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Thursday, 13 September 2007
Page: 56

Mr WINDSOR (12:41 PM) —I would like to extend my congratulations to the Deputy Speaker and member for Page for the public work that he has done over many years. I notice that the member for Hume, Alby Schultz, is also in the chamber today. I was in the state parliament when the member for Page was a minister in that government. In fact, it was my vote that allowed that government to continue, in a sense, in a hung parliament. I have always appreciated the wisdom that the member for Page has had, both in the state parliament and in this place. It is a great tragedy that the expertise, particularly in the natural resource area, that the member for Page obviously had at the state level as a minister did not transfer through to a key position in the current parliament. In my view, he was one of the few country ministers who was prepared to stand up on key issues of importance in New South Wales. I do have one derogatory comment to make about him: in 16 years in politics I have only been thrown out of the parliament once and it was the member for Page as Deputy Speaker who shut me down and put me out! Even though I was not happy with it on the particular occasion, I understand the rules and he was playing by them. In that sense, his actions were quite correct on that occasion. I wish him and his family well for the future. Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your indulgence in allowing me to make these remarks.

The Quarantine Amendment (Commission of Inquiry) Bill 2007 is of extreme interest to me because the New England area is one of the areas that are very badly affected by equine influenza. The sportsground at the small community of Moonbi is in lockdown as we speak. There are 38 horses in quarantine. Most of those individual animals are away from their homes as they had travelled to an event there a few weeks ago. I thank the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, who is not here at the moment, and his senior staff as well, for their attention to some of the concerns that those people raised. They were very quick to recognise some of the problems not only in Moonbi but in other areas as well. As this issue gains momentum much more will need to be done by governments at both the state and the federal level. There are 38 horses in lockdown and there are other outbreaks of equine influenza across the electorate. We believe that the Moonbi infection came from horses that had previously been at Maitland, and I think there is a linkage back to Eastern Creek, where those Maitland horses came from.

A member of my staff, Graham Nuttall, and I have been out to Moonbi on a number of occasions to assist with a whole range of issues such as enabling mobile telephone services to be relayed, accommodation arrangements, feed provision for horses and stabling of horses et cetera. I would like to pay credit, if I could, to the people who have been out there helping the horses that are in lockdown and their owners. Some of those horses are very valuable and their owners quite obviously want to stay with them as much as they can and look after them. In particular, I thank a senior person in the Department of Primary Industries, Arnold Turner. Arnold has been in charge of proceedings out there. It has not always been easy for him and no doubt that will be also be the case over the next few weeks and months. Various emergency services have been assisting as well. Obviously, there are lockdown provisions and various criteria that have to be dealt with in terms of people entering and leaving the premises. The Rural Lands Protection Boards have done an outstanding job.

One thing this outbreak has highlighted is the run down of personnel in the Department of Primary Industries at a state level. There has been a constant rush to privatise some functions and get them out into private industry. I think we are now starting to see that we do need some form of bureaucracy, in a sense, if these sorts of outbreaks occur. There is also the issue of the number of staff involved with the Rural Lands Protection Boards. I know that is a state issue, but I think it is important in this matter that we look at the staffing levels of the Rural Lands Protection Boards. Currently, we have a wild dog problem about 100 kilometres from Moonbi, we have the Moonbi problem and we have a range of other problems relating to drought and the movement of stock et cetera. The rural lands protection people are doing an extraordinary amount of work and this shows that recent calls to reduce the number of people working for the Rural Lands Protection Boards should be revisited. As I said, there are other outbreaks in the New England and north-west area that have been well documented.

We should be learning from these problems. Equine influenza is going to cost a lot of money and it is going to harm a lot of people, but it is nowhere near as deadly or as costly on a national scale as an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease would be. The response arrangements we have for equine influenza would not hold us in good stead if there were an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. I think there is an enormous amount that we have to learn. I understand the motivation for this response—and I am not being critical of the people at the time; I just praised the Department of Primary Industries people working on the ground at Moonbi, for instance. Essentially, this is a national disaster. We have never had this disease before. At one stage, they were advertising on the radio for caravans to be provided to accommodate people who were in lockdown with their horses. I do not think that is an adequate response from a state based department to an outbreak of a major disease that we have not seen before in Australia. People had to advertise for charity to accommodate people who had travelled to Moonbi and found their horses were infected, through no fault of their own, and then had to stay there with them. I am not denigrating the community who volunteered caravans et cetera to accommodate these people, but I do not think that is an appropriate response mode for a huge breakdown in biosecurity. I think that is something we have to address. We do not have a trigger mechanism and a plan for a major outbreak such as equine influenza or foot-and-mouth disease, and I think we really need to do some homework on the sorts of things that actually happen on the ground when these things start to occur.

There have been some who have been critical of the way in which the Department of Primary Industries reacted on the ground at the time of the outbreak. As I understand it, horses had come from Maitland, some had gone to Narrabri and some had gone to Moonbi. Moonbi was locked down, but people from Narrabri were allowed to proceed home. From that decision, where the Narrabri horse event was deemed to be less risky than the Moonbi one, the horses were allowed to proceed to other destinations and an outbreak of the disease resulted in other places where they travelled to. There was a degree of inconsistency as to the treatment and the seriousness of the outbreak when it first occurred.

