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Tuesday, 2 December 2003
Page: 23489

Mr JOHN COBB (6:51 PM) —Like my colleague the member for Kalgoorlie, I rise to speak in support of the amendments outlined in the Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2002. There are four different areas to this bill: the Quarantine Act 1908, the Imported Food Council Act 1992, the Pig Industry Act 2001 and the Wool Services Privatisation Act. This bill will extend to Christmas Island the Quarantine Act 1908. This accords with the government's policy to align conditions and standards in the Indian Ocean territories with those of comparable communities in the rest of Australia. The Quarantine Act extends already to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and these amendments extend it to Christmas Island in the same way.

I think it has to be said that these amendments are all about formalising the arrangements on Christmas Island and at the same time recognising the different pests and diseases that have to be dealt with in a situation such as exists on Christmas Island. It is about trying to align all the communities in the region that have a similar pest and disease status, and doing that in a way that recognises and takes into account that their disease status is somewhat different to that experienced on the mainland—and I guess that is pretty obvious. Simply put, it will provide these communities with the same legislative framework that covers mainland Australia.

The longterm goal of these amendments is in the interests of the whole of Australia; it is obviously mainly to protect our virtual disease and pest free status in the world. I think we can very well pause for a moment and reflect on what that means to Australia—not just to country Australia, agricultural Australia or Australian tourism but to the wellbeing and prosperity of our whole nation. Let us face it: we are a nation small in people but big in exports. In quite a few commodities we are not the biggest producers, but quite often we are the biggest exporters. Why is our virtual disease free status so important to us? Without the slightest shadow of a doubt, it is the greatest selling point that Australia has. Whether it be wheat or meat, whatever it might be, the fact that it can be bought from Australia—as the member for Kalgoorlie mentioned—with its disease free, green, clean status is without doubt the greatest thing Australian exports have going for them. Let us not forget tourism in all this. Tourism also requires a measure of disease free status. People coming to Australia with that thought in mind know that they can do so and, by and large, run little or no risk of taking home things that they do not want.

These amendments support the move I have referred to, without being overly restrictive or overly punitive on Indian Ocean territories. There is no logical reason why this bill will affect the standard of living on Christmas Island; in fact, should there be market opportunities in the future, it will improve the island's ability to deal with them. The bill provides opportunities to improve quarantine standards in the long term in a way that will, without doubt, facilitate and help with the import and export of goods on the island. More importantly, it will protect the unique environment of the island and the associated tourist benefits. I did mention earlier that tourism, like every other export industry, has its peculiar needs: the confidence of the people who operate the industry and, even more importantly, the confidence of those who are the industry or the clients. Without doubt, that is something that Christmas Island can look forward to.

This is all part of the government's strong commitment to border protection and quarantine protection, as I said before, of our virtually disease and pest free status. We trade on that basis. Our export economy depends upon that status. Producers from agricultural electorates, like my electorate of Parkes, have built their livelihoods on Australia's formidable trade links. Virtually any child can tell you what is exported from our region, why and, quite often, where it goes. They are all very aware that the economy of one-third of New South Wales, which my electorate represents, depends upon exports. It does not matter whether it is the service industry, the food industry or the mining industry; whatever it might be, it is all underwritten by the value of the exports that come from it.

The foundations of our virtual disease and pest free status must remain with us, and there are no limits to which we should not go to ensure that they do remain. Whether it be our security, our quarantine or our trade, Australians know that the one thing this government will always do—unlike some of the actions of our opponents in the past—is defend it to the nth degree. I hope that in this particular case the opposition will pass, without amendments, what has been put forward tonight, because it has been put forward not just in the best interests of and without prejudice to Christmas Island but certainly in the best interests of Australia as a whole. Currently there is not a lot of trade between Christmas Island and the mainland. But these amendments set up a framework to allow for it; should such an industry open up in the future, this framework will cater for it.

When it comes to quarantine laws, ours are up there with the best. Despite the fact that some countries have claimed otherwise, all our quarantine laws are based on science and on logic. They have served Australia very well, and they must continue to do so in the future. No government has worked harder than this one has in the last seven years to protect those standards and to shore up future security by investing in border protection—and we shall continue to do so. The government has significantly strengthened border protection in the last 18 months with its $596 million funding boost in 200102, delivering the strongest quarantine inspection arrangements ever seen in Australia. The difference between what we do in quarantine and what is done by some other countries can be seen in how they surprisingly were caught short in the recent past—within the last five years or so—in a way that I do not believe we ever shall be. While we probably have less to protect than some of those countries have had to protect in the past, we seem to have put a lot bigger effort into making sure—as we will continue to do—that, if we ever do have an incident, we deal with it quickly, efficiently and in the way it has to be dealt with. I could be wrong, but I think we have now committed something like $1 billion to quarantine overhauls in the last four to five years—certainly, in the term of this government, never has more been committed to doing so.

