Press Conference in Perth, Western Australia

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
PRESS CONFERENCE
PERTH
SATURDAY, 11 MAY 2024

SUBJECTS: The Albanese Government's plan to phase out live sheep exports; United Nations resolution; Perth home invasion; Cannington knife incident.

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY: Thanks again everyone for coming along this morning. Today, I've got a very important announcement to make to set up our sheep industry both here in Western Australia and right across Australia for a positive future well into that future.

At the last two elections, Labor made a commitment to phase out the export of live sheep after years of community concern about the trade. Today we are delivering on that commitment with the trade to end on 1 May 2028, and we will introduce legislation in this term of Parliament to achieve that.

We are doing this transition in an orderly and considered way, with $107 million of taxpayers' funds on the table to assist producers, processors and the whole sheep supply chain with this transition. That amount of money, $107 million, is nearly five times the estimated economic annual impact estimated by the Western Australian Government, and that is if the industry transitions in the way that we're talking about, but even their assumptions whether the phase-out would happen in 2025, and of course we're talking about 2028, so nearly five times the estimated economic impact from the Western Australian Government.

I want to be clear that I want the Western Australian sheep industry to thrive and grow into the future, seizing what is an untapped opportunity: more onshore meat processing. Today we are mapping out a plan for the future of the sheep industry in Western Australia that delivers more value-adding onshore, which means more jobs locally. This plan also delivers certainty for farmers, with a firm end date, and a significant amount of taxpayers' funding to assist their transition and develop new markets, and of course, our plan also delivers better animal welfare, especially for our sheep.

Today, I'm also releasing the Independent Panel's report in full, so that will be up on the website of the Department very soon, and we'll also be releasing the Government's response to that report. Of the 28 recommendations from the Panel, we are accepting 23 of them while noting the other five, and that's because many of those fall outside the responsibilities of the Commonwealth. I really want to thank the Panel for their work and all of the people who made submissions through this consultation process and appeared at the in-person meetings.

The truth is that live sheep exports from Australia have been plummeting over the last 20 years. It's an industry that's been in long-term decline, and it now represents less than 1 per cent of Western Australia's agriculture sector, and at the same time demand for our lamb and mutton is going through the roof, both here and overseas. And just as other States have moved from live exports of sheep to more onshore processing, that's the high-value future for Western Australia.

The live sheep industry in Australia, and let's remember it's only Western Australia that does the live sheep exports these days, that industry is worth $77 million to the national economy, while sheep meat exports are worth $4.5 billion a year, and that figure is growing, and in addition to those exports, domestic demand for sheep products is up these days to $3.5 billion. Our Middle Eastern markets already buy a lot more Australian sheep meat than they do live sheep, and there is potential for that to grow further, along with domestic and other international markets, and growing those markets will be a key component of our transition plan.

I want Western Australia to get its fair share of the growth market, sheep meat exports and sheep meat domestic sales. Other States are doing it, and I don't see why Western Australia should miss out on where the growth market actually is, rather than being tied to a declining market that has fallen over 20 years.

So, in summary, the plan that we're releasing today delivers certainty for farmers, better animal welfare, and more value-added jobs right here in Western Australia and right across the country. I am very optimistic for the future of this industry in Western Australia and right across Australia, and I'm confident that the transition package that we've put together is the right one to take this industry forward.

Happy to take any questions.

JOURNALIST: Minister, farmers say that the industry's only been in decline because the deadline is moving, and you've effectively ensured a slow death. What do you say to that?

MURRAY WATT: I invite people to have a look at the figures. 20 years ago Australia was exporting hundreds of thousands of live sheep and hundreds of millions of dollars every year. That figure has fallen to about $77 million a year. This industry is in long-term decline at the same time as sheep meat exports are going through the roof. That's where the growth is, that's what other states are doing, and I want to see Western Australia capture that opportunity as well.

JOURNALIST: Minister, WA Agriculture Minister, Jackie Jarvis has said that your $107 million package does not meet the needs of hard-working farmers, and the phase-out will negatively impact our regional communities. We're talking about a Labor Minister and a farmer herself. Why is she wrong?

MURRAY WATT: I've discussed this matter over many months with Jackie Jarvis, and in fact we had another discussion about it last night. Obviously, the Western Australian Government is entitled to its view.

