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Wednesday, 29 May 1996
Page: 1364

Senator BOB COLLINS(7.19 p.m.) —I rise on the adjournment tonight to draw the attention of the Senate to the unbelievably ham-fisted performance of the new Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Mr Anderson, on the question of the importation of cooked chicken meat. In his attempts to squirm out of an impossible situation—I might add, one entirely of his own making—he has allowed both chambers of this parliament to be misled in recent days. I am very pleased that Senator Boswell is in the chamber tonight because he knows—and I know he knows—just how bad the minister's performance has been on this matter.

In terms of the discussion paper which the minister circulated to his government backbench—and I have a copy of it—if he thinks his backbench are mugs, he is foolish indeed if he thinks the chicken industry are mugs. It is the industry to which he provided a written assurance two weeks before polling day that he would not be allowing the importation of cooked chicken meat into Australia before the completion of the Nairn review and `the implementation of its recommendations in full'. That is something which is at least a year away.

I read that discussion paper with disgust, I inform Senator Boswell, because some spin doctor in the minister's office, some bush lawyer, has tried to put this spin on it now. The chicken industry in Australia—and Senator Boswell knows it—was in no doubt about what the minister meant when he handed them that letter two weeks before polling day. He was not talking about uncooked chicken meat at all, which was not even on the table for discussion at that time. It was cooked chicken meat that was the order of the day. The minister's behaviour on this casts no credit on him at all.   Senators would recall my colleague Senator Burns asking the junior minister in here, Senator Parer, a question last week. That question was about an article in the Australian Financial Review—a very interesting article. The article stated that the newspaper had been told by Mr Anderson's office that the minister had signed off on a decision to allow the importation of cooked chicken meat into Australia from the United States, Thailand and Denmark, only to be told in a panic-stricken call the journalist received half an hour later that this was wrong and a decision, although it was imminent, had not been made pending further consultation with industry.

Given that the decision is made by delegated authority, Senator Burns asked whether Senator Parer could, on behalf of his senior minister, advise the Senate if the delegated officer—that is normally the director of AQIS—had signed off on this approval and, if so, when. Senator Parer then provided to the Senate a detailed response, obviously prepared by Mr Anderson's office in anticipation of the question. During this response he said that AQIS had conducted a quarantine risk assessment and considered the importation of cooked chicken meat from the USA, Thailand and Denmark under specified conditions would not represent a disease risk. He added—this was in question time—and I quote:

AQIS will publish a statement within a few days—

this is a week ago—

setting out detailed arrangements under which the importation of cooked chicken meat from these countries will be allowed.

This was widely and accurately reported in the media, as one would expect, as a decision by the government to allow the importation of cooked chicken meat into Australia. In fact, the AAP story was headlined, accurately, that—`Government allows importation of cooked chicken meat'.

As senators may also recall, I raised this matter in this chamber again in question time on Wednesday last week. I asked Senator Parer why this decision had been taken in complete breach of specific, written undertakings given to the chicken and salmon industries in a letter from Mr Anderson two weeks before the election when this issue, I might add, was red-hot in regional seats. That was the issue of importing cooked chicken meat, not uncooked chicken meat, as the minister is now trying to slide out of this mess that he made by saying.

I read out the final paragraph of the letter which stated:

A coalition government will suspend the approval of all proposed new import protocols—

which, I might add, includes cooked chicken meat, because we have not had those protocols published yet so they are new protocols—

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

And the letter was signed `Yours sincerely, John Anderson'. Senator Parer was totally nonplussed by this information, said he had nothing to add to his original answer but was quite happy to read back the answer to Senator Burns into the Hansard . The junior minister clearly had no idea what a hornet's nest Mr Anderson had created and what a complete lack of attention he had given to the detail of this issue that he had then stirred up in the rural community.

But things got worse. Within an hour of Senator Parer telling the Senate that he had nothing to add, Senator Woodley's urgency motion was brought on on the same issue straight after question time. During this debate, Senator Brownhill, the minister's parliamentary secretary, said, `No decision had been made.'

