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Thursday, 10 November 2011
Page: 8771

Senator STERLE (Western Australia) (09:31): I rise to make a contribution on Senator Xenophon's Quarantine Amendment (Disallowing Permits) Bill 2011. The bill aims to establish greater parliamentary scrutiny over import conditions for biological products. If the bill is passed, it has the potential, unfortunately, to damage Australian industry and productivity—and I am sure that is something the Senate would never ever agree to. It could, unfortunately, cancel the opportunity to have the turkey at Christmas. It will prevent health authorities from obtaining timely vaccines to emerging global health epidemics. The bill will create uncertainty for Australia's farmers and the mining sector, who rely on quarantine clearance for machinery imports and other inputs. Australia's winemakers, unfortun­ately, would be denied access to something as simple as imported oak casks. The legislation poses a bureaucratic bottleneck for importers that could take years and years to clear. The question is not whether this legislation will cost jobs but how many jobs and who, if anybody, will benefit. The legislation not only denies imports but hampers production. Australia's ports would grind to a halt amid the uncertainty that this bill would create.

In the time allotted to me I want to explain how the bill would work. The bill would prohibit the importation of any product of quarantine concern. When we talk about quarantine, the first thing the majority of Australians would think about is produce, food and the like. But quarantine goes to a whole host of other items. Mining equipment, transport equipment and anything that comes on to our shores would be affected by this bill. All conditions of imports would then have to be remade as a legislative instrument by the minister.

I would like to dig down a bit further into that. The legislative instrument would be automatically referred to a parliamentary committee. If the committee did not move to disallow the instrument, the import permit and/or conditions of import would be considered valid. For example, if the committee or any other member of parliament—and that could be quite dangerous—moved to disallow the import permit and associated import conditions, it could result in a delay of a further 15 sitting days. I want to clarify that that is not normal Monday to Friday business days but sitting days. I have the parliamentary sitting program here in front of me. If this bill is passed, an importer could apply to import a product on 1 December 2011 and, going by the sitting calendar, the sad fact is that it could be well past Anzac Day next year before the importer would have certainty that no disallowance motion had been moved. If a disallowance motion was moved, the importer could be waiting until mid-August 2012 to have certainty about their permit. You do not have to be Einstein to work out that it is absolutely ludicrous that it could take that long when we have products sitting waiting to come into our country. If it is a bit of equipment that a mining company, or a transport company or a community may be hanging on, that is just crazy—let alone fresh produce, seafood or whatever it may be.

While the legislation only applies for the first time that import conditions are finalised, the AQIS import conditions database, known as ICON, specifies more than 14,000 import conditions. Import conditions for the same commodity can vary significantly depending on the risks associated with the country of export. If it only took 12 months to consider every set of import conditions, the Senate Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances would consider no less than 250 import conditions every parliamentary sitting day. It is quite frightening when we start talking like that. As we all know in this place, there are just not enough legislation drafters to draft all these legislative instru­ments. One can only imagine how long it would take to clear such a bottleneck. And because the legislative instruments automati­cally terminate 10 years after they are made, the parliament, after finally clearing the bottleneck caused by the bill, would be considering all of these import conditions all over again.

Roughly 36 million domestic and international passenger movements were recorded at Sydney airport in 2010—that is just Sydney alone. The swine flu epidemic demonstrated how quickly influenza, at first isolated to a few communities in Mexico, spread around the world including to Australia. Every year, Australian medical practitioners prescribe vaccines to combat flu and other diseases. Viruses and diseases evolve, and so too do the biological products the medical profession users to respond to them. But while passenger flights take off and land in real time, doctors and medical researchers could be waiting for months and months before their import permit was approved.

Just as importantly, the bill will hurt Australian farmers. The legislation will lead to challenges in the World Trade Organisation and trading partners will impose retaliatory actions. That leads to expensive legal disputes, and we have seen our fair share of them. That is not something anyone in this chamber would want to see. Changes to import conditions would be subject to parliamentary scrutiny—not that that is a bad thing, but it is not the quickest. Quarantine officials will be unable to impose measures that respond to emerging animal and plant health issues. This will in turn leave Australia exposed—let us hope not—to foot and mouth disease and plant diseases like citrus and kiwifruit canker.

Australian farmers rely on imported inputs to achieve better productivity. In the short time I have left to speak I want to give a couple of examples. Farmers import machinery second-hand. Because it has been used before and may contain traces of dirt, plant matter and insects, quarantine conditions apply—and so they should. Farming businesses import semen straws, embryos and plant products to improve productivity. Wine producers who import French oak to mature wine in will be unable to do so under this bill. Australia's turkey industry will be unable to import fertilised eggs, which are hatched and raised by Australian farmers. Any farmer who imports stockfeed or fertiliser will have to wait for the parliament to work through thousands of other import conditions. So the legislation encourages subversive and illegal activity. Illegal imports and non-regulated trade are the biggest risks to Australia's unique biosecurity status.

The Senate Rural Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee, which I proudly chair, considered this bill and recommended that it not be passed. The committee noted that the significant majority of submissions argued that the bill had the potential to weaken Australia's quarantine and biosecurity framework. We cannot ever—ever—take the risk of doing that. The committee noted evidence which suggested that the bill would lead to the unwanted disclosure of commercially confidential information. The committee also expressed concerns that the bill has the potential to enable the parliament to override scientific evidence and determinations provided by Biosecurity Australia and the director of quarantine. With the greatest respect to my parliamentary colleagues, both in this House and the other place, the last thing we would want is for the odd politician to have the ability to put at risk our biosecurity measures in this great country. We cannot support the amendment bill.