Press conference in Rockhampton, Queensland

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
PRESS CONFERENCE
BEEF WEEK - ROCKHAMPTON
WEDNESDAY, 8 MAY 2024

SUBJECTS: Agricultural traceability grants; investment in resources data; biosecurity risks to Australia; Queensland State election; Glencore; Commonwealth Prac Payment; biosecurity protection levy

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: Well good morning, it’s great to be joined by my ministerial colleagues Madeleine King, the Minister for Resources and Northern Australia; Kristy McBain, the Minister for Local Government and Regional Development, and we’re also joined by some representatives from industry to talk to you a bit about what we’re announcing today.

So I’m very pleased to announce today, a new round of $4 million in grants from the Albanese Government to support further traceability efforts within our livestock sector. One of the real priorities for the Albanese Government since we came to office in the agriculture sector has been to strengthen our biosecurity and traceability systems. Of course, it was only a few weeks after we came to office that we were faced with the very real threat of foot and mouth disease being literally on our doorstep in Indonesia and lumpy skin disease as well. Two diseases which could be absolutely devastating to our livestock industry if they entered the country, with estimates of it potentially costing about $80 billion in lost exports and lost production. So that’s why we’ve acted really strongly throughout this term to invest more in biosecurity and more in traceability. And today’s grants, of course, now build on that previous work.

For those who don’t know what traceability is about, as the name suggests, it’s about electronic and other systems being installed so that farmers, processors, the whole industry supply chain can trace where particular products have come from, potentially even down to the individual farm that they have come from. This is becoming a more important issue for our trade, for our biosecurity and for the industry as a whole.

And even this morning I participated in a seminar here talking about the future trade opportunities that we have in the beef industry. And one of the key issues that people were talking about was that these days our international markets and domestic consumers want to know where their food came from and what the sort of circumstances it was produced in. People want to know that food is being produced in a more sustainable manner, that animal welfare is being respected and all sorts of other things that they want to know when they’re coming to buy their steaks, their lamb chops and their other food. And traceability systems provide that opportunity to be able to trace - literally down to the farm level - where a particular product has come from and how it’s been produced.

It's also, as I say, incredibly important from a biosecurity perspective that we have strong traceability systems. If we were to have an outbreak of a serious animal disease like foot and mouth disease, lumpy skin disease or anything else, what we want to be able to do is as quickly as possible identify where that disease has come from so that particular work can be put into that region to lock things down and get on top of a disease outbreak before it spreads to the rest of the country.

So traceability is a vital tool for our farmers and our whole agriculture sector, for biosecurity reasons, for our trade opportunities, and the Albanese Government is demonstrating yet again that we are backing our agriculture sector with real dollars through today’s grant announcement. We’ll be opening applications for these grants soon, and people will be able to get anywhere between about $50,000 and $500,000 to install these systems on farm, in processing sheds and other parts of the supply chain. So this is more good news for our farmers and our agriculture sector here at Beef.

I’ll hand over to Madeleine King to talk to you about another announcement the Albanese Government is making today, and then we’ve got some people from the industry available to talk to you some more about the traceability systems. Thanks very much.

MADELEINE KING, MINISTER FOR RESOURCES: Thanks very much, Murray. It’s wonderful to be here in Rocky in Central Queensland, and I know we’re at Beef ‘24, but I’m just going to have a quick chat about a really important announcement in the resources sector that the Prime Minister made earlier today in Western Australia. So this is two great resources states that will benefit – Queensland and Western Australia – from a really significant announcement that will see half a billion dollars go to Geoscience Australia to make sure they are enabled to map what Australia is made of. This is a critical funding boost for Geoscience Australia so that they can get their geoscientists and physicists and all exploring the work that they do to make sure they can find more deposits of critical mineral and rare earths right across the country. And for Queensland, in particular, that is vitally important so we can have new resources projects that drive economic development and jobs right across the region.

What this work will also do, which is really important to the farmers of Queensland, is map the ground water right across the country. And so we know how important ground water is for the beef industry, but also for the wider agriculture industry. And this is a once-in-a-lifetime project that Geoscience will embark on, and it’s supported only by the Albanese Labor Government. And I’m super proud of this announcement, and I want to thank all those at Geoscience Australia that have worked really hard on this initiative. It’s a great national scientific institution that works for the benefit of the agricultural sector but also the resources sector right here in Queensland and, of course, right across the country.

I’ll hand back to Murray now. Thank you very much.

