Interview with Rikki Lambert, Flow FM

Radio transcript
Prepared: Tuesday 14 June 2022
Title: Rikki Lambert interview with Minister Murray Watt
Description: Rikki Lambert interview with Minister Murray Watt discussing methane tax, live exports and the Pacific Labour Scheme
Channel: Flow FM
Date Broadcast: 14 June 2022 
Time Broadcast: 10:33 AM - 10:47 AM

RIKKI LAMBERT: You’re on the Colour of Country Life. Fantastic to be speaking with the new Agriculture Minister Murray Watt. Congratulations on your appointment, Murray.

MURRAY WATT: Thanks, Rikki. Good to talk to you and your listeners.

RIKKI LAMBERT: Tell us a little bit about your background, Murray. How did you come to be Agriculture Minister in a Labor Albanese Government?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah. Look, it’s a real honour, obviously, to be appointed to the role. Incredibly excited to take on the role of Agriculture Minister at a time when the industry overall is doing well, but faces some very significant challenges as well. Basically, by way of background, so I’m a Brisbane boy, born and bred Brisbane, and, therefore, a dreaded Queenslander. So, my work career before I came into federal politics was, basically, about half and half working as a lawyer, mostly in Brisbane, a little bit in Melbourne, and also in the Queensland Government in a range of roles. So, I had one term as a State MP. I was chief of staff to Premier Anna Bligh for a few years, worked in the public service for a while too.

And your listeners might be thinking: well, what’s that got to do with agriculture? And what I’ve been saying I suppose in all my interviews is I’m not going to pretend I’m a farmer. I’ve never been a farmer but both sides of my family have been farmers back for generations. So, my dad’s side of the family – my dad grew up on a dairy farm just outside Mackay in Northern Queensland and he was a cane cutter. He raised beef cattle at one point as well. Mum’s side of the family did a bit of dairying on the Darling Downs, west of Brisbane. So, I’ve sort of grown up, really, while living in Brisbane just surrounded by farmers and farming and, you know, been to many farms as a kid and more recently through my work, especially in the Queensland Government. And I would like to think that that gives me sort of some insight into what farming life is like.

As I say, I’m not going to pretend to be something I’m not and I’ve got a lot to learn in the role, but I’ve got a real passion for agriculture, a real passion for regional Australia. Most of the work that I’ve done as a Senator for Queensland has actually been in regional Queensland, rather than the cities. So, yeah, even last week I made sure that I got out onto a cotton farm. That was important to me to get on farm within my first week of being the Minister. So, I intend to continue that and try to get out as much as I can and hear directly from farmers and all sorts of people in rural Australia.

RIKKI LAMBERT: I don’t know about this “dreaded Queenslander” bit, Murray. You’ve got David Littleproud as your shadow now, the former Ag Minister. Sort of a bit of a Queensland neutrality there, if you like.

MURRAY WATT: I’m not sure the neutrality is going to last! I actually get on pretty well with David on a personal level, but I notice that he’s taken up the role of Opposition with gusto, sending out press releases almost every day having a crack, but, you know, the tables have turned. I used to do that when I was in Opposition as well. So, I’m up for the fight and as long as what we’ve made sure of is rural Australia comes first. It’s all fair in love and war.

RIKKI LAMBERT: Not wrong, and when it comes to, I guess, putting out those press releases, one David Littleproud had out yesterday was about the methane tax that the Ardern Government in New Zealand, I think, is the world’s first to want to tax emissions, which let’s be clear, I think it’s often a misconception which end of the cow or the sheep it comes from. It’s usually more so burps than the other end, these methane emissions.

MURRAY WATT: That’s right.

RIKKI LAMBERT: Now, he says he’s calling on your government to rule out a methane tax. Has it ever been under consideration there?

MURRAY WATT: No, look, that’s not something we’re considering, Rikki. Obviously, the New Zealand Government has moved in that direction, but there haven’t been any discussions that I’ve been part of around this issue. So, I think that might be just a bit of a firing a blank from David Littleproud on this occasion. The thing – I do want to make sure as one of the things I do as the Ag Minister is support the industry to embrace sustainability further, and I know that farmers care very deeply about managing the environment in a sensible way because their likelihoods are at stake.

