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Tuesday, 2 September 2008
Page: 6931

Mr ADAMS (8:02 PM) —I rise to speak on the Horse Disease Response Levy Bill 2008 and related bills. The disaster that occurred last year when equine influenza virtually stopped the movement of horses anywhere in Australia and trapped many outside their home states affected more people and animals than was documented. It caused hardship for thousands, including for those involved in horse shows, pony club events and gymkhanas, and it even interfered with our team’s preparation for the Beijing Olympics. When such a crisis nearly stopped the running of the nation’s icon event, the Melbourne Cup, suddenly it was big news! It certainly curtailed the Spring Carnival because many of the horses could not attend.

All horse and pony movements were stopped, and they had to be! But why? Because our quarantine system let us down. Although many of us might have thought it could never happen, it did. All the screening of airport luggage in the world for fruit and vegetables fell down because our frontline biosecurity measures away from the public eye failed when it came to horses entering Australia. The equine influenza inquiry, conducted by Hon. Ian Callinan AC after the industry had been shut down, came up with some shocking findings of our slackness as a nation in understanding the severity of the incident. The report found clear inadequacies in Australia’s quarantine system. They are best described in Commissioner Callinan’s own words, where he said:

What I describe bespeaks an organisation that lacked clear lines of communication between those responsible for formulating procedures and work instructions, and those responsible for implementing them.

The report found that systemic failures, understaffing, not being adequately funded and resourced, inadequacies and breakdowns, an impenetrable maze of bureaucratic confusion, ignorance and misunderstandings, misconceptions about fundamental matters, absence of clear communication and assumptions, inertia, inefficiency, lack of diligence, incompetence and distraction by unproductive bureaucratic processes all played a part. He concluded that the evidence did not enable him to make a precise finding as to how equine influenza escaped into the general horse population. However, it had enabled him to reach clear conclusions concerning inadequacies and breakdowns in the practices and procedures relating to the importation and quarantining of horses.

This failure must be sheeted home to the lax overview by the last federal minister. The National Party Leader, who spoke last night, must be hiding his and the National Party’s guilt by opposing these bills. I cannot think of any other reason for his opposition. By opposing these bills they are leaving the industry dangerously exposed again. He is being totally irresponsible, and I urge him to let these bills be passed and then assist in working out the best way to ensure that the levy is fairly collected when needed.

To prevent a similar incident occurring again, 38 recommendations were tabled, all of which I believe have been taken up by the government. The horse disease response levy legislation is necessary so that the horse industry can fund its share of obligations in response to a national disease outbreak emergency. Most industry bodies do not have the reserves or the required capital backing to arrange for commercial loans on which to draw in the event of an animal disease outbreak emergency. Without ready access to financial underwriting for affected industries, the commencement of an emergency response could be delayed and the overall response severely prejudiced. Under the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement, the Commonwealth of Australia has agreed to underwrite an industry share of nationally agreed emergency response programs and for these costs to be recovered, with the industry’s agreement, through a statutory levy.

The Leader of the National Party, Mr Truss, said:

The Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement was negotiated with the goal of establishing a mechanism to facilitate rapid responses for the control and eradication of or the containment of certain animal diseases, with the costs for the response then shared between governments and industries according to a formula based on the economic and other benefits from the eradication.

So why on earth was he in here last night and why are his party members in here tonight opposing this measure? Until the legislation to raise this levy is in place, there is no mechanism to recover the horse industry’s share of the cost of any future horse disease outbreak. Yet he is now opposing this levy to be collected and not allowing the horse industry to be included in EADRA. This must be nit-picking of the worst kind. If another outbreak were to happen next month, no horse owner would be covered and all stock holders would be asked to cough up.

The horse industry is not a party to EADRA; however, this legislation will provide the framework to enable the industry to become a party. All other major livestock industries—cattle, sheep, wool, pigs, dairy, poultry, goat and honeybee—are signatories to EADRA. All have arrangements in place to meet their obligations under EADRA in the event of an animal disease emergency. In most cases this is a levy set at a zero rate by regulation. Other industries have accumulated reserves or have an existing positive levy in place. Where a levy mechanism is in place, collection is at a point of transaction, such as when cattle are sold at saleyards.

The move to include the horse industry in EADRA is a welcome one. It has been agreed by the majority of the industry, and they can decide whether they want to pay the levy on the outbreak of a disease or pay a small levy each year to build up a fund to draw upon if an incident occurs. It is up to the industry to work out what works best. Many owners of recreational horses and ponies might like to pay their levy upfront to prevent bigger costs being presented to them in the event of an outbreak. They can treat it like an insurance policy. It is important to be prepared. I think that a few groups in this country have the motto ‘be prepared’. This is a good opportunity to do that. We have to drive cultural change in our quarantine and biosecurity systems so that Australians can have confidence in them. We need to make sure that any future outbreak is not due to human error and pig-headedness.

Over my years in this place, I have been very aware of the difficulties facing our primary producers because of the past quarantine regime, backed up by arguments that we cannot offend the World Trade Organisation by citing quarantine issues as reasons for preventing some products from entering Australia. To state the obvious, as an island continent Australia was once naturally isolated from most exotic pests and diseases. Global trade and travel—while bringing great benefits—put Australia’s agricultural industries and unique natural environment at risk of devastation from a range of serious pests and diseases. Quarantine aims to protect Australia’s natural and economic assets while minimising disruption to the international movement of people and goods.

Tasmania, where I am from, is also an island, and it has the ability—and, I believe, the right—to isolate itself further from potentially disease-bearing products. We have fought the fight against importing goods on the basis that our industries will suffer destruction if hitherto absent diseases are introduced. First it was salmon, then it was apples and pears, then it was Newcastle disease in poultry from the mainland, then it was bird flu and, since then, there have been other questionable imports that have put our industries at risk. I think we have to be very careful about how we trade and how we relate to the World Trade Organisation and its guidelines. There should be some challenges to some of the WTO’s more inexplicable rulings.

During the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Primary Industries and Resources inquiry into the honey bee industry, which was completed recently, I was made aware of the huge risk this fledgling industry is facing from the varroa mite. The varroa mite could wipe out that industry or bring it down to half its size. It could wipe out all the wild bees in Australia—no bees, no food. Fortunately, I think we have identified the risk and I am hoping the government will move quickly to address it—as well as address the many other sensible recommendations that were made in relation to quarantine and biosecurity. It is reports such as these committee reports that allow us to highlight problems faced by vulnerable primary industries and to deal with them before a catastrophe occurs of the nature of equine influenza.

These bills will allow the horse industry to start to help itself. They will also allow us to have an early warning system and they will put in place measures to deal with a possible disease outbreak quickly and efficiently. I think the time factor of a horse falling ill and anyone being made aware of the seriousness of it is quite alarming and, in the end, very expensive for all horse owners as well as for those in the racing industry.

We need to do more overall to ensure that our shores are protected from invading organisms and not just open doors simply because we want to sell some of our product elsewhere. The horse flu serves as a reminder now that every entry, every overseas product and every action that we take has a risk, and that therefore we should be properly prepared and be alert—as the previous PM was quite fond of saying—and we should keep the alarm ready to sound if need be.

I am very disappointed, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, that your party has decided to oppose the legislation. I am sure that you would have fought a good fight in the party room. I believe that the National Party, by leading a charge against these bills, has failed the horse industries of Australia. I support the bills, and I hope we never have to face a similar disaster again.