Interview with Rikki Lambert, Flow FM

13 December 2022


SUBJECTS: Flood update; impact of flooding on farming communities; building back better; livestock traceability; visa backlog

RIKKI LAMBERT, HOST: Great to be joined - for the last time, I suspect, this year - by the Agriculture Minister and Emergency Management Minister, Murray Watt. Murray, how are you going, and Merry Christmas!

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: You too, Rikki, good to talk to you again mate.

RIKKI LAMBERT: Look, I'm really pleased you've been able to visit parts of our broadcast areas. I know there have been a bit of a dip from both Anne Webster, the member for Mallee, and Tony Pasin, the member for Barker, they said you hadn't been to some of their communities and their electorates, but you've been there again on Monday?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, over the last few months, obviously a huge part of the country has been hit by floods, and I've certainly been trying to get to every region that's been affected, whether it be northern New South Wales, Tasmania, western New South Wales, and everywhere in between.

But yesterday I spent a bit of time in Mildura, and then headed over towards the Riverland region as well, just so that I could see first-hand what damage there's already been, and I suppose more importantly to get a better understanding of what we know is coming because, of course, these regions, the floodwaters haven't peaked yet.
There's a lot of other parts of Victoria and New South Wales that I've been to that have seen their flood peaks and have gone through the damage, but we know there's even more to come, so places like Mildura and the Riverland. So really valuable visit just to see and hear first-hand from people about what support is needed.

RIKKI LAMBERT: When it comes to all those trips you've made in various parts of the country, what's been the common sentiment from farmers and farming communities about the flooding? Has Australia been caught a little bit unawares by the significance of this event?

MURRAY WATT: I think it has turned out to be quite a big flood. Most of the communities that I've been to, it's either been the biggest flood they've had, or certainly the biggest they've had in decades. But I think if I'm looking for something that really ties them all together, it's probably the fatigue that people are feeling because, now, there's communities that I've been into in western New South Wales for instance, that have had, you know, their fifth or sixth flood just this calendar year, and if you're talking about places like Mildura, Renmark, Loxton, those sorts of places, while they haven't yet had their flood peaks, they still have had flooding, and this has been dragging on now for several weeks, or even months in some cases.

So I think the fact that people have been on edge worrying what might be coming their way, especially when they've seen some of the damages that's been inflicted on other parts of the country, that has created a level of fatigue, and that's of course on top of the really busy days that everyone working in farming or in rural communities has, even at the best of times.

RIKKI LAMBERT: And a number of them are going to be, particularly in southern New South Wales, trying to recover something from the winter cropping season with flood affected or rain affected crops.
To what extent, you know, they're going to have to work over the Christmas season, and one of the challenges is roads. The Agricultural Ministers meeting last Wednesday committed in their communique that we saw on Friday that road repair will be a critical one. It's going to be a big bill, isn't it?

MURRAY WATT: It certainly will be, Rikki, and I think that's one thing that really stands out from these floods as well, is that given we're talking about largely rural areas, one of the biggest areas of damage has been the road and infrastructure network. There's obviously not as many houses per hectare in rural areas as there tends to be in our big cities, and if you get floods in big cities, you're often talking about massive numbers of homes that have been inundated, and while there certainly have been home inundations across rural Australia through these floods, the road and infrastructure damage is probably even more extensive, and certainly more expensive. I think it's reasonable to think that we're going to be looking at damage bills in the billions of dollars for the roads and infrastructure network, simply because of the scale of the damage that we've seen.

So at a Federal level, what we're doing is pulling together a meeting over the next few days of all of the state and territory governments that are affected, the local government associations, farm groups and the road industry, just to talk about what we can do to get these projects under way.
There has been a lot of work done already, and I should pay tribute to state, territory and local governments for the work they've done to fix potholes and all sorts of other things, but the fact is that this is such a massive task that we're going to need a nationally coordinated effort, which is what we're trying to do.

