Address to the Developing Northern Australian Conference

6 July 2022

Prepared: Wednesday 6 July 2022
Title: Minister Murray Watt Developing Northern Australia Conference Address
Description: Minister Murray Watt Developing Northern Australia Conference address discussing issues affecting the agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors in Northern Australia.
Channel: External source 
Date Broadcast: 6 July 2022 
Time Broadcast: 9:59am - 10:07am

MURRAY WATT: G’day, and welcome to Queensland, the greatest state in the greatest country of the world. But I would say that as a Queensland senator.

Can I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land that you’re all gathering on today, their elders past, present and emerging. And I’ve recorded this speech in Canberra, so I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land that I’m on at the moment as well.

Can I also acknowledge Alan Dale and all the fantastic team that have organised this conference – a really important conference in terms of bringing together thinkers and policy makers around the future of Northern Australia.

Can I also acknowledge Mayor Greg Williamson, a good mate of mine, along with my great friend and colleague Madeleine King, the incoming Minister for Northern Australia, again, my friend and colleague Luke Gosling, and the Shadow Minister – and even a friend despite being on different political sides – Susan McDonald.

Can I also just begin by apologising sincerely about not being with you there in person. It had been my intention to be with you and deliver this speech in person, but, as you would all be aware, New South Wales is experiencing some extremely serious flooding at the moment and as the Minister for Emergency Management I’m going to be basically back in the flood zone with the Prime Minister at the time that you’re at this conference. So, again, my apologies. Last year I know we all had to do online presentations because of Covid, and I’m sorry that again I’ve been prevented from getting there in person due to these floods.

As many of you know, I’ve had the privilege of speaking at this conference a couple of times now in my previous role as the shadow minister for Northern Australia. Of course, since then we’ve had an election and a change of government, and I know that you’ve just heard from my colleague Madeleine King, who I’m sure you’re all going to get to know and love as much as I’d like to think we all got to know each other well when I was in the shadow role.

Madeleine I know is a passionate supporter of the Northern Australia agenda, coming from Western Australia. And in her resources role as well she’ll be really driving forward the Northern Australia agenda just as I would have done, and I think she’ll do an even better job than what I would have done, so I’m sure you’ll really enjoy working with her.

So it’s a really great pleasure to speak with you in a new capacity now – as the incoming Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries, Forestry, and also for Emergency Management. And I’m sure you’ll agree that they’re portfolios that directly relates to the future of Northern Australia.

What I’d like to do today is just give you a bit of an overview of what I see are some of the priorities that I’ve set myself and my departments in this new role. And fortunately I think many of them are really relevant to Northern Australia as well.

So in the agriculture, fisheries and Forestry space basically I’ve identified there are three really key shortterm priorities affecting these really important industries in Northern Australia, and they basically are workforce, biosecurity and input costs.

So just dealing with those quickly, workforce I would have to say, and workforce shortages, is the biggest issue that anyone has raised with me since I’ve taken on this portfolio in the agriculture space. And, to be honest, it’s actually by coming to these conferences before and getting to talk to many of you in my previous role as the Shadow Minister that I knew even well ahead of taking on this role how dire the issue is around workforce shortages in the agriculture industry, particularly in Northern Australia.

So I want to assure you that this is very high on our agenda. Let’s face it – this is not a new problem. It’s something that hasn’t just emerged since this government has taken office. But we are determined to work really closely with the sector to ensure that it gets the workforce that it needs to continue to prosper.

We went to the election promising to expand and strengthen the Pacific Labour Scheme, something that’s been a really proven way of supplying many of the workforce needs of the Australian agriculture industry over many years. I’ve even had the pleasure of meeting workers from Timor-Leste on mango farms just outside Darwin, among other places in Northern Australia, and I’ve seen the important role that these workers play.

So we’ll be expanding and strengthening that scheme to take advantage of the more than 50,000 workers who have already been vetted as ready to come here from the Pacific to help with our farms.

I don’t think we should give up on the idea, though, of training Australians for careers in agriculture. As many of you know, agriculture is becoming an increasingly skilled industry, particularly with the advent of new technology and data. And I think they’re great careers that we should be aspiring to train Australians for. We shouldn’t only be looking overseas for our labour needs in the agriculture sector. And some of the plans that we’ve got for investing more in training will, I think, go a long way to meeting some of those workforce needs in agriculture.

But I’ve also said to farm groups, to unions and other people who are interested in this that I’m completely open to sitting down and working through other solutions that people might have. And I look forward to those discussions occurring because I know this is something that we need to get sorted really quickly.

In terms of biosecurity, we face some really serious issues right now, particularly around foot and mouth disease and lumpy skin disease to our north. And, again, I can assure you that we’re working hard to deal with that. We have already offered assistance to Indonesia to try to get these outbreaks under control, and we’ve actually just today increased some of the measures that we’re taking in terms of inbound tourists or people returning from Indonesia to strengthen our controls at the borders. And we’ll have more to say about that in the near term.

And finally, input costs – I realise that while prices generally speaking for commodities are quite high at the moment, which is great, our producers are also facing increased input costs through the energy crisis that we’ve also inherited. So that’s everything from diesel, fertiliser, pesticides, and that’s affecting profitability.

Madeleine may have touched on this already, but obviously our government has a plan to bring down energy prices, and that will flow through to some of those input costs. So none of these problems I want to pretend are going to be fixed overnight, but what I can assure you is that I as minister and our government as a whole is focused on fixing them and getting them under control as quickly as possible.

Longer term, I think the priorities for the sector as I see it are how we can continue value‑adding to our incredible product. We do some terrific food processing and agricultural processing in Northern Australia, but we want to see more of it. We want to see that value-adding happening, the extra jobs that can be created in Northern Australia as a result, and the export earnings that will come with it. And our government’s National Reconstruction Fund that we announced heading into the election will go a long way to supporting that.

Finally, of course, no discussion about agriculture, forestry and fisheries, especially in Northern Australia, can be complete without talking about climate change. We’ve obviously got a very ambitious program – but a realistic one – about how we can bring our emissions under control in a way that helps our agriculture sector and our regional economies in general prosper.

There is probably nowhere more exposed in our country or on earth to the perils of climate change than many parts of Northern Australia which are already seeing increasing sea levels amidst other climate changes. Agriculture in particular is on the front line here. And I know there’s some incredible work happening in the sector to manage climate change, bring down emissions and adapt to what’s already happening. I want to learn from that and I want to build on that. And I’ve been incredibly encouraged by the discussions that I’ve been having with the farm sector since taking on this role about the level of enthusiasm there is for really moving forward on this agenda.

Unfortunately as a country we’ve had a bit of a lost decade when it comes to climate action. Now is the time to take action. I’ve seen so many supportive comments from stakeholders to make it moving, and I’m keen to work with you about that.

I might leave it at that because I know that sometimes pre-recorded speeches can go on a bit too long. Again, my apologies for not being able to with you. If these floods would stop happening I’d be able to get to things like this conference. I’m sure it’s going to go well – the last ones have. Again, congratulations to Alan and your team for putting together a great event.