Interview with Aaron Stevens, 4RO Rockhampton

SUBJECTS: National Drought Forum; Drought preparedness
Over the last couple of days, there's been a drought forum held in Rockhampton. So what did it achieve and what will we see happen out of that forum? Let's catch up with Senator Murray Watt, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Good morning, do you trip over that? It's a mouthful!
MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: It's a bit long, Aaron, isn't it?  Maybe we need it shortened up a bit, make it a bit easier for us all.
AARON STEVENS: Yeah take one out! Murray, what did you take out of that forum for the last couple of days, do you feel that it was effective?
MURRAY WATT: Yeah absolutely, Aaron. And when we spoke up on Tuesday morning, when the summit was starting at the Rocky Leagues Club, I mentioned to you we had about 180 different people from around the country descend on Rockhampton, which is a good thing to start with. It had everyone from farm sector leaders to bankers to community groups to financial counsellors and government reps.
What we've basically done is just do a lot of listening to people about what we can do to improve the way both governments and farmers and rural communities prepare for drought. I guess what we know is that the best time to be getting ready for the next drought is before it actually starts. You don't want to be scrambling once the drought has started without a plan. Although we've got policies in place and plans for the future, they can always be sharpened.
I think the main things that came out of it were some really good ideas about how we can be working with farmers to improve the drought resilience of their properties and their climate resilience. It's a bit frightening actually, some of the figures we've got from the Federal Department of Agriculture show that climate change is already impacting on the profits of farmers. And of course, if that doesn't change then it's only going to get worse. So we can be doing things like helping them plant different types of grasses as feed for livestock. There's things that they can be doing to improve their water retention on properties, improve their soil health so that they can retain more moisture. So there's all those sort of practical things.
But also, I think the other thing we need to remember about drought is it's not just about the impact on farms. You know, it can have a terrible impact on communities as a whole because   especially in places like Central Queensland - agriculture really underpins a lot of the economy. It's all the shops, it's the maintenance firms, it's the suppliers. And making sure that we're dealing with the social consequences of drought ,and having financial counselling available for people and other forms of support is really important too.
So yeah, it was a really good couple of days with lots of good ideas coming forward. As a Government, we'll now take them on board and think about how we can improve what we're offering for Central Queensland and the whole country when it comes to drought.
AARON STEVENS: Well there's no question it's timely because we're coming into a dry period and it's been dry enough as it is, and we know that plenty of farmers are suffering already. Were there discussions around the next year or so?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, absolutely. And we had a really good presentation from the Bureau of Meteorology just so everyone's clear about what kind of conditions we are facing. I think by now most people know that we are entering   I mean an El Niño has been declared and also what's known as a positive Indian Ocean Dipole, and when you have those two things coming together it actually does significantly increase the risk of drought and potentially it being a longer drought. So already actually - it's under 10 percent of Queensland - but there are a couple of shires out west in Queensland that are already drought declared. What we need to do is make sure that we're as ready as possible for when that spreads to other parts of the country.
So yeah, look, there's no doubt we're entering more difficult weather conditions. We've obviously come out of a couple of years of very heavily rainfall and flooding through La Niña. I guess the upside of that is that many of our dams and water catchments around the country have still got quite a lot of water in them, but as things dry out it's going to become difficult for people. So better to be prepared. That's always my view on these things.
AARON STEVENS: Was water management discussed?
MURRAY WATT: Yeah. Obviously if you're going to be talking about drought, you're always going to have a discussion about water management. One of the things I guess I've learned in this role, Aaron, is that a lot of the thinking around water management is sort of changing, whether it be farmers or others as well. You know, there's always going to be a place for big dams in terms of water management but there's some really great stuff happening on-farm these days as well to preserve water. A lot more effort going into water efficiency, both in terms of irrigation systems but also people are sort of adopting new types of crops, new strains of crops, new types of pasture which are less water demanding. So that's another way that we're seeing farmers adapt to climate change to make sure that they're ready in the future and that's a great thing.
AARON STEVENS: Fine to have the discussion but we want results, where to from now?
MURRAY WATT: Yeah so basically, we had already begun work on the Australian Government's new national drought plan and that will be circulated for comment early in the next year. We're deep in negotiations with the States and Territories at the moment around the National Drought Agreement that we have with the States and Territories. One of the main things we want to do is better line up the kind of policies and programs that different levels of governments have got with drought. What you don't want to see is, you know, waste and duplication and things like that. All of that work that we're doing about that Drought Agreement, which will now be informed by what we've heard at the drought forum and hopefully we'll come up with much better plans and packages to deal with the next drought, whenever it arrives.
AARON STEVENS: Brilliant. Good to talk to you this morning. Thanks for hosting it here in Central Queensland. It sounds like it was a success, particularly with numbers.
MURRAY WATT: Definitely. And look, it was really important to me as a Queenslander, Aaron, to host this forum in Queensland. We've obviously got a lot of experience when it comes to drought and Central Queensland in particular. And whenever we've got an opportunity to bring a national event to Central Queensland, I reckon we should take the opportunity, so it was great to do it in Rocky.
AARON STEVENS: Well, you're always welcome and, you know, I've got the boss on just after eight o'clock, I'll say hi for you.
MURRAY WATT: Absolutely, mate, that'd be good. He's looking forward to it, I spoke to his office this morning.
AARON STEVENS: Fantastic. Senator Murray Watt, thanks for your time.
MURRAY WATT: Good on you, Aaron, see you mate.