Interview with Ben Dobbin, Rural Queensland Today

14 June 2022

Radio Transcript

Title: Ben Dobbin interview with Minister Murray Watt.
Description: Ben Dobbin interview with Minister Murray Watt discussing live sheep exports, meat processing and coal seam gas. 
Channel: Rural Queensland Today
Date Broadcast: 14 June 2022 
Time Broadcast: 10:36 AM - 10:45 AM

BEN DOBBIN: Welcome back to Rural Queensland Today. The Minister for Agriculture, Murray Watt, joins us this morning. Minister, we understand the commitment around the banning of sheep live exports and that commitment that the government now has made. I understand that – and we’ve talked to the Live Exporters’ Council. We’ve spoken to everybody. We’ve done market analysis on how this would affect the industry. You’ve come out and said this is not going to happen overnight. This is obviously in consultation. You committed to obviously banning this trade, but you are going to look at everything and make sure that it’s done in a smooth transition. That’s the government’s priority and that’s their complete prerogative to do that. 

Can you actually understand, Murray, that there is some concern, though, because of what has happened in the past, with the banning of the live export industry and what it did at that time to the industry, that people just revert back – and this is clearly a different situation. There’s no two ways about it. But there is still that, you know, lingering concern, “Well, the Labor Government, it was a knee-jerk reaction off the back of some footage that they saw”, which was horrific, no two ways about it, it was absolutely horrific, but they are concerned that there could be that knee-jerk reaction again which could at one stage completely bring the industry to its knees again. 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, look, I can understand why people would be nervous and let’s face it, Ben, whenever a big change in an industry is being talked about, people do get nervous. I suppose that’s why we’ve been at pains to say to people that this isn’t something we’re going to do overnight, and we want to do it in an orderly way in consultation with farmers, farm groups and other people who have got an interest in this. 

We actually went to the previous federal election, 2019, with a commitment to phase out live sheep exports within, I think, it was five years, from memory. This time, we didn’t set a time frame and one of the reasons for doing that was because we recognised this is something that has to be done gradually and in partnership with people, and you can’t do it overnight. 

I mean, ironically, what I’ve sort of learned is because we didn’t set a time frame this time, I think some people have interpreted that to mean that we want to do it really quickly, but the Prime Minister has actually made really clear in an interview that Albo did recently in WA that we won’t be doing it over this term of office. It’s something that will take time. You know, I’ve got an open mind about how we do it, when we do it and that’s the sort of stuff that I’m keen to talk to farmers about. And I’ll be trying to get over to WA reasonably soon because that is the main state it impacts on. 

I’ve also been clear, I should say, this absolutely has no implications for the live cattle trade at all. I very well remember the problems that happened last time there was a pretty instant live cattle ban and, you know, I know that was damaging for farmers and, let’s be honest, it didn’t really help the Labor Party politically. I think we’ve learnt from that and that’s one of the things that we’ve been very clear that this doesn’t apply to cattle, and also we’ve been very clear that we want to do the sheep phase-out in an older way. 

The other thing worth mentioning, I think, Ben, is that one of the reasons for doing this – there’s obviously the animal welfare issues and people are across that, but I also think there’s a really big opportunity for us as a country to build up more onshore meat processing. One of the things that Labor committed to in the run-up to the election was that we want to make more things here and rebuild our manufacturing sector. We don’t just mean making cars or making machinery or making batteries; we also mean more meat processing. As has been explained to me, I think there is some real potential to expand onshore meat processing when it comes to sheep, and that’s one of the things I’m keen to explore. 

We’re all about value-adding and if we can be creating more jobs in Australia out of the processing, then that’s a good thing for regional economies. As I say, I think these are the sorts of things we’ve got to work through with the industry as we’ve got to work out exactly how this is going to happen and over what time frame.

