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Thursday, 1 November 2012
Page: 8837


Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (15:42): I move:

That the Senate notes the Government’s approach to biosecurity and quarantine matters in respect of Australian agriculture and issues of WTO compliance .

This is a crucial issue. The concerns from industry and our farming sector about Australia's biosecurity and quarantine arrangements are ongoing. There have been several past Senate committee inquiries, including a comprehensive report from the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee in April this year. There are also currently not one, not two but three separate inquiries under the same committee into the proposed imports of potatoes, pineapples and ginger. We have also seen past cases relating to apples, beef from BEC affected countries, and pork.

This is tied in with issues of food labelling. Issues have also been raised in the inquiry of the Select Committee on Australia's Food Processing Sector—a very useful inquiry chaired by Senator Colbeck—which raises issues about whether there are backdoor ways for produce to come into this country and circumvent fair labelling requirements. Part of the problem is that our food labelling laws in this country are simply too weak. They are not just weak but positively misleading in the way that products can be described as 'Made in Australia' but they only include a 51 per cent so-called substantial transformation in Australia, which in effect means that you could have orange juice, for instance, that is 90 per cent Brazilian concentrate but, because of packaging and the water being added here and the final processing taking place in Australia, you can still label that orange juice as 'Made in Australia'. To me, that is entirely unsatisfactory. It is actually deceives consumers as they cannot make an informed choice as to whether they want to buy Australian produce. That, in turn, has an impact in terms of biosecurity concerns by virtue, for instance, of our closer economic relationship with New Zealand. That is a very important relationship, but there are concerns that, for instance, fruit and vegetables contaminated with pesticides could be imported to New Zealand, repackaged there and sold in Australia as a product of New Zealand. That was identified in the select committee inquiry into the food-processing sector, chaired by Senator Colbeck, and is very much a live issue.

It is clear that there is considerable concern among some people in this place that, as parliamentarians, we should be doing much more to protect our producers—and I do not mean protect in the old tariff way of protection but protecting our producers from disease and from their produce being contaminated. That goes to the heart of Australia's clean, green image as a producer of the finest quality food and produce. That is something that we must protect—we must protect our producers from pests and diseases that could literally destroy entire industries. Yet we see inquiry after inquiry into our biosecurity measures. We hear from witness after witness who can quantify the impact that an exotic disease will have on their industry, and sometimes the impact can be quite subtle. For instance, concern has been expressed to me by apple growers in the Adelaide Hills and, indeed, around the country that, about allowing the importation of New Zealand apples. New Zealand has for many years had fire blight, a disease that can be absolutely devastating for the apple and pear industries. Even if the disease has not come in, by virtue of those apples being allowed to be imported into the country, those producers are looking over their shoulder. They are wondering, 'When will the outbreak occur? Should I be making a major investment decision in terms of a packaging plant or planting more trees or making a significant investment decision that will require mortgaging my home if there is even a very small chance of that disease coming into this country through the importation of those New Zealand apples.'

We heard just recently during the current Senate inquiry into potatoes that zebra chip disease has the potential to devastate the Australian potato industry. We heard from representatives just a week ago—Tasmanian, Victorian and South Australian growers as well as the peak body, AUSVEG—about the potential for devastation through zebra chip and the impact it has had on New Zealand. We still are trying to find out what the true science is in relation to that and I do not think that the department responsible for this has considered all of the evidence. I do not believe it has considered the most recent evidence, which is very concerning when it comes to the potential impact. Even though there is all this talk of a closed loop, as Senator Heffernan says time and time again in the committee that he chairs, every human endeavour is prone to failings. The risk is just enormous of something going wrong and the risk matrix being used by the department really needs to be looked at. I know that Senator Boswell has been quite passionate in leading the charge in relation to issues around the importation of pineapples and ginger and the potential impact it has on disease. The question needs to be asked whether the current risk matrix used by the department is appropriate.

The question also needs to be asked whether we are drawing a literalist, purist interpretation of WTO rules in a way that other countries do not. I understand the importance of world trade. I understand the importance for a small, open economy such as Australia to be open to trade and be a great exporting and, indeed, importing country, but there must be a key safeguard when it comes to the issue of keeping our clean, green image in agriculture intact. That is something that ought to be quite sacrosanct, and I am concerned that the current risk matrix, the current resources being employed and the current approach to biosecurity in this country are inadequate.

