Press conference in Mildura, Victoria

12 December 2022

SUBJECTS: Flood response, lumpy skin disease, Japanese encephalitis 

MURRAY WATT: Well, it’s great to be in Mildura, and thanks to Mayor Liam Wood for showing me around today and showing me some of the damage that Mildura has already experienced from these floods. Of course, we know that we’re expecting a flood peak later in the week and then again potentially in a couple of weeks’ time as the water works its way through the system. It was important for me to come and see it firsthand so that we can really make sure at a national level that we’re providing the support that people here locally need. Already, the federal government has paid out nearly a million dollars in our Disaster Recovery Payment to people in the local government area of Mildura, but I have no doubt that there’ll be a lot more demand on those payments, and, of course, there’s also payments available for small businesses and primary producers who are damaged by these floods, too.

This morning, we had the opportunity to meet with a grape-growing family, Roberto and Sarah, at Granada Wines and saw again firsthand the damage to their vines. I think people don’t normally expect to see water lapping grapevines, and that’s exactly what’s happening there. And it’s an indication of some of the damage that we're seeing to the agriculture sector in this region.

So really, today is about being on the ground, listening to people locally about what’s needed and later this afternoon I’ll be heading over towards Renmark and the Riverlands in South Australia, because they’re just beginning to see the impact of these floods with a lot more water coming as well.

JOURNALIST: Tell me what your thoughts are on what you’ve observed today in Mildura.

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, well, I think over the last few months I’ve obviously spent a lot of time in many different parts of Australia that are experiencing flooding, and I think the thing that’s noticing – hitting me here in Mildura is that we know that there’s more to come – more water coming down both the Murray and the Darling in coming days and weeks, and I think the other thing that’s probably a little bit different about Mildura is the impact on the tourism industry. Speaking to Mayor Liam, I know that this is the peak season for tourism, and all of those houseboats would normally be packed with people going up and down the river enjoying themselves and instead, unfortunately, they’re tied to trees because it’s too dangerous to have them out on the river. So, there’s certainly something for us to think about in terms of support for the tourism industry here going forward.

But I think one of the advantages is that at least in places like Mildura there has been some advance notice that the water is coming, so people have had a bit of time to put in place levee systems and other precautions. But everything I can see is that people are working really effectively no matter what level of government they’re from. And really all I want to be able to say to people today is that the federal government is standing with you and we’ll continue to provide support.

JOURNALIST: Just speaking on the grants that are already provided - growers are expecting millions of dollars of damage after this flood and recovery and some won’t have seasons next year. What recovery can they expect going forward?

MURRAY WATT: Well, what’s been approved so far are joint federal-state grants of up to $75,000 for primary producers. They’re relatively easy to obtain with not a huge bureaucratic process behind them, and also there are low-interest loans of up to $250,000 available for people as well, whether that be restocking, replanting, things like that. It may well be that as times goes on that additional support is provided, and we’ll work very closely with both the local and state governments about what extra support is needed.

I think one of the things that’s a bit challenging in this region is that we haven’t seen the full impact of the disaster yet. So, it’s a little bit difficult to tell exactly what the full impact is going to be until we see these peaks happen. But certainly if there’s a need for further support down the track then, of course, we’re happy to listen to that.

JOURNALIST: Just in terms of community recovery, Minister, this whole area here, for instance, which is a tourist area, is underwater and will take some time to recover. We have roads that have not only just gone underwater but have been damaged by trucks moving up and down them building levees. So, I’ve already talked to the mayor last week about it being – a long helping hand will be needed. Will we have the federal government’s commitment over a long period of time, not just these next few months?

MURRAY WATT: For sure. What we know from these disasters is that they do take a very long time to recover, and I was talking with the mayor about the fact that we don’t want to cut off grants and payments to councils and state governments for road repairs and things like that too soon. As I say, it will sometimes take weeks or months to be able to assess what the damage to infrastructure has been. So, we want to keep those payments open for people so long as is needed. And, as I say, I can assure people that the federal government isn’t just going to dip in and dip out; we’re here for the long haul. We’ve already shown that we’ve done that in New South Wales and it will be the same approach with Victoria as well.

JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister copped a little bit of local flak the other day for dropping in here then heading straight for Renmark. Have you spoken to him about the situation in Mildura specifically?

MURRAY WATT: I’m intending to speak to him after I’ve been here today. One of the reasons I was here is to be able to report back to him and the full Cabinet about what damage we’re seeing here in Mildura among the other areas that I’m going to. You know, I think you can understand the Prime Minister’s got many demands on his time, but it was important to me to be able to come here firsthand, just as I have in a number of other communities in Victoria and New South Wales, Tasmania and now South Australia as well. But I can very much assure people that they have the full government support.

I should also say I’ve been in regular contact with Anne Webster, the federal member here. She and I have been working very cooperatively to make sure that the region gets its assistance. Unfortunately, she had other commitments today and wasn’t able to be here in person herself. But I’ll be making sure that I speak to her after being here today as well.

