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Wednesday, 3 September 2008
Page: 6964

Mr NEUMANN (10:16 AM) —As the member of this parliament representing Blair, a rural and regional seat in South-East Queensland, I am pleased to be able to speak on the Horse Disease Response Levy Bill 2008, the Horse Disease Response Levy Collection Bill 2008 and the Horse Disease Response Levy (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008 and to support the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry with this legislation. The Australian Horse Industry Council, in a message to its members on its website, said this:

The past year probably has been the most intense in the history of the Australian horse industry. The incursion of Equine Influenza (EI) into Australia from Japan in August 2007 caused complete disruption to the national horse industry. The successful emergency response to the incursion has seen eradication of EI from Australia in about 130 days - a truly remarkable achievement.

My electorate has been dreadfully affected by EI, and my constituents have come to see me in tears of anger and frustration at what they have experienced. The Australian harness-racing industry and the Australian Racing Board have been partners with government in the emergency response. In fact, I commend them for their participation in 56 meetings of the Consultative Committee on Emergency Animal Disease and 24 meetings of the National Emergency Animal Disease Management Group. They were given leave to appear before former High Court Justice Ian Callinan, now known as the commissioner, during his inquiry subsequent to August 2007 relating to the incursion. In fact, the AHIC presented three written submissions. The AHIC has commended the minister, who is present in the House, and described his decision on behalf of the government to not require the repayment of $100 million spent on the eradication and proof-of-freedom campaign as generous. This money was given in addition to the $350 million provided in Commonwealth and state government assistance to affected horse owners.

It truly has been a horrendous year for the Australian horse industry. The entry of EI into Australia from Japan caused catastrophe and confusion. It was a very serious breach of quarantine. To allow EI into Australia via the Eastern Creek quarantine station was egregious negligence. The outbreak had serious economic and social consequences not just to Australia and Queensland but also to my electorate of Blair. To their discredit, the former coalition government failed to make arrangements for emergency disease preparedness in the horse industry. This was notwithstanding the industry’s proposal from more than a year earlier that they be a participant in agreements in relation to preparedness. The legacy of those who sit opposite in this chamber is procrastination and inertia.

The University of Western Sydney in August 2008 undertook a study into the human impacts of equine influenza. I commend the study and its outcome to members and to the public. Data was collected between 14 November 2007 and 7 January 2008. Complete data was collected from 2,760 respondents, which is a considerable number in the industry. The study was welcomed and supported by the AHIC. It was recognised that disease control measures were put in place to control, contain and eradicate EI. Those measures involved restriction and the quarantining of properties, which caused significant cost and disruption.

But it is psychological wellbeing that I want to focus on in my speech. Of the 2,760 people who responded, the vast majority were from New South Wales and Queensland, which were so affected. Forty-seven point two per cent of the respondents came from New South Wales and 20.1 per cent came from Queensland. The respondents were from all sectors of the horse industry: recreational, harness racing, thoroughbred racing, equestrian, stabling, agistment, veterinary and animal health, breeding, stud, farrier, commercial and others. The conclusion was that horse owners demonstrated high levels of resilience. We saw that every night in Queensland on the news. The stoicism, the incredible capacity to cope in the circumstances and the community approach of so many in the industry is to be applauded despite the feelings of despair, the loss of hope, the helplessness, the isolation, the frustration and the anger which was reported. They felt forgotten. But I am pleased the minister has not forgotten them and I am pleased that the Rudd Labor government did not forget them.

The response of the 2,760 people mimicked or reflected the response that my constituents gave to me. They talked about the fact that, as the member for Riverina mentioned, EI had an impact on country shows. I run mobile offices at all the country shows in my electorate, which takes in a large part of the rural and regional areas outside of Brisbane, down to the New South Wales border and the Boonah Shire and out towards Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley. And the shows there are the lifeblood of community. People get together at the shows for fellowship. They show off their produce. And I am pleased to see in the chamber the Attorney-General, who visited Gatton and gave a plaque to one of our life members. So he knows. The minister for agriculture has also been to my electorate and understands what it is like. In those rural communities, they get together for community dances and for church activities; they get together in P&Cs; they get together for social occasions far more than people in the city. So those community meetings are really important for bonding, for fellowship and for friendship; they are the wellspring of community life. I cannot stress enough how well-attended Rotary and Lions clubs and other groups are in those rural areas. In fact, they put those of us who live in the cities to shame in many ways.

