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Tuesday, 2 September 2008
Page: 6909

Mr RAGUSE (6:27 PM) —I rise to speak on the Horse Disease Response Levy Bill 2008, and the two cognate bills, the Horse Disease Response Levy Collection Bill 2008 and the Horse Disease Response Levy (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008. I would like to follow on from some of the comments made by the member for Longman and those of the member for Flinders, who has made some very important points. I will talk about the bills and their effect on the constituents of my electorate of Forde. I will give a bit of detail about the legislation and then lead in to some of the consequences of not proceeding with it.

The purpose of these bills is to ensure that the horse sector receives the same certainty that other livestock sectors have when responding with government to emergency disease outbreaks. These bills allow the horse sector to become part of the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement, EADRA. The horse sector has sought to become part of this agreement for many years, and I know there have been many iterations and many discussions have taken place. But we are still in the position now where we need to move forward for the protection of the industry.

I do understand that the Queensland Horse Council are not happy with the levy mechanism, but to date I have not seen any proposed alternative position. So while it is clear that a debate needs to occur, in the absence of any clear understanding of their concerns, working with the wider horse industry on the positions makes logical sense, and I commend the government for proceeding in this way.

The purpose of these bills is to provide a method by which to generate funds for the Australian horse industry to repay Commonwealth payments in the event of an emergency horse disease outbreak. I note that, until these bills are passed, the horse industry will remain alone in not providing the levy funding that is provided by other livestock and plant industries around the country. It is also important to note that the peak horse industry bodies around the country support this legislation. They are the Australian Horse Industry Council, Harness Racing Australia and the Australian Racing Board. They have all confirmed with the government that they want to become signatories to the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement, thereby supporting the introduction of a levy system.

It was concerning to hear the contributions of members of the opposition, especially that of the National Party leader and member for Wide Bay. He intends to oppose these bills, even though he made several points that I and other speakers tonight have made. Politicising this issue at this time is very dangerous. Pushing a wedge into the industry, particularly into the support base in Queensland, is shear madness. Without this legislation, horse industries in this country will have no protection. We are debating a simple but substantive insurance policy for everyone involved with horses, not only those in the so-called commercial sector. I will speak further tonight about the concerns expressed in my electorate about that differentiation.

Let us look at some of the facts about equine influenza and the consequences of an outbreak. Queensland was particularly affected by this major outbreak. To date, the federal government has spent more than $342 million in eradicating the virus in Queensland and New South Wales in financial and other assistance to individuals, organisations and businesses. The estimated industry losses as a result of the outbreak were in the vicinity of $10 million a week. Containment and associated costs were much greater than that, as was the effect on families and others involved in the non-commercial or leisure sector of the horse industry.

The total cost, including the initial losses and federal and state assistance packages, is estimated to be in excess of $473 million. That is an enormous amount of money and an enormous burden on our community. We must all remember that only New South Wales and Queensland had confirmed equine influenza cases. The member for Flinders spoke about other regions where, had the outbreak spread further, the situation would have been absolutely devastating. We must see ourselves as very lucky that this outbreak was contained such that southern industries were not hit and that equine influenza is not fatal. If it had been a fatal disease it would have wreaked enormous damage on the wider horse industry; in fact, it would have brought it to a standstill—which it did during the influenza outbreak in Queensland. The equine influenza virus is highly contagious and it spread at an alarming rate. The impact on the horse industry was huge and the figures I have just provided demonstrate the enormity of the financial cost.

The outbreak also had an impact on non-commercial and leisure horse activities in my electorate, including the local gymkhanas, horse shows and every other horse activity. I said at the beginning of my contribution that my electorate of Forde has one of the largest equine leisure sectors in south-east Queensland, and possibly throughout Queensland. The Gold Coast hinterland has small acreage blocks that are suitable for horses, and the cost of keeping those animals and maintaining their health is very high. The protection of a levy like this and the support that it can offer in providing vaccinations for the harness and racing industries is imperative. Of course, maintaining a strict quarantine regime costs money. Requiring everyone in the industry to pay a levy will certainly make it easier for individuals and it will lessen any financial burden.

