Interview with Warwick Long, ABC Victoria Country Hour


SUBJECTS: Ag & Land Sector Plan, improved trade with China

WARWICK LONG: That’s ABC Rural’s Parliament House reporter Kath Sullivan updating us on what the government’s done with its consultation on agriculture contributing to net zero by 2050. If you wanted to know those six sectors that the government is going to consult on emissions plan, they are electricity and energy; industry; resources; the built environment; transport; and, of course, agriculture and land. And speaking of which, the Agriculture Minister says farmers have nothing to fear from the government’s net zero by 2050 policy.

To get into really what they are wanting to know about this, I spoke to Minister Murray Watt about this new method of getting feedback, but also on the Prime Minister’s trip to China early today.

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, that’s right, Warwick. Today we’re beginning a consultation process to get farmers and communities’ views about how we can encourage our agriculture sector to become even more sustainable into the future. We know that farmers and the ag sector have done a huge amount over the last 20 years or so to bring down our emissions both in the sector and nationally. But we also know that we are going to need to do more. Our international markets and domestic consumers are looking for their food to be even more sustainably produced into the future and what we also know is that climate change is having a real impact on farmers’ incomes. Our farmers are on the frontline of climate change, and the modelling we’ve got from ABARES within the agriculture department shows that the average Aussie farmer has had a profit fall of about 23 per cent or nearly $30,000 per farm over the last 20 years because of changing conditions due to climate change.

So, really, we need to be doing more both to preserve farm incomes and make sure that we keep those markets open into the future, quite apart from the sort of environmental benefits. What we’re keen to do is get the views on how can we make this transition to a lower emission future. There’s already some good work happening, whether it be in feed supplements or coated fertilisers that are low-emission fertilisers. There’s people adopting nor renewable energy into their operations. There’s people who are doing great work around sequestering carbon, whether it be on trees or their soil, which is actually opening up new income streams for farmers as well. That’s, I guess, what we want to make sure of in this – is that as we do move to a lower emissions future we actually help farmers make more money, not less and be more productive, not less, as well as be more sustainable into the future.

WARWICK LONG: Should farmers be worried about what path this kind of document could set their industry on?

MURRAY WATT: No, I think quite the opposite, Warwick. What we’re keen to do, as I say, is make sure that the solutions we come up with are done in conjunction with industry. And we’ve already had a lot of good discussions with a lot of the peak agriculture sector groups around what we can be doing to help farmers make that change without losing profitability. You know, if we get this right, as I say, there’s opportunities to open up new income streams for farmers in addition to growing crops or livestock or whatever they’re growing at the moment. And also there’s an opportunity to reduce farmers’ costs. So there’s a way to do this that actually helps farmers make more money rather than makes less. And, as I say, it’s a good way of making sure that we can keep those international markets and domestic markets open as consumer tastes are changing and wanting more sustainable production.

WARWICK LONG: It’s a tricky one, though, isn’t it, because climate change could also pose a risk, as you pointed to that ABARES data earlier, to Australian agriculture as well agriculture playing a role in being the solution?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, that’s right. And we’re certainly not only looking to agriculture as being the only sector that contributes to this task. Obviously as a government we’ve made a commitment to reach a net zero economy by 2050, and every sector of the economy is going to have to play its role. We’ve been doing a lot of work since coming to office to try to make sure that our energy sector is moving more towards cleaner, cheaper energy. There’ll need to be work done in the transport sector as well. But the reality is that agriculture contributes already about 17 per cent of our national emissions –

WARWICK LONG: And ABARES says that’s going to go up.

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, as we move more towards renewable energy rather than coal and gas-fired electricity the energy sector’s share of our emissions is likely to fall. And what that means is that agriculture and transport’s share is likely to go up. And that is going to put more of a spotlight on agriculture. So our government wants to get ahead of the game. I think one of the really exciting opportunities here is that we’ve known for years the sector has been really keen to move towards lower emission practices. We’ve had the NFF, GrainGrowers, MLA, Cattle Australia, all sorts of groups, embrace net zero targets, some as early at 2030. And finally we’ve got a government that’s prepared to work with the sector rather than pretend that climate change isn’t happening. And having that kind of partnership means that we can have a good nationally coordinated plan that helps the industry remain really profitable into the future as well as becoming even more sustainable.

WARWICK LONG: Murray Watt’s with you, the Agriculture Minister for Australia. We’re talking about a wide range of things happening in agriculture right now. Noticed a photo about 12 hours ago posted by the Prime Minister Anthony Albanese with President Xi of China, shaking hands and basically talking up the Australia-China trade relationship. That’s a big difference compared to where that relationship was just a few years ago. Is agriculture standing to benefit here?

