Press conference in the Lockyer Valley

12 August 2022

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
DOORSTOP INTERVIEW
GATTON
FRIDAY, 12 AUGUST 2022

SUBJECTS: Lockyer Valley floods; Disaster Ready Fund; fast-tracking disaster funding; Special Envoy for Disaster Recovery; foot and mouth disease taskforce; focus on biosecurity; fireweed.
 
SCOTT BUCHHOLZ, FEDERAL MEMBER FOR WRIGHT: Well, it's indeed a great privilege to have two distinguished guests here in the Lockyer Valley today. 
We've been hosted by the Lockyer Valley Regional Council, the Mayor and the complete Council, along with a number of significant growers in the region, sharing their stories with Senator Murray Watt, the Agriculture Minister for Australia and the Special Envoy - Tony Sheldon - for Disaster Management, Senator for New South Wales. They've come to the Lockyer Valley because they understand the significance of what our growers do for the Australian kitchen table. We grow a significant amount of vegetables, and the weather events that we have endured in this valley have left long and enduring scars on those businesses. Whilst we get on with the clean-up, whilst we get on rebuilding, those scars are still deep - they're financial scars, they're emotional scars. And it's very important that good senators have a line of sight as to how we lock arms with these communities and rebuild. There is a pathway forward. There is a pathway forward and I'm privileged to have these gentlemen in the electorate today, to work with our community to rebuild. So I'd like to introduce now Murray Watt, Senator for Queensland.

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: Thanks very much, Scotty. It's great to be with you in your local patch here in Gatton. As I was saying to Scotty when we were driving up here, this is an area I've known very well over the years, having grown up in Brisbane, and with family in Toowoomba. And I was pointing out the Big Orange to him, where we always used to call in for an orange juice or something like that on the way, so it's great to be back here on deck. In particular with my very good friend Tony Sheldon, who the Prime Minister recently appointed to an important role as our Government's Special Envoy for Disaster Recovery. 

Tony is an important part of our disaster management team now. And the appointment of Tony was really to send a strong signal to communities like this one that have experienced multiple disasters, that our Government is going to continue standing with them through the long process of recovery. And having an extra set of hands on deck in Tony, someone who's worked in a lot of regional communities over the years, is really valuable to our disaster response. I sort of brushed over Scotty, but I do want to make a special mention of the incredible work that he's made and done in this local community. He was reminding me that he was elected just before those devastating 2011 floods that we saw through the Lockyer Valley. I think everyone around the country particularly remembers what happened in Grantham. And that was a real baptism of fire to him as a local Member. And he's still standing strong with his local communities in the most recent floods, and all of the other ones we've seen in between. And can I also recognise the terrific efforts of Mayor Tanya Milligan, who I first had contact with in the run up to these most recent floods earlier this year, offering support when we were then in Opposition, and of course, now that we are in Government as well. 

As Scotty said, we've had some really productive meetings today, both with the Council and also with grower groups, to really hear first-hand from people about what they're still going through months after the floods that we saw here twice this year. Obviously, you would all be aware that these are not the first floods that this region has suffered. And we're basically at an average now of a big flood every couple of years in the Lockyer Valley. And that matters, obviously, because of the impact that it has on the local community. I've been in other parts of the country that have received multiple and compounding natural disasters. And this is another one. And this area may not have seen the attention from the national media that places like the Hawkesbury-Nepean have received, but it's just as important that this community feels strongly supported by its federal government, no matter what party they represent, that we're standing with them through this long process of recovery. And what we've heard today from people is a couple of particular things. First of all, that the federal government can do a better job of getting money out the door to people more quickly, more simply. And that some of the processes that people have to go through to obtain disaster support are too complex and are too slow. And that's something that our Government has already said that we want to take action on. Basically, we went to the election saying that when it comes to disaster management, we think we can be better prepared for the disasters that we know are coming. And we think that we can do a better job of responding more quickly and providing support to people more quickly. So that's why right now, we are currently reviewing the way that Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements work so that we can try to streamline payments for people, get money out the door more quickly, to give people the support that they need to get back up on their feet. We've always got a balance: the need to get money out the door, with the need to make sure that taxpayers' money is being spent wisely and there's no fraud going on. But I think there is something that we can do to speed up that process to help communities like this. 

