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Thursday, 13 September 2007
Page: 60

Mr SCHULTZ (1:01 PM) —I rise to express my full support for the Quarantine Amendment (Commission of Inquiry) Bill 2007. I do so in the hope that the people affected by this dramatic impact on the horseracing industry, in Queensland and New South Wales in particular, will understand that the inquiry has been brought about because of the problems associated with people sometimes making emotive statements—in many instances justifiably so—about why equine influenza has spread as it has and, more importantly, the problems associated with what appear to be some shortfalls in the Eastern Creek quarantine facility. Having said that, I have to say that the Australian government, through the minister, is committed to getting to the bottom of how this outbreak of equine influenza has occurred in Australia. We have to ensure that there is a full and independent inquiry which will be empowered by this legislation, and it needs to be formally commenced as quickly as possible. As I understand it from discussions I have had in this place today with people in the harness industry, we now have 4,600 horses infected and the number is rising. So it is a very critical issue.

As all members are aware, the government intends to appoint the Hon. Ian Callinan AC as commissioner under these amendments. A jurist of the higher order with a good working knowledge of the horse industry, Mr Callinan is eminently qualified for this role and ideally placed to conduct a thorough inquiry into this outbreak. Through these amendments, Mr Callinan will be provided with all the necessary powers and protections of a royal commission. We will also have access to all of the relevant quarantine-specific powers that are already contained in the Quarantine Act 1902. The commissioner will have the power to hold public hearings, compel witnesses and documents, direct quarantine officers to assist his investigation, and direct his own independent investigators.

The effects of the outbreak of equine influenza have been felt across the horse related industries and, in New South Wales alone, thousands of people have been affected by the outbreak. The Australian government is providing much-needed assistance to those people and businesses that have been directly affected. That is in stark contrast, unfortunately, with the New South Wales and Queensland governments, which have obtained considerable revenue from the industry but have sat on their hands in terms of making a financial contribution to ease the burden that is being placed more and more each day on the shoulders of the people who rely on the industry for employment and, more importantly, those industries that support the equine industry and employ people across the country.

It is also essential that these amendments are made as quickly as possible so that Mr Callinan can officially commence his comprehensive independent inquiry. When I got up to speak about my support for this amendment, I made reference to the recriminations in the public arena about why equine influenza got out into the wider community. I listened very intently to the comments by the honourable member for New England, who just made the point that there is generally a very serious concern in the community about the need for the government to ensure that the Eastern Creek quarantine facility remains—in relation to not only the problems associated with the equine industry but, more importantly, the problems associated with biosecurity. He quite rightly pointed out that the inquiries I have chaired in relation to feral animals and honey bees have reinforced the reality that we need not only to keep the facility but also to enhance the procedures and equipment in it to ensure that we have the maximum amount of protection.

This outbreak of equine influenza has certainly had disastrous consequences, not only for the racing industry but also for small businesses that are reliant on the industry. The Australian economy relies heavily on the racing industry, and the financial impact will continue to be felt not only by the racing and breeding industry but also by transport companies, the hospitality industry, the fashion industry and event promoters. In rural and regional Australia, many farming communities who were already suffering from the devastating effects of Australia’s worst drought on record have now been dealt a double blow with the outbreak of the equine flu. In the electorate of Hume, as an example, horse-and-carriage owners, who are employed at events such as weddings, harness makers and riding schools are just a few of the smaller businesses that have been affected by this devastating outbreak. I might add that the numbers of people affected by the outbreak are increasing on a daily basis. It is for this reason that a thorough inquiry into the causes of the outbreak must take place as soon as possible.

A lot of information about the outbreak of the equine flu has not filtered down to the grassroots level, to local communities. It is important that we gather the thoughts and feelings of the people in the sport and leisure horse industry to ensure they have a collective voice in this crisis. That is already being done here today. As I mentioned, I had some people from the harness racing community in the city of Goulburn, in the Hume electorate, come in to see me today. That group consisted of trainers, owners and a vet and, after listening to them, I made a quick appointment for them to talk to Minister McGauran—who, incidentally, has been flat out listening to groups such as this one from the Hume electorate, and I commend him for that.

