Press conference in Gracemere, QLD

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
PRESS CONFERENCE
GRACEMERE
TUESDAY, 16 MAY 2023

SUBJECTS: Australia’s sustainable biosecurity funding; biosecurity levy; beef outlook

MURRAY WATT – MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: Well, terrific to be back here in Central Queensland for the second time in a fortnight. And obviously the main purpose of being here today is to talk about some of the big investments we’ve made in the Federal Budget, particularly when it comes to biosecurity. Can I thank Steph and Kylie from CQLX for giving us a tour of the Gracemere saleyards, one of the biggest cattle saleyards in the country. And I know they’re looking forward to a big sale with a couple of thousand head going through here just this week alone.

I also thank Luke Bowen, the new CEO of Cattle Australia, David Hill, who chairs Cattle Australia’s biosecurity working group for joining us here today, along with Adam Coffey, and Sara from AgForce as well.

Well, you may have seen that last week’s budget saw agriculture be one of the big winners. All up there is more than $1.5 billion in new funding for our agriculture sector, and what that means here in regional Queensland and regional Australia is more jobs, more exports, more produce. Our agriculture sector is on track to reach its $100 billion goal by 2030, and the Albanese government wants to work very closely in partnership with the industry to help it achieve that goal.

One of the most important things that we can do as a government is put in place very strong biosecurity protections to help this industry be protected from diseases and plants that we see on our border, but also to help it grow into the future. And that’s why in the budget we provided another $1 billion in biosecurity funding to make sure that for the very first time in our country’s history we have sustainable, long-term permanent biosecurity funding.

The budget we inherited when we came to office actually had biosecurity funding on track to fall by 20 per cent over the next financial year and to keep falling in the years ahead. And it is just insanity to think that we can cut back on biosecurity funding when some of the threats that we face have never been higher.

Last year we saw the threat of foot and mouth disease and lumpy skin disease. Those threats haven’t gone away. And same for our plant industries as well, there’s all sorts of exotic plant diseases out there that we’re trying to keep out of this country. So that’s why the Albanese government has been prepared to work in partnership with industry to lift our biosecurity projections and now to deliver the single biggest increase in biosecurity funding that we’ve ever seen in Australia’s history.

So what that means is that from now on rather than having to go back to the budget every year looking for another year, another year there of funding, we’ve got long-term funding locked into the budget, and that’s something that everyone from the National Farmers Federation to other farm groups has called for for many years.

You may have seen some of my comments already that have said also that biosecurity is a shared responsibility. We all have an interest in making sure that this country’s agriculture sector remains free of diseases, and that’s why I was happy to ask our cabinet colleagues to provide more taxpayer funding to contribute to that biosecurity effort. And we’re also going to be lifting charges on importers from the 1st of July this year. Importers are some of the biggest creators of risk of biosecurity coming into the country, and they should pay their fair share. And that’s why we’re going to be increasing charges on them from the 1st of July.

But what we are also doing in this budget is asking producers, farmers, to make a modest contribution towards our biosecurity effort. Obviously farmers have a lot at stake and are beneficiaries of our biosecurity system, and we think that did is fair that if we’re going to ask the shopkeeper down in Rockhampton CBD or someone working in a school in Gracemere, if they’re going to pay a bit more in their taxes, it’s only fair to ask farmers to pay a little bit more as well.

And what that will mean is that importers will be paying nearly 50 per cent of our biosecurity operational costs, taxpayers about 44 per cent and farmers will be contributing about 6 per cent. So, as I say, I think that’s a reasonably modest ask on farmers to make sure that we do have the best possible biosecurity operations and we’ll be working very closely with the industry about how we design these levies, how we implement them and, importantly, how we use these funds to protect our agriculture sector here in regional Queensland and right across the country.

I might just introduce Luke Bowen, the CEO of Cattle Australia, to talk to you what this all means for the industry and then we’ll hear from David and then happy to take some questions. Thank you.

JOURNALIST: We’ll just get your name and title.

LUKE BOWEN – CEO CATTLE AUSTRALIA: Luke Bowen, Chief Executive Officer, Cattle Australia.

JOURNALIST: Lovely.

LUKE BOWEN: It’s certainly a welcome announcement that we’ve now got some baseline biosecurity funding which gives some security to industry, that longer term we won’t see the fluctuations that are sometimes characteristic in federal funding. This is very important. Biosecurity is something that every Australian should be absolutely concerned about. It protects our way of life, it protects our food, it protects our food security. So biosecurity is everybody’s responsibility, and certainly every Australian has an interest in good biosecurity, not just at our borders but also on our unregulated borders to the north of the country.

