Address at the National Assembly of the Australian Local Government Association

20 June 2022

Speech transcript
Prepared: Monday 20 June 2022
Title: Minister Murray Watt's speech at the National Assembly of the Australian Local Government Association
Description: Minister Murray Watt's speech at the National Assembly of the Australian Local Government Association discussing the role of local government, housing, disaster relief and workforce shortages.
Date delivered: 20 June 2022 
Time delivered: 6:00 PM -  6:17 PM

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you very much for inviting me along to speak at your conference as a newly minted Minister in the Albanese Government, which is a nice capacity to be in!

Can I also begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land that we're gathering on today, their Elders, past, present and emerging - the Ngunnawal people - and thank them for their custodianship of this land over thousands and thousands of years.

To my good friend Linda, great to see you here as the President. To the other executives, to all the mayors and council representatives in the room, welcome to Canberra. Not that’s it’s really my- I don’t know if I’m from Canberra or Queensland half the time, I seem to spend half the time there and half the time here! But it's great to have so many of you here, and I know from previous years how important this conference is to bring together local government leaders from all around the country to thrash things out and identify what the priorities are going to be. I was just observing there, you're having your votes and that’s an innovation that a few Labor Party conferences could take on board, I think, although I was looking for the little huddle of people up front who are actually making all the decisions for the rest of us [indistinct] Well, as you can tell, hopefully, I'm incredibly excited to be here in a new capacity as part of a new government and of course, very honoured by the opportunities that I've been given, first by the Australian people and secondly, by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to take on the roles that I have within the Government. Now, I might warn my friends from Queensland that some of this you may have heard this morning, because I thought it was probably important to back in the same sorts of themes about the approach that we're wanting to take in how we run our government and how we deal with local governments, and also just to identify some of the key priorities in my portfolio areas, and I understand housing has continued to be a major topic of conversation today so I thought I might just try to quickly take you through some of the plans that we have in that space. 

So, as I said at the LGAQ breakfast this morning, I think anyone who knows me and has seen my track record, whether it be within federal government or prior to that in the Queensland state government over many years, you will know that I am a genuine friend of local government. That I have genuine respect for the role that local government plays and I tend, pretty much wherever I am in the country, wherever possible try to make sure that I look up the mayor, look up people from council as part of the visits that I do. Because I genuinely think that if you want to get a feel for what’s going on in a particular town or a particular region, there's no better place to start than the mayor or the councillors, because you do have a unique insight into the challenges and opportunities that face your particular regions and towns and I would be crazy as a minister in a federal government not to tap into that knowledge and the connections that you have. So I've been very proud to work with local government leaders around the country on a range of issues over many years, as I say, both in my relatively short time in the Federal Parliament and also prior to that in my longer period working in the Queensland state government, both as the chief of staff to then-Premier Anna Bligh for a number of years, also in a very brief period in state parliament myself. So I'm looking forward, in the new role, to continuing to build on that relationship in a much wider scale. And now I'll have very good reasons to come to all sorts of parts of the country and I'll try and make a priority of looking each of you up while I'm there.

As you know, as well, and I think you may have heard from some of these people already, we're also very privileged in our government to have a number of former mayors in our ranks, both within the Cabinet and in the wider Caucus. I understand Kristy McBain spoke to either all of you or some of you yesterday afternoon - one of our new ministers and obviously the former mayor for Bega Shire. We've got Tracey Roberts, who I think I met at this conference last time, who is now the member for Pearce. And of course, if you go back, if you go further back, you've got people like Chris Bowen and Clare O'Neill who are now Cabinet Ministers and are former mayors of their councils in Sydney and Melbourne. I've no doubt forgotten quite a few others as well but the point being that you can rest assured that in some of the most senior representatives of our government, you have people who have real experience of being mayors and running councils and will bring that perspective to the work that they are now doing in the Cabinet or in the wider Caucus.

