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Thursday, 1 November 2012
Page: 8852


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (16:46): I am pleased that Senator Xenophon has raised this debate and I congratulate Senator Colbeck on his contribution, which is detailed and comes from one of the few people in this chamber who understands biosecurity and quarantine matters.

I am in the strange position of agreeing with some of what Senator Milne has just been saying, except that Senator Milne cannot help herself—things are wrong, this government is doing things wrong, but somehow it is always the fault not of the Labor Party but of the coalition. Let me bring a touch of reality to this debate. If everything Senator Milne says is right, if the Labor government has been so poor in cutting funding and cutting staff, then why has she not done something about it? If our quarantine and our borders are in such an atrocious situation, why has Senator Milne not done anything about it? As she knows, it is the Greens political party in Australia that keeps the Labor Party in government.

Ms Gillard said before the last election, 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.' The Greens were at least honest and they said, 'Yes, we do want a carbon tax.' So after that election promise, the Greens went to Ms Gillard and said to her, 'If you want our support, you will bring in a carbon tax.' Similarly, the Greens went to Ms Gillard and said, 'In spite of your knifing of Kevin Rudd over this, if you want our support we want a big mining tax to address all those horrible, multinational millionaire companies.' So the government said, 'Yep, we want your support.' Ms Gillard said, 'I want to be Prime Minister. I want the power. So whatever you say, Greens, we will do, notwithstanding that I have made a solemn promise to the Australian public that I would never do something—for example, introduce a carbon tax.'

Let me ask the Greens if they are concerned about biosecurity. Senator Milne talked about the impact of government mismanagement and inaction on biosecurity. If they are so concerned, why do they not do exactly what they did with the carbon tax and say to the government: 'You want our support to stay in power? Then you will do what we say in relation to biosecurity.' But do Senator Milne, the Greens and Mr Bandt do that? No, they get up here and criticise a government that has now been in power, regrettably, for five years, and somehow it is the fault of the opposition that our borders in this area of biosecurity and quarantine are so porous.

I agree with a lot of Senator Milne's criticism—not all of it—but why does she not do something about it? I would love someone from the Greens to contribute to this debate and explain that. The Greens are able to encourage Ms Gillard to go from a solemn promise that there will be no carbon tax to introducing the world's biggest carbon tax. Why do they not do the same if they are so concerned about quarantine and biosecurity? If it is destroying Australia, please tell me why it is. Does this not have the same importance? Senator Milne says it is going to destroy all our native flora and fauna. I thought they were the Greens political party—would that not be of great concern to them? No, the carbon tax is. That is a big issue. 'If you don't go ahead with that, we're out of here,' Senator Milne tells Ms Gillard. Why did she not do that with quarantine and biosecurity? I would be very interested for anyone from the Greens to participate in this debate and tell me that. It is a pretty simple question.

From the coalition's point of view, we believe that you can have free and open trade, and encourage trade. Indeed, over many years in government the Liberal and National parties—who, I might say, represent most of the farming electorates in rural and regional Australia—have always been very keen to expand our agriculture production and our agricultural exports. In my own portfolio area one of the things that I am very keen to do, and the Greens will be totally opposed to this, is to ensure that all of that good mosaic of agricultural lands up in Northern Australia—the plentiful supply of water up in Northern Australia—is used to produce green and clean food to not only help Australia financially with exports but also help provide food for those seven billion people in the world who go to bed hungry or underfed every night. We have a duty to do that and I think we can do that. We can provide food for the world and at the same time provide employment and wealth for Australians. That is what the coalition has always been on about. But because coalition members represent the farming areas in this parliament, we also are very concerned about imports of other commodities that may impact on our clean and green image. I understand that if you are going to have free trade it has got to be two-way. The real benefit of free trade is that our farmers—and I will name the beef industry and sugar industry in particular—rely on the most free form of trade to make sure that we can export our meat, sugar and wheat anywhere in the world, and we do not want other countries imposing trade barriers on Australian farmers. That is why Australia has always been at the forefront of trying to get a genuine, honest free trade regime. But we will not do that at the cost of having to accept imported foods that are not subject to the same very stringent quarantine rules that apply in Australia, or should apply in Australia.

I can think of any number of occasions when government officials, perhaps under too much influence of the trade department, have been prepared to cut corners. Senator Colbeck, Senator Milne and Senator Xenophon gave examples where quarantine officials seem to have been overborne. Of course, under the Labor government, funding to Biosecurity Australia and to the quarantines services has been slashed so much that the bureaucrats who used to be there—the officers who could really look at these things—no longer exist. So you can understand why (a) there are not as many of them to do the work; and (b) under a Labor government perhaps they are overborne by the trade minister. You would understand why the agriculture minister has very little or no authority, and that has been demonstrated time and time again in this chamber—you can understand why he is disregarded—but that has an impact on Australia's biosecurity and quarantine.

But, I have to confess, that happened even under the Howard government. The difference is: because most of the farming electorates around Australia are represented by Liberal and National party people, they would not take that lying down. I could identify a number of examples, but the one that perhaps was closest to me, and it happened five or six years ago, was the banana industry. In the interests of free trade we were looking at bringing in Philippine bananas. If they meet the standard there is no reason why they should not be brought on. But I and my colleagues—particularly Senator Boswell, to give credit where credit is due—fought and fought and fought with the industry to show that the government rules, the risk analysis and the science that allegedly went into that were simply wrong. As a result of persistence from coalition members of this parliament, we forced Biosecurity Australia to have another look and to apply some real science to the issues involved. Once that real science was applied, it was found inappropriate to bring in the bananas that were the subject of that inquiry. As a result of that, the banana industry in Tully and elsewhere in Queensland continues to flourish in a clean and green way.

