Prepared: Friday 10 June 2022
Title: Interview with Minister Murray Watt discussing the Queensland and NSW flooding, the Emergency Response Fund, energy costs for farmers, live exports and Labor's stance on asylum seeker policy
Channel: ABC Radio National
Program: RN Breakfast with
Date Broadcast: 10 June 2022
Time Broadcast: 7:36am - 7:50am
PATRICIA KARVELAS: The cold snap along Australia’s east coast is being felt keenly in communities devastated by record flooding earlier this year, with residents turning to firewood to heat partially rebuilt homes. The slow pace of repairs has left many frustrated with Labor hammering the former Government over the issue before the election. Murray Watt is the new Minister for Emergency Management and Agriculture. He’s in Lismore today, which was, of course, at the epicentre of the flood disaster. Murray Watt – I should call you Minister now – welcome to RN Breakfast, and congratulations.
MURRAY WATT: Thanks a lot, PK. Good to talk to you.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: A freezing start to winter has made clear how much work remains in flood hit communities. What are you telling people in Lismore today? What are you offering them for help?
MURRAY WATT: Yeah. Well, it’s a pretty chilly morning here in Lismore and that’s a reminder that there’s now new challenges that these communities are going to be dealing with as they recover. Really, it was important for me as the new Minister to get back to Lismore and the Northern Rivers region as quickly as I could after being sworn in. Obviously, I spent quite a lot of time down here after the floods as the Shadow Minister too. I wanted to get back here and see for myself where things are at and what we need to do to get this recovery moving even more quickly. As you say, there are new challenges now, not just people not living in their homes and waiting for accommodation and things like that, but now they’re really, really cold, sitting in caravans, sitting in temporary accommodation, as they wait for repairs to happen.
So, over the course of the day, I’m going to be holding a number of roundtables with community leaders, business leaders, insurers. My colleague Stephen Jones will be here for part of that as well. And we really just want to get a snapshot of where things are at and what more we need to do to get this community back up and running.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: The floods expose what locals say was already a critical housing shortage in parts of regional Queensland and New South Wales. How many people are still without long term accommodation?
MURRAY WATT: Look, I don’t have a precise number, but it’s certainly still in the thousands, and that’s the sort the information I’m looking to get here today. There’s been some temporary accommodation moved in by the New South Wales Government and I think that is helping, but I know there are still many people who are displaced from their homes and, frankly, it’s going to take a while. Because, I think all of us know there’s a massive shortage of tradies and supplies for building right around the country at the moment and there was before these floods and now you throw this on top of it and this is a region without a huge number of these tradies to begin with. So, we’re going to do certainly everything we possibly can in cooperation with the other levels of Government to get people back in their homes, to get businesses open again. But I don’t want to mislead people; it is going to take time.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: It is going to take time. What have your conversations been like with the New South Wales Government?
MURRAY WATT: Very positive so far, PK. One of the things I want to work hard on is trying to bring a much more cooperative approach to the recovery than what we saw under the former Government. I mean, I think that was one of the problems we had through not just these floods but through Black Summer as well. Under the former Government they always seemed to want to pick a fight before they actually sat down and tried to have some solutions. So, the very first meeting I’m having this morning in about half an hour is going to be with people from various different political parties – so, Kevin Hogan, the Federal Member, a National Party member, Janelle Saffin, a State member, a Labor Party member, and Steve Krieg, the Mayor, who’s an Independent. And I think that sends a signal to people that we want to put that sort of blame game and the division behind us as much as we can – work cooperatively.
Last night, I spoke to the New South Wales Deputy Premier Paul Toole. We had a fantastic conversation. He was able to update me on some things from their point of view and we both agreed that wherever possible we should try to cooperate. You know, we’re not naive. From time to time, people will have to have a blue but what we need is to look for cooperation as our first instinct, rather than looking to pick up the cudgels as the first thing we do, which is what we saw from the previous Government.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: If you’re just tuning in, this is ABC RN Breakfast and my guest this morning is Murray Watt. He’s the new Minister for Emergency Management and Agriculture.
