Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News Afternoon Agenda


SUBJECTS: Biosecurity, disaster communications, live sheep exports

KIERAN GILBERT: Welcome back to the programme. Steeper fines and visa cancellations are being introduced as part of a suite of strengthened biosecurity measures. The crackdown follows international travellers being caught trying to bring meat and fruit products into the country. Let's go live to the Minister for Agriculture, Murray Watt. Thanks so much for your time. I also noticed today this report that suggests as a priority, the Government should create a situation where those that create biosecurity risks should fund its management. How would you go about doing that and do you agree?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, good to be with you Kieran. I thought that was a very interesting report that came out today, commissioned by the Invasive Species Council, and it actually repeated and confirmed some of the things that the Government has been saying lately around biosecurity. Your viewers would know that we've been facing a lot more biosecurity risks as a country and they continue to grow. As you mentioned, we've recently had to cancel visas and impose fines of nearly $3,500 on a couple of different travellers who've tried to come through our airports with meat and fruit products, which are potentially dangerous. We've got big backlogs of cars that are contaminated, so the risks keep growing and the costs of providing biosecurity services keep going up.

Now, we went to the election committing to introduce a sustainable biosecurity funding model, which Australia has never had and groups like the NFF have been calling for for a very long time. But what we've really also got to think about is how do we pay for these services? And the report that came out today essentially said that we do need to be calling on people who create the risks of biosecurity, whether that be travellers coming through airports, importers, bringing potential risks through containers and things like that, that they need to pay their fair share, as do people who benefit from the biosecurity system. And really, only after that should we be looking to government to top up that funding. So, I thought that was a really important contribution that was made by an independent group who knows a lot about biosecurity. We'll certainly take that into account in our thinking.

KIERAN GILBERT: Well, one of the things I know that's also been, and you alluded to it in that answer there, that sustainable funding base, because for biosecurity, it's not an optional extra in this country, is it? It's a pivotal part of our supports for not just agriculture, but more broadly, our national economy.

MURRAY WATT: Absolutely Kieran, and I think all Australians got a big wake-up call last year when we saw foot and mouth disease and another disease that affects cattle called lumpy skin disease, not just get into Indonesia, but then spread to Bali. And I remember that it was about week five in the job and really, that became a barbecue stopper conversation for people around Australia. It would have a massive impact on our agriculture sector if we saw those sorts of diseases come into our country. Agriculture these days is a $90 billion industry in our country, and obviously it's the backbone of many rural and regional communities, as well as right through the supply chain. But it goes beyond agriculture. I mean, we can see biosecurity risks now wreaking havoc on our natural environment. So, it's something I think, that all Australians have got an interest in solving. And that's why solving it and funding it is a really shared responsibility.

KIERAN GILBERT: You were part of the announcement yesterday on this early warning system for natural disasters. So much of it has depended upon the Telco or the Telecommunications infrastructure. How is this going to be different going forward? How will you ensure people that are in danger know about it?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I think yesterday's announcement that I made with Michelle Rowland as the Communications Minister, I think was a really important step forward for making sure that Australians and our first responders get very quick, detailed information about emergency situations that they're in. Now, unfortunately, these things were projects that were stalled under the former government, but we've brought them onto the front burner rather than the back burner. And what we announced yesterday was two things. Funding in the Budget to create what will be known as a National Messaging System. And what that will do is mean that no matter where you are in the country, and no matter what mobile phone provider you use, you will get emergency messages instantly from approved government sources to give you notification. I've been to so many disaster zones, Kieran, where one of the biggest complaints is that people don't get enough warning time to be able to evacuate or make themselves and their family's safety. And this messaging system will go a long way to giving people what they need, because in a disaster, every minute counts. So, the faster we can get those warnings to people, the more safe they'll be.

KIERAN GILBERT: Yep, so true, on many different areas and possible disasters, fires, floods or whatever else. Let's wrap up. I want to ask you about this story as well, back to agriculture. You've appointed a four-person panel to consult with farmers on your commitment, your government's commitment to phase out live sheep exports. What do you want to hear from that panel? And is there any chance the Government might shift its position or change its view when it comes to scrapping the live sheep export markets?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, look, I've been very clear from day one in the job, Kieran, that it's my intention to honour the election commitment that we made, not just at this election, but the previous election as well, that a Labor Government would phase out live sheep exports. There is widespread concern in the Australian community around the animal welfare issues associated with this trade that go back a significant period of time. But what we also said is that we do want to consult the wider community, and particularly farming communities about how and when we should implement this commitment. We haven't made any decisions about the time period that it will be implemented, we haven't made any decisions about how it will be implemented, what kind of support will be provided to the industry. And that's why we've appointed that panel to undertake consultation.

They've so far been travelling around regional WA because these days, Western Australia is the only state in the country that does export sheep, live sheep by sea. It's ended in every other state in the country, and it's actually a relatively small part of Western Australia's agricultural production as well. These days, live sheep exports are less than 1 percent of Western Australia's agricultural exports and it's only around 10 or 15 percent of sheep in WA that are turned off and taken for live export. But we know that it will still have a significant impact on some communities and many farmers, and that's why we want to respectfully consult people about how and when we implement the commitment.

KIERAN GILBERT: Minister for Agriculture and Emergency Management, Murray Watt. Thanks, talk to you soon.

MURRAY WATT: Good to talk Kieran.