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Tuesday, 19 March 1985
Page: 425


Senator TEAGUE(8.24) —Senator Jack Evans has spoken at a tangent to the Quarantine Amendment Bill. As a Western Australian senator, he has made allegations about Toomer, a former public servant in that State. I recognise that Senator Jack Evans, like all of us, is moved in this regard by his concern for the utmost responsible standards of quarantine in Australia to protect Australian agriculture. Let me add that Senator Evans, speaking as it were from the side benches, in good faith has made representations on behalf of Mr Toomer, but that gentleman has already been able to present material to a number of inquiries, not least the Senate Standing Committee on National Resources, which looked at Australian quarantine back in 1978 and 1979 and to which all preceding speakers have referred. I happened to be a member of that Committee and I remember that Mr Toomer was one of 68 people who made submissions to us. He gave us voluminous material, but all I can say is that he did not win the confidence and support of that Senate Committee, which was neither biased nor prejudiced in addressing this matter but which was enormously concerned about the inadequacies of Australia's quarantine requirements at the time. Therefore, we listened most carefully to what this former officer had to say. I make the further point that if we are to join with Senator Jack Evans in sustaining support for that one individual at the same time we must regard the administration of quarantine and the Department of Health as incompetent and, indeed, we need to accept, which I do not believe is sustainable, the view that the Department of Primary Industry, in its careful surveillance of the basis of our trade in primary industry products, and the airline industry and the shipping companies are all derelict in their duties. I believe that the weight of evidence does not lie with Mr Toomer and that he has not been able to convince either the Senate Committee or, subsequently, individual senators in the representations that he has made.

In coming to the Bill, I note again the enormous importance of quarantine to Australia. Some six years ago our exports alone earned us some $5 billion. If there is a serious breach of quarantine, in the area either of plants or of animal products, we put at jeopardy an enormous amount of Australian trade. Without doubt Australia's favourable disease status among the trading nations of the world is of vital importance to this country's overall trade in agricultural products. Our freedom from major exotic diseases is a prerequisite for access to many economically important markets. If there were foot and mouth disease or bluetongue or a disease which adversely affected one of our seed crops, we would immediately put in jeopardy an enormous export industry, an enormous earner of revenue for this country. That is why this matter of quarantine and the administration of the Quarantine Act is of vital importance to Australia's prosperity. Again, it is not widely known in Australia that Australia is quite unusual among the major agricultural nations because we are the country most free from major pests and diseases. This not only allows us to have access to markets in every place for our products, but also means we do not have the dislocation and cost that other countries suffer in trying to eradicate such pests and diseases that would sap their agricultural and animal products.

As to the administration of quarantine, this Bill sees a major transfer of responsibility of plant and animal quarantine to the Department of Primary Industry. This has not always been so. The original Quarantine Act of 1908-an early piece of legislation of the Commonwealth, given the Constitution's placing of quarantine among the responsibilities of the Commonwealth-placed the administration of this Act with the Comptroller-General of Customs within the Department of Trade and Customs. However, quarantine at the time was rightly seen to be mostly concerned with human disease and so when in 1921 the first Commonwealth Department of Health was established it was natural, particularly after some research immediately preceding 1921, that this new Department of Health should assume full responsibility for the administration of human, plant and animal quarantine. From 1921 until this Bill, that Department has had the responsibility of all quarantine administration in this country. However, as other senators have noted, particularly since the Second World War, the priority for human disease and hence the priority for human quarantine has diminished and that priority has passed to animal and plant quarantine. So it is an anachronism, and I believe it has been an anachronism for at least the past 30 years, for the Department of Health to remain the department of government responsible for administering the Quarantine Act. I believe that this was an important factor in the way quarantine did not keep up with the degree of surveillance that we found was required when we undertook the Senate inquiry.

Although under the then Minister for Health the Government responded favourably to so many of the findings of the Senate Committee of 1978-79-I commend the Department of Health for implementing strengthened quarantine measures in Australia-it is now six years later that we have the acceptance of perhaps the most important of the Senate Committee's findings, evidenced by this Bill before the Senate which has our unanimous support. However, I make the point that when the government of the day responded to the various items in the recommendations following the Senate inquiry into quarantine the Minister referred to this major recommendation and referred to it with these words:

Proposals such as this which involve the location of responsibilities across particular portfolios are matters for the Prime Minister. I shall therefore not pursue the issue further in this statement. However, administrative arrangements as a whole are viewed from time to time and I am assured that the Committee's views will be taken into account when such a review takes place.

I am glad to see that that review has now taken place, even though it is six years later, and that we have acceptance by the government of the day of that major finding. I note also that there were two other major inquiries immediately preceding the Senate inquiry, one of which was an internal inquiry into Australia's quarantine arrangements carried out by Sir Henry Bland and the Administrative Review Committee. This Bland Committee inquiry and an earlier inquiry both found in a contrary way, and I am sure that they slowed down acceptance by the Government of the Senate Committee's recommendation. However, I am glad that the arguments as displayed, the evidence that we adduced for our finding which is set out very clearly in chapter 9 of the report, have now had their effect.

