Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 3 September 2008
Page: 6956

Ms PARKE (9:40 AM) —I welcome this opportunity to speak on the Horse Disease Response Levy Bill 2008 and the two related bills—the Horse Disease Response Levy Collection Bill 2008 and the Horse Disease Response Levy (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008. Horses have been an important part of Australian life for many years, playing significant roles in transport, farming and the sporting industry. We need only look at the national impact of the Melbourne Cup every year or our interest and involvement in equestrian events at the Olympics or the image evoked by Banjo Paterson’s The Man from Snowy River to know that horses are an integral part of Australian culture.

We know well the dangers to Australia of exotic diseases. As the member for New England has just noted in his speech, our island geography has advantages; it has always provided some degree of protection. It is significant that only New Zealand and New Caledonia, with their similar island protection, remain EI free. Our Customs and quarantine services are known for maintaining a stern watch for foreign pests, diseases and weeds. However, we have not always managed to catch every problem—for instance, the cane toad, which was introduced in the 1930s, and the cabomba weed, which arrived from South America in the 1960s. The cabomba weed threatens to choke off waterways wherever it is found, and it needs to be aggressively eradicated. And of course there was the devastating appearance of equine influenza in August 2007. These examples speak to the necessity to be organised and decisive whenever we are dealing with such threats, whether they be animals, plants or diseases. Experience shows us that any time lost at the initial outbreak of a problem will add exponentially to both the difficulty and the end costs of removing the problem—assuming it can be removed at all once it has become widespread.

Australia has a deep reservoir of personnel, skills and experience in the management of livestock and protection from exotic diseases. In the words of the peak industry body, the Australian Horse Industry Council, we have been very fortunate to have access to what is undoubtedly the best animal health system in the world. However, despite our formidable capabilities in this area, the Australian horse industry was completely disrupted by the appearance of EI in August 2007. The epidemic had its origins in Japan and found its way into the Australian horse population after a quarantine breach allowed it to escape from the Eastern Creek quarantine station. The epidemic endured for some 130 days, from August last year until the time of the last confirmed cases in December last year, with 6,627 properties infected in New South Wales and 3,569 in Queensland.

Members will undoubtedly remember the daily tales of financial hardship, family dislocation and heartbreak that resulted from the disease. Horses perished, properties were quarantined, movement of animals was restricted, many families were stranded far from home, jobs were threatened and lost and the economic security of families and industries was imperilled because horse related industries, sporting events and recreational pursuits were paralysed. For those in the community with no particular knowledge of the horse industry, it must have come as a surprise to see the unfolding of so many dramas associated with the pandemic—how it reached so deeply into the community and impacted on so many workers and families in so many ways. It is a tribute to the outstanding expertise and commitment of those who managed the outbreak, including the many skilled and experienced veterinarians and government officers who implemented the backup systems, that it was controlled in such a relatively short time.

The significance of the industries affected by horse flu cannot be underestimated. A conservative estimate of the financial importance of the racing industry would value it in the billions of dollars. It employs almost 80,000 people Australia-wide. In my home state of Western Australia alone, the industry employs an estimated 12,000 people.

The extent of the horse flu infection last year was alarming. As I noted earlier, in New South Wales over 6,000 properties were infected and in Queensland over 3,000 properties were infected. In spite of the immensity of the problem, the combined efforts of industry and government were able to reverse the spread of the disease and eventually eradicate it from Australia altogether. Obviously, a task of that magnitude does not come cheap. In his report Justice Callinan cited ABARE monitoring of the estimated daily cost of the initial response to the outbreak at $560,000 a day for disease control and $3.35 million a day in forgone income in the equine industry. Over the duration of the outbreak this combined amount rose to close to $1 billion, although Justice Callinan stated that ‘it is unlikely to ever be possible to calculate accurately the total cost of the outbreak’. With figures like that it is not hard to see why the horse industry looks to government to strengthen preventative measures, learn from mistakes as diagnosed in the Callinan report and move to close those gaps and address those inadequacies. Minister Burke has asked Professor Peter Shergold to oversee the implementation of those recommendations contained in the Callinan report.

According to Parliamentary Library information, the total Commonwealth funding so far has been $352.9 million, including $255.7 million announced by the government on 15 February. The sheer magnitude of the cost borne by the Australian taxpayers and industry underlines the pivotal function of the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement, or EADRA, and brings me to the business of the bills before the House.

