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Wednesday, 3 September 2008
Page: 6953

Mr WINDSOR (9:21 AM) —I am pleased to follow the member for Page. I will speak briefly outside the leave of the bill and thank her for co-hosting a recent conference at Lismore dealing with the role of agriculture and soil carbon. I am also pleased that the Minister for Resources and Energy is in the chamber. Some constructive issues with regard to the soil carbon debate need to be addressed.

The Horse Disease Response Levy Bill 2008 and two cognate bills are significant, and many country areas and organisations have expressed concerns about them. I will allude to those concerns, some of which the minister may be able to allay in his speech in reply. Most members know that the electorate of New England is renowned for many things, including the fact that Tamworth, the major centre in the area, is the venue for the country music festival. Not only the thoroughbred and harness industries but also the recreational horse industry are an important part of the festival and the history of the area. Much has been done over the years to encourage and foster the development of the industry. Members would know of the controversy raised in this place about the development of an equine centre. That centre is currently nearing completion and will be part of the development of the equine industry in the region.

We now know that the equine influenza outbreak began at Eastern Creek Animal Quarantine Station and then spread to the Hunter Valley, Warwick, Narrabri and Moombi, which is a little place north of Tamworth. Horse owners and animals were confined to that area for some time. Members have spoken about the damage that the outbreak caused to the industry broadly and to individuals who were caught up in it because of the maladministration of the quarantine station.

Concern has been expressed that these bills were constructed as a response to last year’s equine influenza outbreak. As the member for Page said, the concept of the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement and the horse industry being involved in it has been on the radar for some years. I am not convinced, but some people have suggested that the bills were constructed to fund the response to last year’s outbreak. The Callinan inquiry has since tabled some findings. A degree of outrage was expressed early in the year and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, quite responsibly in my view, withdrew the bills. These bills are very similar, if not identical, to those that were withdrawn. It was suggested that the original legislation could retrospectively draw in funds to pay for the response to the equine influenza outbreak that occurred as a result of neglect at Eastern Creek. I thought their withdrawal was a positive move on the minister’s part. Some people still believe that retrospective bills are not necessarily the best mechanism to deal with future outbreaks—that is, to identify how to respond and how to fund that response. All members seem to suggest that the horse industry should be a signatory to the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement, and I agree. It is important for the industry to be a party to that agreement. However, there is confusion about the motivation for the bills and their retrospectivity.

As I said, many people were harmed as a result of the equine influenza outbreak. When the Callinan inquiry was established people had views about how the outbreak occurred and who was responsible, and many of those issues may well be resolved in court. A program has been set up to assist people and businesses that were adversely affected by the outbreak. Notwithstanding potential court action, the minister put in place some assistance measures. I have had cause on a number of occasions to make representations about the guidelines that were imposed and who was and was not eligible, and some of those issues are before the minister. I urge the minister, if at all possible, to err on the side of the applicant. Enormous damage has been done essentially because of the negligence of a government authority. As I said, that will be potentially fought out in court. However, where assistance is provided to recognise that harm has been done to individuals or businesses because of this outbreak we should err on the side of the applicant rather than be too dogmatic in the interpretation of the guidelines.

Quarantine arrangements will have to be improved for not only equine influenza—we could have another outbreak—but also many other animal diseases. If last year’s outbreak had involved foot-and-mouth disease, some of our livestock industries would have been decimated. The response to the equine influenza outbreak and the lack of preparedness at the state and Commonwealth levels highlighted that much more planning should be done to ensure that if a disease outbreak occurs again mechanisms will kick into gear more effectively.

I particularly congratulate the state primary industries departments for the way in which they responded to the outbreak. I had some involvement with the Moombi outbreak. People who were not skilled in responding to disease outbreaks were required to address this outbreak and to deal as diplomatically as they could with people who were outraged about their animals being confined to an area they did not come from and about the costs involved—both financial and emotional. There must be improvements.

I mentioned earlier that there are some concerns out there as to who supports these bills and who does not, even within some of the industry groups. The Horse Industry Council has been mentioned, and I am aware that not everybody in that council, for instance, is in agreement with supporting these bills. Some suggest—and others in other parts of the industry suggest—that there are some equity and fairness issues involved here. There are some concerns about the definition of ‘registered body’. There are some very real concerns as to what process evolves from the legislation if a registered body, a horse body, folds. The minister might be able to explain it to me in his concluding remarks. What arrangements would be put in place there? There are some arrangements in the legislation in terms of penalties, but those penalties, as I understand it, will not apply to individual horse owners. It looks as though they only apply to registered horse bodies that are going to be levied in the case of an outbreak. I would like those concerns addressed by the minister, if possible.

