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Monday, 21 June 1999
Page: 6873

Mr SCHULTZ (5:20 PM) —I rise in this grievance debate tonight on the issue of ovine Johne's disease. Imagine living in a family of three, surviving on your son's fortnightly Austudy payments of just $148. Picture, after 20 years of running a successful farm, working hard enough to provide a comfortable lifestyle for your children, suddenly waking up with no income, useless livestock and possibly being forced to sell your property. Envisage trying to get help during this crisis, to find your family's and your contribution to Australia's economic stability ignored, being shut out by govern ment agencies, cruelly mistreated by the New South Wales state government and unable to be considered for federal exceptional circumstances funding.

These circumstances are not a delusion. They are a reality for many rural families in New South Wales, and indeed all over the country, whose properties are currently affected by ovine Johne's disease. Heartache, anger, frustration, family break-ups, emotional breakdown and financial ruin have become a harsh and taxing reality for individuals affected by the disease. As of 30 April 1999, there were 426 farms affected and 538 suspected of having OJD in rural New South Wales alone, most of which are under quarantine. I have serious concerns about this poorly handled, deteriorating fiasco that is the OJD problem in Australia. Not surprisingly, recent testing has shown that the disease, first believed to be restricted to a small proportion of flocks, has been found in most areas capable of cultivating the virus.

The state and federal governments have responded to this epidemic by announcing that they jointly agreed to coordinate a $40 million program—to which the federal government will contribute about $9 million over six years—to monitor, research and develop restocking incentives and flock assurance programs. Firstly, what is the likelihood of eradicating this disease by destocking and restocking when OJD can survive in soil? Secondly, how do the authorities handling this catastrophe expect to eradicate the disease when the process of testing and researching is to take six years? Thirdly, and very evident in my electorate, when are the narcissistic bureaucrats responsible for attempting to eradicate the disease going to wake up and support the people who have affected properties as well?

The cases I mentioned earlier are not hypothetical but true depictions of what constituents in my electorate are experiencing. We are considering charging all of these stud owners a levy to finance the $40 million program to attempt to eradicate the disease, first detected in 1980, probably around for 20 years before that, and now at epidemic proportions. Where have the state agricultural departments been for the past 30-odd years? Western Australia, which claims to be OJD free, does not intend to contribute to this levy. Producers who trade interstate will be charged twice under this new arrangement. It is beyond my comprehension how this levy, or a transaction levy, is the answer to a far-reaching, deeply ingrained problem.

I refer back to the case of a family from Tarago living on a child's Austudy allowance to survive after they were detected with OJD. A five-year quarantine was placed on the property, and for the last two years no sheep have been detected with the disease. But they are unable to sell, except to abattoirs, or buy stock for another three years. This ridiculous, unfair and emotional situation is compounded by the owner's attempts to obtain financial support from Centrelink. In view of the fact that the size of their properties makes them asset rich, they are ineligible for financial assistance. In all of my experience as an elected people's representative, I have never seen such ignorance.

Certainly, the state governments are the ones responsible for this disaster, but why cannot the federal government extend a hand and help? Political inaction and games have again clouded what is important. Let us get rid of the red tape, forget whose role it is and simply help. Governments, through their inability to feel and see this problem in its entirety, are playing with people's lives.

I have to make one point. The National Ovine Johnes Disease Program recently announced that OJD zones were agreed by the veterinary committee, meaning properties will be referred to as either a `controlled zone status' or `residual status'. This will benefit stud owners not affected by the disease. But, again, what about the ones who are? They are already belittled by their neighbours and other producers and considered null because of their status. This zoning is not going to help.

This brings me to my next point. One of my constituents was contacted by the Department of Agriculture to undertake a faecal pool test. The owner was told that the outcome would not change their status of `OJD free'. Out of the whole stud, just one faeces of 269 samples was found with OJD bacteria. Shortly afterwards, the farm was shut down and considered `suspect'. What kind of individual from a government department enters a family property, misleads, performs an experimental test and ruins the family's lives all in one day? The individuals in question have since had no choice but to give their farm to their children. Subsequently it has been discovered that, although they gave out two shares to each of their sons valued at $400,000 each, they have given in excess of a net amount of $500,000, which would have made them eligible for the Farmers Assistance Scheme.

Let me quote in part from correspondence from a constituent to the New South Wales Farmers Association to illustrate the difficulties they are facing. I quote from a letter from Mrs Joan Limon of Sunnybrook, Tarago:

I am writing to inform you of the heart ache being experienced in this area because of the treatment by the government, not the disease of OJD. Below I have outlined my husband's and my personal experience as part of the nightmare that comes with an OJD classification.

1. For several years we paid top price for rams from a registered stud. Several years ago my Father-in-law purchased some stud ewes from the same property. Our last purchase was a ram for close to $2000.00 on 26.10.1995.

2. At the beginning of 1997 we received a letter from the stud to say they had tested positive to OJD—our nightmare had begun.

3. In January 1997 we were told by our local RLPB . . . that we would have to have sheep tested as we had been found in a trace from the stud. We were told by the vet concerned that we were now in a type of quarantine in that we could no longer trade normally, rather if we wanted to sell any sheep they could only be sold direct to an abattoir.

We felt like "lepers" and felt terrible that we had inadvertently put all our neighbours in jeopardy despite the fact that we had not noticed any signs of sheep dying due to OJD, even though we had been purchasing sheep from that same stud for years.

We were both devastated, my husband who was born and raised here particularly so. No longer were we in control of our own destiny. The emotional effect of an OJD classification cannot be underestimated.

The letter goes on:

4. At the end of January 1997 we had 50 sheep . . . blood tested and another 5 killed for autopsy.

All the tests that were undertaken proved negative. Over the period up until this day, they had another 450 sheep tested, and the pathology tests came back negative. The end result is that they have had 506 sheep tested—500 blood tested; 6 killed and autopsied—all results were negative, and they are still classed as `suspect'. By the time they wait their three years, they will have been quarantined for nearly five years.

I have to say that the motto in government appears to be, `When they are down, kick them.' I have to ask, considering all the points I have made today, how many individuals would risk their livelihood, their career and their living standards to have their flock tested for OJD only to be placed in these zones and have restrictions on selling and purchasing stock. These families know that they could face a sudden loss of income, emotional heartache and demeaning treatment from other producers with just one positive case of OJD. This is a national problem that is not going to disappear and, while the new $40 million program could be successful in decreasing cases of OJD, we will not know for six years. Could someone please explain to me how all the families and individuals affected by this disease are expected to survive until this time?

May I respectfully suggest that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and the Minister for Community Services could well consider the heartbreaking issues centred around the OJD problems that I have raised with a view to demanding a more realistic approach than their state counterparts—who are in fact the people responsible for all of the impositions placed on these individuals who now, unfortunately, see themselves in a situation where they cannot survive financially. In terms of the stress they are under, one wonders what the ultimate result of these OJD restrictions is going to be for those families.