WA’s two peak farming bodies say they have lost faith in the state’s Agriculture Minister over comments she made about foot-and-mouth disease, but some farmers fear the issue has become highly politicized.
- Alannah MacTiernan has apologized for ‘clumsy’ comments
- WAFarmers want her to be replaced by a minister who supports them
- The Premier has ruled out a reshuffle, urging all to move on
WAFarmers president John Hassell this week published an op-ed in the state’s premier farming newspaper, The Countryman, saying it was time for veteran MP Alannah MacTiernan to step aside or be sacked.
The Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA (PGA) president Tony Seabrook said Ms MacTiernan had not had the confidence of the sector for “a very long time”, but stopped short of calling for her head.
Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) has been detected on Australia’s doorstep in Indonesia, sparking widespread fears it will soon arrive in WA.
Ms MacTiernan came under fire last week over comments she reportedly made to a journalist about the impact of foot and mouth disease, saying it would be “costly and unfortunate” but would “not see all of the cattle industry decimated” and that she “would not say it would be catastrophic”.
She reportedly said if the disease landed in WA, it might make domestic milk and meat cheaper.
Ms MacTiernan later apologized for those comments, saying the government was throwing everything it had at the disease.
“I have never said that FMD is anything other than a really serious threat to our state,” she said.
“I regret very, very sincerely that backgrounding explanation to a journalist has been taken in the way it has.”
The WA government has committed $15 million to fund 22 new biosecurity positions in the state budget over this financial year, and has run a briefing for farmers on FMD in the Great Southern region.
MacTiernan needs to go: WAFarmers
When asked if she believed she would retain the agriculture portfolio until the end of her term, Ms MacTiernan said it was “obviously up to the up to the Premier”.
“We have reshuffles from time to time. And we get on with it,” she said.
“But what I can say is, I know I hold my head up high as to what I’ve achieved over the last five years.
“I will be proud that we have rebuilt the R&D capability in the department, that we’ve invested in biosecurity, that we have put in place programs that support those farmers that really want to do progressive things around climate change, to really deal with these headwinds that agriculture will face into the future.”
“I sometimes talk messages that aren’t necessarily popular with some of the traditional organisations, but I’m confident that what we’ve done… I have added value.”
Premier Mark McGowan yesterday ruled out any cabinet reshuffle and dismissed the idea of stripping the agriculture portfolio from Ms MacTiernan.
“She used some clumsy language, she’s apologized for it. I think people need to move on,” he said.
But Mr Hassell said it was “absolutely vital” for the industry to have a leader they trusted at the helm at this time.
“The Agriculture Minister’s comments kind of shows she doesn’t really support the agriculture industry and it doesn’t worry her if we get an outbreak,” he said.
“We need someone who supports our industry.
“The minister needs to step aside and let someone do the job who is prepared to support us.”
Lack of replacements, pastoralists say
PGA president Tony Seabrook did not call for Ms MacTiernan to go, but said there were people who were feeling “very uneasy” about her approach to the job.
“She hasn’t had the confidence of the sector for a long time, and this is largely due to the fact she’s brought all her own views and opinions to the job,” he said.
But he said there was no other MP in the McGowan government that he could see filling the agriculture portfolio.
Ms MacTiernan conceded her government’s approach to some issues had created conflict with the industry.
“The focus that we’ve put on climate change, and the work we’ve been doing to get people to understand the market impact of getting animal welfare right, that hasn’t always gone over well,” she said.
The comments from the peak WA groups came as federal agriculture minister David Littleproud used question time in federal parliament to go on the attack, asking Prime Minister Anthony Albanese if he agreed with Ms MacTiernan’s remarks.
Mr Albanese said his government was taking the issue of FMD very seriously.
Some feel FMD used as ‘political football’
Some farmers who spoke to the ABC were disappointed Ms MacTiernan’s gaffe was being politicized and was shifting the focus from strategies to address the disease itself.
Michael Rose, who farms out at Roelands, said he was “disappointed foot-and-mouth disease was being used as a political football, when both sides should be working together to find a solution.”
Award-winning Wokelup dairy farmer Ian Hall said Ms MacTiernan had donated a great deal for the dairy industry.
“I know Alannah has said things that maybe, may have been taken out of context, some of it, but the government is working extremely hard to stop this foot-and-mouth entering Australia,” he said.
“They’re not sitting on their hands, they’re not waiting for it to come, they’re very proactive. And that’s what I believe we need at the present.”
Mr Hall, whose family has farmed the land since 1890, urged people to realize the seriousness of the threat and help protect the state.
“Discard your clothes that you don’t need, discard your shoes if you’re coming from Indonesia and Bali, discard anything you do not need. This is a serious thing,” he said.
Others angry ‘true colors’ revealed
But for Tony Sudlow, who farms sheep and cattle crops in Northhampton in WA’s Mid West region, Ms MacTiernan’s comments were “incredibly insensitive” to the farming community.
He stands to lose generations of work should foot-and-mouth disease reach his herd, one that has been selectively bred for decades.
I believed Ms MacTiernan’s latest gaffe revealed “the true colors of the [state] government”.
“To say foot-and-mouth wouldn’t be a catastrophe is unbelievable,” he said.
“I think they’re city-centric. They’re not interested in the regions. They’re just not interested and they don’t need to be.
“They don’t need us, they don’t need our votes.”
Ms MacTiernan, whose parliamentary career has spanned more than 30 years and includes a stint in Canberra, has held the agriculture portfolio since 2017.
She retained it last year after the last state election, despite losing the state development, jobs and trade, and ports portfolios.