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Thursday, 13 September 2007
Page: 63

Mr FITZGIBBON (1:17 PM) —While members of the government fight over the spoils of government this week, the horse industry in Australia remains in absolute crisis. Together the thoroughbred and racing industries constitute the nation’s third largest sector. In New South Wales alone, the thoroughbred industry’s contribution to the economy is valued at around $4.2 billion. In the same state, some 50,000 people are employed by the thoroughbred and racing industries. No area in Australia is hurting more than the Hunter Valley. The impact there has been devastating and therefore people will not be surprised to hear me speaking on this important bill, the Quarantine Amendment (Commission of Inquiry) Bill 2007, this afternoon.

The Hunter, particularly the Upper Hunter, boasts some of the world’s best known thoroughbred horse studs: Arrowfield, Baramul, Coolmore, Byerley, Darley, Emirates, Kio-Ora, Sweetenham, Woodlands, Vinery and many others. It is not just the studs being affected, though; it is also the small breeders, the tourism industry, the racing industry, the saleyards, horse sports, the farriers, the veterinarians, the horse dentists, the barrier attendants, the transport owners and drivers—they are particularly facing huge debts but are without income at the moment—trainers, caterers; and the list goes on and on. The town of Scone proudly boasts of being the horse capital of Australia. It is entitled to. It is home to the Australian Stock Horse Society and boasts horse studs which collectively produce billions of dollars worth of foals each year. It is also home to an equine research centre, a TAFE campus which specialises in equine studies, Olympic quality polo grounds and probably the best racetrack in regional New South Wales. Each year, the Scone Horse Festival brings thousands of people to the area. We give thanks that at least the flu outbreak occurred after the May festival. Imagine the immediate economic impact the cancellation of that special event would have had on the Upper Hunter shire. The Mayor of the Upper Hunter Shire, Barry Rose, reminded me yesterday that there is not one business in Scone that is not affected by this horse flu crisis. Of course, a business does not have to be directly involved in the horse industry to be affected. When incomes are down, consumer spending goes down and every business in the area has been caught up in the crisis.

The crisis in the Hunter is not confined to the Upper Hunter. Race meetings everywhere have been put on hold. The racing industry is hurting very badly—just ask the Newcastle Jockey Club, which of course extends its operations to the Cessnock racecourse in my own home town, or high-profile trainers such as Paul Perry and Kris Lees or owners such as my mate Jeremy Sylvester. Breeders also exist in the lower parts of the valley, as do trainers, farriers, vets, transport operators, saleyards and all those classifications and occupations that I have already mentioned. The Maitland Mercury reminded us today that the horse sale of the Maitland Saleyards, which occurs on the second Thursday of each month, has been cancelled for the first time in 200 years. It has survived floods, droughts, the depression of the thirties and labour shortages during the Second World War. You name it and it has survived it, but it has not been able to survive this horse flu crisis.

On Sunday, August 26 I was travelling to watch my beloved Cessnock rugby league team play in the preliminary final at Newcastle’s No. 1 sportsground. Unfortunately they were defeated by Lakes United, but that is another story. On the way down I took a phone call from a Cessnock resident by the name of Sue Simmonds. Sue and her husband had travelled to Moonbi, just outside Tamworth—and I heard the member for New England make reference to the crisis there—to watch their granddaughter participate in a horse sport event. Sue’s family, along with many others, found themselves stuck in Moonbi because their horses had been quarantined. They were among the lucky ones: they had their own caravan and were able to accommodate themselves. But many other families faced hefty accommodation costs and the food costs which went with being stuck in that town. I mention this story to point out to members of this place how broad the impact of this horse flu crisis is. I know that many members who do not represent constituencies which are directly affected would not have a real and proper understanding of how broad the effect of this is. It goes all the way from the top studs of the horseracing industry right down to the family who has a member participating in horse sports of some sort or another.

What can I say about the racing industry? It is an industry which pumps around $70 million annually into the Commonwealth’s coffers via the GST. It is an industry which contributes more than $200 million to the New South Wales Treasury each year. I spoke to a high-profile New South Wales trainer this morning. He, like many others, is frustrated that horse vaccination and an easing of the horse movement restrictions have not occurred before now. I am very pleased that the Thoroughbred Breeders New South Wales Association and the New South Wales government appear close to an agreement on the easing of horse movement restrictions. The introduction of a so-called ‘purple zone’ will be good news for the Hunter. It should be accompanied by a Commonwealth government subsidised vaccination program.

