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Wednesday, 19 November 1986
Page: 2519


Senator ZAKHAROV —On behalf of the Senate Standing Committee on National Resources, I present a report on the adequacy of quarantine in the Torres Strait area, dated October 1986, together with the transcript of evidence.

Ordered that the report be printed.


Senator ZAKHAROV —by leave-I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

The report concerns the adequacy of quarantine in the Torres Strait area and, in particular, the risk of the entry to Australia of exotic animal and plant diseases via the Torres Strait. As a result of its inquiry, which included a visit to Cape York Peninsula and a number of Torres Strait islands, and a hearing on Thursday Island, the Committee has made a number of recommendations which I hope honourable senators will study and discuss at a later date.

I thank the members of the Committee for their co-operation, and the staff of the secretariat, particularly Peter Roberts and Mary Louise Willheim, for their untiring assistance. I also thank the leaders and members of the Aboriginal and Islander communities who made our visit to the Straits pleasurable as well as informative. I seek leave to incorporate my tabling statement in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The statement read as follows-

On behalf of the Members of the Standing Committee on National Resources, it gives me pleasure to table the Committee's report on the adequacy of quarantine in the Torres Strait area.

The Committee's interest in quarantine goes back to 1978, when it undertook an inquiry on the adequacy of quarantine and other control measures to protect Australia's pastoral industries from the introduction and spread of exotic livestock and plant diseases. During that inquiry, the Committee became aware of the possible introduction of exotic diseases from Indonesia and Papua New Guinea into mainland Australia, and made recommendations for the strengthening of quarantine in the Torres Strait.

The Committee maintained an interest in quarantine in the area and it noted the Government's response to the report in 1980.

In 1985 the Committee received representations from Mr K. Potter and Mr W. Toomer relating to claims of deficiencies in the quarantine system, and the circumstances relating to Mr Toomer's retirement from the Commonwealth Public Service on medical grounds.

The Committee gave serious consideration to these representations and wrote to the Minister assisting the Prime Minister for Public Service Matters, requesting that consideration to a re-examination of the issues relating to Mr Toomer's retirement be given. In his reply Senator Walsh stated that he had re-examined the issues involved and had reached the conclusion that no worthwhile purpose would be achieved in any such examination. The Committee believes it has no further role in this matter.

The Committee sought a briefing from the Department of Primary Industry to clarify the quarantine situation, and decided that, although a number of its recommendations had been implemented, and the Committee's concerns were generally being met, the Torres Strait remained a high risk area and an inquiry which would look at the issues in more detail was clearly warranted. In May 1985 the Senate agreed to refer the matter to the Committee.

Early in the inquiry the Committee visited Cape York Peninsula and the Torres Strait Islands. Stops were made at Weipa, the former Heathlands cattle station (north east of Weipa), Bamaga at the tip of Cape York Peninsula, Badu, Saibai, Yorke, Horn and Thursday Islands.

The Committee met with local Aboriginal and Islander groups explaining the purpose of its visit at each place and inviting comments and questions relating to quarantine. The Committee was impressed overall by the co-operation and courtesy of the Islander and Aboriginal communities, with their appreciation of their responsibilities in relation to quarantine requirements and their willingness to undertake these responsibilities. The Committee found agreement within the Island communities that quarantine training programs should be set up for Islanders and recommends accordingly.

While it is difficult to associate these little known, idyllic islands with the spread of exotic disease, it is surprising, given the proximity of Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya to the Islands, that more exotic animal and plant diseases have not already reached mainland Australia via the Strait. Saibai Island, for example, is approximately 4 kilometres from Papua New Guinea and animals can cross at low tide. Papua New Guineans frequently visit Island communities and have a long history of trading and ceremonial associations with the Islanders. Traditional movement of people in the area has occurred from early times. Ceremonies and celebrations in both countries are attended by both Islanders and Papua New Guineans. They involve the use of traditional dress, including feather head dress, beads made from seeds and other items which could pose a quarantine threat. Pigs and fruit consumed at these ceremonies could also pose a serious quarantine threat. The use of outboard motor boats has increased mobility and the quarantine risk has grown accordingly.

Ships from Asia use the waters of the Torres Strait as a major international shipping lane, and refuse from these vessels, and animals and plants carried on board, could also constitute a grave quarantine risk. Conditions in the area are ideal for the introduction of potential virus sources.

A recent factor affecting the operation of quarantine in the area is the Torres Strait Treaty ratified in 1985. The Treaty establishes a Protected Zone for the preservation of the traditional way of life of Islanders and Papua New Guineans. Amongst other things the Protected Zone enables considerable freedom of movement between the Islands and Papua New Guinea. Customs, immigration, quarantine and health procedures are to be applied in a way that will not hinder the movement of traditional inhabitants or performance of traditional activities. Special quarantine arrangements have been made, including two new quarantine zones and some exemptions from normal quarantine of items for use in traditional ceremonies.

The Committee initially held some concerns about these new measures. While the new quarantine zones delineated the area more precisely for quarantine control, the boundaries of these zones need to be understood and respected by traditional inhabitants and visitors. The exemptions of specific items for use in traditional ceremonies could create a quarantine risk.

