Press conference in Perth, Western Australia

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
PRESS CONFERENCE
AGRICULTURE MINISTERS MEETING
PERTH
THURSDAY, 13 JULY 2023

SUBJECTS: AGRICULTURE MINISTERS MEETING, STATEMENT ON CLIMATE AGRICULTURE, TRACEABILITY STRATEGY, NATIONAL STANDARDS ON POULTRY, FIRE ANTS, LIVE SHEEP EXPORTS, ANDREW FORREST, FADDEN BY-ELECTION, WA ABORIGINAL CULTURAL HERITAGE LAWS

JACKIE JARVIS: It’s fantastic to be here today in the beautiful Swan Valley. And as WA Minister for Agriculture and Food I am delighted to have welcomed my colleagues from around Australia to join us here in Western Australia. I took the opportunity to brief my colleagues on the Western Australia ag sector. Obviously, we’re a massive land mass. We have different climatic zones spreading from the Kimberley right down to Esperance, our wheat growers and, obviously, our horticultural sectors. I was able to say to my colleagues that because of this massive land mass, these different climatic zones we have across the state we not only have common issues but we have common opportunities. And we have real opportunities to work together.

So, look, I just wanted to welcome everyone here today. I’m going to hand over to federal Minister Murray Watt. He’s going to provide some overview about what we talked about.

MURRAY WATT: Thanks. Thanks very much, Jackie. And can I thank you as the host of today’s agriculture ministers meeting. And this is a very significant meeting because this is the first face-to-face agriculture ministers meeting that has been held in Australia for well over three years. And can I thank at the same time all of my ministerial colleagues for making the effort to travel here to Perth. And we were given a great reception by Jackie, and I think it’s been a very useful meeting.

We’re conscious that there are some particular issues that are specific to WA. If it’s okay with people, we might just address the issues that come out of the ag ministers meeting and then deal with those at the end.

Today’s meeting, as I say, I think has been very successful and it’s another example of what can come from good collaboration between different levels of government. We’ve made a lot of progress on some issues that, frankly, have been taking years to be resolved when it comes to the agriculture sector. And, again, I think the positive contribution that my colleagues have made. We obviously come from different states. We come from different political parties, but we’ve an able to work together in the interests of Australia’s agriculture sector, and I think that’s really important.

There are a couple of things in particular that have been agreed today that, as I say, have taken many years to get to this point. The first is that we have agreed to Australia’s first ever national traceability system and strategy. This has been something that’s been talked about at agriculture ministers for a long time. Basically what traceability is about is electronic systems to monitor the movements of animals within the production system – from farms to transport to abattoirs all the way through. And the reason that making those sort of traceability improvements happen is that it does allow us to track where those animals have been, what the provenance of food is. We know that consumers and international markets want to know more than ever before about where their food has come from and the circumstances in which that food has been produced. Traceability allows that to happen.

It's also important if we do see a major biosecurity outbreak. And, of course, we’ve been threatened by many of them just in the last 12 months. And what it means that if a biosecurity outbreak were to occur we could work out where animals have been and which other animals they may have infected and allows for a much quicker response to a biosecurity outbreak.

So I think it’s really good news for our farmers and our producers and Australia’s agriculture sector that these ministers behind me have come to an agreement to launch that first ever national traceability strategy.

The second document which I’m very proud that we’re able to release today is Australia’s first ever national statement on climate change and agriculture. Now, farmers are at the coal face when it comes to climate change. We’ve seen the extreme weather that has happened to pretty much every state around the country just in the last couple of years. And farmers more often than not bear the brunt of that extreme weather. And we know that unfortunately due to climate change that’s going to get worse, not better.

And we’ve needed for a very long time to have a harmonised approach between different levels of government to deal with this challenge that our agriculture sector faces. Now, we’ve obviously emerged from 10 years of denial of climate change at the federal government level. And I’m really proud of the fact that our government has been able to work cooperatively with all the states and territories, regardless of their political persuasions, to come together with this first ever national statement.

And what it’s saying is that governments are prepared to lead. We know that farmers face risks when it comes to climate change, but there’s also massive opportunities for our sector to continue to build on the good work they’ve already been doing to become more climate resilient, to demonstrate their sustainability standards to consumers and to international markets. And that means is that farmers have the opportunity to be even more profitable and more productive if they’ve got governments working with them. And at last in this country we have a set of governments that’s prepared to work with the sector to continue to build on that good work.

