Doorstop at Parliament House, Canberra

4 August 2022

E&OE TRANSCRIPT
DOORSTOP INTERVIEW
PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
THURSDAY, 4 AUGUST 2022

TOPICS: Foot and mouth disease taskforce; focus on biosecurity.
 

MURRAY WATT, MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY:  OK thanks everyone for coming. I just wanted to provide people with another update on foot and mouth disease in Indonesia and what we're doing about it.

From the outset, it's important to remember that Australia is foot and mouth disease free. It remains that way. I know there's been a lot of commentary about this, but that's probably the most important message I can continue to give people, particularly to our overseas customers.

And over the last few weeks, you may have heard me talk about our two-pronged approach to responding to the foot and mouth disease outbreak in Indonesia, as well as the outbreak of lumpy skin disease. And that two-pronged approach has been about taking action at home and abroad - helping our Indonesian neighbours to limit the spread of the disease overseas, and implementing the strongest response to a biosecurity threat in our nation's history.

Today, I'm pleased to announce a third prong. Taking action now to ensure that we are fully prepared if we were to see an outbreak to occur here. This is the next logical step in our plan around managing the risk of an outbreak and ensuring that we are fully prepared. This step which I'll say a bit more about, builds on the new measures that we have already taken over the last few weeks. Some of the things have been never done by any Australian government. We've, for the first time ever, deployed sanitation foot mats in every international airport in Australia, for passengers returning from Indonesia. For the first time ever, we've declared biosecurity response zones in every international airport in Australia to give biosecurity officers stronger powers. We are biosecurity profiling 100 per cent of travellers, including extra assessment for passengers who have recently been in Indonesia. We are doing 100 per cent screening of all mail items coming from Indonesia to pick up those meat products, which as I've said, are the highest risk in terms of entry of the disease. We redeployed biosecurity detected dogs to priority airports. And as you would have seen this week, they're already picking up things that shouldn't be coming back into the country. We've increased questioning of returning passengers. And of course, we started providing expert technical advice and providing more than 1 million foot and mouth disease vaccines and over 400,000 lumpy skin disease vaccines to Indonesia.

As I said, though, today we are adding a third prong to our response to this outbreak that is on our doorstep. And that's because while the risk of foot and mouth disease or lumpy skin disease entering Australia is low, it is not zero. And we cannot assume that it will stay that way. We need to be fully prepared. Experts have assessed the risk of a foot and mouth disease incursion in Australia in the next five years as 11.6 per cent. And 28 per cent for lumpy skin disease. So it is prudent to make sure that we are prepared now. And that's because good governments plan for the best and prepare for the worst. That's exactly what we are doing. That's what we've done on natural disaster management ever since we came to office, and that's what we're doing with biosecurity threats, such as these diseases.

Now, while the federal, state and territory governments all have thorough, well-developed biosecurity response plans in place, we will leave no stone unturned to ensure that we are ready should an outbreak occur here. And that's why I have directed the establishment of a new Commonwealth Task Force to thoroughly assess our current level of national preparedness for these diseases and advise of any improvements that might be needed. The new Exotic Animal Disease Preparedness Taskforce will include officials from a range of government departments, including the Australian Defence Force, Australian Border Force, and Animal Health Australia. By bringing together the best expertise from across government, we can ensure that everyone understands their roles and responsibilities if there were to be an outbreak, and that there are no gaps in our response. Importantly, this taskforce will be co-led by a senior officer of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, and the Director General of Emergency Management Australia, bringing together both the experts in biosecurity and animal health and our experts in disaster management. It will work closely with states, territories and industry to ensure that we are all fully prepared if an outbreak were to occur. The taskforce will get to work immediately, conducting a series of scenario-based exercises within the next month. We have learned the lessons from the outbreak of COVID-19 and the former government's lack of preparedness to respond to it. We are determined to not make the same mistakes that they made. They were too slow on vaccines, too slow on RATs, and Australians paid the price. We can do better than that by being fully prepared. If there were to be a major biosecurity outbreak in Australia, there is simply no time for delay. So I repeat; good governments plan for the best and prepare for the worst. That's what we're doing here, and that's what we'll continue to do. Happy to take questions.
 
JOURNALIST: Minister it sounds like this new phase in the [inaudible] is likely to enter Australia. Is that the case, is it an evitability? And could you explain a bit further the 11 per cent, is there more of a risk now, given how close it is?