The other major issue that we talked about, given that this is a prime agricultural region, and given that I'm now the Agriculture Minister for the country, is the issue of workforce shortages. This is something that farm groups and farmers have been raising with me ever since I was appointed to the role of Agriculture Minister. And let's face it, this is not a new problem. This is something that our agriculture industry has been experiencing now for a number of years. And we've had some really good discussions today about what we can be doing as a government to help the agriculture sector get the workforce that it needs. Our Government is going to be holding a big Jobs and Skills Summit in Canberra in early September, which is going to be bringing together a whole cross-section of the community; employer groups, unions, community leaders. To talk about what we can do as a government to try to bring people together to solve this workforce crisis that we're seeing in all industries, including agriculture. And I'm certainly committed as the new Agriculture Minister, to bring more of a sense of cooperation between groups who have, at times been at loggerheads, to see how we can help get the agricultural workforce that we need. There's no silver bullet here, we need to train more Australians for the great careers, and more highly skilled careers that are available in agriculture. But of course, we're going to need a level of migrant workforce as well and we need to make sure we've got the systems in place to protect people from being exploited, while at the same time giving farmers the workforce they need. I might leave it at that and hand over to Tony to add a few things. And then we're all happy to take questions as well.

TONY SHELDON, SPECIAL ENVOY FOR DISASTER RECOVERY: Thanks very much, Murray, and also I want to also extend my heartfelt appreciation to Scott, and to the Mayor. And, of course, those hard working farmers who spoke to us today. You know, Scotty quite rightly is coming back from his visits and work and for his electorate, and we spent two hours in the car together, the three of us, and Scott was making it very clear the sorts of things that needs to happen here. And I really appreciate that time that he's taken out, again, to make sure that the people in his community are represented. I think this is really a question which just goes right across actually, whether it's Lismore, whether it's the Nepean-Hawkesbury, whether it be Windsor or whether it be Lismore. All the sorts of the dramas, the pressures on communities, as a result of these ever increasing disasters that are occurring, are really causing humanitarian disasters. And that means that Australians at their best is when they come together and start saying, not only 'how do we get it, right, how do we get it better than right?'. So every time we get together to talk about the sorts of arrangements, talk about what's working, what's not working, but also go across whole of government and levels of government. So when we're talking about some of the issues that we've been discussing upstairs, what was very important and that is that it does require whole of national government, a whole of state government, of course, critically important with local government and community about how we try to find those answers to improve on some of the things that are going right. Work out how to make them better, and work out where the gaps are to make sure that we can unstick the sorts of bureaucratic problems that can occur just by having such a mammoth task in front of our communities. 

And I just wanted to also say to the community leaders and communities out there and through these disasters, you know, it is heart-warming going around this last two weeks, seeing such a desire from - whether it be non-government organisations, charities, whether it be local government, state government or federal government, whether it be Oppositions or whether it be those in power - a real desire to make sure that we get this right and we continue to improve on what we're doing. Because we know these challenges are still in front of us. We know that these humanitarian challenges are still ongoing. And we know that there's going to be fresh ones down the track. And I think there's a real- that strong desire to make sure that we get the recipe right and we keep looking at that recipe to make it even better. You know, my Mum used to make casserole and those days, that casserole she made was pretty damn good but I'll tell you what, I reckon it's even better now, Mum, sorry about that! Because we've all put a little bit of ourselves into it and it's made it that much better. And we're going to build this casserole to make sure that in our communities that we keep getting better and solutions to emergency management, and particularly recovery. Because recovery is not just importantly the response to the emergency that people face, but also the recovery back in community and back into communities right across our country. So I'm very pleased to be playing that role, and in the very early stages, very heartened about the desire right across the political spectrum, to fight for every Australian to make sure we get this right.