What was even more interesting was what Senator Crane said. Senator Crane is, of course, the newly elected chair of the coalition's primary industries and energy committee—and I have got a fair idea why Senator Crane got to be chair of that committee. Senator Crane informed the Senate that he had been so concerned about the original answer Senator Parer had given the Senate—and I am quoting Senator Crane—that he had `gone to see the minister'. He had been told by the minister that `no final decision had been made', the matter was `under review' and `the review would be very ruthless, very rigorous and would take some time'. Have a look at the Hansard, Senator Boswell; those are Senator Crane's words straight from the minister. I understand that Mr Anderson had some answers to give to his backbench, not unreasonably, following this affair.

An information paper, which I have a copy of, was then distributed to the government's backbench. When I read that information paper, I was astonished and disgusted at the minister's attempt to squirm out of the commitment that he had given the chicken industry by claiming he had been talking about uncooked chicken meat, not cooked chicken meat. I can tell you the reaction from the industry on that: I spoke to two industry representatives only two days ago, and they were disgusted. I am reliably informed that this information paper was actually the PPQ, the brief for question time, with the question taken off the top—and I have very good information about that. I am reliably informed that some of the backbench were not complete mugs on this issue either, as none of the chicken industry people were mugs and not very impressed by it.

The problem for the government was that we had an answer given by Senator Parer here in question time, a statement made by Senator Crane 24 hours later directly from the minister and an information paper issued to the minister, all of which absolutely contradicted each other. The briefing paper states:

Minister Anderson has no powers to intervene.

That was not a problem apparently two weeks before election day. It says:

The decision needs to be taken by AQIS on a scientific basis having regard to the requirements of the Quarantine Act.

It then goes on to say:

A further meeting of industry representatives will be convened to present the final AQIS statement on this access request.

You can understand my reaction to these three absolutely conflicting explanations from the government on this issue. Had the minister not signed off on a letter to the chicken meat and salmon industries just weeks before the election pledging no action on this issue until after the Nairn review recommendations had been implemented? That was the intention he meant to give the industry, and that is the intention that they accepted: there would be no cooked chicken meat coming in for at least a year. Was he really suggesting that he did not know the requirements of the Quarantine Act?

I refer you, Senator Boswell, to the four dot points on that information paper where the minister said that these were the things he did not find out till he got into government and that he did not know while he was in opposition. The first dot point was the requirements of the Quarantine Act. Was he seriously suggesting that he had to get into government to find that out? The next two dot points talked about the AQIS process, which had recommended—and you know they did, Senator Boswell; it was a matter for a Senate committee—that the cooked chicken meat be allowed in. That was a public process. Both the draft risk analysis and their final report were public documents available to everybody including, I assume, the shadow minister for primary industry. He did not have to wait to get into government to find that out either.

According to Mr Anderson, I took a decision. To my astonishment, he said in the House of Representatives today that I took a decision to allow the importation of cooked chicken meat last year; I approved that decision and then sat on it and did nothing. Well, can I ask the Senate a very commonsense question? If, as Mr Anderson said, I approved this action last year, which I did not, why are we not up to our ears now in imported cooked chicken meat?

It is an absolute nonsense and sheer duplicity on the part of the minister—and there is no question that that is what it is: his attempt to dupe his own backbench and his attempt to dupe the chicken industry as well. I have to say that he may have succeeded with his own backbench, although I do not think they are that stupid, but he certainly has not succeeded with the chicken industry. At a later point in time, I will table these documents for everybody to make their own assessments and compare them. In fact, if the minister had done the slightest research, he would have discovered—and he could have asked Senator Brownhill—that his own parliamentary secretary, Senator Brownhill, was still arguing about the rigour of the scientific assessment conducted by AQIS on cooked chicken meat before a Senate committee in November last year and he was doing so on behalf of the Chicken Growers Council of Australia. Mr Anderson did not even bother asking. (Time expired)

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Colston) —I call Senator Murphy, but point out that there are only two or three minutes left. Forty minutes is set aside for the adjournment debate.

Senator Murphy —Senator Collins can use up the final three minutes if he wants to. What I have got to say is too important, in terms of this government's policies, to be said in only two or three minutes.