Those people have expressed to me the frustration of the isolation and the quarantining and the impact on community life: reduced contact with friends; isolation; the cancellation of horse events in their areas; the cancellation of riding lessons, which a lot of rural people have their children engaged in; the lack of income and strain on finances; and the fact that they could not get a vet to come to their area. And there were people who came to their area, with goodwill, who failed to obey the quarantining requirements for cleaning and disinfecting that were so necessary when people went onto their property. A lot of people—those who were not ‘horsey people’, as it was put to me—did not get it. Separation from family also was mentioned. And people also reported a lack of information. People were unable to carry out their plans for the future. There was emotional distress—anger, disappointment, worry. And they also related to me, particularly those in dressage and equestrian activities. I played a lot of sport when I was younger—basketball, soccer, rugby league, cricket, touch football and table tennis; a lot of different sports—and I also ran. But I did it on my own or with team mates. Those in the horse industry engage their horses in those equestrian competitions. To see their animals suffering in this way is distressing. And it was not just a sniffle—these animals suffered dreadfully. It was a kind of rabies-like experience for them. I had people come to my mobile offices and to my electorate office in tears, in great anxiety at what their beloved pets and animals were suffering. So it really is a way of life for so many people in rural areas.

Certainly in Ipswich, which forms the bulk of my seat, the Ipswich Cup is the hub of the social season. Tens of thousands of people attend. Also, there is the Labour Day race meeting on the Monday, on Labour Day. I always go to the Labour Day march in Brisbane and then come back to the race meeting in Ipswich. I spoke to Brett Kitching, who manages the Bundamba Racecourse, and he talked about the cost to the club and the impact on the trainers, the farriers and all those who enjoy the industry, because that is their life. I have to confess I probably spent a bit too much time in my childhood on racetracks because my dad really liked to have a bet or two in Ipswich, though he was more involved in the greyhound industry. Certainly I spent a lot of time there. My old high school, Bundamba State Secondary College, was just across the road, and I hate to say this but a number of people used to go across to the racecourse, missing out on geography and English after lunch. But the racing industry is important to Ipswich.

I am pleased that the minister said on 15 February 2008 that the government had approved a $1 billion emergency funding package. That involved $691.3 million for ongoing federal funding to families and farm businesses affected, including exceptional-circumstances-declared regions; $7.8 million for interest rate subsidies; $97.2 million to reimburse the states and territories for funds; and $255.7 million for financial aid to individuals and businesses. It is those businesses which have suffered the most. People in my constituency have lost their incomes—lost their livelihoods. There are people in my electorate whose lives have been totally destroyed—and those are the words they have used to me. But it has been this Rudd Labor government which has supported farmers, small businesses and those in rural communities affected by the drought, and I am pleased to say that is the case. What have they received? They have received the equine workers hardship wage supplement, which is a Newstart-like type of assistance paid on a fortnightly basis to those people who have lost income that was directly derived from the commercial horse industry. There has also been the equine influenza business assistance payment of $5,000 to those businesses which derived the majority of their income from commercial horse industries and experienced a downturn in income. Further, there has been assistance in the form of the commercial horse assistance payment and grants for non-government and not-for-profit equestrian organisations.

