Interview with Kallee Buchanan, ABC Country Hour


SUBJECTS: Agricultural traceability grants; Future Drought Fund; Veterinarian shortages; Beef exports; Violence against women.

KALLEE BUCHANAN, HOST: A few moments ago, I sat down with the Federal Agriculture Minister, Murray Watt, and began by asking him about the significance of new traceability funding that has been announced by the government today.

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: Yeah, I thought that day three of Beef here in Rocky was a good place to announce these grants. One of the things I've learned in this role as the Agriculture Minister is the importance of being able to demonstrate where and how food has been produced. It comes up regularly in trade discussions, and what we know is that our international markets are expecting higher standards when it comes to the sustainability of the production of our food. They're expecting strong biosecurity standards to be met as well. And traceability is the way that we can prove that.

It's been a really big priority for our government since we were elected nearly two years ago to invest more in traceability. We've particularly targeted funding towards the sheep and goat sector because, frankly, the traceability in that sector had lagged behind the cattle industry. Today, we've announced $4 million in additional grants for traceability across our livestock sector, and that will enable farmers, processors and others in the supply chain to upgrade the technology that they have for traceability.

You know, even your average customer in a suburban city supermarket is increasingly wanting to know where their food came from. They want to have assurances around the sustainability of that food, the animal welfare provisions around that food. And traceability allows our farmers to demonstrate the very high standards that they reach. So, it's important for our markets going forward, and it's also really important for our biosecurity as well. If we were to get an outbreak of a bad disease like foot and mouth or lumpy skin, we want to be able to identify the hot spots where it's happening as quickly as possible. And traceability allows us to pinpoint down to the farm level where a particular head of cattle has come from or a sheep has come from, and get acting really quickly.

KALLEE BUCHANAN: Of course, there are some Australian abattoirs that are still not able to trade with China. A lot of that trade issue has been resolved but would traceability have helped prevent something like that dispute?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I mean, obviously, you can't really speculate about what another country might do, but I think it certainly would have helped. And you would have seen that our government's been working really hard to stabilise the relationship with China. And as a result, we have been able to reopen markets across a range of commodities. We're still working on a handful of beef processing establishments that still aren't able to export to China. It's something we've been lobbying China about for some time now, but we think we are making progress and some of those beef establishments are back up and running. And I think given that some of the issues that China raised were about the health standards of those particular facilities, had we had stronger traceability in place, it can't have hurt. And again, it's a good reminder about why we need to invest in this.

KALLEE BUCHANAN: Of course, the other big trade issue is a free trade agreement with Europe. Are we any closer to seeing a deal done there that would benefit Australian producers?

MURRAY WATT: Not at this stage, Kallee. Again, this is something that both Don Farrell, the Trade Minister, and I worked very hard on. Each of us travelled to Europe at different times to lobby European Agriculture Ministers in the interests of our agriculture sector. And I think it was unfortunate for both the EU and Australia that we weren't able to come to a deal. But we made very clear, and certainly Australian producers made very clear to us, that we shouldn't just sign up to a trade deal for the sake of it. There had to be something in it for Australia. That's the whole point about a trade deal. You want a win-win situation.

And we think that there were some opportunities there for the EU, particularly in critical minerals, cars, all sorts of other things that they import to Australia. We think there were opportunities that they missed out on. But we don't want to just sell Australian producers short and sign up to any deal. The offer that was on the table from the EU, particularly for things like beef and sheep meat and other commodities as well, just was not good enough and we weren't going to sell out Aussie producers.

So, look, we would like to see that deal done, but, you know, things haven't progressed too much and frankly, I think it's going to be a little bit difficult in the run-up to the European Parliament elections. Countries do often turn a bit more protectionist in the run-up to elections, let's be honest. So, that's why, you know, it's a shame that that moment has passed, but look, we'd love to see that kind of a deal in the future.

KALLEE BUCHANAN: The other, I guess, challenging issue for beef producers around the EU in particular, has them quite concerned is a move towards new rules around deforestation. Are there conversations happening with Europe about the Australian, the unique Australian situation and the impact that those rules might have on people who rely on, particularly Europe, for an excellent source of income?