We think that this is a fair and reasonable package of taxpayers' funding going towards an industry that is already in long-term decline. As I say, the amount of money that we're putting on the table is nearly five times what the Western Australian Government estimated would be the economic impact of this decision if a transition in the way that we're talking about.

So, I think that this package that we're putting forward is fair and reasonable. We, of course, would welcome partnering with the Western Australian Government to deliver this package in the future. I think the transition would go more successfully if the Western Australian Government does partner with us, but that's ultimately a matter for them.

JOURNALIST: Have you just made her job and WA Labor's re-election hopes that much harder?

MURRAY WATT: No, I don't think so. As I say, what we're talking about here is more jobs in Western Australia through value-adding, capturing the full value of the sheep that are bred here in Western Australia; that's an incredibly exciting opportunity for Western Australia.

We have seen other states do this. There are a number of other states in Australia that used to do live exports of sheep, they got out of it, they moved into more onshore processing, and now they're the ones who are capturing more of that value and creating more of those jobs, and I think that's a great opportunity that I want to see Western Australia take as well.

JOURNALIST: In terms of modelling, Minister Jarvis says that that shows that the decision to end live sheep exports will cost $123 million annually. So why is there such a big gap?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah. So these figures came from the Western Australian Government submission to the consultation process. The figure that has been widely quoted in the media of a $123 million annual economic impact assumes, for starters, that the phase-out will be in 2025, which it's not. We're talking about 2028. And it also assumes that farmers don't transition, and the farmers just pretty much exit the industry, and exit farming altogether. Again, we don't think that will happen, especially because of the funding that we're putting on the table.

We've got serious funding from the taxpayers of Western Australia and Australia generally to support this industry transition towards a more positive value-added future.

JOURNALIST: Minister, the economic modelling done by Episode 3 that was used to help compile this report, that is a separate report, and you’ve also locked that down. Is that being released at any stage?

MURRAY WATT: My understanding is the intention is to release all of those reports, yes.

JOURNALIST: At once? And so will those guys be able to comment on that then?

MURRAY WATT: That's a matter for them.

JOURNALIST: Minister, you came to Perth to make this announcement. Was there any attempt made to meet with the industry in person instead of via Teams?

MURRAY WATT: Well, as you're aware, we did a stakeholder briefing, including with the industry this morning via Teams. Of course, there are many different people in the community who have views on this.

The industry has views on this, animal welfare groups have views on this, trade partners have views on this, and we've tried to include as many as possible in that briefing this morning to make sure that everyone who has a view on this finds out about this at the same time.

But I have, over the course of the last two years, since I became the Minister, I have met with representative groups and individual sheep farmers from Western Australia on at least 10 occasions. So, I don't think that anyone can say that they haven't had good access to me and to the Government throughout this process.

JOURNALIST: But you could do a Teams meeting from Canberra; why come to Perth to do a Teams meeting and not see them in person?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I think it's important, for starters, that I front up to talk to the local media. You've got an interest in getting this information out to the wider community. But as I say, I have met on roughly 10 or more occasions with representatives of those groups and sheep farmers themselves, both here and in Canberra.

JOURNALIST: And what about the animal welfare side of things; you said you've got funding in there to help with the animal welfare side of things.

MURRAY WATT: Yep.

JOURNALIST: But what about at the moment, we've had 500,000 sheep across the boarders to South Australia and Victoria, New South Wales as well, and as you know, we had six sheep die on a 30,000‑head shipment, and we had 42 sheep die on a truck on the way to the east.

Can you guarantee our farmers they're going to still be able to have those markets to sell sheep?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, absolutely.

JOURNALIST: Is it going to get stopped as well?

MURRAY WATT: No. And what this commitment was about and what we're delivering today is ending the live export of ship by sea. It's not about transporting sheep from the West over East, and it's certainly not about stopping the processing of them onshore; as I say, we want to do more of that.

Within the $107 million package that we're announcing today is $2.6 million to continue to improve sheep welfare standards. One of the things that I expect that money will be used for is to update the guidelines that apply to the transportation of sheep within Australia. Those guidelines are very out of date, they haven't been looked at for a very long time, and we do need to make sure that they reflect contemporary standards. So that is one of the things that we'll be doing around animal welfare over the transition period.