What does this mean for Queensland? The effect of the equine influenza on the commercial industry in Forde was measured, but the non-commercial and leisure sectors were also affected. Many families faced enormous problems, and they are still contacting my office seeking whatever support is available. The impact spread further than those people who own horses or use them for whatever purpose. There are many associated industries and businesses that provide feed or services. The transport industry is one example. People involved in transporting horses had no income for the nine months of the lockdown. That was devastating for them. Another issue was the lack of a direct link for financial support from any level of government, and people are still suffering as a result of that.

I will provide some background about the Queensland government’s response and in so doing illustrate the costs of this sort of outbreak. The Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries reported a positive move towards eradication of the disease on 18 February. If there is a wonderful side to the equine influenza it is that it can be easily controlled once it is identified. The vaccinations provided to one sector of the industry certainly expedited its control. The last known case was reported in January and by February there were no infected premises or dangerous-contact premises.

Living in and moving around the electorate of Forde, I was amazed to see the complete shutdown of many small properties. There were signs on the gates forbidding entry and no movement of horses was allowed. It was eerie. In February, the Queensland Premier said that the Queensland Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries would continue to monitor the situation and would ensure that if there were further outbreaks they would be controlled. The federal minister got involved and by February an approved emergency funding package was provided to assist those who were dealing with equine influenza. That included $97.2 million to reimburse the states and territories for funds spent fighting equine influenza and $255 million for financial aid to individuals and businesses in the horse industry.

I have heard no mention in the debate of the fact that although this is a one-off levy or registration fee it will not be applied retrospectively, nor will it recoup the costs of the equine influenza outbreak. I had several consultations with the minister at the time and I thank him for listening to those concerns.

I have had many representations from horse owners and from the pleasure horse industry in my electorate. These people have approached me for help, and they want to move forward and look at ways to ensure that something like this will never happen to them again. What were the previous government’s actions on all of this? The confusing thing for me is that everything pointed to a desire on the part of the previous government—now the opposition—to introduce this sort of program and yet there is a move not to support it, and I think that is concerning. It is certainly concerning for those in the leisure industry who are still hurting from the effects of the outbreak.

This legislation will establish a one-off levy, and that will be on the initial registration of horses. It will not be retrospective. The levy will be established at zero and the operative levy rate will be set in consultation with the horse industry. I think that is very important, and it is also important that we see the representative organisations working together to establish what the levy will be. It does concern me that we have one group in Queensland that is not yet sitting at the table. I hope that that group is not being used as a political wedge to slow down this process.

In my electorate of Forde there is a history of equine events, particularly non-commercial events. Some 12 years ago the area of Beaudesert, which is to the south-west of the electorate, established what is known as the Country and Horse Festival. It is a major event for the region, for all sorts of reasons. Certainly it brings in tourism dollars, but it also showcases the region to many visitors and makes us proud in terms of what we as a community can do.

The equine influenza outbreak was particularly devastating, and we need to remember the effect it had on not only individuals but also a whole community. I hark back to my statement earlier that this really is about an insurance policy. Without even attempting to determine what price that levy may be, I have been assured by many that it is not of the ridiculous nature of some of the scaremongering that went on earlier this year. The federal government is willing to provide this sort of assistance via a levy. We will have the industry groups sitting around the table and we will be able to talk through what might be the best option for all of us.

As I said earlier, the seat of Forde probably has one of the largest horse populations in south-east Queensland. That came about simply because 30-odd years ago much of the region was cut up into rural-residential areas and so it lent itself to five-, 10- and 20-acre small acreage blocks. Following that, people looked at what they could run on those properties, and horses seemed to be the obvious choice. We have some major commercial operations in Wadham Park, and we also have a very unique race club and a race industry in the area. The historic Beaudesert Race Club, which meets about six times a year, was severely affected by the outbreak. While it is part of the commercial industry, most of the people involved in the race club are people who have leisure interests as well. They certainly make a lot of their income from providing services to that leisure industry. So while there is a race industry that underpins those activities in the region, all of these people were affected by this outbreak.