JOURNALIST: Just on another topic, Minister – lumpy skin disease – it’s edging closer to Australia’s shore. It’s now been detected in East Java. It’s a mosquito-born disease, so there’s potential for it to eventually get to Bali. How concerning is it for you that it is getting closer to Australia’s shores?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, well, obviously as lumpy skin disease inches its way further and further east in Indonesia, that increases the concern that we have about it getting into Australia, and that’s why we’ve put in place a number of measures to try to restrict the outbreak in Indonesia. We’ve already delivered over 400,000 vaccines for lumpy skin disease to Indonesia in addition to millions of vaccines for foot-and-mouth disease as well. But we’ve always known that there’s a higher risk of lumpy skin disease getting into Australia than foot-and-mouth disease. For all the concern that people had about foot-and-mouth disease, there was actually a bigger risk of a lumpy skin disease outbreak because it is mosquito-borne. And all it would take is cyclonic winds coming from our north to blow it into the north of our country.

We’ve put particular work into trying to make sure that we’re resisting an outbreak and ready for it in northern Australia, because that is most likely the gateway that it would come in. But we’ll continue to provide vaccines and training and other expertise to Indonesia to help them get that outbreak under control.

JOURNALIST: You said you provided around 400,000 vaccines for lumpy skin, millions for foot-and-mouth disease, and, like you mentioned there, we are more at risk of getting lumpy skin disease. It is seeming like it is looking to be the poorer cousin of cattle diseases at the moment. How would you compare the federal government’s support for lumpy skin disease compared to foot-and-mouth disease?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I think that we’ve tried to make sure that we’re very much ready and acting on both. It’s a matter of walking and chewing gum at the same time. The support that we provide to Indonesia is usually at there request, so we rely on Indonesia to a degree to tell us what is needed. And so far, what we’ve done is respond to their requests. Apart from the vaccines we’ve also trained up hundreds of Indonesian biosecurity personnel and even farmers about good biosecurity practice. We’re putting more money into feedlots that are over there to help improve the biosecurity practices around both lumpy skin and foot-and-mouth disease. So, it’s a very comprehensive response in Indonesia as well as tightening our measures back here at home.

Some of the things we’ve even done recently is also increase the penalties that can be imposed on people who bring the wrong kind of material through our airports and our mail centres. And that’s a risk for both lumpy skin disease and foot-and-mouth disease. So, I think we need to take both of these diseases seriously. They would both have a very devastating impact on our livestock industry and we need to keep acting.

JOURNALIST: Any messages to livestock producers who would be reading the news and seeing that it is getting closer and closer to their operations and what’s the message of reassurance to them?

MURRAY WATT: Well, my message to Australian livestock producers is that the Australian Government is taking these diseases very seriously. We’ve had a three-pronged approach from the beginning, which is about supporting Indonesia to bring its outbreak under control, tightening our measures at our borders here in Australia and making sure that we’re fully prepared if we do have outbreak. There’s been a huge amount of work underway over the last few months between state and federal governments to make sure that if we were to see an outbreak, we’re fully prepared, and we’re continuing to make improvements there as well. But, of course, what we want to do more than anything is keep these diseases out, and that’s why we’ll keep putting resources into Indonesia to help them get this outbreak under control.

JOURNALIST: Anything else you want to add to that?

MURRAY WATT: Do you want me to say anything about Japanese encephalitis as well given that’s a bit of an issue around here with the floods?

JOURNALIST: Yes, please.

MURRAY WATT: So, I think the other thing we need to be aware of in these river communities is the growing risk of Japanese encephalitis. I know that everyone in Australia is getting a bit weary of the risk of these exotic diseases coming to our country, but unfortunately last summer, we did see in river communities the outbreak of Japanese encephalitis which cannot only be deadly to animals but also humans as well.

I know that the Victorian Government is doing a lot of work around vaccinations for people in river communities, and I’d encourage people who are at risk to get those vaccinations. There is also advertising campaigns starting from the federal government just to remind people of very basic things like, you know, wearing long-sleeve clothing, applying mosquito repellent, all of those kinds of things that people can do to limit their risk of getting Japanese encephalitis as well as getting the vaccine.

JOURNALIST: What is the supply like for Japanese encephalitis vaccines at the moment?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, look, there is a big demand for those vaccines for humans for Japanese encephalitis, but we’re working with the state government to make more available. We know that there’s going to be increasing demand for those vaccines as these weather conditions go on and as people see more and more mosquitos. I remember not that long ago I was in Rochester in Victoria and I literally saw some of the biggest mosquitos I have ever seen, and that’s coming from a Queenslander. So, it’s a very real risk for people, and we do need people to be contacting their local GPs about getting those vaccines, and we’ll keep working with the state government to make those available.

JOURNALIST: Because we’ve been hearing that there has been shortages in some areas like Mildura. Yeah, how accessible – can people expect to get one if they need one?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, look, there’s definitely a big run on those vaccines, and I can’t guarantee that they’re immediately available in every location along the river, and all we can do is keep working the state government to make them available as quickly as we can. I met with the federal Health Minister about this a week or two ago and I know that he’s putting a lot of work into getting those vaccines available, too. Unfortunately, the way the world is at the moment there’s very big demands for a whole range of vaccines and sometimes it takes a bit longer to get them in, even into the country, than what we would prefer. But we’re on it and wherever possible we’re asking people to get those vaccines.