JOURNALIST: Farmers are furious about this obviously, and they are vowing to fight it every step of the way, and they're saying you've just signed your political death warrant. What would like to say?

MURRAY WATT: Obviously it's up to farmers to read through the package about what we're providing and to come to their own decisions. You know, we live in a democracy, people can express their views.

I will point out that every survey ever done about this of the Australian population shows that the Australian public overwhelmingly support ending this trade, and it's not just over East. Surveys of Western Australians show that people think this trade needs to go, that there have been too many incidents around animal welfare, it needs to go, and that we need to move towards value‑adding.

So, it's up to farmers to make their own decisions. But as I say, I think that this is a really positive package for the farming industry in Western Australia going forward. Just as other States have made the transition to towards onshore processing, I'm confident that WA can do it. Other States did it without taxpayer support. That's actually being provided here in Western Australia to make this work.

JOURNALIST: What about exports via air?

MURRAY WATT: Yes, for starters they already happen, there are obviously exports that happen by air. Increasingly they're happening by ship though, as well of sheep meat. One of the things that we managed to achieve last year was reaching an agreement with Gulf States which extended the period of, if you like, wrapped processed meat ‑‑

JOURNALIST: No, but Iive exports via air.

MURRAY WATT: No, we're not touching that.

JOURNALIST: Why not?

MURRAY WATT: For start the animal welfare issue that arises with live exports by sea is the length of the journeys into very hot parts of the world. Live exports by air, the journey is usually under 24 hours, it's usually to Asia, so we're talking about a number of hours, very different from an animal welfare perspective.

JOURNALIST: Farmers say if you'd approved Qatar Airways flights, then they could export sheep more humanly by air.

MURRAY WATT: My understanding of those issues is that what farmers were talking about is extending the number of flights for processed meat rather than live sheep. And you'll see in the response from the Government that is something that we're entirely open to.

We go about facilitating extra freight all the time, and as I say, last year we came to an agreement with Gulf States that allowed more shipping of sheep meat processed here in Australia than what we've seen before, and that's already producing results with increased exports to those countries.

JOURNALIST: Will you reconsider then approving more Qatar Airways flights to allow more sheep meat to be exported?

MURRAY WATT: Well, we always consider applications that airlines make. Obviously, there were issues with the Qatar application last year it was deemed to not be in the national interest, but in the meantime, we've extended and approved a range of other airlines to undertake flights from Australia.

I'd also make the point there is absolutely no limitation whatsoever right now on air freight flights to Qatar. So that can happen now. There's no limit, it's not capped, they can have more if they want them.

JOURNALIST: Will you be banning the live export of cattle next; is that on the agenda as industry groups fear?

MURRAY WATT: No, absolutely not. I have made the point repeatedly, and the Prime Minister has as well that we do not support banning live cattle exports, and that will not happen under our Government.

JOURNALIST: The industry as we've heard is furious, they are asking how did you arrive at this four‑year timeline. I know it was a recommendation of the report, but how did you come to that decision?

MURRAY WATT: Certainly the recommendation of the Panel was central to the Government's decision. When you have a chance to read the report, you'll see that the Panel did recommend a phase‑out date of pretty much around 1 May 2028, the beginning of what is currently the prohibition period on sheep exports overseas.

My view was that given the Panel had discussed this matter with a very large number of people, with all sorts of different opinions, and this is the conclusion that they came to, I thought that was important that we listen to that recommendation.

But more broadly, what we've also said is that we understand that we can't phase out this trade overnight. I know that today there will be groups who say that we should be doing it sooner; there will be groups that will say that we should be doing it over a longer period of time.

We thought that this was a reasonable period of time to execute the phase-out, but do it in an orderly way, especially because that's what the Panel recommended.

JOURNALIST: The industry's been calling on this certainly for a long time. Why has the Government taken so long to provide this, especially given there's so much angst about it in the West?

MURRAY WATT: Yep. I acknowledge that people have been really eager to get this decision made and provide that certainty, and that's what we're obviously doing today. A decision this significant does require proper consideration from government, it requires proper consideration by Cabinet through the budget process, that's why we're making the announcement now, because it obviously is in the run‑up to the budget, and there will be funding provided through the budget.