You know, most of the farmers that I’ve met are very conscious of the effects of climate change on their crops and on their products, and they want to do things, and they already are doing things, about managing water sustainably, you know, the way they look after soils and run off and all sorts of things. So, certainly, working with the sector around managing the impacts of climate change and actually trying to take some of the opportunities that exist for ag as we adapt to climate change, that’s going to be a high priority for me. But no, we’re not considering a methane tax like what David Littleproud is talking about.

RIKKI LAMBERT: That’s going to be reassuring for listeners with a massive herd and flock rebuild underway in Australia at the moment. Whereas New Zealand is looking at a tax by 2025 on methane emissions, Meat and Livestock Australia is pushing towards a 2030 carbon-neutrality target. So, as you say, farmers are already on that trajectory to a carbon-neutral outcome for sheep and cattle producers.

MURRAY WATT: That’s right. And I think it’s one of the things that came through over the last three years was that farmers and the farming sector actually got to a point where they were well ahead of the former Government in terms of, you know, adapting to climate change, recognising that it was an issue, adopting targets. As you say, Meat and Livestock Australia are actually aiming for carbon neutrality by 2030. So, that’s even more ambitious than the goal we’ve set for the country as a whole, which is net zero by 2050.

And that’s one of the shames, I think, of the last three or four years under the former Government was that we really didn’t take advantage of some of the opportunities that exist in both agriculture and other industries to capitalise on taking action on climate change. If you look around the world, whether it be farmers or other industries, people have been really leaping ahead, making the adaptations, you know, cutting their emissions and creating jobs out of it and creating money out of it. And we’ve got, in contrast, a carbon market that doesn’t really work very well for the average farmer, which is certainly something I’m keen to work on.

So, I think it was a bit of a shame that the last Government got left behind by the world moving ahead of them, and that includes farmers. So, yeah, look, every farmer I meet is really keen to talk about how we can make this work and it’s going to be a very high priority for me as the Minister.

RIKKI LAMBERT: A recent chat with David Littleproud indicated, if I can paraphrase, they’ve left some unfinished homework in the form of a cost recovery or biosecurity levy. There’s a clear and present danger there in Indonesia with foot and mouth disease and lumpy skin disease for livestock producers. Is Labor on track to continue with that cost recovery model or is it something you’re going to have to wear if you do implement it in terms of a tax on imports so we can fund regularly the biosecurity challenges ahead of us?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I think that’s right Rikki Lambert. Certainly, one of the biggest issues that farmers have raised with me so far is biosecurity threats. There’s many threats that we face. Probably the one getting the most attention at the moment is the foot and mouth disease outbreak and lumpy skin outbreak in Indonesia, and we’ve already provided, you know, a fair bit of support to the Indonesian Government to keep that outbreak under control. And I was very pleased to see the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, raise this in his recent meeting with the Indonesian President as something that we’re keen to work with them on.

And beyond the cattle type diseases and livestock diseases, there’s obviously a range of threats to horticulture as well. What I learned in one of the early briefings I had with the department is that there is a body of work underway around cost recovery for biosecurity. I haven’t made any decisions about that yet and that’s obviously something we’d need to consult very widely on, and I will be getting some further briefings from the department about that in the next few weeks.

RIKKI LAMBERT: All right. Look, just before we leave livestock, something I just have to ask you about live exports, what is the current Labor policy regarding live exports?

MURRAY WATT: Well, to begin with, we have absolutely no plans at all to interfere with live cattle exports. There has been a bit of concern that we might do something on that front, and I can rule that out. We did take a policy to the election, Rikki, that we would phase out the export of live sheep. Obviously, there have been some serious concerns in that industry over recent years about animal welfare, and the policy we took to the election was that we would phase out the industry. We very deliberately didn’t set a time frame for when that would happen because it’s something again that we want to consult on and do in an orderly fashion.

If you are talking about phasing out an industry, you can’t do that kind of thing overnight, and you’ve got to work with people around it and make sure that we’re developing other industries alongside it, and I suppose what I’m particularly thinking about is the opportunity for more onshore meat processing. From what I’ve been told already, I think there is potential to do more of that in Australia and that, of course, would create more jobs for Australians and boost regional economies.

