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Tuesday, 19 March 1985
Page: 423


Senator JACK EVANS(8.08) —The Quarantine Amendment Bill of 1985 principally sets out to divide the responsibilities for quarantine so that the Minister for Health becomes responsible for and administers those parts that relate to human quarantine and the Minister for Primary Industry administers the parts that relate to animal and plant quarantine. On behalf of the Australian Democrats, I indicate our support for the legislation, legislation which is probably well overdue and which may in part rectify some of the problems which have been brought before this Parliament and the public over recent weeks, but which still does not go far enough to remedy a situation in which officers serving in the area of administration of quarantine regulations are subject to the sorts of pressures which no democratic nation or parliament should tolerate or allow to continue.

It is my hope that the Minister for Primary Industry (Mr Kerin) will recognise the danger which has been inherent, and which still exists, in policing the quarantine system of Australia as a result of what has become known throughout Australia as the Toomer case. I make the point specifically in relation to this Bill because it became apparent during inquiries into the Toomer case that the then Minister for Health felt that he had no responsibility for the primary industry of this country. As a result of negligence, incompetence or ignorance-my inclination is to go for the latter because of statements made by one Minister for Health-Australia has been at a very high risk simply because of a directive which has flowed through the whole of the quarantine division. That directive has been in essence-it may not have ever been in writing, but it has been very clearly understood-'Lay off the fumigation process because it is causing delays to shipping, and to aircraft and it is costing the shipping companies and the airlines a lot of money'. This fact was brought to the attention of the Australian Government right back in 1973 when Toomer gave formal notice of the deliberate cessation of quarantine ship fumigations in Western Australia.


Senator Georges —What happened to Toomer?


Senator JACK EVANS —Very sadly, Senator Georges, the result of that as far as Toomer was concerned was that he was demoted and transferred to a remote locality. He was subjected to a Commonwealth Police inquiry and was officially suspended from duty with a recommendation for dismissal or retirement, due to 'mental imbalance'. That quotation did not come from anybody who had any real knowledge of Toomer's state of health. The other result was a quite disastrous impact on his family and his domestic situation.

After the royal commission which followed that suggestion of improper practice by Toomer, there was a recommendation for an external inquiry, and the Chairman of the Public Service Board acknowledged that such an inquiry could be conducted under the Royal Commissions Act and, in fact, suggested the services of the President of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The Prime Minister of the time said that he would welcome such an inquiry, and the Public Service Board Chairman then departed, and the Public Service Board then claimed to find 'legal difficulties' which prevented implementation of the commission's recommendation. Instead of that public inquiry, the Public Service Board carried out an internal inquiry-which, incidentally, was contrary to the commission's view that the Public Service Board should not be allowed any discretion in the matter whatsoever.

The report, on 6 November 1977, tabled in Parliament, gave an adverse finding on Toomer. The explanation for the report was reportedly based on false statistical data tabled in the Parliament on 26 October 1977. That false data implied that Toomer and staff were 7.4 times more likely to initiate quarantine ship fumigation orders than Toomer's former contemporaries in Victoria-a quite disgraceful accusation, which subsequently has been proven to be totally inaccurate.


Senator Peter Baume —Why would it have been a cause for criticism?


Senator JACK EVANS —Indeed, that is a good question. One would have thought that he should be commended. But regrettably, the pressure on the Minister, the Government and the heads of departments from the shipping industry and the airlines industry was making it unbearable for people in areas other than Toomer's section to apply the law as it stood. That law was to fumigate where necessary. There are some interesting statistics, but I will not bore the Senate with the full details.


Senator Georges —What happened to Toomer eventually?


Senator JACK EVANS —I shall go back to that in a moment. Just to touch on the question that has been raised by Senator Baume, quarantine ship fumigations ceased at various times since the 1950s in various States. The only State in which it is now operative to any degree is South Australia. Since 1974, the ratio of quarantine ship fumigations per ships boarded and cleared on arrival from overseas has been 2.2 per cent in South Australia, and 0.05 per cent in the remaining States. There has to be a reason for that. Out of 13,844 ships arriving in a number of Australian ports, including Melbourne, Geelong and Wallaroo, at least 1,113 were infested with rats, despite their supposed compliance with international de-ratting procedures. This indicates an incidence of 8 per cent.

