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Wednesday, 3 September 2008
Page: 6981

Mr KATTER (11:27 AM) —I have praised the minister on a number of occasions for being in the House when legislation is going through—he always is—but it disappoints me greatly to have no-one here from the departments. Without their presence here, you are just speaking into a hollow, resounding symbol. In the state house whence I came, the head of the department—if there was legislation that concerned any matters within his portfolio of responsibility—was always in the house to face the music. Vince Gauci, the very wonderful leader of Mount Isa Mines for many years—he turned Mount Isa Mines around and made it into the very profitable company it is today—insisted that management at all levels face the music. If you made a decision, you would front up to the men; you would meet with those people and talk to them. It behoved you to do that as a boss.

Here, in this place called Canberra, senior public servants hardly ever front up and sit over there in that box. I have hardly ever seen a senior public servant sitting over there. Instead, a couple of junior-junior-junior people are sent along. It is beneath the dignity of senior public servants to come down here, where the people’s voices are to be heard, and face the music. But very serious issues are being canvassed here. In my opinion, the equine flu case will be won by the racehorse and related industries. That means that the people of Australia will have to find $1 billion, because they are going to be successfully sued because of the irresponsibility abroad at the quarantine station from which this disease got away.

Let me be very specific—I do not have permission from the senior vet to say this, but he is one of the more prominent people in this field in Australia. I am sure he would be only too happy for me to use his name, but without his permission I cannot. He said he went to inspect a horse at this quarantine station. Because of the nature of the illness of the horse, he had to feel all around the horse. He said, ‘Not only did nobody require that I wash my hands, but there was no washbasin or anything in which I could even wash my hands.’ He said, ‘You are familiar with dairy factories?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ For example, in a dairy factory you have to remove your shoes, put their shoes on, put on overalls which cover your entire body and put on a hat. Before you leave, all those things are taken off, put on the ground, completely fumigated and cleaned. Also, when you walked in, you walked through a bath of disinfectant or antiseptic of some type for your shoes. That is a dairy factory. This was a quarantine station—there should be 20 times those precautions. People could just walk in. He could have taken material off the horse—cut a little piece from the flesh or the skin of the horse—and taken it out. And some procedures would have required that he do that.

I have spoken on this again and again in this place because I represent electorates on the receiving end of the incompetence of AQIS. I have spoken in here about the black sigatoka outbreak, which cost us $120 million. I have spoken in here about the papaya fruit fly. There is a case going through the Queensland courts. The Queensland government should be utterly ashamed of themselves. That case alone has probably cost $12 or $15 million—so far. The government will lose that case and, as a result, they will be paying out a hell of a lot more. There was also the white spot disease in prawns. There is hardly any inspection taking place of the prawns coming in to this country from countries where white spot is endemic.

The previous minister, the current Leader of the National Party, has borne the brunt of my anger. You have to be angry with him—he was the minister who made the decision on the citrus canker. Material was allowed to be brought in from overseas after they had already had an outbreak. They had an outbreak at Emerald, and they allowed and licensed them to bring material in from a country that is rife with citrus canker. He made the decision to bring the grapes in. I think he did that—I do not think he makes any decisions on anything except for being told what to do by the public servants. There was a party committee of the Liberal Party and National Party, and I think there were about 20 people at the meeting that day, and there was not a single person there who did not criticise him in a most unrestrained manner for having allowed the grapes in from California in exactly the same month that it was announced that one-tenth of all of the Californian grape industry had been wiped out by Pierce’s disease, carried by the glassy-winged sharpshooter—a little animal.

They allowed meat in from Brazil—a foot-and-mouth disease country. If America allowed meat to come in from a foot-and-mouth disease country, the beef industry of Australia would be bankrupt tomorrow. If that proposition, which is so abhorrent to every other country on earth, was accepted by Australia then we would be bankrupt tomorrow. What if Japan had accepted the principle that Australia accepted? We are out there showing a ‘good example’. What if that example was followed by other countries? Other countries believe in looking after their farmers instead of being acolytes at the high altar of economic rationalism or free trade—that is their religion, not their philosophy or policy.

