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Monday, 17 September 2007
Page: 93

Mr GAVAN O’CONNOR (6:00 PM) —I congratulate the member for Forde on her contribution to this parliament and on the speech she has just given to it.

The Quarantine Amendment (Commission of Inquiry) Bill 2007 is legislation the opposition intends to support in the main. It forms part of the government’s response to the equine influenza outbreak that was revealed by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry on 23 August 2007. According to the minister’s second reading speech:

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.

The inquiry is to be headed by a former Justice of the High Court, Ian Callinan, and has been given the specific powers and protections of a royal commission, within the quarantine-specific context of the Quarantine Act. It is indeed a curious structure in which the inquiry will be undertaken. I am not sure that the minister has adequately explained to this parliament, to the industry and to the Australian community his reasons for going down this path. I am aware that the minister has stated that Commissioner Callinan will have access to quarantine officers already working on internal investigations into the outbreak and that independent people engaged by the Commonwealth can be made available to the commissioner to help him undertake his inquiry.

I note the presence in the chamber tonight of the honourable member for Corangamite. He knows more about sheep than he does about horses, but our respective histories go back a long way as far as horses are concerned. I could elaborate on that in this speech but I will not. Needless to say, on this side of the House we rode the horses. We rode the horses in our family, and I am privileged that my forebears appear in the Stockman’s Hall of Fame in Queensland. They developed their horse-riding skills, indeed their buck-jumping skills, down on the property of the honourable member for Corangamite. Yes, in some strange and twisted way the fates of the two members who represent the Geelong region in this place are entwined. But getting back to the speech—

Mr McArthur interjecting

Mr GAVAN O’CONNOR —You would not have lasted a second on Curio; let’s face it! If the great Curio had been around today, under the incompetence of your minister it would probably have picked up equine influenza and nobody would have ridden it—not my forebears, not yours. Be that as it may, we have before us a bill to establish an inquiry, and I am sure that the honourable member for Corangamite will make a contribution to the debate.

The structure proposed is an interesting one, to say the least. It is appropriate as an opposition that we point out areas of potential concern. We know from past experience that an inquiry process can be nobbled—if I can use horsing parlance—by this government and that terms of reference can be structured to insulate ministers and the government from being fully accountable for their actions or lack of them. The minister states:

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 operative words here are ‘quarantine specific inquiry’. The minister obviously will seek in this process to insulate himself and the government from anyone questioning their administrative competence in the matter. As we know, this government has a sorry record when it comes to quarantine. We all remember the black sigatoka outbreak that cost the Queensland banana industry in excess of $40 million, and the citrus canker outbreak that cost the industry across Australia—not only in Queensland—tens of millions more. We have also had outbreaks of fire ants.

We all remember the celebrated lashing the previous minister for agriculture got from one of his own side, Senator ‘Wild Bill’ Heffernan, who found Brazilian beef had been dumped on the Wagga tip at a time when that country was having problems with foot-and-mouth disease. I cannot verify this but there is a ‘stranger’ in the House, Senator Macdonald, who might be able to clarify this matter for us. It is rumoured that ‘Wild Bill’ would have dumped the minister on the Wagga tip if he had got hold of him after that particular outbreak. I hope the stranger in the House can clarify that particular point, because it was a significant breach of protocol for suspect beef to find its way onto the Wagga tip. Senator Heffernan may want to revisit this issue after the next election, because there will be a political carcass he can dump on the Wagga tip and that will be of the previous minister, who had an appalling record in quarantine matters.

This government has real form—if I can use another term from racing parlance. It has a horse in the political stakes; it is called Sheer Incompetence! Sheer Incompetence ought to be the name of the government’s horse in the quarantine stakes. Over on this side of the House, we will enter one too. It will be called Eternal Vigilance, because we have been vigilant on quarantine matters over the past decade. While this government has dithered and failed to do very important things in the quarantine area, we in the opposition have led the policy debate on quarantine matters. We have led the policy debate and the government has played catch-up all along the way.

If it is a race between Eternal Vigilance and Sheer Incompetence today the government may well win, but let me tell the honourable member for Corangamite, it is about the only race it will win in the political stakes coming up. We know about the interest of the member for Corangamite in the horseracing industry and we know about his interest in the sheep industry. He is going to take a very active interest in them after the next election because he may not be in this House.

The importance of the equine industry to regional and national economies was eloquently outlined to the House by the member for Hotham on 13 September 2007. I have to congratulate the member for Hotham for his contribution on that day. We all know—and the member for Corangamite knows—that he is an ardent Shinboner fan, and barely four days after the lashing that they got at the hands of Geelong, he was able to come into this House and articulately pick the government’s arguments to pieces on this particular bill. He also offered us a snapshot, in statistical terms, of how important this industry is.

We are talking about an equestrian industry worth $1 billion a year. Some 70,000 horses are registered nationally in that industry. We are talking about a racing industry that, according to the Australian Racing Board, will have a direct input into the Australian economy of some $41 billion over the next five years. Some $1.6 billion comes into federal and state coffers as a result of this industry. It is estimated that some 77,000 people are employed in the racing industry. So when we talk about this industry we are talking about an industry that, I believe, is the fourth largest in the Australian economy. It reaches into every region of Australia, particularly into the rural sector and regional areas, and it is of national economic significance. When we have an outbreak of equine influenza of the type that we have just witnessed we see very quickly and clearly the economic impacts of a quarantine breach on local economies and on the national economy.