I want to mention a number of people who made representations to me. There was a fellow by the name of Mark Freemantle, who was heavily involved in the pleasure horse industry. He had concerns about the cost of the levy and also wanted to ensure that the levy would not be brought in retrospectively. As I said earlier, this government has listened to those concerns and is presenting the bill in its current form. Mark Freemantle came to me with a concern about the industry being penalised for its situation, about retrospective payments and about how the registrations would occur. There was a lot of misinformation around at the time. The interesting thing for Mark is that he not only had an interest in horses himself but his business was very much dependant on the horse industry. Due to EI, he lost his business. He was also involved in pasture and stable services, so one can understand the effects the nine-month shutdown had on him

Likewise, Leonie Walsh, of the Riding Pony Stud Book Society, has a business providing insemination services. That business, of course, was restricted by EI, and, overall, the insemination rate was down by 10 per cent. That has carry-over effects for the future in terms of the progeny and other activities around that process. It is very much something that the community is suffering from and dealing with right now.

I often mention the fact that the electorate of Forde is in the Gold Coast hinterland. We sit in quite a large area within that region, albeit not as large as some of those northern and north-western electorates. But with 3,100 square kilometres in the Gold Coast hinterland, as you can imagine, we have lots and lots of acreage dedicated to horse breeding and the leisure horse industry. The nine months that people suffered through EI affected the community in so many ways. I will just give you a rundown on some of the social activities involved with pleasure riding within the electorate of Forde. There are 12 fairly large pony clubs in the electorate and I know that there are other smaller groups. Those 12 clubs are: Albert River, Beaudesert, Beenleigh, Canungra, Cedar Creek, Chambers Flat, Greenbank, Jimboomba, Kooralbyn, Mount Warren, Tamborine and Waterford. There is also a Riding for the Disabled organisation group at Greenbank. There are also trail riding groups and many, many other groups. As I explained earlier, the effect on these people has been devastating financially and the effect on their day-to-day lives has been considerable.

The Country and Horse Festival is a major event and has a 12-year history in this region. It is a major part of the horse industry and brings many people to congregate in this region. It was severely affected by EI. While people could not attend this major event during that period of time, it is certainly trying to get back on its feet. I commend the people who are involved with this event. Nancy Moss, who is the president of the association, has been able to weather the storm and work closely with the community to ensure that this event continues. I also pay tribute to the people who have worked in the background. The initiator of the program, Julie Moor, back in 1996 was very inventive in bringing this event to the region. Likewise, Vicki McAteer was the president for many years. All those people are certainly concerned about the future and ensuring that the effects of equine influenza are not lasting.

Getting back to the point of this whole debate—the importance of a levy and being able to respond to this sort of emergency when required—as I said, I am really concerned that the opposition dispute the levy and dispute these bills. They have declared that they are not going to support this legislation. I would urge them to consider the effect on the commercial industry. At this point there is no disease, but in the event of a disease striking families would be taken out. There are families who would be absolutely crushed and crucified by any further outbreak of disease. For that reason, as a small insurance policy, this levy is important to our community, the community of Forde, and communities that would feel the flow-on effects. I have had people in my office crying about the effects of the outbreak. No-one outside the commercial environment seems to understand just how devastating this has been to that community. These are people who have run small businesses—a lot of them not registered, for obvious reasons—simply to gain a little bit of financial support by supplying important services within that industry. Now, not only are the community deprived of services but their own families are deprived of support.

In conclusion, it is so important that we go forward with this levy. We are so lucky that the EI was not a fatal disease. If you look at some of the concerns in Queensland right now about the effect of the Hendra virus, people are very fearful that something like that breaking out could become a pandemic. Although I am confident that government will always be there, the immediate, emergency response is important to ensure that people can confidently go on with their business, whether that is in the non-commercial or commercial sector. For these reasons I commend the bills to the House.