Quarantine awareness programs for Islanders have been organised, for example a regular radio program and bilingual leaflets, and in time new initiatives will be undertaken to inform visitors of quarantine areas in the Strait.

In the final analysis, the Committee concludes that the effects of the Treaty cannot be assessed for some time and recommends that a review of the quarantine provisions of the Treaty should be undertaken in four years. In the meantime it advocates an assessment of staff resources, so that any increased work load can be offset. The Committee also proposes the exemptions relating to traditional items should be kept under review, and items removed if they pose an unacceptable risk.

The Committee gave serious consideration to the infestation risk in Australia of animal diseases, in particular Screw-worm fly and Newcastle disease.

Screw-worm fly is established in the Papuan swamplands adjacent to the Torres Strait and can infest all warm blooded animals including humans. It is a major threat to Australia's cattle and sheep industry.

Programs have been implemented for the detection of the fly, and the prevention of its southward progression, should it become established on the mainland. The Queensland government proposes to establish a Livestock Free Zone at the northern tip of Cape York Peninsula, intended to control movement of stock and feral animals further south. In addition, a contingency plan involving the production of sterile screw-worm flies in Papua New Guinea should eliminate the fly in the event of an outbreak. The Committee believes these programs are sound and that they should continue. To ensure the continued viability of these programs however, the Committee takes the view that the detection (or monitoring) program and the sterile Screw-worm fly production program should be assessed.

Newcastle Disease can affect domestic poultry and free flying birds and poses a serious threat to the poultry industry in Papua New Guinea and Australia. It is endemic in most major centres in Irian Jaya and there is considerable fear that Newcastle Disease will spread to PNG. If that occurs the threat to Australia would be particularly serious.

A number of responses have been made to the possible introduction of the disease. These include scientific studies, establishment of flocks of birds at Bamaga which would exhibit symptoms of the disease very quickly, prohibition of movement of poultry, production of vaccine, and regulations for the importation of avian material. Papua New Guinea has also taken preventive and monitoring measures. The Committee considered these programs appropriate and endorsed their continuation.

Exotic plant and pest diseases from Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya have been detected in the area. For example, Citrus canker on Thursday Island and Black Sigatoka, a banana disease, discovered on Murray, Badu, Moa, Thursday Islands and Bamaga in 1981 and on Horn Island in 1984.

Citrus Canker is probably the most serious threat to the citrus industry. It was discovered on Thursday Island in 1984, an eradication program was undertaken and the disease has not recurred. Quarantine measures are in force to prevent citrus plants from entering mainland Australia.

Similar success has not been achieved with Black Sigatoka. The infected plants were destroyed, but the disease broke out again in Bamaga in 1984. The unsuccessful eradication program was abandoned and quarantine restrictions have been imposed. Banana plants cannot be brought from the Islands into Australia or moved south from the Bamaga area.

The reason for the failure of the Black Sigatoka eradication program has not been determined and the Committee recommends that plant quarantine measures in the Torres Strait should be reviewed.

There were a number of other areas of specific concern to the Committee.

The Committee received evidence that live deer are being taken from Prince of Wales Island to mainland Australia, without quarantine checks. These deer could be infested with Screw-worm fly. The Committee recommends an extension of quarantine to that island.

Quarantine legislation has not kept pace with the creation of the Protected Zone and quarantine officers have no power to search vessels coming out of that area. The Committee regarded this as a serious shortcoming and advocated amendment of the Quarantine Act accordingly.

Co-operation is a vital element of quarantine efficiency. In this regard co-operation between Australia, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia is of great importance. The Committee understands that the Tripartite Committee on Animal Health and Quarantine has not met since 1982, and that, as a result, studies of certain diseases, including Screw-worm fly, have not been undertaken. The Committee regrets this situation and proposes that Australia take the initiative and suggest a meeting should be held as soon as possible.

The Committee considers the movement of refugees across the Irian Jayan border into PNG of concern to quarantine. Many exotic diseases are endemic in Irian Jaya, in particular Newcastle Disease. Given the village lifestyle of people in the area, with dependence on pigs, fowls and other animals and the ease with which residents of each country can cross the border, there is grave risk of the spread of animal and plant disease. The Committee sees a need for the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Immigration and Ethnic Affairs to liaise closely with quarantine officers on the situation.

A quarantine system is only as effective as its enforcement and the Committee is concerned to ensure an acceptable level of human and financial resources is maintained. In this regard the Committee sees a need not only for adequate staff but also for adequate mobility and the Committee has made appropriate recommendations.

In conclusion I wish to thank the members of the Committee for their assistance and co-operation. I thank all the individuals and organisations who made submissions, or assisted the Committee in any other way. Special thanks are due to the Islander and Aboriginal Communities for their hospitality and co-operation during the Committee's visit to the Strait and Cape York Peninsula. I thank George Mye, Chairman of the Island Co-ordinating Council, who travelled with and assisted the Committee. I also thank officers from the Queensland Department of Primary Industries, and Commonwealth Department of Primary Industry who travelled with the Committee and were of great assistance. Finally I would like to thank the staff who worked on this inquiry, particularly Peter Roberts (former secretary), Mary-Louise Willheim (acting secretary), Elizabeth Mountain (research officer) and June Fallick (former steno-secretary).

I commend the report to the Senate.


Senator ZAKHAROV —I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.