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Wednesday, 20 March 2002
Page: 1717

Mr TRUSS (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (5:53 PM) —in reply—Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, I congratulate you on your elevation to the position of deputy speaker. I also thank those members who have made a contribution to the debate on the Quarantine Amendment Bill 2002. I have noticed a great contrast, however, in the quality of their presentations. We had the carefully reasoned arguments of the member for Parkes, who has a clear understanding of the importance of quarantine and how essential it is for Australia to retain its disease-free status. Then we have had the comments from the member for Kennedy—almost every paragraph was wrong. His comments were inaccurate and contained statements that were simply untrue.

There has been a bit of debate about parliamentary privilege over recent times, and I would have thought one of the obligations of parliamentary privilege is for members to make statements which are fundamentally truthful. In this particular instance, the honourable member for Kennedy has made a number of statements which are simply wrong. Indeed, if you follow his own statements, they change day in, day out. On Cairns radio last week, he was saying that 9,000 jobs were going to be lost because of banana imports. He actually said 9,000 jobs had already been lost in relation to bananas and 2,000 for pineapples. Now it is 12,000 for bananas. He said earlier in this House as well that 5,000 jobs have been lost because cooked chicken meat has been allowed into this country.

Mr Katter —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Does the member for Kennedy have a point of order?

Mr Katter —Yes, I do. I claim to have been misrepresented. It was 9,500 and 2,500—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Kennedy does not have a point of order. I call the minister.

Mr TRUSS —The member for Kennedy has just told us in his speech that 5,000 Australians have lost their jobs because cooked chicken meat has come into this country. Is the member for Kennedy aware of the fact that not a single permit has been issued for imports of cooked chicken meat into this country? No cooked chicken meat has come into this country, so how could imports have cost 5,000 jobs? He also talks often about the destruction of the durian industry because of fresh durian imports. There have been no fresh durian imports, and yet he keeps talking about the destruction of the industry. He talks about New Zealand apples coming into this country; there are no New Zealand apples coming into this country. No consent has been given for that to happen. The statements made by the member for Kennedy are simply wrong.

Let me give an assurance to the House—and to the honourable member for Kennedy, if he will listen, but certainly to others who may have a genuine concern about these issues—that no permission will be given to bring durian into this country that have got weevils in them, apples with fire blight, grapes with Pearce's disease or bananas with black sigatoka. No consent will be given to diseased products coming into this country. The Australian Quarantine Inspection Service and Biosecurity Australia take their responsibilities in these regards very seriously, and protocols will be put into place that ensure that the disease-free status of our nation is appropriately protected.

The very first statement of the honourable member for Kennedy was also simply wrong. AQIS has not changed its name to Biosecurity Australia; that is simply an inaccurate statement. There is a division that deals with market access issues of the department that is called Biosecurity Australia. The Australian Quarantine Inspection Service still exists. I can assure ladies and gentlemen that it still exists. It has not changed its name and, if you care to go to any airport, seaport or any part of Australia, you will have no trouble finding people wearing AQIS uniforms as a positive demonstration that AQIS does actually exist, in spite of the claims by the member for Kennedy that it has changed its name.

I was also interested in his comments that suggest that we are intimidated on trade. What an extraordinary statement! For a country that exports two-thirds of all of the agricultural produce that we grow—

Mr Katter —One-third.

Mr TRUSS —Two-thirds of all that we produce—and he suggests that we are intimidated on trade. In a year in which we have just had a 10 per cent increase in our gross value of agricultural production, following on a previous 10 per cent increase, at a time when our exports have been boosted substantially around the world, this member has the hide to suggest to the House that in fact Australia is intimidated on trade. Australian farmers are not intimidated; they are trading with remarkable success and it is a real credit to them. In fact, it is a pity that they do not get more support from the member for Kennedy for the outstanding achievements that they have delivered.

Finally, the member for Kennedy says Biosecurity Australia always says yes. I wonder whether he has actually talked to any countries around the world. Australia has developed a reputation for being the most difficult country to get products into. We are accused of using quarantine as a trade barrier. He does not actually have to go overseas to listen to that. If he allows the American ambassador to talk to him, he will certainly get that message loud and clear.

I believe those countries that criticise us in that regard are wrong. Australia adopts a conservative approach to quarantine, as we ought to, but we do not use quarantine as a barrier; we decide these things on the basis of science. Decisions based on science are not overridden by cabinet, as suggested by the honourable member for Kennedy; he was wrong in that statement as well. We make our decisions on the basis of the quality of the scientific information that is available, and those decisions are made in accordance with the appropriate level of protection that we have put into place to ensure that our Australian disease-free status is always preserved and respected.

The changes that have been made to quarantine access have not been done in secret, as the member for Kennedy suggested. There are public forums. Biosecurity Australia does take the opportunity to discuss the science with interested parties and to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to be involved.