So, I’m intending to get over to WA shortly – that’s the main state that’s affected by this – and talk with the farm groups about this and the individual farmers. As I say, we’re not going to be doing it overnight. In fact, the Prime Minister has said we won’t be doing it in this term alone. So, there is time to work through this with the industry and make sure that it is managed in a sensible way.

RIKKI LAMBERT: Well, just lastly, and it was a hot topic going into the election was the agricultural visa [indistinct] in that processing sector you mentioned but you were at a horticulture show, I think, last week where it came up as well, I understand. What is Labor’s policy on the ag visa and including, say, Thailand that was in the works outside of the Pacific nations into an ag visa?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I think this is probably the single biggest issue that’s been raised with me so far, Rikki, and let’s face it; this is not something that’s happened overnight. We’ve had a severe shortage of workers in the agricultural sector for years now. Obviously, the situation became even more difficult with COVID, and our international borders being closed.

I think our starting point is that wherever possible we want to be encouraging Australians, native Australians, to work in the agricultural sector. And it’s worth remembering that most workers in ag are actually Australian citizens. So, we shouldn’t always be looking always overseas for the workforce supply, but I recognise that there is always going to need to be a large workforce from overseas to work in our agricultural sector, and farmers are really struggling at the moment to get the workforce that they need. And that’s obviously one of the factors that’s having a flow on price to prices of fruit and veggies when you go to the local supermarket.

What we said in the run up to the election was that we didn’t support the former Government’s agriculture visa proposal and, frankly, it hasn’t actually produced a single worker anyway. I mean, David Littleproud used to run around talking about the benefit that it was going to produce, and we’re still yet to see a single agricultural worker brought in from the former Government’s ag visa.

What we said we would do instead is expand the Pacific Labour Scheme. That’s obviously been a successful source of labour for farmers across Australia in recent years, and there are actually over 50,000 Pacific workers who are vetted as ready to come to Australia and work. So, we sort of think that when you’ve got that ready supply of people available, that would be the smartest thing, is to take advantage of that. So, we want to expand that Pacific Labour Scheme and strengthen it.

Having said that, the feedback that I’ve been getting in the role is that that may not be enough to meet all of our needs or the types of skills that are needed, and I’m certainly happy to work with the industry and unions and other people with an interest in this to see how we can solve the issue because it’s a massive workforce crisis that we’ve inherited, and now it’s my job to help fix it.

RIKKI LAMBERT: I noticed David Littleproud was alleging amongst others in the Coalition that a union or a particular union was going around telling embassies not to sign up to the ag visa. Isn’t there a risk that in some sectors like horticulture we’ll see more mechanisation and less actual jobs? If they can’t find the labour supply, they’ll simply create machinery that does the job instead?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah. Look, I saw David saying those sorts of things before the election, but I don’t think he’s ever been able to produce any evidence that unions have been running this down as a concept and, in fact, he had problems with some of his own Ministers in his Government who were out there undermining the concept because they were worried that it did undermine the Pacific Labour Scheme, which is important to us as a country. So, he might be better off looking in his own backyard before he throws stones at his political opponents.

In terms of mechanisation, certainly that is an ongoing process. As I said to you, my old man used to be a cane cutter in Mackay back in – it would have been the early ‘60s and you would be flat out finding a cane cutter who does it without a machine these days. So, it’s not a new thing. And just last week when I was in Emerald, I went and visited a company there, SwarmFarm, who are making machines and robotics for things like pesticide spraying and other things as well. And I think that there is a role for automation to change the way that we do ag and in some ways that can be helping farmers when they’ve got workforce shortages, but, of course, we never want to get to the point where there’s no one employed in the farm sector. That would be a tragedy for rural Australia. I think it is about getting a balance and, as I say, I’m really keen to work with the sector about what sort of ideas there are for what is a genuine problem.

RIKKI LAMBERT: Agriculture Minister Murray Watt, thanks for joining us. We’re certainly out of time. And do let us know when you’re in our area to drop in for a visit.

MURRAY WATT: Certainly will, Rikki. Good to talk to you, mate.