Interview with Greg Jennett, ABC Afternoon Briefing


SUBJECTS: Beef 2024; Agricultural traceability grants; drought funding; Glencore; border security

GREG JENNETT, HOST: Let’s turn to Queensland - there's hardly been a political leader who hasn't made their way to Rockhampton this week for annual celebrations of the beef industry. Beef24, as it's called this year, has kept the Agriculture Minister, Murray Watt, there for a couple of days now. Murray Watt's made a number of announcements for farmers and he's also picking up on growing hostility towards coal miner Glencore, which has plans for a carbon capture and storage project on the Darling Downs. We spoke to the Minister from Rocky.

Murray Watt, good to have you joining us from Beef Week there in Rocky. What a procession of politicians they've been celebrating this magnificent industry this year. Can I take you to an announcement that you've made today? Traceability of meat products -there's some money on offer. I'm curious, how far back down the chain do you envisage this scheme that you've announced today will be tracking beef products? Is it all the way back to the original farm or to the abattoir? How far?

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: Yeah, that's right, Greg, and thanks for having me on from Beef Week here in beautiful Rockhampton. I have to tell you, there's some pretty fabulous smells wafting by as I talk to you, but I'll try and stay as focused as I can on the interview.

Yeah, you're right. We did make an announcement today that the Albanese Government will be investing another $4 million in grants to support traceability programs in our livestock sector. Of course, there's a focus on beef being here at Beef 2024, but this will actually benefit also our other livestock industries. Sheep meat, goat meat, other industries as well. And for your viewers, what traceability is all about is being able to literally trace where and how food is produced. Now, we know that consumers, both here in Australia and increasingly overseas, are wanting to know a lot more about how and where their food is produced. People are wanting their food to be produced more sustainably. They're also interested in animal welfare issues. And this kind of technology, when it's applied in farms, in abattoirs and other parts of the agriculture supply chain, allows farmers and sellers of product to be able to demonstrate exactly where produce was produced and what has happened to it along the way, and where that produce has been moved.

It's also really important from a biosecurity perspective. And you'll remember, Greg, not long after we were elected and I became the Minister, we faced a very real threat of foot and mouth disease getting into Australia from Indonesia. And one of the things we did at the time was to invest a lot more in traceability, because if a biosecurity outbreak was to occur here in Australia, what we want to be able to do is, as quickly as possible, determine exactly where that outbreak is happening so that we can particularly direct resources to that hotspot and get it under control. So this is another really important investment to boost our agriculture sector. And where better than to make that announcement than here at Beef?

GREG JENNETT: Well, indeed, marketing advantages, and, as you point out, a safety mechanism as well. Murray, also, while you were there or near there earlier this week with the Prime Minister, you announced additional money coming out of the Drought Future Fund . I think around half a billion dollars. When did Labor become a convert to this scheme, which, back in Opposition, I think you harboured severe reservations about, even voted against?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, look, we did have some serious concerns about this fund when we were in Opposition. And, frankly, who can blame us when people like Barnaby Joyce were involved in determining where this kind of funding was going. Let's face it, the former Government, and particularly the National Party, had earned a reputation for shocking pork barrelling. And we did have genuine concerns that this would be potentially another slush fund for the National Party to just use for their electoral benefit. But since I've become the Minister, I've paid very close attention to how this fund is going and I think it is starting to get some runs on the board. The Productivity Commission, though, did do a review of this fund and made some recommendations about how it could be overhauled to make sure there was much better public benefit coming from what are some pretty big investments of taxpayers’ funding, and we've adopted some of those recommendations, as well as ensuring that the fund as a whole is much more linked to a broader climate resilience agenda.

Again, the former Government, you know, I think there's members of that former Government who still don't believe that climate change is real, and they didn't really see drought as an example of what we're going to be facing as a result of climate change. So we're also making some changes to how the fund operates to make sure that it really is embedded in a broader climate response to agriculture. We know that farmers are literally on the front line when it comes to climate change and it's already having an impact on their profitability. That's why our Government is working so closely with the agriculture sector to boost our effort in sustainability and through making investments like the Prime Minister announced yesterday.