Murray Watt, you were critical of the former Government for failing to spend money fast enough from the national Emergency Response Fund. In March, it committed $150 million to help the New South Wales and flood response. Has that been spent now?
MURRAY WATT: It’s very close to being spent is my understanding, PK. I had a briefing from my department about this and we’ll be doing it again next week. Basically, the way that money is being used, as you say, $150 million in total from the Emergency Response Fund for post disaster recovery. That’s being split evenly between Queensland and New South Wales so $75 million each. And my agency’s very close to finalising negotiations with both of those governments about how each of those allocations will be spent. It’s important that money gets out the door to the respective State Governments by 30 June, and I’m told that’s not far away.
So, yeah, the money will get out the door, unlike what we saw from the previous Government. We want to get away from that situation where promises were being made that just weren’t being delivered. And more long term – as you might recall, we went to the election saying we would revamp that Emergency Response Fund, which didn’t do anything under the former Government. We want to turn it into a permanent, dedicated disaster mitigation or Disaster Ready Fund that’s used to invest in things like flood levees, drainage systems, bushfire evacuation centres, cyclone shelters – the kinds of things that will keep people safe from – due to disasters because we know we’re going to be facing more of them.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So, as you just outlined you want to change it. When will funding start to flow?
MURRAY WATT: Well, obviously, we’ve got make some changes through the Parliament around the structure of that fund, so that will take a little bit of time. But I’ve already indicated to my department that I see it as a very high priority, and I’ve asked them to start work on that. So, you know, again it can’t be done in the first month or so, but it’s something we would see as a very high priority.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Can you give me – not the first month. Give me a time frame then?
MURRAY WATT: I’ll have to talk to people like Tony Burke, the Manager of Opposition – he’s the Manager of Government business now, isn’t he? How about that?
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Oh, see. Often ABC people are criticised if we use the wrong word accidentally, but you used it about yourself.
MURRAY WATT: Yeah, it’s taking us all a little bit to adjust to the new world. But, yeah, I’ll be talking to Tony and my colleagues about this. There’s obviously a range of important legislation across portfolios that needs to get done. So, I will be pushing for mine and I know my colleagues will be pushing for theirs as well.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: You want the States and Territories to match commitments made by the fund. Have you spoken to them yet? Is there any sign they’ll do that?
MURRAY WATT: I’ve spoken to some but not all States about that and also some Local Governments because what we said in the run up to the election was wherever possible we wanted the funding that would come from our new Disaster Ready Fund to be matched by State, Territory or Local Governments. Because if we can do that – the commitment we made was we would spend up to $200 million a year from this fund. If we can do that, that actually takes us up to $400 million a year. And if you’re talking about that kind of money, you can really start making a dent in the backlog of mitigation projects that we know exist.
The former Government used to, you know, offer $50 million a year when they finally got around to setting up a program, and every time they did that, it was massively oversubscribed. There is no shortage of projects out there that need to be built. There’s been a shortage of funding. So, if we can get matched funding – and that’s not going to be possible everywhere. Like, there are some very remote councils that have very little money, and we understand that not everybody is going to be able to chip in, and their communities should not be deprived but wherever possible, if we can get that much funding, it will just mean that we can get a lot more projects done.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: You’re also the Agriculture Minister. Farmers are being hit hard by rising energy prices, especially dairy farmers. You’ve been consulting with the Farmers’ Federation. What support can you offer?
MURRAY WATT: Yeah, look, this is a real problem, PK, and certainly what’s become clear to me since I’ve been sworn in as the ag Minister is that the rising cost of inputs is one of the biggest challenges that our farming sector is facing and that’s why people like you and me are paying up to $12 for a lettuce when we go to the shops. Of course, there’s other factors such as the floods which wiped out places like the Lockyer Valley, real food bowls for our country. And, of course, there’s labour shortages that have been there for a long time that are complicating things as well. I’ve certainly spoken with both the NFF and a number of growers groups already about the input costs.