RIKKI LAMBERT: Well, it does seem that there's some complexity, whether it's potholes or bridge repair, as to which level of government's responsible for actually getting it done. But when it comes to the paying for it, should there just be a big pot of money the Federal Government say puts forward, and we worry about just getting on with the job, and figure out how it's paid for out of that pot of money at some later stage?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, that's pretty much how it works at the moment actually, Rikki. I mean, you're right, it depends on whether we're talking about a state road or a local road or bridge as to which level of government is responsible for the repairs, but what I've seen myself, you know, being out and about, is a pretty cooperative attitude between different levels of government about just getting the job done. And the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements that we have in place with the state and territories pretty much guarantee that any of that kind of repair work will be at least partially reimbursed by Federal Government, because we don't want, you know, people having to have squabbling at this stage of the game about who's going to have to pay, when what we actually just need is to focus on getting the job done.

I think the real challenge in this situation is that, again, because of the scale of, and the sheer number of roads and area that we're talking about, you know, councils and state governments haven't necessarily got all the resources that they need to do the job, whether that be personnel or plant and equipment. So it's a pretty challenging task to make sure that we can get that plant and equipment where it needs to be, because there's so much demand for the sort of plant and equipment and the people that we've got out there already.

RIKKI LAMBERT: When it comes to those repairs, there's been a common discussion especially from those local government levels where they don't have the resources to perhaps invest into better infrastructure, the talk of building back better. How are we going to make sure that our roads, and even rail networks, are more resilient against this sort of flooding in future?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, it's a fair question, and it's something that we've been working on a fair bit since we took office back in May this year. Really, if I'm sort of talking about how our Government - the Albanese Government - is trying to do disaster management differently to what we've seen before, it's really about making sure that we're better prepared for the disasters that we know that are coming, and also that we respond a lot more quickly. And I think when you're talking about being better prepared, that is partly about making sure that we do have better infrastructure, because I don't know how many conversations I've had with mayors over the years, and even before I got into this role, where people would say that it makes no sense to simply repair a road or a bridge to the level it was at when you know very well that in the next couple of years it's going to flood again.

So what we're trying to do with our disaster funding system is really put in place some more, what they call ‘betterment’, which is not only just repairing infrastructure to the level it was at, but actually building it back better so that it's more resilient for the future disasters. Now, of course that costs a bit more money upfront, but it actually ends up saving you money, because you may not then have to come back and repair it year after year after year.

So even in the few months that we've been in power, we've actually agreed on some quite large funding packages for betterment in a number of different states. But what I'd like to see is for that kind of concept to just be built in to the normal disaster funding arrangements we have rather than have to come up with separate buckets of money down the track to do it.

RIKKI LAMBERT: Well, that's going to be music to the ears of some local governments, the concept of betterment. The Opposition in South Australia have called for the deployment of the Defence Force - which has been a common refrain we've heard from some sectors - when it comes to this responding to flooding, and indeed preparing for the flood event coming down the South Australian River Murray. Is that something that you're on board with, the idea of Defence Force deployment at the moment?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah well, over the floods that we've seen, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales in recent months, there's been several hundred ADF personnel deployed at different times, mostly with the recovery, but the preparations for floods and other natural disasters tend to be handled by SES and other state based services, and we don't really want to get in their way, but we did obviously see ADF personnel very involved in sand bagging, and other evacuations and door knocks, and things like that, in the lead up to events, and then very heavily involved when it comes to clean up as well. So the way the system works is that we respond to requests from the South Australian Government, or any state government. In the last few days we actually approved the deployment of three of the high clearance vehicles that the Army has, and their drivers, and what that's about is providing transport, so that if evacuations are needed through those high clearance vehicles that get above the water line, that's available, but also those vehicles and the personnel can be used for checking levies.

So we've begun the job of deploying ADF personnel, and should the South Australian Government believe that it's necessary to top up their own people, then we'd be more than happy to consider that as well.

