Interview with Jaynie Seal, Sky News

11 May 2023


SUBJECTS: Federal Budget; bulk-billing GPs; Australia’s sustainable biosecurity funding

JAYNIE SEAL, HOST: Well joining me live now is Senator Murray Watt, Agriculture Minister as well. Senator, thank you very much for joining us. Again, we appreciate your time, such a busy schedule for you. The Federal Budget, Anthony Albanese describing it as responsible. What's your take on it?

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: Yeah I think that's right, Jaynie. I mean, what we've obviously tried to do is balance a number of things. It does look like we're on track to achieve the first budget surplus in Australia for 15 years, which is a pretty remarkable achievement given the state of the economy. But at the same time, we're obviously delivering really substantial cost of living relief to low- and middle-income earners, including in regional Australia. Particularly, I think, the bulk billing incentives will make a really big difference in regional Australia. Wherever I am in regional Australia, and particularly in my home state of Queensland, I know how hard it is for people to find a doctor's appointment, let alone a bulk billed one, so that'll make a really big difference in our regions. And, of course, there's some really big investments in my portfolios of agriculture and emergency management as well.

JAYNIE SEAL: What about the biosecurity announcement? $1.03 billion, a long-term sustainable funding to support a strong biosecurity system. I just spoke to Dugald Saunders, in fact, who said that you and Dugald have had previous meetings, including more funding.

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, that's right. I got to know Dugald when he was the Agriculture Minister in New South Wales and we had a very good relationship, even though, you know, we're on opposite sides of politics. And I think all the state and territory ministers, along with all farmers and rural communities, understand exactly how important it is that we lift our biosecurity protections in this country. Last year we saw that foot and mouth disease scare and lumpy skin disease in Indonesia, and those threats haven't gone away. And in fact, the threats that we face at our borders from pests and diseases just keep on growing. So, that's why my main mission heading into this Budget as the Agriculture Minister was to put our biosecurity system on a sustainable funding path. The budget we inherited from our predecessors actually would have seen biosecurity funding fall by nearly 20 percent and that's just the wrong time to be thinking about cutting budget biosecurity funding. So what we've been able to do in this budget by investing more than a billion dollars extra in biosecurity over the next four years is that we've actually got to a point where there's now a permanent base funding for biosecurity each and every year rather than having to go back to the budget every year to try to get a little bit more and a little bit more. That's the system that the former Government used. Basically they used to just top up biosecurity funding with an extra year or an extra couple of years, but there was never any certain path for our biosecurity funding and that's what we've been able to achieve in this budget. It's the first time in this country's history that we've had a sustainable biosecurity funding system and it's something that the National Farmers’ Federation and most of the producer groups have been calling for for a very long time.

JAYNIE SEAL: And Senator, Dugald Sanders was welcoming this secure biosecurity announcement as well. And again, he said he did work well with you. However one of the main things that he did bring forward this morning was the plan to tax farmers and he mentioned that perhaps there were better ways than taxing farmers with this biosecurity announcement. What can you say to that?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah well, what we've tried to do in generating the funding for this is make sure that we are putting in substantial extra funding from government. And what that means is taxpayers, which we are doing, but we're also trying to spread the cost of increasing biosecurity costs across pretty much everyone who's got a stake in this.
So the system that we've ended up with will see farmers pay a small extra levy in addition to the levies that they already pay to research and development corporations for marketing and research and development. But the end result is that farmers, through those levies, will only end up paying 6 percent of the total cost of our biosecurity system. I think that's a fair contribution given that farmers obviously are big beneficiaries of our biosecurity system.
 But we are making sure that everyone as taxpayers is contributing to this, as well as importers who will be facing more fees and charges to finally pay the fair cost and the right cost of biosecurity services they receive. And there's a small increase to airfares, essentially, for people who are travelling overseas, because of course, people coming through our airports is a risk in terms of biosecurity as well.
That levy is a very small amount. And to give you one example, for instance, for an apple grower, it will mean they pay an extra one fifth of a cent per kilogram of apples and it's a similar sort of size levy across every other commodity. So, as I say, we think that it's important that the responsibility for biosecurity is shared. And we think that's a pretty modest ask on farmers considering the extra charges that we are imposing on importers and others as well.

JAYNIE SEAL: And finally, correct me if I'm wrong, Senator, but Australia has an excellent reputation in terms of our biosecurity. Can you tell our viewers just how important biosecurity is?

MURRAY WATT: It's absolutely critical. And you're right, Jaynie, we do have a good reputation for biosecurity. And I suppose we're blessed to live in an island nation where there's some degree of security from pests and diseases that we see rampaging across the world. But the issue is that, to take one example, if foot and mouth disease were to get in this country, that would wipe out our livestock industry tens of billions of dollars of production, of exports, of jobs, the whole supply chain across regional rural Australia. So we cannot afford to be complacent, even though we've managed to keep diseases like that out. And this extra funding will provide that extra layer of protection for our agriculture industry and for all of our regional and rural communities.

JAYNIE SEAL: Senator Murray Watt, thank you so much for your time today.

MURRAY WATT: Good to talk to you, Jaynie.