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Tuesday, 19 November 2002
Page: 6739

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (3:54 PM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

On the wall of the new National Museum in Canberra is a large electronic map of Australia. It shows graphically the threat we face from insecure borders and unwanted entries.

It is not a story of desperate people on leaky boats seeking a better life in Australia. It is the story of weeds and feral animals.

The map tracks the rapid spread of several introduced species across Australia. It shows how in the space of 40 years, or 20 or even 10, some species have become so widespread that they will now never disappear from the Australian continent.

The IUCN has said, “The impacts of alien invasive species are immense, insidious, and usually irreversible. They may be as damaging to native species and ecosystems on a global scale as the loss and degradation of habitats”.

Introduced species are capable of rapid and devastating colonisation of Australia. We all know the worst offenders, particularly the feral animals such as cane toads, foxes and rabbits. Cane toads are at the doors of Kakadu. Foxes have reached Tasmania for the first time. Queensland is in a desperate battle to eradicate the fire ant before it establishes itself. Those who live in sugar country may know of pasture grass weeds such as hymenachne, which in the space of a decade has become one of the major weed problems in Australia, choking watercourses in the coastal lowland tropics.

There are a number of ways of defining invasive species and a number of problems associated with those definitions. In introducing this bill, the Democrats recognise that questions of what is natural and what is invasive are legitimate and extremely difficult questions to resolve.

I want to acknowledge these difficulties, but also acknowledge that there needs to be a workable definition of an invasive species. The definition I am using is “a non-indigenous species that has been introduced into Australia and, either directly or indirectly threatens, will threaten or is likely to threaten, the survival, abundance or evolutionary development of a native species, ecological community, ecosystem or agricultural commodity”.

Recently, the Prime Minister's Science Innovation and Engineering Council reiterated what a number of Australian and international scientists have said previously—invasive species are one of the most serious environmental problems in Australia.

The priority actions identified in National Objectives and Targets for Biodiversity Conservation 2001-2005 (Environment Australia 2001) included:

1. Protect and restore native vegetation and terrestrial ecosystems

2. Protect and restore freshwater ecosystems

3. Protect and restore marine and estuarine ecosystems

4. Control invasive species.

It is notable that the control of invasive species rates above the control of salinity—a problem for which there is now a national approach and significant funding.

In fact, while invasive species have become increasingly prominent in the scientific and NGO areas and increasingly recognised by governments, there is still little awareness in the public of the extent of the problem, the sources of the problem and the potential solutions. There is still far too little funding, far too few successes and far too little public education.

For instance, although most invasive weed problems derive from ornamental plants sold by the nursery trade to gardeners all over Australia, it is a rare nursery that alerts the buying public to the dangers of non-native plants. Or one that provides instructions on preventing the release into the wild of plants you may be putting in your backyard.

It is now well documented that invasive species cost Australia over $3 billion dollars a year. That figure represents the costs to the agricultural and rural sector, and includes both lost production, lower yield, downgrading of grains and the cost of management and control.

That figure doesn't include all the costs associated with introduced invasive species. It doesn't for instance include the costs associated with introduced marine species—an area of increasing concern and major damage.

What that figure also doesn't include are the environmental costs of invasive species. It doesn't include the loss of productivity of wetlands and waterways because of invasive aquatic plants such as hymenachne—a pasture grass introduced by the Queensland Department of Primary industries and still promoted by some in that department. Or para grass; or African lilys or mimosa pigra, all of which have run riot in the nation's waters.

The costs don't include the loss of Australia's unique flora and fauna as highly aggressive species with no natural predators are let loose upon the Australian landscape.

Garnett and Crowley (2000) estimated that 16 birds are threatened or vulnerable due to weeds. The PMSIEC Report estimated 9,600 species of birds at risk.

PMSIEC also estimated that some 4-10 native plant species are at risk from every serious weed.

As the IUCN noted, “the ecological cost is the irretrievable loss of native species and ecosystems”.

The losses associated with animal species such as foxes are relatively obvious as they prey on a variety of native species, including native predators. Weed species are more insidious. They can outgrow and outcompete native species. Their spread can be rapid and silent. The plants themselves can be beautiful. They can displace native species of plants—removing food sources, habitat or nesting areas. They can create habitat or food for other species—altering the dynamic that exists in a particular area. They can simply smother habitats—creating a monoculture or a desert.

Every State has numerous examples of invasive species that threaten biodiversity, health, food production or some other aspect of the Australian landscape and culture.

The statistics in relation to invasive species are frightening.

· There are 32,000 exotic plant species in Australia.

· More than 2,700 varieties of weed have become established in Australia.

· Of the 2,700 plants naturalised in Australia, only around 1% are nationally listed weeds that have measures in place for their control.

· There are 336 declared noxious weeds and over 10 new exotic plant species become established each year.

· The rate of weed incursions has doubled over the last 100 years.

