Doorstop in Gunnedah, NSW


SUBJECTS: AgQuip; $30m grains investment; drought preparedness; APVMA; Qatar Airways

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: Well it's a great pleasure to be here with my good mate Tim Ayres for the 50th anniversary of AgQuip and as you can tell from Kate, this is a very exciting day for the Liverpool Plains and really for all of Australian agriculture. I think these ag field days is where you see country Australia at its best. It's a real celebration of rural communities, about the agriculture sector and the important wealth that it creates for our whole country. And as representatives from the Federal Government, we're really delighted to be here to join it.

We are using today also as an opportunity to announce a new funding program that is being funded through the Grains Research and Development Corporation - jointly funded by the federal government and industry. A $30 million five-year investment called RiskWi$e. And what that's about is providing our farmers - our grain farmers - with the information and the tools that they need to manage the range of risks that farmers face in this country; whether it be drought, whether it be nitrogen supplies, whether it be labour shortages. It's been some great work that the Grains RDC has put together in consultation with grain growers around how government can be providing even more accurate information to grain growers so that they can become even more productive and more profitable into the future. And John Woods, who's the chair of Grains RDC, is available to elaborate a bit more on that, if you'd like to. All good?

JOURNALIST: Not GRDC related, we'll come back to that. But it is looking like this year, and you mentioned all about climate change there, we've got that positive Indian Ocean Diapole coming up. Last time we saw that weather event, we saw the Black Saturday- Black Summer bushfires. How are you feeling about that when you consider that? And what sort of conversations are there with our emergency authorities to be prepared now?

MURRAY WATT: Yep, well this is something that I've been putting a lot of time into in my role as Emergency Management Minister. And in fact, this Friday in Brisbane, there will be a meeting of all federal, state and territory emergency services ministers, along with fire commissioners, to discuss this very topic. But I can assure all Australians that the work preparing for this coming fire season actually started months ago when we were still in the last disaster season because we've known that we are going to be facing warmer, drier climates and unfortunately, what that can mean is bushfires.

Now all of the advice to me to date is that while we are likely to see the most significant fire season that the country's seen since Black Summer, it's not likely to be as catastrophic as what we saw in Black Summer, thankfully. But that doesn't mean that we should be complacent. And as I say, there's a lot of work been going on over the last few months between different levels of government and different communities to make sure that we are prepared for the coming fire season.

And I guess the other message in this is to landholders, in particular. We know that what we're more likely to face this year is grass fires, particularly in areas of western NSW and western Queensland. So just as governments are getting prepared, we do need to make sure that landholders are getting prepared and have good bushfire plans in place well before the season hits.

JOURNALIST: We saw the Prime Minister announce a $38 million research package for the drought ahead this year. But are we going to see any like subsidies for transport, for example?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah so I was very pleased that the Prime Minister used the Bush Summit held in Tamworth recently to announce that $38 million investment in research and development around drought resilience. Obviously the Government is taking a lot of steps now to make sure that we are ready for drought and supporting farmers to become ready. But we do need more of that long-term research as well so that our farmers can become even better informed about how they can prepare for drought. Issues like freight subsidies and things like that would be considered if we get into a serious drought. But our focus at the moment is making sure that as many farmers as possible are prepared for drought. I think it's one of the things that you've seen from federal governments in recent years of whatever political flavour is trying to help farmers and farming communities be ready for drought, rather than leaving them in the lurch and for people having to scramble looking for money when drought hits. So that's our focus at the moment is being ready for drought. I know that farmers have been pocketing a lot of money away in farm management deposit schemes when they're making money in the good times to be ready for the bad times, and that's the kind of thing that we're encouraging at the moment.

JOURNALIST: But areas in our region are already experiencing the drought, shouldn't we be talking about subsidies now rather than just research?

MURRAY WATT: Well, as I say, it's not as if the research is the only thing that we're doing. We are already investing a huge amount through the Federal Government in drought preparedness, making sure that as many areas in the country are ready for drought as possible. Again, the Research and Development Corporations play an important role, investing in developing new and drought resistant varieties of crops and other products. So, that work is happening now to make sure that we are ready, and should we end up facing a much more serious drought, then of course we'd be considering other assistance at that point.

JOURNALIST: There's been a lot of talk about the APVMA going– getting sent back to Canberra. Is there any development on that or is it still staying in Armidale for now?

MURRAY WATT: So all of that work is being considered at the moment. You will have seen a few weeks ago, I released a report from Clayton Utz, the law firm which reviewed the APVMA and frankly found some pretty disturbing things that had been going on there around what it said was industry capture of our chemical regulator, as well as some very deep cultural problems within the organisation. And I'm determined to clean that up as the Minister. We've appointed an eminent person, Ken Matthews, to have a quick look at the governance and structure of the APVMA and that will of course involve the location. But I can assure everyone in the New England (area) that the Government hasn't made any decisions about the future location of the APVMA that work, and that decision will be made once we have that recommendations from Ken Matthews. But I've said publicly that if there's ways of fixing the APVMA and keeping it in Armidale, then that's what we'll do. Equally, if that can't be done, then we'd have to consider other options, but we aren't making any decisions ahead of that review being done. What I'm about more than anything is having the best possible regulator for our agriculture and veterinary chemicals in Australia. Our farmers depend upon a strong regulator. The chemicals industry depends on a strong regulator. So do rural communities, and that's what we need to put in place.

JOURNALIST: Do you think it was a poor choice to put it in Armidale in the first place?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I think the record shows that pretty much every group from the National Farmers’ Federation to the chemicals industry itself, and of course, federal Labor at the time said that it was a mistake to move the APVMA away from its base in Canberra. And we saw that there was a huge loss of personnel and corporate knowledge when that occurred. Anyway, that decision has been made by Barnaby Joyce for his own political reasons, and now it's our role to try to fix the APVMA because, as I say, we need the best possible regulator we can.

JOURNALIST: Just quickly, there are reports about growing concern over the Government's decision to deny Qatar Airways more flights into Australia. Why is that, can you explain?

MURRAY WATT: Well that's really a matter for the Transport Minister, Catherine King, but obviously what we want to do is have a functioning, commercial, cost-effective airline industry for Australia. Wherever there are opportunities to improve that, we would take them. But specific questions about Qatar probably need to go to Catherine.

JOURNALIST: Will it impact the cost of flights?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I'm very pleased to see that gradually we are seeing flight costs come down, particularly in regional Australia, from where we were in Covid. But, you know, that's something that we always need to work on. As someone who spends a lot of time in regional Australia, I know that people have to pay very high airfares and that's something that we should always be trying to address.