Address at the 2022 Hort Connections conference

Title: Minister Murray Watt at the 2022 Hort Connections conference
Description: Introduction to the minister's experience, three short term priorities in the ag sector: workforce, biosecurity and input costs.
Date Broadcast:  8 June 2022 
Time Broadcast: 10:48 AM - 10:59 AM

MURRAY WATT: Good morning, everyone. I just learnt that this is day 3 of your conference, so some of you are no doubt backing up after a couple of big nights and a couple of big days, so thank you for so many of you turning up for the start of today’s proceedings.

Can I just begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land that we’re gathering on today, their elders past, present and emerging. To the organisers of the conference and the AUSVEG executive, a number of whom I just met with before this, thank you very much for the invitation to be part of what’s a really incredible conference. You were telling me that there’s over 3,000 people registered and we were reflecting on what a great thing it is that we can actually all get back together in big events like this and come from around the country. So, welcome to all of you for organising this conference.

Can I also acknowledge my parliamentary colleague Senator Raff Ciccone, who I know is a friend of your organisation and has been to many of your conferences before. Raff will continue to play a really important role in our government in the agriculture space and I’m looking forward to working with him on those issues.

I’m really honoured and excited to have the opportunity to not only speak to you today, but to take on the role as Australia’s federal Minister for Agriculture. I have had quite a lot of contact with the sector over many years, but I never necessarily expected that I would end up in the role as the minister. And, as I say, I’m incredibly excited by the opportunity to join such a flourishing industry that’s so important to our national economy, to our national employment, and, also, I think to our national identity, so I’m really happy to be able to join you in this role.

I figured that given I’m the new minister, a lot of you will be going “Who’s this bloke?” and “What do we know about him?”. And while there are a number of you in the room who I have had dealings within the past roles, I just thought I would just quickly introduce myself as well.

So, what I like to tell people is that my day job is that I’m a Senator for Queensland, and now, of course, taking on these ministerial roles as well. I’ve been in the Senate for six years now. I was elected in 2016 and prior to that spent a lot of time working in the Queensland government both as the chief of staff to former Premier Anna Bligh and then having one term in Parliament myself. What you’ll be able to tell from that is that unlike many of you I’m not a farmer, and I’m not going to pretend to be a farmer. I think Australians have had enough of politicians who like to dress up in costumes and pretend to be something that they’re not. I’m going to be who I am and what you see is what you get. But even though I live in Brisbane and I’m not a farmer myself, I actually have a really strong family history in the agriculture sector going back generations.

So, my father grew up on a dairy farm outside Mackay. He and his family raised cattle for a time. He was a cane cutter in the days that people were employed to actually physically cut cane around the Mackay region as well. My parents met in Sarina, just outside Mackay. And on my mum’s side of the family as well there were people running dairy farms on the Darling Downs, pineapple farms closer to Maryborough. So, I like to think that farming is in my blood even though I’m not a farmer myself.

I think the reason that matters, is that I grew up with all the stories of farming, whether it be from my parents, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, great uncles, great aunts. So, from a very early age, I was hearing the stories about farming, the ups, the downs, the challenges, the opportunities, and that’s something that’s really stayed with me for my whole life. And I’d like to think that it gives me some insight, if not directly, into what farmers are going through and what rural communities are going through. It’s one of the reasons that in my time both in the Senate and, also, prior to that in the Queensland Government, I always made a point of spending a lot of time in rural and regional communities. I like to think of myself as someone who’s as comfortable in the city as I am in the country, and even just yesterday I was with Tony Mahar and Fiona Simson from the NFF, Georgie Somerset from AgForce, and a number of other reps from farming organisations at a cotton farm just outside Emerald. So, I very deliberately wanted to hit the ground running and get on farm as quickly as I could.

I suppose I just want you to know that in me you’ve got someone who has got some understanding of the farming sector, if not direct hands on experience, and certainly real empathy for the work that you do and the importance of supporting it when I’ll be sitting around the cabinet table.

