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Thursday, 14 March 2002
Page: 1298

Mr TRUSS (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (9:38 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The purpose of this Quarantine Amendment Bill 2002 is to amend the Quarantine Act 1908:

· to enhance Australia's national emergency powers to ensure the Commonwealth, states and territories have adequate legislative powers to enable them to prevent, or to act rapidly to control and eradicate, a major national animal disease outbreak, such as foot-and-mouth disease; and

· to create a new offence for commercial smuggling with significant increases in the pecuniary penalties applicable to individuals and corporations.

An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Australia would have an enormous impact on the national economy and on the lives of individuals, particularly in our rural and regional areas. For this reason, the Commonwealth, in cooperation with the states, territories and industry, has been reviewing and further developing national whole of government frameworks for the prevention, preparedness for and management of a major national animal disease emergency.

In the event of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in Australia, it is the states and territories who would provide frontline response measures. While state and territory animal health acts and emergency response measures are adequate in a normal disease event, the magnitude of a disease such as foot-and-mouth may not so easily be dealt with.

Currently section 2B of the Quarantine Act provides significant powers whereby the minister can, upon the issue of a proclamation by the Governor-General, direct that certain actions be undertaken in the event of an epidemic. These powers, while important, are inadequate as it is not the Commonwealth who should, in terms of resources, constitutional responsibility and expertise, take control of disease response measures; it is the states and territories.

The amendments, therefore, provide for the Commonwealth to authorise state and territory agencies to take necessary actions under the Commonwealth quarantine power. This enhances the legislative authority of the states and territories and can be used where their own legislation has gaps or is inadequate. The authorisation by the Commonwealth provides the states and territories with the autonomy to decide when, how and if such measures are necessary.

The amendments provide for the Governor-General to declare by proclamation that an epidemic has the potential to so affect a primary industry of national significance that the exercise of coordinated response powers may be required.

These powers would allow the minister to authorise the executive heads of national response agencies to take quarantine measures to control, eradicate or remove the danger of an epidemic. Provision is to be made for response agencies to be notified in the Gazette. In general terms, these agencies would encompass those that are usually called on to respond to emergencies or disasters at a national, state or local level.

Upon authorisation by the minister, persons performing duties in the authorised agencies, under the authority and direction of the heads of those agencies, can take specified response actions using the Commonwealth's quarantine power.

Section 4 of the Quarantine Act currently provides broad powers of quarantine. It is this section which provides the ability by which broad quarantine powers can be exercised under section 2B. This bill also amends section 4 of the Quarantine Act. Section 4 sets out the scope of quarantine. The amendment puts beyond doubt that the coordinated response powers that extend to the seizure and destruction of animals, plants or other goods or things, and the destruction of premises when treatment of the buildings is not practicable, fall within the scope of quarantine.

The amendments include provisions for a number of limitations and conditions that can be attached to authorisations provided by the minister and which would be extended to the executive heads of national response agencies. While it is accepted that broad powers are necessary to allow an effective and rapid national response to foot-and-mouth disease, it is important that responses in emergency situations are suited to the type and scale of event and carried out with the appropriate approvals in place.

Additionally, guidelines to be formulated by the states, territories and Commonwealth will establish processes by which these powers will be utilised to ensure the aims of consistency and coordination are met, both nationally and within state and territory borders.

The authorisations that are proposed to be extended to members of national response agencies raise the question of immunity from suit. Section 82 of the Quarantine Act currently provides for protection of authorised or approved persons from suit. It is proposed that this immunity be extended to those authorised to take action and give directions under the proposed amendments to the act, including temporary staff, contractors and volunteers.

By necessity, the amendments include an expansion of section 69A of the act in relation to compensation, to include provision for compensation for any premises destroyed in accordance with the act.

The bill also proposes an amendment to section 11 of the act which would allow the Commonwealth to assist states and territories in the implementation and monitoring of arrangements so as to enable certification of exported products and in providing reports to the Commonwealth on such matters. As international requirements in relation to export certification expand, it is considered timely to provide an added level of support and assistance between the Commonwealth and the states and territories in relation to such activities.

The proposed amendments are an important step in our review and development of national whole of government response measures to major national animal disease emergencies. They will assist in our task of working hand in hand with the states and territories and will ensure that, as a nation, we will be in a strong position to fight major emergency diseases, such as foot-and-mouth disease, should an outbreak occur.

The new offence for commercial smuggling implements the election commitment made in Australia's Rural Industries— Growing Stronger to provide stronger sanctions for quarantine offences.

The new offence will highlight the very serious nature of smuggling for commercial purposes by imposing a higher maximum pecuniary penalty for individuals and corporations than that which applies to an offence under the existing illegal importation offence in section 67. Under the new offence, it is proposed to have a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment and/or 2,000 penalty units for individuals and 10,000 penalty units for corporations. This means that, at the present time, individuals may be fined up to $220,000 and corporations up to $1,100,000.

Given the disastrous impact of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom, it is important that a strong message be given to potential offenders about the serious consequences of illegal importations and behaviour of this nature. I commend the bill to the House and present the explanatory memorandum.

Debate (on motion by Mr Albanese) adjourned.