Interview with Andy Park, ABC RN Drive

9 August 2022


SUBJECTS: National Biosecurity Strategy, foot-and-mouth disease

ANDY PARK: Well, Australia now has its first biosecurity plan and it couldn't be more timely with multiple threats such as foot and mouth, lumpy skin disease and African swine flu all on the nation's doorstep. Tens of billions of dollars of agricultural produce and exports are at risk, not to mention the food and fibers you use every day. Murray Watt is Australia's Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Minister. Welcome to you, Minister. You outlined your new strategy at the National Press Club, today. Given how vital agriculture is to Australia's economy, we haven't just worked that out, why haven't we had a key document like this before?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, it's a good question, Andy, and it's one I've had to ask myself. I guess I assumed before taking on the role, that we did have a national biosecurity strategy and it's really great that we've been able to get one out so quickly after the election. To be honest with you, I think it's a combination of things. I think that biosecurity is one of those things that becomes more and less important in the political cycle and in agriculture, depending on what sort of threats we face and right now, we face some very serious ones. But I think one of the other issues is that this is an area where it has been difficult to get cooperation between different levels of government previously. I've certainly put a very big effort into good cooperation with my state and territory colleagues since we took office, and they've reciprocated. So it's really pleasing we've been able to get this strategy out so quickly.

ANDY PARK: I mean, this isn't a document you've snapped your fingers and made appear. As you noted, it was released fairly quickly after the change of government. So how did you speed this along when this is a very vexed area of cooperation, as you also mentioned?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, and to give the former government their due, they did begin the process of developing this strategy, but unfortunately, it wasn't able to be finalised before the election, there were still some issues that needed to be sorted out between the Federal Government and the states and territories, which we worked hard on to resolve. But also, I guess one of the things I did was call a pretty early meeting of all the agriculture ministers from the country, which happened a few weeks ago. That group hadn't actually met since last year. It had been nearly nine months since that group had been convened, which I think is a mistake not to be bringing together agriculture ministers on a regular basis to talk about these sorts of priority issues. So I listed this item for discussion at the meeting. We took a bit of time to talk it through and make a few more changes and we've been able to get it out quickly. So I think that's a real credit to everyone who's been involved in the process.

ANDY PARK: Well, Minister, despite your generosity to the previous government, Nationals Leader David Littleproud, says you're not up to the job of keeping foot and mouth disease out of Australia. The Government has committed an extra $10 million to fight FMD in Indonesia. Is that enough?

MURRAY WATT: Look, I'm sure there's more that we can do and there's more that we will do, Andy. And it's a bit of a shame for David, but he's obviously struggling a little bit with getting into opposition and just has to resort to personal sledges. It's very interesting that all of a sudden, now that he's in opposition, he's got all sorts of suggestions about things that should be done when he never did them himself, when he was the Minister, when he had the opportunity.

ANDY PARK: Didn't he have a pretty bright idea in terms of a container levy? I mean, how are you going to fund these sorts of strategies about protecting Australia's biosecurity in perpetuity rather than just the next year or so?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, well, that certainly is something that the previous government went out and announced that they would do, but of course then had to back off after they had some bad feedback from certain stakeholders. And unfortunately -

ANDY PARK: - What stakeholder were those Minister?

MURRAY WATT: Well, my understanding, not having been directly involved at the time, was that it was particularly people in the cement and resources industries who were concerned about having to pay that kind of levy for biosecurity. But one of the things that I think a lot of people aren't aware of is that we've had a very long history in Australia where users of the biosecurity system do make a financial contribution. That might be farmers themselves or farm groups, it might be other industries who depend on biosecurity and even travellers contribute through levies and things like that. So it's a bit of a shame that the government, the previous government, wasn't able to bring that to fruition. And I think, frankly, it has been one of the problems that we haven't had long term, sustainable biosecurity funding that the country needs and that industry has been calling for. It's certainly something I'm planning to take up. We made an election commitment saying that we would deliver long term biosecurity funding, which industry has welcomed. In the meantime, we're obviously delivering more funding to meet the immediate issues that we face. As you say, today I announced 10 million more dollars for Indonesia to support them with vaccines and technical assistance. That comes on top of the $14 million that I announced after I returned from Indonesia a few weeks ago. So we are certainly putting more money in as needed right now. But I think there is a longer term task to look at how we fund our biosecurity system and what extra measures are needed.

ANDY PARK: So are you confident that you might be more convincing of that stakeholder in the cement industry to come to the table and support something like a container levy where the former government fell short?

