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- Fair Work Act (Question No. 1990)
Thursday, 1 November 2012
Senator MILNE (Tasmania—Leader of the Australian Greens) (16:31): I rise today to comment on the motion on biosecurity and quarantine arrangements put forward by Senator Xenophon. I concur with many of the things that have been said in the chamber today in relation to what has been the poor management of Australia's biosecurity and the ongoing list of incursions that are occurring in all kinds of ways. The Greens have been long-time supporters of trying to improve the biosecurity system. We backed the Beale recommendations, for example, and I have referred numerous times to matters for inquiry by the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, for example, on the issue of beef imports and mad cow disease, the Asian honeybee—I pushed that as hard as I possibly could. Time after time what we get are trade considerations completely outweighing appropriate biosecurity.
We now have a situation where nothing will change under the coalition either. The reason I say that is that there has been an agreement between the Labor Party and the coalition that, when push comes to shove, it is about free trade agreements. That is what the whole process is about—free trade agreements. No matter how many times you say that free trade agreements are not benefitting Australian farmers, that Australian farmers cannot possibly get a level playing field because they are competing against farmers who are not meeting the costs of environmental compliance or labour standards, the reality is that that is the case. We were told so much about what the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement was going to do but it was a disaster. It has not delivered for Australian farmers at all. In fact it has cost us a great deal. I just smile to myself and remember Minister Vaile talking about the 300,000 jobs in rural and regional Australia that were going to come from the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement, but they never materialised.
Exactly the same thing will happen with the Australia-Malaysia Free Trade Agreement and the Transpacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement, which is being negotiated now. Most people in rural and regional Australia do not have a clue that that is under way and that, once again, we will see the US come back for what it did not get under the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement. The issue is this: under a free trade agreement, Australia accesses overseas markets on the basis of minimal risk—'negligible risk' is the term. So the instruction to Biosecurity Australia is that if we want our goods accepted under negligible risk then other countries expect to land their product into Australia under the same definition of negligible risk. We are constantly accused of using biosecurity as a way of getting around negligible risk but what actually happens is that Biosecurity caves in and allows the import.
At the moment, we have not only all those problems that have been cited, including potatoes from New Zealand, but also a threat of the ginger nematode coming into Australia. For example, with our ginger industry, particularly around the Bundaberg processing plant with its famous Bundaberg ginger beer, we are prepared to threaten that to allow ginger to be imported with a nematode associated with it. Why? Because we are pursuing more free trade. It is a really stupid decision. I can say exactly the same when it comes to fresh pineapples. I worked with Senator Boswell previously when it came to bananas.
There is no use us fighting this commodity by commodity, product by product, because the answer is the same every time. We get done over, because it does not matter how much you raise the new science, under our import risk assessment system the new science, for some reason, does not count. What we have to do is challenge the import risk assessment system rather than try to do it with individual products, because we lose every single time. Each time we are told, 'It is negligible risk,' but the loss if that negligible risk leads to the outcomes that you might expect—the potato and tomato psylla is a classic case—could wipe out an industry. That is the risk we are looking at.
That is why the Greens have said it is time to go to the transparency of the import risk analysis process. We have to go to the scope and quality of the science used and the ability to upgrade that process for the latest science. We need to look whether the latest scientific evidence relevant to particular pests and disease threats is being considered or not and the adequacy of the risk assessment matrix being used by DAFF. I am very well aware that the rural and regional committee did seek to secure an independent expert assessment of the DAFF import risk assessment matrix. They wrote to the DAFF secretary to ask that that happen and that any decisions be put on hold until the matrix was looked at. Of course DAFF has refused that request, so we are back to square one. We are back to where we have been, and it is not going to be any different under the coalition because they will come in and, regardless of whether they are in government or in opposition, they are going to agree with the government of the day or the opposition of the day that trade trumps quarantine and biosecurity. That is the fact of the matter.
How do we know that that is the government's response? Look at how they have walked away from the Beale review. This has not received much publicity, but the fact of the matter is the government have walked away from their acceptance of and commitment to the Beale recommendations on independent science based decision-making, and above all you can see it because they said that they would accept the recommendation to enact a new independent and statutory biosecurity assessment body. One of the Beale review recommendations was for the establishment of such a body, but the government rejected it. First of all they accepted it but now they have walked away from it and rejected it.
They have done a complete 180-degree turn by investing that role in the powers of the director of Biosecurity who is in fact the secretary of DAFF. We will be back to exactly where we were despite the Beale review and the acceptance of the Beale review recommendations. The secretary of DAFF is going to do it. They are even proposing to dump the current eminent scientists panel that advises on import risk analysis. We are not even going forward, we are going backwards, and we are going to go even further backwards in terms of the analysis of the science. Not only is there a backflip on Beale's improvements to the scientific independence and rigour of import risk analysis but they are proposing even less in the new act than exists now.