The EADRA is the mechanism by which we manage the economic cost of controlling disease outbreaks in the Australian livestock, poultry and honey bee industries. Most industry bodies lack the financial ability to respond comprehensively to a disease emergency. Without that capacity the speed of response could be severely compromised. The EADRA is a world-first industry-government cost-sharing agreement that boosts Australia’s ability to respond quickly and efficiently to animal disease outbreaks. It sets out arrangements between the Commonwealth, state and territory governments and Australia’s livestock industries for the control, containment and eradication of specified animal diseases. The Commonwealth became a party to the agreement in March 2002.

The EADRA obliges the Commonwealth to underwrite the costs of mounting an emergency response to an exotic disease incursion. Major beneficiaries of intervention share the cost, which is recovered by a levy on a taxable output of the relevant industry. There is a list of 12 guidelines as to what can be a suitable levy for an animal industry, but criteria that are suitable for other livestock industries do not easily fit the national horse industry. No component of the Australian horse industry has to date been a party to the EADRA because, according to the Australian Horse Industry Council, a taxable output of the horse industry has been very difficult to identify. This has hampered the process of it becoming a signatory to the EADRA. However, when responding to the 2007 EI outbreak the parties to the arrangement agreed to treat the horse industry as though it were a party to the agreement. The levy gives the industry the assurance that it will have the government’s backing if ever the circumstances of last year are repeated. These arrangements clarify responsibility for action at the most important time, when an outbreak is discovered. When that happens, we do not need to be wasting time dividing and apportioning financial responsibility. We need to be acting as quickly as possible in order to discover the source and extent of the outbreak and to contain and eradicate it. This levy provides the reassurance which small operators need that they will not be wiped out financially by the cost of dealing with a flu outbreak.

At this point I would like to note an issue which has been the topic of a very heated debate—the question of compulsory vaccination against EI. There are differing opinions on this within the horse industry. Those who support compulsory vaccination point to the way EI is managed in England, where vaccinations are compulsory for competitive horses. They say that this has minimised the time and money lost to flu outbreaks since the English program began. They make reference to the complete lack of naturally occurring resistance to horse flu in horses, a factor which can make an initial outbreak spread rapidly. In addition, they point out that competitive horses make up the large majority of horse movements and by vaccinating those horses who are most often being transported you remove one of the most probable methods for this virus to spread through the general horse population.

There are a number of other viewpoints related to vaccination, many of which are canvassed in the Australian veterinary emergency plan disease strategy for equine influenza of 2007. I must also thank one of my constituents, Dr Tim Mather, for his passionate and informative briefing on this subject. Dr Mather is a vet who has been closely involved with the horse industry. He noted that EI is endemic in other countries but we do not have it here. Australia is fortunate to be isolated and to have a hot climate, which makes it difficult for EI to get a foothold here. In his view the best way to control exotic diseases on both economic and scientific grounds is to ensure a good-quality quarantine program. Ideally this would include stationing quarantine staff overseas to conduct pre-quarantine inspections. I note that Justice Callinan’s report made detailed recommendations concerning quarantine and pre-quarantine procedures. Furthermore, horse flu vaccines are not cheap and none are developed commercially in Australia, which heightens the cost and makes it particularly impractical for smaller operators.

However, perhaps the most compelling reasons for not engaging in a preventative widespread vaccination program go to the science of the vaccination process itself. First of all, no EI vaccine exists that can guarantee knocking the illness on the head. The initial source of last year’s outbreak was an imported horse which had been vaccinated before being brought into Australia, so you could be engaging in a very expensive and very labour intensive action for quite limited benefit. The possibility of vaccine failure is especially concerning because vaccine presence has the potential to make early detection of an outbreak more difficult. At the moment blood serum tests cannot distinguish between increases in flu antibodies due to vaccination and those due to an infection. A generally vaccinated horse population could still be vulnerable to EI. The benefit is that there would be an enhanced resistance; the downside is that it would complicate and slow detection processes.

