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Thursday, 13 September 2007
Page: 45

Mr CREAN (11:50 AM) —The Quarantine Amendment (Commission of Inquiry) Bill 2007 is an important piece of legislation. Essentially, it makes provision for an inquiry into the devastating outbreak of equine influenza that is currently having such a huge impact on every aspect of horse related activity, particularly in New South Wales and Queensland. We have been exposed to pictures and images of that devastation—deserted racetracks and reports of threats to the Spring Carnival—but the impact does not go just to the horseracing industry. Our $1 billion equestrian industry has also been affected. This industry has 70,000 horses registered nationally, including our Olympic team horses, a third of whom are now in quarantine. We cannot forget the thousands of recreational riders who are now unable to take part in their favourite leisure activities, including many children who look forward to the pony club at the weekend.

In terms of the economic impact, though, it is the racing industry that is bearing the greatest burden. This is a big industry in this nation. It provides a livelihood for many thousands of Australians. According to the Australian Racing Board, this industry was projected, before the equine influenza outbreak, to have a direct economic impact of $41 billion on the Australian economy over the next five years.

The industry contributes approximately $1.6 billion to federal and state coffers each year. It provides 77,000 full-time equivalent jobs; including over 1,200 jockeys, 1,000 veterinarians and 750 farriers. Over 50 per cent of those jobs are in the states worst affected by the influenza outbreak, New South Wales and Queensland: close to 25,000 jobs in New South Wales and almost 16,000 jobs in Queensland.

Horses provide a livelihood to many Australians and are an important part of the recreational activities of many more. So it is little wonder that the news of 25 August 2007 that a case of equine influenza had been confirmed at the Eastern Creek quarantine facility rang alarm bells among horse lovers, horse owners and everyone employed in the industry. It is a serious disease and in worst cases can result in the death of horses. In fact, the first reported death occurred only last week.

The outbreak initially resulted in a national lockdown of all horse movements and the lockdown continues in both New South Wales and Queensland. The Australian public and especially the horse fraternity need to know, in fact deserve to know, exactly how this disease entered the country and how it spread. We need to know how Australia’s quarantine barriers were breached. We need to know what changes, if any, need to be made to our quarantine arrangements to ensure that it does not happen again.

Labor believes that a truly comprehensive inquiry is needed to determine exactly how this disease came into the country and if any person or agency has failed in their duty under the existing laws. We also need clear recommendations for the future to ensure that our quarantine arrangements are world’s best practice in keeping Australia free of exotic diseases such as equine influenza. Labor support the general thrust of this piece of legislation but we believe it can be improved. At the end of the second reading, I will be moving amendments to the bill that will ensure that we get the truly comprehensive inquiry that is much needed. We will also be ensuring that when the commissioner completes his report it is tabled in this parliament.

If Labor’s amendments are successful, any interested Australian will be able to read the report and the parliament will be able to develop a response. I note that the minister has said that he supports an open process and a comprehensive inquiry. Through the amendments that we propose, Labor will be giving the minister an opportunity to show all horse owners and horse lovers that he really means it. So I invite the minister and those opposite to show that, in this case, they demonstrate real support for openness in government by supporting our amendments.

Unfortunately, the government’s past record gives us no confidence that it is really committed to a transparent and comprehensive inquiry. We need look no further than the inquiry set up by the Prime Minister for the wheat for weapons scandal. Right from the start, in that case, the government was determined to erect a firewall between itself and any fallout from the inquiry in relation to implications for government ministers. It cleverly constructed the terms of reference to effectively constrain Commissioner Cole from delving too deeply into the role of ministers in that scandal. When it came to apportioning the blame, the finger was pointed at certain AWB employees and a number of bureaucratic failings. It was not allowed to look at how the government ignored countless indications that there was a problem.

I am not suggesting for one moment that the agriculture minister or his colleagues are directly to blame for the entry of equine influenza into Australia. What I am saying is that the commission should not be constrained in any way from following the trail of evidence—wherever it leads. That is why I was more than a little disturbed to read the words ‘all or any of’ in clause 66AY(1)(a) of the bill. These are the words that in effect give guidance to how the terms of reference will be constructed. The words ‘all or any of’ appear above the three listed matters. We are backed up on this by the Parliamentary Library, which advises that the effect of these words would be to allow considerable flexibility in the drafting of the terms of reference. I might have done the Parliamentary Library some disservice in saying that, but we certainly have advice to the effect that the words would allow considerable flexibility in the construct of the terms of reference. I hope that the minister is able to answer on this point, but we simply go on the past performance of this government. You can be sure that it will use every possible piece of wriggle room available to squirm its way around potentially difficult situations, particularly if it is implicated. The amendments that we are proposing will tighten up the legislation and leave less wriggle room for a government that intends to avoid the finger of blame, should the evidence point in that direction.

