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Tuesday, 2 September 2008
Page: 6915

Mr CHAMPION (6:56 PM) —I rise today, as a representative of many rural communities in South Australia, to support the Horse Disease Response Levy Bill 2008 and the associated bills. As they were for most people who grew up in rural South Australia, horses were a very important part of my local community. I vividly remember my sister being part of the pony club and my mum cooking the barbecue for the Marrabel rodeo day which the pony club participated in. That is an organisation I am now proud to be the vice-patron of.

In South Australia we were fortunate enough to avoid the devastation caused by equine influenza, or EI, when it broke out in August last year in New South Wales and Queensland. Although we avoided the effects of the disease directly, we were certainly affected indirectly by the emergency response. The impact of the disease on horseracing and the ancillary industries was huge. Horseracing industries were basically closed down. Recreation and horse shows were postponed. The costs of maintaining the strict quarantine were severe. As many other speakers have said, the cost to the industry was hundreds of millions of dollars. The cost to the Commonwealth government was something like $342 million, so it was a very costly exercise indeed. It affected small businesses in my electorate. One lady who sold the ribbons for horse shows was terribly affected and received no compensation under the previous government’s guidelines. So it was obviously a costly exercise for both the community and the government.

That said, the emergency response was a good example of collaboration between government and industry. On 14 March the member for Watson, Minister Tony Burke, declared Australia provisionally free of the disease. I am sure that this House looks forward to that being recognised at the international level by the World Organisation for Animal Health in December this year.

I am proud to speak in support of these bills today, as they provide for an effective resolution of the crisis and frame our response for preparing for the future. The bills ensure that the horse industry is not saddled with the costs of the former government’s failure—if you will pardon the pun!

The government considered how to improve our response to a crisis such as EI by referring to the framework of the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement, EADRA, which commenced in 2002. This agreement sets out the roles and responsibilities of government and industries in responding to emergency animal disease threats in Australia. Under EADRA, the costs of responding to emergency diseases are shared by the affected parties, with the government underwriting the industry’s costs, as it is recognised that many industries will not have the reserves available to respond to a crisis. This provides certainty for the industry and a rapid and effective response for the country. The previous outbreak of EI should have seen EADRA tested for the first time. However, unlike many of the major livestock industries, the horse industry is not a party to EADRA. This is despite interest on behalf of the industry in joining prior to the outbreak.

Under the former government there was no framework in place to allow for an emergency response to a disease outbreak in the horse industry. Instead we had an ad hoc approach that did not take into account and did not plan for the cost of such a response. Fortunately, the common sense of this government and peak industry bodies such as the Australian Horse Industry Council, Harness Racing Australia and the Australian Racing Board has seen to it that we will not be left in the lurch again.

These bills provide for the mechanism that will allow the horse industry to finally become a party to EADRA. This represents an excellent outcome for the horse industry, Australia’s emergency animal disease response framework and the Australian people. Many of my constituents work in industries that are party to EADRA, and I recognise the importance of this agreement. That is why it is so important that we pass these bills, as the legislation will help the horse industry develop the confidence to become a formal signatory to that agreement.

With the horse industry’s assent to the agreement, we strengthen Australia’s emergency disease preparedness and its response infrastructure and we will be able to respond even more effectively should we be unfortunate enough to confront a crisis such as EI again. Even the member for Wide Bay realises how important this is. In his speech he said:

I think it is beyond doubt that the horse industry should be in EADRA; I think the industry itself recognises that it should be there. The EI outbreak is a demonstration of how it is important for this sector to be a part of a disease eradication program.

Of course, the member for Wide Bay knows this all too well, having been advised of the industry’s wishes before when he was the minister responsible in the previous government. Despite this, the opposition is happy to oppose these bills and leave the industry exposed yet again. This is the same neglect, documented in the Callinan report, that led to the disaster in the first place. It is the same mob and the same attitude—not planning for the future. Instead we have proposals for a levy on horseshoes and all this hand wringing about levies. When you get right down to it, what the opposition will put its faith in is luck and hoping a crisis will not strike again. This is a familiar response from the previous government.

When the member for Wide Bay was the responsible minister, this issue was raised with the government. As it has been revealed by the Callinan inquiry, on 24 September 2004 Andrew Ramsden of the Australian Racing Board wrote to the member for Wide Bay, Mr Truss, in a letter titled ‘Inspection of recently imported horses during postarrival quarantine’. In that letter Mr Ramsden outlined the board’s concerns about the changes made to AQIS and the importation of horses. The letter said:

Equine influenza is the exotic disease that the Australian horse industry most fears. If equine influenza gained entry to Australia, it would close down racing and other horse events for several months with catastrophic economic consequences. A quarantine breakdown is the only way Australia will be exposed to this exotic disease.

