By LIAM DURKIN
FEDERAL Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries, Forestry and Emergency Management, Murray Watt, stopped by the region last month.
Mr Watt was in Gippsland, meeting constituents and getting a feel for issues on the ground as part of his recently appointed portfolio.
The Minister visited Australian Sustainable Hardwoods (ASH) Heyfield, before checking-in on flood damage in Traralgon, and then making his way to a robotic dairy farm just out of Warragul.
The timing of Mr Watt’s visit to Traralgon was rather pertinent given the damage and loss of life caused by the flood.
Speaking from the Gippsland Performing Arts Centre, which offered a touch of irony as pillars inside the building were made at ASH, Mr Watt was joined by Victorian Senator Raff Ciccone, National Recovery and Resilience Agency Recovery Support Officer Joe Rettino and Labor candidate for Morwell Kate Maxfield, as well as Latrobe City mayor Kelly O’Callaghan and Member for Gippsland Darren Chester.
Mr Watt used part of his Gippsland tour to meet with Cr O’Callaghan and other stakeholders to discuss a number of emergency management issues.
“We have people from every level of government, all parties, working together for the benefit of this region,” Mr Watt said.
“Really the point of this visit is so I can see first-hand what challenges Gippsland is facing in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries part of my portfolio and also emergency management.
“Gippsland is known right around our country as one of the great agricultural regions, along with a big forestry producer and fisheries as well. Each of those industries is performing pretty well at the moment but they each have challenges.
“Even from the time I have been here I can see that when it comes to agriculture, there is issues around input-costs that people are dealing with, labour shortages, biosecurity issues – people are very interested in what we have been doing around foot and mouth disease in particular.
“My message to Gippsland is that the new federal Labor government under Anthony Albanese is really serious about working with this region to maximise the value of these industries, to keep them as really important backbones in the regional economy, really big employers, and to assist those industries with future growth.”
Mr Watt said agriculture would play a key role in the transition to renewable energy, which was put in the spotlight further by the recent Gippsland New Energy Conference held in Sale.
“The policy that we took to the election, the Powering Australia Policy, is all about how we can get to that 43 per cent emissions target that we set for 2030,” he said
“The most exciting part of that policy I think is that it is about creating new jobs in regional Australia, what that policy shows is that by accelerating the move toward renewable energy, that we will create, as a country, more than 600,000 jobs and five out of six of them will be in regional Australia.
“That is why I feel so optimistic about the future of regional Australia, whether we are talking about some of the traditional industries that have powered the economies in regional Australia, or some of the newer industries, I think regional Australia is going to be a really big winner from that.”
With Australia registering some of its highest exports in agriculture on record in recent times, the need to fill labour shortages remains ever-present.
Mr Watt said the government was working on ways to address the issue.
“Labour shortages is undoubtedly one of the biggest challenges that agriculture faces in our country right now,” he said.
“When I was first sworn in as the Minister I identified labour shortages as one of my top three priority areas.
“We need to acknowledge this is not a new problem, this is something the industry has been struggling with for a long time.
“The discussions that I’ve had already with employer groups and unions involved in the agriculture sector tell me that there’s a lot more that people have in common here then what’s been understood before.”
The government will look to strengthen the PALM (Pacific Australia Labour Mobility) Scheme, which has an estimated 40,000 Pacific Islander workers on its books ready to come in and assist with the upcoming harvest season.
Mr Watt also met with Victorian Farmers Federation president Emma Germano at a roundtable in Melbourne, convened by the VFF last month.
In keeping with the straight-shooting nature of farmers, Mr Watt was confident Prime Minister Anthony Albanese had not secretly appointed himself as Agricultural Minister.