I want to recount to you a conversation that occurred at the hearing. I cannot, because I am bound by an undertaking I have given to the person who relayed this conversation to me to not disclose the names of the parties, and it will not be useful for my colleagues to speculate about who those people would be, including the government official involved. At the hearing into the potato inquiry, it was put to me that there was a conversation between a senior official who had a role in biosecurity—not trade but biosecurity—and a potato industry representative. The official is alleged to have said to the potato industry representative—and there were a number there—that this is actually causing harm to our international reputation or that this does have an effect on our international reputation in trade terms. This has an effect through people around the world reading the Hansard and damaging our reputation as a trading nation. I will be circumspect in relation to what more was said, but, if that is the case, it concerns me because I would have thought the role of the department is, first and foremost, related to biosecurity.

Dealing with issues of trade is Minister Emerson's department. Of course, if one of Minister Emerson's officials put that position forward, I could understand that because it was coming from a department responsible for trade. But, if someone involved in issues of biosecurity is expressing a position in respect of trade, saying that this could be counterproductive to Australia's trade, I think that is quite improper. I think that is the wrong approach to take and it raises to me issues of an inherent bias in the approach. The people involved in that conversation know who they are, but I think it is important that that be put on the record and seen as an improper approach to take to that.

It reminds me of the remarks made by the head of the CFMEU, Michael O'Connor, a union leader who I actually have a lot of respect for. He said at an international trade forum for the timber industry several years ago that in Scandinavia there was a joke about Australia when it comes to the WTO. We are referred to as the 'free trade Taliban' because we take such a fundamentalist, literal, purist approach to free trade issues that no other country does. So I believe that the current approach to biosecurity and quarantine arrangements is concerning. In many instances we are told that it will all be okay and that there is only a small risk. But a small risk can have a massive impact. To write off the concerns of Australian producers, many of whom have been involved in the agricultural sector for generations, is unreasonable. To go one step further and in some instances to accuse producers of scaremongering is, I think, completely unfair.

Let us get back to basics. As a nation we are blessed geographically. In part our geography has enabled us to remain free of most of the major pests and diseases affecting production in the rest of the world. We have a reputation of being clean and green, and this is not something we should take lightly. In recent years there has been a shift towards the idea of free trade as the absolute, or it appears to be that in terms of biosecurity arrangements. It is quickly taking over as a priority ahead of protecting our own interests in countless sectors, including manufacturing, innovation and investment as well as agriculture. I acknowledge Australia's position. I acknowledge that we are a signatory to the WTO, but the query that I have is: are we taking too much of a literalist, purist approach to WTO rules to the disadvantage of protecting our clean, green image?

The importance of accepting products from other countries so that they will import our products in turn is often talked about. That theory does not seem to get taken to the next steps: what happens if the products we export become a biosecurity risk for that country because of a disease or pest that has been introduced through other imports? What would they do then? I look to my home state of South Australia and in the Adelaide Hills the town of Lenswood is well known for producing some of the nation's finest apples, pears and cherries. In July last year I went to a 200-strong rally in Lenswood attended by farmers, families, schoolchildren and, much to everyone's chagrin, even politicians. These locals were protesting against the proposed importation of New Zealand apples, which are known carriers of fire blight, as I have indicated. We know that fire blight is highly contagious. We know that it has had a massive impact in North America, Europe and of course New Zealand. We do not have fire blight yet but, despite the significant impact fire blight could have on our apple and pear industry, the import permits were allowed.

That is why I put up legislation, the Quarantine Amendment (Disallowing Permits) Bill 2011, so that the parliament can have the ultimate say, based on the science, based on the evidence, but this is such a fundamental issue that we ought to have a say on this. This is an issue that goes to our food security, that goes to ensuring that our agricultural sector has a fair go and is able to fight to survive on a level playing field. Goodness knows how difficult it is with the high value of the Australian dollar and the value of commodity prices for them to do that. We need to ensure that our farmers are not pushed to a tipping point of being unviable as a result of not having appropriate and thorough quarantine measures.

When we look at the issue of New Zealand potatoes which could carry the devastating tomato and potato spilled, a destructive drug that transmits a condition called zebra chip which results in black stripes and a burnt taste that makes potato inedible when cooked, I think it is important that we look at the risk matrix. We should look at issues that Senator Colbeck—who I note is in the chamber—has very capably raised in the Senate committee process about how the risk matrix works, to ensure that there is a risk process, to ensure that our own industry is not exposed to a pest or disease that has an irrevocable impact on that industry. The psyllid does not just affect potatoes; tomatoes, capsicum and eggplant crops are also at risk. Combined, these crops represent $1.5 billion worth of agricultural production in Australia. My home state of South Australia has much to lose should the pest enter Australia. South Australia produces 80 per cent of the nation's fresh washed potatoes and the industry employs 2,000 South Australians—a huge economic impact in my home state. But one tiny bug has the power to wipe all that away, and what is there to be gained from such a great risk.