He goes on to warn:

As recently as November 2003, private veterinarians attending recently imported horses during post arrival quarantine played a prominent role in a quarantine breakdown which led to a closedown of racing in the Republic of South Africa until mid-February 2004. In late 1986, the Republic of South Africa suffered a similar fate. At that time, racing, yearling sales and many other horse events were suspended for over 4 months. Veterinarians from the private sector played a prominent role in the 1986 outbreak as well.

There is further correspondence from Mr Ramsden. He wrote again to Mr Truss on 6 May 2005. That letter and the other letters were discovered in the course of the inquiry. His letter of 6 May 2005 reiterates the board’s concerns regarding quarantine procedures for imported horses, particularly veterinary inspections for postarrival horses. In his reply, the minister, the member for Wide Bay, on 31 May 2005, said in response to the industry’s concerns:

Horses imported into Australia from countries other than New Zealand are directed on arrival to an AQIS quarantine station or an AQIS approved private quarantine station by an AQIS quarantine officer. Horses are under AQIS control at all times during quarantine. There can be no contact with other horses, access is restricted and there are decontamination procedures in place for all those having direct contact. The horses are moved to the station by private transport companies and inspected by private veterinarians. The horses’ temperatures are taken twice daily for the 14 day quarantine period by grooms attending the horses. The inspection and temperature data is provided to AQIS veterinarians who monitor the health of the horses and decide what actions need to be taken if a horse shows signs of illness whilst in quarantine.

Then he concludes, and this is the extraordinary bit of the letter:

The circumstances that led to the outbreak of equine influenza in the Republic of South Africa in 2003 could not occur under the current AQIS postarrival protocol.

What this letter represents is the previous government’s indifferent, ‘she’ll be right’ attitude. It is an indictment of a minister who dismissed legitimate industry concerns and showed breathtaking arrogance, incompetence and culpability in the outbreak of equine influenza in Australia.

The opposition’s position on these bills, in this parliament, at this time only adds insult to the injury. These bills create a scheme to raise funds to pay for the costs associated with responding to such an emergency. These bills provide certainty; the Liberal Party’s position and the National Party’s position provide uncertainty. This scheme is recommended by the peak industry bodies that I discussed before. It involves a levy on the initial registration of horses, appropriated through the Australian Animal Health Council and through amendments to the Australian Animal Health Council (Live-Stock Industries) Funding Act 1996. Regulations will be drafted to provide for an appropriate levy rate, although at this stage the rate will be set at zero. The levy rate will be set in consultation with the industry and will be subject to the number of registrations per year and the total costs of any emergency response. The levy will not be retrospective.

I hope that the industry will continue to be proactive in preparing for threats such as EI and that it proposes an appropriate rate to the minister when they have consultations on this matter. These schemes are not unique. All the major livestock industries are signatories to EADRA and all have arrangements in place to meet their obligations. While the levies for other industries are collected at the point of transaction, it is inappropriate to have a transaction based levy for the horse industry. After extensive consultation, it has been agreed that the most equitable point of a levy is that of registration. Under these bills the levy will apply only to the first registration of a horse and will not affect subsequent transactions or registrations with different industry bodies.

This effective response is also one that looks to the future. EADRA is a world-first industry and government cost-sharing agreement. It improves immeasurably Australia’s ability to respond to animal disease outbreaks. We should also note that two of the three peak horse industry bodies have formally applied to become a party to EADRA, and it is expected that the third body will formally apply once the legislation is passed. It is important that the House realises that until this legislation is in place there is no mechanism to recover the costs of any future response to an EI outbreak. This scheme is effective and forward-looking but it is also necessary and economically responsible. If the levy scheme is not implemented there is a risk that the Commonwealth will bear the costs of being unprepared into the future, as we have done in the past due to the failures of the former government.

We can be proud of Australia’s response to EI and of the hard work done by the minister, but we need a forward-looking approach to emergency disease response management, which requires that we pass these bills before the House today. They are effective, they are supported by the industry, they ensure that the Commonwealth will not be left with a liability incurred by the industry in the future, they ensure that individual owners are not left with enormous costs and they reflect the world’s best practice of EADRA. In responding to emergency animal disease threats we need to continue to support flexible and dynamic emergency response structures and encourage the horse industry to formally participate in those structures. For those reasons I commend these bills to the House.