The meat from Brazil ended up on the dump at Wagga. I think, as we talk, there are probably wild pigs nudging around at the dump at Wagga. If foot-and-mouth disease had got into the wild pig population we would never have eradicated it in Australia, and we would have become a foot-and-mouth disease country from which we could not export any cattle. To put that in perspective, Australia has about 25 million or 26 million head of cattle and Brazil has 176 million head of cattle. If the foot-and-mouth disease problems they have were ignored by America and Japan, we would have had our industry wiped out in three seconds. We have set a bad example and, by some miracle, we have not paid the price for it. I pay very great tribute to Senator Heffernan and his very unrestrained criticisms of AQIS.

During my time in this place—I do not know what it is but it is probably 14 or 15 years—and my 20 years in the state house, I doubt whether I have ever heard a positive comment about the performance of AQIS in even the most simple, elementary thing that is required of them. And I do not criticise their staff. In fact, I get stories from a lot of the people that they employ. The boys on the ground are fine; they do the best they can. I have said continually in this place that it is very simple. For example, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the papaya fruit fly outbreak or the black sigatoka outbreak, which cost the Australian economy $100 million, came in from the Torres Strait. All of these diseases are endemic in the Indonesian archipelago—Oceania. They come in through the Torres Strait, where at any time you can go to any of those islands. Melanesians and people from New Guinea, on the Torres Strait islands, come and go as they please and have done so for thousands of years. They bring those diseases with them. We can stop that: 99.9 per cent of every single thing that comes into Australia from the Torres Strait goes through the Horn Island airport, which is the airport for the Torres Strait, or crosses the ferry at the Jardine River, south of Bamaga.

So you have to have an inspector at the airport on Horn Island and you have to pay the ferryman. If you had just trained up the ferryman and paid him, you would not have had the black sigatoka and the papaya fruit fly outbreaks. Those two outbreaks might have cost the Australian economy $200 million or $300 million. It was recommended that the cadmium levels in peanuts be raised to enable Chinese peanuts to come into Australia. I thought the name of the game was to try and keep stuff out so that we could look after our own people in Australia. We decided that we should have more renal cancer as a result of that.

Mr Randall —How about the horses?

Mr KATTER —This is at the very essence of the horse debate.

Mr Randall interjecting

Mr KATTER —No, this is at the very essence of the horse debate, my friend. You are obviously very ignorant of the principles involved. The honourable representative of the opposition is laughing. He thinks that is funny. But I will explain it to him, because obviously a lot of things go over his head. I will explain it in simple language so that even a three-year-old might be able to understand. If AQIS is not performing then you have to secure a horrific amount of money from Australian taxpayers. That is what this bill, the Horse Disease Response Levy Bill 2008, is about today. It is because of the continuous failure of AQIS that the taxpayers of Australia are up for literally thousands of million of dollars. Mechanisms need to be put in place to prevent this from happening.

For your information, my friend, here is where the rubber meets the road: the people who are going to pay will be a tiny little narrow group of people, whereas the whole of the Australian people are now bearing the burden of the incompetence of AQIS. I think to some degree that the National Party has paid the price for the incompetence of their now leader. They rewarded him by putting him at the front of the queue and making him their leader—which is a message for every Australian. It will probably yield benefits for them in Rob Oakeshott’s electorate this weekend. Where the rubber meets the road is: who pays for this continuous incompetence? Firstly, the government should pay because it is at fault in the administration of this portfolio. There has been a continuous failure of government over the last 20 years to pull these incompetent people into line—and I always use as my example Horn Island and the Jardine ferry. What is that going to cost the Australian people? What has not paying the ferryman, not having an inspector there, cost us? The equine flu—

Mr Randall —The flu!

Mr KATTER —Oh, it went over your head. Even though I explained it in terms that a kindergarten student could have understood, it went over your head. I am not surprised that it went over your head. That says something about you, my friend, not about what I am saying. If you lead with your chin, you will get a broken jaw.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr KJ Thomson)—I invite the member for Kennedy to ignore interjections.