We needed to do this in a proper manner, in a considered manner, make sure that we had the funding to support it, and that's why we've made the announcement now.

JOURNALIST: Minister, the $1.7 million set aside for the transition advocate, can you guarantee this will come from industry this appointment.

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, you're right, James. The $107 million package does include $1.7 million of funding to appoint a transition advocate, and the role of that person will be to facilitate two‑way communication between industry and government as the transition continues.

Again, this was a recommendation from the Panel that we establish this position. I haven't given any thought yet to who that transition advocate will be, that's something that we'll look at going ahead.

JOURNALIST: Are you going to consider subsidising freight to the East Coast?

MURRAY WATT: We don't have any current plans to do that, and I presume that question arises in the context of the drought conditions that WA Farmers are experiencing at the moment, and I absolutely empathise with farmers who are going through those drought conditions, not just here in Western Australia, but some parts of Tasmania at the moment as well.

You will have seen only last week the Prime Minister announced an extra $500 million of funding through the Future Drought Fund to help farmers prepare for drought in the future, but right now we have financial assistance available for farmers who are in need, things like the Farm Household Allowance, concessional loans through the Regional Investment Corporation, and I'd really encourage people who are going through financial difficulty to take advantage of those services; they're available now.

JOURNALIST: When will the phase‑out process actually begin?

MURRAY WATT: What we'll be legislating is that the trade ends on 1 May 2028, and it's really up to farmers and exporters how quickly that transition occurs in the meantime.

What you'll see from the panel's report is that it is likely that this transition will go better and set the industry up better for the future if the transition begins soon. So, some of the funding that we're providing is to encourage early movement, it's about developing those markets overseas as quickly as we can and within Australia, it's about supporting our processors to increase their capacity so that they can take on more sheep for processing here. So, it's really a matter for the market to determine how quickly the phase‑out will occur, but what we're saying through legislation is it will end on 1 May 28.

JOURNALIST: So when will the industry start having access to that funding?

MURRAY WATT: The money is budgeted for in this year's Federal Budget, so it will start becoming available from 1 July this year.

JOURNALIST: Is there specific funding for counselling in this budget?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, there is. So one bucket of funding, if you like, being put forward in this transition package is to support the whole supply chain; sheep producers, processors, shearers, truckies, everyone who's affected by this decision, to help them transition, but within that there's funding for extra financial counselling, for mental health services, for community wellbeing.

JOURNALIST: Is that a recognition then that this will push some farmers over the edge, perhaps?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I think anyone who knows anything about the Western Australian farming industry knows that there are many people doing it tough at the moment, particularly because of drought, and as I say, I'm seeing similar circumstances in parts of Tasmania as well.

So that funding is a recognition that there are many people already doing it tough, and this will be an adjustment for people to make, so we want to be able to stand by them through a range of different supports including mental health and counselling.

JOURNALIST: So that's only three years from go to whoa, if you're talking ‑ it won't come in this term of Parliament, it starts next term, and you want to finish by May 1, 2028.

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, it's four years, it's roughly four years from today. So, 1 May 2028, we're in May 2024, so it's a four‑year transition period.

JOURNALIST: But it's not legislated yet, so you're not actually starting today.

MURRAY WATT: No, but I mean I guess what I'm doing is announcing the Government's policy position that will be reflected in legislation, and people will be able to see that that's the Government's plan from today.

JOURNALIST: I don't understand why you're banning live sheep exports when ‑ and you're not considering banning live cattle exports. What's the difference.

MURRAY WATT: Sure. So, I've actually outlined this in a speech that I gave, if you want to have a look some time, at the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association last year, because this is a question that does come up regularly.

Our Government sees the export of live sheep as fundamentally different from the export of live cattle. A couple of reasons: cattle are much hardier species than sheep, and they also typically undertake much shorter journeys by sea than what we see by sheep.

Most of the sheep journeys are to the Middle East, a pretty long journey. Most of the live cattle journeys are to places like Indonesia and other Asian destinations, so much shorter journey. So, between the fact that cattle are hardier species going through a much shorter journey, that, we think, creates a much different animal welfare situation to what we've been seeing in live sheep.

JOURNALIST: Josh Burns has said that Australia's vote at the UN overnight will further isolated Jews in Australia. Do you have a view?

