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Transcript of joint press conference: Sydney: 2 September 2007: equine influenza.
2 September 2007
TRANSCRIPT OF THE PRIME MINISTER THE HON JOHN HOWARD MP JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE WITH THE MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY
THE HON PETER McGAURAN MP SYDNEY
Subjects: equine influenza
Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve called this short news conference to announce that the Government has decided to establish a full, independent inquiry into the outbreak of equine influenza in Australia in August of 2007. The inquiry will be conducted by the Hon Ian Callinan QC, recently retired as a Justice of the High Court of Australia. The
inquiry will have full powers to subpoena witnesses and, if thought appropriate, conduct public inquiries and any legislation required to invest the inquiry with that power will be introduced into Federal Parliament when it reconvenes the week after next. The inquiry will fully examine the investigation now being carried out in internally by AQIS and any other relevant material and documents and its powers of subpoena will extend to documents as well as the attendance of individuals. The Government is very concerned at the impact of this outbreak on the racing industry. The racing industry is of huge significance to this country. It employs directly and indirectly tens of thousands of people and we are very conscious that what has happened over the past few weeks has had a very adverse affect on many people in the industry, especially in New South Wales and Queensland.
We’ve already announced an emergency relief fund of $4 million, we will provide more assistance to the industry to help those people who are particularly affected by the downturn. There are many people in this industry who are quite low paid, the
high profile members of the industry don’t fall into that category but there are thousands of very low paid people in the industry and we’re concerned about their situation. Many of them will be affected through absolutely no fault of their own.
We are examining a number of areas of assistance including that of a wage subsidy not unlike the one that was introduced in the wake of Cyclone Larry in north Queensland last year. The Minister, who might I say has handled this issue with great skill on behalf of the Government is getting advice on various options and we will be in a position in a few days to announce further assistance measures for the industry. We are determined to find out what happened, how this disease was introduced, whether there’s been a breach of quarantine procedures and protocols. Quarantine is critical to an island nation such as Australia and we’re therefore not going to leave any stone unturned. Ian Callinan is a person of impeccable reputation in the legal profession, he’ll conduct a very forensic and searching inquiry. He’ll take whatever time is appropriate, he will be able to investigate every aspect of it. There’ll be no road blocks, he’ll be able to require people to give evidence, produce documents and he’ll conduct public hearings if he regards that as being necessary.
We want to find out what happened and we want the racing industry and people generally to be assured that if there has been a lapse of quarantine protocols, it won’t happen again and the Minister and I will be happy to answer any questions. Any technical, really technical ones I’m sure Mr McGauran will do a far better job of answering than I could.
You say that Ian can take as long as necessary, do you, do you have any idea of how long it…
Look, I’m not going to try and put a time on it, that’s a matter for him. I mean, we’re neither going to hustle him or delay him. I mean, that’s up to him, I don’t know. Obviously there’s a lot of people to be talked to. I’ve heard reference, and Peter might want to add to this, of 100 people at least requiring to be interviewed.
The AQIS investigative team have identified up to 100 people who need to be interviewed and statements corroborated and explored. In addition the epidemiologists tell us this is an amazingly complex scientific puzzle and it will be some time and you could not hope to do a proper inquiry under a matter of a number of weeks but far from saying that the weeks might run into months, I no more than the Prime Minister would wish to constrain Justice Callinan.
If the public inquiry finds that there has been substantial breaches of quarantine, will that open the door for legal action?
Look I don’t have, and you wouldn’t expect me to have, any comment to make on that. Let the inquiry fall where it may, that’s the whole purpose of having an
independent public inquiry, it will fall where it may and we want to know what happened and when we know the results of the inquiry then is the time for people to examine the implications of it but I’m not going to answer hypothetical questions on that.
Justice Callinan, apart from being a jurist of the highest order and recognised throughout Australia and the world for his distinguished legal service is, has also been a chairman of the Queensland TAB and has retained a keen, or at the very least interested observation of the racing industry so he comes to this inquiry with a good background in all of the complexities and diversity of the racing industry.
Can I just ask on APEC and climate change, how big a task is it to get a group like APEC leaders to agree on an approach…
Weren’t you here this morning?
…on climate change in a, compared to say trade liberalisation? I wasn’t here this morning.
Well it’ll be challenging but I did have a three-quarter hour news conference on it this morning.
Prime Minister, what do you, what extra powers do you envisage the Federal Government may grant justice Callinan?
He will have all the powers he needs to subpoena witnesses, subpoena documents and he’ll be free to conduct public hearings if he thinks they are necessary. So he won’t be in any way constrained in the way in which he conducts the inquiry and whatever appropriate amendments to legislation that might be required in order to give effect to that will be introduced into Parliament when it reconvenes the week after next.
As well as the wage subsidy, what other measures are you considering?
Well there are a number of other things but particularly we’re interested in wage subsidies because that worked quite well in relation to Cyclone Larry but every industry is different and clearly we want to provide reasonable help but clearly we
want to do it in a way that is cost effective and does not impose an unreasonably drain on the taxpayer but this is unprecedented in the racing industry, it hasn’t happened before. It’s not the fault of anybody in the industry, it’s come like a bolt from the blue and it’s caused widespread distress to an industry that’s very important to this country at a peak time. I mean, the spring racing carnivals in different parts of Australia are really the backbone of the industry and to be hit at a time like this with something like this is quite tragic for the industry and we want to help. Now, we’re going to be sensible about it, we’ve got a responsibility to taxpayers to be sensible but we also want to be reasonable to people who’ve been knocked around through no fault of their own.
The thoroughbred racing, harness and equestrian industries have been in constructive discussions with the Government for some time now. They have put a number of matters to the Government, they’re still to model and work out some of the impact and cost of their proposals as does the Government. The challenge for all of us, given the complexity of the industry where you have wage earners and self-employed persons, you have small businesses all of whom are affected in different ways and to different extents is to make sure any assistance is targeted, focussed and effective.