The bill before the House is essentially about inquiring into the outbreak of this disease. Where did it come from? Were there breaches of biosecurity? If so, who, where and why? Those are the sorts of issues involved, and I support the government in pursuing that agenda. I also support the member for Holt’s comment this morning in his address, where he said that it should inquire not only into the outbreak and where the breach of biosecurity occurred but also into the spread. I say that not in terms of headhunting people as to whether the right decision was made at Narrabri but in terms of how we can learn from this and respond on the ground to the challenges if similar outbreaks occur in the future. There will be breaches—there is no doubt about that—but I do not think that our response mechanism has been adequate to date.

The inquiry has to be transparent; otherwise, it is a waste of time. We have all had problems with AQIS and biosecurity. It is no good having an inquiry that is about internal navel gazing and trying to protect people from within the system. It is no good having an inquiry where only the minister and members of the cabinet are privy to the information. As a nation, we have to learn from this. The handling of this has not been good. Maybe accidents do occur and these sorts of breaches of biosecurity come with them, but we have to learn as much as we can.

Back on 4 August, before the outbreak occurred, a constituent in my electorate wrote to the minister, Peter McGauran, alerting him that a motion had been proposed and carried at the July conference of the New South Wales Farmers Association. The resolution in the letter conveyed to the minister stated:

That the Association strongly oppose any relocation or privatisation of the Eastern Creek Quarantine Centre without thorough consultation and input of stakeholders needs, namely the horse industry.

The lady who wrote this letter, Judy Marheine—and I relayed this to the minister—is a constituent of mine. She is very involved in the horse industry and is affected quite dramatically by the outbreak of EI at the moment. But there have been a number of warning signs out there. I think the minister should go back through the correspondence and have a close look at some of the messages that were being sent, such as the one a few years back—I cannot remember the exact date—from the New South Wales Apiarists Association. The member for Hume is the chairman of the Standing Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry—and he is doing a good job—which is currently looking at the honey bee industry and its various problems. A few years back, the Apiarists Association asked the same minister for an inquiry into a biosecurity breakdown regarding the small hive beetle incursion in their industry. It was deemed to not be of sufficient importance to have an inquiry. The question they are quite legitimately raising now is this: if equine influenza and the effect that it will have on the industry—and I do not think many horses will actually die from that disease, though it will have massive economic and social implications—it is important enough for an inquiry, why was a similar breach of biosecurity in the honey bee industry virtually brushed over? Again, I think we have to tighten up on the provisions regarding biosecurity, irrespective of which industry it is and the perception of that industry’s importance.

The Glen Innes Examiner, a newspaper in my electorate, highlights that fact with the headline ‘Horse flu has lessons for us all’. It goes through some of the issues on the ground with the Department of Primary Industries and the decision making processes. I would urge people who are interested in this issue to have a very close look at that as well. Some of the issues that have also been raised relate to how we now deal with equine influenza. I have relayed some of these issues through to the minister’s office and I thank him for his attention to them. We are going to have an inquiry into how it happened, but people on the ground want decisions and an idea of where all of this is going in relation to not only compensation and those issues but also controlling the disease. Do we just stay in a lockdown situation, as some suggest? I do not know the answer to these questions.

A number of veterinary surgeons in my electorate and others in the equine industry are starting to urge that vaccinations be looked at as a possibility. I do not like to verbal the minister, but I think that early on he made some indication on one of the radio programs that vaccination would not be considered. A side inquiry or a departmental inquiry should really have a very close look at some of those issues. Some of the veterinary people have a very high level of knowledge. Dr John Peatfield, from my electorate, for instance, has an enormous amount of knowledge about the equine industry in not only New England but also the major racing centres. Some of these people are making suggestions regarding vaccination and I have not heard a good argument as to why we should not have a very close look at it. It does not mean that we have to do it, but we have to have a closer look than just a cursory brush-off of the issue. We have to have a logical reason not to do it. Other countries in the world are doing it and, if this disease is here, maybe we have to look at ways of controlling it in a domestic situation rather than just hoping it will all go away.

Another side issue that I wish to raise—and the member for Hume has again been involved with some of these issues—is that if this were an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, irrespective of the problems we have had at the state and Commonwealth levels in reacting to the problem, what would we do? What can we do to put better plans in place to prevent diseases from spreading? The member for Page raised this issue a moment ago; it was not directly in the terms that I am raising it, but it is the same issue. He was talking about management issues in national parks. We have something like 30 million wild pigs in this nation now. People talk about it all the time: ‘We have more pigs than people.’ We have a vast chain of national parks down the Great Dividing Range from Queensland, through New South Wales and into Victoria. We currently have a wild dog problem. But if this were an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, that spine of protected lands—unmanaged lands, in a sense—would provide the ideal channel for the eastern part of Australia to be infected with foot-and-mouth disease.

What can we do? I do not think we are going to reverse the process. We will have a chain of national parks—and people will argue the pluses and minuses of that—but what can we do to avoid the problem coming out of those areas? The only answer—assuming that we are not going to get some sort of control of the wild pig, which we have not done yet—is to stop those animals from coming out of those areas. To do that you have to have proper exclusion fencing. People will say—shock, horror!—that it will cost an enormous amount of money. It is costing the people who happen to be neighbours of those properties enormous amounts at the moment—and this is the point I think the member for Page was raising. In my electorate, for instance, people have moved out of the production of sheep because they cannot afford to stay there because of the wild dogs. There are wild brumbies in that country as well, so EI could spread through that area as well. I would urge that we attempt to learn from this in a number of ways. There are particular high-risk areas for the spreading of some diseases. In the case of the wild pig population, maybe we should have a much more serious look at exclusion fencing—managed exclusion fencing rather than just the provision of materials.