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Tuesday, 5 November 1996
Page: 6513


Mr FITZGIBBON(4.13 p.m.) —I noted with great interest the state of the government frontbench during the contribution from the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (Mr Anderson). I think that probably reflects pretty well the attitude of the cabinet to this very important issue. I did note that the member for Murray (Mrs Stone) and the member for Wakefield (Mr Andrew) were present. That is good to see.

I noted even more importantly the strong representation here from members of the National Party. Like you, Mr Deputy Speaker, they know the devastating impact of this decision. They understand how the minister's mishandling of this decision will affect people living in rural and regional Australia. How disappointed they must be by his defence. All the minister wants to talk about is trade. But there is no reference to trade liberalisation in this MPI. There has been no concern expressed by our side about the government's approach to trade, because they are doing it no differently from the way we were doing it. We were very proud of the way we were doing it.

This MPI is about quarantine and the minister's inept handling of the quarantine issue, particularly in relation to the importation of cooked chicken meat. The unanimous findings of the all-party Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee are a damning indictment of Minister Anderson's handling of this issue and represents a vote of no-confidence from his coalition colleagues on the committee. It recommends a sensible, well-considered approach and offers real hope to a $2 billion industry that employs at least 45,000 people nationally and up to 3,000 people in the Hunter.

Like the coalition senators who sit on the committee, I call upon the minister to immediately embrace the recommendations of the committee and to act upon them. The Senate committee has recognised that the proposal to allow for the importation of cooked chicken meat poses a real threat to the industry and to Australia's native bird population. Unlike the minister, the committee has been reluctant to accept AQIS's recommendations and its guarantees that the importation of cooked chicken meat can proceed without the risk of the introduction to this country of the dreaded newcastle disease and the infectious bursal disease. Unlike the minister, the committee has listened to the industry and was left holding grave doubts about the science underpinning AQIS's recommendations.

But the minister's embarrassment does not end there. The committee has recommended that the government should do what the minister was unprepared to do, and that is to look seriously at a GATT friendly assistance package if, in the longer term, we are unable to gather enough scientific evidence to deny the importation of cooked chicken meat into this country. It is a question of science, not a question of trade policy. But the minister's embarrassment does not end there either. The committee, chaired by their own Senator Winston Crane, has recommended that the Quarantine Act 1908 be amended to put the final decision not in the hands of the minister necessarily but, to use their own words, back into the hands of the minister `and/or the government'.

We all know in public life that words can be bullets. This bullet, Minister, is directed at you, and it comes from your own side. This is why they are in here. This is, of course, a very subtle vote of no confidence in you from your own side—and you know it. They have no confidence in the minister's ability to competently handle this application or, for that matter, any future applications, whether they be with respect to salmon, apples or pears. His handling of the issue has sent shock waves through the chicken industry, and it has those who work within the apple, pear and salmon industries shaking in their boots.

The issue has been running for months now. What have we heard from the minister? The same thing we heard today: `It is all Bob Collins's fault. I'm innocent. I'm not a party to it. It was all said and done before I arrived here.' The member for Burke (Mr O'Keefe) has already referred to the letter—which he sought to table—from the Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet) to the Prime Minister (Mr Miles), where he clearly states that the former minister only noted the AQIS recommendations. I do recognise one thing. I do recognise that the parliamentary secretary did get it wrong when he said that it is not yet legislated. That in itself expresses his total ignorance of how the act works. But we do have from the parliamentary secretary a letter which confirms without any doubt and which makes it very clear that former Minister Collins did not give his imprimatur to this decision.

Under the Quarantine Act, the final decision on these matters does not rest with the minister of the day, as you have quite rightly pointed out. But the minister is responsible for the act, as you know. As part of the process AQIS seeks the minister's imprimatur. It did not get the former minister's imprimatur, I can assure you. It is in this area that we find the greatest differences between the former minister's approach and the current minister's approach to the applications from Thailand, Denmark and the United States to import cooked chicken meat into Australia. As I said, AQIS does not require the minister's approval, but it does have to seek his imprimatur.

Minister Anderson's story is a much different story from that of former Minister Collins. He was very quick to give the proposal the tick, despite his written guarantee to the industry, before the election, that he would not allow chicken meat to be imported before the Nairn review had been completed. The member for Burke has referred to Minister Anderson's letter. It is dated 14 February 1996, nicely just prior to the election. I will just quote the last paragraph where he says:

A Coalition Government will suspend the approval of all proposed new import protocols, including the one for salmonid products—

but that is a typo, obviously, I think he means chicken; the rest of the letter is all about chicken—

until such time as the scientific review has been completed and its recommendations acted upon in full.

You cannot be any more clear than that. Let me paint a picture for the House. Let me tell you what really happened. There is Minister Anderson, sitting behind his big ministerial desk. He has been there only a couple of months, and he is feeling pretty important. He is contemplating his determination to show his bureaucrats how tough he can be, how well he can get across a ministerial brief, and how determined he is to take the tough decisions. The next thing you know AQIS rolls in. These are the people, of course, who have been seeking Senator Collins's imprimatur for months. But he proved too cautious and too determined to protect the interests of the industry from disease. But the same cannot be said for Minister Anderson. `You have to agree with this,' the AQIS bureaucrats said. `We're obligated under the rules of the World Trade Organisation.' So what happens? In typical Yes, Minister fashion, the two-month-old minister says, `Well, give me the bit of paper. I'm ready to tick.' Let's look at the way the Australian Financial Review covered the incident. It says:

At 5pm last night the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Mr John Anderson had signed off on a politically sensitive protocol allowing the importation of cooked chicken meat.

"If he hasn't already, he soon will have," an aide said confidently.

The conversation with our correspondent then proceeded something like this.

Us: "Has he told the National Party colleagues?"

Aide: "Um."

Us: Has he told the industry?"

Aide: "Er."

Us: "There are some pretty lively chook farmers out there. Just ask (National Party Senator) Ron Boswell ."

Aid: (unintelligible gurgling noise).

Us: "See you."

Suddenly it was 5.30: the aide was on the line.

Aide: "I was wrong. The minister hasn't signed off after all. He's going to consult with the industry first."

He just stood here and told the House that there was no opportunity for the minister to sign off. He does not seem to understand or that certainly does not seem to be the message being communicated by his staff.

Of course, when the industry representatives read the article, they went ballistic—and why wouldn't they? They had been given an ironclad guarantee by the minister prior to the election that he would take no such decisions until the Nairn review had been completed. What did he do? He tried to keep blaming Senator Collins. But, of course, when that did not work, he tried something else. He established two joint government-industry task forces, which he has mentioned. I will tell you how often they have met. One task force was to look at the protocol issue and the other was to look at industry restructuring. The first has met twice, the second once—three meetings in total. This is the minister's initiative. It is just absolutely unbelievable!

What was the minister doing while all this was going on? He was still out there on the airwaves telling all and sundry that the decision will proceed because Minister Collins has already put the whole process in place. So he is setting up two committees, he is asking them to meet and, while they are meeting, he is on the airwaves saying, `Well, it's going to go ahead anyway.' Notwithstanding the all-party report that came down from the Senate last Thursday, on Friday he was still saying the thing will go ahead. (Time expired)