's most needed. The benefit of this national tanker, we didn't have one of these back in Black Summer, and it adds to the fleet of aircraft that the States and Territories have at their disposal. Last summer it was primarily based in Western Australia, because of course they face fire risk, whereas the east of the country was dealing with floods. We've only had this air tanker in the country for about a week or so. It's already been down in South Australia to help out down there, and this week it was in northern New South Wales. So it's one of those things that we can move around different places.

I don't know if you saw the most recent summer fire outlook, but you'll see there's a lot of red on the map of Australia - everywhere from North Queensland right through the inland, down through New South Wales, Gippsland, Western Victoria, east of Adelaide, and of course Western Australia, so there's a lot of the country that we expect there could be fire risk this year. All of the advice to me is that it's not likely to be as catastrophic as Black Summer was, because that came on the back of four years of drought. But the hot temperatures that we are seeing across so much of the country means that the vegetation we've had grow through flooding is at risk of drying up very quickly. So we'll be very much on alert for fires through summer.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just a final question on a story that broke yesterday, Minister, with your Agriculture hat on - China lifted export bans on three Australian meat exporters. It's one of the few products where, of course, trade impediments remained. Why just three?

MURRAY WATT: Well it's a little unclear why China has decided to lift those suspensions for three out of the 11 abattoirs. I guess the common factor about these three was that the suspensions that were put in place related to reports of COVID amongst the workforce back two or three years ago. And unfortunately, even though, of course, Australia has very much got COVID under control, the Chinese authorities continued to suspend those establishments for COVID infections that were in place two or three years ago. The remaining eight establishments that do still have suspensions relate to other biosecurity and chemical issues. We have   the Department of Agriculture has repeatedly provided evidence to the Chinese Government to demonstrate that there's no safety or hygiene concerns. We'll keep making those advocacy arrangements, and we're hopeful that the remaining eight will be lifted quickly. But even having these three suspensions lifted is a massive development for our farmers, for our meat processors. One of the abattoirs that's had its suspensions lifted is, I think, the biggest abattoir in the country, certainly one of the biggest, and this means more exports for our processors and our farmers, which is good news for the bottom line.

PATRICIA KARVELAS: Murray Watt, many thanks for joining us, and have a happy Christmas.

MURRAY WATT: You too. Thanks Patricia.