MURRAY WATT: Look, I haven't seen those comments from Josh, but I think that the decision the Government made at the UN was the right one. I did see some coverage overnight that amendments were made to the resolution to reflect the concerns of a range of countries, but I think that the decision that Penny Wong and the Government as a whole made was the right one to take.

JOURNALIST: Josh Burns also says that the conditions for Palestinian statehood have not been met yet. Is Australia encouraging extremism?

MURRAY WATT: No, I don't think Australia is. I think anyone who has observed this debate in Australia will have seen that Australia has been very vocal in our condemnation of Hamas over the October 7 incident.

We've said very clearly that there's no role for them to play in a future Palestinian State, but Australia is in line with many other countries around the world in seeing a Palestinian State as part of a long‑term solution and part of the peace process.

Most people recognise that the only pathway to peace in the Middle East, long‑term, is through a two‑state solution.  But also, I'd make the point that there has been no decision made at the UN or anywhere else that Palestine is now recognised as a State. We're in the middle of a process, and Australia's taken a position on that.

JOURNALIST: Hamas will claim this as a victory.

MURRAY WATT: Hamas will do all sorts of things. We couldn't have made our position any clearer in our condemnation of Hamas. They're a listed terrorist organisation in Australia. We have condemned them at every opportunity from the moment the October 7 incident occurred, but we do believe that a two‑state solution is the only pathway to long‑term peace.

JOURNALIST: We've reported today that the previous government released a detainee in 2020 who is now alleged to be one of the group that attacked a Perth grandmother. Who do you blame for that release? Is it the responsibility of the official who made the decision, or the Federal Ministers in charge?

MURRAY WATT: These are obviously matters before the court, so I'll be a little bit careful about what I say, but I was very concerned to read those reports in today's newspapers about this incident which occurred while Peter Dutton was the Home Affairs Minister. Now I think everyone has seen that for months now Peter Dutton and his colleagues have been playing politics with community safety over immigration issues.

What we've done as a government, in response to a High Court decision, it wasn't a decision of our making; we had a High Court decision that we needed to react to and respond to, and what we've done in response is put together a strong protection regime that includes ankle bracelets, curfews and monitoring. None of that happened when Peter Dutton was the Home Affairs Minister.

Now Peter Dutton talks a lot about taking responsibility, and I think the question for Peter Dutton today is, is he going to take responsibility for this decision that was taken when he was the Home Affairs Minister?

JOURNALIST: So you believe he is to blame?

MURRAY WATT: I'm not going to blame anyone for this, what I'm observing is that Peter Dutton likes to talk a lot about Labor Ministers needing to take responsibility. Here's a perfect opportunity for him to take responsibility for the granting of a protection visa that occurred while he was the Home Affairs Minister that allegedly now involves an offender against the law.

JOURNALIST: If he's to blame then, or ought to take responsibility, is it not on the other Labor Ministers, to you know, take some responsibility for releasing the other detainees?

MURRAY WATT: I have seen Labor Ministers take responsibility for their actions and their response to a High Court decision almost every day of the week. What we haven't seen from Peter Dutton is him taking any responsibility for decisions that occurred while he was the Home Affairs Minister, and if those reports are correct, those decisions included granting a protection visa to someone who had been in jail for drug offences, and now allegedly participated in that shocking home invasion and battery of an elderly couple here in Perth. It's time for Mr Dutton to hold himself to the same standard.

JOURNALIST: Thank you. Yesterday's knife attack in Cannington was quite shocking for many people, and it's obviously raised the question again by knife crime in WA, that it's on the rise. But do you think that we need increased security or patrols through shopping centres?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, look, I was horrified to see that incident that occurred here in Perth, and of course, there's been similar east over East recently as well. You know, I think it's important that we do get the balance right around these issues.

I think one of the things we all enjoy about Australia is that we're not the US with schools that have scanning for weapons and things like that as well. But clearly, if there are realistic reasonable protection measures that can be implemented, then they should be considered. Obviously, issues around knife crime and wands and things like that are decisions for State Governments rather than the Federal Government.

I see the New South Wales Government recently strengthened its laws. Obviously, we'd encourage all States to consider whether their current laws are adequate for the situation.

Okay, thanks everyone.