WATT: Yeah, I wouldn't say that the risk is likely, I mean, it's obviously well below 50 per cent, that risk. But we have had experts assessing the risk, and this is the conclusion that they've reached - that there is a risk. And when there's a risk, good governments prepare for that. I don't believe that it's inevitable that these diseases reach Australia. And we'll be trying very, very hard, along with industry and travellers and state and territory governments, to make sure of that. But it does make sense to be fully prepared if we were to see an outbreak occur here. I'll come over to Madura...

JOURNALIST: You spoke of preparedness and you spoke about scenarios as well, will there be a plan, or is there already a plan in place for like the first 24 hours, 48 hours, a month, if foot and mouth disease should come to Australia, do we have that already in place?

WATT:  We do. So as I say, there are already well-developed plans, including the AUSVET plan between the federal government, states and territories, about how we respond to any biosecurity outbreak. We saw similar plans put in place recently around the varroa mite outbreak. And what they essentially say is that the first step would be to impose a 72-hour national standstill on livestock movements to make sure that diseased animals would not be spreading around the country. And then what would happen is a very quick assessment by experts about what further measures might be needed. That might include vaccinations, that might include culling, that might include movement controls. So those plans already exist, what this is about, and putting together this task force, is about joining up different arms of government to make sure that they're already working really closely together. So that if we did have an outbreak, everyone knows exactly what they've got to do and they are fully prepared.

JOURNALIST: How long would you expect this taskforce to [inaudible]?

WATT: Initially, we've set up the taskforce for a four week period, to provide us with urgent advice, as I say, about the state of our national preparedness, and to identify any gaps that there might be so that we can fix them. It may well be that that advice comes back, it's suggesting an extension of that taskforce and that's certainly something we consider. But we don't have a moment to waste and that's why we've asked for advice quickly. Mike?

JOURNALIST: You said you need to be prepared for the worst, and you also said that we can better prepare with this taskforce and so on. So we saw the Nationals scrap the plans for their biosecurity levy, I understand there are budgetary pressures, but are you arguing in Cabinet for enhanced biosecurity expenditure to be better prepared, you know how much extra does Australia need to stop these increasing threats?

WATT: There is no doubt that we face more biosecurity threats than we've probably ever faced before as a nation. There's obviously been a lot of attention on these animal diseases, but as you would know, Mike, there's a range of diseases that potentially affect plants as well, and crops. And that's why I have begun discussions with my colleagues about what more we can be doing and what more funding might be required. Obviously, there are budget processes that need to be gone through. But you would have seen that when I recently returned from Indonesia, I announced $14 million in extra funding for extra measures here and also overseas. And that's an indication that we take this seriously and we're prepared to do what needs to be done.

JOURNALIST: You've ruled it out in the past, but have you given any more consideration to closing borders or putting, I guess, export controls on certain countries with foot and mouth disease? A second one; Pauline Hanson made quite a speech this morning in the Senate saying people were coming back from Indonesia, covered in...can you give us [inaudible] what she's raised there.

WATT: Well, it wouldn't be the first time that Pauline Hanson had said things that she had no evidence for. And I have no evidence before me that what Pauline Hanson is saying is actually occurring. We have significantly stepped up our efforts at airports and I'm really pleased that most travellers are doing the right thing. Most travellers -  the reports we get - are cleaning their shoes before they come back, and in many cases, leaving them behind. But also, of course, we've stepped up those measures. You would have seen the reporting about what our detector dogs discovered this week, and people are facing stiff fines from that. So I'm confident that we have the systems in place at the airport,. The first part, border closures as I've said before, the advice to me from our biosecurity experts is that there's no need to close our national borders at this point in time. We would only consider doing that if we consider that Indonesia was failing to manage the outbreak or failing to even attempt to manage the outbreak, or if there was sudden lapse of our biosecurity system at home. There's no evidence that either of those two things is happening. And you will have seen the reports of pretty much every industry group in the country saying they don't support border closures because of the damage that were due to our trade relationship with Indonesia. And the criticism that industry leaders have laid at the feet of Coalition and One Nation senators who have politicised this by calling for measures, like closing the borders, that would actually hurt our farmers rather than help them.

JOURNALIST: Why is the ADF being called on, and what will their role be?

WATT: Yeah, I suppose one of the ways I think about this is it's quite similar to how we would manage a natural disaster. And obviously, you know, I'm the Minister in that space as well, and the thinking that I've developed about this has partly come from the experiences that I've had recently in managing the New South Wales floods that we saw. Just as in a natural disaster, the ADF would be involved in a planning role and in some cases, in the deployment of troops role. The main thing we're looking for from the ADF at this point of time with the taskforce is to draw on their planning expertise. Our ADF have some of the best planning and logistics expertise that we have anywhere in the country. And we would want to draw on that expertise to vet some of the plans that we already have in place at federal and state and territory levels, make sure that they're well-coordinated, make sure that logistics can be put where they need to be done. So as I say, we want to draw on the very best expertise that we have available, including the ADF.

