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Tuesday, 16 June 2009
Page: 6230

Mr BURKE (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (7:54 PM) —I want to thank the shadow minister for his presence here tonight and for the issues that he has raised. For parts of what he has raised, it will come as no surprise that I am not in a position to announce what has not yet been announced. Notwithstanding that, there are some issues in the public arena that he has referred to and I think it is important that I deal with those directly. The shadow minister referred to the government’s or my decision to end the 40 per cent export subsidy. The 40 per cent export subsidy was never established as a permanent system—never. When it was announced by the previous government it was always as an expiring program, and the expiry date ultimately for that program was the end of June this year. The decision that the government took was not whether or not to end the 40 per cent export subsidy; the decision was whether or not to keep to the program dates that had been put in place by the previous government. We made the decision, following the receipt of the Beale report, that we would keep those dates. Since that point there have been discussions with industry.

A great frustration that has existed all the way through on this is that, for $40 million a year each year over the past eight years or thereabouts, when you ask what reforms and what efficiencies we have to show for it, the answer is: not much at all. If I were to be asked, as I did have to be asked, ‘If I had $40 million available, what would I do with it in Quarantine?’ the answer is that I would want to drive long-term efficiencies and I would want to improve biosecurity at the border. It is no surprise that that was my conclusion, given that when I became the minister Australia was in the middle of equine influenza, when the horse industry, which is certainly not the biggest agricultural industry, took a $1 billion hit. So I do understand, right at the coalface, exactly what it means to have inadequate biosecurity protections at the border. That was the basis of the original decision, and from the moment that decision was made we began talks with industry as to what we might be able to do to help drive efficiencies. Those discussions are continuing. I am hopeful that they will close very soon, but they have been continuing.

The issue the shadow minister refers to about what would happen to any reform program valued at, say, $40 million if it were disallowed anyway is really a simple one. If we had disallowance of the new fees and charges and we suddenly had a $40 million hole in the AQIS budget I would have to find $40 million. That would mean that the reform program that hopefully gets negotiated—though we are not there yet—would be in deeply serious jeopardy. The shadow minister also raised an issue of time lines, as to why I have been so determined to get all of this sorted out basically by deadlines that we are approaching in the course of this week. The reason for that is simple. I have no level of faith that the National Party would not move a disallowance as late as August or September next year. If they did so and if it were carried by the Senate we would be in the situation of having a massive hole in the quarantine budget and of not being able to perform the essential tasks of AQIS. For that reason I want to do everything that is possible, and hopefully it will be possible, to make sure that the new fees and charges are put on the table so that they are disallowable in the course of next week. I hope that we reached a landing point with industry that the opposition choose not to get in the way of. I hope that industry ends up happy enough with the reform project and that the opposition is willing to respect the views of industry. But, if they are not, I am not going to put Australia’s biosecurity at risk in a way that the opposition have been threatening.