Unfortunately, the Hunter faces the inevitability of total infection. On that basis the restriction on movement within the Hunter region seems to have served very little purpose. Businesses in the Hunter urgently need those restrictions lifted. I know it is a complicated matter and I know there are both pros and cons, but the current circumstance cannot go on any longer. The situation without the movement ban could surely not be any worse than it is with it. I know that there is an issue with vaccination, and again there are no simple answers here. I know that it has the potential to complicate the timing of Australia’s all clear on equine flu. So I will let the experts decide. But I do call upon decision makers to err on the side of vaccination. That is certainly what people in my electorate are telling me is needed, including vets in my electorate whom I have spoken with.

On 12 March this year the Prime Minister came into this place at question time and sought, on indulgence, to make a statement. That statement was about a couple of disasters, one of them being the then recent storms and floods in the Hunter region and on the Central Coast. It was an appropriate thing to do and I know the residents of the Hunter appreciated it very much. The day before, the Governor-General came to the Hunter, toured some of the affected areas and spoke to some of the various emergency services groups and volunteers. I accompanied him on that short tour. The Prime Minister also came to Maitland and did something similar. Again, that was something I appreciated and something that I know the residents of the Hunter appreciated. It was the right and appropriate thing to do.

It just astounds me that, in stark contrast, we have seen no such recognition in this place of the disaster we are talking about this afternoon. I know there is not the same visual impact. You cannot see horse flu. We do not have our eye on the cash flow books of the many businesses which are being affected or the family budget of those families who have been affected through involvement in horse sports or because someone in the family works within the industry. We do not get that visual impact. It is true that, thankfully, no-one has lost their life as a result of equine flu. That is not likely, of course. Lives were lost in the floods. So I am not comparing the two in that sense. But this is very big, and I am surprised that there has not been greater recognition in this place. We are only finally talking about it today because the government has moved forward with the legislation required to establish the inquiry. There has been no prime ministerial statement, as we saw on other occasions. The economic and social impact of this absolutely warrants that contribution from the Prime Minister, other senior government members and indeed members of this House generally—some of whom I suspect are affected by this outbreak and do not even realise it.

I was particularly surprised to see that on the speakers list for this bill there are only six speakers listed out of some 150 members of the House of Representatives. Even more extraordinarily, four of the speakers listed come from this side of the House and only two from the government side—and one was a valedictory from the member for Page. We will count him in there and give them the benefit of the doubt. I think that is extraordinary given the scope and the impact of the issue which is before us today. Where is the member for Paterson? I have outlined for the House the extent of the impact of this crisis on the Hunter region, including those areas represented by the member for Paterson at the moment and those areas which will be represented by the member for Paterson in addition after the next federal election, if he is still here, when the boundaries will have changed. I should point out that there is some doubt about whether he will still be here; that remains, of course, to be seen.

It is well recorded that in a sense this outbreak had its beginnings in Maitland. It would have been appropriate for the member for Paterson to be in here extending his sympathy to those affected, demonstrating that he understands the impact of the outbreak on the region and committing himself to getting in here and doing something about it. I am sure that, like me, he welcomes the royal commission. I hope that, like me, he fears that the terms of reference are not sufficiently broad. We need terms of reference that get to the bottom of where this all began and that ensure we put in place new processes so that this can never happen again.

The original $4 million offered by the government was an insult to industry and to the communities affected. The $110 million package which followed is much more welcome, but I suspect it will still not scratch the surface. I made the point earlier that $70 million per year goes into the Commonwealth’s coffers as a result of the GST, so they will get more than half of the money back in one financial year. This remains a very, very modest contribution from the Commonwealth government. I urge them to take another look at it, to continue to monitor the impact of the outbreak and to consider additional financial assistance where it is required. Giving back just half of what the industry is already giving to the government is not sufficient to cover the impact.