Let me return to what can happen as a result of the persecution of a public servant when he gets offside with heads of departments who, in turn, appear to be under pressure from vested interests.


Senator Teague —That is an allegation.


Senator JACK EVANS —Indeed, it is a suggestion which I think is implicit in what I am about to recount. On 15 February 1983, Toomer alleged to the Parliament that Australia's quarantine ship inspection had been deliberately neutered. On 2 May 1983, the Department denied to the Minister that there was any stated or unstated policy of facilitation, despite the figures I quoted earlier-facilitation meaning, of course, to make it easier for quarantines to be avoided. The charge has been made that the Department in fact misled the Minister and told him that Toomer had made a number of allegations against the Department over the years, but that these were unsubstantiated despite being subjected to investigation by a number of reviews and inquiries. In fact, there were nine inquiries in all. What the Department did not tell the Minister was that the 1975 Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration recommended an external inquiry. What the Department did not tell the Minister was that, on 18 November 1982, the Ombudsman confirmed that he was not empowered to investigate. What the Department did not tell the Minister was that in 1979 the statutory appeals body rejected the Public Service Board's adverse report and recommendation, which was tabled in Parliament on 6 November 1977.

On 3 June 1983, following on from the misleading of the Minister, the Minister assisting in Public Service matters stated that a further review at public expense could not be justified.


Senator Teague —Do you make the allegation?


Senator JACK EVANS —To answer Senator Teague, no, I do not make the allegation. The former Australian Labor Party Minister for Health, Dr Everingham, makes the allegation. He informed the then Minister for Primary Industry that his former Department had not disclosed the relevant facts to him. In fact, he suggested the formation of a joint select committee. That happened on 22 July 1983. On 25 August 1983, the Minister for Health (Dr Blewett) provided the Minister for Defence (Mr Scholes) with some information from the Health Department about Toomer. It is my understanding that the Minister for Defence was sympathetic to the Toomer case and may have-I put it no higher than that-recommended an inquiry, either to Cabinet or to the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke). However, I do not know whether that is a fact.

A very interesting thing happened on 11 November 1983. Mr Keith Potter, the former Chairman of the Promotions Appeal Committee of the Victorian region of the Commonwealth Public Service Board, sought indemnity from the then Attorney-General to disclose facts discovered as a public servant on this matter in 1979. The Attorney-General replied: 'No'. Mr Potter made representations to the Public Service Board Chairman on 1 December 1983. On 4 December 1983, he made representations to the Minister for Health about the significance of the departmental data, and the Department was asked to reply direct. Then on 2 March 1984 Dr Everingham informed the Prime Minister that he believed he had been deceived by his Department. This raises a number of very important questions. I do not intend to pursue them at this time, but I do wish to raise them. All the statements that I have just made result from allegations made by people who, I believe, are in a position to know and to substantiate those allegations. On behalf of the Australian Democrats, I would like the Minister to indicate during the debate on this Bill, which I believe is quite relevant, what action the Government intends to take on the Toomer case and whether it will hold a parliamentary inquiry, because we need to know the current attitude of inspectors. We need to know whether there is a blind eye approach on this matter of quarantine. We need to know whether there is a responsible approach by the inspectors.

I ask the Minister whether the Government will now give Toomer the opportunity to be redeemed in the eyes of his peers and in the eyes of the Australian community in order to ensure that currently serving officers recognise that they have the full support of this Government, of this Parliament and of the head of the Department. Without that support, implicit and explicit, this Bill is nothing more than a papering over of a very serious problem in quarantine administration in Australia. Will the Minister indicate now whether he will instigate an inquiry or take appropriate steps to establish the facts of the Toomer case? It is a very simple question. As I interpret it, the Minister has to make up his mind-and I am now addressing this question to the Minister representing the Minister for Primary Industry-whether he, too, will take the side of the shipping and airline companies in this country at the expense of Australia's primary industries and potentially at the expense of Australia's health.