Now, one of the things I said this morning that I did want to reiterate to the wider audience here is the importance we are placing from a very early stage of our government in true collaboration and partnerships with the entire community - whether that be with local governments, with state governments, with community and business leaders more generally and the entire government. And again I said this morning, that I think that by the time we got through this election - and this is something that's on both sides of politics - I really think that Australians have reached the point where they are really over the bickering and the conflict that we have seen across Australian politics in recent years. We've had issues, and I suppose I particularly think of something like climate change but there's other issues as well, which have just been bogged down in the ideological wars for years which have held the country back. And we really want to try and push beyond that and try and grab that, sort of, sense of optimism and the sense of a change in the air that we have with the election of any government, whoever they are. To try to see that cooperation and achieve some good things for the country. And I know, whenever I speak to people from councils, you're not in it for the perks of office, you're not in it for yourselves, you’re in it for the communities. And that's why all of us do what we do, whether we're in local government, state government or federal government, we get into these roles so that we can do good things. And I've got to tell you that's one of the great things about being elected into government is that rather than just sitting on the other side knocking people, you can actually get in and do things that are positive. And that's really what we want to try and do here. You probably have heard already from the Prime Minister on a number of occasions that what he's really wanting to do is to bring back a sense of cooperation into politics and collaboration. And we all know that there are going to be times when we're going to have a fight with, whether it be a state government or a local government or an industry group or a community group or something like that, but what we're trying to do from a very early stage is make sure that our first instinct is to actually try to find common ground and goodwill to reach solutions, rather than instantly looking for the fight or the opportunity to wedge someone. Because, again, I think that's what Australians want us to do.

We know that we're facing some massive challenges as a country, and all of a sudden there's some new ones that we weren't exactly planning for. I think we’ve all expected the energy crisis to come along and we've obviously had a lot to say about the lack of energy policy in this country for a long time. But pretty much as soon as we were elected, it was there in a big, big way. It's not going away anytime fast and we're not going to solve things like that by wedge politics or by trying to divide people. We're actually going to solve them by trying to find ways to fix things, by working with people together. And if I can just give you one example of how I've tried to take that sort of spirit forward in my own portfolios; the lights are too bright so I can't see Steve Krieg but I'm sure he's here somewhere, the Mayor of Lismore. I was down in Lismore for the first time as a Minister a bit over a week ago and I made very sure that the first meeting I held, while I was there inspecting what the latest state of damage is and what's needed across the whole Northern Rivers community, was to organise a meeting involving myself as the Federal Minister - the Labor Party, Kevin Hogan the Federal Member - National Party, Janelle Saffin the State Member - Labor Party and Steve Krieg the Mayor - independent. And I thought that was really important to send a message to what is a very traumatised community that, at least for a while, we're going to try and pass the politics and try and work together, no matter what party we're from, no matter what level of government we're from. And that's, again, the kind of spirit that I want to try and take forward. 

There's another example coming up near home for me so I know as well, the Lockyer Valley, where I'm intending to get out pretty soon. I've been on the phone previously to the mayor, who's also probably here as well, Tanya - hello to Tanya somewhere out there - and I spoke to Scott Buchholz, who is the Federal LNP Member of that area the other day, and we talked about doing stuff together as well. So, as I say, I don't want to pretend that we're never going to have fights, but how about we will just try and work together for a while? And I think that can be really good for the country, no matter what sort of policy areas we’re talking about.

Now, I'll very quickly just touch on some of the priorities that I'm intending to take forward in my portfolios because they do, I think, relate to many of the areas that you come from and the areas of issues that you deal with. and I'm happy to talk at further length with anyone who would like to know more. In the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries side of my portfolios, it's very clear to me that the three biggest short-term priorities are dealing with the massive workforce shortage that we have in agriculture, and forestry and fisheries. And frankly, you can say that about pretty much any industry around the country, whether it be those ones or aged care or health or manufacturing or tourism, whatever you do. We know that workforce shortages is a major problem. When it comes to agriculture, we have put forward a policy that we took to the election about expanding and strengthening the PALM scheme - the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Program - where there are more than 50,000 Pacific workers who have been vetted and ready to come and work on farms in Australia and who haven't been made use of. So we do want to take up that scheme and expand its role. But I’ve also said to all sides of this debate - whether it be farmers, unions or anyone else - that if there are solutions that people have got for what is a genuine crisis in our agricultural workforce, then I'm happy to work with people and see again where can we find some common ground to solve some problems.

The second big priority in the short term, that is a very clear one for me in this portfolio is biosecurity. And any of you who come from communities with a large livestock industry, in particular, will know that we face some really massive threats, particularly in Indonesia around foot-in-mouth disease and lumpy skin disease. We have already - and to give the former government a few, they started providing support to Indonesia and vaccines and technical expertise prior to the election, and we intend to expand that. We're doing some work around what else we could be doing on that front as well. And we managed to make sure that the Prime Minister, as part of his recent trip to Indonesia raised it as one of the major things that he wanted to work on together with them. So biosecurity is a critical issue that I've already had multiple briefings on with the department, including from the chief vet of our country. 