Secondly, there is the aspect of the disease which makes all influenza types so hard to fight, whether it is equine, bird or human flu: its high rate of mutation and variability. There is no single type of EI—or single type of influenza vaccine for that matter. There are different strains across the world varying in subtle ways from country to country and continent to continent. In order for an influenza vaccine to be optimally effective, it needs to be combating the particular strain it was built for. If you pitch a European variant of horse flu against a vaccine designed to protect against an American strain of the flu the vaccine will be offering protection below its optimal level. In addition, the various strains themselves can mutate and become more resistant, even against the vaccines which are designed specifically with them in mind. Last year’s vaccine against an American strain will not necessarily protect your horse against this year’s American strain. A preventative vaccine would need to be relevant to the strain of horse flu that broke out as well as up to date and able to handle whatever the latest mutations of that strain were. It is easy to imagine a general vaccination program developing into a continual arms race between the virus and horse owners—ongoing, expensive and potentially futile.

Perhaps the most concerning possible complication from vaccination is the Typhoid Mary scenario. When an outbreak strain encounters a horse which has been vaccinated against a different type of strain, there are some circumstances where the horse can be subclinically infected; in other words, the horse can be infected with the virus but show no obvious symptoms of the virus. In this scenario, the subclinically infected horse is still infectious to other horses, which has the potential to make the spread of an outbreak even worse and almost impossible to track. It may well be best practice to compulsorily vaccinate horses in countries where horse flu is an established ongoing problem which needs to be managed rather than prevented because those countries know which strain of flu they are dealing with: their native strain. In an Australian scenario where there is an outbreak of horse flu, we could not be sure which strain it is, as it could be from any of a large number of countries.

Regardless of which side of the debate you come down on, everyone recognises that the most desirable way of dealing with this problem is to ensure that our quarantine services are appropriately prepared to prevent another outbreak before it reaches our horse population. With this in mind, the government has commissioned former top public servant Roger Beale to comprehensively review our quarantine and biosecurity systems.

Returning to the levy, as I mentioned before, these bills provide the framework for the horse industry to be included in the EADRA. It is not hard to see why the industry would find this desirable. Costs for responding to a disease outbreak can be crippling. Commonwealth funding alone for last year’s response to the EI outbreak came to just over $350 million. Even the largest organisations in the racing industry would find costs of this magnitude difficult to absorb. For smaller parties, such costs are simply beyond their reach—they would mean a complete financial wipe-out. Without access to the necessary finances, the industry response will be slow and piecemeal and, again, I have to emphasise how important a rapid response is when dealing with an outbreak. Without the levy which these bills will allow for, the horse industry cannot be part of the EADRA. In the event of another outbreak of EI or, indeed, of any other serious disease in the horse population, the industry will be on its own, relying upon the goodwill of government to assist it.

Last year, during the outbreak and afterwards, the federal and state governments, in their response, bent over backwards to assist the horse industry. There was the provision of a very large amount of assistance. Considerable amounts of money were spent by both federal and state governments. The response was so effective that EI is regarded as having been eradicated from Australia—and no country previously had ever managed to eradicate horse flu once it had gained a foothold in the horse population. But the thing to remember is that that massive intervention, that massive support package, was based on the goodwill of government. In the end, Minister Burke decided, correctly, that it would be inappropriate to reclaim money from the industry. However, that there was that possibility hanging over the heads of those in the industry like the sword of Damocles speaks volumes for the inadequacies of previous arrangements.

People in the industry do not want the goodwill of government. Goodwill today could be indifference under a future government. Proper systems and proper safeguards need to be put in place so that people operating in the industry have an absolute, concrete understanding of what their situation is. After years of consultation, peak bodies in the horse industry have reiterated to the government that they wish to become signatories to the EADRA and support the introduction of a levy system so that the industry can be protected in the event of an emergency horse disease outbreak. These bodies include the Australian Racing Board Ltd, Harness Racing Australia, the Australian Horse Industry Council, Thoroughbred Breeders Australia and the Australian Equestrian Federation. I think it is fair to say that the horse industry is in broad agreement with the content of these bills and supports their passage through the parliament.

This government will not continue the practices which led to a failure of quarantine services. We will not sit and wait for the outbreak of disease in the horse population. The government will implement the recommendations of the Callinan report, the government will act to strengthen our quarantine and biosecurity services and the government will give those people working in the horse industry a solid footing so that they know that, if there is another outbreak, they will have governmental protection and not an industry catastrophe.