· More than 15 million hectares of grazing lands and natural ecosystems are badly affected by weeds alone.

· Of the 32,000 species introduced into Australia, 96.5% are intentionally cultivated.

· Most established environmental weeds are also intentional introductions—most are ornamental plants species, from nurseries and backyard gardens. 7% are agricultural varieties.

· There are about 20 species of introduced mammals in Australia, 25 species of birds, one amphibian and 19 freshwater fish.

· There are about 500 introduced invertebrate species.

· There are more than 250 introduced marine pests and one in 6 introduced marine species is a pest or is predicted to become a pest.

· About 150 million tonnes of ballast water is discharged into Australian waters every year. One study found 67 different species in the ballast tanks of only 23 bulk cargo carriers. The extent of the marine problem is demonstrated by the explosion in the number of northern pacific seastar in Port Phillip Bay. The first few seastar were introduced in the early 1990s. The population is now believed to be about 100 million.

This is the real border protection issue in Australia.

Invasives are the primary environmental problem in our national parks. Invasives are the primary problem in urban bushland and reserves. Invasives have been identified by farmers as their number one on-farm issue.

The problem of invasives is also latent. Many non-indigenous species are sleepers—species already in the country—in gardens, aviaries, aquariums, on farms and plantations—simply waiting circumstances or conditions that will propel it into the wild.

The problems of invasives are well recognised. In the last few years, increasing funding and attention have been given to invasives. There is a National Weeds Program as part of the NHT. There is a CRC for Weeds. There is Weedbusters Week. There are native nursery programs in many cities and states. There is formal recognition of weeds of national significance, although the State of the Environment Report 2001 noted that, “Considering the number of environmental weeds in Australia, and the potential threat posed by `sleeper weeds', there is some concern that focusing resources on a small number of nationally significant species may not be the best approach”.

There is an increasingly stringent risk assessment for potential new imports of plants and animals that attempts to prevent the introduction into Australia of new invasives, but risk assessment is not foolproof and does not ensure that new introductions won't become major invasive problems.

States struggle to keep up with the new species that find their way to Australia. The fire ant, found in Queensland earlier this year, has been an example of rapid and dedicated response to a major invasive threat. Over $123 million dollars has been budgeted for eradication of the ant. Despite the speed of the response and the cooperative approach taken, success is by no means guaranteed. If it fails, the federal government has estimated that the costs will rise to $6.7 billion.

The reality is that for most invasives, including new ones, we are not prepared, we do not fund rapid response and eradication and we are not capable of preventing the continuing introduction and release of new invasive species.

The current regulatory framework is not adequate to prevent, eradicate and control invasive species in Australia. It is that simple. The reliance on voluntary measures—such as that in place for the nursery industry—hasn't worked. The reliance on ad hoc measures—NHT funding for instance— hasn't worked.

There is no doubt that there is the will and the expertise to deal with the issue, but not the willingness to manage and regulate this at a national level. It is time that we recognised that this is a national issue. It is a national issue because of the scope and cost of the problem. It is a national issue because the majority of invasives arrive in Australia from overseas—an area of exclusive federal jurisdiction. It is a national issue because invasives know no boundaries—they cross state lines, on food, in the air, in water, on the bottoms of shoes and tires and boats. It is a national issue because this problem cannot be addressed at a state level no matter how well intentioned and informed. There must be a consistent and coordinated approach, which can only occur through a national structure.

The Convention on Biological Diversity states as one of its goals for contracting parties to “Prevent the introduction of, control or eradicate those alien species which threaten ecosystems, habitats or species”. Those three levels—prevention, eradication, control—are at the heart of the Democrats' bill.

Outline of Provisions of the Bill

The bill primarily aims to prevent the introduction of further species in Australia and to eradicate or control those already here.

Subdivision A contains the main categories of invasive species. The listing of invasive species, which is set out in section 266AA, is to be determined by the Minister or relevant agency to be species Prohibited for Import, Permitted for Import and Currently in Australia.

Under section 266AB the categories of invasive species are a species permitted for import, a species prohibited from import and listing of invasive species already present in Australia for management purposes.

A species is Permitted for Import if:

· it is not listed as a prohibited import, and

· it has been assessed as representing a low risk in Australia of threatening a native species, ecological community, ecosystem or agricultural commodity, and

· the Minister with advice from the Invasive Species Advisory Committee (ISAC) is of the opinion that there exists adequate risk management strategies in place to prevent the species from becoming a threat.

A species is a Prohibited Import if it falls under any of the following:

· pasture grasses,

· ornamental plants,

· aquarium fish, or

· any other species determined by the Minister.

As I have said, these are the categories of invasive species most common in Australia. For instance, in relation to plants, the vast majority of invasive plant species are ornamental plants originally sold by nurseries. There are already thousands of introduced plant varieties in Australia and it is the view of the Democrats that additional varieties cannot be justified.

