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Wednesday, 29 June 1994
Page: 2212

Senator CHAPMAN (10.12 a.m.) —Last August, as a member of the Senate Standing Committee on Industry, Science, Technology, Transport, Communications and Infrastructure, I called upon the committee to include within its inquiry into natural disasters an examination of the impact of the then disastrous mouse plague upon the rural communities in South Australia and Victoria in particular. As a result of that, the committee agreed to extend its terms of reference to include that matter within the inquiry, and I certainly welcome the decision of my colleagues on the committee to do that. As a result, this issue was explored at length by the committee, and I am pleased that the findings that are tabled today in this first-class report have vindicated my stand in calling for more to be done for farmers who encounter mouse plagues.

  The report of this committee's inquiry contains a range of very important findings and commendable recommendations to which the chairman, Senator Childs, has just drawn attention. Those findings and recommendations cover the range of bushfires, earthquakes and other natural disasters which impinge on our Australian community. Without diminishing the importance of those recommendations—each and every one of them is of great importance—I wish to direct particular attention to the recommendations regarding mouse plagues because of the interest that I took in that issue.

  As I say, I welcome the recommendations that the committee has made with regard to the handling of mouse plagues and I particularly welcome the fact that these recommendations come on a bipartisan basis, despite a decided lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Senator Collins, for my suggested initiatives. In answer to questions which I asked in this place earlier this year, he to some extent treated the plight of those in the rural community suffering from the mouse plague with what I regarded as an unacceptable degree of levity. At least today the joke is on Senator Collins because we now have a bipartisan report which shows that the government, and certainly the minister, have not treated this issue with the serious attention that it deserves. If the minister had bothered to use the experience he claims to have gained while working with CSIRO at its research laboratories in Darwin, he may not be so embarrassed by this report today.

  The evidence in the report, which was given to us during our inquiries, highlights that it is estimated that more than $100 million was lost by grain growers alone as a direct result of the mouse plague in South Australia and Victoria last year. We, as members of the committee, heard compelling evidence from several witnesses that mice were in such large numbers at the time that the problems spread to other industry sectors, including pig and poultry farms, and affected people in rural communities beyond the farms—indeed, in country towns as well. I recall one witness telling us that farmers even found mice in the fleece of their sheep, such was the degree of the problem and the infestation of mice that occurred at that time. The old saying that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure is indicative of the problems currently facing our rural communities, as is highlighted in the report.

  The findings of the committee clearly demonstrate that the government as yet has done little on a national scale to assist the control of the outbreak of mice. At the time of last year's outbreak there was no identified group adequately equipped to deal with the problem. It was further revealed that since the last outbreak occurred some years ago, information about past practices and control methods had been lost or destroyed.

  On 3 February this year the minister responded to my questions on this issue by making the admission that the CSIRO had, in fact, forecast last year's plague but that the extent of the outbreak was much more serious than anticipated. At that time he went on to reject any move to establish a rodent plague commission, saying that he had considerable doubt that it would result in the death of one additional mouse. This remarkable attitude by the minister is in stark contrast with the committee's findings that more effective preventative and control methods can and must be developed.

  This government, as I said earlier, has been derelict in its duties to coordinate at a national level proper control methods. Had the minister taken the matter more seriously instead of, at the time I first raised it with him earlier this year, treating it as a laughing matter, farmers in South Australia and Victoria may have been spared the devastation that they encountered last year. I do not want to focus entirely upon the failures of the minister with regard to this matter because the findings of this Senate inquiry present many positive aspects which deserve due attention.

  The committee determined that mice plagues be included under the natural disaster relief arrangements, the NDRA, to award maximum financial assistance to farmers through the programs administered under the NDRA. This recommendation will lift an enormous burden financially from farmers who encounter future mouse plagues, as many are still recovering from the rural recession. Any move to help our rural communities has my strongest endorsement.

  A further recommendation is the establishment of a rodent or mice plague commission to coordinate and facilitate cooperation between states, particularly where plagues cross state boundaries, as was the experience last year. The committee has determined that such a commission would provide a national focus, be independent, report to state agriculture ministers, be funded centrally, keep farmers regularly informed and work with the Grains Research and Development Corporation to raise research funds. Such a commission would be useful in conducting research on mouse population factors and would provide farmers with valuable preventative measures. The committee has also found that there is a need for a clear policy at the federal level on the availability and use of strychnine poisons currently used by farmers to deal with mice.

  As I have said before in this place, it is strange that, after more than a century of mouse plagues in this country and with all the scientific advances that we have at our disposal, we are still reliant upon the rodenticide strychnine as the only effective method of rodent control.

  In summary, I am confident that the findings and recommendations of this committee's report will be welcomed within the rural community. But the problem standing in the way of putting the committee's recommendation into effect will be the attitude of the minister, if it persists. I therefore ask that the minister take due notice of this bipartisan report and its recommendations and, as someone who professes to have a background in scientific research, as the minister does, I ask him to take account of this report, look at the evidence that has been presented to the committee, look at the recommendations of the committee, and take action to implement the report's recommendations.

  In conclusion, I strongly urge the government to accept the committee's findings and, for once, to give our farmers a fighting chance against any mouse plague that might eventuate in the future.