Statements by Senators – 27 July 2022

Today I decided to make a contribution in the Senate on the topic of foot-and-mouth disease, which is obviously a very serious issue impacting the agriculture industry but also our economy nationally. Foot-and-mouth disease has been getting a lot of attention in the media, and for good reason. But there has also been a lot of attention in our political debate. It presents a very huge and devastating threat to one of our most significant components of the Australian economy—our ag industry. The estimated initial cost of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, if it were to occur here in Australia, would be around $80 billion—that’s been recent estimates—not to mention the immense personal cost on individuals in agriculture, particularly our farmers.

Australians are already intensely aware of the supply chain disruptions of the past two years during COVID. There is a lot of valid concern out in our community about the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak that is currently being seen, and the Australian government is working very closely with our friends in Indonesia. This outbreak does require a very serious but mature response, and that’s why the Albanese Labor government has taken several measures to date to strengthen our biosecurity on our border. I’ll run through just a few for the benefit of the Senate.

First, we’ve increased screening in our airports and mail centres. Second, we’ve reviewed the import permits for Indonesian products that are at risk of carrying foot-and-mouth disease. Third, there’s been specific advice about biosecurity responsibilities that has played on every plane coming into Australia from Indonesia. Fourth is direct support to the Indonesian government to purchase vaccines to control the outbreak. Fifth is additional funding for Meat & Livestock Australia to coordinate industry’s response to the disease. And sixth is the deployment of sanitation foot mats. It is these mats that have been delivered to all of our international airports. They are operational in Melbourne, Perth, Darwin, Sydney, Adelaide, Cairns and Brisbane for passengers entering from Indonesia, and there will be other airports that will soon also receive these mats.

In another step in the strongest biosecurity response Australia has ever seen, the Albanese government is also screening every single piece of mail that is arriving from both Indonesia and China. We are serious about combating the biggest risk of foot-and-mouth disease coming here: imported and infected meat products. This has never been done on such a scale by any previous Australian government, despite past outbreaks. It’s all part of our strongest biosecurity response in history.

But what has been disappointing is how the National Party have played politics with this outbreak, especially the one recently broken out in Indonesia.

Without talking to industry or experts, the Nationals have seized on the news of foot-and-mouth disease infections in Indonesia with delight and have immediately called for the closure of the border between our two great nations. This is an extraordinary call from the opposition, particularly those in the National Party. It has received no response and has also received no support from experts in the industry. Industry groups have rightly called for calm, and acknowledge the government’s response has been very reasonable and been measured to prevent the disease from entering Australia, and have stated our border should remain open. I know there were interjections across the aisle, but I do say, thankfully, the Liberal Party did not join the Nationals in calling for the borders to be closed.

Take, for instance, Meat & Livestock managing director Jason Strong, who recently described the federal government’s approach to date as very coordinated and collaborative, adding that the cooperation has been outstanding. He further characterised some of the recent commentary by those opposite, particularly the National Party, as unnecessarily alarmist.

AgForce Queensland deputy president John Baker was also reported in the media recently as advising his members that they should be cautious about foot-and-mouth disease but that he had faith in Australia’s biosecurity measures because they ‘were doing their job’. Further, he went on to say that there was all this hysteria with people saying that we should ban travel to Bali but we haven’t banned travel to any other country where there has been foot-and-mouth disease in the past. Other farm leaders, like those at the National Farmers Federation, have said that the biosecurity measures to combat the spread of foot-and-mouth disease in Australia are actually working.

The united foot-and-mouth disease effort by Labor and industry is crucial to maintaining confidence in our $80 billion agriculture industry. So seriously has this government taken the issue that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Senator Murray Watt, travelled to Jakarta recently. He was accompanied by the National Farmers Federation President Fiona Simson and Australia’s chief veterinary officer for talks with the Indonesian government on how we can help with the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. I want to commend the minister for taking such action. On top of this, the minister has provided not one but two briefings to the opposition—specifically, to the Leader of the Nationals, at his request—by the ag department’s biosecurity team, so that we collectively in this place can all work together to protect our ag industry. Indonesia is a key trading partner, and nurturing our trade relationship is incredibly important, particularly for agriculture. But, for weeks now, members of the opposition—particularly those in the National Party—have been dramatically calling for the border to be shut, again with no support from experts or industry.

What we saw on Monday was quite mind-blowing. We saw the extraordinary attack from the Nationals leader, David Littleproud, on the National Farmers Federation for daring to question his record on biosecurity and his border hysteria. Unlike the opposition, we will work with the industry to keep foot-and-mouth disease out, but we don’t want to play politics, and on multiple occasions we have said to the opposition that we want to work with them on this issue. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Mr Littleproud has attacked farm groups for daring to question him. In March this year, he called such groups — particularly the NFF — ‘ignorant’ and ‘sidelined critics’ over the coalition government’s then lacklustre response to lumpy skin disease. That kind of arrogance and refusal to listen is what has created the cracks in our biosecurity wall that we are now trying to fix. The NFF President Fiona Simson responded to these attacks by the Nationals leader on Monday with a tweet. For the benefit of my colleagues, I will read what she tweeted:

He seemed to think we were representative a couple of months ago (except when we were pushing for the national bio-security strategy or more $$ for bio-security, that is…)

So, unlike the Nats, Labor has listened to farmers and we’ve listened to many farming peak bodies, and I’ve been personally contacted by many in the industry who are deeply concerned about the impact of the media storm that the Nationals have been drumming up about the insecurity of our borders. The debate has undermined confidence in Australian consumers and retailers, who are starting to feel that maybe we should stay away from Australian beef, despite the controls that we have in place. The controls are working. There has been no human health concern to date. I’ve heard concerning reports that international consumers are already asking which other countries they can source their beef from because the media debate is undermining confidence in Australia’s ability to keep foot-and-mouth disease out, despite our controls working.

The NFF has been very clear that it does not think that the border should be shut. They’ve also been very critical of the previous coalition government’s ad hoc approach to biosecurity. For almost a decade, biosecurity funding has been inconsistent and patchy, which is the opposite of what you need if you are to keep biological threats out of Australia. So it’s completely hypocritical for the Nationals to be talking down the Albanese government’s approach and ability to manage biosecurity, when they have been criticised for years for their inadequate and inconsistent management. What did Nationals Leader David Littleproud say in response to criticism of his party’s approach to biosecurity and the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak? Well, he doubled down: he claimed the NFF doesn’t represent everyday farmers. That’s right—they don’t represent everyday farmers, apparently. Apparently, farmers shouldn’t collaborate and raise their voice on issues that matter to them; they should just sit down and listen to what the Nats tell them to think.

Well, that is not the approach of this government. That is not the approach of an Albanese government and how it will work with our farming community.