Press conference in Perth, WA

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
PRESS CONFERENCE
PERTH
WEDNESDAY, 12 JULY 2023

SUBJECTS: Agriculture Ministers' Meeting, Live Sheep Phase Out, EU FTA, WA Cultural Heritage Legislation
 
MURRAY WATT: Well, it’s terrific to be back in Perth over west. And it is important obviously that our government, the Federal Government, pays attention to and listens to people right across the country. So I am delighted to be back here. Obviously the primary purpose of this visit is because tomorrow we will hold the first face-to-face meeting of federal, state and territory agriculture ministers for over three years, and where else would you want to have that meeting than in Perth?
 
The Western Australian agriculture sector is going from strength to strength, in particular the grains industry, but not just the grains industry. And I know that Minister Jackie Jarvis, who I spoke to again yesterday, is particularly excited to be hosting this meeting in Perth. And we’ll be catching up this afternoon to begin that.
 
There’s a number of very important issues on the agenda for the gg ministers meeting tomorrow covering issues like biosecurity, the impact of climate change on agriculture, the ongoing work that we’re doing to improve the traceability system for livestock in our country, animal welfare issues. So I’m very much looking forward to that discussion that we’ll be having with ministers tomorrow.
 
Of course, while I am here, though, I did want to take the opportunity while in Perth to continue consulting with a range of different interest groups about important issues for Western Australia, in particular, the Albanese Government’s commitment to phase out the live sheep export industry. I know I’ve spoken with a number of you about this issue before on a number of occasions, but I thought it was important if I’m going to be in Perth to take the opportunity to meet directly with the range of different views that exist on this issue.
 
So I’ve had a number of respectful meetings, very respectful meetings, this morning with everyone from farmer representatives, so Western Australian Farmers Federation, the PGA, the local division of the live export association. I’ve also met with a number of different meat processing companies who are based here in Western Australia and also with animal welfare organisations as well. Because, as I say, I recognise that this is an important issue. It’s a controversial issue, and it’s one on which many different opinions are held. So we’ve covered the full spectrum, I think, of opinions on this matter.
 
Those meetings, of course, aren’t intended to replace the formal consultation process that is underway. You would be well aware that we appointed a panel of four eminent Australians to undertake that consultation process. They will be reporting back to me and the Government as a whole by September 30th with some recommendations on a way forward.
 
We’ve made very clear from the very beginning that it is our intention to deliver on this commitment. It is a commitment that we took to the last election and the one before that. But we want to be respectful and listen to people about how and when we should implement this commitment. And that’s particularly what today’s meeting’s focused on.
 
The live sheep export industry, as I think I’ve said to you before, has been in transition in Western Australia for quite some time. It was only a few years ago that Western Australia exported about 2 million live sheep. That number is now down to about 5 or 600,000, so there has been a massive reduction in the number of live sheep exported from Western Australia. And farmers have had to make that transition, as have the exporters.
 
But at the same time there have been massive opportunities open up for exports of processed meat, of chilled meat, to all of the different markets that are opening up around the world. And to put some figures around that, sheep meat exports have grown in real terms by nearly 200 per cent in Western Australia since 2003. So while the live export industry has been shrinking, the export of processed sheep has been growing. And, importantly from today’s meetings, what I’ve taken is that there are opportunities to export even more processed sheep.
 
We can’t do it immediately. There are issues that need to be resolved around processing capability. But that’s why we’ve said we’re not going to be implementing this commitment immediately. Both the Prime Minister and I have made clear that we will be announcing a time frame in this term of government, but the phase-out won’t be complete in this term of government because we recognise that for some people this is a big shift and it will take time to transition.
 
So I think that – I thank all of the different groups and individuals who I met with today for those respectful conversations. We haven’t agreed on everything. In fact, every group has different views. As I say, I’m well aware that farmer groups on the whole don’t support this policy and don’t want it to happen. Equally, there are animal welfare groups who’d like to see it happen much more quickly than we intend to do. But it’s my job to listen to all of those opinions and ultimately I’ll be making some recommendations to the Government and our Cabinet before we make an announcement in due course.
 
I’m happy to leave it at that, but, as I say, really looking forward also to the ag min meeting. It’s going to be great to catch up with colleagues face to face and work out some really important issues facing the sector nationwide.
 
