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Wednesday, 31 May 2006
Page: 132

Mr GAVAN O’CONNOR (7:23 PM) —The Plant Health Australia (Plant Industries) Funding Amendment Bill 2006 amends the Plant Health Australia (Plant Industries) Funding Act 2002. This is an important bill that provides a mechanism for plant industries to meet their commitments under the Australian emergency plant pest response deed. The emergency plant pest response deed is a landmark agreement between plant industries and the state, territory and federal governments that came into effect on 26 October 2005 after five years of sometimes difficult negotiations. The deed sets out formal funding and cost-sharing arrangements for dealing with an emergency plant pest outbreak such as occurred in the citrus industry at Emerald a few years ago.

In practice, in an emergency it is expected that the Commonwealth would meet an industry’s share of many of the up-front costs incurred as part of that response. The bill we are discussing provides a mechanism for an industry to repay the Commonwealth for liabilities incurred in this way. Plant industries may choose to set levies to accumulate funds in advance of any emergency or to only activate levy arrangements to deal with a particular disease outbreak. The legislation provides for the appropriation and application of the new emergency plant pest response levies and charges and authorises Plant Health Australia to hold and manage these funds on behalf of the industry. Plant Health Australia already holds and manages money raised through plant industry levies for other purposes such as research and development. There is also provision for industries to use money raised via these levies for other plants and related purposes if funds are available. All signatories to the deed have agreed to develop a program of plant pest risk reduction measures, including the development and maintenance of biosecurity plans and other measures. This is an important and positive step which will assist industries and governments to be better prepared to meet plant pest and disease emergencies.

We saw in the case of the Emerald citrus canker outbreak the impact that an exotic plant pest can have on the incomes of growers and on others who earn their living in the citrus industry, as well as on the wider community. I believe this outbreak cost the Commonwealth some $13 million and, of course, over $100 million was lost in income to the local community. Citrus growers from a wide area of Queensland were prevented from accessing their normal markets for a considerable period, resulting in a significant loss of income for those farming families. There are many unanswered questions about the role of some individual growers in this outbreak and about the timeliness and the adequacy of the response by the federal government and its agencies. Indeed, the outbreak featured in a report put out in February 2006 by the New South Wales Farmers Association entitled Crisis of competence in quarantine.

I am hoping that the report by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee that investigated the Emerald outbreak will throw some light on these matters. I understand that the report will be tabled in the next few weeks. I fear, however, that there will also be much about this incident that will always be shrouded in mystery. I congratulate all involved in negotiating the bill and the emergency plant pest response deed, especially the leaders of Australia’s plant industries, for finally getting these arrangements in place.

Australian plant industries contribute substantially to both the regional and the national economies. Because so many farm families and communities depend so much on these industries, it is important that governments ensure that adequate resources are in place to protect them from exotic pest and disease outbreaks. Australia trades in a global environment and often the standards that we set for our producers and processors are much higher than those set for competitive producers in other parts of the world. Australia has fought hard for decades to ensure its disease-free status as far as many international plant diseases are concerned.

Despite our vigilance and best efforts, from time to time we suffer exotic disease outbreaks that take a heavy financial toll on producers, their families and their communities. I have already mentioned the Emerald outbreak. Another, of course, was the black sigatoka outbreak in the banana industry in the Tully region of Queensland, which at the end of the day cost in excess of $40 million to contain and clean up. Not only is protection an expensive business but so is the clean-up. It is pleasing to see these structures being put in place by government and industry as a sensible measure to plan for contingencies which may arise.

Australian agriculture has been told it is facing future decades of substantial climate change which will be accompanied by changes in production and disease management environments. It is prudent for government and industry to thrash out arrangements for dealing with these changing circumstances—hence the provisions of this bill. Already the rural sector pays a significant amount to protect crops and agricultural production. Pests and diseases can cause enormous economic damage to the value of crop production, reducing crop yields, compromising quality and causing significant losses post-production in the storage phase as well. According to CropLife, the yields of farmers are increased by around 40 per cent as a result of the application of pesticides to control pests.

Of course, if one is prepared to enlarge this debate, the farm sector is now well advanced in the application of physical and scientific technologies that are aimed at reducing plant diseases in the production phase. I mention here the genetically modified food debate. I will not go into detail in this debate. Suffice to say in the remaining time available to me that the opposition will be supporting this legislation. It is a sensible measure that involves the industry and government in providing a structure and, in the event of an outbreak, resources to ensure that we effectively meet a disease outbreak in our plant industries.

Debate interrupted.