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Wednesday, 3 September 2008
Page: 6949

Ms SAFFIN (9:01 AM) —The humbug we have heard from the other side, from the opposition, on the Horse Disease Response Levy Bill 2008 and related bills, particularly from the National Party, has only served to confuse the debate and concern people. The honourable member for Canning in his contribution last night raised the issue of wild horses and the 300,000 brumbies that he said were an issue because they could not be registered so we could not go ahead with the scheme. We are really getting into X Files stuff here. We also heard that the model is flawed, but there was no solution, no suggested model or action—just talk; they want to leave the industry where it was before. The pleasure part of the industry is part of what the other side profess to want to protect, but that would leave it still exposed. The passing of these bills would bring that part of the industry in so it gets the protection that it needs.

I also listened to the member for Wide Bay, the Leader of the National Party. The honourable member was saying, ‘Well, yes; they need to be in, but not now,’ and, ‘They need protection but not yet; it needs to go off somewhere else to be looked at.’ I have to ask the question: how much longer does the National Party want to look at this issue? I know that the honourable member has been talking about this since the late nineties. We are now in 2008, and he is still talking about it and still wanting it reviewed and sent off somewhere else. He offers no solution yet refuses to support these bills.

That these bills are opposed by the opposition shows the same neglect that gave us equine influenza. The opposition would leave the horse sector dangerously exposed to another disease outbreak. The bills actually set up a cost-sharing arrangement to deal with emergency responses; that is what they are about. Without this legislation, horse owners will be left on their own yet again. All the peak horse groups support the bills because they want the protection they provide. I will turn to those groups later on in my contribution.

People say: shouldn’t the levy be based on capacity to pay? All sectors of the industry benefit from the eradication of an emergency pest or disease through lower ongoing disease management costs. A pony club horse is as susceptible to disease as a thoroughbred. In other words, a disease does not discriminate between a pony club horse and a thoroughbred racing horse—neither does any proposed levy in helping to eradicate a disease. Moreover, this is what the peak horse industry groups propose to government. They do not have a problem with the levy mechanism—they proposed it. The Australian Horse Industry Council includes pony clubs, show societies and other smaller horse groups, and their board supports these bills.

Last night I heard the honourable member for Canning say that we have to put some dollars around this. The bills actually set the levy at zero. I think the opposition fail to understand that—there is no levy. The very purpose of the bills is to put in place a framework to share the costs of a future outbreak. There is no levy at present. They say we have to put some dollars around it, but how can you determine a levy when there is no disease to eradicate or manage and we do not know what it would cost to do so? The opposition completely fail to understand this point, the key point of the bills. The bills introduce a mechanism to share the costs of responding to a future outbreak. That is what they are about: protecting the industry. Also, the bills, importantly, require the minister to consult with industry before setting any positive levy.

In this debate I wanted to put on the public record my comments and views on the horse industry: how it has been neglected for far too long; how important it is to Australia and also to rural and regional areas as in my seat in Page; how devastating the influenza outbreak was to the industry, not just the racing industry, as seminally relevant it is to local economies; how the government has quarantined the horse industry from paying the costs of the recent outbreak; and, lastly, how certainty has now been brought to the horse industry by the government’s response to the Callinan report recommendations, by the finalisation of the Australian Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement and by these bills. The horse industry is viewed by many as a hobby area and/or a pleasure part, as we say—we commonly use that phrase. Indeed it is in a lot of ways, but it is more than that. It has a defining characteristic: the amount that it contributes to the local economy, particularly regional economies.

The seat of Page was spared an outbreak of the equine influenza virus, but the three-month lockdown late last year still meant really tough times for the horse industry, as we all know. But the EI did come close to the electorate. It was found in some trotting horses around the Gold Coast hinterland and there was a small isolated outbreak at Wauchope near Port Macquarie.

To get an idea of the size and importance of the industry, we must also look at the thoroughbred racing industry and the equestrian sector, both of which are particularly strong in the Northern Rivers. The Chairman of the Northern Rivers Racing Association, Bob Pavitt of Grafton, estimates that the six turf clubs in the region have a combined budget of about $2 million a year. These include the Clarence River Jockey Club, also chaired by Bob, which each July hosts the richest country racing carnival in Australia, attracting group 1 winners and high-profile metropolitan trainers; Lismore, which hosts its cup day later this month; Ballina; Casino; then Murwillumbah to our north; and Coffs Harbour and Bowraville in the south. Later this month, I will have the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, the Hon. Tony Burke, visiting and attending one of the cup days with me.

There is a huge multiplier effect to consider in terms of all the people associated with the industry. There are the feed suppliers, the farriers, the vets, the riding schools, the pony clubs and the retail saddleries, not to mention the tourism dollars generated by the bigger carnivals associated with the industry. The Rural Lands Protection Board’s statistics show that the horse population of Tweed-Richmond, excluding those on small holdings of below two hectares, was 4,062 in 2007 and about the same again for the Clarence Valley alone. So that is just under 10,000 in the Northern Rivers region. That makes up a sizeable part of the horse industry. The Clarence Valley probably has one of New South Wales’s most active equestrian communities. Grafton boasts a dedicated council owned equestrian centre, Hawthorn Equestrian Park. Hawthorn Park is managed by a local user group representing the vast array of the equestrian clubs and users including Paint Horse, Western Riding Club, Pony Club, Miniature Horse Club, Dressage Group and Harness Club.