This is at the heart of industry and environmental concerns with the new act. I think it is really important to raise that to let people know that that is where the Greens are going to be coming from in this assessment of the new biosecurity act. The Greens believe that, far from taking us forward and implementing Beale, we are going backwards to exactly where we are now, which is saying as far as Australia is concerned we are prepared to risk certain agricultural products and sectors because we want to pursue business as usual with our absolutely zealous adherence to free trade.
This is one of those really stupid ideological commitments from both the government and the coalition. They believe free trade is good and must be pursued at all cost regardless of any analysis. Why do we not have evidence based analysis? Has it worked? What is it doing for rural and regional Australia? There is no evidence base. The Productivity Commission had a look at free trade agreements and it said, 'Yes, it is pretty much as the opposition to the US-Australia free trade agreement said. We have to do the analysis. We have this mantra that it must be good.
When I was asked to address the NFF last week on the biggest problem facing Australian agriculture, I said it is the mindset that business as usual can be pursued, only let's do it bigger, let's do it faster, let's do it more expansively. As Einstein said, you do not solve problems with the same mentality that created them. That is exactly what you are doing. The most precious commodity Australia has in a global environmental when we are threatened with greater food insecurity is the fact that we have managed to keep ourselves free of a lot of pests and diseases over time. A clean and healthy ecological system is going to support agricultural production as other countries run up against food insecurity. We will all suffer the same consequences of extreme weather events and climate change at different times, but we will have greater resilience in our ecosystems and our soils if we have saved ourselves from these incursions of disease.
I am really passionate about this. We are going the wrong way, and for all that the coalition might bang on about how they do not like it and they want more money put into biosecurity, they are as bad as the government when it comes to the ideological decision to prefer free trade over biosecurity and to allow us to compromise our biosecurity in order to swing some trade deals, even though no analysis of those deals will say how those deals will benefit rural and regional Australia. If these free trade deals have been so great for rural and regional Australia, why is our manufacturing sector in food processing collapsing from one end of the country to the other? Why are we losing? Why do we have such a high level of mental health issues in rural and regional Australia? Why are farmers struggling to stay on the land? All of these issues point to the fact that the whole system as we currently have it is not working for the people who live in rural and regional Australia. How clever is opening up free trade agreements to get larger volumes of cheap imports into Australia to undermine jobs further?
One thing I heard in talking to one of the manufacturing sectors in recent times is that we have got to the point where foreign investment in agriculture will lead to the purchase of dairy farms in Australia being 100 per cent offshore. The purchasers will then buy 100 per cent owned processing facilities. They will produce milk powder and send it back to the foreign country involved where it will be rehydrated and turned into ice cream. The ice cream will be sent back here cheaper than the Australian manufacturers could make it. The upshot will be that we will lose even more food processing. That is the consequence of pursuing free trade without incorporating the costs of environmental compliance, biosecurity compliance and labour standards when you negotiate free trade agreements.
I thought it was pathetic to see the Minister for Trade and Competitiveness, Craig Emerson, saying that they tried to get labour standards into the deal but it did not work out. There are now two side papers in relation to that. It is not good enough. It is a philosophical view which is failing the country. It is failing us in rural and regional Australia and it is failing us in our environment. In the case of myrtle rust, I warned the rural and regional committee at least a year before we had the incursion that it was making its way from Hawaii and it was already on its way here. I asked: what are we doing about it? We were guaranteed in the rural and regional committee that they had a risk-management team on board, that they would be able to fix it and that we would know about it—'Don't worry, it's all under control.' It is not.
And look at what happened. It went from that flower farm to the Sydney markets and those infected flowers were sent from one end of the country to the other before anything was done about it. Then the excuse was: it probably was in the environment already; it could have come from a national park nearby; that is what could have happened—so it was already too late. And what is the consequence? We are going to lose massive amounts of our native vegetation because of that. Eucalypt rust is going to spread. It is already in the Lamington National Park and a number of other areas around Australia, and we are going to see that whole encroachment right down the east coast of Australia.
Biosecurity is not just about agricultural production, it is about the natural environment. We are now seeing a massive loss of our natural environment as a result of that incursion. In exactly the same way as the Asian honeybee, we will see the same thing happening when it comes to native bees and the cross-pollination that is required in native flora around the country. It is a massive cost to us in a biodiversity sense as well as in an agricultural production sense.
It is about time we got some hard-nosed analysis. It is about time some sacred cows got looked at on an evidence base, and that we poured money into what is precious—that is, protecting our competitive advantage on biosecurity terms, clean and green, protecting our own biodiversity and protecting our farmers by getting into these agreements. There are real costs associated with these trade agreements and with selling our farmers and our environment short. I thank Senator Xenophon for putting this on the agenda today.