MURRAY WATT: Thanks, Madeleine. That is really terrific news for another pillar industry here in Queensland, being our resources sector. I’d now like to introduce, first of all, Cara from CQU, our local university here in Rockhampton. And then Darren from Smart Paddock. Both of them have been heavily involved in researching and applying traceability systems, and they’ll be able to talk to you a little bit more about what this investment that we’re announcing today will mean for farmers and the whole supply chain. And we’re obviously happy to take questions after that. So Cara, over to you.

DR CARA WILSON, CQU RESEARCHER: Thank you, Minister. So my name is Dr Cara Wilson, I’m a researcher with CQU’s precision livestock management team. Through the sensor-based traceability project which is just wrapping up now, we deployed about 88 Smart Paddock collars on cattle across three trial deployments, one of which was on a large commercial beef property. We tracked cattle from paddock through to processing and compared that on-animal sensor data from the paddock with carcass feedback data. We were able to look at behaviours that could indicate stress that could lead to poor meat quality outcomes at processing. We also identified some key behavioural insights which could actually help improve livestock transport through the value chain or enable producers to identify and treat sick animals rapidly, which is important for disease outbreaks in the future - hopefully they don’t happen.
So one of the key outcomes from this project was that these insights that we were gaining from these technologies are impossible to see without this technology. So some of the insights that we’re actually sharing with producers, tech developers and processors this week, these were developed as part of the project. They’re available at the CQU stand. They demonstrate how these stakeholders can take advantage of these emerging technologies to improve management and productivity of livestock and help support the red meat sector transform in the future.

I’ll just hand over to Darren to speak more about his technology. Thank you.

DARREN WOLCHYN: Thanks, Cara. Thanks, really appreciate that. My name is Darren Wolchyn, and I’m the CEO and Founder of Smart Paddock. So we were very fortunate to provide some of the technology that CQU used to track and monitor animals. We provide research-level GPS collars and ear tags to cattle producers. So if you want to learn a little bit more about what we do and how we track and help farmers, you can come and visit us down at the tech yards here at the Beef Australia this week. Thank you very much.

MURRAY WATT: Great, we’re all happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: I have a question about the tagging or the traceability. Just noting that I’m from the city, so –

SPEAKER: That’s going on the transcript!

JOURNALIST: How will this help in terms of cattle duffing? Like, will they be easier to find your cattle if they get stolen?

DARREN WOLCHYN: I can take that, I get that question all the time. So basically a lot of our customers are – a lot of our producers are people that have theft, and theft is still a major issue in this industry. So with our technology you can get alerted very quickly if the animals start to leave your property. So definitely that is a big issue and it’s still – and we can help that by doing the GPS tracking and alerting you on mobile phone.

JOURNALIST: So this is like Find my iPhone but for cattle?

[laughter]

DARREN WOLCHYN: A hundred per cent. A hundred per cent. So we have a mobile phone app. You can get alerted as soon as the animal leaves your property. And actually, we’re doing work on theft detection around looking at mob behaviour at night. So if you get some strange mob behaviour at night, this could be, like, an animal attack or it could be a theft issue. Thank you.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, I just have a couple of questions, too, just about how it will practically work for farmers. So minimum 50 grand?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah.

JOURNALIST: And is there a contribution by the farmers to match that?

MURRAY WATT: Generally speaking we will be looking for farmers to make a co-contribution. And my experience is that they’ve been very willing to do so. People in my experience have been happy to contribute as long as there is some government funding coming along as well. And I think the fact that government is prepared to put money forward shows that this is something we think is a priority for the agriculture sector, and we’re not going to make farmers do these things on their own. We’re prepared to put money up to help support that.

JOURNALIST: And what exactly will they be able to spend that money on? So will there be, like, a list of approved things they can purchase?

MURRAY WATT: Yes.

JOURNALIST: Or what they can actually spend it on?

MURRAY WATT: So the final details of the program are still being finalised. But what we expect the money to be used for, in some cases it will be about applying existing technology, like we’ve heard of today, to an on-farm level or into processing sheds. In other circumstances the money will be available to do more research, to keep refining the kind of technology and make it cheaper and more widely available. In some cases the money will be available for better education systems to keep explaining to farmers in the sector why this is important and why people should get on board, not just with these grants but all of the other investments that we’ve made in traceability. The biggest investment that we’ve made so far in traceability is through providing a new and improved national database that all of this information can be shared into that, again, allows us in a biosecurity outbreak situation to very quickly identify the source of these kind of outbreaks. So this is the latest in a range of investments that we’re making in this space.

JOURNALIST: So was that an announcement about funding for an NLIS upgrade?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, so that was the announcement we actually made in our first Budget in October last year - so that’s not a new announcement. Today’s announcement is new, but it builds on all of that other investment.