Overall, we were just talking before this that I feel very fortunate to step into this role at a time when on the surface at least the agricultural sector in our country is doing really well. We released some new figures from ABARES yesterday which showed that we’re expecting record export values from the ag sector over the last 12 months, and we’re expecting production levels that will be near the record that was achieved last year. So, in the big picture, if you like, I think the sector is doing pretty well at the moment, with many people getting good prices and other things. But, at the same time, I recognise that those good headline results are masking a number of really serious challenges that the industry is facing and I’ll just quickly step you through what I sort of see as some of the big challenges that I’ll be taken on as priorities. And, of course, you know quite apart from all of those, we’re dealing with floods and other natural disasters even not very far from here –  just up the road in the Lockyer Valley –  which is imposing a further burden on so many in our ag sector, and it’s something that we’ve got to tackle. My other goal, incidentally, in the Government is going to be the Minister for Emergency Management, which is something that I played a role in opposition as well, and, unfortunately, for many farming regions, right now there are challenges both in agriculture and disaster management that we need to work on.

So, in terms of my sort of priorities coming into the portfolio, and hopefully these will match up with some of the things that all of you see as the big challenges facing hort in particular, really, from the discussions I’ve been having and even the discussions I was having with the sector before I took on the role. It seems to me that there’s three major short term issues that are facing the sector and I intend them to be my three top short-term priorities. The first, of course, is labour shortages. This was raised with me by AUSVEG in the meeting that we had before I got up on stage, and again I know that it’s arguably the single biggest challenge facing hort in particular in our country at the moment. And you’d be aware there was quite a lot of debate about this in the run up to the federal election and we said that we were not going to be following through on the previous Government’s plans around the agricultural visa for reasons which have been sort of well ventilated in the media. But what we did say, and what we did commit to, was that we do want to expand the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility harvest scheme because we think that there is further opportunity there to make use of willing workers who have already been vetted as ready to come and work in Australia to fill some of the skills gaps that we have in the hort industry and in ag altogether. But I think if I’m being honest, what I have sort of really picked up over the last week or so in the discussions I’ve had with AUSVEG and other industry associations, is that that is welcomed –  the expansion of PALM. But there are other issues within the workforce challenges in the sector that might also need attention, particularly when it comes to semi skilled and skilled workers. I’ll be frank with you, I think that there’s more that we can be doing around that as the new Government to work with you to solve those challenges.

We do want to make training and employing Australian workers in ag a real priority. I don’t think that we should only be looking overseas when it comes to meeting our workforce challenges in hort and in agriculture and we made a lot of announcements in the run up to the election about what more we would be doing in investing to train up Australians, particularly in areas of skills shortage and that of course includes ag. So, I do think that there’s more work that we can do as a country to train our own people to take on some of the really exciting jobs that are on offer in ag, and that will be a priority for us. But I am very much open to discussion with the industry about what else we can do around skilled migration in particular to meet some of the challenges that we have.

The Prime Minister announced in the run up to the election that we would be holding a jobs and employment summit probably within the first two or three months of being elected, and I think that the intersection between migration and our workforce, whether it be in ag or other industries, is going to be a core topic for discussion at that summit. So, I’m not going to pretend I always have the answers one week into the job, but what I do want you to know is that we do recognise it’s a challenge and that we’re very keen to work with you in solving it.

The second priority that has been identified –  and I promised I wouldn’t go over 10 minutes so I’m going to have cut some of this a little bit short; but there’ll be probably be other opportunities for us to have a chat. But biosecurity. I realise is a really significant challenge facing your industry as well. Some of you might have seen that in the Prime Minister’s trip just this week to Indonesia he actually did raise biosecurity concerns with the Indonesian President, which is a bit of a signal about how seriously we’re taking that as an issue for the sector.