Mr KATTER —Where the rubber meets the road is that 50,000 new horses are registered each year in Australia. If there is an outbreak of some description then the owners of those 50,000 horses will have to pay. The cost of repairing the damage of this last disease outbreak—isolating the disease and eradicating it—is expected to be $110 million. But I suspect that these people will not be up for $110 million. I suspect that they will be up for the $1,000 million that Mr John O’Shea and other leading racehorse trainers will be taking the government to task for. I do not blame the current government. The last government was responsible for this. I suspect that those 50,000 horse owners will have to pay not only the $110 million but also the $1,000 million. I would like the minister to clarify this and include a guarantee in the bill that we will not have to pay for the incompetence of the people at AQIS. They should have been sued over the papaya fruit fly, white spot, most certainly citrus canker, Brazilian meat, Chinese peanuts and fire blight in apples. AQIS should have been sued. I also think the individual officers that made those decisions should have been sued. That is going a long way, but there must be some punishment for the level of incompetence of the people who managed the quarantine station and allowed the equine flu to come into this country. If you expose this nation to the loss of $1,000 million then there must be some punishment that accrues to those who commit the grossest possible irresponsibility.

I thank Noel Chiconi, from many generations of horse lovers and cattlemen in Australia. I am happy to say that I have been associated with four generations of the Chiconi family and their great contribution to the cattle and horse industries in Australia. We cannot really run cattle without horses. There will be those who claim that you can, but I would simply say that you cannot.

As for the government listening to the Australian Horse Industry Council, in all rural industries we have a saying: the peak body disease. That is extraordinarily true. When any primary industry representative organisation goes above a certain level it becomes part of the government. It comes back and tells you why you have to accept a program—and that has again happened here. I could go through a hundred such cases, but time will not allow me. It was always said that the NFF stood for ‘no family farms’, because its policy was about corporate farming. Anyone inside rural industries of Australia knows that a former president of the NFF—I think it was Macfarlane but I may be doing him an injustice—went on to the Reserve Bank. People asked, ‘Was he representative of rural industries?’ I said, ‘He is representative of the enemies of rural industries.’

Here we have another organisation saying that they are representative. The pony clubs may be a bit bigger than the Australians Campdraft Association, of which Noel Chiconi is the president; in actual fact, the campdrafters are probably as big as any group on the Australian Horse Industry Council. He said that that they most certainly do not speak for the campdrafters. I dare say, if we went to the rank and file of every one of these organisations, we would find that they disagree violently with the Australian Horse Industry Council. We have asked the minister again and again. I remember when the former member for Gwydir Mr Anderson was appointed as the primary industries minister. Mr Causley, the now retired member for Page, said, ‘My first words of advice to you as the minister are: do not listen to the peak bodies.’ He was one of the most successful ministers in recent Australian history. He said: ‘Do not listen to the peak bodies. You will get yourself in all sorts of trouble, John. You will not be the minister in three years time if you listen to the peak bodies.’ The former Leader of the National Party and primary industries minister, the member for Gwydir, listened to the peak bodies. Three years later, he was not the minister. I knew what was going on behind the scenes: it was just put quite bluntly that he was no longer to be the minister.

He carried out the will of the peak bodies. That will is not the will of the people in these industries. They have had a free-market policy. You would not find a farmer in all of Australia’s farming industries—except for a couple of short-chinned galoots who had a silver spoon handed down to them from their grandaddy or something—who would think that the NFF spoke for them. Look no further than the biodiversity act and the Mabo act in this place. The member for Calare is smiling. I suppose he can, because he said, ‘Unless you change your position on Mabo, we’ll take the New South Wales farmers out.’ I must pay him tribute and praise him for that. But it was just a classic example of how the NFF never spoke for the farmers.

We would plead with the minister not to listen to them. We would say that, in this case of equine flu, the owners of horses that were registered in the last year in Australia would be up for $1,250 per horse. They would take the entire cost burden instead of all of the horse owners in Australia. But what we need is a fund that covers all of agriculture so that, when we have an outbreak of anything, the farmer will be game to open up. At the present moment, he is terrified to find out what the disease is because he will be wiped out financially. We need an all-encompassing fund.