I am also pleased that the minister has taken up the 38 recommendations of Commissioner Callinan from his inquiry. That was a very extensive inquiry—44 days of hearings, 260 witnesses, 80,000 documents and 41 formal submissions. Commissioner Callinan was always a robust advocate. He was more conservative than I would have liked him to be on the High Court of Australia, but he certainly said his piece and he was prepared to say what he thought, to his credit, on the High Court. In the report of his inquiry he talked about systemic failures: the understaffing of our quarantine services, which were not adequately funded and resourced; inadequacies and breakdowns; the impenetrable maze of bureaucratic confusion; a place of ignorance, misunderstandings, and misconceptions about fundamental matters—and it went on and on. I had a look at it—it is a damning indictment of quarantine in this country. I am pleased that the Rudd Labor government is acting on that, and these bills are part of that response.

I commend the minister. I know he has written to Roger Beale to address the issues as part of the review and he has appointed Professor Peter Shergold to oversee the whole process. At the time of a press release issued on 12 June, the federal government had expended $342 million to eradicate the virus and provide financial assistance. It is a huge sum of money.

I just do not get why the opposition is opposing these bills. The horse industry want these bills. The Australian Harness Racing Council, the Australian Horse Industry Council and the Australian Racing Board all support these bills. It is very peculiar for those people who sit opposite, who say that they support rural and regional communities, to oppose these bills. Regulations were drafted in 2007 to give effect to the Horse Industry Council’s submission, but it was advised that separate legislation would be required, and that is what these bills provide. The opposition of those opposite to these bills is a demonstration of the same kind of neglect that we saw in relation to the devastating EI outbreak last year. I just cannot understand why they are opposing them.

One purpose of these bills is to introduce a levy on the initial registration of horses so the horse industry can repay the Commonwealth for financial assistance if there is a future outbreak of an emergency horse disease. These are the terms set out in the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement, EADRA. Another purpose of these bills is to provide for the collection of horse disease response levies by persons or bodies that register horses and relates to the liability of the horse registration bodies to pay the levy payments to the Commonwealth. The bills also impose penalties for unpaid levies and provide for remission of any penalties. They also provide for the gathering and collection of information and documents together with a strict liability offence for failure to comply with an information request. The bills also amend the Australian Animal Health Council (Live-stock Industries) Funding Act 1996 to enable the Commonwealth to appropriate horse disease response levies paid to the Australian Animal Health Council and to repay the Commonwealth for underwriting the horse industries’ share of the costs involved in dealing with emergency outbreaks of horse diseases. Further, the bills enable the Australian Animal Health Council to utilise excess horse disease response levies for research and development purposes or the promotion and maintenance of horse health. The bills will help the horse industry fund its obligations under EADRA.

What do the horse industry say about these bills? They support them. The member for Page outlined in her speech a number of people who have written to the minister, and I will not repeat those names, but they are very supportive of these bills and also commended the minister for his response. By passing this legislation we would see the horse industry join other major livestock industries in the agreement. The bills establish a one-off statutory levy on registration of horses to meet the industry’s commitment to sharing the funding of responses to emergency disease outbreaks which affect horses. The consequential legislation allows the levies to be appropriated to the council, as I said, and contains other particular reforms.

All other major livestock industries are signatories to the EADRA, and the horse industry should be too. It is really a matter of catching up. The ratification was delayed by the neglect of the Howard government. I am pleased that in March 2008 the Rudd government postponed debate on these bills until the cost of the EI outbreak in 2007 was resolved. I have written to the minister on behalf of a number of my constituents who wanted me to tell their stories to the minister, to say how EI had affected them. I am pleased that the minister has taken the time to sit here and listen to so many speakers.

These bills will provide certainty in funding for emergency animal disease threats and certainty in terms of a rapid and effective response. As all the industry groups support this bill, so should those opposite. I hope that they use their numbers in the Senate to also support this legislation. The bills before us will have a big impact on the horse industry. No more do we want to see 6,627 properties infected and affected in New South Wales and Queensland. I commend the minister for the legislation. I commend the industry for their participation in these matters. These bills will deliver to the horse industry what they have been asking for for many years: a national system for responding to emergency animal disease. It has taken the Rudd Labor government to do this. I commend the bills to the House.