Doorstop at Parliament House, Canberra


SUBJECTS: Australia’s future disaster capacity; Hawaii bushfires; Disaster preparedness; lumpy skin disease

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES, FORESTRY AND EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: I’ve just been doing some media about the announcement the Government made yesterday about how we can create the disaster force of the future for Australia. We know that because of climate change we are going to be facing more extreme weather much more often than we have in the past, and we need to make sure that we are match fit as a country, ready for that challenge in the future. Currently we do rely very heavily on our Defence Forces in a disaster situation. They do a terrific job, and they will always play a big role in responding to disasters, but the reality is we are stretching them by asking them so repeatedly to help out in disaster situations, and that does take them away from the training they need to do for their core job – which is defending the nation. So, we’re looking forward to getting lots of ideas from the Australian community about how - at a federal level - we can build that disaster force of the future. And that consultation process is now underway. Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: The ADF is already struggling to recruit people, where are these people going to come from?

MURRAY WATT: Well what we’ve already found through a new initiative of the Government is that there are volunteer organisations, particularly working with veterans and first responders, who with willing to do more of the kind of work that we’ve typically used the defence forces for. We actually made an election commitment that was then funded in the October Budget to provide about $38 million to a group called Disaster Relief Australia, which is a volunteer-based organisation - their volunteers are veterans and first responders. I’ve actually seen them out on the ground in places like Lismore, Rochester and North West Queensland doing a lot of that cleanup and recovery work that we’ve traditionally used the defence forces for. So, with that extra funding, Disaster Relief Australia is in the process of recruiting more volunteers.

I think there’s a lot of people out there in the Australian community who are willing to lend a hand to their fellow Australians in these difficult times. And that’s the idea – is to create more options rather than relying on our Defence Force as our first resort.

JOURNALIST: So, are you talking about a national guard model here or an army of standby volunteers? What are you talking about?

MURRAY WATT: Look, there’s a range of different options that are up for discussion. Some people have talked about those kind of ideas. It’s also partly about making sure that we can support the States and Territories to be able to have the forces that they need to respond. Disaster management, of course, is primarily a responsibility of States and Territories, and their volunteer forces and professional forces are stretched as well. So as a country we need to be making sure that we’re much better prepared for disasters in the future, that we have the personnel we need, that we have the equipment we need, and that’s what this consultation process is about.

JOURNALIST: Minister, with your other portfolio hat on, what can you tell us about the situation that’s developing with Malaysia and the imports or exports there?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, so this relates to the issues around lumpy skin disease, which is a very contagious disease in the cattle, that we raise here in Australia. You would be aware that a week or two ago Indonesia suspended exports of live cattle from four yards across northern Australia because of their concerns that we might have LSD – lumpy skin disease.

I want to be very clear with the entire Australian community: we do not have lumpy skin disease in Australia. The chief vet of Australia has said so - he released a statement last night reaffirming that. But we understand that different countries require things of their exporting countries, and that’s what we’re doing at the moment.

Malaysia has decided to temporarily stop exports of live cattle and buffalo from Australia until that testing is complete and they can be shown that we don’t have LSD. The testing results are starting to come in and there is nothing that we have seen so far to alter our position that Australia is free of lumpy skin disease. But our biosecurity officials are urgently working with both Malaysia and Indonesia to meet their requirements, to demonstrate conclusively that we don’t have lumpy skin disease, and we hope to see that trade reopen as quickly as possible.

JOURNALIST: The chief vet was saying that he understands the Malaysian decision is based on what Indonesia decided to do; they’ve sort of just looked at that and applied it to their own circumstances. Is that a concerning development, that that has happened without this, as you’re saying, these checks and balances having been put in place?

MURRAY WATT: It’s certainly our understanding that Malaysia has effectively followed Indonesia’s response in dealing with this issue. We have been very active in assuring all of our trading partners that we don’t have lumpy skin disease in Australia. But, of course, we can’t control the actions of other countries. And they’re within their rights to ask us to demonstrate the disease-free status of our cattle in Australia, and that’s what we’re doing now.

We’ve always have firmly believed that this is simply a biosecurity issue; it’s not a political issue or a trade issue. From time to time, we do see suspensions of the exports of certain products from Australia because of a range of reasons. We’ve obviously started removing those sorts of suspensions from China, so these things do happen. We’ve just got to get on with the job and meet these requirements and get that trade moving as quickly as possible.

JOURNALIST: Just back on the potential of a disaster force, have there been any discussions about payment for people who might volunteer with this in a similar way to, say, the army reserve?

MURRAY WATT: There haven’t been any discussions at the moment, but I wouldn’t be surprised if people put those kind of ideas forward in this consultation process. We’re open to all suggestions that people have – whether it be those sorts of things, whether it be beefing up state and territory responses, whether it be different types of personnel available at the federal level. The key point here is that what we know is that we need more people available to help with disasters in the future. Look at what we’re seeing on our TV screens this morning in Hawaii, look at what we’ve seen in Greece recently. Unfortunately, due to climate change we are facing more extreme weather, and we’ve got to make sure we’ve got the personnel and the equipment that we need in the future.

JOURNALIST: If Hawaii – America - asks for help, are we going to be able to send firies over there?

MURRAY WATT: We would certainly consider a request. I’ve actually checked this morning and to my knowledge we haven’t yet received a request from the US. But we would obviously consider that request and provide whatever assistance we can. You may be aware in the last month or so we’ve actually had Australian firefighters helping in Canada - in the hundreds of Australian firefighters helping there. So, when our friends go through tough times we’re always there to help, and we’d certainly consider that kind of request.
All good? Thanks. No worries.