We know the threats which are lined up in South East Asia at the moment are significant. We’ve had in the last 18 months the threats from lumpy skin disease and foot and mouth disease, and I think that’s really got everybody’s focus on biosecurity and what that could mean for an industry. A facility like this here in Queensland, which is handling cattle, if we had an outbreak of something like lumpy skin, it would immediately stop the movement of livestock around the country and we would have a major emergency on our hands.

So baseline funding is very welcome. The announcement around the levy, the producer levy, of 50 cents on top of the existing levy is something that needs to have producers front and centre in those discussions about how that levy is to be engaged. It’s very important that that levy is spent, and the mechanisms by which it is to be mobilised is understood and producers are in the room discussing how that is going to happen. That’s going to be very important.

We have the need for a lot of on-ground work that needs to take place across the north, across Australia more generally in a whole range of different areas, and these priorities need to be brought to the table with a view to not only how this additional levy is to be administered but also how existing funding and additional funding that the minister has announced will also be targeted to protect Australia, protect Australians and protect our trade.

JOURNALIST: What will this $1.5 billion do for Australian farmers as well to help them feel safe from biosecurity threats?

LUKE BOWEN: Well, I think it gives us greater capacity and greater security for those that are on the borders and on the frontline. And it will help build a greater relationship and interconnectedness between our jurisdictions and the commonwealth. And what we need to do also is have industry right at the front of the discussions about how we engage this new biosecurity levy as well as the existing biosecurity investments that are made in the country to the most effect and to be very much about looking at the threats that are coming, the threats that are on our doorstep.

JOURNALIST: What are you hearing from producers about that additional levy?

LUKE BOWEN: The main thing is that that levy needs to be driven by producers. Producers need to be at the table putting forward the mechanisms by which that levy will be gathered, how it will be engaged and what it will be spent on. It can’t just go into consolidated revenue; it needs to be targeted, it needs to go into the things that are going to make a difference.

JOURNALIST: And there’s obviously foot and mouth disease that’s a big one, but what are some other threats that farmers could be facing biosecurity wise?

LUKE BOWEN: Well, we’ve obviously got our regulated entry points into the country, which often people tend to focus on, which is the airports and the ports. And there’s a number of measures looking at trying to improve the efficiency of those regulated entry points into the country. Across the north of Australia, however, we have a border which is unregulated, and we know that some of our diseases and our pests come in through our northern borders. Literally they get blown in. So there’s a number of vector diseases. Lumpy skin is one of those where the threat level is still deemed to be substantial. There’s a number of other diseases in South East Asia, such as African horse sickness, also a vector-born disease, and many others. So it’s very important that we’re also monitoring our northern borders, we’re monitoring the vectors which are moving into our region and we’re getting a good understanding of what some of those threats are well before they get close enough to us.

DAVID HILL – CENTRAL QUEENSLAND CATTLE PRODUCER: Thanks, Luke, and thanks, Minister. So, yeah, David Hill, I’m a local producer in what’s arguably considered to be the largest beef production area in Australia. So we’re talking about the additional biosecurity funding, but, you know, I’d like to thank the Minister for what he did in the heightened risks when initially it was lumpy skin and then FMD and, you know, I’m the chair of the Cattle Australia working group on LSD and FMD and it’s a pretty frightening scenario considering that I’d never heard of lumpy skin disease until I seen it in a social media post, so when you understand the risks, and it’s not just our industry either; I think it’s the whole producers, our producers, it’s the whole supply chain.

You need to understand how much the beef industry means to Australia’s economy and for that matter the whole of agriculture. We’re an agriculture base, on top of the mining and all that type of thing, but, you know, the Minister mentioned, you know, the global food security piece. And that’s one that I have a great deal of interest in because, you know, it’s all right for us in Australia, we’re pretty food secure. We obviously export a lot. But there would be a lot of our customers, well, at the time of the threat were actually talking about the risk to their supply if Australia was to get an incursion, so.

And as far as the whole 50-cent per head, well, Luke mentioned northern Australia, the surveillance and that type of thing. Well, there’s the insect vectors that are coming in and the diseases they carry. We want to see some of these programs widened to actually ensure that we’re testing for the right vectors so, and the whole, you know, the 50 cents on top of the compulsory transaction levy. We should understand that the roles that industry people will have on the ground in the case of an incursion, but we’re in the pre-incursion space, and I think we’re raising the profile of what happened last year was great, but, you know, we need to ensure that we continue on with that. So industry used to have the livestock biosecurity network. You know, the funding for that was discontinued and I think the shortfall in that was demonstrated last year. So that would be one thing that we’d be interested in having a conversation, about doing more of that into the future.

