Interview with Belinda Varischetti, ABC WA Country Hour

21 February 2023


SUBJECTS: Kimberley flood recovery; freight subsidies; live sheep exports

BELINDA VARISCHETTI, HOST: The Federal Government says it's considering a range of options to support primary producers affected by last month's once-in-a-century Kimberley flood event, and that includes expanding freight subsidies to more businesses and helping fund a shipment of cattle from the east to the west Kimberley for processing. Murray Watt is the Federal Minister for Agriculture and Emergency Services and is in Port Hedland today for the cabinet meeting. He says he's not able to visit the Kimberley this trip due to a previous commitment but he's keeping across what industry needs to get back to business. 

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: There's no doubt that quite apart from the human and emotional toll these floods have taken, it's had a massive impact on industry, particularly the pastoral industry. Having seen for myself some of the infrastructure damage, bridges, roads - that is going to have massive impact. So when I was in Broome and Fitzroy Crossing a few weeks ago I met with representatives of the KPCA to hear directly from them about the impacts. In a couple of months' time, I think that the full extent of that damage will become known in terms of livestock losses, but I'm sure it will be quite large. But yeah, that infrastructure damage I think is one of the main impacts that the industry's having at the moment. And it's the same even for horticulture industries up around Kununurra and places like that. Some of those freight routes that ordinarily would have been used to get product to places like Broome and Derby have been impacted. So there's a lot of work to be done there and we're cooperating very strongly with the Western Australian Government to try to get some things happening there as well. 

STEPH SINCLAIR, JOURNALIST: Is there any more information on what you are trying to get up and running? There's some pretty strong calls for a freight subsidy for more businesses that are affected by the closure of the Great Northern Highway. Is that something you would consider? 

MURRAY WATT: That is certainly something we're considering at the moment. We're working with the Western Australian Government on a range of different types of support and that certainly is an issue that's been raised with us. What we want to do is make sure that we can target that funding as well as possible, because we obviously want to assist those businesses who are facing extra costs, but we also want to be able to help people who are trying to buy their groceries at reasonable prices and things like that as well, because of course the cost of that - of transporting groceries to some of these remote communities - is going up too. So that's something that we're under active discussion with the Western Australian Government about at the moment, and as I say I'm confident that before too long we'll have a bit more to say about some extra support. 

STEPH SINCLAIR: Do you have a time frame on when we might know? There are just – there are plenty of businesses that are waiting on that information to make big calls about how they plan the rest of their season. Do you know when we might hear more about that? 

MURRAY WATT: I can't give you a precise date but we're very conscious that people are eager to know what's going to happen around freight subsidies and things like that, so we're literally working on it day and night at the moment with the Western Australian Government, along with a range of other issues. So I'd be hopeful we'd have something to say about that pretty soon. 

STEPH SINCLAIR: There are some significant concerns for the cattle industry, as you've pointed out. Are there any other measures that you're looking at to support the pastoral industry? 

MURRAY WATT: We've already provided freight subsidies, particularly for fodder where that's needed, and it may well be that there's some other support in the short-term. But one of the things that's making it a bit challenging is just not really having good visibility of what the full extent of the damage has been. So I think that people working in the industry can be confident that there will be support to come once we have a clearer picture of exactly what people need. It's a little bit hard to take a stab in the dark at the moment when we don't really know what the loss of livestock numbers has been. And as I say, we're very conscious of the need to try to get some of that infrastructure improved as quickly as we can. It's obviously good that we've been able to find some alternative freight routes to help people, but that's not a full solution and it's something that is occupying the time of a lot of people, both on the west coast and the east coast at the moment to try to come up with some solutions. 

STEPH SINCLAIR: One of the solutions that has been put forward by the cattle industry is actually shipping cattle from the East Kimberley to the West Kimberley to get it to the only processing facility up here in the north of WA. They are seeking government support for that - is that something that you would consider from the Federal Government? 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, Jackie Jarvis the Western Australian Agricultural Minister has raised that with me in the last few days, and again that's something that we are considering. We just again need to work through a range of issues there from who crews those ships to how available the ships are to how those movements would occur. But that is definitely something that we're giving some thought to. I understand that the usual transportation routes that cattle farmers would be using to transport their stock to abattoirs just doesn't exist at the moment so we've got to come up with some creative solutions and that is the kind of thing that might be a solution. We've just got to work that through with the Western Australian Government and a few others at the moment. 

STEPH SINCLAIR: The Fitzroy Bridge is obviously down. That is the national highway. Is the Government going to contribute to the repair of that road or look at, you know, investing in alternative routes? One main highway in and out of the region, that's not a lot of options. 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, no, it obviously does leave us a bit vulnerable as a country when we lose those kind of supply routes in remote parts of the country. Obviously, the first job is to get that bridge repaired and to get the Great Northern Highway up and running again as the major freight route. I think, you know, there has been a discussion about whether we need alternative routes as  well, but that's probably a bit more of a long-term solution. Our number one objective is to get that freight route back up and running as quickly as we can. I think there was some really good cooperation at the early stages after the floods between a number of state governments and the Federal Government to find alternative ways of getting product in and out of those communities, but it does involve massive detours and that's not a sustainable solution long-term. The sooner we can get that bridge back up and running and the road repairs as well then that will obviously be a great thing for the region. 

