Interview with Tom Connell, Sky News

15 August 2022

E&OE TRANSCRIPT

TELEVISION INTERVIEW

SKY NEWS – NEWS DAY

MONDAY, 15 AUGUST 2022

TOM CONNELL, HOST: Welcome back. There’s been a lot of talk about foot and mouth disease, of course rife in Indonesia, the government adamant it can stop it coming to Australia’s shores. Joining me live now is Minister Murray Watt.

Thanks very much for your time. The conversation the Nats are having on this are, ‘we get the borders are not shut now, but what’s the advice? When would it be a good idea? When would we need to shut the borders?’ What’s your response to that?

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: Yeah, well, it’s interesting to see the Nationals try to backtrack and fix up their position given that they had some people out there calling for it to be closed a couple of weeks ago. Basically the advice to me is that we would only consider closing the border to Indonesia if, first of all, we were convinced that Indonesia was just not making any attempt to manage it, and that’s not the case-

TOM CONNELL: OK.

MURRAY WATT: Or, secondly, if something were to happen on the Australian end that meant that our biosecurity systems just fell apart. For instance, if our – you know, a huge proportion of our workforce was taken out by Covid or there was something that happened that meant that we weren’t able to protect it at our end of the border as well. So neither of those things is the case. And, as I've said before, the support we’re providing to Indonesia is actually strengthening the response that they’re making, so we’re not –

TOM CONNELL: And that support, it involves on one level, you know, vaccination and minimising, but also making sure the pre-screening is done well. So that’s a big part of the biosecurity, right?

MURRAY WATT: As travellers leave the airport, yeah.

TOM CONNELL: It’s not just our airports, it’s what happens at the other end.

MURRAY WATT: Yep.

MURRAY WATT: That’s definitely part of it, but to be honest with you, the major focus is really about just trying to reduce the number of infected animals in Indonesia. That’s the single best thing that we can do.

TOM CONNELL: So how’s the spread, if you can put it on a level. Is it dissipating?

MURRAY WATT: Well certainly the numbers that are coming out of Indonesia at the moment suggest that the number is, at worst, plateauing and some of the figures suggest it’s actually going down, if you’re looking at it on a daily basis.

TOM CONNELL: Reliable data?

MURRAY WATT: Well, we can only rely on the data that we’re given. And certainly since the – since I took that trip to Indonesia probably about a month or so ago I’ve seen that the Indonesian Government have really stepped up the measures that they’re taking.

TOM CONNELL: Right.

MURRAY WATT: They’ve assigned responsibility for managing the outbreak to their disaster management agency headed by a General. That’s the same group that brought their Covid outbreak under control. They’ve stepped up livestock movements and things like that - movement controls. And I think with those extra vaccines that we’re kicking in as well, that gives me some confidence that it’s moving in the right direction.

TOM CONNELL: You can talk about all the different measures. Do you accept that the only real measure for you as Minister is whether it gets into Australia or not?

MURRAY WATT: Well, of course I would accept my share of the responsibility if that were to happen and-

TOM CONNELL: What do you mean ‘my share’?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I’ve said all along that biosecurity is a shared responsibility. Certainly as a Federal minister and the Federal Government we’ve got a role to play particularly at the borders. State governments also have a role to play when it comes to managing outbreaks. But also we need the travelling public to do the right thing. And that’s why we’ve been doing so much to advertise to travellers what they can do to prevent bringing things back in. That’s why we’re penalising people who do the wrong thing. So I can do everything within my control to try to stop this outbreak from coming to Australia but we also do need members of the public to do the right thing as well.

TOM CONNELL: So what does that mean, so if someone secrets in some food products that create an outbreak, you’ll say, ‘well, if people are going to do the wrong thing I can’t stop them and it’s not my fault’?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I’m certainly not going to do a Scott Morrison and say that nothing’s my responsibility. Of course, I would take my share of the responsibility. But we want to make sure that the travelling public do the right thing. We want to make sure that people who are posting parcels into Australia do the right thing. And that’s why we’re now inspecting every single mail package that comes into the country from Indonesia to make sure that we’re picking up meat products or anything like that that might be a danger. But the more we can get the message out to people that we need them to do the right thing and that they will be fined heavily if they don’t, I think that’s a helpful thing.

TOM CONNELL: Why not just stop all food coming from individuals from Indonesia? That makes it easier to scan, right?