JOURNALIST: So talking about potentially speeding up some of those flood recovery payments, how's that going to work?

WATT: I think what I've found in the short time that I've been in the role is that we've come from a system where we weren't seeing a lot of cooperation between different levels of government to see how we could work together to get that money out the door more quickly, to now a change of scene where governments are starting to cooperate a lot better. And I think that that really helps the community in the end. Unfortunately, we were often seeing situations where different levels of government were blaming each other for problems, rather than actually just getting in the room and then sorting them out together. And that's something I've put a real priority on since I've been the Minister. A couple of weeks ago, we held the first meeting of Emergency Management Ministers from federal, state and territory that we've held in this country for quite a number of months. And even just that, getting people together to talk about how can we smooth out these processes, and get rid of some of the ridiculous red tape that exists, that's going to help communities like this one. You know, even hearing here today the impact of these sorts of disasters, people don't get over this stuff in a week or a month. Some of this stuff can take years. And it's our obligation as Government Members and Opposition Members to work together. You know, everyone knows Scotty and I are on different sides of politics, but we're on the same page when it comes to helping this community. And if we can just keep that attitude of cooperation, I think that'll go a long way.

JOURNALIST: And talking to locals, it seems like the overarching thing that they want is some sort of real mitigation work, whether it's catchment data, they're tracking data in real time flood levels as well, is that something that maybe the federal government can help out with?

WATT: Yes, absolutely it is. We went to the election, one of our major policies in this space was about significantly increasing the level of federal government investment in disaster mitigation. You might remember, the previous government - all due respect - had an Emergency Response Fund that sat there, not really doing much for the community and all it did was actually earn the government more interest. It grew from about $4 billion originally, to close to $5 billion, because it was being invested and not being used to build the sorts of projects or buy the kind of data that helps communities (stay) safe. So what we're going to do is use that funding to establish a completely different fund called the Disaster Ready Fund. It will invest up to $200 million a year from the federal government in disaster mitigation projects. In some areas that might be flood levees, some places that might be cyclone shelters, some areas that might be buying flood data, rain gauges, flood gauges, things like that. We want to listen to local communities about what's going to work best for them. And we did have some discussions here today about what would work best for the Lockyer Valley. Obviously, there'll be an application process to be gone through, and there's a lot of demand for these projects right across the country. But at least what we now have is a fund that's available from the federal government to make those kinds of investments.

JOURNALIST: Minister, many residents in Grantham especially are now left in homes that are basically uninsurable. Does your government have any plans for these residents?

WATT: You're talking about, particularly, the people who weren't relocated after to the floods? 

JOURNALIST: Yeah. 

WATT: Obviously, you know, Grantham is held up nationally as a great example of what you can do when governments are flexible and are prepared to assist people to relocate to more flood-proof land. And Grantham is a great example of a community that has done that, obviously, not everyone took up that option. And I think it's really notable that through the recent floods, every single person who chose to be relocated in Grantham was not flooded. But unfortunately, some of the people who did not choose to relocate were flooded. And that's a really graphic example about why that kind of relocation can really make a difference, help people who choose to be relocated, but of course reduce the burden on taxpayers in terms of repair costs. You know, in terms of insurance, that is something that we are working on. I mean, in the end, insurance premiums, or the availability of insurance really depends on the risk of disaster events happening to people. If we can be reducing the risk of those events happening, firstly, by taking serious action on climate change to reduce the frequency of these events going forward, but also by investing in disaster mitigation projects in local areas that will reduce the risk of floods happening, of bushfires impacting on homes, and that will then flow on to insurance premiums as well. So there are a couple of things that we are already working on to try to reduce that risk.