I might say, as an aside, that for all Senator Milne's protestations about how interested the Greens are in rural and regional Australia and how interested they are in farmers, they do not like to think about what the carbon tax is doing to the banana industry. Many players will be put out of business by the huge increases in the prices of electricity and refrigerant that are so essential for the banana industry. But I digress from the issue of quarantine.

That example of bananas was a good example of where parliamentary vigilance by people from the Liberal and National parties was able to force the authorities to apply the science properly, and the banana industry was saved. Currently I know the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee—and I again congratulate Senator Colbeck and Senator Boswell—are doing very good work on the pineapple import issue. Their perseverance, their diligence, their vigilance will, I am sure, ensure that the proper science is applied to the pineapple industry. Just last Friday I was privileged to be a guest at the opening of the new pineapple factory at Yeppoon, near Rockhampton. What a wonderful event that was and congratulations go to all those farmers and investors who put their money into that new facility with confidence in their industry. It was regrettable that the current federal Labor member for Capricornia, Ms Livermore, was not there. Perhaps she had a good excuse for that and I do not know but it was a bit disappointing. But I was pleased to be there along with Mr Bruce Young, the LNP member for Keppel, and Ms Michelle Landry, the person who will be the next member for Capricornia, being the LNP candidate. It was good to be there to get an understanding of that very significant industry. Certainly when you see the passion and the care with which the participants involve themselves in that industry you can understand why they are concerned about what the import of foreign pineapples might do to their industry and their hard-won reputation for having a clean and green image and for the wonderful product that they produce in that part of the world.

Again I give credit to those on our side who have been in the forefront of doing this. Senator Milne will get up and say 'me too' and also she will add that it is not the Labor Party's fault but all the coalition's fault. I can never quite understand the logic. They are in government but it is still the coalition's fault! Senator Milne cannot help herself and whenever there is blame to be attributed always it is never to her left-wing associates in the Labor Party. We in the coalition believe that you must have the most stringent rules and regulations. Quarantine services must be appropriately funded. Whenever the Labor government, as is their way, see a problem, do they ever do anything about it? No, they set up an inquiry, they have an assessment, they have a review and they have a conference or a forum. Certainly after coming into government the Labor Party did nothing about biosecurity and quarantine, but then they thought that they had better pretend that were doing something. Have a summit? No, they tried that and that disappeared without trace at great expense to the Australian public. But they thought they would establish the Beale review to look at quarantine, and this review, which was set up by the Labor Party, found it was impossible to escape the conclusion that quarantine and biosecurity agencies were 'significantly under-resourced, putting Australia's economy, people and environment at significant risk'. That review made 84 recommendations. Of those 84 recommendations made, as I think it was, in 2009, how many have been actually actioned by this Australian government?

Senator Xenophon: How many?

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Well, would one surprise you, Senator?

Senator Xenophon: Nothing would surprise me.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Eighty-four recommendations with one recommendation acted upon—and which recommendation was that? The recommendation for the removal of the 40 per cent rebate to our exporters, especially hitting new and emerging industries that have seen their registration costs go up by about 100 per cent. You might recall, Mr Acting Deputy President, that in the 2009-10 budget Labor cut cargo-screening resources at ports and airports by some $58 million and then new legislation by the Labor government in the last year or so moved 79 positions from airports, where they were funded by the taxpayer, to cargo areas which were funded by industry, so putting more costs on Australia's ever-struggling farming industry, and the story goes on and on.

I repeat that the coalition believes that the most stringent biosecurity standards must be applied for any goods that anyone wants to enter into Australia. We welcome free trade but it has to be on a level playing field. Whilst Senator Milne criticises free-trade agreements, what she should be criticising is not the particular agreement as such but the way it has been dealt with by this Labor government. You can understand why a government who can set up a tax like a mining tax that discourages investment but when the chips are down does not raise one dollar of revenue—so a government that is that incompetent—cannot properly manage the biosecurity and quarantine rules. So it is not free-trade agreements as such that are the problem but the way they are implemented, the way they are managed and the way they are administered. I think it might have been Senator Colbeck or it might even have been Senator Milne who mentioned the fairly recent beef imports that caused real problems. Unfortunately the Labor Party government had no idea.

Senator Xenophon: Senator Colbeck.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: So Senator Colbeck, was it? It might have even been Senator Xenophon.

Senator Xenophon: No, it was Senator Colbeck.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: The BSE beef was imported without any real risk assessment analysis. So this is what you expect from the Labor government.

It is an area of great interest to me as a Queensland senator. I have mentioned the bananas and the pineapples. Ginger from around Nambour and around Bundaberg, in that part of my state, is another industry that is under some threat because of the way the rules are being administered. We have to make sure that science is properly sought, properly gained and properly applied to all of these import proposals. I conclude by again thanking Senator Xenophon for raising what is a very important issue and I commend the motion to the parliament.

Question agreed to.