It is all right for those on the other side of the chamber to play politics with this issue and to make derogatory and inflammatory comments on what the government is doing to address this outbreak, but I take exception to the member for Hotham’s backhanded insult in terms of whether the government will be open and transparent with the outcome and the findings of the Callinan inquiry into the equine influenza problem. Of course the government is going to be open and transparent about it; there is no question about that. And it is going to be open and transparent because the outcome of this inquiry, and the report that will finally come from Commissioner Callinan, will be very important not only to the equine industry and the future wellbeing of this country’s export industry but also to our economy.

The inquiry is also very important because it is an absolutely significant inquiry into an issue that centres on biosecurity, and thus on all diseases that are likely to make incursions into this country. That is one of the reasons why I mentioned the honey bee industry inquiry, and it is one of the reasons why I think the member for New England mentioned the issue of feral pigs. We have massive problems in this country and, rather than play politics with them, we all have to work together to ensure that we fix the problems. We must do something more positive about addressing the potential threats within our own borders, in terms of the threats of those sorts of issues to our native flora and fauna, than playing political buck-passing at a state, territory and federal level. We need to think more nationally and more internationally in terms of the threats that are around and the problems they could cause.

Let us hope that this inquiry identifies the source of the equine influenza outbreak in this country. More importantly, let us hope that it also makes the appropriate recommendations to ensure that, if any weaknesses are found in the system—and I am not suggesting there are weaknesses—we plug those holes as quickly and as professionally as we can.

This inquiry will help ease the fears of many horse owners and breeders who are concerned that another outbreak is possible. Everyone who has been involved or affected has the right to know the causes and consequences of this outbreak so that the federal government can ensure it never ever occurs again. Whether another outbreak is to be prevented by vaccination or by other means remains undecided, but I know there are significant numbers of people within the industry—and that certainly includes those constituents I saw today—who are talking about the blinkered approach of, to take an example, the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries in relation to the vaccination process.

All government departments and all levels of government have to understand that they have to listen to the people out there who are at the coalface of industries such as the equine industry in this country, and they have to ensure that they make a calculated, sensible judgement on the actions that they recommend the ministers of the Crown take. If they do not do that, then all of the concerns that have been raised and all of the issues that have been taken up and acted upon will amount to nothing. Equine influenza has already, as I have said previously, ravaged the livelihoods of many Australians. It may come again because of human error, especially in these days of international travel and the global horse economy, and we must do our utmost to ensure it does not occur again.

To return to the inquiry: the inquiry can utilise, as I understand it, through the amendments, the expertise of the assigned quarantine officers, with no possibility of conflicting directions. I refer to the minister’s second reading speech on the issue, where he said this:

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.

I could not agree with the minister more. It is easy to sit back and be critical of the process undertaken by a minister in a very difficult situation. It is true that I do not always agree with the actions of the minister or the time in which he acts on things, but I have to say in this House and put on the public record that there has been no person more concerned and worried about the future contribution of the equine industry than Minister McGauran. I was very pleased that, after thinking about the problem and making a phone call to the Prime Minister’s office, who then spoke to the minister and relayed my thoughts and those of my parliamentary colleagues on this side of the House on how we should expand the assistance package to assist those people who are affected in their employment by this equine influenza outbreak, the minister announced a significant package to assist people. You can be assured that I, as a member of this government, will be encouraging people to take advantage of that assistance.

I look forward to the outcome of the inquiry by former Justice Callinan. I know that, given that eminent Australian’s contribution to the justice system over the years, he will be a formidable commissioner in this process and that he will present a report to the government that will be unbiased, open and frank in its outcomes as a result of his investigation into the equine influenza problem. I thank the House for the opportunity to make a contribution today.