JOURNALIST: OK, thank you.

JOURNALIST: And for farmers, maybe if we get Cara back up? For farmers, obviously diseases like foot and mouth are quite detrimental to the livestock. Could you just describe that impact, that if, you know, something like that did cross the border, what could we be facing?

CARA WILSON: If something like foot and mouth disease crossed into Australia, we would have severe impacts on the industry and the wider community. So with these technologies we’re hoping that they will be able to help us respond faster to these diseases, get on top of them sooner, so that we can reduce those impacts to producers and the industry as a whole, as well as the wider community.

JOURNALIST: And what sorts of impacts would it bring?

CARA WILSON: Economic impacts, social impacts. It would be – as we’ve seen in the UK in the past, those impacts are majorly detrimental for everyone emotionally and economically. And so we really want to limit that and prevent it as much as possible.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, one last question: the NLIS system has obviously been in place for quite a while. Do you – this is probably a question for Murray – do you foresee everyone moving towards this improved system, and in what kind of time frame?

MURRAY WATT: Sure. Really today’s grants are about allowing people to participate more in the broader traceability system that we’re putting in place, including through the NLIS system that you’re referring to. I think it’s likely that the NLIS system will remain the foundation, if you like, of our traceability systems. It’s very widely accepted by industry and government, very well supported by industry and government financially. But all of these kind of grants like what we’re announcing today enable more people to improve their own technology on farm, in processing sheds to be able to participate in NLIS going forward.

I might just add something on what the impact would be about FMD? One of the reasons we acted so quickly with industry when the threat of FMD arose just after we got elected was that if we were to have FMD or if we were to have foot and mouth disease enter Australia, it would shut down our exports of livestock and meat produced here in Australia overnight. And it’s been estimated that that would cost the Australian economy $80 billion if that were to happen.

There is a huge amount riding on getting our biosecurity systems stronger, improving our traceability, and it’s one of the reasons why we are now delivering record investment – more than any government ever before in Australia – in biosecurity. There is too much on the line economically, and as Cara mentioned, it would have a devastating social effect on rural communities as well. If you lost that kind of income, the spillover effects to the fertiliser shops, the tractor supply shops, right through rural communities, it would be devastating. And it’s why we need to increase that investment and do things like we’re announcing today.

JOURNALIST: Minister, just on other matters, in The Australian today an SEC Newgate poll found that public support for climate action and renewables is sliding. Has the Federal Government done enough to take Australians on the journey to the transition?

MURRAY WATT: Look, I think it’s not surprising that at a time of real cost of living pressures for Australians that other issues are sort of receding a little bit in importance in the public mind. Everyone acknowledges that the number one issue all Australians are thinking about at the moment is cost of living pressures. And that’s why it’s the number one priority for the Albanese Government as well. But most polls that I’ve seen indicate that there is very strong support still in the Australian community for our renewable energy plans, for reaching 80 per cent – 82 per cent renewables by 2030. People are gaining understanding that this is the best way to have cheaper, cleaner energy supplies into the future. But, as I say, I think most of what that’s about is what cost of living pressures being really intense for people.

JOURNALIST: The same poll shows that support for the Queensland Government’s performance has dropped to 32. It’s not the first poll to show that the Miles Government is on track to lose in October. Are you concerned – well, what does that mean for Federal Labor if the Queensland Government, which is a Labor government, were to fall?

MURRAY WATT: Well, Steven Miles, the Queensland Premier, has himself acknowledged that it is real uphill battle for the Queensland Government to win the next election. And they’ve got their work ahead of them, but I know they’re working incredibly hard. They’ve had Cabinet meet here this week and again a great demonstration of support for Queensland and regional Queensland through the Miles Government. I’m going to be working really hard myself as a Queenslander to make sure that they’re elected because there is a lot at stake in the next Queensland election. David Crisafulli and the LNP have said very little about what their plans are for Queensland. We know that cutting public services is in the DNA of the Queensland LNP. It’s what they’ve done every single time they’ve come to office – cut hospital services, especially in the regions, cut school funding, cut road funding. That’s what they do. And I think regional Queenslanders, in particular, depend on really strong public services – health care, education services, roads. And if you look at the record, you’ll see that it’s always Labor governments who have delivered those things and it’s always LNP governments that have cut those things.

JOURNALIST: The Australian reported on the weekend that you or you/your office raised the Glencore Great Artesian Basin issue with Minister Plibersek. Are you aware of what scope there may be federally to reconsider the project?