The third big short-term priority that’s very clear to me is the sky rocketing cost of inputs, whether it be fertiliser, other chemicals, diesel, all your inputs that you need to be able to run your farms and make your profits, that those profits are obviously coming under increasing pressure as a result of those input costs going through the roof.

Now, again, I’m not going to pretend that we have a solution to that within the first week. You will have heard other ministers in our Government talking about work that we’re doing and just today the energy minister has convened a meeting with all of his state and territory counterparts to work through this. But I do again recognise this is a real challenge in your sector and only yesterday I raised with my department that I do want to make sure that our department, the ag department, is really involved in that discussion within Government. Obviously, it’ll be the Department of Climate Change and Energy, which is the lead agency around these issues, but I want to make sure that ag is very much at the table because of the impact that these issues have on you.

So, as I say, I suppose what I just want to do at this early point is say to you that I already concede that workforce, biosecurity and input costs are probably the three most serious short term challenges or immediate challenges facing the hort sector. We’re on to it. We want to work with you to solve it and I’m up for any idea that people have got.

Longer term –  and again I will cut this a bit short –  but longer term two other priorities that I’m really keen to work on with your sector are how we can continue to take agriculture further up the value chain in Australia. Your sector in particular, through food processing, is already doing a lot of that. But I know that there’s even more that we can be doing together to realise the full value of our incredible agricultural products. One of the commitments that we took to the election was, firstly, to set up what we’ve called a National Reconstruction Fund –  a $15 billion fund that’s about partnering with industry across all industries, really, to rebuild manufacturing in our country, and bringing new technology and mechanisms to really get that value adding going across all industries. Clearly, ag is a big part of that, and we actually said in the run up to the campaign that from that $15 billion we would carve off $500 million specifically for investment with the agriculture sector. So, ag, food and fibre, forestry - what we can be doing to bringing new technologies and other processes to really harness the full value of our incredible products.

Finally, of course, no discussion about ag would be complete without talking about climate change and sustainability. They are issues that I know your industry has already been working on very hard. I’ve been quoted in a couple of articles already saying that I am not someone who subscribes to the view that farmers are environmental vandals. You live on the frontline. You see everyday the effect of changing weather patterns, and I know that there are so many farmers who are eager to work with Government around designing solutions, about how we manage the impact of any changes around climate change well for the sector, but also take advantage of the incredible opportunities that exist in ag to make a buck out of making these adjustments to deal with climate change.

So, I think there are some pretty big issues that we all need to work on whether it be those immediate challenges or some that are a bit more in the long term. But what I want to leave you with, I suppose, is a commitment from me as the new minister and from our Government that we do want to work really closely with you in partnership. You might have heard a lot from the Prime Minister already about how he wants one of the hallmarks of his Government to be bringing back a bit of a spirit of cooperation into Parliament, into politics, into Government. I think we’ve all seen over recent years there’s been so much conflict, there’s been so many fights, and I think everyone’s had a gutful frankly and I think people just want to work together a little bit more, whether it be in ag or many other sectors, and that’s certainly the approach that I’m going to be taking in working with your sector.

So, in closing, can I then just thank you for the opportunity to come and talk with you so early in my tenure. I think today is day seven. It depends how you measure it. I was sworn in last Wednesday and I’m looking forward to getting out on farm as often as I can. I’ve already given a commitment to come up to the Lockyer Valley, which I’ll be doing as quickly as I can. And I’m sure when I run into our interstate friends outside of the trade stalls, there’ll be a few other offers. Because I do think that one of the best ways that new ministers like me can learn is by getting out on the ground, hearing directly from you about what you see as the challenges and the opportunities that someone like I can take up to support you.

So, I’m incredibly proud of the work that you do. You do so much for your country, as I say, whether we’re talking about the economy or our national identity. Agriculture and horticulture are the backbone of so many rural communities and my job is to help you get even better, get even stronger, get even more productive so that the industry’s a real success story for decades to come.

Thanks again, and I look forward to working with you. [Applause].