The definition of registration seems to be a little bit of an issue with some people as well. The minister and some of the government members, including the member for Page, have mentioned in their contributions that those concerns about equity and fairness will be taken care of in the regulations. I would like the minister to clearly spell out what they mean by that. How are they going to address those issues in the regulations, particularly given some of the definitional issues about registered bodies? I know some people in the Horse Industry Council, for instance, are concerned. Everybody seems to be in favour of the horse industry being involved in the EADRA, but some people are concerned that not all of the horse industry will be involved. Answers to the questions of how you capture that greater audience, how that relates to what the government are planning to do in terms of regulation and who they will consult with in the industry before constructing those regulations really do need to be fleshed out, if only to address some of the concerns that are out there in the horse industry.

I mentioned earlier the need for our quarantine arrangements to be upgraded. Australia is an island and has a great advantage in that sense. There are certain disadvantages, of distance, but one of the great marketing aspects that we have as a nation is our island continent status. Despite that status, there can be breaches, there can be outbreaks of disease, and how we respond to those outbreaks becomes very significant. I do not believe that we in Australia do enough to deal with the potential carriers of disease in this country. I think we pay the issue a lot of lip-service.

I was on the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry during its inquiry into the problem of feral animals and the way in which certain states are having some success and others are not and all the demarcation issues that are there. The minister at the table, the Minister for Resources and Energy, was involved in that committee. We saw some outstanding results in some areas—for instance, the way in which Western Australia virtually eradicated the buffalo and the donkey. The Northern Territory also dealt with the buffalo. A lot of people had said: ‘It’s pointless even trying. They’re out of control. You can never do that.’ The Western Australians have effectively done it, and there are lessons to be learned from the way in which they addressed those issues. They deserve congratulations. I will not get into the techniques involved, but there are techniques that do work. We should not just give up just because it is costly to eradicate some of these feral animals.

The shadow minister and others have mentioned feral horses and the way in which they could carry equine influenza or other horse diseases in some future outbreak. They are another example of controls that should be taken. There are more feral pigs than people in Australia now—after all the programs that have been adopted over many years to try and eradicate those animals. If foot-and-mouth disease were to break out in any part of Australia, the feral pig population would be the ideal conduit for the spread of that disease. The capacity for that one disease to destroy a lot of Australia’s agricultural industries is very significant and should not be underestimated. We should not underestimate the spending that is needed and the improvements that are obviously needed in our quarantine arrangements, as illustrated by the Eastern Creek fiasco.

Recently I have spent some time in Central Australia, and the numbers of feral camels in that region are exploding. There are estimates now that there may be a million camels in the semiarid and arid zones of Central Australia. Many people do not go there, so they probably do not care. The major part of our environment is dry, semiarid and arid, and these animals that were introduced should be taken care of—not taken care of in a custodial sense but taken out of the environment in the appropriate fashion because they have the capacity to do enormous damage to that environment. I hear very little from the usual spokespeople for green and environmental issues when it comes to the destruction that is taking place before our very eyes as a result of feral camels in Central Australia. If we can believe the climate change data, additional rainfall will occur in some of those areas and there will be an additional explosion in the populations of some of these animals.

In conclusion I would ask the minister to respond to some of the issues I have raised, including: the levy arrangements on a registered body if that registered body does in fact fold; how the legislation would impact on recreational horse activities if the horses are registered in another country, and the need, or otherwise, to be registered in this country; and the fairness and equity issues that have been raised by many in terms of the regulations which may come after the passage of the legislation. The minister might like to explain to those bodies what he intends to do and what the preferred agenda is.

I also think there needs to be greater clarification on what happens to people who breach the law. I know there is mention of penalties in the legislation, but what does this legislation allow to happen if, for example, someone has 10 horses, registers three and is found to have an additional seven? If the legislation does not have some degree of policing capacity built into it, the obvious exit strategy for some people will be not to register all of their horses. I think the minister needs to explain how this is going to work, particularly in terms of registration.

This is a bill that I am still wrestling with in terms of my support for it or otherwise. I have looked at both sides of the argument. My vote will depend to some degree on how the minister answers some of those questions. Hopefully he can placate some of the broader concerns out there in the electorate.