Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News Newsday

Subjects: ex-Tropical Cyclone Kirrily, Queensland disaster assistance and live animal exports.

KIERAN GILBERT: Let's go live now to the Minister for Emergency Management and Agriculture, Murray Watt. He joins me from North West Queensland. Minister, thanks for your time. Ex-Tropical Cyclone Kirrily is continuing to pack a punch as it has slowly moved across northern Australia.

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, that's right, Kieran, I'm joining you today from Cloncurry, which is about an hour out of Mount Isa and this whole region has had a large amount of rain over recent days. I guess that's one of the things that's really characterised these cyclones we've been dealing with in Queensland this year, is that it hasn't just been the cyclones hitting that have caused the damage, it's the rain they've brought afterwards. We saw that in Far North Queensland after tropical Cyclone Jasper and now we've seen it in North West Queensland when it comes to tropical Cyclone Kirrily.

So, I've been meeting with some graziers this morning who've had more rain than they've ever seen before. There was one bloke I was talking to who basically had had two years’ worth of rain in one day, 650 millimetres. That is an enormous amount of rain for this part of Australia and not surprisingly, it's led to a lot of properties being cut off and roads being cut off. So, it'll be really important today to spend the day inspecting the damage and getting a feel for what support people need.

KIERAN GILBERT: And late yesterday, I know that you and the state government initiated that initial emergency financial support for people affected, so they can get that via the federal government, those initial dollars, if they need it, to keep themselves afloat. The other issue is, though, as you alluded to, the damage to roads and infrastructure, that could be a much more expensive proposition.

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, that's right, Kieran. And again, that's certainly been the experience in Far North Queensland and in floods we've seen in North West Queensland in the past. You're right. Yesterday afternoon we did activate with the Queensland government what's really immediate financial assistance for people in North West Queensland who've suffered damage. Obviously, this is a part of the world where you don't have a lot of big towns. It's more very well spread out properties. So, particular parts of shires have been activated for that personal assistance. But also importantly, we've agreed to jointly fund councils to undertake repairs to local roads and bridges and there's going to be a lot of that. But I'd certainly expect in the weeks ahead, once we get a better feel for the damage that you can see on your screen right now to major highways, rail lines, it's likely there's going to be more cost.

I think one of the other things that we are trying to do increasingly, ever since we became the government, is invest with state governments in what's known as betterment. What we want to do is not just prepare things to the same standard they were before a flood, but actually make them stronger for the future. And ironically, only a couple of weeks ago, I was in Townsville with Premier Steven Miles and we announced more than $100 million in betterment funding for roads and infrastructure in this very region and north Queensland generally. And that was for the floods that we saw here early last year. So, they're the kind of investments we'll be considering as we get a closer picture of what's going on.

KIERAN GILBERT: What advice are you getting on this other low off the coast that's being monitored? We've already had, as you said, Jasper, Kirrily. There's the risk of another one this season.

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I mean, this is the thing we need to remember is that in Queensland, really, cyclone season has only just started. It's normal in Queensland to be cyclones from about mid-January through to April, and Jasper was very unusual to reach the Queensland coastline before Christmas. That hasn't happened for a very long time with this particular system off the Queensland coast at the moment. The advice I received this morning was that there's still a pretty low chance that it'll ultimately become a cyclone. And for the moment, it's actually drifting offshore away from the mainland, which is obviously good news. But there is certainly a risk that it might turn around and come back by about mid next week. So, we'll obviously keep working very closely with the Queensland government to monitor that one.

KIERAN GILBERT: Yeah, indeed, as you say, the season still got a few months ahead of it. I want to take your attention to the other side of the country now, and that export ship, the MV Bahijah, it's got several thousand live cattle and sheep aboard. What's the latest in terms of the status of that ship and the condition of the animals on board, given WA is in the middle of a heat wave?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, it's obviously a very big concern, I think, for everyone involved, whether it be farmers or others who care about animal welfare in the community generally. One thing I do want to make really clear, Kieran, is that the decisions about the ship and what it does and where it goes and whether it can export and whether it can't, they are under the Australian law, they are decisions to be made exclusively by the Department of Agriculture. I have seen some people involved in this debate calling for me to personally intervene. It would actually be illegal for me to do so. And I don't know about you, but I don't think it's a great idea for Ministers to be breaking the law.

So, I know that the Department of Agriculture has been working very closely with the exporter now for a couple of weeks to try to work out a resolution. Ultimately, it is a commercial decision for the exporter as to what they want to do to deal with this situation. They do have to comply with Australian biosecurity laws, our animal welfare laws, and they're the kind of details that the department is working through with them at the moment. I understand the department does intend to say something more about this over the course of the day as things progress. But I can assure people that, I understand that people want to see this resolved as quickly as possible.

KIERAN GILBERT: Yeah, the RSPCA wants the animals removed.

MURRAY WATT: Yeah. Look, there are different views being expressed by different groups. The RSPCA would like to see all the animals offloaded. Some of the farmer groups and industry groups want to see the ship leave immediately. They're exactly the issues that the department is working through independently of Ministers or the government more generally. And it's important that they do that. It's important that they follow the law in how they do this. The department did arrange for two independent vets to go on board the vessel yesterday. The exporter had been assuring the department that the animals were in good condition, but the department thought it was important to make sure that that was checked independently and that did occur yesterday. And the advice the department received from the vets was that the animals, by and large, are in good condition. That's obviously important. I know the department is putting animal welfare as a priority in dealing with this issue. And as I say, I think the department understand that the community expects this to be resolved as quickly as possible.

KIERAN GILBERT: Murray Watt joining us live from Cloncurry, thanks for your time. Appreciate it.

MURRAY WATT: Thanks, Kieran.