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Thursday, 17 June 2004
Page: 30842

Mr TRUSS (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (11:23 AM) —I will respond just one more time so that we can move on to the next item of proposed expenditure. I was asked four specific questions. I will try to respond to each of them briefly. In relation to drought policy, the government have made very significant enhancements to drought assistance, within our capacity to do so. There is an agreement between Commonwealth and states underpinning exceptional circumstances assistance, but we have provided significant help on top of what is available through those EC arrangements and that, in my view, has added to the complexity of the arrangements—which I would prefer was not the case. It has certainly meant that hundreds of millions of dollars has been paid to Australian farmers that could not otherwise have been provided. We have sought to respond flexibly and as best we can within the constraints of the current agreement.

It is beyond dispute that the cost of drought assistance measures has shifted enormously over the last four or five years from the states to the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth now meets about 96 per cent of the cost of EC and most of the states have walked away from their own drought assistance programs entirely. There is nothing in Victoria and virtually nothing in South Australia and Western Australia. New South Wales and Queensland still have some transaction subsidies. There is nothing in Tasmania from the state government. So, in fact, the states have walked away. They are seeking to shift all of the responsibility onto the Commonwealth. The only thing the states do is criticise because the Commonwealth is not doing enough to pick up the slack in the areas that they have vacated. I think drought assistance does need to be a partnership and that is what we are trying to negotiate at the present time.

Regarding the question concerning pest animals, I am happy to provide detailed information to the committee. In fact, I am aware of a submission that is being prepared for that committee to help them with their work. Just a few days ago, however, I made an announcement of significant funding for pest animal projects funded out of the NHT. We have been doing that now for quite a number of years and we will do so again in the future.

Regarding quarantine, the government's commitment to maintaining our borders is clearly demonstrated by the $600 million boost in quarantine expenditure announced three years ago. That has doubled the number of quarantine staff. It has enabled us to inspect 100 per cent of mail and containers and well over 80 per cent of passengers and their baggage on arrival. That is a massive increase from what applied when we came to office. I think that most people, whilst they are naturally sometimes inconvenienced by that higher level of intervention, appreciate that it is important in maintaining our pest- and disease-free status.

I think the shadow minister's comments were more reflecting the role of Biosecurity Australia than the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service because he seemed to be commenting more about import risk analyses and the principles which underpin them. I want to emphasise that there has been no change in Australia's appropriate level of protection, no change in the way in which we administer those sorts of arrangements and no alteration in the standards. It is still absolutely the highest non-negotiable priority of this government in dealing with those issues to keep our nation free of pests and diseases, to keep out of this country the pests and diseases we do not have and to ensure that, when we allow products to come into this country, it is only under the sorts of terms and conditions which will secure our pest- and disease-free status.

Whenever an import risk assessment is undertaken, it is led by a team of the best experts we can muster. Naturally, Biosecurity Australia cannot have on its staff experts on every single issue, so they need to call on outside expertise which frequently comes from state departments or academic institutions with special skills in that area. The three import risk assessments that the shadow minister has referred to have all been conducted under those criteria.

The difference that has occurred under this government is that there is now a much more open and consultative process. There are opportunities for industry to participate. All of the submissions are open for public scrutiny. That is why we now have these public consultation periods which are going on at the present time, where individuals who question the science that is underpinning the proposed recommendations have the opportunity to have their say and put forward their arguments. I encourage those who have concerns about any of these proposals currently open for public comment to take advantage of this opportunity so that their views can properly be considered. We will not as a government compromise our quarantine standards or do anything which might put at risk our freedom from pests and diseases.