Those species currently in Australia will be deemed either:

· Eradicable,

· Substantially containable,

· Beyond eradication, or

· Controlled.

It is the intention of the legislation that species that can be eradicated are eradicated. There is no point in spending millions of dollars in an eradication campaign that isn't going to work. For instance, no one is arguing for an eradication of the cane toad—there are many arguing for management and control approaches that will protect ecosystems, species and habitats under most severe threat from cane toads.

This prioritising of management will occur on the advice of the ISAC.

Under the bill, there is recognition that many introduced species are held in controlled environments, such as universities or laboratories. A species is controlled if it is not known to occur in Australia outside controlled environments and if released, it poses a significant risk to the ecological community, ecosystem or agricultural community. The Minister must also be satisfied on the advice of the ISAC that it is considered capable of being successfully contained to the controlled environment in which it is present and that there is an invasive species threat abatement plan that is in place to contain the species within that environment.

A species that would otherwise be an invasive species is disregarded as an invasive species if the Minister is satisfied on the recommendation of the ISAC that the species is not considered a risk to the survival, abundance or evolutionary development of a native species, ecological community, ecosystem or agricultural commodity or to a listed threatened species or registered critical habitat.

The Democrats recognise that many introduced species represent valuable food crops and valuable domestic animals for Australians. It is not the intent of this legislation to prevent the introduction of new food crop varieties or new domestic animals. However, the bill will require risk assessment before new varieties can be introduced. This is an important recognition of how expensive mistakes can be in relation to new imports.

Under this bill a species is exempt from listing if:

· the Minister is satisfied that it is an established commercial agricultural commodity in Australia, or

· a species of domesticated animal established in Australia, and

· a risk assessment has determined that the species does not pose a risk, either directly or indirectly to the survival, abundance or evolutionary development of a native species, ecological community, ecosystem or agricultural commodity.

The remainder of the Subdivision relates to the amending of the invasive species lists by the Minister based on advice from the ISAC. The Democrats' bill ensures maximum public input and maximum accountability in these processes, including the capacity for any person to nominate a species to be included on an invasive species list.

Subdivision B—The permit system in this Subdivision sets out penalty units that will be incurred if a person imports or possesses a prohibited invasive species for import as set out in section 266AA. The Subdivision specifies that a person must apply for a permit if importing, possessing or controlling a listed invasive species for the purposes of trade or commerce. The administrative requirements of applying for permits must be satisfied before the Minister will issue a permit.

Subsection 266BE (3) states that the Minister may issue a permit for the commercial sale, trade or propagation of a non-indigenous species for the purposes of food production if:

· there is a demonstrated need for the species to be used for food production in Australia; and

· there is a low risk that the species will have an impact on listed threatened species or ecological communities; and

· the Minister has approved an invasive species threat abatement plan in Subdivision C.

The conditions of permits are further set out in section 266BF which allows the Minister to vary, revoke or impose further conditions. Sections 266BG to 266BL contain other administrative provision with respect to permits.

Subdivision C—Contains provisions which deal with invasive species threat abatement plans and all administrative compliance provisions that must be adhered to in making or adopting of such a plan. Section 266CD states that the Minister must exercise his or her powers to ensure that there is always in force a plan for each listed invasive species once the first management plan for the species has come into force.

Subdivision D—Contains various miscellaneous sections. Of particular interest is section 266DB which requires that those involved in trade of introduced species must provide warnings with the sale of any member of a non-indigenous species. The purpose of the warning is to educate the consuming public regarding the threats associated with non-native species. For instance, many plant varieties can be grown quite safely in urban residential gardens. They become a threat when clippings or flowers or seeds are disposed of in river or creek beds and the seeds are carried to areas, such as reserves or parks, where they become established. Warnings should educate purchasers about the threats of such disposal.

This bill represents the fulfilment of an election commitment made by the Democrats at the last federal election. At that time, the Democrats' then Leader, Senator Natasha Stott Despoja, released a discussion paper, along with the party's policy on invasive species. At that time we said there is an urgent need for public discussion and public education in the area of invasive species. Since that time two events have highlighted how right we were and how urgent this legislation is. The fire ant arrived in Brisbane in a cargo ship and the fox arrived in Tasmania, courtesy of a misguided landowner. Since that time also, we have received many comments, ideas and inspirations. We have seen the establishment of the first ever NGO in Australia dedicated exclusively to invasive species.

This bill reflects many ideas and many views and we hope it is the catalyst for further debate—a debate that is long overdue. The Democrats introduce this bill not as a final document, but as the beginning of much needed discussion and debate about invasive species in Australia. It is not intended to denigrate any of the work that has been done in recent years by dedicated professionals but to recognise and further that work.

In coming months, I hope to hear the views of farmers, nursery owners, backyard gardeners, aquarium owners and others about this bill, the issues raised and the opportunities we have to protect our land, our species and the unique values that make it such a special place.

I commend the bill to the Senate and seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.