I conclude by referring to some parts of the arguments for the transfer of responsibilities. We found there were three principal reasons for making this proposal, and I am sure that these are among the principal reasons this Bill is now before us. The first is the schizophrenia in administrative arrangements to this time concerning responsibility for disease control within Australia as against responsibility for quarantine. This has been, and is now, a divided responsibility; that is, the control of entry of diseases or pests has been the responsibility of the Department of Health, even though that responsibility has been delegated to State government officers with plant and animal expertise-that is the case even with regard to questions related to human health-but the co-ordination of disease control once there is an outbreak in the country has lain and lies now with the State departments of agriculture and with the Commonwealth Department of Primary Industry. If there were an outbreak of foot and mouth disease the officers responsible would be State veterinary officers but the responsibilities would be divided as the responsibility for quarantine still lies with officers of the Commonwealth Department of Health. We believe that these functions should be better co-ordinated. Indeed, when the States sought reimbursement for their officers acting for the Commonwealth Department of Health in agricultural matters in terms of disease control they would seek reimbursement from a different department from that concerned with the administration of quarantine. The Committee saw that it was advantageous to have those operations the responsibility of one authority. So in this Bill we have a transfer of functions to the Minister of Primary Industry, and under him a Director of Animal and Plant Quarantine who will now be intimately involved with the processes of disease control as well as quarantine.

The second major reason for this rearrangement relates to the relatively low status of human quarantine as against animal and plant quarantine. I have referred to this transfer of emphasis from the early period, in the 1920s until now. It goes without saying that in those earlier decades there was a very real risk in Australia of immigrants coming in with smallpox, cholera or plague. The human quarantine stations were usually on islands in the port city and persons arriving on a ship who had small pox or cholera would immediately be isolated at the quarantine station. There they would gain medical treatment and in their isolation hopefully they would be cured of their disease and then proceed further with their immigration into Australia. That kind of emphasis has gone. We know know that with the short duration of air travel anyone carrying such a disease will exhibit symptoms of that disease some days after arrival. There are procedures now for the isolation of such a person in facilities such as the one for infectious diseases at the Fairfield Hospital in Victoria. This is an example of the relative weight of quarantine measures for human disease and those for plant and animal pests and diseases. Because of the change in procedure it is now believed to be much more important to direct quarantine measures at plant and animal pests and diseases than to direct them at human diseases. It is also true that there is still a risk that persons travelling will bring in viruses that may be passed on to animals or products which may carry diseases or pests that will affect animals and plants.

The third major reason for the change as we saw it related to the importance to Australian trade of Australia's administration of quarantine being directly linked with the administration of our trading arrangements. In most if not all other countries with comparable trading arrangements to our own there is this concentration of the two functions in the one department. As recently as some years ago the Department of Health and some others urged that it was important for objectivity to be applied to animal and plant quarantine so as to maintain to other countries that we were not reducing our quarantine standards to facilitate easier commerce or a larger volume of trade. However, no one has adduced any evidence, despite the veiled allegations that Senator Jack Evans has made just now, that that is the case. Indeed, no one in Australia has alleged that that is the case in our trading countries where there is this concentration of function. It can be very confidently argued, I believe, that there is such an enormous commitment in a department of trade or a department of primary industry to protecting the billions of dollars worth of trade in agricultural products that they will ensure that quarantine standards are very much kept and that there is no departure from the full integrity of quarantine standards and objectivity in applying those standards. So, for those three principal reasons, we urged originally that there be this transfer of administrative function in quarantine.

I note that in clause 8 of the Bill before us, for example, a priority is still given to the Minister administering the department that deals with human quarantine over the department dealing with animal and plant quarantine; for instance, when it comes to giving permission to a person or persons to enter at a place other than a first point of entry. If there is an unusual point in Australia at which someone is to be authorised to come into this country, the priority for allowing or denying that still lies with the Minister for Health dealing with human quarantine. In such an instance there would need to be a full achievement of the standards required by the Minister for Primary Industry administering the department concerned with animal and plant quarantine. This is one instance where there is an inference in this Bill of human quarantine still having priority.

I want to raise one question for the Minister and the officers advising the Minister. The general quarantine service as it is called presently and as it has been called in past years-there have been four quarantine services; human, animal, plant and general-has been responsible for the co-ordination at points of entry of the surveillance of persons and goods. Given that the general quarantine officers at points of entry will receive instructions from both departments, I am sure that there will be a co-ordination of the advice and requirements of the two departments. A set of officers, including officers employed by the States, will be required, having delegated powers from both departments, to operate a general quarantine service that meets the requirements of both Ministers of both departments. I wish to be reassured that there is a clearly thought through general quarantine service flowing from this important amendment to the principal Act.

I conclude with the welcome that I add to the Government's acceptance of the findings of the Senate Committee. I recall that it was the former Senator Andrew Thomas who chaired that inquiry. It is with some nostalgia and fondness that those of us on both sides of the chamber who served with Andrew Thomas in that inquiry remember the commitment he made and the way in which he led us in coming to the conclusions we now see in this Bill.

(Quorum formed)