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Tuesday, 18 September 2007
Page: 106

Senator O’BRIEN (8:49 PM) —Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President Macdonald. I know that you have a strong interest—indeed, a vested interest—in equine issues, as a keen rider. At least you were in the past; I am not sure of the current status of your equestrian pursuits. I think the reality is that this is an issue which pertains to anyone with an interest in the various breeds of horse within the equine population of Australia, as well as some other animals that are affected by this disease. So far as the opposition are concerned, we have long been of the view that Australia needed a rigorous and secure quarantine system and that our island status effectively equipped us to resist the introduction of a great many diseases, including the equine influenza disease. This is a disease that exists in horse populations in every significant country around the world where such populations exist—until recently with the exception of Australia and New Zealand. This is a disease which has caused havoc in the countries in which outbreaks have occurred—closing down racing industries; significantly affecting breeding industries; limiting the movement of horses; and occasioning significant expense because of the need, where the disease widely penetrates the equine population of a country, for the introduction of vaccines. These vaccines have a high cost, mask the presence of the disease and make it more difficult to ultimately detect and therefore control in terms of its spread.

We were free for quite some time of this disease that has caused significant problems for racing industries in South Africa, Hong Kong, Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom and France. The situation that we found ourselves in from about 24 August this year was one that shocked Australia’s racing and breeding industries. Thoroughbreds and standardbreds in the racing industry have been affected, and there has also been a significant impact on the breeding industry.

We have seen the introduction of a disease. Whilst it has not been absolutely proven, there have been a variety of comments which I think allow me to say that the overwhelming probability is that the disease was introduced by stallions flown into Australia on 8 August this year that had spent some time in Japan. Japan experienced an outbreak of equine influenza that was first noticed around 14 August, which means that it was present before that time. The horses that came from Japan arrived on 8 August, so there was a significant overlap.

One would have thought that, with horses coming from a country where there had been an outbreak of disease, we would have had barrier arrangements and quarantine arrangements in place to prevent the disease from escaping. As I understand it, those horses arrived from Japan in a box or crate, were lifted off the aircraft and walked from the crate into a float and were moved from Mascot airport. Some horses were moved to Eastern Creek in Western Sydney and some to Spotswood in Victoria. It turned out that it was the Eastern Creek horses which were carrying the disease, apparently. There is a possibility that the disease found its way onto the truck which carried the horses from the airport and that it was not properly cleaned when the horses were disembarked at Eastern Creek and that the disease was spread that way, but it is much more likely, given other material that is in the public domain, that the disease spread from Eastern Creek. I will come to my reasons for saying that shortly.

This would have to be the worst instance of a breakdown of Australia’s quarantine in living memory. This disease has an impact upon equine industries which can only be measured in millions of dollars, in thousands of jobs and in lost opportunities. Let me extrapolate from a couple of those propositions. The disease has now moved extensively into the Hunter Valley. The Hunter Valley is the home of a number of thoroughbred studs. Those thoroughbred studs house stallions with the most expensive service fees in this country. Within that region are the young horses from the previous crop and mares that are expecting to foal down and conceive during the current season. The disease may mean that the Hunter Valley is isolated for a period of months and, depending on how long that lasts, that might mean that the yearlings in the Hunter Valley will not be able to be sent to the yearling sales coming up early next year. The impact of that will be enormous, let alone the impact of the disease on racing carnivals and on the stallions that are detained at the Eastern Creek quarantine centre. One of those stallions has a stud fee of $225,000 a service. I am told that he would be expected to cover 50 or more mares a month whilst in service from the beginning of September. It does not take much to work out that there will be millions of dollars lost to the owners of that animal, let alone any others.

How did this come to pass? We are not sure. The Labor Party was first in calling for a judicial inquiry into this matter. When the outbreak in Japan was known, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry said on 19 August in relation to this matter that:

Australia will not take any risks with horses being imported from countries where EI is present.

On 24 August, he said:

It is likely that the infection has originated from another horse in quarantine that has contracted the disease but has not shown any clinical signs of it.

While it’s too early to be certain, we suspect this to be one of the horses from Japan, given there has been an outbreak of EI in that country.

On 27 August, because there had been an outbreak at Maitland, the minister said that the Maitland event might have been the source of the domestic outbreak. On 28 August, the minister said:

We still cannot track the actual source of the infection and therefore blame or liability cannot be assigned …

We just don’t know - there has been no breach of the impenetrable quarantine barriers at Eastern Creek, our focus has shifted to Maitland where a couple of hundred horses passed through and have passed it to other horses.

On 28 August, when talking about whether the disease had come from overseas, the minister then said:

You would assume that because we’ve never had it in Australia before ... but it might have been dormant and come to the surface.

That is a remarkable contribution! On 31 August, he said:

We want to identify what went wrong so it can never happen again and so we can repair the breach.

He also said:

It’s going to be human error, there’s no question, but were the quarantine procedures adequate?

The minister bounced around all over the place between 19 August and 31 August in relation to whether the disease came from overseas, whether it got into Eastern Creek or whether it originated magically out of nowhere in Maitland. That is a remarkable set of contributions, all in the context of an industry facing a dramatic circumstance, millions of dollars in losses and the inevitable discussion about the possibility of a massive legal case being taken against the Commonwealth because of a breakdown in the Commonwealth’s quarantine arrangements in this country.

Something that has been little noted in public commentary about this was published by AAP on 30 August. It is not sourced to an individual; it is sourced to an unnamed person. It is very interesting to read, and I propose to put it into Hansard. The story reads:

Quarantine procedures at the federal government’s Eastern Creek facility in Sydney have been regularly breached, according to a stallion groom formerly employed by a leading US stud.

