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Wednesday, 12 September 2007
Page: 1


Mr McGAURAN (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (9:01 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

As members of the House well know, there has been an outbreak of equine influenza in Australia for the first time in our history. The devastating effects of this outbreak are being felt across horse related industries. In addition to providing assistance to those people and businesses directly affected by the outbreak, the Australian government is committed to determine how it occurred.

The purpose of the Quarantine Amendment (Commission of Inquiry) Bill 2007 is to amend the Quarantine Act 1908 to allow for a comprehensive, independent inquiry into the August 2007 outbreak and spread of equine influenza in Australia.

In summary, the amendments allow the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry to appoint a commissioner to undertake a commission of inquiry into matters relating to the outbreak of equine influenza. This includes quarantine related practices and requirements relating to the outbreak, and any other matters that are incidental to these lines of inquiry.

The amendments also provide the commissioner with all the necessary powers of a royal commission, within the quarantine specific context of the Quarantine Act.

The specific terms of reference for the inquiry, including the time frame, will be specified in an instrument of appointment, which will be made public by gazettal.

It is vital that we get to the bottom of this matter and it is the government’s intention to commence this inquiry as soon as possible. The government has asked the Hon. Ian Callinan QC, former Justice of the High Court, to commence the inquiry as soon as the necessary legislation has been enacted. Mr Callinan is a distinguished jurist of the highest order, with a good working knowledge of the horse industry, meaning he is ideally placed to conduct a thorough inquiry into this outbreak.

Once appointed, the commissioner and his assistants will have access both to the necessary quarantine specific powers, and to all the relevant powers and protections of a royal commission.

Importantly, the commissioner will have express permission to hold public hearings and to summon witnesses and take evidence. As provided in the Royal Commissions Act 1902, the amendments allow for certain types of evidence to be taken in private.

The commissioner’s powers under the bill will be underpinned by the replication of offences from the Royal Commissions Act. This means that an action could be brought for obstructing the commission of inquiry in a number of circumstances, including providing false or misleading evidence, destroying documents or contempt.

The commissioner will not be bound by the rules of evidence in seeking information to inform the inquiry. This provision gives the commissioner the flexibility that he will need to effectively seek out and consider all information that he believes to be relevant to his inquiries.

Importantly, the amendments also include provision for the Director of Quarantine to assign quarantine officers to the commissioner for the duration of the inquiry. Once assigned, these officers will be solely subject to the direction of the commissioner in the exercise of any of their Quarantine Act powers that are reasonably necessary for the purposes of the inquiry.

This means that the inquiry can utilise the expertise of the assigned quarantine officers with no possibility of conflicting directions.

The Director of Quarantine will make a decision in relation to this matter as soon as the needs of the commissioner are known. However, it is quite likely that officers who have already been working on internal investigations into the outbreak will be assigned to the commission of inquiry, to avoid delays and unnecessary duplication of work.

The bill also allows for independent people engaged by the Commonwealth to assist the inquiry to be vested with relevant powers under the Quarantine Act. For instance, the Director of Quarantine could determine that an independent investigator assisting the commissioner could exercise search powers usually reserved for quarantine officers under the Quarantine Act. This will further provide the complete independence of the commission of inquiry.

As the commission of inquiry will be able to access these quarantine specific powers, replication of the search powers from the Royal Commissions Act is not necessary and they are not included in the proposed amendments.

The bill also extends the High Court style protections currently contained in the Royal Commissions Act to the commissioner. Witnesses appearing before the inquiry, and their legal representatives, will also receive similar protections.

Finally, the bill also includes consequential amendments to the Freedom of Information Act 1982, the Archives Act 1982 and the Privacy Act 1988. These amendments ensure that the records of this commission of inquiry are managed in accordance with existing procedures for royal commissions.

The outbreak of equine influenza has had, and continues to have, serious consequences for Australian horse related industries. The government is committed to act quickly to ensure that the cause of this outbreak is identified, along with the need for any strengthened requirements and practices to ensure the highest standards of biosecurity are maintained for the importation of horses.

These amendments will enable a comprehensive, independent and quarantine specific inquiry to be conducted. As well as providing the commissioner with all the necessary powers of a royal commission, it makes available the unfettered expertise of experienced quarantine officers and other quarantine specific powers under the Quarantine Act.

The government is fully and completely committed to conducting a thorough investigation into the cause of this outbreak. This bill will allow such an inquiry to commence as soon as possible. I commend the bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Crean) adjourned.