MURRAY WATT: Absolutely. I think the agriculture sector probably has more to gain from stabilising our relationship with China than any other sector of the economy. And you’re right, Warwick – we’ve come a long way from the days when Australian ministers couldn’t even get a return phone call from China to now having our Prime Minister meet with the Chinese President about how we can take this relationship forward into the future.

We’ve always made clear that we’re not going to agree with everything that China believes in or does, and the phrase that we use is that we should cooperate where we can and disagree where we must. But even the work that we’ve done so far since being elected to stabilise that relationship is producing real dividends for Aussie farmers and rural communities.

Basically the trade impediments that China had imposed were worth about $20 billion in foregone exports for Australia. We’ve been able to recover about $18 billion worth of those, and we obviously expect to do the rest in terms of wine, lobster and some beef and sheep meat establishments. And even if you just look at the last few months, the fact that those barriers have been removed has meant we’ve been able to send in about $6 billion worth of barley, timber, cotton, horticulture, other products that had impediments as well. And that compares to last year only sending $85 million worth of those products into China. So nearly $6 billion in exports straight into the pockets of Aussie farmers, rural communities, processors. That’s good for jobs in Australia and good for farmers’ incomes.

WARWICK LONG: You mentioned the items on the list still to find progress – the wine tariffs are being reviewed at the moment. There’s those 10 or so abattoirs in Australia of beef and lamb waiting to hear if they can regain access to China. And I noticed the Prime Minister even looking at Australian lobster whilst he was touring in China. I didn’t think we had access there.

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, it’s an interesting story, I imagine, that I’ve got to get to the bottom of – how some Australian lobster ended up in China. But I think it was a really good way of the Prime Minister demonstrating that there is still work to be done with this relationship. And before – again, before those impediments were imposed, China was our biggest market for rock lobster. And that’s an issue for various states. I’ve met lobster fishermen and producers in Western Australia, in Tasmania, in South Australia. I’ve met them on Thursday Island at the tip of Cape York. So it’s had all sorts of widespread impacts. And we are keen to have that market reopened. And I think the Prime Minister made a very good point about the quality of our lobster while he was in China, and there’s a lot of demand for it. People want to get that high-quality premium Australian produce, whether it be lobster or anything else. And we’re obviously keen to supply it as quick – as soon as we can overcome these remaining barriers.

WARWICK LONG: So in your mind is it just a matter of time or is there more work to put in here?

MURRAY WATT: I’ve always said I felt that China was unlikely to remove every single trade impediment in one go and that they would progressively work through each one. And as I say, over the last few months we’ve seen those impediments removed now for cotton, for horticulture, for barley, for timber, for hay. We’re well on the way in terms of wine, and, you know, what I would be hoping is that we can now move on to those remaining ones, being lobster and some of those beef and sheep abattoirs. You know, there’s been really good progress so far, but we don’t think the job is done until every single one of those impediments is lifted, and that's why every meeting we have with Chinese officials we raise it. I’ve raised it directly with the Chinese Agriculture Minister. Obviously the Prime Minister has with the President of China, the Trade Minister with his counterpart. And we’ll keep on working until we get every single one of these impediments lifted for Aussie producers.

WARWICK LONG: Of course, more trade and having access to more markets is always an important thing and celebrated in Australian agriculture. But at some level do you worry about Australian agriculture putting all its eggs in the China basket yet again?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I think the one thing that all of us have learned, whether we’re farmers or ministers or journalists or members of the community, is that we can’t have all of our eggs in one basket when it comes to our export markets. And that’s why we’ve also been working hard with the industry to diversify our export markets for agriculture. Obviously, we’ve now got a free trade agreement with the UK and with India, which are already opening up new opportunities for our producers into some very valuable markets. And even with some of the existing markets we had, we keep finding opportunities to send new products or more products into them.

So, over the last 12 months or so the Agriculture Department federally has opened about a hundred new markets across the country for everything from avocados to stone fruit, to sheep meat, all sorts of things. And we think that that will deliver up to about five and a half billion dollars in extra exports.

So, I think we’ve got to be able to walk and chew gum. Obviously, we want to rebuild that China market. It is a very valuable market and remains our biggest agricultural market. But we need to have other options should things go wrong anywhere in the future. And that’s why we want to keep building those new markets, and it’s worth billions of dollars to Aussie producers.

WARWICK LONG: That’s Agriculture Minister Murray Watt speaking there about a wide range of things. We actually spoke as well about Woolworths, which has committed today to reduce lamb prices. I will bring you that story tomorrow because sometimes there’s only so much Agriculture Minister you want on this program, and I understand that and we work it out together.