Interview with Andy Park, ABC RN Drive


SUBJECTS: Murray-Darling Basin Plan; AFAC Seasonal Outlook; bushfire preparedness; the Voice

ANDY PARK, HOST: Joining me now is the Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt. Welcome to you, Minister.


ANDY PARK: You heard Andrew Leahy there, What's your response?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah look, I was listening very closely to what Andrew had to say and I've certainly heard similar sentiments from a number of farmers, particularly in Victoria. We understand the concern that people have but we also understand that we need to take serious action to save the Murray Darling Basin for the long term. The Murray Darling Basin is the nation's biggest food bowl. We've also seen the degradation of that basin and the impact on agriculture through past neglect, especially over the last 10 years, and it's our responsibility to take action to ensure that agriculture has a long term future right across the Murray Darling Basin.

But Minister Tanya Plibersek, who's obviously the responsible minister here, has made it very clear that voluntary buy backs of water are one option that's on the table. It is simply not possible to achieve the targets under the Murray Darling Basin without contemplating some level of voluntary buy backs. There are other options such as water infrastructure projects and water efficiency projects that we'll consider as well, but as I say if we want to have a long term future for agriculture across the Murray Darling Basin we simply have to achieve those water recovery targets that were set over 10 years ago and were left to rot under the former Government.

ANDY PARK: What guarantees will there be that water will flow to South Australia? Obviously you heard from Senator Sarah Hanson Young, her suggestion that Victoria is acting like spoilt brats. I'll just get you to respond to both those questions. Is Victoria acting that way and what guarantees will there be for South Australia?

MURRAY WATT: Well I don't think it's particularly helpful to use that kind of inflammatory language about other governments and you won't have seen Tanya Plibersek do that, nor me. It's obviously a decision for the Victorian Government what they decide to do. But what they have effectively done in not join the plan that every other relevant State has joined is say that they don't want more time, they don't want more options and they don't want more funding to deliver the Murray Darling Basin plan.

But as Tanya has made clear, the Commonwealth does have the power to undertake voluntary buy backs regardless of the State Government's position. We will obviously be undertaking those voluntary buy backs in a way that minimises disruption for communities. But, as I say, we simply have to achieve these water recovery targets to protect the Basin as a whole and to protect water flow into South Australia, as well as the whole Basin.

ANDY PARK: The leader of the Nationals David Littleproud says the reintroduction of water buy backs would decimate rural communities, is he right? And how will you and your Government protect these communities?

MURRAY WATT: Well I think, as I say, what will decimate rural communities in Australia long term is if we continue to do nothing about the Murray Darling Basin plan, which is what David Littleproud and his colleagues did for nearly 10 years. I mean they're running around now saying that we can achieve this through water efficiency projects, but they didn't manage to do that in the entire time they were in Government. If it was so easy to deliver it just through water efficiency projects it would have happened by now. But the last Government delivered only two gigalitres of water being recovered out of the 450 that are required in the whole time they were in Government.

So as I say, we do want to pursue this plan for the good of the environment, for the good of agriculture, for the good of those communities long term. We do need to undertake any voluntary buy backs in addition to the other measures in as sensitive a way as possible. And Tanya Plibersek has made clear there will be funding available to assist with structural adjustment of any communities where there is damage. But can I certainly assure you that as the Agriculture Minister I'm very conscious of the effect of these decisions, working very closely with Tanya to deliver it in a way that's actually positive for agriculture in the long term rather than negative.

ANDY PARK: Let's move on to some other issues. Firstly, Gary Johns, I suppose you could describe him as an anti Voice spokesperson, made some comments at the CPAC conference on Sunday, which many people included yourself have taken offence to. He said people living in remote communities are living in a ‘stupor’ and that they should ‘learn English, that is their Voice’. Gary Johns is not an active politician so what do you think can actually be done about these comments?

MURRAY WATT: Well I think it's the responsibility of the No campaign to ensure that any of their public voices, like Gary Johns, actually conduct themselves in a respectful manner. And unfortunately Gary Johns is a serial offender when it comes to using inflammatory, offensive and divisive language around Aboriginal people in our country. He's been doing this for years, and now he's being put up as one of the faces of the No campaign. You know, I've often heard people like Warren Mundine and Senator Nampijinpa Price call on everyone involved in this debate to be doing it in a calm and respectful manner, yet one of the very spokespeople for their campaign continues to go out and use this kind of offensive and demeaning language. So I would have thought the only thing the No campaign can do is to kick Gary Johns off their campaign so that we have the calm and respectful debate that they say they want.

