Brisbane Press Conference 22/07/2022

22 July 2022

SUBJECTS: Treasurers meeting, foot-and-mouth disease.

The Hon Jim Chalmers MP

Senator the Hon Murray Watt
Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
Minister for Emergency Management

E&OE Transcript
FRIDAY, 22 JULY 2022

SUBJECTS: Treasurers meeting, foot-and-mouth disease.

JIM CHALMERS, TREASURER: I'm going to say a few things about a meeting I've just convened of state and territory treasurers. And then Murray Watt, the Agriculture Minister and Fiona Simson, the president of the National Farmers' Federation, are going to say a few things about foot-and-mouth disease.

Today was the first meeting of state and territory treasurers with the Commonwealth of the new government. With a new federal government comes a new approach to the states and territories. And we all confront together some very serious economic challenges and we give ourselves the best chance of rising to the occasion if we work together.

There was a terrific spirit in the room - treasurers from states and territories from both sides of the political fence looking for solutions not looking for conflict, trying to work out how we address the serious challenges that we have in our economy and how they flow through to the Budget.

The difficult Budget position necessitates some difficult decisions. And so, we have announced today that there will be a doubling of foreign investment fees and penalties. This will raise $455 million over the forward estimates that will help us pay for our foreign investment regime and also to fund our housing affordability policies, particularly our Help to Buy policy.

Foreign investment is a good thing. It's welcome when it's in Australia's national interest. This will make a very small difference to the cost of buying a property in Australia, but it will make a very big difference to Australians and to their Budget, because it means we can fund other priorities. So a difficult decision but a necessary decision because of the pretty serious fiscal constraints that we've inherited from our predecessors.

On Thursday, when the Parliament resumes, I'll be updating the Australian people via their Parliament on the economic conditions as we see them and what that means for the Budget as well. There's no point tiptoeing around or pretending away the serious challenges that we have in our economy – high and rising inflation, falling real wages, energy and food insecurity which comes from uncertainty around the world. And our ability to deal with a lot of these challenges is constrained in pretty serious ways by the trillion dollars of debt that we've inherited as a new government. So we will continue to do our best to bring people together. That was the point of the meeting with the state and territory treasurers today and it's the point of the Albanese Labor Government - to see where we can find common ground to solve our common challenges together by applying common sense and looking for solutions not looking for conflict.

There's no shortage of challenges right now, in our economy and in our country. And one of those is something that I invite Murray Watt, Minister for Agriculture to talk a bit about now.

MURRAY WATT, AGRICULTURE MINSITER: Thanks very much Treasurer. And thanks also to Fiona Simson, the president of the National Farmers' Federation for joining us here today. We both happened to be speaking at the Australian Organics Conference this morning, so it's opportune for us to talk also about probably the most serious issue facing Australian agriculture at the moment, being foot-and-mouth disease.

I just want to reiterate to begin with that despite what some people might be saying and what some people might be hearing, Australia remains foot-and-mouth disease free and Australian meat products are safe to eat. We continue to enjoy the cleanest, safest meat and dairy products in the world. It's important that as we face this challenge that we all remain calm and work collaboratively to ensure the strong reputation of our $80 billion agriculture industry around the world. Scare mongering and fanning the flames of genuine concern does nothing to help our $80 billion agriculture industry stay strong and retain its strong international reputation.

Australia has a strong biosecurity wall that has been built up over many decades. But what I'm beginning to understand a few weeks into this job is that Coalition decisions over the last 10 years have allowed that wall to decay. A chip here and we end up with fire ants, worm infestations, beetles and other things which particularly can damage our horticulture industry. A crack there and white spot disease under the last government forced prawn farms to shut down here in southeast Queensland, costing tens of millions of dollars. Now we do, as I say, have one of the strongest biosecurity systems in the world and people can have confidence in it. But it's not perfect. And as I say, cracks have appeared in our biosecurity system in recent years and frankly, not enough action was taken by the former government to repair that wall. So it's now our job as the new government to repair that wall with the strongest biosecurity response this country has ever seen to keep foot-and-mouth disease out of Australia. And I am personally 100 per cent committed to repairing that biosecurity wall and to making it even stronger and bigger to protect our agriculture industry.