But, yeah, you know, it’s the jurisdictions and the actual people on the ground, because, you know, you’ve got to go and, you can find the money and that type of thing, but you need to have the people that are actually trained in those roles. And I think that’s the big risk that we see, is the having the appropriate people. And, you know, I’m just a Central Queensland grazier, and if we were to get an incursion, if I was LLI trained, you know, I’d be expected to go to our local control centre and help coordinate our response. Well, you know, it’s a pretty big thing for me. I’m a small family farmer, so that would mean that my wife would be left at home to actually deal with what may well come from an incursion. So, you know, if you think about it like that a it’s very, very frightening scenario for people like, you know, ourselves and everyone in the supply chain.

So, I think we need to be mindful of the fact and do whatever we can, which is why, you know, we thank the minister for the heightened responses that happened. But we’ve got to ensure that it continues because, you know, like Luke mentioned, there are, you know, African horse sickness, Japanese encephalitis, and I understand avian influenza has, changed, it’s got a different variant now. So there’s these risks that we’re facing all the time, and that’s the big thing about the increased funding for it, is to make sure that we identify, and the other thing we need to be mindful of, we’ve kept FMD out for 150 years, we’ve got biosecurity that in this country we’ve got some of the best experts in the world and, you know, that’s one thing.

The minister has listened to them and we need to be mindful of that and not running around making, trying to make suggestions about what we should be doing as we’ve got the best experts. Let’s take notice of them and ensure that the response is appropriate, because you can all the plans in place in the world, but if you don’t get the responses right it will fall over very quickly, and that’s the thing that I have concerns about and ensuring that we do all we can. Yes.

JOURNALIST: Do you think that rise in the levy for producers is fair?

DAVID HILL: Well, it’s 50 cents. When you consider the risks to the industry, if we were to get an outbreak in northern Australia and it took us some time to get a handle on it, it could be 18 months before we got back to market. Over 70 per cent of the beef produced in this country is exported. So it would be an absolute train wreck if we were to lose market access because of an incursion. So, the fact that getting on top of it would be absolutely critical to our response. And so we need to do what we can to ensure to be able to put people on the ground, make get livestock biosecurity network going again so industry has their own people in place to be able to help people do what they can under their biosecurity obligations and that type of thing into the future.

JOURNALIST: Okay. And just where are you from again? Which part of Central Queensland?

DAVID HILL: So, yeah, well, it’s a bit topical at the moment, I come from Clarke Creek, actually.

JOURNALIST: Sure.

DAVID HILL: So, yeah, so that’s where I’m from.

JOURNALIST: Great, thank you. And the minister?

MURRAY WATT: Sure. Thanks, David. Good on you, mate.

JOURNALIST: Obviously a little bit of an extra tax to the producers, an extra tax to the importers. A lot of what, you know, the questions about the budget in the last week has been about inflation adding to cost of living. Are you confident that these extra charges won’t add on too much to people that are already struggling with things like buying food?

MURRAY WATT: These are very modest increases to fees that we are asking people to pay. And I think what we need to think about is the cost that we would face if we were to have a biosecurity outbreak. As David was saying to you, it would be devastating to these industries if we had these outbreaks. That would cost producers and consumers a lot more than what we’re asking people to pay here.

It's good that we’ve already seen that inflation is starting to come down, and we’ve taken a lot of measures in this budget to try to keep reducing inflation. And that’s why Treasury forecast that it will continue to fall over the next 12 months.

So we’re very conscious of the cost of living pressures that people are facing. That’s why we’re putting in place energy price relief, cheaper child care, cheaper medicines and all sorts of things. But I don’t think these things in themselves are likely to cause big inflation spikes.

JOURNALIST: Can I ask about the…

MURRAY WATT: You can ask whatever you want!

JOURNALIST: Okay. Well, I’ve got to pull up an email on my phone. Give me 2 seconds, sorry.

MURRAY WATT: Sure, no problem.

JOURNALIST: That’s all right. We’re going well. So, a new report has been released under seasonal beef outlook 2023 saying that while prices are projected to track in a narrow range historically high expectations that, you know, beef producer margins will remain strong. Is this promising news for you as the federal Agriculture Minister?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, look, I’ve said before I’m very fortunate to be holding the role of Agriculture Minister at a time when the industry is doing pretty damn well overall. There’s obviously challenges in place. You know, we’ve had natural disasters that have imposed lots of costs on producers. We’ve got higher input cost. There are challenges in the industry. But overall it’s in good shape. In the last 12 months we’ve actually hit record production levels, $90 billion for the agriculture sector, record exports at $75 billion.

So, you know, in terms of the cattle industry, I did see that report this morning, and it says that prices are likely to come back a bit from where they were, but they were at extremely high levels before. And talking with the producers before we joined you today, you know, people are still expecting that prices will remain above average for a period of time, and that’s a great thing for our cattle industry and regional Australia.

JOURNALIST: Thank you.