ANDY PARK: Foreign Minister Penny Wong was quoted in reporting on record as saying she was concerned about the level of racism that this referendum is stoking. I mean this is Mr Albanese's plan, this is his idea, perhaps these sorts of consequences should have been taken into account? What's your response?

MURRAY WATT: Well I think anyone who has any contact with the Indigenous community of Australia knows the torrent of abuse they are now dealing with on a daily basis through this referendum campaign. But, you know, we can't say as a country that we're not prepared to make reforms because of the concerns that some people might engage in offensive conduct. What actually is required is for those people to pull their heads in and conduct themselves in a calm and respectful way. Debate the issues, don't engage in those kind of negative stereotypes of Indigenous people, don't engage in that kind of inflammatory and divisive language. I don't think that that's a reason to not have a debate.  It's a reason for people to be respectful in the way they conduct themselves, and if they're not prepared to do that then they shouldn't be the public face of one of the campaigns. Which is why Gary Johns has simply got to go.

ANDY PARK: Well, hang on, your Government has been pretty clear that they want to focus on the positives when it comes to the Voice to Parliament referendum, even at times refusing to engage when asked about certain comments. So why are you talking about this now?

MURRAY WATT: I think really that the comments of Gary Johns over the weekend really crossed the line that we haven't seen from anyone in either the Yes or No campaign up until now. I accept that we live in a democracy, people who disagree with me have a right to put their views. But I don't think that anyone has a right to be using that kind of inflammatory and offensive stereotyping that Gary Johns does year after year.

You're right, we do want to focus on the positives in this campaign and we want to use the opportunity to explain to people that the referendum is really about recognising our First Peoples in our Constitution through a Voice to Parliament, so that we can listen and deliver better results. I mean, the sort of things that Gary Johns and others keep talking about being problems in the Indigenous community I think will be best solved if we have an opportunity to listen directly to Indigenous people, bring them into the tent and actually deliver better results. That's what The Voice is really about. Not negative stereotypes.

ANDY PARK: Sure Minister, but engaging in this rhetoric now may come across to some as an act of desperation given the dire state of the polling for the Voice.

MURRAY WATT: Oh, I certainly don't think it's an act of desperation. I think it's an act of trying to ensure that the remaining weeks of this campaign are done and meet a certain standard of calm and respectful debate. You know, I think it's likely that as we approach the debate, if we don't all decide to conduct ourselves in a respectful manner then this debate will get worse, and I don't want to see that occur. That's why I spoke up yesterday, because I thought that Gary Johns had gone too far. He'd gone further than other members of the No campaign and other people involved in the Yes campaign, and I think it's a responsibility for both campaigns to make sure that we stick to the facts, that we don't conduct these scare campaigns, which the No campaign have been intent on from the beginning, and that we use respectful language of each other.

ANDY PARK: It's 18 past 5, the Federal Minister for Agriculture Murray Watt is my guest. You're also the Minister for Emergency Management; large parts of Australia have been put on high alert for significant bushfires in spring. It's something that we spoke to AFAC about - the CEO of AFAC earlier. Can you give me a sense of how dire the conditions are expected to be and how ready the various state and federal agencies that end up responding to these disasters are?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah look, I think there's no doubt that we do face a potentially pretty serious bushfire season this spring and summer, Andy, and anyone who's seen the map that AFAC released today will see that there's pretty large swathes of the country that face higher bushfire risk during spring, and that's before we get to summer when the southern parts of the country face their biggest risk.

But I can also assure your listeners that we are doing everything we possibly can at a government level to ensure that we're fully prepared. We first started working on this bushfire season before the last disaster season was even over because we knew that once we came out of those wet conditions and entered drier, hotter conditions that that would mean bushfires were more likely. So there's been a huge amount of work undertaken over the last few months between Federal, State and Territory Governments to make sure that we're ready. That work will continue right through the year and into the New Year. But at the same time we also need to make sure that individual landholders and communities have their bushfire preparation plans in place. I think anyone who hasn't started work on that should have a good look at the map and see that there is a serious risk this year and we all have a responsibility to be ready.

ANDY PARK: We're out of time. Federal Minister for Agriculture Murray Watt, I do appreciate your time this afternoon.

MURRAY WATT:  No worries, Andy.