MURRAY WATT: Well, to be clear, Andy, we haven't made any decision at this point to introduce those types of levies. And we are commencing work to look at how we can properly resource the biosecurity system in the future and who should pay for that. But I do think that the current biosecurity circumstances we face, whether it be the diseases, we see in Indonesia, or a whole range of plant diseases which are threatening to come into the country as well. I think that does open the door for a wider conversation with industry and the community about what we need to do to keep our agriculture industry safe and should pay the bill.

ANDY PARK: So why now, in terms of all of these multiple and rather nasty sounding threats to our biosecurity, is this the result of globalisation? Why is there this confluence of threats seemingly at the doorstep of Australia's agriculture industry now?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, you're right, Andy. We definitely face one of the more challenging biosecurity environments we've ever faced as a country. I think it's fair to say there's a few factors. One of them is definitely climate change. As the environment around us is changing, that is bringing temperature changes and other things which are bringing some of these pests closer to our doors. Also changes in trade and travel patterns. Even things like the advent of more online shopping with people posting things in, whether it be around the country or from other countries, runs the risk of bringing pests in. I've heard stories, for instance, of Khapra beetle, which is a very damaging pest for our cropping industry, that was discovered in refrigerators that were being imported into Australia. So that sort of increased trade from different countries is a threat and even things like changing land use patterns and clearing of trees can contribute as well. So all of these things put together are a bit of a cocktail of potential disaster and it's why we all need to be taking these issues seriously.

ANDY PARK: Well, it's been theorised that the Varroa mite outbreak in New South Wales may have originated from equipment unloaded by the RAAF at Williamtown Airbase. What does that tell us about the needs for a multi-government agency approach on this? And will your plan, your strategy include Defence?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, and obviously that particular outbreak is still under investigation, Andy, and we're still not entirely clear how it got into the country, but I have heard those suggestions as well. I think there's no doubt that every level of government and every agency within government has got a role to play. Anyone who is entering or leaving the country is potentially a biosecurity risk and needs to take precautions. And that's whether we're talking about travellers coming back from Bali or whether we're talking about big government institutions. Last week, you might have seen, I announced a new preparedness task force around foot and mouth disease and lumpy skin disease to make sure that all of our federal agencies are working together, understand their roles and responsibilities. If we do see an outbreak that will include our Defence Forces as well as our emergency management agencies and agricultural biosecurity experts. So we do need different agencies and different levels of government working together.

ANDY PARK: So we've now got a biosecurity strategy for the next ten years, the funding of which it sounds like you're yet to tackle in the fullness of time. But can we expect one of these sort of strategies for food security? There's this alarming report around yesterday suggesting we've only got five days worth of fresh food available at any given time. That seems extraordinary in such a, well, productive country.

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I saw that report, Andy, and it was quite concerning. That is something that we have begun work on as well. Obviously, my major focus over the last few weeks has been these potential disease outbreaks, so that's where I've been spending most of my time. But certainly there are people within the Federal Department of Agriculture who are looking at these issues and I'm looking forward to doing some more work on that front soon. It's a serious issue. It's a serious issue, both for Australia but also our region, especially with things like what we're seeing in Ukraine and the impact that's had on grain supply that's already having an impact on the Middle East. When I was in Indonesia recently, meeting with the Agriculture Minister there, food security was a very high priority issue for them. So I think it's something that we can do better, both to ensure we can feed our own country, but also to support our neighbours.

ANDY PARK: Lastly, Minister, in this new role in this new portfolio, what have you learned about consultation with the agriculture industry and its stakeholders after Labor's election pledge to phase out live sheep exports was leaked by an animal activist group?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, look, I think in general, the feedback I've had, Andy, since becoming the Minister is very positive from industry about the level of engagement and consultation that I and other members of the government have participated in. To be honest with you, it surprised me that the feedback I've had from stakeholders is that the former government, despite being a National Party-run agriculture administration, we're not very good at consulting stakeholders and often turned up and lectured people rather than listened. So it's something I've really tried hard to work on since taking on the job. Very soon after being appointed, I went to Perth, met with live sheep exporters, met with sheep farmers, met with meat processors, met with animal activists, pretty much everyone who's got an opinion on this issue. And what we've committed to do is to implement that election commitment about phasing out live sheep exports in an orderly way in consultation. We don't need to rush this, we need to get it right. And that's certainly the way I intend to operate going forward.

ANDY PARK: Well, you know what they say about ‘more the consultation, more the disappointment’. I wish you all the best Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Minister Murray Watt. Appreciate your time.