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Thursday, 10 November 2011
Page: 8773

Senator COLBECK (Tasmania) (09:41): I also rise to make a contribution on Senator Xenophon's private senator's bill, the Quarantine Amendment (Disallowing Permits) Bill 2011. I can genuinely under­stand Senator Xenophon's concern in putting this piece of legislation before the parlia­ment, particularly given the management of this issue by the government since early this year when the Prime Minister made her visit to New Zealand and effectively announced to the New Zealand parliament that we were going to take New Zealand apples. This issue has been before this parliament in a number of guises for a very long time. I am aware of at least two or three Senate inquiries into the importation of apples from New Zealand through various import risk assessment processes that have occurred since I have been here and I am aware of inquiries that occurred prior to that. But when the Prime Minister stood up in the New Zealand parliament and said effectively that we would take apples from New Zealand the industry were quite understandably very concerned about that statement, given that we were in the middle of a WTO process where the New Zealanders had referred our import risk assessment and the conditions attached to that to the WTO for arbitration. So the apparent pre-empting of that decision by the Prime Minister quite understandably got the industry very concerned.

One thing we need to be very aware of is the very fortunate situation we find ourselves in here in Australia with respect to our quarantine status. We make absolutely no apology for maintaining a very high level of protection for that quarantine status. It is more than appropriate that we do that. We are free of foot and mouth and a whole range of other diseases that impact on other countries around the world. In particular, in this case, fire blight is a disease that we are very fortunate we do not have to manage. It would have a huge impact on our apple and pear industries, completely devastating the pear sector, and there are a number of chemicals and management tools that are available particularly in New Zealand that are not available to our farmers here. Streptomycin is one that comes to mind. Senator Xenophon's motivation in putting this piece of legislation forward cannot be questioned. He is quite genuine in his concern to ensure that our biosecurity is at its strongest and that the disease status of our industries are protected to the absolute maximum possible. Unfortunately, the mechanism that he has designed in this piece of legislation cannot be supported. As Senator Sterle has just put on the record in his contribution, it does create a lot of uncertainty around the issuing of permits and, therefore, creates potential delays for our industries. I think this particular mechanism would do more than harm than good in protecting our biosecurity status.

The issue of the importation of apples, as I have said, has been a vexed one for a very, very long time. I have to mention the New Zealand minister who, when a delegation of coalition members were in New Zealand recently to inspect some of the processes and procedures occurring over there, acknowled­ged that the New Zealand industry had to lift their game in their sheds to ensure that they had a satisfactory outcome as far as their processes were concerned. The failure rate of close to 25 per cent that they have had since apples have been approved to come from New Zealand I do not think is acceptable and, if it had been an Australian product going overseas and we had that level of failure in our inspections, there would be an enormous hue and cry. I think the Australian apple and pear industry are more than reasonable in the concerns they have expressed about that level of failure rate. It is important to acknowledge that the New Zealand minister, who has been very, very good in the conversations that I have had with him in relation to this matter, has said to the industry that they need to lift their game and improve that rate. I think the New Zealand apple industry actually acknowled­ged that too, given the feedback that I have had from members of the delegation who went to New Zealand a couple of weeks ago. The fact that the New Zealanders were prepared to open their sheds to us to allow us to inspect their systems and to watch the way their processes worked is appreciated by the coalition, and I know that the industry appreciate the fact that we were able to go and have a look over there as well.

I come back to the government's management of this particular issue. They have created angst, particularly through the apple industry, where they did not need to. During the development of the import risk assessment the industry were very keen to get access to what is known as the New Zealanders' management systems of their orchards. They made a number of requests and were told by the government that the information was commercial-in-confidence. It was not until the coalition placed an order through this House that that information was provided to the industry. As it turned out, the information was actually available to the industry in the import risk assessment. All the government had to do was say to the industry, 'The information that you are looking for is accurately reflected in the import risk assessment document,' and that angst could have been removed. I believe that that is a completely and absolutely unnecessary concern that the industry had to go through and that the government could have resolved, if it had had the want to do so.

There is a lot of information in the New Zealanders' procedures manual that is commercial-in-confidence. It goes to market­ing and it goes to a whole range of other matters. Had the government spoken to the New Zealanders and said, 'We want to give the Australian industry access to the information around the management of fire blight in particular in the orchards during the season and through the packing sheds,' that could have saved an enormous amount of angst. There were serious concerns that moved through the industry and I think they were quite justified because they believed information that was going to be used in the management of Australia's biosecurity—and I go back to the importance of our biosecurity status—was being withheld from them. Quite frankly, if the New Zealanders wanted to use their orchard management system as a mechanism for the management of their biosecurity, they should have been prepared to put that information on the table right from the outset. I think our industry deserved to have access to that information. It was more than reasonable.

There has been a lot of argument about the science of fire blight and the potential transmission of that disease into this country on mature apples. That has gone backwards and forwards over a long period of time. The decision has now been made that we will import apples from New Zealand into Australia. The most genuine concern that I came across was the capacity of the New Zealand industry to prevent the disease from being transmitted particularly on litter that might come with the apples in the packed boxes. The fact that in the first consignments there was an almost 25 per cent failure rate of either leaf litter or leaf curling midge in those consignments, I think, vindicates the concern that the industry had about the capacity of the New Zealand industry to meet those protocols.

