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Tuesday, 2 September 2008
Page: 6902

Mr SULLIVAN (5:57 PM) —I am pleased to rise in support of the Horse Disease Response Levy Bill 2008 and related bills that give effect to a levy on the horse industry for response to emergency animal diseases that might occur in the industry. It was some 22 hours ago that the previous speaker, the member for Wide Bay, spoke in this debate, and I listened with some incredulity as he did so. From what he said, it seems to me that the opposition will be opposing this suite of legislation. I gather they will seek to block it in the Senate. This is a true case of opposing for the sake of opposing.

As I listened to the member for Wide Bay, two things occurred to me. The first was a story about Greg Chappell, a former Australian cricket captain, who was asked to comment on his own bowling prowess. His response was that he would love to bat against it for a living. I thought at the time that, for a living, I would love to follow the member for Wide Bay in any debate. He bowls such a slow left-arm, do-nothing ball. I also thought of the old political adage: where a man stands depends entirely upon where he sits. The member for Wide Bay is now sitting over there on the opposition benches, and his stance on this issue has changed markedly from just a few short months ago when he sat over here.

To give the member for Wide Bay his due, as agriculture minister in the Howard government from, I think, 1997 to 2005, he oversaw the introduction of what we now call EADRA, the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement. The legislation that he brought in, the Australian Animal Health Council (Live-stock Industries) Funding Amendment Act 2002, set the groundwork for a new and, as it turns out, very efficient means for the government and the livestock industries to deal with animal diseases as they arise.

In 2002, all livestock industries signed up to this process, with the exception of the horse industries, because there was some difficulty in finding a taxable output in the horse industries in order to create a levy for them to be involved in EADRA. However, at the end of 2006, the Australian Horse Industry Council, the Australian Racing Board and Harness Racing Australia wrote to the government proposing that a levy of a certain nature be the vehicle by which the horse industries could participate in this arrangement. At the time, the then minister, Mr McGauran, was busy drafting regulations to give effect to that levy proposal that came to us from the horse industry. However, the Government Solicitor advised that it was not possible to do this by regulations to the Primary Industries (Excise) Levies Act 1999 and there needed to be a principal act—in fact, this act that we have now. History will tell us that this act did not come to the parliament before the election in November 2007, but here it now is.

If it is true that the opposition is going to oppose this legislation and seek to block its passage in the Senate, as the member for Wide Bay has said, then its stance is reckless; it will leave the horse industry exposed to another outbreak of animal disease. In a press release, Senator Scullion, who has some role in these matters for the coalition, accused Minister Burke of being a bully and referred to a letter of 11 June that the minister sent to the horse industries. In that letter of 11 June—and you have to understand that, at that time, the equine influenza had been eradicated and the government had decided not to charge the horse industry for its containment and eradication portion—the minister said:

... I must emphasise that the circumstances surrounding this emergency response are unique and this decision should not be considered as setting a precedent of any kind—

that is, the decision not to charge the industry. He continued:

No future assistance for emergencies will be provided until the horse industry becomes a full signatory to the EADRA ...

The minister then said that he, the minister, would be ‘most concerned if a future response to an emergency horse disease was jeopardised because the industry had not signed EADRA’. I do not regard that as bullying the horse industry. The horse industry had just been given a quite substantial gift from the government. They had had an emergency animal disease contained and eradicated at no little cost—except at no cost to them—and they were being told that they could not expect that in the future. In fact, it is unfair that they got it in the first instance in that those other livestock industries would not have been able to have that containment and eradication provided free to them.

As I listened to the member for Wide Bay speak, I thought, ‘He’s talking about his belief that the horse industry should be part of EADRA, yet he says he doesn’t like this levy mechanism and so he is going to oppose it.’ By opposing this legislation, he will create the circumstances, as did his own legislation of some years ago, where the horse industry cannot participate in EADRA—because he does not like the levy format. I ask members opposite to allow this legislation to pass and to allow the horse industry to decide whether they should be part of EADRA; if they decide not to be, they stand exposed to a future emergency and incursion of a disease.