MURRAY WATT: Yes, those conversations have been underway for quite some time and again, when I've travelled to Europe as the Agriculture Minister, this has been a really key point that I've made, meeting with European Union officials and individual Agriculture Ministers, just to try to ensure that they are better informed about our production systems here in Australia and why they are different to Europe.

One of the points I made to people - and it comes up with animal welfare as well - Europe, I think we all know, is a pretty cold place that does a lot of intensive agriculture, with livestock often being kept indoors for long periods of time. They've got rules, for example, about the minimum amount of sunlight that their animals need to have every day. We've sort of got the opposite problem here where we need to provide shade, and it's the same when it comes to vegetation management and climate issues generally. You know, I am very strong on lifting our sustainability performance and the industry is as well here.

It's not that we're against, we're free for all when it comes to deforestation, but our concern primarily is that the EU rules are still very unclear about how they would operate. They're supposed to come in on the 1 January next year. We don't think that they will apply to Australia. We think that they're more targeting other countries with much more widespread practices than happen here. But I can understand the confusion and uncertainty for our producers, and that's why I've written to the European Commissioner recently, asking him to delay the implementation of their rules so that we can all understand what the rules of the road are. You know, as I say, I don't believe, and I think most Australians don't believe, that our farmers engage in deforestation in the way that we do see in other parts of the world. But we don't want to see an interpretation of those rules by Europe that unfairly blocks Australian farmers and we need to work this out.

KALLEE BUCHANAN: We were talking earlier about biosecurity. Of course, it's a critical aspect of the supply chain. But the Australian Veterinary Association has aired their concerns that we don't have enough vets. We're not training enough vets either. Can we do biosecurity without vets?

MURRAY WATT: Our vets play a crucial role in our agricultural supply chain. We employ a lot of vets through the Department of Agriculture when it comes to export certification and things like that as well. And there's no doubt that there is a shortage of vets across Australia. Unfortunately, there are shortages in so many occupations. You know, that's partly as a result of underinvestment in skills and training by the former government. It's also partly a result of COVID stopping migration for a couple of years. So, we are seeing those shortages in vet as well as other occupations.

I've spoken with the Australian Veterinary Association about this in the past and I think they've got a very real concern about those shortages. I know they've expressed some concerns about the government's decision to fund placements for students who are studying nursing, teaching, social work, those kind of careers. And the issue there is that students in those courses need to take time off work, sometimes for several weeks or months at a time to do a placement. They have to give up their part-time jobs so they go without income.

We recently conducted a review of university education headed by Jason Clare, the Education Minister. And the review recommended that we do fund placements in those particular courses. There wasn't a similar recommendation for vet or a range of other occupations, but we are significantly increasing our investing in education and training across the board and I'm hopeful that that will start dealing with some of those shortages.

KALLEE BUCHANAN: The AVA says that veterinary is one of the most expensive degrees you can do. They get paid a third of what a GP might get paid. They have just as demanding practical assessment process, could that be reviewed? Why not just add them to the list?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I guess what we're doing at the moment, as I say, is acting in accordance with the recommendations of that university review. There are many, many things that need to be done for our higher education system here in Australia. You know, we are coming in after ten years of underinvestment, as I say, of rapidly increasing HECs fees on students across a range of courses. You would have also seen that our government just announced that we're going to be wipe off $3 billion worth of student debt in recognition that that is making it really hard for young people to get into the housing market in their early stages and things like that. So, there's a range of ways in which we are acting on higher education. We're obviously happy to have further discussions with the AVA.

KALLEE BUCHANAN: We were both at the dinner on Monday night when Tracey Hayes made her impassioned plea for the government to show leadership and quickly resolve the compensation owed to the producers who were impacted by the live-ex ban and won that case four years ago. She said it was costing $150,000 a day to wait until April for the next court date. Do you intend to show that leadership, respond to her plea, or are you prepared for that cost to keep going until at least April, when the issue, in Tracey's words, has been kicked down the road.