JOURNALIST: And you touched on the fact that side effect of these recent natural disasters was the loss of labour in the Lockyer Valley, labour already being a huge issue. Your Government has been against the previous government's proposed ag visa. Do you have any other kind of visa programs that you're going to put forward? 

WATT: Yes, we do. We went to the election saying that we didn't support the ag visa program that the previous government had put in place. We didn't really think that it had strong enough protections around worker exploitation. And there were a range of other issues that we thought were problematic there. What we did say going into the election was that we want to expand and strengthen the Pacific Labour Scheme, or the Pacific-Australian Labour Mobility program, the PALM program. And it was really interesting talking with some of the growers here today, they were basically saying that without that PALM scheme, their businesses wouldn't be able to operate. They depend incredibly strongly on having that supply of labour from the Pacific. The other reason we wanted to go down that path of beefing up that program is that it's good for our diplomatic relations with the Pacific, it's a good way of sourcing labour for farmers that they need. There are about 40,000 odd Pacific labour workers who are available to come to Australia now and we should be making use of those people. But at the same time, in doing that, we actually strengthen our relationships with those Pacific countries, which is pretty handy for the national security environment we live in. But I've said repeatedly that if those sort of measures aren't enough, and that there's still a need for other workers, then I'm happy to sit with people to work through that. And that's one of the things that we want to tackle at the Jobs and Skills Summit coming forward.

JOURNALIST: Is there any likelihood of a JobKeeper-style program for farmers who've recently been struck with natural disasters. I know many of the Lockyer Valley farmers, in that first sort of 24 hours post-flood, had to let go of a huge amount of stuff because they couldn't access funding fast enough. Have you got any kind of program to, sort of, look at that?

WATT: Not specifically like JobKeeper, but as I say, I think that we can do a much better job of getting the existing funding programs to work a lot more efficiently and a lot more quickly. And one of them that is available in that situation is what's called the Disaster Recovery Allowance. So that's an allowance is basically payable to workers who are unable to work because their employer has been wiped out by a flood or something like that. It basically pays 13 weeks pay at the JobSeeker rate, the top JobSeeker rate, to buy people some time essentially, keep them getting some income so that they're not forced to move regions or move jobs while their employer gets back up on their feet. So I do think that that's an example of a payment that already exists, but can be done better. And they're the kind of things that we want to do through this review.

JOURNALIST: Generally speaking, I know you were just talking about flood mitigations and funding, things like that, but is there anything the federal government can do right now to help more of those, sort of, Queensland-wide people that have been affected by the floods recently?

WATT: Yep, I should have actually mentioned - and thank you for reminding me - only two weeks ago, we announced a new round of grants for primary producers and small businesses in this very region. So we are now, with the State Government - it's a jointly-funded approach - we are offering grants of up to $75,000 for primary producers who've been significantly affected by these floods, and we're offering grants of up to $50,000 for small businesses who've been affected as well. That's obviously in addition to the support that's available for homeowners and other groups as well. So there is money on the table there, available for people. And I'd certainly encourage people to apply, through Category D of the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements. And that's why we work on some of that longer term rebuilding that is going to need to be needed as well.

JOURNALIST: Just over a week since the FMD taskforce was announced. How's that been going so far?