In his contribution, the member for Wide Bay indicated that he did not like the levy proposal that was put forward by the horse industry to this parliament, but he did not offer an alternative. For seven years, he was involved as primary industries minister overseeing this particular part of the industry and had plenty of time to see what might have been a better levy proposal. But he did not offer any better proposal to us, and he certainly was not offering it to the horse industry 12 to 18 months ago when it came to the then government with a proposal that we are giving legislative effect to through this legislation. His only plan is to leave the horse industry exposed.

We cannot talk about this legislation without referring to the equine influenza event of 2007, first detected on 25 August 2007 and with the last case being identified, coincidentally, on 25 December 2007. This was really the first test of the emergency response arrangements that were in place as a consequence of EADRA. I think it is to the credit of the former government and of the officers associated with it that this was an outstanding success. The eradication of equine influenza occurred with great speed; it was certainly much quicker than would have been anticipated.

Those sections of the horse industries that do not wish to be involved with EADRA need to take this on board: as part of that response, around 79,000 laboratory tests were conducted and at 10,196 properties across New South Wales and Queensland which had been affected the cases were resolved. As recently as 30 June, the minister declared Australia to be free of EI. As I have said, if nothing else, that proved that our system worked and that it worked better than expected—and I am happy to give credit to the people who put that process into place. But the cost of EI to the Australian taxpayer was $350 million. Of that, $108 million represents the control and eradication cost—that is, what would normally have been repaid to the government by any other livestock industry and by the horse industry, had it been part of EADRA. Racing Victoria has thrown around an estimate of $1 billion as the cost to Australian racing.

In the absence of EADRA, there was not really any obligation for the government to respond in the way it did to the EI outbreak, although the circumstances latterly have shown that there would have been quite an uproar if they had not. In any event, I understand that the reason that the government did treat the horse industry as though it had been a signatory to EADRA was the approach by the horse industry in December 2006 suggesting a levy format that could be adopted to put the horse industry into EADRA. The government had, as I mentioned earlier, sought to act on that by regulation but, having been told that it needed to be done by a principal act, had not got around to doing that yet. I understand that it also required the approval of other livestock industries who are party to EADRA to agree to proceed as though the horse industry were a party.

Honourable members might find it interesting that in June 2004 the Australian Horse Industry Council convened a forum in Melbourne to discuss emergency disease issues. Bear in mind that they had been working on this since about 1998. The report from that forum contains these wonderfully prophetic words: ‘Even world’s best quarantine practice cannot give total protection.’ In September 2004, Andrew Ramsden, Chairman of the Australian Racing Board, warned the then minister, the member for Wide Bay, of the dangers of replacing AQIS vets with cargo staff. He wrote:

Equine influenza disease is the exotic disease that the Australian horse industry most fears. If equine influenza gained entry into Australia, it would close down racing and other horse events for several months with catastrophic consequences.

Clearly, the ARB did not at that time believe that they were being protected by world’s best quarantine practice. In 2005, the then minister responded and he assured ARB that an outbreak of EI was extremely unlikely, given the AQIS protocols. It is no secret that the Callinan inquiry set up by the former government was scathing of that government, its minister and AQIS, in particular the Eastern Creek facility where the outbreak originated.

I do not want to dwell any further on that, other than to say that I believe the lessons have been learned—or ought to have been learned—by the horse industry. But the only hint of an apology came from Senator Scullion, and that was more of an admission than a real apology anyway—it was just a debating point made in a rather nasty media release. I have certainly not seen or heard anything from the member for Wide Bay, who ignored advice from the Australian Racing Board in the first instance and made changes that made this outbreak more likely. He could have offered them a simple, ‘I’m sorry, folks; I stuffed up.’ That would have been a good start. But at the end of the day, as I said, Minister Burke indicated that in respect of the 2007 outbreak the horse industry would not be required to meet EADRA repayments. That is $108 million that was absorbed by the government. If you add that to the budget bill vandalism being undertaken in the other place by the opposition, the Rudd government has had to take another $108 million hit because of the former government’s bungling.