You cannot run a quarantine service like AQIS, which looks after Australia, without having the people to do it. It is a highly specialised service. It is a very hands-on service. I was part of the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit which recently audited quarantine in Australia, and the thing that struck me straight away was that we are almost at the mercy of the individuals who run it. It is very much a hands-on thing. It requires the cooperation of people around Australia, such as those in the Torres Strait. By that I do not mean people in the service; I mean people who just live there and are very conscious of where they are and what could come in from the north or from other places. Personnel have an enormous effect upon AQIS and the quarantine standards we set.

This bill will also amend the Quarantine Act to overcome a limitation in the act that generally restricts the pool of people who may be called upon to assist in the protection of Australia's borders in non-emergency situations to Commonwealth, state or territory government employees. Border protection is not a nine to five job. There is an ongoing need for constant vigilance by ordinary citizens, along with caution and security. We need to be able to respond quickly and efficiently to issues that arise. In the north of Australia we have something called Top Watch. This is nothing more or less than the cooperation of the people who live around the Top End. They cooperate with AQIS incredibly well, and this is certainly to the benefit of all of Australia.

The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service must be well resourced to meet the increasing demands placed upon it—and those demands are increasing. The amendments in this bill move to free up highly professional, highly specialised and trained AQIS officers to perform their tasks in high-risk quarantine areas, where they are most needed. It will also give them flexibility to allow adequate protection for remote areas. Most of the northern areas we are concerned about would certainly be termed that. The amendments to the Quarantine Act will give the Director of Quarantine the power to appoint a person who is not a Commonwealth, state or territory employee as a quarantine officer. The Director of Quarantine will be able to appoint a person who is in a contract pool to be a quarantine officer. Furthermore, the directors of human, animal and plant quarantine will be able to enter into contracts to create a contract pool. I guess this is what you call flexibility—making use of the resources at your disposal, knowing who they are and where you can use them.

Obviously, the Director of Quarantine will need to be satisfied that such a person is able to perform that job competently and is suitable to be appointed. The person must also comply with the APS code of conduct. That requirement has been included because persons from a contract pool exercising quarantine powers should have the same level of accountability as government employees who currently, and normally on a full-time basis, exercise those powers. Under these amendments, the legal position of contracted staff will be clarified. The proposed amendments will give them the protection under law they need to perform their duties. I guess this will be done in a way not dissimilar to the way in which the volunteer bushfire brigade used to work. I support any move that gives AQIS a greater ability to perform what is undoubtedly one of the most important jobs in Australia. Any move that will ensure our high quarantine standards are continually met—or improved; as, indeed, they must be—must have the support of any clear-thinking Australian. As I said before, I cannot think of anything more important in normal commerce than protecting the virtually disease free status that Australia has. We must continue to enjoy this status.

The amendments in this bill also go to the Pig Industry Act 2001 and the Wool Services Privatisation Act 2000. The Liberal-National coalition government is committed to investing in and stimulating research and innovation to boost the competitiveness, profitability and sustainability of all our rural industries—and, in particular, the pig meat and wool industries, which have had their problems over the last decade. As the member of parliament who represents New South Wales' largest electorate—with agriculture and mining being the heart and soul of my electorate—I see R&D as the humble driver behind economic growth. I think it will become even more so as time goes on. Staying ahead of the game in an ever aggressive global market means being competitive. In an export sense, Australian farmers do compete—not just because of quarantine and not just because of our disease free status but because of efficiency and the legwork carried out over many years in R&D.

The purpose of the amendments to the Pig Industry Act 2001 and the Wool Services Privatisation Act 2000 is to allow the research and development bodies for the pork and wool industries, Australian Pork Ltd and Australian Wool Innovation Ltd, to carry forward research and development expenditure eligible for Commonwealth matching contributions from one financial year to the next. All rural research and development bodies attract Commonwealth matching contributions, Mr Deputy Speaker Wilkie, as I am sure you are aware. At the moment, the R&D bodies for the red meat and horticulture industries as well as all of the R&D corporations and councils operating under the Primary Industries and Energy Research and Development Act 1989 are able to carry forward unmatched eligible R&D expenditure from one financial year to the next without loss. AWI and APL, the research and development bodies for the wool industry and the pork industry respectively, are not able to do that. Obviously, this is an anomaly that this amendment seeks to address and should do, for very obvious and simple reasons. I hope that the opposition see that, and I am sure that they will. The point of the amendments under the Pig Industry Act and the WSP Act is to allow APL and AWI to carry forward unmatched eligible research and development expenditure from one financial year to the next. Obviously, the wool industry and the pig meat industry have both had a roller-coaster ride in the last few years and should not be limited by their ability to carry forward well-needed and well-used funds.