So that's why last week I visited Indonesia, met with ministers to commit our support to assist them to bring their foot-and-mouth disease outbreak under control. It's why we have already announced a $14 billion assistance package to reduce the risk of foot-and-mouth disease spreading from Bali and other places in Indonesia to Australia. And that included increased detection and protection here in Australia and vaccines and technical assistance to assist the Indonesian cattle industry. Something, I might note, that was not done by the previous government at any point in their nearly 10 years in power.

I've also, of course, this week announced the deployment of sanitisation foot mats at all Australian international airports as an additional layer of protection for returning travellers from Indonesia. This is the first time such a measure has ever been taken in Australia. And again, I note that despite foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks in multiple countries over the last 10 years, the former government never once introduced sanitisation foot mats at airports or took any of the measures that we have taken in the last few weeks.

But we are not stopping there. And this week, I directed my department to investigate what further control measures were available at international airports. I've been in constant discussion with my department ever since this outbreak reached Bali, and for that matter before that… about what more we could be doing. But this week I directed the department to investigate further control measures, particularly at our international airports. And that's because I have become concerned about some rare reports that some returning travellers were not doing the right thing when returning from Indonesia and that not enough people were being screened at our airports. So that's why I've directed my department to step up its visibility at the border and step up the number of inquiries of passengers, particularly in baggage halls and that should be starting to occur right now.

And today, I can further announce that the director of biosecurity, the secretary of my department, is considering establishing biosecurity response zones at international airports potentially as soon as today. Now I don't want to pre-empt the director of biosecurity's decision. He's working through a risk assessment and the other formal processes now. But if declared, these zones would strengthen the ability of biosecurity officers to direct passengers to use foot mats and other biosecurity control measures such as the cleaning of shoes. Currently, under existing legislation, our biosecurity officers have the power to request passengers who are deemed to be a risk to do certain things - whether it be walk over these foot mats as they're installed, or whether it be to hand over their shoes for cleaning or other things. The difference with these new powers is that rather than having the ability to ask individual passengers to do certain things and relying on their agreement, these new powers, if introduced, would apply to all passengers where circumstances required. At this stage, the intention is that these measures would apply for airports receiving flights from Indonesia, and most likely for a trial period to assess how well they work. And as I say, the kinds of things that it would allow for that aren't currently permitted under legislation are that biosecurity officers could direct all passengers to, for instance, walk over these sanitisation mats, hand over their shoes, comply with other requirements and it would also give us the power to install infrastructure in airports if we deemed it was necessary to do so. Now, this is the first time that these powers would be used under section 365 of the federal Biosecurity Act. These powers have been available to the Australian Government for the last seven years and they have never been used once. If introduced, we would be the first government in Australian history to use these powers to direct all passengers to comply with biosecurity requirements. And that shows you exactly how seriously we are taking this risk.

Just in closing, I want to remind people that biosecurity is everyone's responsibility, all the way from the federal government down to the traveling public returning from Bali and also people seeking to bring products into Australia legally. And also of course, our farming communities. I want to thank the state and territory governments, industry representatives and our Australian farmers for all working together on this issue. People's livelihoods are at stake, our agriculture industry is at stake and it's vital that we continue to work together to ensure that Australia remains foot-and-mouth disease free. I'll hand over to Fiona now.

FIONA SIMSPON, NATIONAL FARMERS' FEDERATION PRESIDENT: Thank you very much Minister. Fiona Simson that's S-I-M-S-O-N. President of the National Farmers' Federation.

Australian farmers and Australian agriculture is known to produce some of the safest and highest quality products in the world. That is due in no small part to our strong biosecurity system.

Right now, we are faced with a risk and Australian farmers feel it is a calamitous risk. It's a risk that emerged some months ago of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Indonesia, which is still as yet uncontrolled. Clearly, the impact of this risk on our industry would be calamitous. And at the end of the day, if even one case were to emerge in Australia, farmers would be faced with absolutely heart-wrenching decisions around the extermination and the culling and euthanising of livestock to stop the spread of the disease. It would also shut the export markets immediately. So our meat, our wool, our cheese and dairy products, they would all be halted immediately. We cannot allow this to happen. And as such, we have very much welcomed working with and talking to Minister Murray Watt and his government about what he can do and what he can continue to do to leave no stone unturned in actually facing this risk and stopping the disease from reaching Australia.