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, well, I was also at that dinner the other night when Tracey gave her speech, and I've actually spoken to Tracey directly about this issue in the past, along with a range of other cattle industry leaders. And, you know, I absolutely understand the concern that people have got. This is something that's been running for a very long time, and it would be in everyone's interest to try to resolve this. The issue we've got as government is that we have also an obligation to taxpayers to make sure that taxpayers’ money is spent properly, responsibly, and based on evidence. And to date, the evidence that we've received from the claimants doesn't justify a higher amount than we've offered.

We actually have offered over $200 million to settle this case. We did that probably 18 months ago. We do think that that is a fair amount that recognises the genuine loss. And I guess what I'd say is that to settle any legal case, you need both parties to be prepared to settle. So, I would certainly be hopeful that there can be some further negotiations and resolve this. It's in everyone's interest to have this sorted out.

KALLEE BUCHANAN: I mean, she said that the industry asked for $500 million, that the true cost is closer to $1.2 billion. Taxpayers are paying $150,000 a day while this argument continues. Is that how much you're prepared to put on the table for taxpayers to be up for so that you can fight over $300 million?

MURRAY WATT: Well, as I say, we're obviously prepared to pay whatever amount we think can be justified on the evidence. And all of your listeners, whether they're farmers, whether they're working in a shop, working in a school, wherever they might work, they contribute to their taxes. And we owe it to them to make sure that we aren't paying larger amounts of money than can be justified. So, I'm hopeful that we can reach that kind of resolution.

I think it's worth pointing out that it isn't only our government that this case has been running under. It was the Coalition government that decided to take this matter to court. It ran for several years. They refused to settle it themselves. And Tracey acknowledged that in her speech the other night that it was both sides of politics that this had not been resolved. But I've had a number of conversations with the Attorney-General. This litigation obviously has run under him, and I know he'd like to see this resolved as well, so hopefully we can work this out in the coming months.

KALLEE BUCHANAN: A lot of the discussion that I've heard since and at the table at the time was about how brave she was to speak the way she was, and she was very measured and she wasn't hostile and was absolutely bipartisan. Should it be considered brave, though, to make a speech like that in front of the Ag Minister and the Prime Minister

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, it's interesting, isn't it? I think a lot of people in the audience were surprised, but anyone who knows Tracey knows she's a pretty straight-talker. She's been a straight-talker when I've spoken to her about this and other issues in the past, and I was there, a number of people sort of asked the Prime Minister how he felt about the speech. He was very relaxed. We're a democracy. People have got to be able to have their say. And, you know, she obviously thought it was her one chance to make that point in front of the Prime Minister and me, and it's her right to do so.

But as you say, she herself acknowledged that it's not just our government that this case has been run under. It's gone on under both governments. So, it's sort of a few cheap shots from some of the federal nationals who are saying it's on us now. They didn't do anything to resolve it themselves and, in fact, they ran it all the way to trial. But as I say, the important point is that hopefully we can come to a resolution of this case. I absolutely understand it would be in the interests of the claimants to put this to bed and to be able to have some closure and some recognition and hopefully we can get there.

KALLEE BUCHANAN: What's next on the agenda for you at Beef? I know my calendar has filled up pretty fast and the energy levels are like, thankfully, the high protein diet is keeping the energy up. But what's next for you?

MURRAY WATT: Yes, I think by the end of the week, we're all going to need nothing more than a lettuce-based diet. But there's been some terrific food to enjoy while we're here. Yeah, look, today I'm actually looking forward to spending a bit more time in the sort of trade show and the R&D side of things.

Yesterday, obviously, my focus was being with the Prime Minister while he was here, we made that big announcement about drought preparedness. Over half a billion dollars in funding for that. So, there were a lot of media commitments to do with that yesterday. Today, hopefully I'll have a bit more spare time to enjoy and learn from some of the exhibits here, but also, you can imagine I've got a list as long as my arm of stakeholders who want to catch up with me, so I'll be doing some of that today too.