The first matter for consideration in 66AY(1)(a) simply talks about the outbreak of equine influenza. We believe the terms of reference should contain outbreak and spread, because it should not be confined to simply what has happened at Eastern Creek and how the disease got there. We believe the spread of the disease should also apply to the second matter: quarantine requirements and practices relating to the outbreak.

We are told by the Parliamentary Library—and on this occasion I do report it—that nothing in the legislation would actually require the minister to table the report once he receives it. Given this government’s obsession with secrecy, with its terrible record on accountability in this place when it comes to covering up its mistakes, we have no confidence that the report will ever be released. How many times has the government refused to release something that it has commissioned an inquiry into? We want to make sure that in this case transparency is available. An amendment I will propose later will require the minister to table the commission’s report in this parliament within five days of it being handed to him. We do not want a cover-up. We do not want selective parts of the report released. We want the whole document on the table and the ability for the parliament to consider it. If those opposite really believe in transparent government and accountability for their actions, I would urge them to support the amendments that I will move at the appropriate time.

I also note in passing that this bill is being done as an amendment to the Quarantine Act and not as a separate piece of legislation simply establishing the commission of inquiry. The minister argues that the inquiry is being set up under the Quarantine Act because it will make it easier to provide the commission with better access to assistance from quarantine officers and to records held by AQIS. The minister says that by using this process the commissioner will be able to build on investigative work already being done by quarantine authorities and will not have to start from scratch. We have not been able, in the time constraints around which we have to debate this bill—after all, we only saw it yesterday, and we are expected to debate it today—

Mr Murphy —What a disgrace.

Mr CREAN —It is a disgrace. This outbreak occurred over four weeks ago. Whilst the parliament has not been sitting, there is no reason why there could not have been an exposure draft or a bill circulated, consultation with the industry about the terms of reference, and an explanation of why it needs to done in this particular form. I am not going to take issue with it. We have to accept the minister at his word. But had we had more time I think it would have been an interesting exercise to understand why it was being done as part of the Quarantine Act.

The inquiry being set up under this bill would potentially make important recommendations about the future of Australia’s quarantine arrangements. We are only debating this matter because there has been a serious breach of an existing quarantine arrangement that poses a serious threat to an industry that touches most people’s lives. The reality is that it is not the only circumstance of breach—it is only the latest of a number of significant quarantine problems that have occurred under this government’s watch. In the last few years we have had white spot disease in prawns in Darwin Harbour, black sigatoka in bananas in Tully, fire ants in Brisbane, citrus canker in Emerald and sugarcane smut in Queensland and New South Wales. Who can forget that Senator Bill Heffernan had his Christmas dinner spoilt after he found a carton of Brazilian beef dumped at the Wagga tip, at a time when Brazil was most certainly not free of foot-and-mouth disease. Whilst this is not an exhaustive list, it is a very demonstrative list. These are examples of breaches we know about. It is a list that has led to considerable disquiet in sections of industry, particularly in our great agricultural industries, about the effectiveness of our quarantine arrangements.

That disquiet last year led members of the New South Wales Farmers Association, at their annual general meeting, to vote unanimously for a comprehensive inquiry into Australia’s quarantine arrangements. This followed a review of Australia’s quarantine commission by the association, conducted by respected Sydney barrister Tom Brennan. Mr Brennan found that there are structural flaws in our quarantine arrangements. Unfortunately, the Howard government chose to ignore the advice of the New South Wales Farmers Association and the Brennan report. Labor did not ignore the call, though, because we share concerns about the management of our quarantine system under this government. We have committed to establishing a comprehensive inquiry into all aspects of quarantine should we be successful at the coming election.

Part of the amendment I will be proposing later seeks to go to the question of how our procedures stack up against international best practice and whether they have in fact been followed. That is not in the terms of reference. I think it is an important term of reference. We believe it would provide a very sensible base on which to build the inquiry that we would hope to implement should we be elected to government. If the terms of reference are not altered, if the minister chooses to write them down even further, we still believe there will be some useful work that Commissioner Callinan will undertake, but we hope that the opportunity is there to look comprehensively at this issue so that we get it right.