Given the economic impacts, it is not hard to appreciate why many Australians, particularly in regions such as mine, have more than a passing interest in this matter. In the Geelong region we are blessed with a very strong equine industry. The Geelong Racing Club holds the Geelong Cup and that is a very important part of the social calendar which is coming up. Its race meets are run throughout the year and, as we know, there are many enterprises and many individuals who derive their livelihoods from the racing industry in Geelong. The Geelong Harness Racing Club at Beckley Park stages events that are also an important part of Geelong’s sporting calendar.

Also coming up is the Geelong Show. The honourable member for Corangamite and I, over many years, have delivered our bipartisan support to this very important event in the cultural calendar of the Geelong region. As we know, the show and the racing club are going to be affected by this outbreak. We do not know yet what the impact will be on the Geelong Racing Club carnival but we hope that it will be minimal. Then there are the recreational riders in the pony clubs around Geelong. They are very strong indeed. Of course, many young people learn their skills, first up, on their farms before going into other areas of activity in the industry. So this industry is very important to the Geelong economy and we were particularly concerned when we heard about this outbreak.

In my electorate, Animal Health Australia is charged with the responsibility of identifying these diseases and the particular strains. That scientific input is critical to the strategies that are mounted under AUSVETPLAN to contain the disease and to eradicate it. AUSVETPLAN is quite specific on the strategies required to contain an outbreak once it has occurred. They say:

Because of the rapid spread of EI in susceptible equine populations and the high level of horse movements, the most important initial priority is to minimise disease spread (ie containment). Containment relies on the following principles:

  • quarantine of cases and in-contact horses;
  • immediate imposition of horse movement controls until the extent of the outbreak is clarified—

I will come back to this particular point. They go on:

  • once the extent of the outbreak is clarified, effective movement controls over horses, equipment and fomites in declared areas; and
  • effective tracing and surveillance.

I issued a press release on 4 September that was picked up by the local and national media. It related to the institution of the horse standstill under the AUSVETPLAN in response to the minister’s announcement. I was particularly concerned about a talkback caller to ABC radio, who claimed to have watched horse floats travelling south along the Hume Highway on Saturday and Sunday, 25 and 26 August. This was after horse movements were prohibited for 72 hours in the proclamation on 24 August.

Let us go back to that important element in the AUSVETPLAN in containing the disease outbreak: immediate imposition of horse movement controls until the extent of the outbreak is clarified. That particular caller, apparently, had a farm very close to the Hume Highway and was very experienced in this industry. He was appalled by the movement of horse floats over those two days and questioned whether in fact we could contain the outbreak in Victoria. But, more importantly, when you dig deeper into this matter and you ask why the floats were not intercepted by the police in response to the AUSVETPLAN, we have a problem here which goes back to 1991. The AUSVETPLAN has indicated that the Achilles heel in all of this is the powers of police to intercept and to stop the movement of such floats and horses once this proclamation is made. Of course, this is a very important matter, because if you are going to contain the spread of such a virulent disease and limit its impacts then you have to clarify the roles of police, their powers of interception and their powers to stop the movement of stock.

We on this side of the House are very concerned about the minister’s reporting requirements to the parliament. We will be taking up the matter in amendments which are being proposed by the opposition. It is important that we are able to bring any minister of any political persuasion on the floor of this House to account for their actions, or lack thereof, in these matters.

I read with interest the interjections of the minister when the member for Hotham was talking. He asked the member for Hotham to raise the matter of Reins of Fire. We want to talk about the rings of incompetence, not the Reins of Fire. There are some big rings of incompetence around these ministers when it comes to quarantine matters. I know the honourable members in this chamber representing Queensland know exactly what I am talking about—and I am not talking about Liberal ministers here. I can see the smile is broadening on the face of the honourable member for Leichhardt. He knows, as I know, just how incompetent these National Party ministers have been in these portfolios, particularly when it comes to quarantine matters. We are not interested in Reins of Fire; we are interested in rings of incompetence which surround these particular ministers.

The inquiry and the $110 million that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has announced are welcome. We will not complain about that. But we on this side of the House have been proposing a major inquiry and overhaul of Australia’s quarantine processes for many years. We all know that the trading environment of Australia has changed dramatically. We are now in a global trading environment. That puts particular pressures on our quarantine service that were not there previously. We know that the transmission of exotic pests and diseases is now much easier and that there are more virulent strains of these diseases which are wreaking havoc on plants and animals in other parts of the world. We know about the mass movements of people and that these particular diseases can be transmitted not only by equipment and fomites but also by people. We also know that the international movement of animals is quite substantial and that we are in an era of bioterror. So it puts an enormous strain on Australia’s quarantine service.

Labor proposed many years ago that a major inquiry and overhaul be undertaken so that we could address some of these rather significant issues. I am rather disappointed that we get to this point with an EI outbreak and that the minister is proposing what we consider to be a limited inquiry that will effectively shield him from accountability on this and other matters. We will be raising these concerns and amendments later on in the debate.