The Albanese government has a chance to break down the misconceptions between the Labor party and rural Australia, according to the new agriculture minister Murray Watt, who flagged the climate crisis as a key area to work towards common ground.
“Some in Labor have viewed rural Australia with suspicion and think that we can never get people to support us. Equally, I think people in rural Australia have viewed Labor with suspicion,” Watt said.
“I think there’s a bit of a clean slate here to work constructively with both the industry and rural areas, generally, around some shared goals. And I mean, climate change is a really good example of that.”
Watt said he was considering a new Landcare-style scheme to address the climate crisis and sustainability. It could build on the 30-year-old partnership between farmers and the environmental movement, a Hawke government legacy.
“We’ve got to the point where the National party was pretty unrepresentative of what real farmers wanted,” Watt said.
“I think that if we manage climate change action and the push for sustainability in agriculture sensibly, that’s an example of an issue where there’s an opportunity to build a strong partnership.
“All the farm groups and individual farmers I’ve met with, not just since taking on the portfolio, but even beforehand, are up for this. They want to be part of this. Now we can turn the page and think about revamping some of these structures and mechanisms and bringing farmers to the center of it.”
Watt was also open to a national food strategy as governments grapple with food security and supply chain issues globally. Shortly before losing office, the Gillard government promised a national food plan in 2013, but it lapsed under the Coalition. The Food Policy Working Group in the agriculture department was abolished in the Abbott government’s 2014 budget.
“There’s growing concerned about food security, particularly what’s happening overseas, and I’ve started thinking about that.”
Watt committed to bringing farm industry leaders, unions, and First Nations people together to discuss solutions to the dire shortage in the agriculture workforce.
Labor has promised a dedicated agriculture visa stream under the established Palm (Pacific Australia Labor Mobility) scheme, effectively replacing the Coalition’s new visa for the forestry, fishery, and farm industries, targeting workers from southeast Asia. The move angered farm groups even though no workers had arrived at the Coalition’s scheme at the election.
“I’m not dewy-eyed about the potential of that to fix the problem,” Watt said. “But, there are some incredibly interesting careers in agriculture, particularly permanently with the kind of technology that’s coming in.”
He defended Labor’s decision to phase out live sheep exports on the grounds of animal welfare and a loss of social license by the live export industry – though Anthony Albanese has promised it would not happen before 2025.
While the ban primarily affects Western Australian sheep farmers, Watt said it shouldn’t spell the end of sheep farming but rather “change how the product is sent to market”.
“The primary motivation is an animal welfare consideration. And unfortu,nately for the industry, it lost a lot of public support,” Watt said.
“When you look at the numbers of exports, we’re not talking about a booming industry, which, in part, reflects consumer demand changing as well.”
He pointed to Labor’s promise of a $500m reconstruction fund to help the region value add and develop food processing and manufacturing.
“Eventually, it could be used as part of this transition about live sheep exports. Potentially it could be used in the forestry sector to extract the most value from our forestry plantations,” Watt said.
“I don’t have a fixed view about, you know, exactly what regions or products can be used for, but I want to make sure that we use it to lift productivity and ultimately lift jobs in the sector.”
Watt said he asked for a position with a connection to regional Australia. His parents came from the Darling Downs and Mackay regions in Queensland, though he has been Brisbane-based. Most of his shadow roles had concentrated on restricted areas, including portfolios of northern Australia, natural disasters, and emergency management.
While the Labor party has its historical roots in the shearer’s strikes just before federation, Watt said he was not unrealistic about the relationship between Labor and the bush. Of Labor’s 77 seats, Labor currently holds 13 seats classified as “provincial” and six seats classified as “rural” by the Australian Electoral Commission. Gilmore, also classified as rural, is still being contested.
“I’m not going to pretend that every single person living in rural Australia is a potential Labor voter, but I think that being in government gives us a real opportunity to break down some of the misconceptions between the Labor party and rural Australia.”
Watt said Labor had worked hard to rebuild trust and relationships in regional Australia after previous election losses, particularly the 2019 election.
“Being a Queensland-based senator, I particularly needed to do that after the wipeout we suffered in the 2019 election, but I feel quite optimistic about our relationships with farm groups and the sector generally and with rural Australia overall.”
But he said Labor had supported the Coalition’s carbon and biodiversity pilot programs – which paid landholders for building carbon sinks and protecting habitat but would visit the trial sites to see how it worked.
“There’s a massive opportunity around the carbon market and reforming things like the emissions reduction fund so that the average farmer can get involved and make a buck out of these things.”