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Friday, 19 October 1984
Page: 2038

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE(9.14) —Honourable senators will recall that prior to the adjournment last night I was indulging myself and providing some riveting listening. I was referring to the Biological Control Bill. In the short time I have remaining to me I shall move as quickly as I can to the various and obvious arguments in support of this Bill, which arises from the--

Senator Haines —There are no arguments in support of this Bill.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —I suspect that there are. The Biological Control Bill was originally the result of the problems of Paterson's curse, echium plantaginium or salvation Jane, depending on whether one wishes to express its values or virtues, or its detrimental qualities-depending on what it means to one's State. Management programs and herbicides have not proved completely effective in controlling Paterson's curse and, moreover, are extremely costly. During 1983-84 in Western Australia the State Government contract work for the control of Paterson's curse cost $58,860 in labour alone. That takes no account of the cost to individual farmers who did their own spraying, or the cost of the herbicides and equipment. The Victorian committee estimated that the cost to the State Government of controlling the weed in Victoria was $357,000 in 1977-78. In addition, it conservatively estimated that the cost of control measures to farmers in north-eastern Victoria was in excess of $1m a year. In addition, the repeated application of the herbicide 2,4-D removes all legumes, thereby reducing the value of the pasture and the nitrogen level in the soil. In hilly areas, repeated application of herbicides removes a lot of other vegetation and increases, of course, the problems of soil erosion.

The presence of Paterson's curse in pasture land can also prove detrimental to the hay industry because of the dangers of spreading the plant through seeds, and the decreased palatability of hay containing woody Paterson's curse stems. The Victorian committee also noted that some farmers could be seriously disadvantaged because the presence of Paterson's curse on their land meant that they could not necessarily carry out contract work with their machinery on uninfested farms because of the danger of spreading the plant, and the disease. The conclusion of the Victorian Committee, taking into account all of these factors, was that biological agents should be released to control Paterson's curse providing there was no evidence of possible damage to other species of importance.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, as the Senate may know, had started the search for a suitable control agent in 1973, and by 1978 was in a position to start a biological programe for the control of Paterson's curse, and was given the go-ahead by the Australian Agricultural Council in 1979. However, the program was thwarted by the actions of two apiarists and two graziers-I suspect they were both from South Australia-who succeeded in having an injunction imposed to prevent the CSIRO releasing control agents.

Senator Haines —A good thing, too.

Senator CRICHTON-BROWNE —The honourable senator thinks it is a good thing. I think this Bill will have the overwhelming support of the vast majority of graziers and farmers in Australia. Dr Max Whitten, Chief of the CSIRO Division of Entomology, has described how the CSIRO was to defend its position in the Supreme Court of South Australia in May 1982, and was told by the judge that a defence on the grounds of community interest would not succeed because the common law rights of individuals were such that he-Judge Zelling-would not grant a lifting of the injunction.

The CSIRO then tried to establish an inquiry, with the intention that its role would be to provide information and advice to help determine whether biological control of Paterson's curse would be in the public interest. However, no agreement could be reached in determining the terms of the inquiry, and the CSIRO remained subject to a permanent injunction, on the understanding that legislation would be eventually put in place which would enable the CSIRO to have that injunction lifted. On the recommendation of the Standing Committee on Agriculture, a working party was established, comprising members of State agriculture and primary industry departments, to consider a suitable form of legislation. Its report by and large forms the basis of the Bill which is now before the Senate.

The Biological Control Bill applies to the Australian Capital Territory and Australian external territories. Complementary State legislation is being prepared to cover the whole of Australia. This form of legislation was recommended by the working party for three primary and obvious reasons: Firstly, a national approach to biological control in Australia is essential; secondly, Queensland would not agree to a single piece of Commonwealth legislation, in other words, legislation that superimposed itself in the States; and thirdly, legislation in the present form would minimise the possibility of a successful constitutional challenge.

The Bill establishes a Commonwealth Biological Control Authority which will be responsible for advertising proposals for biological control programs, and considering submissions which are made in relation to them. The Authority will have the power to order an inquiry into the proposed biological control program. Provided the Authority is satisified that the release of a controlling agent and the control of a particular plant or animal will not cause significant harm to persons or the environment, or the harm that is caused is less than would result from not controlling the particular plant or insect, the program may be instituted. The Bill clearly states that no legal proceedings can be instituted which would prevent the release of controlling organisms, and also contains a clause which overrides current injunctions preventing biological control programs which may now proceed according to the provisions set out in this Bill. This will, of course, prevent a recurrence of the Paterson's curse situation, which, as I say, is the reason that this Bill was brought before us.

Amendments to the Bill allow provision for damages to be claimed where the release of a controlling agent caused damage, and this effect was known before its release but not taken into account when making the decision to allow the release of the agent or where the state of scientific knowledge in Australia was such that these effects could have been foreseen. Dr Max Whitten, in his speech to the seminar on biological control earlier this year, remarked that proving the public interest question could be difficult and involve the production of impact studies, economic studies and social studies.

An article in the British journal New Scientist of January 1981 examined the question of the cost-effectiveness of biological control programs. The article pointed out:

The cost of using sprays on enormous areas of land producing relatively low yields is often prohibitive . . . However, the search for suitable insects and diseases is costly . . . to justify such projects in money terms has not proved easy

The New Scientist went on to comment on the joint Industries Assistance Commission- CSIRO benefit-cost study of the CSIRO Division of Entomology, which looked at 12 pest management projects. Five of these 12 projects failed to cover their costs and the New Scientist concluded that:

A detailed economic analysis of the likely financial benefits early on may well help the scientists to avoid backing the wrong horse.

Of course, cost-benefit analysis does have limitations, notably in attaching financial values to non-monetary benefits. But I would make the point that the requirement to prove the community interest value of a biological control program to an inquiry, where this is called for, may well encourage beneficial examination of these sorts of questions.

The Bill also makes provision for emergency declarations of biological control programs. This is to enable the release of biological control agents in situations where speedy control of certain plants or insects is thought to be essential to prevent significant damage to humans, animals, the environment or the economy. All existing biological programs are automatically authorised under the terms of this Bill although any new developments in any of these programs must be subject to the Bill's provisions.

Turning now to the more general question of biological control, it should be remembered that biological control programs are particularly suitable for Australia because many of our weeds and pests are imported and gained a strong foothold here because of the absence of traditional predators. Furthermore, as I have already noted, control programs relying on pesticides and herbicides are extremely expensive because of the large areas and low yields involved. The establishment of a procedure which will enable authorisation of biological control programs, while giving maximum opportunity for discussion and comment by interested parties is absolutely necessary. The impasse which arose in the case of Paterson's curse illustrates the dangers of the absence of such a mechanism. Additionally, there is the possibility that someone may take matters into his own hands and, finding no legal means to release a controlling agent, do so illegally with unforeseen consequences.

Blackberry rust is usually mentioned in this context. While there is no proof that the rust was illegally introduced, Dr Whitten very succinctly made the point:

If the initial introduction was legal, it was an act of God or something, then one of his angels quickly recognised the opportunity and spread it.

This Biological Control Bill may seem a small matter but will, I believe, be of tremendous benefit to the farming community, both because it will, I hope, enable steps to be taken to control Paterson's curse and because it will facilitate the orderly progress of future biological control programs. For this reason I have pleasure in supporting this Bill.