The reality is that it is now more than 11 years since the last effective review into our quarantine system was undertaken. Eleven years ago it was a Labor government that did it. Former minister Bob Collins commissioned Malcolm Nairn to do that major review. For Labor and its primary industries ministers, quarantine was a priority. It was not just the reforms that Bob Collins initiated. John Kerin initiated some and so did I, when I held the portfolio. But the government, as usual, dropped the ball in this vital area.

The government has made a habit of ignoring warnings about quarantine, including at least one that directly related to equine quarantine arrangements. On 24 September 2004, the Australian Racing Board wrote to the former agriculture minister, Mr Truss, warning about quarantine risks associated with inspection protocols for imported horses. The letter from the board said, in relation to equine influenza:

If equine influenza gained entry into Australia, it would close down racing and other events for several months—

Mr Murphy interjecting

Mr CREAN —Well, it has happened; it is prophetic. The letter continued:

... with catastrophic economic consequences. A quarantine breakdown is the only way Australia will be exposed to this exotic disease.

How much better off would we have been had the government heeded those words? But they were not heeded. We now have confirmed cases of this influenza in many locations. Warnings were ignored, and Australian communities, particularly rural and regional communities, are paying a huge price. Communities where equine influenza has been confirmed include Aberdeen, Berry, Gloucester, Maitland, Moree, Muswellbrook, Parkes, Raymond Terrace and Scone in New South Wales, and Warwick, Minden, Rosewood, Brookfield, Tamborine and Goondiwindi in Queensland.

Those closures affect the people in those communities. They are suffering real financial hardship as a result of this failure on the government’s watch. While the people involved in racing and other horse related activities in New South Wales are the ones that bear the brunt of the impact, the impact goes a long way beyond that. Because of revenue sharing arrangements within the racing industry, and because racing is closed down in New South Wales and Queensland, it impacts upon the states that still undertake race meetings. Many horse events have been cancelled around the country, even in states not subject to complete lockdown.

But there is an impact on the revenues of organisations that run other important events. The Melbourne and Geelong shows, which will take place in the next fortnight, for the first time will be without horses. There will be no horses, no show jumping, no Clydesdale teams. I acknowledge that the government has provided some assistance for a number of those affected by the outbreak. We support that assistance package, but we are asking the government to look more closely at the needs of communities and individuals beyond those that they have already compensated and to work closely with the industry.

Labor has consulted with industry and has listened to their concerns. This is an interesting fact: my home state of Victoria has a huge racing industry. In Victoria each year, there is a $3.8 billion gaming turnover. Half of that revenue in Victoria comes from Victorians betting on interstate races. If those interstate races are not happening, the betting does not happen and the revenue is down. Yet there has been no compensation for Victoria or the other states affected by it. That is a huge component in the context of Victoria. I do not know what the proportions are in the other states but I would expect they would be very large. Racing Victoria believe it will cost them up to $25 million this year. With racing shut down in New South Wales and Queensland, half of the main revenue stream for Victoria has disappeared.

So the government does have a clear responsibility. I would like to know from the minister who he has consulted with beyond New South Wales and Queensland—the ones that have been closed down—what those consultations have involved and why consideration has not been given to compensation for the other affected states. We urge the minister to not only address that question when he responds but also to actively engage himself in those sorts of discussions, as we have.

As I said before, it is absolutely vital that the inquiry finds out exactly how our quarantine defences were breached and how the influenza was able to spread. Yesterday, I asked a number of questions of the Prime Minister and the agriculture minister that were based on information provided to Labor by a number of Australians who have been concerned about the way in which the government has handled this matter. I asked the Prime Minister whether the government had received any warnings about the adequacy of its quarantine regime in preventing this equine influenza spread. He said he would check.

I know the Prime Minister has been a bit preoccupied over the last week, and one can excuse him somewhat because of the sorts of problems his own colleagues have been inflicting upon him—talking behind his back, withdrawing support, telling him he should go, and he then ignoring them. I can understand that in the last week—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. BK Bishop)—I think the honourable member should return to the bill.

Mr CREAN —I am completely on the bill. This outbreak has been going on since last month. Why wouldn’t the Prime Minister, with this major impact on the racing industry, have made a point of bringing himself up to date so that he could have answered a simple question as to whether he was satisfied about the adequacy of the arrangements? It was not good enough for him simply to say he would look at it. He still has not come back and answered the point. A Prime Minister on top of his game, a Prime Minister committed fully to the future of this country, instead of quitting halfway through the next term, were he to be re-elected, in those circumstances would have been across this matter that affects so many people, yet he was not. We know that the government was warned; we know that from the letter that I quoted from before—

Mr Hunt —This is a witch-hunt.