Happy to take questions.
 
JOURNALIST: The WA state government believes that that phase-out isn’t necessary. What are you seeing or what is it that Roger Cook and the WA state government aren’t seeing?
 
MURRAY WATT: Yeah, look, I’m certainly conscious that the WA government has a position on this and they have expressed that position to us on multiple occasions. But I very firmly believe that the Western Australian sheep industry has a very positive future. It will be a different future to what exists at the moment. But, as I say, this industry has been changing over recent years by reducing the number of live exports while at the same time increasing its exports of pressed sheep meat. And the other good thing about that is that that means more jobs for Australians. More jobs onshore. It’s the value-adding to industries that our government, the Albanese government, is really in favour of.
 
So we’ll keep working constructively with the West Australian government, and I’m confident that we can come to an outcome that boosts the agriculture sector here, not shrinks it.
 
JOURNALIST: The state government’s position is that recent changes to the industry have improved animal welfare standards to a suitable level. Do you see those standards are still unsuitable?
 
MURRAY WATT: Look, I’ve said publicly before that I recognise the improvements that exporters have made to animal welfare standards when it comes to live sheep exports. But the reality is that I think that this industry has by and large lost community support. And that’s a result not just of one incident but of a number of incidents over the last five, 10, 20 years. And we have a responsibility as a government to do the right thing, to uphold strong animal welfare standards but also to make sure that farming communities and individual farmers are supported in that change process, and that’s what we intend to do.
 
JOURNALIST: Community support aside, what’s your assessment of the welfare standards at present?
 
MURRAY WATT: Look, as I say, I’ve recognised that there have been improvements made. But the latest figures that I’ve seen show that, for instance, the mortality rate of live sheep exports is still double what we see in live cattle exports. That’s not surprising because we’re talking about cattle being hardier species. They typically are sent on shorter voyages, typically to Southeast Asia rather than to the Middle East. So there are some differences there. But we believe as a government that from an animal welfare position this is the right thing to do, and that’s why we intend to deliver the commitment.
 
JOURNALIST: I spoke with Phil Glyde recently and he told me that the panel has a pretty massive task ahead of it to finish that report by September 30. Do you think they’ve been given enough time?
 
MURRAY WATT: Look, I actually was briefed again by the panel last week just to get an update on where they’re up to, and that was very useful. And I know that it is a relatively short time frame. But I’m confident that they can meet it. The other feedback that I’ve received from a range of people within the industry is that there is a degree of uncertainty about this industry going forward – the sheep industry as a whole. And I think people would welcome some early decisions from government about what the pathway forward is.
 
So know it’s going to be a lot of hard work for the panel, but I think they’re up for the task.
 
JOURNALIST: What would you say to people who say that this consultation process with the panel should have been launched before the policy was decided and not after it had been announced?
 
MURRAY WATT: Well, I mean, people are entitled to their views about that. But, as I say, we didn’t just take this commitment to one election; we took it to two. Now, I recognise we didn’t win the first of those elections back in 2019, but we did win the most recent election, and I think it is important to deliver on election commitments. And I guess the point I’m making is that this has not exactly come as a surprise to people. We’ve been very open about our position on this for now about four years. And people have had an opportunity to express their say through the ballot box, and it’s our job now to implement that commitment.
 
But we are very sincere about wanting a good consultation process about how and when we do it. And that’s why the panel has been undertaking many different consultation sessions across Western Australia in particular. They have – the panel, for example, has now led 80 meetings, consultation meetings, including 22 public forums, 14 in regional Western Australia and Perth. They’ve engaged over 2,000 people. There’s been over 8,000 formal written submissions as well as meeting, of course, with a range of peak bodies. So I think it has been a very genuine and thorough consultation process and I think that will help us make the very best decisions.
 
JOURNALIST: Fire ants are causing havoc on the Gold Coast. Will that be a topic of discussion tomorrow?
 
MURRAY WATT: It certainly will, and I’m well aware of this issue, being a Brisbane resident who has an office on the Gold Coast. And I was actually on the Gold Coast yesterday where it is a very big topic of concern. The issue about fire ant eradication is certainly one that will be discussed by the agriculture ministers tomorrow. I don’t want to pre-empt those discussions and the decisions that will be made. But I think there is general recognition from agriculture ministers that this is a serious problem and not just one for Queensland. And that if we don’t actually stop those red fire ants from expanding, then that’s potentially a national threat to our environment, to our tourism industry. And that’s why it is an issue of national concern. So we’ll obviously have a bit more to say about that once we get through the meeting tomorrow. But I know it’s very high on the agenda.
 
JOURNALIST: What about additional funding?
 
MURRAY WATT: Well, again, I don’t want to pre-empt the decision of the agriculture ministers about that. But the funding levels for this cause are certainly something for discussion, and we’ll have a bit more to say about that tomorrow.
 
JOURNALIST: Back on the live export ban, will the impact on the mental health of stakeholders in the live sheep export industry be taken into account in how the federal ban is implemented?
 
MURRAY WATT: Absolutely. And I actually made this point in the meeting that I had with the farmer representatives this morning, is that I acknowledge – and I think our entire government acknowledges – that this is a big shift for a lot of people here in Western Australia and they need to be treated with respect and empathy. I understand that this change has caused a lot of hurt for a lot of people. People are worried about their future. And that’s one of the reasons why whenever I come here I make sure that I meet with people to ensure that they’re heard and to be able to keep them updated about our thinking.
 
So I’ve got no doubt that our government will take that mental health impact into account. And, again, it’s one of the reasons why we want to make sure that this transition happens in an orderly manner – not overnight – so that we do have time to work with the industry around the adjustment.
 
JOURNALIST: After that meeting, though, farmer representatives told me that the live export ban is ideologically driven and not evidence based. Are they wrong?
 
MURRAY WATT: And, look, they expressed that opinion to me, and I’ve heard them express that opinion over the last few months as well. I respectfully disagree with the farmers who believe that. I think that there are good, sound animal welfare reasons for the government to implement this commitment. I’ve already referred to the fact that there have been numerous incidents, not just one, where we have seen thousands of sheep die at sea or suffer extreme mistreatment. And I don’t think that any Australians feel proud about that. And, as I say, there are any measures you can point to around mortality rates, so believe that there is a genuine reason from an animal welfare point of view to do this. But I understand that it’s a big adjustment for people, and we want to work with them.
 
JOURNALIST: And during the rest of your WA visit will you be spending any more time meeting with farmers on the ground?
 
MURRAY WATT: Not on this occasion. But I know that we had some sheep farmers amongst the groups that we met with this morning. This won’t be the last time that I come to WA. This won’t be the last time that the panel hears directly from people. There’s going to be a genuine consultation process going forward.
 
JOURNALIST: On the trade deal with the EU, the government’s consistently talked about diversifying trade markers and reducing reliance on China. Has it just missed an opportunity to secure access to one of the world’s largest markets for Australian producers?
 
MURRAY WATT: I don’t believe so. And it’s not really what my opinion that matters; I’ve seen that pretty much every farming group has backed in the government’s position on this. And, in fact, my opponent, if you like, or my counterpart, David Littleproud, has essentially said that we’ve made the right decision by not accepting what is a dud deal from the EU.
 
We, of course, as you say, want to make sure that we do diversify Australia’s agricultural trade options. Our producers have suffered from some of the trade disruptions we saw under the previous government, and you would have seen we’re doing a lot of work to try to repair and stabilise that relationship with China, and that is bearing fruit in terms of agricultural trade.
 
But we do need to open up new markets. That’s why I was in India last week promoting agricultural foods. It’s why I’ve been in London already this year. It’s why Don Farrell keeps working hard with my assistance on the EU free trade agreement. But I make no apologies for the fact that we’re here to fight for Aussie farmers and for the national interest. And that’s what we’ll continue doing. We’re looking forward to those negotiations continuing. We do want to do a deal with the EU, but it’s to be a deal that both parties benefit from.
 
JOURNALIST: What’s the sticking point in the EU negotiations?
 
MURRAY WATT: Look, the main one at the moment is that the offer the EU is making in terms of how much Australian beef, sheep meat, sugar, dairy products and other products as well that they are willing to take. And what we’ve said all along is that we which that our ask in terms of the quantities is fair and reasonable. It’s pretty similar to what the EU have been prepared to do with other countries, and we want to see the same kind of deal for Australia. You know, there’s always a bit of give and take in a trade agreement. You won’t always get what you want, but, frankly, the offer that’s on the table from the EU at the moment is not good enough, and that view is shared by pretty much every farming organisation in the country.
 
