Interview with Tom Connell, Sky News

Television Transcript
Title: Sky News Australia's Tom Connell interview with Minister Murray Matt.
Description: Sky News Australia's Tom Connell interview with Minister Murray Matt discussing Australia's live sheep export industry, and drought and bushfire preparations.
Channel: Sky News
Program: NewsDay
Date Broadcast: 6 June 2022
Time Broadcast: 12:18 PM - 12:28 PM

Tom Connell: The new Labor government has committed to ending Australia's live sheep export industry. The question, of course, is when, how quickly and how it will all happen. For more on this, let's bring in the Minister for Agriculture and Emergency Management. Murray, thanks very much for your time. So you will ban live sheep exports, not within this term, but still within five years. So essentially, you'll take this to the next election, a more detailed plan on how you do this. Is that the situation?

Murray Watt: Well, we were obviously very clear in the run-up to the election with our commitment to phase out the live sheep export industry, but we deliberately didn't make clear in the election exactly the time frame for that. That was different to the policy that we had taken to the previous election, where we had set a time frame. And I guess the reason for not setting one this time was to recognise that this is a big change for the industry and it's something that we need to do in consultation. So the Prime Minister has obviously made clear over the last couple of days that we won't be phasing out the industry in this term of government. It will take longer than that, and we want to get the time frame right and we want to get the conditions of that phasing out right as well.

Tom Connell: The time frame is there is no commitment at all on when this would happen at the moment.

Murray Watt: No, we haven't given a settled number of years. And again, that's something that we want to work with the industry, with the Western Australian government and a whole range of other stakeholders about. And in fact, on Friday afternoon, I spoke to the Western Australian Agriculture Minister, Alannah MacTiernan, about this. It probably has the most effect in WA or, not probably. It definitely does. So I've begun those sort of consultations.

Tom Connell: Is she making the case to keep the industry?

Murray Watt: I don't want to, sort of, reveal private conversations with Ministers just after I've been sworn in.

Tom Connell: It's fair to say plenty of people involved want it to stay.

Murray Watt: Well, I think certainly there are farmers and people involved in the industry who would like the practice to stay, but we were very clear about our commitment in the election, and I don't think that it's a good idea for us to now, not honour commitments that we took.

Tom Connell: I guess the question on that is whether or not you have an open mind. Could you be convinced if we're talking about lower density possibility ships with better cooling systems, whatever it can be, that gets an outcome that you might find acceptable? Is that on the table?

Murray Watt: Again, we were very clear about our commitment, that we think that the industry needs to be phased out. Of course, that's mainly about animal welfare concerns. But the other point to do with it is that there's a massive opportunity here as well to beef up, so to speak, manufacturing and meat processing in our country. Again, one of the major policies that we took to the election was about making more things in Australia, and that includes meat processing. So we think that there are much more opportunities for export.

Tom Connell: I’ll get to that in a moment. But just on that final one, you said this is the commitment we took, and it's about animal welfare. If those issues can be addressed, wouldn't it be incumbent on you to reconsider phasing it

Murray Watt: Well, as I said, we were very clear about the commitment, and we're not going to back away from that, but we will implement it in consultation with the industry and try to realise as many jobs…

Tom Connell: Does that mean there's no way the animal welfare issues can be addressed?

Murray Watt: No. I mean, yeah, essentially, we think based on the evidence to date, that this is a practise that should be phased out. The world market is changing as well, and there are increasingly consumers and buyers overseas who are looking for different ways of sourcing their meat. And as I say, we think there's a massive opportunity in processed meat that we want to explore with the industry.

Tom Connell: But until you go through the detail of this, you don't know whether this will actually shrink the industry, because at the moment we do this because that's how customers want their meat. You have to change minds for that, not to shrink the industry in Australia.

Murray Watt: Yeah. I mean, again, all I can keep saying time is that we took the commitment to the election. The work was done by my predecessor, and it's now my role to implement the policy, and that's what I'll be doing.

Tom Connell: At the moment you don't know whether it would shrink the industry or not.

Murray Watt: I'm still taking advice on that and discussions with stakeholders. Well, the initial advice is that there are big opportunities for Australia. If we move towards more meat processing to replace…

Tom Connell: Would it shrink? 

Murray Watt: Look, I've been in the job three or four days. In fact, this afternoon I'll be having a further briefing with my Department about it, to hear more from them. But my role as the new Minister is to deliver the election
commitment. But to do that in a sensible, orderly way, and that's what I intend to do.

Tom Connell: Okay. So what about compensation? If there are businesses that can't make this transition, is that on the table?

Murray Watt: Well, again, we haven't been given a commitment about that at this point, and that's something that I see…

Tom Connell: You're open to that process.

