‘Out of touch’ MacTiernan accused of turning back on WA farmers after disastrous FMD comments

Josh ZimmermanCountryman
Adam PoulsenCountryman
Stuart McguckinCountryman
WA Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan, pictured, sparked outrage after suggesting an FMD outbreak in Australia could lead to cheaper meat and milk prices.
Camera IconWA Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan, pictured, sparked outrage after suggesting an FMD outbreak in Australia could lead to cheaper meat and milk prices. Credit: Jackson Flindell/The West Australian

Farmers say Alannah MacTiernan has turned her back on them after the “out of touch” WA Agriculture Minister claimed a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak would “not be catastrophic” and could even lead to lower meat and milk prices.

The disastrous comments, published on the front page of The West Australian last Friday, prompted widespread backlash and calls for Ms MacTiernan to be sacked.

It comes as Indonesia struggles to contain a growing FMD outbreak, and after the discovery of viral fragments of the disease in meat products brought into Australia.

“It’s not going to stop milk or meat being available to us, and some people might argue it might actually make it cheaper because there’ll be more of it available domestically,” Ms MacTiernan told The West.

“We will still have a domestic industry. I would not say it would be catastrophic. It would be costly and very unfortunate. But even if it does happen, we can move beyond it.”

Ms MacTiernan added that the FMD threat must be kept “in perspective”, saying a WA outbreak would not “see all of our cattle industry decimated”.

Among those to condemn Ms MacTiernan was WAFarmers president John Hassell, who said farmers were feeling let down by her “lack of support for the industry”.

“I think her comments were pretty foolish; in fact, I think it was completely unwise,” Mr Hassell told Countryman.

“There’s no doubt, right from the word go, that she has not had mainstream agriculture at front and centre.”

WAFarmers president John Hassell at his Pingelly farm.
Camera IconWAFarmers president John Hassell at his Pingelly farm. Credit: Mogens Johansen/Countryman

Mr Hassell, who farms at Pingelly, accused Ms MacTiernan of “having her own agenda all along” and being preoccupied with “pet projects” such as regenerative agriculture and carbon farming.

“I want an ag minister who supports agriculture, not someone who’s hell bent on destroying it, which I think she is,” he said.

In March last year, after being sworn in to the agriculture portfolio for the second time, Ms MacTiernan told Countryman helping the industry address climate change was her primary motivation for wanting to continue in the role.

Federal MP Rick Wilson, who is a Katanning wheat and sheep farmer, called for Ms MacTiernan to be sacked over last week’s blunder.

The O’Connor MP said WA exported 90 per cent of its processed meat product and an FMD outbreak would force the industry to shut down for at least six months.

“That would be a catastrophe for livestock producers, and flippantly claiming that consumers would be the winners is a typically metro-centric view of the world from the former Federal Member for Perth who has again shown she is incapable of holding the agriculture and food portfolio,” Mr Wilson said.

“For a so-called Minister for Agriculture to treat this issue in such a cavalier and careless manner indicates she is not fit in any way, shape or form to hold her current position.”

Mr Wilson said Ms MacTiernan had dismissed farmers’ fears and “betrayed their trust in her to stand by them in times of crisis”.

Federal MP Rick Wilson on board the Al Shuwaikh livestock carrier in 2019.
Camera IconFederal MP Rick Wilson on board the Al Shuwaikh livestock carrier in 2019. Credit: Supplied/Rick Wilson

He also slammed her for failing to front an FMD forum for livestock producers in Mt Barker on July 19, and of ignoring the animal welfare implications of a potential outbreak.

“Ms MacTiernan talks a good game on animal welfare, but her scandalous comments ignore the fact that in the 2001 UK outbreak, which only infected a small number of properties, six million cattle, sheep and pigs were slaughtered and burnt over a period of seven months as part of broader control measures,” Mr Wilson said.

Ms MacTiernan’s comments also drew a sharp rebuke from WA shadow agriculture minister Colin de Grussa, who labelled them “offensive” and a “slap in the face” for farmers.

With WA’s abattoirs already short-staffed and struggling to process meat for the domestic market, Mr de Grussa said they could not cope with a further influx of animals in the event of an FMD outbreak.

He said cutting farmers off from export opportunities would drive many out of the industry, resulting in a fall in meat supply to the domestic market over time — and upward pressure on prices.

“In a time of heightened concern, the minister has shown how out of touch the McGowan Government is, and it’s left many wondering if she is up to the job of defending WA’s agriculture sector from the very real threat of FMD,” Mr de Grussa said.

“The minister showed a shocking lack of judgement with these comments which proves her disconnect from not only primary producers, but regional communities.”

Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA president Tony Seabrook described Ms MacTiernan’s comments as “reckless and irresponsible”, saying he was appalled by her “cavalier attitude”.

Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA president Tony Seabrook at his farm near York.
Camera IconPastoralists and Graziers Association of WA president Tony Seabrook at his farm near York. Credit: The West Australian/Ian Munro

Mr Seabrook, who farms near York, said WA’s cattle herd numbered about 2 million, along with 15 million sheep, 40,000 sows and 60,000 dairy cows.

“Any outbreak of FMD in any of these sectors would immediately trigger a minimum 72-hour livestock standstill, which would mean there would be no movement of any livestock for a minimum of three days, which would shut down all abattoirs and dairies, severely crippling our supply chain and resulting in shortages of meat, milk and cheese on supermarket shelves,” he said.

“Any long-term and widespread outbreak would see herds and flocks destroyed, crippling not only our international and domestic markets, but our retail butcher shops, small goods processors, food service industries, and the WA hospitality sector.”

Last week’s blunder was not the first time Ms MacTiernan’s comments sparked outrage in agriculture circles.

During the Federal election campaign in May, as speculation mounted over the future of the live sheep trade, she shocked farmers after telling them they should stop “flogging a dead horse” and accept the “inevitable” that the industry would be banned.

Ms MacTiernan brushed off the latest criticisms, saying her comments were made in response to reports the domestic market would be severely affected.

“It is unfortunate that those comments have been interpreted (as) something other than they were,” she told reporters in Albany on Friday.

“It will be serious, don’t get me wrong. (But) I don’t want people to think this will be the end of livestock farming in WA.”

Ms MacTiernan said she was concerned a sense of anxiety was being drummed up for farmers that FMD would lead to “an absolute decimation of their industry”.

“We will manage this, we will put huge resources into dealing with this,” she said.

“We are trying to keep it out, but if it comes in it will create a disruption, just as COVID created a disruption, but we got through it.”

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