We know that the Closer Economic Relations trade agreement with New Zealand includes a clause that allows other country to decline products if they pose risks to domestic industry. New Zealand was prepared to challenge that clause and take the case all the way to the WTO. Would Australia do the same thing if New Zealand refused to import certain goods? We will wait and see. In principle the CER is good for those countries but we should not let free trade principles stand in the way of protecting our clean, green image. Much more needs to be done in relation to the matrix, as Senator Boswell has quite rightly pointed out. More needs to be done to ensure that industries are not forever looking over their shoulder in terms of the impact of these pests and diseases, so that they can make long-term investment decisions with some certainty. If Australia did become infected with one of these diseases or pests, would other countries keep taking our products and put themselves at risk? I very much doubt it. One of the reasons we have such great success in Asia, in Japan and South-East Asia with our products is our clean and green image.

We are not just talking about imports. In June last year another Senate committee inquiry was undertaken into the eradication of the Asian honeybee. This inquiry looked at how Australia responds when we discover that a pest has already arrived. In this case the Asian honeybee was discovered in the Cairns region in 2007. Since then over 350 nests have been found and destroyed. This bee is a virulent pest, one that targets and consumes all available food resources, cutting out the native and European bees. It is also a natural carrier of the varroa mite, which can decimate existing colonies. The collapse of native and European honeybees in Australia would mean significant environmental impacts. It is not just the honey industry that would be affected, it would also affect industries that rely on natural pollination for their crops. I know that Senator Milne, for instance, was a very active participant in that inquiry and senators from all sides of the fence understood what the potential impact of this would be in terms of its environmental impact, the impact on other crops. The concern here was that it was the view of some experts that the Asian honeybee was not ineradicable. This decision obviously affected the way that infestations were approached and many who were fighting against this pest felt that the government had decided to surrender and accept that this particular pest was now here to stay

The process for dealing with infestation of pests is incredibly complex, but the question has to be asked as to whether enough was being done to eradicate this pest and whether we did throw everything at it. Even if it costs several million dollars more but the impact ensures that we do not have a multibillion dollar impact on our agricultural industry, that is a matter that needs to be taken into account.

These are matters that will not go away. The fact that there have been so many Senate inquiries into this reflects not just the will of the Senate to have these inquiries but also an ongoing concern that our biosecurity arrangements must be looked at more deeply, must be forensically dealt with and must have the adequate resources to deal with these matters. When it comes to WTO obligations we need to get appropriate advice, not just from those who take a literal—some would say fundamentalist—interpretation of how the WTO rules should apply but from those who are willing to push the envelope and say: 'No, we should not go down this path. We should challenge these rules. We should not take them as a given.' It concerns me that the approach of some in biosecurity is basically to fly the free trade flag in a way that takes a purist interpretation.

To give an example in an area not to do with agriculture, in relation to a question I asked today about wind turbines and wind towers, we have seen just recently that a number of companies based in China have been slapped with tariffs in the United States of 30 per cent to 70 per cent in relation to those wind towers. We are not producing them anymore in Australia, as I understand it—or the Australian manufacturing has shrunk to a negligible amount—and those very companies that were slapped with tariffs in the United States recently are now able to import into our market without any duty and without any penalty for the dumping of goods. Why is it that the United States Department of Commerce is taking a much more active approach to protect their industry from dumped products? Why are we not taking a more active approach in this country to ensure that diseases and pests are kept out of this country at all times, so that we do not make the same mistakes that other countries have made.

You really need to question the effectiveness of New Zealand's biosecurity arrangements, given that they have had. I think there is an agreement there from Senator McKenzie. It has raised issues. It is not a criticism of the good men and women who work in the ministry of agriculture in New Zealand, but there is a real issue there of why so many diseases have got into their country in recent times, particularly in relation to zebra chip disease. Why are we not taking more active steps? This issue will not go away, and it is an issue that requires urgent reform. I believe much more can and should be done to protect Australia's clean, green image in agriculture.