LABOR shadow health minister Catherine King has accused Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce of being “foolish” by publicly threatening to euthanise Hollywood star Johnny Depp’s two pet terriers last week.
But Australian Farm Institute executive director Mick Keogh had defended the minister saying his swift quarantine actions and threat to euthanise – given the severity of biosecurity threats to Australian farmers - was actually the best response.
Speaking to media today, Ms King was asked about Mr Depp threatening to leave Queensland and return to the US over the issue that exploded last week when Mr Joyce highlighted the biosecurity breach at a media conference.
Mr Depp’s two pet terriers eventually flew out of Australia late last Friday, ahead of the minister’s 72-hour deportation notice.
Ms King was asked if the Hollywood actor’s departure could potentially threaten completion of the film he’s working on at the Gold Coast and whether the government’s handling of the issue sent a bad message to tourists about how celebrities are treated in Australia.
Ms King said it was “entirely proper” for a government to enforce Australian quarantine laws, but she said a Mr Joyce had made “a fool of himself” by blowing up the issue into the public domain, with his “inflammatory comments, threatening to euthanise the dogs on public airwaves”.
“Barnaby Joyce ought to be having a bit of think about how he runs these things,” she said.
“It’s important our quarantine laws are adhered to, but equally it’s important we have Ministers of the Crown who actually are not someone that we are ashamed of internationally.
“It is critical for the economy here in Queensland that you continue to have the investments of the fantastic films that are made here, that you continue to have tourism... and it’s certainly not helped when you have got inflammatory ministers making those sorts of statements for the Queensland economy.”
But in an opinion article on the issue released this week, Mr Keogh said Australian farmers should be “very worried” about the public response.
In reference to Mr Joyce’s exchange with Kyle Sandilands last week, he said the incident revealed that “some Australian radio hosts are so ignorant of the issues surrounding biosecurity that they were prepared to lambast the Minister for insisting that a visiting ‘celebrity’ obey Australian law”.
“But perhaps even more concerning was the fact that more than 20,000 Australians were prepared to sign a ‘save the dogs’ online petition promoted by Change.org,” he said.
Mr Keogh said there was “considerable ignorance in the community about the implications of a major biosecurity breach for Australia”.
“And it is this attitude that represents the greatest risk, because the actions of people when travelling to and from Australia will reflect those attitudes,” he said.
“As this incident has highlighted, no amount of quarantine inspections will ever be successful if travellers simply don’t understand why they need to be careful and follow the rules.”
Mr Keogh said Australian livestock industries generated more than $20 billion worth of production in 2013-14, and in addition to feeding the nation, also earned more than $18 billion worth of export revenue.
He said Australia livestock products are exported to hundreds of nations, including “some of the most fastidious and high value markets” like Japan, the USA and EU nations.
“Australian livestock products have access to all these markets because of Australia’s world-leading biosecurity standards, which means that the nation’s livestock and native animals are free from a large number of devastating diseases that are endemic overseas,” he said.
“(But) ABARES has estimated that an outbreak of foot and mouth disease could have a direct cost for the livestock industries of $50 billion over ten years, with an additional cost of $50 billion to the wider community over the same period.
“Given the potential implications of an exotic disease outbreak in Australia, Minister Joyce’s actions in threatening to kill Johnny Depp’s two dogs unless they were immediately quarantined and removed from Australia was probably the best thing the Minister could have done.
“In one action he not only removed the risk the dogs posed, but also highlighted the issue of biosecurity to millions of Australians and visitors to Australia.
“The national and international media attention his actions have resulted in will do more to raise biosecurity awareness amongst travellers to and from Australia that would millions of dollars spent on awareness campaigns.
“Hopefully, he has also had some impact on the absolute ignorance of some shock jocks and the 20,000 people who signed the online petition to save the dogs, but perhaps that is too much to hope for.”
The Department of Agriculture is now investigating the biosecurity breach which could see Mr Depp hit with a large fine. The dogs Boo and Pistol arrived in Australia on a private jet last month as returned for filming but were not reported to quarantine officials at the border, in breach of Australian import standards.
Mr Joyce said the dogs potentially carried a range of pests and diseases including rabies, ehrlichia, leishmania, leptospirosis and internal and external parasites.
He said the diseases are not present in Australia and some can seriously affect people.
“With regard to accusations that this is a failing of our biosecurity system, it is in fact evidence that the system is working given the dogs were discovered, placed under a quarantine order and now successfully re-exported,” he said last week as the dogs departed Australia on a private jet.