Interview with Peter Stefanovic, Sky News First Edition

FRIDAY, 19 MAY 2023


PETER STEFANOVIC: Joining us live now the Agriculture Minister, Murray Watt. Minister, good to see you. Thanks for your time this Friday morning.

The Prime Minister, in a couple of minutes actually, he's about to head out for the G7. What would you expect to come out of that weekend?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, good morning Pete. I think it's a really good opportunity and great honour for Australia and the Prime Minister to be invited as what's called an outreach partner to the G7.

Obviously this is a meeting of the seven largest liberal democracy economies in the world, and while we're not quite that big, it's incredibly important that we have the opportunity to present our views on a whole bunch of issues that are affecting our region and the world. So, I'd expect the Prime Minister to be engaging in a range of conversations about security and trade issues.

Obviously as the Agriculture Minister, I'm particularly focussed on the trade benefits of these kinds of meetings, and I think that will present some really good opportunities to be able to work so closely with some really important trading partners.

PETER STEFANOVIC: Okay. Well, that leads us quite nicely to China. How relieved are you at the removal of the sanctions on Australian timber?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I think this is another really positive step forward in stabilising our trading relationship with China. Obviously our Government has put a lot of work into that since being elected nearly 12 months ago, and it's pleasing to see that work paying fruit.

So I think this is a real testament to the work of, whether it be the Prime Minister, Penny Wong as the Foreign Minister, Don Farrell, the Trade Minister, and importantly, I think the officials in departments like DFAT and the Agriculture Department who have been working incredibly hard behind the scenes over many months to get this re‑opened.

I mean obviously it's an important step forward. Before this suspension occurred nearly three years ago China was actually our largest export market for timber products. The timber trade was worth about $560 million to Australia at that time, and while, you know, we have been able to help diversify those markets for our timber exports, it hasn't been able to make up for the loss of the China market. So it's a really positive step.

PETER STEFANOVIC: Sure. I was wondering how counterproductive that might be though. I mean you just answered part of my question, because how much timber ‑ you know, is it wise to be sending so much timber to China when, don't we need it here to build homes and such things?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah. I mean, there certainly are timber shortages around the country, and we obviously need to make sure that we look after our national interest, but I think that for any product you want to make sure that you have a range of options in terms of how you sell it, and that's important for the timber industry to have that export opportunity. But we'll obviously be ensuring that we can do everything we possibly can to meet our timber shortage problems.

We're actually in the process of investing a significant amount in plantation forests in recognition that we do need more timber here, and while, you know, that won't necessarily produce trees in the next 12 months, that's an important long‑term investment, because this is a problem that's not going to be going away.

PETER STEFANOVIC: Yeah. Well, look, China's also moving at a slow pace to remove the sanctions. Are you disappointed that it's still taking so long to remove the sanctions when it comes to barley and wine?

MURRAY WATT: Oh, look, I think, you know, we have to recognise the very low base that we're coming office in terms of the trading and diplomatic relationship that existed between our two countries over the last couple of years, and this issue was raised by Don Farrell in his meetings in China bit over a week ago, and so I think it's really pleasing that an outcome has been able to be achieved so quickly after that meeting occurred.

And I think the other important thing about this deal is that there are obviously some products where there's been an outright ban, others where there have been high tariffs. The issue with the timber exports is what's known as "technical market access", because China had given quarantine and biosecurity‑based reasons for stopping our log exports, and it's exactly those kind of reasons that have also held up things like parts of the beef trade and some of our other commodities that have had problems.

So we'd certainly be hopeful that having resolved these quarantine‑type issues on timber, we'll be able to follow a similar approach with China in relation to other commodities.

PETER STEFANOVIC: Okay. Just a final one here: do you expect the Prime Minister to visit China ‑ and October, I suppose, is the reporting this morning ‑ will that happen?

MURRAY WATT: Welling, obviously he met President Xi late last year, and I know the Prime Minister is keen to travel to Beijing, but it's a matter of finding spaces in people's diaries. I saw that China had effectively re‑issued that invitation yesterday, and I'm sure the Prime Minister will get there as soon as he can.

PETER STEFANOVIC: Okay. Murray Watt, the Agriculture Minister. Appreciate your time this morning. Thank you so much. We'll talk to you soon.