I know that Bob Pavitt and Michael Timbrell, the Secretary/Manager of the Lismore Turf Club, really felt for their counterparts in hard-hit EI areas like the Hunter Valley and central western New South Wales, but even so the ban on moving horses, which worked to curb the spread of EI, had a significant financial and emotional impact on the industry, particularly in Page, the Northern Rivers and country New South Wales. Racing during that time was scaled down to race meetings featuring local horses only, but costs of staging those meetings remained the same. The clubs, owners and trainers of horses received compensation from the federal government and Racing NSW. According to Michael, this assistance saved quite a few people from economic hardship, indeed financial ruin, but we know that compensation can never adequately compensate everyone for all the losses. It can go only so far.

Turf club managers and pony club officials also found that the EI debate was a very fluid and changing one. Getting accurate and consistent information about the spread of EI was difficult at the time. The disaster, though, did serve to bring home to the wider public the importance of the horse industry to the regional economy. It also showed how resilient an industry it was. That is why it is so important that the government move decisively in this area and that we put that protection around the horse industry.

I would like to say a little bit about the racing industry and about the horses—it is not an industry that is unfamiliar to me. My grandfather, who was named Cookie, was a bookie and I spent a lot of my early years, even as a toddler, on the racetrack. I learnt a bit about the trade with my grandfather. My grandfather, as my grandmother used to say, had in his pocket either nothing or a thousand quid. He also liked to have a bit of a bet as well. So I grew up around the horses on the racetrack and I do know how to pencil, so in case I need another job I do know how to pencil and can do it quite well. I like the races, but do I bet? No. I save the betting for Melbourne Cup day, but it is an industry and not just about the racing. The horse industry is one that I particularly have affection for.

I now turn to the purpose of the three bills. It is pretty straightforward. It is to give the horse sector the certainty that other livestock sectors have when responding with government to emergency horse disease outbreaks. These bills enable the horse sector to become a party to the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement, the EADRA, as it is called. The horse industry has, for a number of years now, wanted to be party to this agreement. The bills set up the mechanism that incorporates a levy, the zero levy, now. That will apply in the initial registration of horses and then the legislation provides for the collection and administration of a levy in the same way that other parties to the agreement are included. The agreement operates so that the Commonwealth underwrites the industry’s share of the cost in the event of an emergency disease outbreak such as equine influenza, as happened recently in the horse industry. Then the industry is in a position to work out a cost-sharing arrangement.

The establishment of a levy arrangement through these bills triggers the horse industry to become a signatory to EADRA. The bills contain regulation-making power, or at least the legislative framework does, and the regs will prescribe the horse disease response levy rate. The regulations will be developed in close consultation with the industry to ensure that the principles of fairness and equity are paramount. Fairness and equity are the principles around which this legislation revolves and they are the principles that will apply to the sector and to those within the horse industry sector, particularly those who are part of the pony club and the pleasure part of the industry who may be asking, ‘What will happen now?’ Fairness and equity will prevail.

As members would know, there is currently a debt owing to the Commonwealth by the horse industry vis-a-vis the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement. I digress here to labour the point that the government would not consider and would not expect the horse industry to pay for costs outlaid, which are substantial, by the government for the equine influenza debacle as it would be penalising the horse industry for the systemic failure of the previous government—their failures at all levels: policy and leadership. To get back to the regulations, there is no need to set a positive levy rate due to the reason I have outlined above. There is no debt owing to the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth has said that there will be no debt to pay.

These bills therefore establish a zero levy and no positive levy rate can be set unless industry is consulted. On this point, I note that the horse sector, at peak representative industry level, comprises three peak groups: the Australian Horse Industry Council, Harness Racing Australia and the Australian Racing Board. These three peak bodies support the passing of these bills. There are of course other organisations but these are the peak three. In a letter to Minister Burke on 13 August, Thoroughbred Breeders Australia said:

TBA supports passage of the bills through the parliament in the spring session on the understanding that government will consult with industry to establish a fair and equitable registration scheme, to ensure the burden of the levy does not fall on too few horse sectors. The thoroughbred breeding industry will constructively engage with government and other horse industries to this end.

I welcome the support of both the peak bodies and the Thoroughbred Breeders Australia, which I sense speak for those not directly involved when they make the point about the need to have a fair and equitable registration scheme—principles that I subscribe to, as does the Labor Party and the Rudd Labor government. Those principles are reflected in the language used by the minister regarding this matter and the language within the legislative framework.

I have spoken to many people in the horse industry in my electorate of Page who also share the view of the Thoroughbred Breeders Australia on the need for fairness and equity. I say to the three peak bodies and to the honourable members that they have expressed their concern and that they will be listened to when consultations are taking place. I undertook with the locals to raise this when I could, and I do so now. I always remind members of organisations to be as active as they can in their respective bodies so that their voices will be heard through to the top.

By way of background to the EARDA, which is pivotal to these bills, it was struck in 2002 and essentially sets out—as agreements are wont to do—the roles and responsibilities of the parties. Where the industry cannot initially meet its cost-sharing obligations, the Commonwealth can underwrite the industry’s obligations, subject to satisfactory arrangements for repayments, including a statutory levy. Most of the horse industry bodies and indeed the country racing associations do not have the cash, the capital or the backing, particularly within the pleasure sector, to arrange commercial loans to support them through emergencies such as the equine influenza outbreak. Having this agreement in place means that swift and clear action can be taken if an animal disease emergency occurs—and God forbid that it does. But we have to plan for that happening because they do and will occur despite the best practices, despite the best policies and despite the best precautions, which we are now moving to put in place. When we came to government there was really very little in place for the horse industry and we found that the quarantine system was wanting, as detailed in the Callinan report.

The provisions of the EADRA will effectively limit the levy rate and, importantly, all parties, including industry—that is, all heads at the table—must agree on a response and its cost before it can proceed. The horse disease levy bill also mandates that the minister take into account the views of industry bodies in setting the operative levy rate. The minister has also informed the peak industry bodies that he will continue to discuss fully with industry any future action before implementing any levy system or levy rates. (Time expired)