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Tuesday, 11 September 1984
Page: 827

Senator SCOTT (Leader of the National Party of Australia)(9.24) -I rise to address myself to the Biological Control Bill 1984. The Opposition is pleased that this sort of legislation has at last come forward. It is the Opposition's intention to support the legislation. I think it is important to note at the beginning of this discussion, which so far as I am concerned will be a relatively brief discussion, that a significant part has been played in the drafting committee by members of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. The CSIRO certainly stands very high in the world of scientific research both here in Australia and overseas. I mention that only because it is reasonable to assume that its close involvement in the production of this legislation which seeks biological control of certain pests is likely to be constructive and certainly well based in the scientific field.

The Bill seeks to establish the procedures by which one can assess a problem relevant basically to the great rural areas of Australia-a problem that relates to the pastoral and agricultural industries-and then authorise properly developed and tested biological control. We have to establish in the first place that there is a significant problem which may be addressed by biological control and then we have to find an agent that is considered to be suitable for controlling the problem having regard to the various difficulties that can arise in the area of biological control. It is known and accepted that complementary legislation will be necessary in all Australian States and the Northern Territory. It is the determination of those entities to bring about that sort of legislation. This is absolutely necessary in order to have universality in the identification and application of this necessary form of control.

This legislation seeks to ensure that any biological control which takes place will be in the public interest and is not likely to be interrupted by litigation , as has been the case in the relatively recent past. I guess the trigger for this legislation was an injunction taken out in June of last year, 1983, which stopped the release of insects to control a plant known as echium, which is variously known as Paterson's curse and salvation Jane, depending on which part of Australia one happens to be in at the time. This plant is a well known noxious weed in virtually the whole of south-eastern Australia and has been a very significant contributor to enormous problems in the grazing and grain growing areas. Infestation can be controlled to some extent by intensive grazing but there are undoubtedly far better pastures on which to graze, and its presence can hardly be justified on that ground. In agricultural areas the weed quite commonly chokes vast areas of grain producing crops of various types and consequently makes a significant contribution to lessening the standard of productivity in Australian agriculture.

The injunction I mentioned was taken out, as I understand it, by two beekeepers and two graziers on the common law ground of private nuisance. Because that injunction was capable of restraining the release of a well researched insect to control a well identified problem, for some significant time we have been waiting to resolve the matter. This legislation does not actually set out to control Paterson's curse or any other specific weed or plant; it establishes the method by which biological control can be applied. It establishes quite clearly the procedures necessary to establish that there is a target, that is, a plant that is a sufficient problem to industry to warrant finding a measure for its destruction by biological means. Having assessed that there is a target, the release of an acceptable agent to destroy it will be authorised. Biological control in Australia has a relatively long history. The problem relating to Paterson's curse goes back to the very early 1970s. Over many decades the rabbit population, prickly pear, water weed and a whole range of other problems, have been controlled by this method. Indeed, control of the rabbit population was as important as being able to rub out a drought by other than natural means.

It is worth remembering that even though this Bill brings in the basic procedures and all the qualifications necessary for biological control, it still retains the basic scientific, technical and safety procedures which apply to such control at present and which have applied in the past. The Bill will not reduce the effect of the relevant Acts. By that I mean that it will not reduce the relevance of, for instance, the Quarantine Act, nor will it any way interfere with the relevance of the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act. That is enormously important because the environment would be the most significant consideration in an examination of an agent. It has to be examined with a view to its possible effect on a range of other plants and perhaps animal life. The Wildlife Protection (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Act will also still apply. I mentioned earlier in my remarks that complementary State legislation in all Australian States and the Northern Territory will be necessary and will be pursued.

The Australian Agricultural Council bears the prime responsibility for taking action and making decisions under this legislation. The Council will seek information from appropriate and well informed bodies such as the Australian Forestry Council and the Council of Nature Conservation Ministers. A legal entity will be established in the Australian Capital Territory in the form of a Biological Control Authority. It will be able to act on behalf of the other parties relevant to this legislation. Within the Act, certain things will happen before a certain line of action is established. In the first place, very importantly, public opinion will be very widely canvassed in order to ascertain a view as to the genuine nature of a project target. Depending on the result of that public opinion, an in-depth inquiry as to all the possible effects of the implementation of biological control in a certain area may be held. There is a capacity to appeal to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal over a whole range of issues.

At the conclusion of any inquiry it is found necessary to hold, a program may be declared and at an appropriate time the agents will be released. Those authorised by the program will be protected from legal action. That means that in that specific circumstance the common law injunction will not operate. I do not want it to be assumed that one is not aware of the possibility that there will be a few losses as well as very significant and probably widespread gains from the implementation of this sort of legislation. In the final result, as in so many areas, the matter of judgment is of some significance. But it is generally contended and certainly generally agreed that the range of disadvantages that stem from biological control legislation will far outweigh any possible and relatively confined problems. The Bill contains an opportunity for assistance to those who are adversely affected. That seems appropriate and is relevant to the matters I was discussing a few moments ago. Whilst there must be an overwhelming advantage, there may well be a disadvantage in some relatively isolated areas.

The targets of this control legislation are to be clearly and widely advertised . They will be declared before an agent can be declared. The agent will be subject to the quarantine laws and to other protection Acts. The Biological Control Authority, after considering information available and consulting the Agricultural Council, may order an inquiry if it considers there may be circumstances that would make such an inquiry reasonable and responsible. The final decision is made when the Authority believes that control of a target is in the public interest. It is ultimately a decision for the Authority and would, of course, be acted upon. There are circumstances when literally emergency action needs to be taken. When one considers what might be called the invasion of the lucerne aphid some years ago, one can see that an inability to take widespread emergency action, certainly over the dry grazing lucerne areas of Australia, especially eastern Australia, resulted in the loss of pastures and carrying capacity of quite enormous proportions. It set back the development of pastures in many parts of eastern Australia by almost a decade. So it is necessary to have a capacity to react to an emergency.

It hardly needs me to say that biological control of weeds and pests is regarded as highly cost-effective and is of enormous value to all those industries that form part of rural Australia. That really goes much further that the agricultural or grazing industries, because ultimately they are part and parcel of a whole socio-economic structure of rural Australia. This biological control legislation in its present form seeks to do nothing more than identify a problem. Having identified the target, it is necessary to identify the measures of control that would seem to be appropriate.

It can be seen that this legislation is of very great significance to the whole of primary industry in this country. It is a piece of legislation that has been sought for a significant length of time. It has been well researched. It concerns not only the Commonwealth but also the States and the Northern Territory. It needs the unanimous support of the agriculture Ministers around Australia I believe that it will prove to be a very successful adjunct to all sorts of other controls and aids to agriculture and to the grazing industry in this country. I commend the legislation to the Senate.