Mr CREAN —from the Australian Racing Board, Minister; they wrote to the government and warned about this in 2004. If you had been listening intently before, you would know that I gave the specific quote. They were prophetic words; they talked about the disastrous consequences of the closing down of the racing industry, and it has happened. It has happened because you ignored the warnings. That is what this inquiry has to get to the bottom of—how it is that such a significant warning was ignored and, more importantly, what procedures were in place that allowed the outbreak to occur.

Was there only one warning? That is what we would have liked the Prime Minister to have told us. I would have thought that now that that letter is in the public domain the Prime Minister would have said: ‘Yes, we did get a warning from there. That is why we have set up a royal commission.’ Did he have any other warnings? I do not know. But we are entitled to have him tell this House. We are entitled to an answer.

I also asked the agriculture minister—not just the Prime Minister—about reports that horse handlers at the Eastern Creek quarantine facility regularly go from that facility to a nearby tavern for dinner without removing their gear or showering. That is a circumstance in breach of one of the most fundamental quarantine requirements. The minister still has not answered that question. What has the government got to hide? We are entitled to ask in the parliament about this very vital area. Why can the minister not answer?

We know that the government moved to tighten quarantine arrangements and procedures at Eastern Creek 10 days ago, so obviously the procedures were deficient. But why can he not tell us the answer to a simple question? This was a full month after a batch of horses arrived from Japan. It was more than two weeks after equine influenza was reported in Japan and a fortnight after 17 August, the day that a number of horses from Eastern Creek fell ill and testing for equine influenza was done. Given all of those facts, I find it disturbing that the minister was unable or unwilling to answer. I see him in the chamber now and I hope that he is—

Mr McGauran —Ask again today; I want to talk about Reins of Fire!

The SPEAKER —Order! The member for Hotham has the call.

Mr CREAN —I think the minister has gone troppo, Mr Speaker.

Mr McGauran interjecting

Mr CREAN —I think the minister has got a dose of this influenza himself. He seems to be having—

Mr Murphy —I think the minister should be put down!

Mr CREAN —The minister should be put down! I thank the member for Lowe. Labor has been informed that there were a number of anomalies regarding the quarantine arrangements for the importation of horses that I talked of yesterday. The facts of this case are that on 4 November 2005 three horses were brought from France to the Spotswood quarantine station in Melbourne. Two weeks later, they were released from quarantine and appeared in events in Sydney and Newcastle. The information provided to Labor was that the importation was outside the normal allowable period but that the minister had intervened to stretch the definition of what constitutes the low-risk period.

Mr McGauran interjecting

Mr CREAN —That is our advice. In fact, as a result of the minister’s intervention, AQIS officers were so concerned about the risk posed by these horses that they put in place a number of extraordinary procedures, including sealing the vehicle the horses were transported in and inspecting the venues of the shows. Again, the minister did not answer my question but came into the House later in the day to provide an answer of sorts. In my view, the minister still has not answered the central charge that he intervened to extend the boundaries of the normal allowable period to allow those horses to be released from quarantine. Instead, he concentrated on a number of peripheral issues and sought to make a joke of it.

Mr McGauran —No, I didn’t even know they were there!

Mr CREAN —He is still carrying on in a stupid way now. I acknowledge that the horses involved were show horses, not racehorses, and that Reins of Fire is the name of a troupe of horses and not the name of an individual horse. But these minor details do not answer the central facts of the case. Those issues, which I have talked of before, go to the core of what we are asking the minister about, and we want a full explanation. He still has not answered the central issues in this case. He still owes a response to the parliament and, in fact, Labor have been made aware of a number of other concerns about this particular importation and we will be vigorously pursing these issues.

The new charge that I make today goes to the risk in relation to equine influenza from horses from different places that are co-mingled. Between 17 and 20 August this year, two horses from Ireland and one from the US were stabled close to a horse imported from Japan in breach of procedures actively developed by the Commonwealth and state quarantine experts. I ask the minister: can he confirm that these three horses subsequently presented with equine influenza symptoms? When did the minister first become aware of this high-risk practice and what actions did he take? This is a minister who has a lot of questions to answer. Instead of chortling from the sidelines, let him give a full explanation in this place, and let him be prepared to adopt the amendments that we are proposing that will strengthen the guidelines to get to the bottom of their—(Time expired)