GREG JENNETT: All right, now when you're at these events, I'm sure you are buttonholed by many producers, farmers, croppers and all sorts who come to Beef Week. Can I ask you about the coal miner Glencore, Murray Watt. A subsidiary, of course, I think it's pretty well reported, wants to carry out a carbon capture and storage project in the Darling Downs. There are reservations, of course, about the water consequences in the Great Artesian Basin if you're freezing and ramming this carbon down underground, what sort of feedback- can you say that there's overwhelming opposition to this among primary producers?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, look, Greg, it's probably been the biggest issue that's been raised with me while I've been here at Beef over the last three days. It's happened again in about three or four meetings that I've had here today with different people in the sector. And there is, from what I can see, universal opposition from individual farmers right through to farm peak bodies to this project going ahead. The concern that farmers have got is that - you would be aware - the Great Artesian Basin plays an incredibly important role as a water source for agriculture, not just in Queensland but in so many states across Australia. And the concern is that allowing this project to go ahead would potentially contaminate that water source and put some of our prime agricultural land at risk. Now, I need to be a little bit careful what I say, Greg, because there is a court challenge underway at the moment. But what I've said publicly is that any decision about approving these types of projects has to be based on good science, and it has got to give consideration to the impact on prime agricultural land and our agricultural production. It's interesting to see the federal National Party is now running a million miles an hour away from a decision that they endorsed while they're in government. This actually goes back to a decision from Sussan Ley as the then-Environment Minister in the last Coalition Government, where she decided that federal environmental law didn't need to apply to this project. There were no objections from a federal government perspective at the time, and all of a sudden, they're concerned about something that they let go through when they were in government. So I think the Opposition has some real questions to answer. And, in fact, I understand that David Littleproud, the leader of the Nats, has acknowledged that they made a mistake. So we'll see where this goes in terms of court, but it's a really serious issue.

GREG JENNETT: OK so once it wends its way through the courts, could it end up on Tanya Plibersek's desk? Is it still able to be considered by the Federal Government?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, well that's some of the issues that are being dealt with by the court at the moment, Greg. So, again, probably best that I not speculate on which way the court would go. But where things are at at the moment is that because of that decision from the former Coalition Government, that federal environmental law wouldn't apply, it's basically been flicked to the Queensland Government to make that decision, and they're in the process of making that decision at the moment. So, as I can say, what our Government is going to do in all these sorts of projects is rely on good science. And, of course, it's important that we consider the impacts on agriculture.

GREG JENNETT: All right. Obviously a matter of concern that's registering with you there, Murray. Can I also take you, as a Queensland Senator, to another - or what appears to be -another unauthorised boat arrival on Australian territory? We're talking about Saibai Island in the Torres Strait. A group of men described by locals as appearing to be Africans, found hiding in the mangroves there. Do you know - have you been briefed on how many in the group? Do you know where they came from?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, look, I haven't had a personal briefing on that, Greg. Obviously, the relevant Ministers have been dealing with that, and you would understand that we don't comment on particular issues and operations - Sovereign Borders more generally. But what I can say is that in every case, Australian Border Force officials perform their role efficiently and quickly to manage any unauthorised arrivals that may or may not ever appear. And, look, I guess the wider context for this is that for those of you viewers who don't know where Saibai is, it's actually about four kilometres off the coast of Papua New Guinea. And having spent time in the Torres Strait last year, there are very common movements of people between Papua New Guinea and the Torres Strait every single day of the year. I've seen some of that happen myself when I've been in the Torres Strait, it's a real challenge for our Border Force officials to manage those kind of arrivals. And from a biosecurity perspective in agriculture, it matters as well. So, I can certainly assure your (viewers) that Border Force are on the job in this and every other case.

GREG JENNETT: So are you suggesting that this might have been some routine coming and going rather than an asylum claim being asserted?

MURRAY WATT: Again, Greg, I'm not really able to comment on the circumstances of this case. I guess what I'm trying to do is build that broader picture. That movements between Papua New Guinea and islands, you know, they do happen on a regular basis. They happen under this Government, they happened under the former Government. It's a fact of life in the Torres Strait. But what we're trying to do through Border Force is make sure that people who shouldn't be entering the country aren't entering the country. And I've got every confidence that Border Force is doing that.

GREG JENNETT: All right noted, Murray Watt. Now, as a responsible minister, I'll expect you to go and fetch yourself a steak sandwich or something as we say farewell and thank you once again for joining Afternoon Briefing.

MURRAY WATT: It's important as a Minister for Agriculture that you set a good example, Greg, and I can assure you I'm going to do that.