JOURNALIST: How confident are you [inaudible]?

WATT: Yeah look, I am confident that the plans exist, to manage these- any outbreak that we would see effectively. But it's my responsibility as the federal Minister of Agriculture, to make absolutely sure that those plans are working, are ready to go and that we have the resources that we need to put them in place. I've checked this with the Department, and while there have been sort of desktop reviews and things like that done about these sorts of incursions, it's several years since any government has undertaken a serious planning exercise at this scale for a foot and mouth disease incursion, so I think it's about time we did that. And that's why we're making this announcement. Eliza then Kath.

JOURNALIST: What's the latest information you have from Indonesia about bringing the disease under control? Do you share their confidence that it will happen by the end of the year? And also is this taskforce basically saying, 'if the disease was to come here, this is how we could contain it'?

WATT: So I've obviously seen the reports, like you probably have, that the Indonesian Government believes that it's getting on top of the virus, particularly in four provinces, including importantly Bali. And that's very encouraging news. The reports that I'm getting out of the Department also indicate that Indonesia has really stepped up when it comes to managing its outbreak and I saw that for myself when I was in Indonesia. The meetings that I had with Indonesian Ministers indicated that they were already stepping up their response, that they were going to be tightening controls on livestock movements. Since I've been to Indonesia, they've now put foot mats down in Bali's main airport - outbound as well as inbound. So I think those reports are very encouraging. And as I said at the time when I went to Indonesia, we stand ready to assist the Indonesian government and the Indonesian people in any way we possibly can.

JOURNALIST: Minister, what's the cost of convening this taskforce, how will it be funded? And just really quickly, it's been a couple of weeks since you announced 1 million doses of the FMD vaccine to Indonesia, why haven't they hit the ground there yet?

WATT: Sure. So there will be no extra cost for this taskforce, it will be internally funded using existing personnel. In terms of the vaccines, there is a worldwide shortage of these vaccines, as you may be aware, but the procurement process is very well-advanced and I expect them to be hitting the ground in Indonesia very soon. It is encouraging though, in the meantime, that Indonesia is approaching 1 million vaccines having been administered to livestock over there. There's obviously a lot more to go and that's what we want to help them with.

JOURNALIST: What sort of developments or risk factors would you need to see for you mandate the use of foot and mouth disease vaccines in Australia?

WATT: Well, I'm not sure if you've seen me say this already, but one of the very first questions I asked in this role was 'why wouldn't we go out and vaccinate our own livestock in Australia?'. And the reason for that is that that would result in the rest of the world deeming us to have foot and mouth disease. The problem if we get foot and mouth disease - or lumpy skin disease, we shouldn't forget about that, because that's actually a higher risk of coming here - is that pretty much overnight, our exports of affected livestock would be stopped. And similarly, if we began vaccinating our livestock population, the rest of the world would consider that to mean that we have foot and mouth disease, so those exports would dry up. So as I say, under the AUSVET plan, and other biosecurity plans that are already in place, there is certainly an option of rolling out a vaccination program. But the advice to me is that you would look at other measures first, before you would move to vaccination. If there were other ways of getting the disease and an outbreak under control very quickly, you would choose that option first, rather than moving to vaccination, which would have those consequences.

JOURNALIST: Minister, are you able to tell us what national cabinet was briefed on this morning in terms of foot and mouth, and do they have to agree to anything ie. this taskforce? Why four weeks as well, could it go on for longer?
 
WATT: So I obviously wasn't in national cabinet, I understand the Prime Minister is going to be standing up shortly, so he'll be able to talk to you about that. But certainly, foot and mouth disease was discussed at national cabinet. My understanding is that the Prime Minister provided people with a short briefing - the premiers with a short briefing - about what we were already doing, encourage continued cooperation with the states and territories. And he did briefed them that we were setting up this taskforce and that that would need to work at work cooperatively with states and territories. Probably got one time to one more, because then my pair is going to expire!

JOURNALIST: Just the four weeks, why the four week timeframe?

WATT: So as I said before, we've set up this taskforce for a four week period initially, so that we can get urgent advice to make sure that we are fully ready. I don't want to take the risk that this outbreak could reach Australia without knowing that we have done everything we possibly can to be prepared. But as I said earlier, if the advice to me is that the taskforce needs to be extended, then that's something we'd be happy to consider.

JOURNALIST: Have the Opposition been briefed on the taskforce?

WATT: They have now. Thank you.