The member for Paterson should be in here acknowledging the impact on his constituents, recognising their need and talking about the terms of reference. We want to know whether Bob Baldwin thinks these terms of reference are sufficiently broad to cover every aspect of the source, and he should be in here fighting for more money for those of his constituents who have been affected. It is not too late. The opposition will be happy to facilitate an opportunity for the member for Paterson to speak. I will talk to the Opposition Whip. I am sure that we will be more than happy to facilitate an opportunity for the member for Paterson to participate in this debate on the Quarantine Amendment (Commission of Inquiry) Bill 2007, show that he has some compassion for his constituents and show that he is prepared to get up and fight for the people he represents in this place. Surely he also, like me, has some concerns about the extent to which the government has cut back funding in AQIS, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, the extent to which they have outsourced much of the work in that organisation and whether or not that has in some way, even if only in a small way, led to the procedures breaking down so badly that we find ourselves in these circumstances today. Again, I invite the member for Paterson to come in here and have his say. We will facilitate that process.

Finally, I want to acknowledge and thank the many organisations who are working so hard to minimise the impact of the crisis—organisations like Thoroughbred Breeders Australia, Racing NSW and the New South Wales government. I am sure the New South Wales government has not got everything right but I know Minister Ian Macdonald is working very hard and consulting very broadly and widely with those who are affected. I also acknowledge the individuals involved. They are numerous—too many to name. I have had contact with many of them, of course, in the Hunter Valley and I have had phone calls from Sydney based people, particularly those who are associated with Royal Randwick, who I know are going beyond the call of duty. That is sometimes out of a bit of self-interest; we understand that. But it is also in the interest of the industry, in this case the racing industry.

Amongst those individuals, I want to single out one very special group, and that is the veterinarians who have been affected by the crisis. It is a bit counterintuitive. People are saying to me, ‘Why is it that when we have an outbreak of horse flu the vets have less work than ever before?’ I do not have time to go into all the detail, but it is obvious that there are movement restrictions which make it very hard for veterinarians to do their normal work. You cannot, for example, go to one stud and then move on to another, for fear of human transportation of the virus. If you go to a stud, you have to stay on that stud or go through all the procedures involved, such as washing down, changing clothes et cetera, to ensure that infection is not an issue.

Some of the vet hospitals in the Upper Hunter have been able to dedicate a vet to a particular stud, which is very generous of them because it certainly does not deliver the most efficient returns to their businesses. They are doing a sterling job. Like medical doctors, they are going beyond the call of duty, not just looking at their own financial circumstances but doing what they can to ease the burden on the people of the Hunter. The issue is very large in the Hunter region, in particular the Upper Hunter, and I trust that the royal commission we are establishing today will get to the bottom of the source and its causes to ensure that this is not only the first but the last time we have to deal with this issue in this country.

I know that much latitude has been given during this debate to allow members to make their valedictory speeches, and I have just heard part of what the member for Page, Mr Ian Causley, had to say. The member for Page is one of the real characters of this place. There are too few of them these days, in my view. I have enjoyed a bit of banter with the Deputy Speaker over the course of the years, and he has thrown me out of this place a couple of times too—usually unjustifiably, of course! I know you would never do such a thing to me, Madam Deputy Speaker Corcoran, unless it was warranted. I would expect you to do so if it were warranted, but usually in the case of the Deputy Speaker it was not warranted. I served on the House primary industries committee with Ian Causley when we both came here as part of the class of ’96. I think the Assistant Minister for Immigration and Citizenship at the table was also a member of the class of ’96.

Ms Gambaro —Yes.

Mr FITZGIBBON —I spent some social time with Ian as well as time on the committee and I always enjoyed his company. I did not always agree with what he had to say, but that is to be expected.

I extend my very best to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to all the others who are leaving this place. We have heard a couple of valedictory speeches over the course of the last couple of weeks. We thought this would be our last opportunity. Maybe there is a little bit of time left yet—we shall wait and see. I particularly acknowledge Kim Beazley, who has been a great servant of this place and of the Labor Party, and my friends Rod Sawford, Carmen Lawrence, Michael Hatton, Gavan O’Connor, Bob Sercombe and you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I also want to acknowledge Harry Quick, the member for Franklin. He has had a difficult time with the Labor Party recently, but he has made a significant contribution both to the Labor Party and to this place over many years. It would be remiss of me not to mention Harry, who, as I said, has had some issues with the party in recent times but is basically a good bloke. I remember a great story about Harry Quick, who once travelled to Gallipoli and had an emotional experience in remembering his father’s role in that campaign. To all those members, and to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, we wish you the very best for the future and we thank you for your contribution. (Time expired)