The two other things that I did want to mention – and, of course, we’re happy to take questions about any of these issues – is that after several years’ work by different levels of government and intense consultation with industry and consumers, we’ve agreed today to endorse new animal welfare standards for the poultry industry in Australia.

Now, the implementation of this will be left to individual states and territories to determine the exact timeframe, the exact circumstances in which they implement these standards. But, again, for the first time after several years of work, we’ve been able to have a national agreement about these new animal welfare standards. And that’s not just good for poultry; it’s good for poultry farmers, it’s good for consumers because we know that the market is already shifting with most of the retailers and most big manufacturing companies that use eggs already moving towards more humane methods of raising hens and getting the types of eggs that they need. So the market is moving, and here we’ve got today governments actually catching up.

The final thing that I wanted to mention – because I know there’s a lot of interest in it, is red imported fire ants. Now, as a Queenslander – and I know Mark Furner is in the same boat as a Queenslander – this is a very real threat in south east Queensland at the moment. And thanks to the good work of the Queensland government supported by all state, territory and federal governments, this – the growth of the red fire ant population has been at least controlled, it hasn’t spread far as it otherwise would.

But what we’ve agreed today is that we will continue working on a new proposal led by Queensland for eradication of red imported fire ants beyond 2023. All ministers understand the importance of maintaining momentum in this fight against the spread of red imported fire ants. And we are unified on the need to contain eradication efforts under a new national plan that will be led by Queensland.

In the meantime, though, we want to keep up the momentum on this fight. Most jurisdictions have agreed already to bring forward future funding that they’d allocated for combating red imported fire ants to bring that forward, that funding forward, to this financial year so that we can keep up that momentum while we continue to work on that new plan and go through our budget processes to obtain funding for doing so.

So, again, can I thank all of the ministers for their really cooperative attitude and approach, including our officials. We’ve been able to come to some very significant decisions in the interests of our agriculture sector, and I look forward to collaborating with this group in the future as well.

JOURNALIST: What’s the budget allocated for the fire ants?

MURRAY WATT: Yep, so basically already the red imported fire ant eradication program has seen all levels of government spend over $400 million on the eradication of these pests. As I say, most jurisdictions have now agreed to bring forward the funding that they’d allocated to future years to this financial year. And once we get the remaining jurisdictions to go through their budget processes we expect to be spending up to $60 million just in this financial year to keep up the momentum on that fight.

JOURNALIST: And can you just elaborate on the phase-out of caged eggs? Has an end date been set or is it completely up to states and territories?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, so, as I say, the ministers have agreed to endorse these new animal welfare standards for the poultry industry. Now, those standards say that that should occur by 2036. But we understand that this has got to be dealt with differently in different states. And states and territories will have the flexibility to set their own time frames within those standards as to when their individual state will progress this. Some will move faster than others, some will move slower than others. And it will all be done in consultation with the relevant industry.

JOURNALIST: But 2036 is the end date when it absolutely has to be done by?

MURRAY WATT: So the standards say 2036, and that’s what’s been endorsed. But, again, we recognise that different states are in different positions and there will be flexibility around the time frame for those states.

JOURNALIST: And just to clarify, those standards amount to a phase-out of caged eggs?

MURRAY WATT: It’s not caged eggs altogether; it’s what are known in the industry as conventional cages or what might be known by lay people as battery hens or battery cages. What these standards – these standards will allow for the continued use of cages in poultry farming and egg farming, but they won’t be the kind of cages that we’re all used to seeing on TV in years gone by.

Of course, you know, there are other methods – free range and other things – and that is increasingly happening. We're actually at a point in Australia where it's only about 30 per cent of caged eggs – of eggs that are bought in supermarkets are produced using those conventional cages. So the market is moving and government is catching up.

JOURNALIST: What do you say to critics who say that will push up the price of eggs?

MURRAY WATT: Look, I’ve seen some absolutely ridiculous figures thrown around in the media over the last few days. And there are people who are pushing this for their own political reasons. They are the same people who were out there telling Australians for the last 10 years that we’d be paying $100 for a lamb roast if we did anything about climate change. They’re the same people who’ve been out there over the last few months saying that if Australia signed up to the global methane pledge that would be the end of the backyard barbecue. I don’t know about you, but I had a backyard barbecue last weekend at my place in Brisbane, and it seems to be going on around the country.

