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Wednesday, 8 December 2004
Page: 92

Senator CHERRY (3:52 PM) —I present the report of the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts References Committee entitled Turning back the tide-the invasive species challenge, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator CHERRY —I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I am very pleased to table the unanimous report of the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts References Committee on the very important subject of invasive species. Invasive species, according to the Invasive Species Council, is the next biggest threat to biodiversity after land clearing. The economic effect of invasive species on agricultural production is estimated at close to $5 billion a year in lost production yet invasive species rarely rate a mention in the public debate about the state of the environment. This report, which contains some 27 recommendations, completes a 17-month inquiry initiated by the Democrats. The inquiry also considered the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Invasive Species) Bill 2002, which was introduced by Senator Bartlett in 2000. Several submitters raised concerns about the scope of the terms of reference. It was suggested to the committee that invasive species are not only those that are foreign to Australia's shores. Indeed, it was suggested that native flora and fauna can pose a threat to biodiversity in areas outside their natural range, largely due to human involvement. They can display many of the worst features of invasives, despite being natives.

The committee also received representations about the need to consider pest and weed species not specifically named in the terms of reference, often based on a misunderstanding of a particular term of reference in that it was not exclusive of all other species. It was also suggested that the term of reference concentrating on the estimated costs of different management responses for certain specified pests and weeds was essentially unhelpful because there is no agreed model to measure the ecological cost of invasive species in economic terms. Accordingly, in chapter 4 of the report, the committee has examined the costs and benefits of a range of invasive species programs without confining itself to the set list of species specified in the terms of reference and without attempting to factor in the indeterminate environmental costs.

The committee received 76 submissions from Commonwealth, state and territory ministers, and a range of plant nursery industry groups, researchers, farming and agricultural organisations, and environmental groups. It held four public hearings with some 54 witnesses in Canberra, Brisbane and Adelaide. While in Brisbane, the committee supplemented the formal information from the public hearings with a day of site inspections. The committee visited the Queensland government's Fire Ant Control Centre and several sites in and around suburban Brisbane to inspect weed infestations before touring the Alan Fletcher Research Station.

The problem of invasive species is, of course, multifaceted. How do we stop more invasive species from entering Australia? How do we deal with those that are already here? What about marine invasives? The oceans are so vast. Can we realistically stop the spread of pest marine species? How do we as a federated nation deal with the challenge of invasive species whose spread crosses state boundaries and which may be relatively benign in one state but have devastating effects in another area? But if these challenges are not met, invasive species have the potential to cause the `McDonald's-isation' of our environment so that, wherever you travel in the world, you will see roughly the same plants and animals dominating the landscape and doing the same damage to the environment and the economy.

The challenge, though great, is not insurmountable. There have been some significant successes. Of course, one of the earliest was the near eradication of prickly pear by the introduction of a predatory caterpillar. In 1999 the black striped mussel was identified in the port of Darwin but was quickly and successfully eradicated. More recently Australian governments agreed at very short notice to contribute $123 million towards the eradication of the red imported fire ant when an outbreak was identified in Brisbane in 2001. This native of South America is extremely aggressive. In the United States, fire ants have caused over 90 deaths and thousands of hospitalisations as a result of allergic reactions. That eradication program is now reaching a successful conclusion. Research continues on species such as the European carp, which may one day be effectively eradicated as a result of the CSIRO's project to genetically engineer a daughterless carp.

The committee found that in many areas government policy is moving, howbeit slowly, in the right direction. However, the committee found that much more still needs to be done. We also found that while there are many Commonwealth, state and local government agencies dealing with invasive species, these programs are too often underfunded and coordination between levels of government is weak. Invasive species do not recognise borders, yet Australian management plans and the legislative framework that supports them are jurisdictionally based. Frustratingly, those controls introduced and managed by the states and territories are inconsistent, which further weakens the national effort. Australia needs to develop a more coordinated national approach to this issue. All parties to this inquiry have argued that it is the proper role of the Commonwealth government to provide national leadership. That leadership should involve working with the states and territories to develop an agreed national framework. The framework would include common standards and common invasive species terminology and categorisation, put into effect through national strategies and/or action plans and supported with appropriate funding.

The committee welcomes the agreement by the Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council that a robust national framework is needed, and noted the establishment in April 2004 of a joint Commonwealth-state NRM standing committee task group to investigate and report on options for a national framework for preventative action, early detection, awareness and ongoing control of invasive species. This initiative received bipartisan support in the lead-up to the recent federal election.

The committee found that more action was needed to identify and prevent the spread of invasive species in Australia. It recommends that the Commonwealth, in consultation with the states and territories, should develop an agreed alert list of invasive species; legislate a consolidated national list of taxa whose sale and spread is prohibited; review the threat abatement process; standardise the use of species, not genera, listings on schedule 5 of the quarantine proclamation and applications for the import of plants and seeds into Australia; improve the independence of the import risk analysis process; review and update the existing list of weeds of national significance; and use its power to promulgate regulations under section 301A of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to prohibit the trade in invasive plant species.

We call on those states which have not yet prohibited as a minimum the sale of 20 identified weeds of national significance to do so as soon as possible. The committee also found that more action needs to be taken to identify and eradicate weeds which are not yet an apparent problem but which are likely to become so in the future: the so-called sleeper weeds. The committee commends the leading role that Australia has played in addressing the problem of marine invasive species being introduced through ballast water. However, there is a pressing need to accelerate action to prevent the introduction of marine pests through hull fouling, and for more long-term funding for research into marine pests. The committee also found that there is a need to improve the level of funding for research into invasive species and to develop a comprehensive range of programs to educate the public and raise awareness of the issue. The committee believes that the financial burden of managing invasive weeds should be borne by those who are responsible for the importation and sale of plants known to be weedy.

I wish to thank the submitters to the inquiry, who provided us with an enormous wealth of material; the many people who gave evidence to the committee around the country; and our hosts during the committee's inspections in Queensland. I regret that the lead-up to the recent federal election prevented the committee from undertaking a more extensive program of hearings and site inspections, but I can assure everyone who made submissions to the committee that their views were fully considered. I want to acknowledge and thank the staff of the committee secretariat, particularly Frank Nugent and Jacqui Dewar, for their help in producing this excellent report. I want to particularly acknowledge the contribution of Mick McLean, who retired as secretary of the committee last week after three years service to this committee and 16 years service to the Senate. Mick always achieved a very high standard in the committee's work and I wish him well in his well-deserved retirement, and a happy birthday for today.

As I said at the beginning, this is a unanimous report and a call for action to all levels of government. I commend this report to the Senate and to the government. Our 27 recommendations set a strong action agenda that I hope is picked up the by the government and the Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council as they conclude the development of a national framework on invasive species.

Question agreed to.