The electorate of Longman, which I represent in this place, both proudly and I hope diligently, is located on the rural-urban interface, to all intents and purposes. I know many local people will not thank me for saying this, but it is where Brisbane meets the bush. As a consequence, there is a substantial amount of horse activity within the electorate and the adjoining areas—the electorate of Fisher, represented by Mr Slipper, and the electorate of Dickson, which is close by. This includes breeding, training and spelling activities associated with both thoroughbred and harness racing. There are stud operations in the area for a number of horse breeds. There are riding schools and training centres, pony clubs, facilities for trail riding and riding for the disabled and vibrant equestrian sections at the local agricultural shows. And let me say, if I may, that I was very pleased to see the strength of those equestrian sections at the shows in the middle of this year, so soon after the equine influenza incidents. There is an indoor arena at the Caboolture showgrounds, which has in recent weeks hosted the state championship of the Queensland Reining Horse Association and a round of World Cup Jumping. The adjacent Alexander Barr Sporting Complex in a few weeks time will host the 2008 Queensland dressage championships. And the Moreton Bay Regional Council is to proceed with an equestrian facility at the Barr complex and the showgrounds, at a cost of around $3½ million, in partnership with the Bligh government of Queensland. That will be nowhere near as impressive as the $30 million Australian Equine and Livestock Events Centre at Tamworth, but it is a great facility for the equestrian community from Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast nevertheless.

In Longman, horses matter. That is why I am supporting this suite of bills before the House today. We have reached this point after a decade-long campaign from the horse industry associations, who want their horses, their industry, to have the same protection as livestock in other industries against an outbreak of animal disease. Responsible horse industry players want, and have wanted for a long time, to be signatories to EADRA. They want what is already in place and the certainty that is provided to other livestock industries. The chicken meat, egg, dairy, beef cattle, pork, sheep, goat and honeybee industries all have this protection, and all of them have been signed up since 2002. Supporting this legislation are the Australian Horse Industry Council, Harness Racing Australia and the Australian Racing Board. Those are the three organisations that proposed the levy that this legislation puts into place.

That is not to say that all the affiliates of the Australian Horse Industry Council are happy about it. I note, for example, the press release from one, which I will not name, which holds the view that this is ‘total unfairness to the horse industry’. The tenor of its argument appears to be that the eradication of exotic diseases in horses benefits not only horse owners but people outside the horse industry as well and, as such, to ask horse owners to bear any portion of the cost is an obscenity. I note also that one group surveyed its membership, which overwhelmingly supported the horse industry signing up to EADRA, while overwhelmingly opposing the payment of any levy. You cannot have one without the other. You are either in and pay a levy or you are out. That is all there is to it. It is not a rational position that they are taking.

The Australian Horse Industry Council, as I said, are one of the responsible industry organisations, and they have been campaigning for a long time for inclusion in this. This suite of bills, if nothing else, is a testimony to their efforts, along with the efforts of other sensible industry sectors, and they can take some pride in the imminent enactment of it. Through their tenacity they have contributed to what, in their words, is the ‘future proofing’ of the Australian horse industry. Over a number of years they have produced logical, well-argued information for their members as to why they should be included in EADRA.

In the few moments that I have left, I will precis some of those views. Firstly, there needs to be an emergency response to any outbreak of exotic disease to minimise damage to the animals and the industry and permit a return to pre-emergency conditions. Secondly, no animal industry on its own can afford to accumulate the skills and resources necessary and maintain them in readiness for an outbreak. Thirdly, because exotic disease incursions are unpredictable and can be transmitted rapidly across great distances, it is impossible to plan adequately or to acquire the capacity to respond in a timely manner. Fourthly, without a contract—that is, EADRA—there is no obligation on government to become involved in the event of an exotic disease incursion. Fifthly, under EADRA the government is obliged to provide and maintain resources to assist animal industries affected by an exotic disease incursion through identification, containment, control and eradication of that outbreak. There are a range of skills, a range of people, a range of resources and a range of powers that are needed in that event. The government has these; the industry does not.

In conclusion, this legislation will give rise to the industry’s participation in EADRA. It will give effect to what the industry declared it wanted so overwhelmingly at that AHIC forum in 2004: government assistance to control an emergency— (Time expired)