The growers in Australia know about growing apples, they know about packing apples and they know about the potential threats and concerns that might arise in that process, particularly in the packaging and export of apples. Why they were not given access to the information that related to that process and why they were not consulted more genuinely in that process, I do not know. But the fact that they were not created an enormous amount of angst and created an enormous amount of concern in the industry about the efficacy of the system. I have to say that the failure rate to date has justified their concerns. Now that we have decided to import apples from New Zealand—again I acknowledge the comments of the New Zealand minister, who has been very good in relation to this—a real effort needs to be made to ensure that New Zealand has a satisfactory process in place. It needs to be acknowledged that it needs to lift its game, because one thing that we do not want, do not need and cannot afford is a serious breach in Australia's quarantine system in relation to the particular diseases that are of concern in apple imports.

We have seen in recent times an incursion of Asian bees and there has been significant concern from the beekeeping industry about our management of that incursion. A decision was made late last year or early this year that the Asian bee was no longer eradicable. There were sincere and real concerns throughout the beekeeping sector that the decision-making process around that decision did not take into account all of the information. In fact, even as late as a couple of weeks ago, Senator Milne and I were at an event in Sydney where concerns remained about the gathering of data and the decision-making process around the potential eradication or otherwise of the Asian bee.

We have also seen the incursion of myrtle rust into the country. Again, there have been concerns coming back from some elements of the scientific community about the management of that process. We do not want the same thing happening to other agricultural industries, particularly our apple and pear industry, from fire blight. We do not want to have to go through that process. So it was more than reasonable that our industry spent a considerable amount of time to ensure that the processes put in place had the required efficacy. People in the industry need to be assured that their businesses are protected from the threat of diseases that do not exist in this country.

Because of our quarantine status, my home state of Tasmania has access to a number of markets that other states do not have access to due to the fact that they are, for example, free of fruit fly. They get into some very valuable markets because of their quarantine status and we do not want to put at risk our access to those high-value markets by not having a strong biosecurity system. So I do not apologise for the processes that the coalition has ensured this import risk assessment went through. I do not apologise, for a minute, for the questions that we have asked of the government, but I do criticise the government's management of this.

As I said, when the Prime Minister went to New Zealand earlier this year and basically said, 'We are going to take your apples,' there was an enormous concern that went through the New Zealand industry—and justifiably. We were in the middle of a process. We were still negotiating the design of the revised import risk assessment. Then when we got to the end of the process, in August this year, for the industry to find out after the permits were issued and after premises in New Zealand had been certified I think shows no respect to our industry at all. I am not sure what the government was concerned about but, quite frankly, it should have been much more open. For the industry to find out on the day that the process was determined to be completed—and that date was determined as part of the negotiation of the WTO settlement—that in previous weeks certification of orchards had been approved and export permits had been approved, shows no respect to our industry.

It also demonstrates a general disposition that this government has towards the agriculture sector in this country. It does not show the sector due respect. The industry found out late in the process, but they could have been told what was happening, when it was happening and how it was happening, which would have removed that concern and angst that was generated throughout the industry. It is going to take a long time for the industry to regain some trust in the mechanisms of this government and in the way that the government interacts with them.

The bill review process occurred during the last parliament. The government has been very slow to enact the provisions of that. We know that economic conditions are tight but, as I said, the biosecurity status of this country is one of our greatest assets. Having a strong biosecurity system and having good systems that allow us to import and export our goods efficiently is very important. Any loss of that biosecurity status provides a significant risk and threat to our export capacities and export revenue.

If you go back to the time of the global financial crisis and look at the statistics you will see that it was agriculture that was one of the sectors that held our economy out of recession. The strength of our agricultural exports was one of the key factors in holding our economy out of recession. So when the government is so lax in the way that it deals with our farming sector—our rural exporters—I think it really needs to sit back and take a close look at the way it is managing this. It needs to be prepared to invest in the recommendations that came out of the bill process to ensure that this country has a strong and efficient biosecurity system. There is not question that that is the case.

Unfortunately, this legislation that has been put in front of the parliament by Senator Xenophon, although very well intentioned, does not meet the mark. I think Senator Sterle's contribution quite clearly laid out some of the issues that this legislation would create, but by the same token, given the way that the government has approached this matter and given the way that the government has managed this issue, particularly over the recent past, I understand his sincerity in wanting to ensure that the biosecurity system is strong. Unfortunately, the legislation does not provide, in my view, the efficiency of process that might be required to maintain an efficient biosecurity system. In that context, I support the committee's recommendation that the bill not be supported. It is important to note that the submissions to the inquiry predominantly followed that line as well. They were not supportive of this piece of legislation because of the inefficiencies that it might bring to the system. As I have said on a number of occasions during this contribution, Senator Xenophon's concerns are very genuinely held. I know that in South Australia there is an important apple industry and that the growers in his state, as they are in mine and in other states, are very concerned to ensure that they are not subjected to diseases, such as fire blight, that would have a major negative impact on the industry. In saying that, I again acknowledge Senator Xenophon's genuine concern for the industry but indicate that I cannot see myself supporting this piece of legislation.