Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News Afternoon Agenda


SUBJECTS: EU trade talks, national emergency management stockpile, Hamas-Israel conflict

KIERAN GILBERT, HOST: Now back to one of our earlier stories, the trade talks between the EU and Australia has collapsed. The EU accusing our government of re-tabling demands on agricultural exports at the last minute, derailing the negotiations. Claims that the Albanese Government say are untrue. I spoke to the Agriculture Minister, Murray Watt, a short time ago.

Minister for Agriculture and Emergency Management, Murray Watt, thanks for your time. A spokesperson for the EU executive has said that while there was progress made on the EU free trade talks up until the Ministerial meeting, that the Australian side re-tabled some agricultural demands which weren't consistent with the previous talks by the officials. What do you say to that?

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: Yeah well, that's absolutely not correct, and it's disappointing that the European Union would be putting that around. The offer that Don Farrell had and put on the table is exactly what we've been flagging to the EU over the last three months. You'll remember that about three months ago, Don walked away - rightly - from the last round of negotiations because the deal that the EU was offering wasn't good enough. And unfortunately, what's happened here is that the EU have barely budged from a deal that we told them three months ago wasn't acceptable.

So we've made clear from the very beginning that we wanted to do a deal with the EU. We can see value in getting more access to such a large, high value market, but we're not going to do it at any price. And the last thing we were prepared to do was to sell out Aussie farmers just for the sake of a deal, and that's what signing up to that deal would have involved.

KIERAN GILBERT: So despite that claim by the EU of a late game-changer, there wasn't. Was it fundamentally just that they weren't going to budge, reducing tariffs for agriculture?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah that's exactly right. It's partly about tariffs and partly about the volume of exports that they would accept from us for things like beef, sheep, sugar, dairy - the terms of those exports. And obviously in return for any concessions we're prepared to make as part of an agreement, you need to see concessions on the other side. And the volume of exports that they were willing to receive, and the terms of those, just wasn't good enough for us to be able to put our hands on our heart and say it was in Australia's interest.

KIERAN GILBERT: Did you think that they would have gone further, given Australia's burgeoning role in, say, the critical mineral space?

MURRAY WATT: We certainly hoped that when you put the entire deal together and the different things that it would cover, that the EU would see value in striking that deal. And it's disappointing that they haven't been willing to budge on some of those issues. I mean, it's also important from a strategic point of view. You know, we live in an uncertain world and it is important for like-minded countries to have deep trading relationships. And this would have been an opportunity to get there. But it takes two to reach an agreement and the EU just were not prepared to budge.

KIERAN GILBERT: On other matters, your responsibility responding to the emergencies and the bushfires that have been burning in Queensland and the Western Downs. What government support is going out?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah well over the last few days, we've already activated joint support between the Federal and Queensland Governments for things like immediate emergency relief, small payments to just get people back with food and drinking water and all those sorts of things.

But today we've also activated the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment. That's the one that involves a $1000 payment to each adult and a $400 payment to each child, where you're talking about serious loss and damage. So those payments will be available tomorrow from 2pm through the Services Australia website or myGov. And I'd encourage people to be involved, but obviously, as this rolls on, if further support is necessary, then we'd, of course, work with the Queensland Government to provide it.

KIERAN GILBERT: We're into that fire season. You've also announced a disaster stockpile. How's that going to work, particularly in terms of accommodation?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah for sure. So, this is obviously the next step in our plan to make sure that we're much more disaster-ready as a country. We've obviously done a lot in that space since coming to power and this is the next thing. So yesterday in Adelaide, I announced the beginnings of a new National Emergency Management Stockpile. Australia has never had one of those. So what normally happens in a disaster situation is that states and territories often have to scramble to get temporary accommodation, water purification equipment and things like that. And we haven't had a national stockpile to be able to help them out, but now we will. So yesterday was the beginning of it, with temporary accommodation - emergency accommodation.

We've contracted Humanihut, a great South Australian based company, and what that means is that by the 30 June next year, we'll have temporary accommodation for up to 700 people. Or 1400 Emergency Services workers if they're needed to be moved in and around as well. So really, that will go a long way to helping the states and territories cope with the aftermath of disasters.

KIERAN GILBERT: On the final matter, the Middle East and the debate locally about it, Tony Burke made a significant intervention at the end of last week. Peter Dutton, on our program yesterday, said that Tony Burke ‘to his great shame’ is playing to his constituency within his own electorate, when he should be acting in the national interest. Are the breakouts from Cabinet undermining the Government's unity of message?

MURRAY WATT: No, I don't think they are. I mean, from the very beginning, whether it be the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister or other Ministers, we have all absolutely condemned Hamas for the abhorrent attacks that undertook on Israel. We've always said that Israel has a right to defend itself, but that the way they do that matters. And a loss of an Israeli life is a terrible thing. A loss of a Palestinian life is a terrible thing. I think, unfortunately, Peter Dutton just tries to divide the Australian community and seek division, no matter what the topic, and he's now up to it with a conflict that's already cost thousands of lives. And I think that says more about Peter Dutton and his character than it does about anyone else.

KIERAN GILBERT: It's a diabolical issue at so many levels. But you look at the abstention the Government undertook at the UN on that truce. Australia abstained. You've copped flak from the Greens and others for not voting with the truce and you've copped flak from Peter Dutton – Coalition - because you abstained you should have supported Israel and the United States. Are you on the fence?

MURRAY WATT: No, I don't think we are. What we're doing is trying to maintain consistency with that bipartisan motion that Peter Dutton helped back here in the Australian Parliament, which did condemn Hamas, which did recognise Israel's right to exist, but also recognised that we need to apply international law. So we're maintaining that position. We maintained it at the UN over the weekend. As I understand it, Australia sought to move an amendment which would have condemned Hamas and that was rejected. So in that situation, we weren't prepared to back in the resolution.

KIERAN GILBERT: Minister Murray Watt, thanks for your time.

MURRAY WATT: Thanks Kieran.