MURRAY WATT: That’s effectively what’s happening at the moment, Tom, because, of course, if you come back into the country you have to declare whether you are bringing an animal product and, if so, that’s inspected-

TOM CONNELL: But could you make it a bit easier and just say ‘food – you have to declare any food’? Again, it makes that detection and scanning a bit easier, doesn’t it, rather than going, ‘oh, I didn’t realise I had this and biscuits in there or whatever’?

MURRAY WATT: As I say, it’s effectively the same thing at the moment because people are asked to discard any product that they’re bringing in, asked to declare products that they’re bringing in as well. And then, of course, we’ve got detector dogs and X-ray machines –

TOM CONNELL: But is that any animal product or any food product?

MURRAY WATT: Well, it’s mainly focused on animal products – 

TOM CONNELL: Right.

MURRAY WATT: – because that’s where the main danger is. The danger would be that live viral fragments would be within a meat product that someone’s bringing in –

TOM CONNELL: I guess the issue is sometimes people will go, ‘I didn’t realise that had an animal product in it’. So the question is, have you had advice around why not just ban all food items coming in?

MURRAY WATT: Not at this stage.

TOM CONNELL: It’s not that big a loss if someone can’t bring their biscuits in from Indonesia, is it?

MURRAY WATT: At this stage I haven’t received that advice, but the department is conducting a risk assessment to assess the breadth. But I should also make the point that there is already a very large number of food products that are banned from being brought into Australia at the moment from Indonesia. It wouldn’t be– if we were to increase the measures it wouldn't be off the base of zero, we have already banned a very wide range of products being brought in, and the issue is whether we extent it to other types of products as well.

TOM CONNELL: And McMuffins can’t get in.

MURRAY WATT: Absolutely not. Not sausage and egg McMuffins, that’s for sure.

TOM CONNELL: For those that didn’t know the story, someone came in and paid $1800 I think or so –

MURRAY WATT: Even more – about two and a half grand. So more than an airfare, that’s for sure!

TOM CONNELL: All right. Water buybacks as part of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. I know you were asked about this and you said it was sort of – you hadn’t spoken to Tanya Plibersek, the Minister. Do you have a view, though? Because you’ve got a sort of portfolio that almost counteracts at times. Do you have a view on whether water buybacks, more of them, are a good idea?

MURRAY WATT: Well, we obviously went to the election with a commitment to buy back – the $450 gigalitre promise, and that’s something we intend to carry through. Obviously those sorts of decisions have an impact on our irrigators, and we need to introduce those sorts measures in a responsible manner. But–

TOM CONNELL: But going further, though. Because this is a concern, whether the Murray Darling Basin Plan will get there or not.

MURRAY WATT: And I think there are some concerns about the current Murray-Darling Basin and whether it will achieve that. As you know we learned only a week or two ago that the former Government only saved 2 gigalitres, and that figure had been hidden prior to the election, so it does indicate that the size of the task in reaching that 450-gigalitre promise is going to be difficult, and it may take a bit longer than what we had originally thought was possible. But, you know, I think we do need to take responsible environmental measures to make sure that that basin is able to function for decades and hundreds of years to come. But, of course, I’ll be consulting with irrigators and other farm groups about that, too.

TOM CONNELL: And what happens then? If you get a message from them, whether it be broadly or in a specific area, ‘We can’t have more buybacks in this area. It takes too much economic activity out’, is that something then you take to be able to counter that if there’s a push from the Water Minister and you’re sitting around Cabinet and you go ‘well hang on, we need to be wary of this area and this area’? Do you see that as your job?

MURRAY WATT: Well, of course my job is to be an advocate for the agriculture industry within Cabinet. And I would certainly have those discussions with Tanya. But I’m also guided by the fact that we have made that election commitment and we did it for a reason. We need to protect the Murray Darling Basin both for farmers, irrigators and other communities right now, but well into the future as well. So, you know, as we’ve said about so many different policy areas, we’re committed to doing that in a cooperative manner. And I know that Tanya has already begun having those discussions with the agriculture industry herself, and I’d be happy to support her with that.

TOM CONNELL: About to go to your leader, Anthony Albanese. Before we go there, any views on the Scott Morrison story that minister for a few different things apparently in secret?

MURRAY WATT: It’s extraordinary, isn’t it, Tom? I mean, for a bloke who never wanted to hold a hose, all of a sudden he wanted everyone else’s job as well as his own. So I think it just goes to the dysfunctional nature of the last government, which unfortunately we saw play out in so many ways.

TOM CONNELL: Got to leave it there. Murray Watt, thank you for your time.