RIKKI LAMBERT: One of the other threats that we've faced across this year has also been on the biosecurity front. The Agriculture Ministers met on Wednesday, and there's a whole number of initiatives being undertaken there including electronic traceability of sheep and goats? 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah that's right. I think that's one of the really exciting developments that's happened in agriculture in Australia this year, Rikki, is that we have been able to get agreement months federal, state and territory ministers to really go hard on livestock traceability. It's one of those issues that's been kicked around the industry for a long time, and you know, in the cattle industry, we have a pretty good traceability system in Australia, where people can tag their cattle and really keep track of their movements, and that's obviously important, especially if you're talking about a biosecurity outbreak, so that you can work out quickly where animals have been, and which other animals they may have infected. But at this stage Victoria is the only state in the country that has that compulsory tagging of sheep and goats, and we want to see that spread to the rest of the country.

And if there's one sort of silver lining that came out of the foot and mouth disease scare that we all went through a few months ago, I think it really galvanised different governments and industry to say, ‘Well look, now is the time to make a move on this traceability for goats and sheep as well’. It's been too long in the hard basket, too hard basket, and we've now got agreement across all the states and territories to work towards implementing mandatory tagging of sheep and goats by 1 January 2025.

Now, that's a pretty ambitious target, there's a lot to be done, but you know, having that agreement across governments and with industries that this is something we need to do has given people the motivation to really get on and make some real efforts in something that's a real no brainer, I think.

RIKKI LAMBERT: When it comes to, I guess, why it's been in the too hard basket, a bit like the betterment debate with roads, has it been about funding? It seems that at the federal level, there's been some requests made at the Agricultural Ministers meeting and Clare Scriven, the South Australian Labor Minister for Agriculture, has indicated a request, or something was put forward at that meeting with the Federal Government, maybe even I think the Sheep Producers Australia told us they're looking at a three way split; state, federal and industry to pay for electronic tagging. Is that a direction where we may be heading?

MURRAY WATT: I think it is, Rikki, and I think that one of the pleasing things about this is that I've found producers in the industry generally are very willing to put their hand in their own pocket to help pay for this, because they obviously draw some of the financial benefit from putting these systems in place. But they want to make sure that they're being backed in by government, and there's very clear commitments now from Federal and State Governments to put our hands in our pockets as well to help fund this.

At the last Federal Budget, actually, in October, the Albanese Government set aside $46 million for this livestock traceability system. Part of that is about building a national database, because you can't just have all those tags running around without a database to track them, but we've also got money there to help us subsidise the states and industry with the purchase cost of ear tags as well.

So we feel that that's a pretty substantial contribution from a federal level, and I am seeing that a number of states are now coming to the party, themselves, with their own contribution towards tagging, and of course there will need to be a contribution from industry as well. But it was important to me at a federal level that we made a serious financial contribution and put our money where our mouth is, because I think that's been a good motivation for states, territories, and industry to follow suit.

RIKKI LAMBERT: Just lastly, in the Agricultural Ministers meeting, there was a consideration about the farm labour needs. I understand the Federal Government's got a bit of a backlog of visa approvals to get through?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, one of the really surprising and shocking things that we learnt when we took office, Rikki, was that the visa application queue had just completely blown out under the previous government. To give you some perspective, when Federal Labor lost power in 2013, the backlog of visa applications was about 250,000 or something like that, so still pretty high, but when we took office back in May, it had blown out to nearly a million. So that was nearly a million people who had applied for visas to come to Australia, for work, or travel, or study or for whatever reason, who were still waiting to get a decision, and in some cases that involved people who had applied years ago and just couldn't get a decision out of the former government. So since we took over, we've really deployed a lot more resources into the Immigration Department to help clear that backlog. It's now well under 800,000, and we're aiming to get it lower as well by putting on even more people.

I've met meat processors, farmers, and others all around the country who have been waiting to have these applications approved for some time now, and by clearing that backlog, as well as training up Australians, which is another important part of that, we think that we can meet the labour needs that we definitely know our farmers have.

RIKKI LAMBERT: Well Murray Watt, thanks very much. You've been generous with your time, and you've been all over the country visiting local communities, and I know they've appreciated it. So have yourself a great Christmas, and a good break, yourself, as well.

MURRAY WATT: You too, Rikki, and have a good break, everyone. Let's hope we get a bit of a break from this rainfall.