Interview with ABC North Queensland, Breakfast

Foot and mouth disease controls and industry response

Journalist: One of the big stories we’ve been talking about over the last week or so, certainly it’s been a big topic in our rural news and on the Queensland Country Hour, has been the detection of foot and mouth disease in Indonesia. And a lot of great local concerns about how we best keep the disease out of Australia and the impacts it could have throughout our meat industries, not just for our graziers but, as you’ve heard recently as well, our butchers have a great concern about what that’s going to mean for their businesses if the disease is detected here in Australia. 

The federal government has been trying to reassure people that measures are being taken. But are they enough, and what more can be done? Let’s talk about this this morning with Senator Tim Ayres, who’s the Assistant Minister for Trade and the Assistant Minister for Manufacturing. Senator, thank you for your time this morning. 

Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Assistant Minister for Manufacturing: G’day, Michael. Terrific to be with you. It’s a lot colder down here than it is up there, I think. 

Journalist: Well, certainly up here in North Queensland there’s been a lot of heat over this issue. 

Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: Yes. 

Journalist: Even with some calls for flights to Bali to cease for the time being. Is the government doing enough to protect us? 

Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: Well, this is – this is a very serious prospect indeed, and the government is committed to doing everything that the experts are advising us to do, everything that industry is advising us to do. We’re working with industry to deal with this challenge. The cost to the economy, the cost to Australia of a foot and mouth disease outbreak would be very significant. And you’re right to point to, yes, its cattle producers, yes, it’s butchers – it’s everybody in between and in the supply chain as well. 

So, it is an outbreak in Indonesia that the government’s taking very seriously, and we are throwing the kitchen sink at this on the border within Australia and also supporting our friends and partners in Indonesia to assist them to make sure that they get the disease outbreak under control as swiftly as possible. Because in the medium run that is the only way that we deliver more safety and security for Australia’s cattle industry. 

Journalist: You said throwing the kitchen sink at it, but you aren’t ending flights. Can you explain why the government isn’t taking that step despite some calls? I know a lot of industry groups have not called for that as well. But why you’ve said that these measures will be enough? 

Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: Well, I just say that it’s – the Agriculture Minister Murray Watt is leading the government’s response on this issue, but many of us are engaged in this as well. And, you know, I was meeting cattle industry representatives last night. I haven’t met anybody serious from the industry who suggests that closing the borders would be a rational, helpful response at this stage. 

There’s no support from the experts for that proposition, and the industry – the industry is working carefully and working strongly with the government to implement the measures that we’ve worked through with industry. But industry is not suggesting an alternative course of action here because they know it’s not – it’s not in the national interest but it’s not in the interest of the industry either. 

We actually need to focus our resources as a government on the areas where there is the highest risk. And that does mean, you know, we’ve put out the additional resources in all of the international airports – additional staff, biosecurity detector dogs, additional training for staff, new biosecurity measures on all inbound flights from Indonesia. 

Now, that means that every single passenger coming from Indonesia there is a proper risk profile done of every passenger. Many passengers are being diverted into much more intensive checks on the basis of an assessment of their risk. 

We’re deploying additional resources in the mail sector as well because, you know, there are a variety of vectors for transmission of the disease into Australia and we need to be focused on all of them. Airports, yes, there are a set of risks there. But as your listeners would be aware, there are also risks from people importing animal products to Australia, and we are particularly focused on delivering additional capacity through the mail system and through the, you know, import management system to make sure that we’re on top of those risks as well. 

Journalist: Is there a need for particular vigilance in northern Australia given the proximity of our region to Indonesia? Is that more of a concern? I mean, when you talk about things like boating, for example, or, you know, people, you know, in the north of the country, are we beefing up security here? 

Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: Yeah, you’re right. You’re right to point to that. So, in addition to what the government’s doing with our resources in, you know, airports like Darwin and Cairns – additional resources there including biosecurity dogs –there is a requirement for the government through our network of, you know, rangers and other capabilities to be keeping an eye out for incursions by boats where there’s likely to be animal products. So that’s certainly a feature of the government’s response. 

There are other measures that are being undertaken in the north as well. You know, we are monitoring cattle herds and other livestock herds across the north. There is a biosecurity plan in place to make sure that we’re responding fast and that we’re keeping a very strong eye on, very strong capability deployed in the north in particular. But we are – but from Cairns to Melbourne to, you know, Perth to Hobart every potential area of risk is being assessed and dealt with, and the government’s response that’s been rolled out so far has been early and the most comprehensive response to any overseas disease break in Australian history. 

Journalist: You’re hearing this morning from Senator Tim Ayres, the Assistant Minister for Trade and the Assistant Minister for Manufacturing, talking to us today about foot and mouth disease. 

While we’ve been talking, Senator, one of our listeners Ron has got in touch with us and he says he’s a grazier in North Queensland. He says he would like no further tourist activity between Bali and Australia, but he also makes the point he would like to see when people come back into the country with their own footwear that they should have it taken away at the gate. I mean, do we need to be that vigilant, particularly about footwear? I’m hearing a lot about this lately. 

Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: Well, there are the sanitation mats at all of the airports. And there are a risk-based assessments of every passenger and there is comprehensive searches of some passengers who are identified as of being a higher risk than others. So, there is an absolutely comprehensive approach at the airports. 

But we do need cooperation of Australians here. Both passengers who are leaving Australia and going overseas – in this case to Indonesia – need to think carefully about what it is that they’re going to be doing while they’re, you know, in their travels. And they need to comply with Australian regulations on the way in. 

Now, the information that we’re getting back from our border control experts is that there is a very high level of compliance with the requirements that the government has got in place and that that compliance has continued to lift week after week as passengers have become more aware of these issues. Now, of course – 

Journalist: But does it only take one tourist who isn’t honest or doesn’t tell all of the information or might have something stashed in their bag that isn’t, you know, inspected, does it only take one to cause this problem? 

Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: That’s the case with biosecurity everywhere. Indonesia is not the only jurisdiction where foot and mouth disease is present around the world. There are outbreaks in the Middle East and in Africa. There are some parts of the world where the disease is endemic. There are other biosecurity threats – lumpy skin disease being, you know, first amongst them. 

You know, there is a constant requirement – since the last outbreak of this disease in Australia about 150 years there is a constant requirement for effective biosecurity mechanisms at the border but also in our mail and import system. And there is a requirement for us to have all of that in place but also making sure that, you know, should there be an outbreak – heaven forbid, should be there an outbreak – in Australia, that we’ve got a fast, effective biosecurity plan in place. There are a series of measures – layers to the measures that the government’s put in place. I’m very confident that we’re acting consistent with the advice in a careful, rational way. And we’ve got very strong support and cooperation from industry. 

Now, you know, they are in here in Canberra with the Minister and with the government pretty intensively at the moment making additional suggestions, putting forward proposals about, you know, measures where they can assist the government’s response. There is a very high level of cooperation between the government and the industry to deal with this crisis. 

I understand Ron’s concern absolutely. You know, I grew up in the cattle industry as a kid. I know how important the industry is in country Australia. I know how important it is to the country and I know how people who work in the cattle industry love their industry. We are absolutely alive to that. And the government is going to – you know, we are not going to take our foot off the accelerator on putting the right measures in place to deal with the risks in a sensible and effective way. 

Journalist: Senator, we’ll have to leave it there. But we do appreciate your time this morning. 

Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: Any time, Michael. Thanks for that. 

Journalist: Explaining the government’s position on foot and mouth disease and the measures being taken, Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing, Senator Tim Ayres, joining us. And thanks, Ron, for your comments as well asking those questions.