WATT: Yeah, look, I'm getting good reports back from that taskforce, especially this week being Ekka in Queensland, I've been there three times and I'm back for my fourth go this afternoon. It's been a hot topic for people and Scotty and I were talking about this on the way up as well, because his electorate obviously has (a) big livestock population. And there's meatworks and other businesses that are reliant on our clean green status of our livestock industry. We've put in place a range of measures to keep Australia safe from foot and mouth disease. What I've been saying is we have a three-pronged approach. So we're providing more support to Indonesia, vaccines, technical assistance, and we announced more support this week. We're beefing up our measures at the borders with more biosecurity officers, sanitation, foot mats and other things. And the third bit is that Preparedness Taskforce, which I announced last week. And what that is really about is about making sure that if the worst were to happen, and we did have an outbreak, making sure that we are thoroughly prepared. It's actually a bit like natural disaster management, you know, if you've got a Category Five cyclone coming at you across the Pacific, you want to make sure you're ready. And similarly here, we know that there's a bad disease outbreak on our doorstep and we need to make sure that we're ready in case it were to get here. We're going to do everything we possibly can, in partnership with industry, to keep it out. But that taskforce is about bringing together our biosecurity people with our Defence forces, with our emergency management people so that we are fully ready. And the reports I'm getting about that taskforce is that it's progressing well.

JOURNALIST: And talking about preparedness as well, I know it's a little bit in hindsight, but is there maybe anything else you reckon you might have been able to do a little bit earlier to get on top of this?

WATT: With foot and mouth disease? 

JOURNALIST: Yeah.

WATT: Look, I think you can always, whatever you're talking about, you can always move faster than people would like. I know that there were concerns about the foot mats in particular, and people would have liked to have seen them laid in the first day. The reality is that we had to put in a special order, as a government, for the kind of sanitation foot mats that would be suitable in an airport environment. As I've said before, they're not the kind of mats you can just roll down to Bunnings and throw on the back of your ute. These foot mats are special purpose, they have to have thousands of people walking across them every day, sprayed with citric acid. So we had to put in a special order for that, we had to negotiate that with the airports. Of course I would have liked to have happened more quickly than it did but we certainly did move heaven and earth to make it happen and then now there. You know, there's certain people from the Opposition, not my mate here Scotty, but certain people from the Opposition who like to have a crack. And all I can point out is that this outbreak reached Indonesia when they were still in office, and they didn't even order foot mats, let alone do anything about it. So, you know, there's always more we can do and we'll keep rolling out more measures. But I feel confident that we've got the approach that we need to keep Australia safe.

JOURNALIST: If worst does come to worst, like you say, what would be expected of local farmers and people in the community?

WATT: Sure, certainly I know that there's already a range of industry groups who are putting out information to farmers about what they need to look for, what they can do to improve their own biosecurity practices on farms, because it's important to remember that biosecurity is a shared responsibility. You know, the federal government's got our role, and I'm stepping up to the plate with these things, state governments have their role, but we also need the travelling public and we need farmers to play their role to have the very best biosecurity practices they can put in place as well. If we were to have an outbreak, basically, the first thing that would happen is that we'd have a standstill of livestock movements around the country for 72 hours, in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. And then what we'd be looking at is whether we should be pursuing vaccination programs or culling of animals, or longer term movement controls, there's a range of different options that are available, depending on the kind of outbreak that were to happen. But I can't emphasise enough, Australia is foot and mouth disease free. We intend to keep it that way. But we'll be doing everything we possibly can to make sure we're ready if we do see an outbreak.

JOURNALIST: Another big issue for locals at the moment is fireweed. You can see it everywhere around the region. Is there anything that the Government is doing to tackle fireweed, other than expecting councils and locals to deal with it?

WATT: Yeah whether it be fireweed or other pests and things like that - sometimes animals, sometimes weeds - there is a national plan that exists with some degree of federal funding for the maintenance and eradication of those kinds of pests. But that is something that we are giving further thought to. I've talked about it with a number of state and territory ministers as well, because it is a growing problem. Again, it's another example about the biosecurity challenges that we're facing as a nation are getting harder to deal with. There are more threats coming in whether they be animal diseases, plant diseases, or weeds of the kind that you're talking about. And it's one of the reasons just this week we released, for the very first time, and National Biosecurity Strategy that was developed jointly with states and territories and industry to make sure that we're all on the same page to deal with those kinds of pests, as well as deal with any sort of outbreaks that we haven't yet got that are at risk of coming here.