KALLEE BUCHANAN: Stakeholders and holding steaks as well, I imagine. Mentioning the drought funding actually, I did notice that in the announcement that did talk, too, about more funding to encourage people to take up the programs on offer by the Future Drought Fund. We are sitting on the back of broadly, not for everyone, but broadly, very good seasons. There's a lot of confidence and I guess, joy around Beef, which is wonderful, having been here during COVID and prior, but are enough people focused on that preparedness? Is the Drought Fund being taken up as much as you would like to see?

MURRAY WATT: I think that it's been a good start over the last couple of years of its operation, the Future Drought Fund. But the Productivity Commission actually did a review of it over the last couple of years and made a range of recommendations about how it could be improved and we're now looking to respond to those and implement some of those recommendations. I think depending where people are listening from, there are parts of Western Australia in drought, there are parts of Tasmania in drought. Most of the east coast is in pretty good shape and obviously, in some places has had more rain than they would have liked. But there's a saying that the best time to prepare for drought is before drought starts.

And one of the things that we're trying to do differently to former governments is make sure that we're investing before we get into drought. A lot of the time, traditionally, governments have waited for drought to start and then thrown a lot of money at the problem when actually some earlier investment can reduce the impact on farmers and rural communities. I think it's important to remember that, you know, when we think about drought, we often think about income for farmers, and that's really, really important, but so is the mental health and the social resilience of communities. So, that's a real focus in the Future Drought Fund under us.

And also for the first time, we are approaching drought from a broader climate change perspective. I think most people would know that our government is a bit more serious about action on climate change than the former government, and that's because farmers are on the front line of climate change. And, sure, we've always had droughts but we're likely to have a lot more of them that go for longer, more intense, because of climate change, and that's why we need to be acting now.

We're certainly hopeful that we can get more people involved in the Future Drought Fund. One of the other recommendations from the Productivity Commission was that we needed to have greater public benefit of the funding because there were some really good things happening on individual farms. But that knowledge probably wasn't being shared as widely as it could be. And what we really want to do is start getting some of that knowledge out more widely than it has been in the past, so that farmers can learn from each other. My experience is that the best way to get messages through to farmers is from other farmers. So, sharing that knowledge will help a much broader group of people than we've had in the past.

KALLEE BUCHANAN: And just before I let you go, and forgive me, because I didn't flag this with you earlier. But the Federal Government has also really stepped into the conversation around gendered violence recently and upped the funding for programs in that space. Rural women, in particular, face a unique challenge in that regional communities, rural communities are very small. Everyone's in everyone else's business. Sometimes you're the only family within hundreds and hundreds of kilometres. And there has been some suggestion that the program that has been announced doesn't target that rural situation well enough.

What work is being done specifically to keep rural and First Nations women as well, in those communities, in the context of being so isolated and the work that's being done to address the gendered violence issue

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I think it's really encouraging, actually, that this conversation is hitting the headlines in a way that it hasn't in the past and it needs to be. It's a really serious issue facing our country and it's disgraceful that we see as many women being murdered, assaulted, hospitalised as a result of usually male violence, and it's got to stop. And I acknowledge that rural women do face unique challenges. As you say, there can be physical isolation from other people, being stuck on a homestead or a location a long way from other people. There's not a refuge on every street corner in many parts of rural Australia. It can be harder to get access to medical appointments that sometimes can be how these issues are discovered.

The National Action Plan that our government has brought in under Amanda Rishworth and Katy Gallagher does have a lot to say about what we need to do specifically for rural women. But I acknowledge there's a lot more to be done and there are unique circumstances that we need to deal with for rural women. So, it's a ten-year action plan. Unfortunately, this is a long-standing cultural issue that is going to take a bit of time to turn around. But there is more funding now from a Federal Government than we've ever seen before. As I say, I think it's good that the media is focusing on this in a way that the issue has deserved. And I really hope that through everyone's effort, the whole community as well as government, we can actually start turning this around.

KALLEE BUCHANAN: Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt.