Press conference in Rockhampton, Queensland

Prepared: Thursday 16 June 2022
Title: Press conference with Minister Murray Watt.
Description: Press conference with Minister Murray Watt discussing new portfolio, regional agriculture employment, Government’s $15bn National Reconstruction Fund, value-adding to agriculture industry, wage rises for minimum wage workers, Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme, China's trade sanctions on Australia, lumpy skin disease.
Date Broadcast: 16 June 2022 
Time Broadcast: 10:42 AM - 10:57 AM

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE: Ok well, thanks everyone, for coming along. It's terrific to be back at JBS’s Plant here in Rocky. I actually came here a few years ago as a humble backbencher in the government and now I'm back as a humble Agriculture Minister as well. So it's great to catch up with Jamie again, who I met last time. Thanks to John, Anthony, their entire team, for hosting my visit today. 

I've really thought it's important, as the new Agriculture Minister in the country, to get out on the ground as quickly as possible to meet with everyone who's involved in all parts of the agriculture sector. So that's why you might have seen last week I was at a farm, a cotton farm just outside Emerald. Also went to SwarmFarm, which are doing some amazing things in robotics and agriculture, and here today as well, to focus on meat processing because, of course, this is a massive employer around Central Queensland and is a really important part of the supply chain as well, that our farmers are plugged into as well. 
It is an industry that's facing some challenges, so it's been really useful to talk with the company about that and what we might be able to do to resolve that. 

But I suppose a couple of things I just wanted to say before I take questions, one of the things that the Albanese Government was really clear about running into the election was that we want to make more things here in Australia and we want to make more things in Central Queensland as well, because Central Queensland has incredible expertise when it comes to manufacturing, whether we're talking about machinery or whether we're talking about meat processing. And actually food manufacturing, and meat manufacturing in particular is the biggest manufacturing sector of our entire country. So it's a really important part of this local economy and the jobs that it produces. So putting a spotlight on that, I think, sends a really clear message to the whole population that there's a new government in town and we're going to be about making more things in Australia, including meat processing and other food processing. Now, of course, our cattle industry is a huge one, and live exports of cattle are an important part of the industry as well, and they will continue to prosper under the Albanese Government. But wherever possible, we want to be taking the opportunity to do more processing onshore, because that means that we're creating more jobs in regional economies like Central Queensland, and it means that we can extract the full value of our incredible agricultural products, whether we're talking about cattle, or whether we're talking about crops. So we've got a range of policies that we intend to implement, such as a new National Reconstruction Fund that will have $15 billion in it, able to partner with industry about modernising equipment, improving productivity with investment from the federal government. And we've actually cordoned off half a billion dollars of that money for investment in agriculture, food and fibre. So it'll be firms like this and industries like this that will be able to take advantage of that, so that we can make more things here in Australia and employ more people in the industry as well.

I might leave it at that because you've probably got some questions, but again, can I thank the whole JBS team for having us along today? Can I also thank the employees of the Department of Agriculture in Canberra? They have people out-posted all across the country, including here in Rockhampton, and they play a really important role in the quality assurance of our product as well. So I'll leave it at that. But happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: What is that money going to go towards when it comes to those local jobs? Is that a focus here?

WATT: This is the Reconstruction Fund, you mean? Yeah. So we have yet to work out the guidelines about exactly what kinds of industries, exactly what kind of projects, and we'll be consulting very closely with industry about that to make sure that we have a fund that actually works for industry. But we would envisage that it will go towards helping invest in new technology, new processes. The company was telling me they've been doing some really interesting and important work around sustainability. So reducing water consumption, reducing energy consumption, that's a really big issue up at the moment. Of course, with the way energy prices are going, farms like this are big energy users and if we can be investing with them in technologies that can help reduce their energy consumption, that reduces their cost of production, makes their products more competitive, and we can then expand and employ even more people. So it's really about trying to help our industries become as modern and efficient as possible, not so that we can lose employees, actually, so we can create more jobs and move further up the value chain.

JOURNALIST: What's Labor's plan for more value-adding to agriculture across Australia?

WATT: Yeah, look, this is a really important priority for me as the new Agriculture Minister and I want to recognise that firms like this, and really across the whole agriculture sector, are already doing some amazing things about food processing and taking products up the value chain. But I think that with the Government that's really committed to making more things in Australia, we can work with the sector to make even more and value-add even more. So one of the ways I've been putting it is that we don't want to just grow the best wheat in the country, we want to turn it into the best flour, the best biscuits with the best chocolate chips, so that the world can buy those products. And same here. When we're talking about meat processing, we want to grow the best cattle, we want to make the best meat, we want to make the best meat products. Even JBS itself, a lot of people don't realise that they're not only a beef producer and a beef manufacturer, they're now into salmon, they're into Primo, the small goods that we buy. And that's the point, is that if we can extract the maximum possible value from our incredible crops and our incredible products, then that will create more jobs and more export dollars. Right here in places like regional Queensland.

JOURNALIST: The workers shortage will meat processing harks back to a time before the pandemic, it's been an issue for decades. What plans do you have to solve this, given the value of it as an export and also for food security domestically?

WATT: You are dead right, this has been an issue in the industry and in agriculture for a long time. And I remember the last time I came to JBS a few years back, we were talking about worker shortages then and of course, it's only got harder with COVID and the closure of international borders and the skill shortage where people can really take their pick of jobs at the moment. So that's having an impact on agriculture in a big way. I've really already started talking about that with some of the key industry bodies and key unions as well. We want to approach this issue differently to how the last government approached it, because we do think that the interests of unions and workers have to be considered here as well. And I know that's something that JBS supports too. A couple of things that we have already put forward. What we have promised to do is to expand and strengthen the PALM scheme, the Pacific Australia sorry- the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility program, which is the way that we can bring in workers from the Pacific to help work in agriculture and in processing as well. We want to do that in a way that makes sure that people aren't exploited. Because, let's face it, there have been issues around worker exploitation. Unfortunately, in some parts of the Ag sector, the vast majority of farmers do the right thing, as do manufacturers, but there have been instances that we need to clean up. But we want to make use of that labour force that's available in the Pacific. And I've said to industry and to unions that if there need to be other solutions to meet their workforce needs, that I'm happy to sit down with everyone and talk it through and come up with some solutions.

JOURNALIST: Is there a wage rate issue in attracting workers?

WATT: Look, I think it probably depends on what parts of the economy you're talking about. Labor was very clear throughout the election that we supported a rise to the minimum wage. And we welcomed the fact yesterday that the Fair Work Commission has handed down a wage rise to minimum wage workers that means that they won't go backwards. It's a pretty simple principle that if you're on the minimum wage, you shouldn't be going backwards when inflation is rising so high. So we welcome that decision yesterday. And, look, it is a competitive labour environment for employers at the moment and that is having an impact on wages. What we want to make sure of is that everyone wins out of this. We want to see workers win in higher wages, but we want to see businesses win, as well. And the main way we can help businesses deal with the cost that they're facing is by lifting productivity. And that's, again, where some of those reconstruction funds can come in as well. 
The last thing I'll say on that is that the Government promised to have a Jobs and Skills Summit, which we will be holding in the next couple of months [background noise] so the Government promised during the election that we would hold a Jobs and Skills Summit, which would bring together business leaders, union leaders, community leaders, to solve these issues that we're having about workforce shortages and productivity. And that's the kind of approach the Albanese Government wants to bring to government, bringing everyone together, working out common solutions, stop the fighting. And the bickering that we've seen over the last few years put in place some practical solutions that help businesses, help unions and help workers.

JOURNALIST: What do you think the impact of that wage increase is going to mean for the red meat sector?

WATT: That's obviously something that I've got to keep talking about with the industry, but the increase that applied yesterday is only to people on the minimum wage. Most companies in the meat sector have enterprise agreements that sit above the minimum wage and they will already be having negotiations with their workforce and their unions to resolve those matters. What we're really talking about in terms of the wage rise that was granted yesterday, is the lowest paid people in our workforce. So it's the cleaners, it's the security guards, in some cases, of the retail assistants. It's the people who actually got us through the pandemic. And I think that they deserve more than just our thanks, they deserve a pay rise. And I'm really pleased to see that happen yesterday.

JOURNALIST: Have you spoken to Richard Marles about opening chats to China? And could the red meat exporters expect to resume trade any time soon?

WATT: I've spoken with a number of my Cabinet colleagues about the impact of those trade bans that China has imposed on Australia under the previous government, and I don't think I'm telling tales out of school by saying that is an issue we've talked about here at JBS today. Those trade bans are having a major impact on our agriculture sector, our meat processing sector and a whole range of other industries as well. So look, I think it was a positive step that Richard Marles was able to have a one on one meeting with his Chinese counterpart. The issues around that relationship aren't going to be resolved overnight. It is in the interests of both countries to have a good dialogue. But we've been very clear that for this relationship to be repaired, China has got to lift some of those sanctions and those trade bans that they've had in place. We're going to stand up for Australia, we're going to stand up for Australian industry, and China needs to take off some of those bans if we can see this relationship progress any further.

JOURNALIST: I actually also have a few questions from WIN in Toowoomba, they wanted to talk about lumpy skin disease. Can you tell us what the Federal Government is doing in terms of vaccines and partnering with the Indonesian government?

WATT: Sure. So biosecurity is also one of the biggest issues that people in the Ag sector have been raising with me, not just since I took on this role, but even before the election, in previous roles that I had as well. And so it's an issue that I've been already discussing heavily with the industry and also with my department. In the first week of taking on the role as a minister, I got a briefing from Australia's Chief Veterinary Officer, who had just returned from Indonesia where there are very worrying outbreaks of foot and mouth disease and lumpy skin disease. And if those diseases were to get into Australia, that would be devastating for the Australian meat industry. The Australian Government is already providing vaccines to Indonesia to help them combat lumpy skin disease, and we're now having further discussions around what further support could be provided to Indonesia, because it's in our national interest to help our Indonesian neighbours meet this challenge and make sure that the diseases don't get into Australia. I was very pleased to see Prime Minister Albanese raise these issues with the Indonesian President on his recent trip to Indonesia. And that shows you that the new Albanese Government is taking these issues very seriously and we're intending to keep working cooperatively with Indonesia to manage these outbreaks.

JOURNALIST: Today we're hearing Nolan's Meats in Gympie is having trouble supplying bovine pericardium tissues to medical manufacturers due to the shortage of workers, that component goes into human heart valve replacements in the US. That's not only value-adding, but obviously a lifesaving component. Again, what's your plan? Obviously this is a very urgent workforce. What can be done now?

WATT: Yeah, well, look, I'd be very happy to talk with Nolan's Meats about that. They're a major employer around the Gympie region and elsewhere as well. And again, I think this just shows the impact these workforce shortages are having on not just the meat processing industry, but so many different parts of our community. It's now having health impacts in the way that you describe as well. Again, this is not something that's emerged overnight. This was a problem years ago. It got worse through COVID and I'm sorry, but the former government didn't resolve them. They had an idea about an agricultural visa that didn't produce a single worker in all the time that they were talking about it and that's why we've decided to go down a different path by revamping and expanding the Pacific scheme which has worked in the past. We think it's a better solution, but as I say, if there are other options that we can explore, then we're happy to do that as well.

JOURNALIST: And what's the industry telling you it needs?

WATT: Look, I think there's a variety of opinion around the industry, I'll be honest, there are some parts of the industry that would prefer to stick with the Ag visa, but as I say, it didn't produce a single worker for all the talk that the former government engaged in about it. We did have concerns about the way it was structured and the risks of worker exploitation. We think that the Pacific Scheme is a proven way of supplying the agriculture sector with the workforce that it needs, while also having the worker protections that any scheme needs. And I'm open to all sorts of ideas that people are bringing forward and I intend to be consulting with industry and unions about that very soon.

JOURNALIST: Just about lumpy skin disease, would exports be on hold if lumpy skin disease or foot and mouth disease were detected in Australia?

WATT: There's a very big risk that if lumpy skin disease or foot and mouth disease got into Australia that that would severely reduce our exports. It would have a devastating impact on meat plants like this one. It would have a devastating impact on our rural communities where cattle are bred. And that's why we're taking it so seriously. By providing those vaccines to Indonesia, by raising it with the highest levels of the Indonesian government, and by working with industry about what other solutions there might be. 

JOURNALIST: Would there be any more commitments to funding or anything like that to prevent this [indistinct]?

WATT: That's something we're looking at, at the moment. It is a vital issue that we take action on. I've obviously got to go through internal processes before any new funding can be committed. But that is something I'm beginning to talk about with my colleagues, because we recognise it's a really serious issue.