I travelled to Indonesia with Minister Watt on behalf of the industry last week and spoke to my counterparts over there. They were very welcoming of our offer in Australia, the government's offer and the Australian farmers' support to help them do whatever we need to do to help them get on top of the disease in Indonesia. Likewise, it is critical that we continue to look at strengthening our own biosecurity measures. And I thank Minister Watt for being so responsive to the suggestions that industry have continued to put forward even though the disease emerged some months ago. It was good to see now, stronger and stronger measures coming through to look at both the traveling public and also some of the parcels and products that we have here in Australia.

Biosecurity is everyone's responsibility - from the federal government, whether they're helping our neighbours offshore dealing with this or our own borders right through to farmers and the travelling public. It's critical that we all play our role. And right now, as I'm talking to farmers across Australia about looking at their own biosecurity plan, making sure that they have those in place and understand the movement of their trucks and their livestock and the people on their farms, it's also critical that we do everything we possibly can. As such, I welcome Minister Watt's discussion with the department about further powers that they may use and we will be interested to see what decision the director-general comes to make about those. In the meantime, I thank everybody for passing the message around biosecurity. It is critical that we keep Australia disease-free. Foot-and-mouth disease is not just in Indonesia, it is in a number of countries around the world. So we need to remain vigilant to that and all the other threats that are actually coming our way.

We welcome the Albanese Government's announcement during their election campaign around a sustainable funding stream for biosecurity as has been recommended in numerous reviews. And we will continue to talk to them about that as well as, of course, their immediate response.

Thank you very much.
JOURNALIST: Minister, the Opposition's asked for guarantees around thresholds, you know, when flights might be cancelled from Indonesia. Have you got any threshold in mind about when that would occur?

WATT: No, I don't. I don't want to pre-empt how things may go in Indonesia. We are confident that the Indonesian government is taking this seriously. And the best biosecurity advice available to me, tells me that a drastic measure like closing our borders, which would have a hugely damaging impact on our trade and other relationship with Indonesia... The advice is that that is not necessary. And as I said yesterday, I note that there are many countries around the world that have had foot-and-mouth disease for many years, including while the last government was in power, and borders were never closed to any of those countries. And that's the similar approach that we're taking in relation to Bali and Indonesia.

JOURNALIST: If it's not necessary, will you rule out closing the borders at any point in the future?

WATT: Well, of course, I'm going to rely on the advice that I receive. And if the advice to me is that that measure is required, then of course I would act on that advice. But I can tell you, I'm in constant contact with our biosecurity experts about whether that is required, whether any other measure is required and the consistent advice is that that's not necessary. Being a farmer and being the head of the farmers' organisation, Fiona may have a view on border closures as well if you would like to hear from her.

SIMSON: Our members do not support the closing of borders currently. There are numerous threats at the moment in other countries facing Australia and we have seen incursions of them over the past years. At the moment, shutting the borders to Indonesia may well remove that particular risk, but it would do nothing to actually address the other risks out there from other countries, particularly the other countries that have foot-and-mouth disease. And likewise it would put at risk a trade that is very valuable… countries like Indonesia for example. When I was in Indonesia with the Minister, we were able to see a range of Australian products that we export to Indonesia. And clearly those export markets are valuable not just to farmers and Indonesia, but of course to Australia as well. So if it was not to remove the risk entirely, I mean, I think absolutely the Minister must take advice from the experts, but at this point in time, we are not in favour of closing borders.

JOURNALIST: Ms Simson, can I ask, what do you think about - there seems to be a delay in introducing the new biosecurity zones at the airports? If this is everyone's problem, why not have all passengers walk over the mats? Why not have all passengers surrender their shoes quickly, put them back on after they've been checked? Why not do that now?

SIMSON: Our position is that absolutely every passenger should be screened. Now, how that is actually implemented at airports, we have thousands and thousands and thousands of people arriving from various countries every day. So what is possible and what is not is up to the government. It's up to the department. It's up to the authorities. But we believe the farmers don't want to take any risks at all. And we understand that sometimes they, you know these orders take a moment or two to come through. But they have to be implemented. Farmers do not want any stone left unturned. And we're continually talking to government about what else they can do in terms of removing the risk of not only the traveling public but also the larger risk I have to say of people bringing in meat products.

So in the UK, we understand that the way that that large last outbreak occurred which has been all over the media, the heartbreaking scenes of farmers having to destroy perfectly healthy animals to control the disease. That's what my members are being faced with. And that's why every day we are picking up the phone to the Minister and making sure that they're not leaving any stone unturned. But really, we cannot afford to take those risks. We need to get on top of it immediately and we need to make sure that we can do whatever it takes to keep it out.