JOURNALIST: And how about geographical indicators? Has that become a red line for Australia?
 
MURRAY WATT: That is still a sticking point. And it’s obviously something that the EU have raised, you know, in every negotiation meeting. And I was in Rome last week to advance these negotiations and it was raised with me by a number of European agriculture ministers. We think that there is a way of working out the geographic indicators that still protects our producers while recognising and respecting the European interests when it comes to geographic indicators. So we think we can work that out. It’s not there yet and there’s still more work to be done. But, as I say, the biggest sticking point and what we do need to see the EU shift on is how much of our product they are prepared to take.
 
JOURNALIST: Given the way it’s going are you still confident that a deal can be reached and is there any sort of time line on that?
 
MURRAY WATT: Look, I’m an optimist by heart and I know the Prime Minister is and Don Farrell is as well. And we’re prepared to work very hard to get a good deal for Australian producers. As you say, we want to make sure that we’re diversifying our markets. The EU is a large and valuable market, and it would be really good for our producers to be able to open up that market more than we have. But we’re not going to sell people out in the process. We’re going to leave no stone unturned to try to get the best possible deal, and hopefully over the coming months we’ll get there.
 
JOURNALIST: Any sort of set deadline or timeline you’re racing against?
 
MURRAY WATT: We haven’t set a time frame. I know that Don Farrell has today said that negotiations will continue. I’ve been speaking to Don in the middle of the night while he’s been in Europe to stay updated and give him my views. And we’ll keep working hard on this.
 
JOURNALIST: Do you have any concerns about the impact of the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act on pastoralists in WA?
 
MURRAY WATT: Look, I have followed this debate to a degree. It’s obviously a Western Australian government issue and I don’t want to pretend that I’m an expert on it. But I spoke about it with Jackie Jarvis again yesterday just to get her perspective on it. I think what we do need to remember is that these laws are designed to avoid a repeat of the Juukan Gorge incident which I think was an international embarrassment for Australia. As I understand it, the Western Australian government consulted very broadly over about five years with agriculture groups, with First Nations groups, to come to their conclusion. And I’d certainly encourage all of the groups who’ve got an interest in it to continuing engaging with the Western Australian government.
 
JOURNALIST: Do you think the heavily criticised rollout of this Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act will have a negative impact on the Voice campaign?
 
MURRAY WATT: I don’t see why it needs to impact on the Voice campaign. You know, they are entirely separate issues. And we need to remember that what the Voice is about is two simple things: it’s about recognising Australia’s first peoples in our nation’s constitution and it’s about listening to them. I’ve just spent the morning listening to farmers, to processors, to animal welfare groups about, you know, what they want to see for the future of an industry. And those discussions I think will help me get to a better outcome. That’s what the Voice is about. It’s about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people having an official channel to provide their views on the things that matter to them. The standard of housing in their communities, the standard of health care that they receive, the educational and employment opportunities. That’s what the Voice is about. I know there’s a lot of red herrings being put out there by a lot of people who are opposed to the Voice, including some very senior Western Australian Liberal politicians. But when you boil it down, it’s a very simple proposition: recognition and listening to people. And that’s what we should do.
 
JOURNALIST: Yeah, just back on the cultural heritage act, do you think it’s appropriate that farmers and pastoralists will be required to survey properties that they’ve owned for decades before, you know, carrying out basic tasks like building a shed, for example?
 
MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I'm not going to comment on the specifics of that legislation. It's obviously a matter for the Western Australian government, and I've got every confidence that they'll deal with it well.
 
JOURNALIST: But it is something that constituents in your portfolio –
 
MURRAY WATT: Sure, and as I say, I have every confidence that the WA government and Minister Jarvis will manage it going forward.
 
JOURNALIST: Just briefly, will you be taking any specific meetings with Roger Cook or Jackie Jarvis about live exports while you’re here?
 
MURRAY WATT: Well, I spoke to Jackie Jarvis about it again yesterday. We speak about that and a number of other issues concerning Western Australian agriculture on a regular basis. And we’ll be catching up in person this afternoon and tomorrow. So I’ll leave it for Jackie to work out what she wants to raise with me. She’s a great operator. Okay, thanks, everyone.