BEN DOBBIN: Yeah, it’s going to be an interesting time. Can I just talk to you – and we’re honoured to have the Ag Minister Murray Watt joining us this morning on Rural Queensland Today. We want to build the regions. Now, I understand water is not in your ministry and we need to, obviously, get more water, grow the regions; you know, not everybody can live in the southeast corner of Queensland and along the eastern seaboards. We need to obviously grow the regions. More jobs – it creates everything. The big thing is about protecting our prime agricultural land. Coal seam gas, we have to do it. There’s no two ways about it. They have to work in unison. And for the last, I’d say, 10 to 15 years, it seems and if you talk to – it doesn’t matter where you are, if you’ve got gas underneath, you’re going to actually have someone drill on it. How do we get to the point and as the Ag Minister you understand the importance of just preserving our – you know, we’re environmentalists at the foremost. We understand what we have to do. But the juggling act of protecting prime agricultural land in this state and this country verse we have to have coal seam gas, there’s no two ways about it, but trying to get that balance right. 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, it’s a tricky one, Ben, because you’re right. We need both. We obviously want our prime agricultural land to keep producing the incredible, you know, produce that we all depend on to eat and let alone the exports that it generates, but even what we’re going through as a country now with the energy crisis shows us that you do need gas. And, unfortunately, for farmers, very often the gas is below their farmland. So, this is going to sound a bit glib, but I think it does come down to, as you sort of say, working in unison and trying to coexist as industries. 

And, you know, I was in the Queensland Government when the gas industry first kicked off here and looking back on it, I think that the regulations that were in place at the time weren’t strong enough to protect landholders and give them some rights and some bargaining power when it came to dealing with gas companies. 

BEN DOBBIN: No doubt. 

MURRAY WATT: I think over time those regulations have improved and it’s a bit more of a level playing field now. But, you know, probably we can always look at these things and see if they can be improved further. But, you know, I think in the end, whenever I’ve spoken to farmers about these things, what it comes down to is that people want to be treated with respect. They don’t want to have people stomping all over their land, doing whatever they want to do without consulting them. And I think, as long as we can sort of put in place a system where that sort of respect is guaranteed, and that people do have to be consulted and they have to be compensated if there’s an impact on them, that’s probably about the best way through it. 

But again, it’s something I’m more than happy to talk with both farmers and the gas industry about to see if we can make it work even better for anyone.

BEN DOBBIN: Yeah. You can also talk to ARTC as well around this Inland Rail. That’s another whole can of worms that we probably don’t need to get into today. But if – 

MURRAY WATT: Maybe for a future chat.

BEN DOBBIN: Hey, Murray, quickly, mate, are you a XXXX man or a Great Northern man when it comes to having a beer? 

MURRAY WATT: Look, I’m probably more of a XXXX man, I have to admit, which probably makes me a southern Queenslander, doesn’t it? Ah well. 

BEN DOBBIN: They do get everywhere. 

MURRAY WATT: I’m certainly not a VB man so at least it’s a Queensland brew anyway.

BEN DOBBIN: I look forward to catching up with you and I know a lot of people in regional Queensland obviously clearly and I say this with the deepest respect, with a change of Government always brings uncertainty. And look, early on you’ve given reassurance and a commitment that you’re going to represent, obviously, the ag industry and that’s your front and foremost priority. People, obviously, in time – you can’t click your fingers and get around the state and this country and there’s obviously a lot going on in Canberra as well, but over time, over the next 12 to 18 months, no doubt you’ll catch up with the majority of people in rural and regional Queensland and throughout these towns and be present. And obviously, when things come up, you’ll be part of the show very much so and involved and more than willing to talk. So, we appreciate your time this morning. 

MURRAY WATT: Good on you, Ben. Look forward to it, mate. I was on a farm in Emerald last week – 

BEN DOBBIN: I heard that. I did hear that. 

MURRAY WATT: I suspect they will be doing something agriculture-related in Queensland when the Cabinet meets in Gladstone tomorrow.

BEN DOBBIN: It’s a big thing, big thing. 

MURRAY WATT: I will be getting out and about and everywhere I go, every place I go, I learn something, so I am looking forward to learning even more from your listeners in the months and years ahead.

BEN DOBBIN: I actually think that’s a real benefit because you actually go with an open mind, and I say that with the deepest respect. I mean, when you’re born and bred and you only know one way, it’s very hard to sway, but when you go there with a clear mind you can look at all of it and then you can come up with a true – obviously, you’ve got party policy as well, but then you can have a look at it and you can see it from both sides. So, I think that’s a really great benefit as well. 

Minister for Agriculture Murray Watt, I appreciate your time this morning on Rural Queensland Today. 

MURRAY WATT: No worries, Ben. Good to talk to you. 

BEN DOBBIN: Thanks, mate.