JOURNALIST: I'm a bit confused, so why does the so...

SIMSON: Oh, sorry. So I was talking about the meat products. Even though, of course, travellers can bring the product in, if they've been walking around the streets where there's animal excrement or animal urine or getting close to animals, that's why it's important, of course, that their shoes are treated and that their clothing, they're aware of the risks of their clothing as well. But by and large, the largest risk as I understand it, is the importation of meat products, whether legal or illegal, to be honest, where people are being sent parcels through the mail where they contain meat products, and they end up finding their way into the food supply chain, which is what happened in England.

So a meat product, it's illegal in Australia to actually feed pigs meat products, but if that was to occur illegally and if the substance was actually to contain foot-and-mouth disease, if it was a sausage or a piece of meat, a piece of some sort of meat that contained that disease, then that's how it could find its way into the food chain. So it's not just airports, it's also the postal systems, it's the retail outlets.

This week there was obviously virus fragments, not live virus found in two locations as has occurred before in 2019 and 2021. So we are asking the government to not just step up surveillance at airports, surveillance of passengers, but also of course, to look at the larger risk profile of sending meat products through the mail and them arriving in Australia and perhaps ending up in the food supply chain, which is why information is critically important for people as well.

A lot of travellers don't know about foot-and-mouth-disease, they don't necessarily understand. So, they need to fill in their cards correctly, they need to take responsibility for what they're declaring when they come into Australia on their customs card and if they have any issues or any questions, they should just be declaring it at the border and asking the officials who are there to help.

JOURNALIST: Minister, the 100 per cent screening that the NFS called for, is that a possibility and is it something the government's considering?

WATT: I've consistently said that I will be very happy to bring in whatever measure is required and whatever measure is recommended to me from biosecurity advice. What is already happening, and is not widely understood is that we are already risk profiling 100 per cent of passengers coming into the country from Indonesia. What that means is that people's travel history is examined, the sort of places they've been to examined, their own biosecurity history is examined, and where there is any risk whatsoever that a particular passenger might not be doing the right thing, then those passengers are referred off for more intensive screening. I underwent it myself at the airport and I think Fiona did as well the other day when she returned from Indonesia. But if the advice is that that sort of a measure would work, then we would be the first to implement it.

JOURNALIST: Are there enough biosecurity officers at airports?

WATT: I have asked this question myself of the department and I'm told that at this stage there are, but of course, if there are more required then I'll have those discussions with the Treasurer and my other colleagues.

But I remind people that, only last week when I returned from Indonesia we announced the funding of 18 additional biosecurity officers for airports and mail centres. Fiona's dead right - the biggest risk of this disease coming to Australia isn't so much from a Bali traveller, although that is a risk, the biggest risk is the importation of meat products. And that's why we're ensuring that extra biosecurity officers will also be going to mail centres as well as airports.

JOURNALIST: Why keep making many incremental announcements? Why not be bold and get ahead of things?

WATT: Well I actually think we have been bold and have been getting ahead of things. A number of the measures that I've announced have never been done in Australian history and were never done by some of my sharpest critics when they were Agriculture Ministers. I mean these characters were in government for 10 years. People like Barnaby Joyce, Bridget McKenzie and David Littleproud were agriculture ministers for 10 years. They never once brought in sanitisation foot mats in 10 years, despite multiple outbreaks around the world. I've brought them in within two weeks of this outbreak getting to Bali. When those people were in government they never once exercised the powers that are currently being considered by the director of biosecurity. All of a sudden now that they're in Opposition, they're experts on matters that they never once considered doing themselves. So I think we have been bold. We are taking firms steps that have never been taken before. And I have consistently said that we will continue adding measures as required. We will continue to fix the cracks in the wall, the biosecurity wall that was left by the previous government, and we will continue building an even bigger wall to keep Australian agriculture safe.

JOURNALIST: Those extra measures, those extra powers that have been considered, when do you think that decision will be made on that front? And how long do you do expect those powers to be in place for if they are adopted?

WATT: The secretary who, as I say, as the director of biosecurity has advised me that he expects to be able to make a decision on this today, which is why I'm bringing it to you today because of course, any measure that we think will have an effect, we want to see in place as quickly as possible. But the preliminary advice I’ve received is that these new powers, if implemented, would be put in place for a three-month period at this point to assess how they’re working. Of course, if they work well and require an extension then I’m sure the director of biosecurity would do that.