And thirdly, in terms of short-term priorities, and again, this is one that is just rocketing up the charts, is the rising input costs that farmers and producers are facing. Those of us who drive a car will be seeing it in petrol prices. Those of us who run a farm will be seeing it in diesel prices, in fertiliser costs. All those kinds of things that resulted in the energy crisis that we're experiencing. And that's something that I'm already in discussion with fellow ministers about as well. 

Longer term, in terms of the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries side of the portfolio, the key things that I'm really wanting to work on and again, in partnership with you and your communities is, first of all how we can continue value-adding to our fantastic agricultural products. There's so many communities that already do that around the country but I think there's more that we can do. We went to the election promising to establish a $15 billion National Reconstruction Fund of which we have dedicated $500 million, at least, to Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries so that we can be continuing to take our world's best agricultural products further up the value chain and extract the full value of them before we export them. There will obviously always be a place for the export of raw commodities but wherever possible, we also want to be doing that value-adding and generating more jobs and more money for Australia in the process. 

And of course, no conversation about the future of agriculture can be complete without sustainability and climate change. And I've been pleasantly surprised - I mean, I sort of knew it in an abstract sense but I've been pleasantly surprised - by how eager farmers and farm groups are to work with us constructively around these challenges. Because, of course, if you're running a farm your livelihood depends on a stable, sustainable environment and you can see the effects of climate change in your profitability and your productivity. So I think there's some really big opportunities for us by working collectively and collaboratively to tackle the challenges of climate change and actually see some of the opportunities that exist whether we're talking about carbon markets or anything else in that space.

And emergency management, which is probably even more relevant to most of you given the really important role that local government plays. The way I'm basically putting it is, I've got two key priorities. Firstly, is to make sure that Australia is better prepared for the natural disasters that we know are coming, whether we like it or not. Now, probably some of you saw I was very vocal about the way the previous government approached this issue. And I do think that they've left us unprepared for some of the major natural disasters that we've faced in the last two or three years. And we're not just kind of saying that, we're not just throwing rocks. We went to the election with a big commitment around increased federal investment in disaster mitigation. So what we said is that we would create a Disaster-Ready Fund that will invest up to $200 million a year in disaster mitigation. Now that's a much bigger increase in funding - in permanent funding - from a federal government than we've ever seen before. And I'm not under any illusions that that's going to fix everything overnight. But I think when you see that sort of sustained investment from federal government, where possible matched by state and local governments, where possible, then that we can really start making dents in that backlog of infrastructure and disaster mitigation projects that we need. 

And secondly, as well as being better prepared, I think we can do a much better job as a country when it comes to recovery and speeding that up. Making it more efficient and again, I think that's where some more cooperation between levels of government can really make a difference. Again, I think it was really unedifying after all of the recent disasters that we saw, that we ended up time after time seeing this finger-pointing game between prime ministers and premiers about who was to blame and who held hoses and who didn't hold hoses. I can tell you, having been into a lot of disaster areas myself over the last three years, the last thing disaster victims care about is who is responsible. They just want to see the job done. And that's the kind of approach I'm going to be trying to take, through much more cooperation with states, territories and local governments. I think there's a lot we can do.

SPEAKER: Time is up.

WATT: Should I just quickly talk about housing? Because I know it's been a really big issue. I’ll leave you to have a look at some of the policies that we took to the election. But I just want to acknowledge it is a very real problem right across the country, whether we're talking cities or regions. We went to the election promising a Housing Australia Fund - a $10 billion fund which will provide an ongoing stream of funding. Again, we can debate whether that's enough or whether there needs to be more, but a much bigger investment in social and affordable housing than we've seen from the Federal Government for a very long time, and what we expect is that that will build 30,000 social and affordable homes over the next five years, with particular emphasis on remote Indigenous housing, housing for veterans, housing for women and children fleeing domestic violence and that's in addition to some of the programs that we put forward to assist first home buyers and other groups as well. We are planning to have a National Housing and Homelessness Plan and we intend to develop that in partnership with stakeholders, including yourselves.

I'll leave it at that. But can I just end by saying again, we are really serious about trying to form partnerships with you. You'll remember that when Anthony Albanese was the Minister for Local Government, I think he was the first one who organised- was it the convention? I’ve forgotten exactly what the terminology was - but bringing every mayor to Canberra to meet with the Cabinet. It's not a bad thing to have a bloke who is that committed to local government as the Prime Minister of this country. So I think we can do some good things together, whether it be in my portfolios or not. And I look forward to working with you. We can make this country an even better place, and thank you again.