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Tuesday, 2 December 2003
Page: 23494

Mr TRUSS (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (7:19 PM) —in reply—I thank the honourable members who have contributed to this debate on the Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2002. This legislation covers amendments to quite a number of pieces of legislation. The legislation has been around for quite a long time. You will notice that it is called the Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2002, and finally it is being brought on for vote here today. That is because it has been examined at a Senate inquiry which has taken quite a bit of time. I will refer to some of the matters raised by individual contributors to the debate in a moment.

I need to outline briefly the contents of the bill. There are amendments in this bill to the Quarantine Act 1908. These amendments extend the act to Christmas Island, make a number of changes to improve the arrangements for the payment of fees, broaden the range of persons who may be appointed as quarantine officers and make a number of clarifying amendments. We are going to move some further amendments tonight which correct a reference to the title of this bill in the quarantine amendment health act 2003 brought about by the fact that a year has clocked over since this legislation was first introduced into the House.

The extension of the act to Christmas Island is in response to 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 amendments extend the act to Christmas Island in the same way as it has been extended to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. The amendments provide Christmas Island with the same legislative framework for quarantine as that which applies to the rest of Australia while providing for quarantine barriers between Christmas Island, the Cocos Islands and the mainland in recognition of the different pest and disease status of these areas.

In relation to the arrangements for the payment of fees, the key changes are the amendment of sections 59A and 63 of the act to put beyond doubt that the liability for fees currently imposed on an agent by those sections is not a tax; the amendment of section 64 of the act to impose a liability for fees on an agent; the repealing of section 61 because it is a redundant provision; clarification that, in cases where a fee for service can be calculated in advance of the service being provided, the determination under section 86E may require that the fee be paid before the service is provided and that in such cases a quarantine officer may decide to withhold delivery of the service until prepayment is made; and clarification that a late payment fee may be a fee that is a percentage per annum of the basic fee. The amendments also broaden the range of persons who may be appointed as quarantine officers and will empower the Director of Quarantine to enter into contracts and to appoint persons covered by those contracts to be quarantine officers.

The opposition, when responding to this bill, sought a couple of assurances and made some other comments, particularly in relation to the appointment of contract quarantine officers. Firstly, the member for Braddon asked for assurances about the impact of the bill on the people of Christmas Island. I can give an assurance that I can think of no way in which this bill would adversely affect the standard of living of the island residents. The provisions of the bill will improve the market opportunities for Christmas Island in the long term. In the short term it provides a framework to recognise that Christmas Island's different quarantine status will mean that some things will be allowed onto Christmas Island that might not be allowed onto the mainland and, of course, vice versa. That is important to us for a whole range of reasons because of the different pest and disease status of Christmas Island compared with the mainland. That is recognised in the bill.

Bringing the island within the legislative framework of the mainland provides opportunities to improve the quarantine status of the island in the longer term. Improving the quarantine status will facilitate the import and export of goods, as well as protect the unique environment of the island and its associated tourism benefits. This legislation will benefit Christmas Islanders and give them opportunities to enhance their trading opportunities.

The second and obviously most fundamental criticism of this bill coming from the opposition is the suggestion that, somehow or other, it is a clandestine attempt to privatise the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service. The bill has been around for a year because of the prolonged Senate inquiry that dealt with those sorts of issues and the seeming unwillingness on the part of the opposition, at least to this stage, to recognise the good sense of what was being proposed.

There can be no question about this government's commitment to quarantine. We have made a $600 million commitment over four years of around 1,200 extra staff. This certainly compares dramatically with Labor's poor record in quarantine. Inspection of mail has gone from five per cent to 100 per cent and there have been massive increases in inspections at airports and the like. So to take cheap shots from the sidelines about Steve Irwin and the highly successful `Quarantine matters' campaign seems to me to be a surprising response.

The bill is not about privatising quarantine services; it is about providing flexibility for an organisation which has to cover a huge area. Surely even the opposition can see the merits of having somebody who can be appointed on contract to do a job in a particular locality, instead of having full-time quarantine people travelling vast distances to remote areas. This bill is about freeing up highly professional and highly trained AQIS officers to perform tasks in high-risk quarantine areas and not have them doing baggage-handling tasks or undertaking other activities that could be carried out by less qualified and less experienced officers, providing flexibility to allow adequate quarantine inspection for remote areas, and enabling us to direct additional resources for any disease incursions. If the opposition persist with their resistance to these measures, they will be compromising our capacity to deliver a comprehensive quarantine service. I do not think that is what they would want to do; therefore, I urge them to think very seriously about giving this legislation passage in the other place, presumably next year.

The member for New England again raised the allegations of Mr Grave about rabbit imports. I know he qualified the accusation that this is some kind of cover-up. There is no reason for me, the Director of Quarantine or anybody else to seek to cover it up because it all happened way before our time. We have nothing to hide. These allegations have been investigated on many occasions.

The member for New England has been a very persistent objector because he believes he has a grievance. The matter was certainly brought to my attention by the previous member for New England when I became minister for agriculture and I made some inquiries at that time. When I looked at it objectively, with all the compassion I could muster, I had great difficulty coming to any conclusion other than that AQIS had acted correctly in every regard. But, when the allegations persisted, the view was taken that we should seek a further independent assessment. That is why Mr Doolan was contracted to undertake that task. There has never been any doubt in my mind that he was appointed as a private contractor; he was no longer serving in the task the member referred to. It was never suggested that he was acting in any kind of professional capacity. It is obvious that he has in his CV the fact that he was once the Merit Protection Commissioner. In the circumstances, that would have been relevant to his appropriateness to be appointed. But he is certainly acting as an independent person.

Mr Doolan was appointed from a list of people provided by the Australian Government Solicitor, so there was independent accreditation for his appropriateness. As has been said, he is an ex merit commissioner; therefore he was considered to be entirely independent of the Public Service because he had a record of being able to deal with issues dispassionately. I am also advised that Mr Grave was notified of the name of the person before the inquiry and that he indicated he had no problem with his appointment.

I am not aware that anybody has told Mr Grave that he is not going to receive a copy of the report. That is news to me. I am aware of a letter sent to him by AQIS which implied the opposite. I have not seen or read the report but I can confirm that it was made available, I presume to AQIS, at the beginning of the week when the honourable member asked the question in the House. At present, its contents are being reviewed in great detail by AQIS and I would expect AQIS to respond in an appropriate way.

I can certainly assure the honourable member that there has been and there will be no attempt to cover up the issues. I will also look at Mr Doolan's report with a fresh mind and not with any prejudged interpretation of what happens. I repeat again that all this happened many, many years ago and therefore there is no particular concern from my perspective about what the findings might be from a personal point of view. The other elements of the bill deal, as other members have discussed, with the Imported Food Control Act and also some changes to the Pig Industry Act and the Wool Services Privatisation Act, all of which have been non-controversial and have been supported, I think, by all speakers in the House. These bodies do an excellent job and this will give them greater flexibility in their work. I commend the motion for the second reading to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.