JOURNALIST: Treasurer, do you have any broader concerns about the economy in terms of this disease and what impact it might have on the broader economy and the Budget as well?

CHALMERS: When it comes to the Budget, obviously we'll do what we need to to protect the industry and protect Australians. But I have a very high level of confidence when it comes to the Minister's efforts and the industry's efforts to do what we can to keep this at bay. We have a whole range of other challenges in the economy that we are focused on. But this is a potential challenge. And that's why the Minister and the industry is working around the clock to make sure that we're doing the best we can.

JOURNALIST: It obviously hasn’t reached Australian shores yet. If it does, would a support package be something that you would consider, for example?

CHALMERS: We recognise that this is a really crucial industry for Australia. And a lot of Australians rely on it. Whether it's as a source of employment or whether it's a source of food, this industry is absolutely crucial. And so, within the bounds of responsible economic management, of course, we would consider anything that Murray came to the Cabinet with. If he thought that there were additional steps that needed to be taken, of course, we would take that seriously within the bounds of the fiscal constraints that we've inherited.

JOURNALIST: Speaking more broadly Do you support wage claims exceeding seven per cent, given the RBA Governor has flagged inflation will hit seven per cent in December?

CHALMERS: Well, for the best part of a decade now, we've had stagnant wages in this country and that's why people, no matter how hard they've worked, they've fallen further and further behind. And that's especially the case now that we do have this genuine cost-of-living crisis in our economy. People are finding it incredibly difficult to keep up with the high and often rising costs of groceries and petrol and electricity, and other essentials.

When it comes to wage increases, we want wages growth to be strong and sustainable. And the best way to ensure that is for employers and employees to get together to work out how they can give those decent, strong and sustainable wage increases in a way that boosts productivity in our economy and helps people keep up.

We won't have inflation up near seven per cent forever. And what I'd like to do when the Parliament resumes next Thursday, is to give people a sense of the size of this inflation challenge, but also the shape of it. And so my message to Australians is inflation will get worse before it gets better, but it will get better. We expect inflation to start moderating throughout the course of next year and return to something more normal soon after that. And that's the expectation of the Reserve Bank as well. We want to see wages growth in this economy. We want people to be able to keep up with the cost of living, but those wage increases need to be sustainable, so that businesses can afford to pay them when inflation moderates

JOURNALIST: On that, Labor campaigned strongly on wages growth and yet, under Labor, the Treasurer is warning the gap between wage growth and inflation is set to widen. Have you misled voters?

CHALMERS: Of course not. I mean, no Australian expects a new government to clean up nine years of mess in nine weeks. I mean, that's the truth of it. We have inherited high and rising inflation and falling real wages and a cost-of-living crisis. And we've been upfront with people about the nature, the magnitude of that challenge and also the steps that we are taking in a responsible way to alleviate those pressures. And so we've got a cost-of-living package which I’ll Budget for which is focused on childcare and medicine costs. We've got ways to try and unchoke some of these supply chains which are feeding inflation as well. And when it comes to wages, we've already encouraged and the Fair Work Commission has delivered a good, welcome pay rise for people on the lowest incomes. And we've got a wages policy, which is about childcare reform for people to return to work and earn more if they want to, a skills policy, which is about earning more from higher skilled jobs. We've got investments in energy, we've got investments in a Future Made in Australia, some of the industries which will create those secure, well-paid jobs. So we've already got cracking on our wages policy. It will take some time for the effect of that to be felt but I think Australians are understanding of that. And I think the only way that we can work on this challenge together is to begin by being upfront about it, and that's what I intend to do in the Ministerial Statement next week.
JOURNALIST: Does the new government support the continued construction of the Pinkenba quarantine facility? If so, why when there's no one in Wellcamp?
CHALMERS: I don't have much to add to what's been said already about that particular facility. Clearly there'll be some need for facilities into the future. Nobody assumes that this is the last pandemic that we'll ever have. And there are a range of other challenges when it comes to the management of our borders, but beyond that, I don't have much to add. I'm not sure if Murray does.

WATT: Not really but I’ll have a go, if only to get the mask off for a couple of seconds.

Obviously that's a matter for the state government. But I note that the state government attempted for a very long time to have that quarantine facility built in Queensland, to assist at the height of COVID and it was the former federal government who wouldn't come to the party. So I think there's a few questions for people like Peter Dutton about that as well.