So we’ve actually obtained modelling in the process of coming up with these standards which shows that even as a result of these changed standards the average egg consumer will be paying about $1.51 more per year. We’re not talking about $15 boxes of eggs. Those figures have no credibility, and the politicians who are out there spouting them are just trying to scare people.

JOURNALIST: Just on those caged eggs, can you describe what cages will be allowed to be used in those changes?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, so basically the idea is that where farmers continue to wish to use some form of cages for poultry and for egg production basically they will provide for additional space and environmental enrichment for chickens in those – and it’s really about making sure that there’s not quite as many chickens crammed into cages as what we’ve seen in past years. The time frame, as I say, is – provides a lot of time for the industry to adjust. This isn’t something that’s being required overnight. Some states, as I say, will move quicker than others. And we’ve ended up with this result following a very lengthy consultation with the industry.

JOURNALIST: Just on the national statement on climate change, are there any sort of specific commitments made in that, and is the industry moving quickly enough?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, so basically what – this statement that we’re releasing today is really the beginning of a process of making sure that all governments are working together on the challenge of climate change in agriculture. It basically sets out the case for change, why we do need to do more, to protect farmers, to protect our international markets. And it sets a platform now for much more detailed work by states, territories and federal governments about what we do next.

So it’s the beginning; it’s not really containing a lot of things about we will do this or we will do that. That will come next having all agreed that government has an important role to play in leadership on this issue.

JOURNALIST: We’ve got Mike Foley on the phone.

MURRAY WATT: Mike, are you still with us?

MIKE FOLEY: Yes, thanks, Minister. Just with the fire ants, as you know, the joint Steering Committee recommended funding, joint funding from state and commonwealth between 2 to $300 million a year over the next 10 years to achieve eradication by the time of the Brisbane Olympics. Could you please just specify out of this meeting what the annual funding quotient will be from the state and Commonwealth Government jointly?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, so, as I say, Mike, what we’ve agreed to do today is to maintain the momentum on red imported fire ants. As I say, most jurisdictions have agreed already to bring forward funding that was allocated. And once other jurisdictions go through their budget process we expect that to mean up to $60 million just for ’23-’24.

In terms of funding beyond that, that is something that most of the jurisdictions have yet to go through their budget processes, including the Commonwealth so we can’t put a dollar figure on that in terms of future years. But I can absolutely assure you that the ministers are united in the need to take serious action about this and make sure that it doesn’t spread any further. So once those budget processes go through, we’ll be able to give people dollar figures.

MIKE FOLEY: Just to follow up on that, because, you know, the Gold Coast local government area is extremely concerned and they’re warning of severe impacts to tourism as of recently as today from the infestation. Did you – how do you respond to concerns that are already out there that the funding will fall short of what the expert committee has recommended?

MURRAY WATT: I don’t think that anyone needs to be concerned that this group of ministers and all of our governments might not be taking this issue seriously. As I say, I’m not just a Queenslander; my electorate office is on the Gold Coast. I was on the Gold Coast for work this week, and I’m very conscious of the concern in that community as well as not just southeast Queensland but around the country if we don’t take serious action.

All the ministers standing behind me are united in making sure that we take that serious action, that we keep up the momentum and bring that funding forward so that we can keep taking action now and that we do continue to take more. But the reality is that we do need to go through budget processes before we can walk out into a press conference and promise money. Mark, did you want to add anything on fire ants?

MARK FURNER: Sure. Thank you, Murray. Just on the specifics around the Gold Coast in respect to fire ants, just earlier this week I met with the deputy mayor over some concerns they have expressed in regards to some of the incursions and outbreaks. We gave a summary to the deputy mayor of the success of the program and the eradications of those areas that they identified.

Last year the Queensland Palaszczuk government committed $37 million towards a fire ant suppression team. That team has been working not only with the Gold Coast council but the Ipswich and the Logan council to work with not only the councils and the communities but also the industry to eradicate this pest. We’ll continue that path. And I’m really impressed with today’s commitment from all of the states and the territories to address the eradication of this pest.

MURRAY WATT: Okay, so other questions about WA?

JOURNALIST: Yeah, on live sheep exports, a lot of farmers are saying that with some of the uncertainty surrounding it that they’re getting out of sheep altogether and as quickly as they can. Do you have any concerns about the impact that might have on domestic supply?