I did my first visit to a farm as the new Agriculture Minister this week. I was in Emerald in Central Queensland on a cotton farm, and this was one of the first issues raised with me by the local growers there as well. Because the way it hits them, obviously – and they pay more for their electricity and gas like everyone else does, but gas particularly is such a critical input for things like fertilisers and other products. Diesel costs are going up, so all those things that farmers are having to pay more for end up being passed onto consumers and bumps up the price of fruit and veg. I’ve already spoken with Chris Bowen the Energy Minister, about how we can work together. He’s obviously doing a huge amount of work with Madeleine King around the energy crisis the country is facing at the moment, and I’ve indicated to Chris that I’m keen to work with him in terms of how that impacts on our farming sector as well.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Are we going to see produce price rises further as farmers pass on these costs?
MURRAY WATT: I think that is a risk, PK. I mean, you would have heard from people like Jim and Chris – Jim Chalmers and Chris Bowen – that prices are likely to go up before they go down and, unfortunately, that’s likely to be the case for fresh fruit and veggies and other food products as well. It’s obviously not something that we want to see go on forever, but some of these factors are outside our control – the global factors. We can’t control the fact there’s been a flood that’s wiped out food bowls and things like that. But what I can assure your listeners is that we’re working very hard on it to try to get these price rises under control as quickly as we can.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: It’s not the only concern for farmers. Labor has committed to banning the live sheep trade but says it won’t happen in this term of Government, so when will it happen? How long do farmers have to prepare?
MURRAY WATT: Yeah, well, that’s something that we’re going to be consulting on both with the farming sector, the various State Governments, and other stakeholders as well, PK. The commitment that we took to the election was that we would phase out the live sheep export trade. We deliberately did not set a time frame for that because we recognise that that is a big adjustment for the sector and it’s something that needs to be done in consultation with them. The Prime Minister has been reported as saying that it won’t happen in this term of Government, so that indicates that it’s not something we’re looking to do overnight. And I’m intending to get over to WA as quickly as I can to begin that consultation process.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Is that because you’ve learnt the lessons from the last Government, the last time you were in Government?
MURRAY WATT: You’re talking about live cattle exports?
PATRICIA KARVELAS: I certainly am.
MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I mean, I think if we can avoid a situation like that, that would obviously be a good thing. Whenever we’re talking about large structural adjustments to industries in our country, whether it be live sheep or anything else, I think what we’ve all learned is that the more those things can be phased in with consultation with people, with solutions being prepared, it works out better. I mean, I think one of the things that we have as an opportunity from this is that we think that there is potential to expand onshore processing of sheep, which, of course, would create more jobs onshore.
We’ve got a great meat processing industry in Australia and we went to the election saying that we do want to make more things here, and that includes food products and meat processing. Again, I’m keen to work with the industry and manufacturers to see what opportunities there are to do more onshore processing because that actually means more jobs in our regional communities, and I think that would be a good thing.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Just, finally, on another story certainly not in your portfolio but it is huge this morning, are you able to confirm reports this morning that the Government has returned a boatload of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka for the second time since you came to office?
MURRAY WATT: Well, we’re not intending to comment on operational matters. That is a policy obviously that both sides of politics have had for some time now, and I don’t think it is helpful to sort of talk about –
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So, Labor won’t be more transparent, because that’s one of the things that we used to under the Federal Government – that it is an on sea matter, that we wouldn’t hear about it. Are you going to take that same approach?
MURRAY WATT: Yeah, we are. There are obviously security reasons for not talking about individual cases and it’s a bit of a shame that that issue has hit the papers in the way that it has. But I think what I can say is that we were very clear in the run up to the election that Operation Sovereign Borders would remain if we were elected, and that is the case. And our message is very clear that we’re going to intercept any vessel that’s seeking to reach Australia illegally and we’ll safely return those on board to their point of departure. So, there is no change in our policy in the way that the former Government pretended that there would be, and we take these issues very seriously.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: The Australian newspaper is saying that this will test Labor’s resolve. What’s your answer to that?
MURRAY WATT: Well, our resolve is very strong. As I say, we went to the election saying that Operation Sovereign Borders would remain in place if we won, and we have every intention of following through on that.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Thank you so much for your time this morning, and good luck today.