Interview with Jessica Hayes, ABC WA Country Hour

10 January 2023


SUBJECTS: WA flood update; impact on agriculture

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: Yeah so the support that the Prime Minister and the Premier announced in Broome, most of it is directed at this stage to households to help people even just be able to get food, pay for food, pay for the essentials, things like that. But amongst that support includes freight subsidies for primary producers.

One of the messages that I was hearing from the KPCA over the weekend was that the immediate concern was access to feed, and freight subsidies will be available to producers in the Kimberley where they need to be, for instance, bringing in and transporting feed for their livestock.

But I would suspect that as time goes on and the extent of the damage becomes clearer, it's very likely that there will be additional support. It's just that people are really trying to get their heads around exactly what the extent is at this point and what support people need.

JESSICA HAYES, HOST: Of course the devil will be in the detail. You mentioned those freight subsidies, what will that look like and exactly how will that work? 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, well the details of that on the Department of Community's website, or very shortly will be - the Western Australian Government website - explaining exactly who's eligible and exactly what amounts are available. But the idea really is to enable people to help cover the costs of transporting feed.

Again, when I was speaking to the KPCA over the weekend their view was that there probably was enough feed available locally, and in many stations they have actually stocked up on their feed for the winter and that kind of thing. But if it is the case that people do run out of feed in their own stations and need to be transporting in, then there would be a government contribution towards the cost of that transportation because we realise that's an expense that people won't have planned for.

JESSICA HAYES: It's already been a challenging year with live exports dropping off due to biosecurity threats. What other support could be on the table for pastoralists, because this is a big cattle producing region? 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah it certainly is, and you make a good point that of course last year there were very significant concerns around biosecurity, particularly foot and mouth disease and lumpy skin disease, and I also discussed that yesterday with the KPCA. Fortunately, due to the work that graziers themselves and governments have taken, we have managed to keep Australia free of those diseases, but we can't really stop, you know, the efforts on that front and we're continuing to work with Indonesia to help them get their outbreaks under control.

As I say, it's a little early yet to be speculating on exactly what kind of support might be available for primary producers in the Kimberley because really we need to better understand exactly what the damage is, and I think people are still trying to assess how many livestock they've lost, what kind of fence damage they've incurred, whether some sort of livestock disposal programs might be needed. But as all of those details become clear we'll be working very closely with the KPCA and the Western Australian Government to ensure that support is available for people.

JESSICA HAYES: Now, you're not only the Minister for Agriculture, you're also the Minister for Emergency Management. How does holding both of those portfolios guide the decisions that you're making on this issue, and are you finding favourability in having synergies across those portfolios in tackling this kind of crisis in the Kimberley? 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah I think it actually is quite useful that by coincidence we currently have a Minister, who happens to be me, who's in charge of both of those portfolios. And it's not just these floods that we're seeing in the Kimberley where that's been useful. If you look at a lot of the floods that the east coast experienced last year, many of them were in rural areas as well and a lot of the impact has been on the agriculture sector, and unfortunately for the Kimberley that's now happening in your part of the world as well.

So I think it is kind of useful to be able to understand that, you know, when we see these big disasters come through the impacts aren't only on homeowners in communities, whether they be built up or small towns like Fitzroy Crossing, it's likely to have an economic impact on the country to have lost that amount of stock. Of course, it's likely to have an impact on station owners and the companies running those stations and families running those stations.  So yeah, I think it is useful to be able to have your head in both of those camps as to what's going to be needed going forward.

JESSICA HAYES: Ok, you're listening to the Country Hour, I'm Jessica Hayes. My guest this afternoon is Federal Agriculture and Emergency Management Minister Murray Watt. I recognise that infrastructure doesn't fall specifically within your remit, but you do sit around the Cabinet table. Have there been any early discussions yet about boosting funding for repairs to infrastructure in the Kimberley region, and do we have any early estimates at all yet of what the damage bill might be? 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, there certainly have been there those discussions. And you're right, while I'm not the federal Infrastructure Minister, a lot of the infrastructure repairs after these kind of disasters do actually get funded through the disaster management budget. We've got long standing arrangements between federal and state governments about jointing funding repairs and other sort of damage repairs. And Yesterday while we were in Broome, you know, I was party to discussions between the Prime Minister and the Premier about what's going to be needed. I think you don't need to have been in the Kimberley to realise - even if you've just seen photos of what's happening - the infrastructure damage is severe and that of course is going to have another impact on pastoralists in terms of being able to transport stock to ports and other things like that. So, you know, again it's too early to know exactly what the dollar figure is going to be but it's going to be big. You know, when you see those sorts of highways washed away, when you see that bridge over Fitzroy Crossing pretty much demolished, it's going to be a large infrastructure bill and it's going to be challenging to get that infrastructure repaired. We are obviously talking about a very remote part of Australia. It's not as if there's tradies in surplus just around the corner. But that is something that the Governments have already started working on, and again something that I discussed with the KPCA yesterday.

JESSICA HAYES: Minister, you mentioned those Commonwealth disaster funding arrangements. There has been criticism that it's too inefficient, it's too slow, that there's still routes that are being fixed from last wet season and the wet season before. What is your commitment to trying to make sure that these efforts are fast tracked? 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah well certainly since we took office back in May last year, we put a real effort into getting money out the door much more quickly after disasters. I think anyone fairly observing what we've been able to do on the east coast would see that we've been able to get money into people's hands and small businesses and primary producers much more quickly than what we've seen in the past. And we'll certainly continue to try for that when it comes to the Kimberley as well.

We will be working as hard as we possibly can with the Western Australian Government to get some of this infrastructure repaired quickly. But I do need to be honest with people and say that's not going to happen overnight. It is extensive damage, it's severe damage, it's in a remote part of the country. It's not going to be an easy task, but people can be assured that we're very much on the job and those discussions have already begun. I know Main Roads -the Main Roads Department in WA - has begun the assessment work. But there's a lot of ground to cover so it's a very high priority for both the state and federal governments but I do need to be honest with people that it's going to take a bit of time.