MURRAY WATT: Well, all of that – those issues are being considered at the moment. And obviously I need to be careful what I say given that there is a court challenge underway. But as the Federal Agriculture Minister, of course I’m concerned about the potential impact of a CCS project on the Great Artesian Basin. And what I said on the weekend and I stand by is that any decisions to approve these sorts of resource projects have obviously got to be based on the science and they’ve got to have consideration for the impact on agricultural land.

I think some questions – there are some real questions for the federal Opposition to answer on this. And I know a number of them are here at Beef Week parading their support for farmers in the beef industry. It was Sussan Ley, the now Deputy Liberal Leader as the then federal Environment Minister who decided that the Glencore project did not have to be regulated by the Federal Government under Federal environmental legislation. And you know what? All those National Party members and ministers who like to put their big hats on and like to wander around telling farmers that they’re on their side, not one of those National Party ministers objected to Sussan Ley’s decision when she asked them for their decision. So I think there’s some real questions for some of those former ministers who are here in the crowd today who made an active decision to not involve the Federal Government and stop that project going ahead and to not even speak up on behalf of farmers. They’re trying to walk it back a million miles an hour now and pretend they were never in favour of it. They were in government and they allowed this to go ahead. So they’ve got some questions to answer about that.

JOURNALIST: Are you aware of how much your government or the previous government provided in funding to Glencore for this project?

MURRAY WATT: I don’t have those sort of figures, no. And if anything was done in that regard, I would suspect that’s a question, again, for the former government.

JOURNALIST: I have two questions.

MURRAY WATT: Sure.

JOURNALIST: I know we’re going back to the bio-tax and you’ve kind of covered that already. But the National Farmers Federation is holding a rally campaigning for the Government to scrap the tax. Do you believe the Government has made the right decision implementing this tax knowing the negative impacts on farmers?

MURRAY WATT: Obviously people are – it’s a democracy; people are allowed to protest and have their say on any issue whatsoever. And as I made this point yesterday – and I’ve referred already to the importance of strong biosecurity – we cannot let these sorts of diseases into our country because of the effect it would have on our agriculture sector and rural Australia. Every year our incredible biosecurity officers are intercepting roughly 400,000 items that are biosecurity risks, in our mail, on airline passengers, through our ports. That takes a huge amount of work, and it’s got to be paid for. And that’s why in last year’s Budget we significantly increased taxpayer funding for biosecurity - something the former Coalition Government never agreed to do. We’ve increased fees and charges on importers to make sure they’re paying their fair share to protect ourselves from risk - something the former Coalition Government never did. And we did ask producers to pay a very small fee towards protecting the livelihoods through stronger biosecurity.

Now, I gave you some figures yesterday, and I can give you a couple more – bananas, another great crop here in Queensland. Panama disease, a really big threat to our banana industry. Our biosecurity levy, we would be asking banana farmers to pay one-tenth of a cent per kilogram of bananas. Now, I think that’s a pretty small investment to ask farmers to make to protect their livelihoods. We’ve run the figures again overnight around cattle. It’s actually even less than what I said yesterday. On average we’re talking about 50 cents a head of cattle to protect the cattle industry from an $80 billion loss for foot and mouth disease if it entered the country. I genuinely think these are very small investments for farmers to pay to protect their livelihoods and don’t come close to matching what taxpayers are putting in and what importers are putting in.

JOURNALIST: And I’ve just got another one change to the subject. Veterinarians say it’s been a slap in the face that they haven’t been included in the Commonwealth’s Prac Payments. What’s your response to that?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, look, we acknowledge that there are workforce shortages in almost every sector of the Australian economy at the moment. And that’s a result of 10 years of underinvestment in our skills and training system by the Coalition, and it’s also a result of the impact we saw through Covid where borders were closed for a period of time. So those kind of shortages are in place across industries, and it’s why we’re so significantly increasing funding for skills and training under the Albanese Government. The particular sectors that we’re offering that payment for through a Prac - things like nursing, teaching, social work - those were the sectors that were actually recommended for that payment by the universities review that Jason Clare led. So that’s where we’re focusing our efforts. But, of course we’re going to be putting more funding into veterinary courses, into every other form of skill shortage that we see here across the country.

JOURNALIST: Sorry, one last thing: how is it being funded? Will this be funded by the biosecurity levy?

MURRAY WATT: How is what being funded?

JOURNALIST: Sorry, the traceability?

MURRAY WATT: No, no. This again is another taxpayer investment. The biosecurity levy will be one of the ways that we are funding things like our detector dogs, our biosecurity officers at our airports, our general biosecurity operations that try to keep things out. But the traceability investment is coming from consolidated revenue. Okay.