Murray Watt: Yeah, I'm open to that. And that is something that we would determine after we've undertaken that consultation. Really, the commitment that we took was simply to phase out the industry. That's really the extent of the commitment. I know there's been some discussion over the last few days about whether it would apply to sea and air exports. Most of the animal welfare concerns have arisen in relation to sea exports. So that is the primary focus of this policy?

Tom Connell: This policy might remain?

Murray Watt: Well, I'm open to discussing that with the industry and with stakeholders about air exports. It's a much smaller industry with much lower animal welfare concerns. It's predominantly about exporting breeding stock. So
I'm open to having that discussion with the industry.

Tom Connell: The $5 million Future drought Fund. You've had a lot to say about that in Opposition. Is it fair to say your approach is still keeping that principle, spending the earnings, but more on mitigation compared to immediate aftermath spending?

Murray Watt: We certainly want to have an approach in relation to drought and natural disasters that is much more about being better prepared for future events than what we saw from the previous government. So that obviously applies in relation to drought as much as it does to floods, cyclones and bushfires. We haven't taken a position to the election about the future of the Future Drought Funs.

Tom Connell: But you had a lot to say about mitigation is better than just sweeping in afterwards.

Murray Watt: Absolutely. As I say, that's something that we intend to do.

Tom Connell: That's your principle, rather than a locked-in approach, how that can be applied.

Murray Watt: Yeah, of course, you're always going to need to spend money on recovery whether it be drought or natural disasters, and we're not saying we're not going to do any of that. But we think that the previous government was very neglectful when it came to preparing, and that's something that we want to do a lot better job of in relation to drought and natural disasters more broadly. I mean, the feedback I've had already is that the former government took a long time. It was well into the drought before they started actually providing any real support to farmers and to rural communities from the last drought. We have an opportunity at the moment where while there is some of the country in drought, we've actually had more rain rather than less. So the important point is about now, rather than waiting for the draught, the.

Tom Connell: The Government's adamant the money was available throughout the sources, but relitigating all of that. You mentioned all the water falling at the moment. The Coalition did go on a bit of a spree of commitments towards dam building at the end of its term, and I'm wary of pronunciations here, not being a person of the regions, but Urannah, Hells Gate and Dungowan dams.

Murray Watt: Dungowan, there we go. Otherwise, you got two out of three right. Not bad.

Tom Connell: What happens to that funding?

Murray Watt: Well, we did provide some funding in our election costings around some of those dams.

Tom Connell: But not the same amount?

Murray Watt: No, not the same amount, because we do want to take a good look at the business cases. I mean, the last government, one of their hallmarks was making big announcements that they didn't deliver, and there's probably no better example of that than when it comes to dams. Going back to when Tony Abbott was first elected, they promised 100 dams. They only ever built one. And we saw that again in the last election where they went out with big promises.

Tom Connell: And there are they did start coming up towards the end. So just for those projects, you're going to weigh them all up and it's about a business case for you? 

Murray Watt: Yeah. I mean I think the responsible approach with taxpayers' money is to see business cases before you go and devote billions of dollars of taxpayers' funding. We don't know what the cost of the water from these dams is going to be for farmers and other users and we need to know that kind of thing before we make those sort of firm commitments.

Tom Connell: Do you have a damn building priority though? Is this, not the only approach, but the right thing to be doing? We're going to see more rain with climate change probably falling in certain areas. Figuring out, getting good modelling on this, where is it going to fall and then where can we realistically move it to.

Murray Watt: For sure. Well, I think clearly, particularly in the agriculture role, water is a crucial ingredient to the future success of agriculture and we have always had a view that we are open to building dams where they are viable in the right places rather than for political reasons.

Tom Connell: But it's about making it a priority. I guess you've got at least cause in the budget. Do you see dam building as a high priority for Labor? Do they get built on your watch?

Murray Watt: Well, I see the delivery of all important infrastructure as an important and water infrastructure, including dams as part of that. So where there is a good strong case for a dam to be built, where it can be delivered in an environmentally sensitive manner and is financially viable, then, of course, we would look at that.

Tom Connell: All the projects have been looked at for years. Can you do the reviews quickly and actually start some dam building in this term? Will you do that?

Murray Watt: Well, I'm not going to commit to that but potentially we can do that. 

Tom Connell: Potentially means we might have another three years before shovels hit the ground.

Murray Watt: Fortunately the business cases for these projects are well underway and I would expect that we would see them before too long. Obviously, Tanya Plibersek as the Water Minister is the primary minister in this space. But we will make some good decisions once we see those business cases coming.

Tom Connell: All right, Murray Watt getting your feet under the desk, but we appreciate your time today.

Murray Watt: Thanks, Tom. Good to talk to you.