Now that the member for Kennedy has left us, we can perhaps turn to the really important things that are in the bill. It is, in fact, a significant bill and it is important for Australia in its determination to maintain our disease-free status. The honourable member for Hunter, in responding on behalf of the opposition, expressed some concern about the speed of passage of the legislation. I appreciate that it is legislation that has been brought into the House and we are seeking urgent passage of it because of the need to ensure that we have an appropriate legislative base to be able to deal with a disease outbreak, should it occur.

The Council of Australian Governments set up working groups to endeavour to ensure that Australia had a capacity to effectively deal with major disease outbreaks. It is as a result of the examination and the work that is being done with the states and various industry organisations that we have identified defects in our legislative capability to deal with significant outbreaks of disease. We have plans in place to deal with disease outbreaks, but they were never designed with something of the magnitude of the foot-and-mouth disease disaster of the UK in mind. So we have needed to make changes to the legislation to increase the capacity of the government and the people of Australia to be able to deal with major disease outbreaks, should they occur.

We are asking the parliament to give this legislation prompt passage because I do not think any member of parliament could reasonably stand before the Australian people and say, `We knew that changes had to be made but we delayed the legislation and, as a result, some kind of catastrophe has occurred.' I hope there will not be any need for us ever to use this legislation—I hope we never have to use it—but the reality is that there are deficiencies in the current arrangements which would impair our capability to deal with a disease outbreak. I hope that the discussions that we have had with the opposition spokesman are such that issues of concern can be resolved so that the opposition can give this legislation speedy passage. I do not think they would want a situation where they could be accused of having damaged Australia's capacity to meet a disease outbreak. Certainly, from the government's perspective, we want to promote all that we possibly can to ensure that our disease preparedness and our eradication preparedness is fully activated.

The purpose of the bill is to amend the Quarantine Act to enhance Australia's national emergency powers by allowing the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, upon proclamation by the Governor-General, to authorise certain Commonwealth, state and territory officials to undertake appropriate measures in response to an emergency animal disease outbreak such as foot-and-mouth disease. It also aims to deter commercial smuggling of quarantine risk material by introducing a new offence, with significantly increased penalties for individuals and corporations when compared with existing penalties for illegal importations.

The outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the UK certainly demonstrated the enormous impact that such a disease can have on the national economy and on the lives of individuals. Honourable members, in their contributions to this debate, have generally referred to that quite extraordinary disaster. If that sort of outbreak were to occur in Australia, response measures would need to be rapid, nationally consistent and effective. It is the states and territories who would provide front-line response measures in the event of an outbreak of such a disease. State and territory animal health acts provide adequate response measures in a normal disease event but do not provide the coverage needed to deal with a major national disease problem.

The amendments proposed in this bill, in essence, ensure that the Commonwealth, states and territories have adequate legislative powers to enable them to prevent, or to act rapidly to control and eradicate, a major national animal disease outbreak such as foot-and-mouth disease. Currently, section 2B of the Quarantine Act provides significant powers whereby the minister can, upon the issue of a proclamation by the Governor-General, direct that certain actions be undertaken in the event of an epidemic affecting a part of the Commonwealth. These powers, while important, are inadequate as it is not normally the Commonwealth which, in terms of resources, constitutional responsibility and expertise, would take control of disease response measures—it would normally be the states and territories. Accordingly, the amendments provide for the minister to authorise state and territory agencies, as well as Commonwealth agencies, to take necessary actions under the Commonwealth quarantine powers.

The bill also proposes an amendment to section 11 of the act, which would allow the Commonwealth to assist states and territories in the implementation and monitoring of arrangements so as to enable certification of exported products, and in providing reports to the Commonwealth on such matters. This amendment is not strictly in relation to the control and eradication of emergency animal diseases; however, as international requirements in relation to export certification expand, it is considered timely to provide an added level of support and assistance between the Commonwealth, the states and the territories in relation to such activities.

The creation of the new offence for commercial smuggling implements the election commitment made in Australia's Rural Industries—Growing Stronger to provide stronger sanctions for quarantine offences. Given the disastrous impact of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom, it is important that a strong message be given to potential offenders about the serious consequences of such behaviour. Offenders can expect to receive penalties of up to 10 years imprisonment and/or 2,000 penalty units—currently $220,000—for individuals, and 10,000 penalty units, or $1.1 million, for corporations.

The measures proposed in this bill highlight the government's commitment to safeguarding Australia's valuable agriculture and aquaculture industries and our environment from imported pests and diseases. Australia's freedom from many of the world's most serious pests and diseases of plants and animals is a tremendous advantage that we cannot afford to jeopardise. These measures will strengthen our ability to respond effectively to incursions from exotic pests and diseases, and ensure that appropriately severe penalties are in place for those people who would compromise our unique pest and disease status by importing goods of quarantine concern for commercial gain. I thank honourable members for their contribution, and I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.