analysis: The curious case of Peter Dutton, foot-and-mouth disease and an extreme bid to close the border

by Kath Sullivan

The opposition leader’s call for Australia to shut the border to Indonesia due to the risk of spreading foot-and-mouth disease does not appear to be on the advice of the chief vet.

Nor is it based on the views of those representing the Australians with the most to lose. 

Australia’s chief vet Mark Schipp continually reviews Australia’s biosecurity preparedness and as recently as this week has said he does not believe closing the border with Indonesia is warranted.

The National Farmers’ Federation, the Australian Meat Industry Council and the Cattle Council of Australia, Sheep Producers Australia, Australian Lot Feeders Association and Australian Livestock Exporters Council support keeping the border with Indonesia open.

The Australian Dairy Industry Council also accepts the advice from the Australian government to keep the border open.

Fiona Simson
National Farmers’ Federation president Fiona Simson says hysteria from Coalition on foot-and-mouth disease is not helpful.

It is difficult to think of another time when a politician has made such an extreme request, without the backing of industry or expert advice.

Eight weeks into opposition, maybe the new Liberal leader thinks he has nothing to lose, or that there are parallels to be drawn between biosecurity and national security.

The latter is an issue on which the Coalition has repeatedly attacked Labor.

Schipp, who until recently was president of the World Organisation for Animal Health, says Australia has the “strongest biosecurity arrangements in the world”.

“We’re renowned around the globe for our arrangements at airports and seaports,” Schipp told 3AW.

He also says Indonesia is taking extensive measures to vaccinate livestock and has repeatedly advised that illegally imported food parcels pose a greater risk of spreading livestock disease compared to tourists carrying virus on their clothes or boots.

Australia is free from foot-and-mouth disease but its estimated a widespread outbreak could the national economy cost $80 billion over a decade.(7.30 Report)

There are dozens of countries where foot-and-mouth disease has spread but the Coalition never closed a border on account of such outbreaks when it was in government.

Indonesia is one of the biggest markets for Australian cattle and grain.

To close the door on Jakarta would be troublesome for the trading and diplomatic relationship, still scarred from Australia’s 2011 snap decision to end live cattle exports.

The Coalition has often been quick to point out that was a decision made by a Labor government and a decision that Australian taxpayers are still paying for.

A man in a suit, wearing glasses
Agriculture minister Murray Watt says the government’s response to Indonesia’s foot-and-mouth disease outbreak is based on advice from experts.(ABC NEWS: Matt Roberts)

In May, when foot-and-mouth disease was first reported in Indonesia, then-agriculture minister David Littleproud said he would “take my advice from the chief veterinary office as the foot-and-mouth disease situation evolves”.

In March, Littleproud said the National Farmers’ Federation call for a greater funding to address an outbreak of Lumpy Skin Disease in Indonesia, which also poses a great risk to Australia’s livestock industry, was ignorant.

“It’s not even in the country… the department is giving us the advice, the scientists are giving us advice, not sideline critics that don’t understand the science,” he said at the time.

So it is baffling that when the new Agriculture Minister Murray Watt announced increased support for Indonesia and the introduction of new biosecurity measures in Australia, based on the advice of experts including the chief vet, the Coalition responded the way it has.

A man wearing a red tie leans forward as if trying to hear
Nationals leader David Littleproud says he was briefed by the chief vet last week, and now wants the government to say when it would trigger border closures.

Unlike Dutton and some Coalition MPs, Littleproud has stopped short of calling for the border with Indonesia to be closed.

Following a briefing by the chief vet last week, the new leader of the Nationals said the government must declare a trigger point for when such a measure would be taken.

The mixed-messaging has fuelled confusion, sparking anxiety, frustrating the NFF’s president, Fiona Simson.

“The mixed messaging and hysteria of the Coalition on this issue is simply not helpful at a time when farmers are obviously and justifiably so extremely concerned,” Simson told the ABC.

Mr Watt has said the opposition’s comments have been noticed in export markets, and could jeopardise trade.

He’s also said the government “will continue to put more measures in place, in line with expert biosecurity advice, to keep this disease out”.

Australia’s been free from foot-and-mouth disease for more than 100 years.

No one wants to see it return.

With the outbreak in Indonesia likely to last months, if not years, it would be helpful to keep the politics out of Australia’s biosecurity response.