Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

21 July 2022

Title: Kieran Gilbert interview with Minister Murray Watt
Channel: Sky News
Program: Afternoon Agenda  
Broadcast: 21 July 2022, 2:04pm -  2:13pm

KIERAN GILBERT: A short time ago I spoke with Agriculture Minister Murray Watt. I began by asking him whether he believes it’s all but inevitable that Australia will eventually have an outbreak of foot and mouth disease on our shores.

MURRAY WATT: I don’t believe it is, Kieran. And, of course, it’s of great concern that the outbreak has reached Bali. But it’s important that we all remain calm and remain focused on what we need to do to keep this virus out of Australia. That’s exactly why we’re working very closely with industry and individual farmers about making sure that all of us are playing our role to keep this disease out and at the same time making sure that we’re prepared if we do see an outbreak reach Australia.

But my number one focus is making sure that we do everything we possibly can to keep this virus out of Australia. And that’s why we have continued to ramp up our measures – extra biosecurity officers, extra detector dogs, now rolling out foot mats to airports – while at the same time asking all travellers to make sure that they do the right thing as well.

KIERAN GILBERT: Is there any scenario under which you would close the border to Indonesia because of this?

MURRAY WATT: Look, we have no plans to close the borders either in Indonesia or to any of the other many countries that have foot and mouth disease. A lot of people aren’t aware with all of the attention on Indonesia that there are right now outbreaks of foot and mouth disease in a range of other countries, whether it be China, Vietnam, Malaysia, India, South Africa. Those countries have had foot and mouth disease for years.

And, look, I’ve noticed, you know, some of the calls from former agriculture ministers and members of the opposition, and I think it’s really disappointing that people in those roles are calling for border closures and other sorts of drastic measures that they never once brought in when they were in government.

While they were in government we saw outbreaks across a range of those other countries. We never saw them bring in border closures for those countries. We never saw them roll out foot mats into our airports. We never saw them ramp up the biosecurity officers in the same way that we are. So I can put my hand on my heart and say to Australians this is the strongest biosecurity response any Australian government has ever imposed in relation to a biosecurity episode.

So it’s all very well for all of these people like David Littleproud, Barnaby Joyce, Peter Dutton, others, to be experts in opposition – they were never experts in government. They were dunces in government and now they’re experts in opposition.

KIERAN GILBERT: David Littleproud actually has said that you shouldn’t shut the border. I know that others in his party have had a different view, but he has said you shouldn’t because of unintended consequences like the fact that Indonesia could well shut trade from Australia whether it be live cattle, grain or whatever else if they’re treated differently to those other countries where you point out there is FMD already.

MURRAY WATT: That’s exactly right. And on that one matter David Littleproud and I are aligned. He at least has the decency to recognise that closing the borders in the way that many of his own members are calling for would be incredibly damaging to our trade relationship, including in agriculture, with Indonesia and other countries.

I think what’s important, though, is that David Littleproud and Peter Dutton don’t just say these things; they’ve got to show leadership. This is a test of their leadership of their parties about whether they are actually going to do the right thing by Australia’s agriculture industry or whether they’re going to continue to fan the flames of hysteria that we’re seeing from their own members. They’ve got to pick a side – are they standing with Australia’s agriculture industry or are they just going to keep playing politics with our industry at the expense of Australian farmers?

KIERAN GILBERT: What David Littleproud also said was that he called for the disinfectant foot mats that you’re now implementing two weeks ago, and his argument is that since then there have been upwards of 15,000 people return from Indonesia. Should it have been done sooner in this?

MURRAY WATT: No, we’ve acted as quickly as we possibly can. And I didn’t go out and make a big deal about this, Kieran, but basically as soon as this outbreak got to Bali I directed my department to start working urgently on matters involving what we could do around footwear.

And, again, I make the point, David Littleproud is all very wise after the fact lecturing us about what we should be doing. This outbreak started in Indonesia when he was the Minister for Agriculture, and all the things that he’s now demanding that we do were not things that he ever did once when he was the Minister for Agriculture when the Indonesian outbreak started. And they were things that he never did when he was the minister when we saw all the other outbreaks across the rest of the world. So, again, it’s all very well to be in opposition and now to be an expert, but where was David Littleproud if we needed these measures in those times?

