Senate debates

Thursday, 4 August 2022


Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

3:42 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on document No. 11: the unfortunate response of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry to foot-and-mouth disease. He has been caught flat-footed since the disease became uncontrollable in Indonesia and spread to 22 provinces, including Bali, incredibly quickly. On 5 July we were notified of that. On 6 July industry was out on the front foot calling for foot baths and for action from this government as the catastrophic impact of foot-and-mouth disease was to be borne upon us. They wanted to see some action on 6 July. You know what? There wasn't much said by the minister. He was quite dismissive of beefing up our border response. It was on 12 July that he made those infamous comments, the comments that absolutely offended our farmers. He basically said: 'You know what? We're not going to rush to get the foot baths in, guys. They've got chemicals in them'—like citric acid!—'People coming back from Bali are usually wearing thongs. We don't want to hurt their feet. We don't want to have to put them through this.' That's a synopsis.

When we talk about farmers' response to this government's flat-footed response, no wonder they were concerned when they heard their own agriculture minister saying: 'You know what? We're more worried about people wearing thongs back from Bali and long queues at airports than we are about ensuring this catastrophic disease does not get into our farms.' So the opposition rightly called for the government to get the foot mats into our airports, to make sure they're talking to everybody who's come back from Bali to ask: 'Have you been on a farm?' 'Have you gone for a walk in a paddy field? You were probably technically on a farm and you need to be aware of the risk that you're bringing in.' Australians will do the right thing. But that's not what this government did.

We stood up in this place and we asked genuine questions because we do want them to succeed on this. We want them to stop foot-and-mouth disease at the border. We also have a responsibility to hold them to account. Thanks to our pressure, and the sensible conversations that industry has been having, they suddenly went from dismissive to defensive. So, this last sitting fortnight, we have seen the minister for agriculture turn to personal attacks—blaming the opposition instead of actually answering simple questions: What did you know? Why did it take you so long? How many Australians coming back from Bali since we knew, on 5 July, actually went across foot mats? He told us it was 100 per cent. It turns out that the foot mats weren't anywhere near our airports and our returning passengers until Monday/Tuesday last week, when we can confidently say they were installed in airports. So it was too little, too late.

What about banning food products? If you talk to experts, the biggest risk of foot-and-mouth, and the way it occurred in the UK, is it coming in from imported products and getting into our food supply chain. In New Zealand, another country that's so special, like Australia, and that doesn't have foot-and-mouth disease on its shores, and where agriculture is incredibly important to its economic future, they've banned the importation of food products from foot-and-mouth hotspots. That's smart. We're an island; we can do this. We also need to scan every bit of luggage coming in from these countries so that we know if there's food product in there and can hold it. We need to make sure we're helping Indonesia by giving them the technology we have, to ensure that something's not coming on board. These are the very real questions that, as an opposition, we've been asking.

The minister's response today and yesterday was appalling—that because we haven't tweeted about it, the opposition doesn't care. I'm sorry, but I can talk to you ad nauseum about the farmers that have contacted my office, and me personally, since this outbreak. They're incredibly concerned. Just because senators haven't tweeted about it doesn't mean it's not an issue. It just shows how immature and unready for the responsibilities of government they are. This is a serious issue. Thank goodness the Prime Minister has had to step in over this hapless fool. He is taking responsibility and putting this on the agenda at national cabinet, because the states are critical in our response to this. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.