MURRAY WATT: The short answer is no. As you know, I met yesterday in Perth with representatives of farmers, processors and animal welfare groups to make sure that I’m staying up to date with current thinking while our consultation process goes on. As I said yesterday, I’m really confident about the future of the sheep industry here in Western Australia. It’s an important industry that supports a lot of jobs and a lot of regional economies. You know, I know that the market operates in different ways and from time to time people raise more sheep and raise less sheep. But I’m very confident that we can be working with the sector to continue to open up new export markets that allow for more onshore processing, support the wool industry, and I really look forward to engaging with the industry to make sure that we can build a positive future together.

JOURNALIST: Do farmers share your confidence, though? Or are they getting out?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I mean, I don’t think it’s any secret that there are many farmers and many farming organisations that are not happy with this policy. And I respect their position but, as you know, we did take this to an election and we intend to deliver on the commitment. But we do want to make sure that we do it in an ordinarily way in consultation with industry and treat people with respect.

JOURNALIST: Can I ask you about the separation of Andrew and Nicola Forrest. They obviously have extensive financial interests in the agricultural sector. Do you have any concerns about the implications for any of those businesses?

MURRAY WATT: I don’t think it’s really appropriate for me to comment on a marital separation. Obviously, the businesses involved will make their own decisions.

JOURNALIST: There’s a lot of concern within farmers here in Western Australia that the abattoirs are already at capacity. If you make them take more sheep that would otherwise go to live export, they’re not going to be able to handle it. Will your Commonwealth Government commit to funding growth in that industry in Western Australia?

MURRAY WATT: I’m certainly conscious that we don’t have the processing capability in Western Australia at the moment to be able to cope with an influx of more sheep right now. But that’s why we’re not talking about bringing in this phase-out immediately. That’s why it’s a phase-out; not an overnight ban. We’re obviously waiting for some recommendations from our panel as to all of those types of issues. But having met with a range of different processors here in Western Australia yesterday, they feel incredibly confident about the future of the ability to supply more sheep meat processed onshore and selling it overseas. There are issues around labour shortages, around housing shortages, processing capability, and they’re exactly the kind of things that we want to work through with the industry.

JOURNALIST: Just a question about the Queensland Fadden byelection. As a Queenslander you’re heading over there on Saturday. What’s the best possible outcome for Labor, and what swing would you be happy with?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I’ll be heading back to Brisbane shortly and I’ll be on the Gold Coast for the Fadden byelection on Saturday. Our candidate Letitia Del Fabbro has worked incredibly hard in what is, frankly, a completely unwinnable seat for Labor. We have entered this byelection knowing we have no chance – not just Buckley’s chance – no chance of winning this byelection. It’s a safe LNP seat, but we thought it was still important to offer people an opportunity and it’s given our local branch members to get out there and campaign.

Really, if Peter Dutton cannot get a swing towards the LNP of 4 per cent in this election he’s doing something wrong. That is typically the swing that oppositions get to them in byelections. We always see swings against governments. The Aston byelection we saw recently was a complete aberration. Stuart Robert is out of the picture now. I think, you know, he was probably suppressing the LNP vote in Fadden. So Peter Dutton really needs to be looking at getting at least a 4 per cent swing for him to feel like he’s taken anything from this byelection.

JOURNALIST: Before you go, have you and Minister Jarvis had a chance to talk through your governments’ differing views on the phase-out of live sheep exports while you’ve been here?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah.

JOURNALIST: And has anything changed your mind at all or what do you make of what Minister Jarvis has put to you?

MURRAY WATT: I’ll let Jackie speak for herself, but, yeah, look, Jackie and I have spoken about it not just this time; we’ve spoken about it on a regular basis over the last few months. And I respect the fact that the Western Australian Government has a different position to us on this. But I also know that Jackie and her government are keen to get the best deal for WA once we work through this process. But why don’t I take a last question then hand over to Jackie, if that’s okay.

JOURNALIST: During your time here have any WA farmers or pastoralists raised issues about the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act with you?

MURRAY WATT: Look, it came up briefly in the meeting I had with the Western Australian farmers groups yesterday and I did address this in a press conference yesterday. But, you know, I’m a federal minister; I’m not going to comment on state-based issues. I think Jackie and her government are doing a very good job in managing that.