The reality about these mats is you can’t just roll down to Bunnings and buy a few door mats, the kind of thing that you’d put outside your house. These are heavy duty mats that are going to have to be able to withstand hundreds of people walking over them a day, sprayed with citric acid. That’s not the kind of thing you can get at Bunnings or your local hardware. We have had to put in a special order for these mats because they weren’t available in Australia in the current form.

But we have acted incredibly quickly, and I think the fact that we can get those mats down within two weeks of this outbreak reaching Bali is a real credit to my department, to the airports and the airlines for working cooperatively. And it’s about time the opposition got on board and worked with industry in the same way we are.

KIERAN GILBERT: Mr Dutton has said today, “We can’t run the risk of foot and mouth disease reaching our shores. This is a matter of national significance. The Prime Minister needs to tell Australians what he’s doing to manage this serious risk.” Should it be something elevated to the Prime Minister’s response here?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I’ve already raised this with the Prime Minister on a number of occasions, and I’ve raised it with cabinet as well because our government does see this as an incredibly important priority. And that’s why I was able to secure urgent funding for the extra measures that we’ve put in place.

You know, we know that times are tough financially at the moment, but it’s a credit to the Prime Minister, the Treasurer, the Finance Minister and all of my colleagues that they were prepared to approve this extra funding that we announced last week. So the Prime Minister is very focused on this, as he is on a range of other priorities facing the nation. And I know he’s been very supportive of the measures that we’ve put in place.

KIERAN GILBERT: And while you want to raise awareness, there is also a bit of a stick involved here as well for those who are not doing the right thing in terms of declarations and so on. Can you explain that to us?

MURRAY WATT: Exactly, Kieran. And the reality is that biosecurity is everybody’s business. Everyone has a role to play here, whether it be me as the minister, whether it be state governments, particularly if we were to get an outbreak to occur here, but also we need the travelling public and farmers to do their bit as well. And with travellers coming back in from Bali, we just absolutely need you declare any item which might be in any way a biosecurity risk. We need you to declare if you’ve been on a farm, if you’ve been near livestock. That’s why those cards need to be filled out. I did it myself when I came in from Indonesia the other day. It’s not difficult to tell the truth. And if people hide things and falsify their information they will be caught and they will be fined.

The viral fragments that we picked up in products over the last few days as a result of the routine surveillance exercises that we undertake that people might not necessarily know are happening, so people need to understand if they do the wrong thing, they will be caught and they will face very heavy fines.

KIERAN GILBERT: Heaven forbid if there is a live case detected in Australia. Is that it? You know, when we talk about this $80 billion cost to our agricultural sector, if there’s a live case is that it, or what’s the damage control that might be able to be undertaken to mitigate against the worst-case scenario?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, well, I’m pleased to say, Kieran, that the work around a possible outbreak began well before I was appointed to this role. This is work that our department does on a regular basis with their state and territory counterparts. It’s important to remember that Australia is foot and mouth disease free at the moment and our meat and dairy products are all absolutely safe to consume. But we have well-established plans in place with states and territories as to how we would manage an outbreak of this disease, just as we do for any other disease or any other biosecurity issue.

So where it would begin most likely is a national standstill of livestock for a period of time while we move to wider movement controls. I have noticed some people calling for all cattle in particular to be vaccinated in Australia. That would not be the right move because that would mean that we would be deemed to have foot and mouth disease by other countries. But certainly if we were to have an outbreak here we have access to vaccines at a very quick pace and we would obviously consider vaccinations as well.

KIERAN GILBERT: And just finally before I let you go, to recap, you won’t be shutting the border, but you are still optimistic that this thing can be kept out?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I am, Kieran. I mean, we have some of the world’s best biosecurity systems that exist. And, again, the fact that we have managed to pick up these viral fragments in meat products gives me confidence that the systems that we’ve got in place are picking up what we need them to pick up. But, as I say, it’s not entirely up to us; do need the travelling public to do the right thing. We do need people who are importing meat products to do the right thing.

But if we all play our role I do think that we can keep foot and mouth disease out. We’ve had viral fragments in meat products in Australia several times over the last few years and we managed to not lead that to an outbreak, and that’s certainly my intention to make that happen here as well.

KIERAN GILBERT: Agriculture Minister Senator Murray Watt, I know you’re very busy today, I appreciate the time. Thanks.

MURRAY WATT: No worries, Kieran.