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Monday, 9 February 2015
Page: 98


Ms MacTIERNAN (Perth) (16:19): I also rise to support the Biosecurity Bill 2014 and the associated legislation. The member for Hunter set out very comprehensively our position. I note that the member who spoke just before me talked about how timely the bills were. I do not think we could really describe their introduction by the government as being particularly expeditious, because the work had been done, fundamentally, under the Labor government, and these modernising provisions were introduced in 2012. One would have thought, given the Abbott government's claim that they are very focused on the agricultural sector, that they might have moved with a little more expedition to get these important, modernising bills through. I do not think any of us would contest the importance of biosecurity, of ensuring that our agricultural sector is safe, that we can be a haven of food production and that many of the diseases that are endemic in many parts of the world, affecting both plants and animals, are kept as much as possible from this country. That will enable us to make a greater contribution to solving the increasing problem of global food supply, but at the same time it will also provide us with a great competitive advantage and enable us to market our product around the world as something that is clean, green and safe.

Quite clearly, the quarantine legislation which has been used in the past has been very antiquated, not keeping up with the degree of global interaction that we now have and, indeed, the science that has enabled us to provide greater scrutiny of these diseases and risks and pests that can potentially infect our agricultural product.

There is no doubt that we need this legislation. We have already reflected on our concern that one aspect of the legislation that we had proposed has not been continued with, and that is the proposal to create the inspector-general of biosecurity as a statutory provision rather than the powers being retained by the agriculture minister. Whilst we have an interim inspector-general, which the Minister for Agriculture says he is happy with, that person will continue to operate in a position that is under direction. The reviews that were done made strong recommendations about this being an independent position with full statutory authority. We think this is an unfortunate dumbing down of the protective infrastructure. The independence that perhaps would have seen some more appropriate action has now been lost.

I want to use this as an opportunity to again express my concern at the conduct of the Department of Agriculture in relation to the Western Australian biotech company Serana. In the past, I have set out the circumstances of how the cavalier attitude—that is probably the best way to describe it—of the Department of Agriculture affected this very successful Western Australian company, which employed 16 Western Australians in regional WA, had a turnover of $20 million a year and growing, and were about to double the size of their business and employment in creating new biotechnical products. Through this most unfortunate set of circumstances, they have been hounded out of Western Australia. I can assure you that we have not yet heard the end of this.

I was very interested to see the answers to questions I got in parliament. I am pleased that I actually have some answers. There are some ministers who fundamentally refuse to answer any questions. The inquiry, which has achieved absolutely nothing, other than to close the company down, has not been able to produce one piece of evidence that any product was brought into Australia unlawfully or that the company had used anything other than Australian bovine serum. It has cost so far—not counting any staff overtime; just pure add-on costs—in the order of $235,000. Legal fees alone are $220,000. There were 20 return airfares to Perth from the eastern states. It is very curious. We have a presence for the federal Department of Agriculture in Western Australia. Indeed, they have been routinely, every six months, auditing the performance of Serana and every audit has proved satisfactory. If you look at the scoring rate of Serana, you will see that it has continually improved. It went from 93 per cent to 95 per cent to 97 per cent—a quite extraordinary compliance performance. The people who were monitoring this company—they monitor all biotech companies—were very happy with their performance.

For reasons that we have still not had explained, we find that the gentleman who was engaged in the investigation started with the department only a few months before the investigation started. Guess what: as soon as we started asking questions, the gentleman left the department. He appeared like a supernova on the landscape, came in, charged off, closed the company down and then moved on. We now find that he was not a general investigations officer; he was an investigations officer for the Central East region. We ask: how was this gentleman selected to be the one who was going to do an investigation into a Western Australian company? Put aside all the logistics of this, such as flying teams of people over from the east to Western Australia. Why was this person, whose job was in the Central East, given the investigation in Western Australia? Bear in mind that there is considerable evidence that behind the inquiry have been complaints and the conduct of a competitor that has ruthlessly gone in, in our view, to bring down the Western Australian company.

The company announced that it was no longer going to operate in Western Australia, notwithstanding the facts that there had been no finding against it and that all 64 tests of its bovine serum had proved that it was not illegally imported; it had Australian or New Zealand provenance. Nevertheless, the campaign of harassment continued until the company announced it was closing down. A short time after that, the competitor went in and signed contracts with the suppliers who formerly supplied the company. I think there is something incredibly dodgy about this.

I am very concerned about the conduct of the minister in this. When this matter first came to my attention I presumed, quite rightly, that a minister could not be expected to have known about this, and so I simply wrote to him, outlining the circumstances and asking if he could undertake an investigation. Unfortunately, I did not realise at that time that it had already been raised with him. The minister's office sought to dissuade us from following up on this inquiry, which we did not. It seems to me from all the statements that have been made by the minister, that he has just completely lacked the ability to scrutinise independently or to exercise any independent judgement about this matter and to see the manifest injustice of what has happened to this company, Serana.

Again, going back to biosecurity: one of the things that is truly appalling here is the claim that, 'We were scared that these people were bringing in product that came from banned countries and could have had foot-and-mouth disease. We were really concerned'. So they came in, tied up the whole premises—even those things that have nothing to do with bovine serum—and then they did not test it. They just left it there. It was left there for a couple of months. There was no testing done. It was not until this matter went before the Federal Court and the Federal Court absolutely lambasted the department and the way they conducted themselves, and their failure to conduct any test, that they then went off and tested this product that they were allegedly so concerned about. They were allegedly so concerned about foot-and-mouth disease, but had this stuff in quarantine for two months and failed to do any testing of the product. They said, 'Oh, it was quite hard to test the product.' But, of course, once the Federal Court judge had reflected so negatively upon the department, they actually found, 'Oh, we can get the product tested in New South Wales. Oh yeah, we'll get it tested.' They had it tested and, of course, it proved that there was no evidence whatsoever that this material had been brought in from companies that were banned from the importation of this product.

So here is this company that has absolutely dedicated itself to creating a great Australian business, and they have been systematically disadvantaged and dealt with appallingly by the Department of Agriculture and Food and, I do say, by the minister. I am very concerned that in a media interview the minister alleged that these people had been importing this product when in fact he has absolutely no evidence that that is the case and that the evidence is to the contrary.

Our pursuit of this matter is not going to go away. Our end objective is to try to persuade this company to return to Western Australia and to re-establish their business. We are working really hard to try to secure that outcome. But, of course, they are not prepared to come back until the department of agriculture are prepared to acknowledge that they have got this wrong or, indeed, are prepared to acknowledge that this company will be treated decently in the future. One of the very alarming aspects of this is how, at the same time that this investigation was going on, there was a whole range of matters of Customs that were used. This company, that had been importing various plastic tabs for five years to use on their product, suddenly had those things held up in Customs. It would appear that across a number of related entities within this there was a concerted campaign of harassment, designed to intimidate this company and to make them realise that there was no place for them to operate.

We have put all these matters before the ombudsman, who is taking quite some time to complete a report on this matter. But regardless, you can rest assured that we are not going to let this matter go. This has been a gross injustice and has led to—as I said—16 people in Bunbury losing their fantastic jobs— (Time expired)