The groom, who declined to be named, told AAP today he and other grooms of overseas shuttle stallions were allowed to come and go from Eastern Creek without using strict biosecurity and quarantine measures while caring for their horses at the facility in 2001 and 2003.

The groom was employed by a leading Kentucky stud and was in charge of seven stallions during his first trip in 2001 and four stallions in 2003.

The groom revealed he and other stallion grooms were allowed to leave Eastern Creek on numerous occasions, without changing clothes or “scrubbing down”, to attend race meetings, play golf and to eat and drink at local hotels and restaurants.

The Eastern Creek centre is one of the possible sources of Australia’s first equine influenza (EI) outbreak which has shut down racing in Queensland and New South Wales.

Later on the article goes on to say:

The groom was required to stay at Eastern Creek by his employers, but conditions for the stallions and their handlers at the time were so bad he and others frequently left the quarantine centre.

“I unloaded the horses from a national transport truck into the facility and was supposed to stay there with the horses all the time,” the groom said.

“But the conditions for the horses were only just acceptable. If they were my stallions I wouldn’t be taking them there.

“They didn’t wash out trucks after horses were unloaded and drivers used to help unload horses and then drove off after they were in contact with horses.

“There was no scrubbing down. Not once.

“I was there for two weeks each time and I never saw a foot-bath—which you are supposed to use all the time.”

The groom said walking out of Eastern Creek was easy and he did it often to eat at a local pub.

“We had to let them know when we were going out but no one enforced any of the quarantine protocols,” he said.

“They knew what was happening but we were free to do what we liked.

“I even went to the races at Randwick with five other grooms and played golf on a few occasions without scrubbing down.

“A well-known breeding stud had a big marquee at Randwick one day and I was invited and went along ...”

It is remarkable that a person who was in a quarantine facility with horses coming from a country that might carry diseases can come and go without any quarantine procedures. Not only that, he can go to the local pub, go to the races and attend the marquees of people running studs in other parts of the country. The potential for disease spread was enormous.

That is one of the reasons we need a thorough and rigorous examination of this matter. Who was in charge of quarantine facilities, if these were the circumstances that existed? The minister last week was asked a question in the House of Representatives. It was to the effect that, in the last two weeks, procedures were tightened at Eastern Creek, and, to go to the local pub for lunch, grooms and handlers were required to change and shower both coming in and going out. That was a new procedure that had not previously applied, although there had been regular visits by those handlers from the quarantine facility to the local pub. There has not yet been an answer to that question. I think we are entitled to draw the conclusion that, if the minister cannot rule it out, that is exactly what has happened—that the arrangements, rules, regulations and requirements of contractors, probably, at Eastern Creek have not been appropriate for a quarantine facility.

If horses were introduced from another country and a disease as infectious as equine influenza came into the facility, and if the arrangements that were described by the unnamed person in that AAP story are an accurate reflection of what has been going on, the only thing that is remarkable is that we have not had a disease outbreak in horses from that facility earlier. There may be other issues with the operation of that facility and with other animals or plants there that have not been securely kept, and we may have other problems which we do not yet know about or which have not been sourced to that environment. But, as I said earlier, we now have a situation where it is almost certain that a disease has been introduced into this country, in all likelihood by procedures which have not been appropriate or rigorous enough to meet the requirements of a modern, world’s best practice quarantine facility.

We called for a judicial inquiry very early in the piece—I think on 24 August, shortly after it was known that the outbreak occurred. It was very clear to me and to other members of the opposition that the consequences of this outbreak, if it spread, would be enormous. Unfortunately, that has been the case, and we do not wish that upon the industry. We now need to conduct a rigorous inquiry which examines all of the matters relevant to the protocols, procedures and rules which applied to the importation of horses and to any decisions which have been taken from a ministerial level to a managerial level and down and to assess the impact of those decisions on the practices, procedures and protocols that apply to facilities such as this and determine their impact on the circumstances which we, and these industries, find ourselves in now.

We support the concept of a judicial inquiry with all of the powers of a royal commission because that is what we are told this legislation creates—that is, the taking of the royal commission powers from royal commission legislation and introducing them to the quarantine legislation with one exception, which we understand is to do with the powers of search, because those powers already exist in the quarantine legislation. We support those measures. We believe there should be a rigorous, thorough, open, transparent public inquiry. There should be the opportunity for interested parties to present evidence and to cross-examine witnesses. We believe that the relevant ministers should give evidence at such an inquiry and be available for cross-examination. Certainly, so far as we are aware, the two relevant ministers are Minister Truss, who was the relevant minister going back to 2003-04, when correspondence from the Australian Racing Board suggested that there were problems with the quarantine arrangements and those problems could well lead to the introduction of equine influenza—quite prophetic predictions by the Australian Racing Board—and the current minister, Minister McGauran, who was presiding over the regime when the outbreak actually occurred. We need to understand the role that the minister played and whether there were any deficiencies in the role the minister played in relation to the disease.

We do say that the terms of reference contained in the legislation are not adequate and we will be dealing with that proposition in the committee stage of this legislation. We think that it is appropriate for those terms of reference to be binding and not optional to the minister, as the current legislation provides, because although the legislation lays down three so-called terms of reference it allows the minister to allocate all or any of those terms to the commissioner, Mr Callinan, to deal with the matter. We do not think that is appropriate. The other matter we will be addressing in the committee stage is the issue of the publication of Mr Callinan’s report. We do not accept that that should only be the province of the minister. We think that the legislation is deficient in that respect. It should require the tabling in the parliament of that report, and we will be moving an amendment to that effect as well. I intend to have more to say in the committee stage of this legislation.