STEPH SINCLAIR: So, will the Federal Government look at funding the repair work there? 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, look, people in Western Australia can feel very confident that the Albanese Government will pay our share of those sorts of road repairs. We've got very clear arrangements between the Federal Government and all the State Governments that we jointly fund repairs to roads and infrastructure and things like that, and I've got no reason to think that we would do anything different in this case. 

STEPH SINCLAIR: So I'm guessing you're not sure the size of that investment at this stage? 

MURRAY WATT: No, this is one of the issues is that we're still at the stage of sort of assessing what the damage is, because it is just so extensive, and until we know that it's really a bit hard to put any dollar figures on it, but it's going to be big. 

BELINDA VARISCHETTI: Federal Agriculture and Emergency Management Minister Murray Watt speaking to Steph Sinclair about the Federal Government's response to last month's historic flood in the Kimberley. Fourteen past 12. Well, the Minister's also been busy discussing the future of the live sheep trade. Yesterday Murray Watt joined an online meeting with industry leaders on the Government's plans to transition out of the trade. He also met with WA's Agriculture Minister Jackie Jarvis, who he says is pushing to keep the industry running. 

MURRAY WATT: Jackie and I have had a number of conversations about Federal Labor's commitment to phase out the live sheep industry and she's made her position and the Western Australian Government's position very clear to me -they don't support this commitment and they're standing up to the industry. And we'll obviously work through that respectfully as we are with the industry more generally. 

STEPH SINCLAIR: What is Minister Jarvis calling for from the Federal Government when it comes to the live sheep trade? 

MURRAY WATT: Well, I guess I can let her speak for herself, but I mean in general terms, you know, it's no secret that Premier McGowan hasn't been supportive of this policy and Minister Jarvis is taking a similar position in supporting the ongoing live export of live sheep from Australia. But I think they also understand that we did go to an election, in fact we've gone to an election twice now, with a commitment to phase out the industry, and I think that, you know, people in Western Australian can be confident that they'll be fighting hard for the very best deal for everyone involved in this trade. In particular the farmers, the processors, the transporters and all of the other people involved in the supply chain around this trade at the moment. 

STEPH SINCLAIR: Is there anything that Minister Jarvis or Premier Mark McGowan could say to you that would change your mind on the future of the live export trade? 

MURRAY WATT: Look I don't think so and I've tried to be very consistent ever since taking on this role as the Federal Agriculture Minister. I've said from day one, and my first visit to Western Australia as the Minister was a matter of a month or so after the election and I met with members of the export industry and farmer groups and a range of others, and I was very clear that we had made an election commitment. We have been elected, and I think Australians expect their governments to deliver on their election commitments rather than walk away from them.  I'm keen to make sure that we consult widely as we implement this commitment, that we keep the industry close and keep working with them because we know it's going to impact on many people and it's not something that should be rushed. Both the Prime Minister and I have already said publicly that we won't be implementing this commitment in this term of office because we understand that it's something that we do need to do in consultation with industry. 

STEPH SINCLAIR: You mentioned you met with some industry leaders, what was some of the  feedback that you received from them and what are they calling for from you in this transition? 

MURRAY WATT: The virtual meeting that I did included people from both the export industry - the exporters themselves and their peak bodies - along with representatives of some of the key farmer groups here in Western Australia. They've obviously been clear that they strongly want us to change our position on this. I think though that the industry wants to make sure that as we go forward that we are listening to them and working with them and I've tried to be very open in my dealings with them, whether it be behind closed doors or publicly. What I'm interested in is coming up with solutions that actually benefit this industry and we want to see more sheep raised in Western Australia, not less. But I think there is a really massive opportunity to expand the onshore processing of sheep in a way that will earn even more export dollars for Western Australia, let alone the extra jobs that can be created. 

STEPH SINCLAIR: How do we do that though when we're struggling to fill the processing jobs that are there right now? 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, look, that is an absolutely valid point and has been raised with me. And again, this is one of the reasons why we can't implement this overnight. I mean, I've also met in the past with some of the animal welfare groups who would like to see us implement this commitment immediately, and I don't think it's realistic to think that that can happen for reasons like you're putting forward. It will take a bit of time to build the processing sheds, to get the equipment, to get the people, but I'm confident that by working cooperatively we can do that.  Obviously, there will be opportunities for locals in employment there and the training needs to be provided for people to do that. But since coming to office we've also dramatically increased the number of Pacific Island workers who are now working in Australia, including in meat processing. And we now have a record number - 35,000 - who are working in Australia, many of them in meat processing, and I think there are opportunities to expand the number of people we bring to this country to work in this industry as well as employing locals. 

STEPH SINCLAIR: Right, so what are the next steps as we transition out of live sheep exports? What's next on your agenda and what time frame are you working to? 

MURRAY WATT: The very next step is that we will fairly soon be announcing a consultation process with a panel of people who have got experience in the industry and the related issues to consult with everyone who's got a view on this. Because of course the industry itself, there are many views there that need to be heard but equally there are people, as I say, who are coming from the animal welfare side of the debate and they need to be listened to as well.  So we haven't set a time frame to implement this, and quite deliberately because we want to hear from people about what's possible, what's realistic and what would need to be done in order to implement this policy in a beneficial way. So that's exactly the kind of issues that this consultation process will be looking at. It will be basically looking at how and when do we deliver this commitment, rather than whether we should deliver it. And I hope to be able to make an announcement about that fairly soon.