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Tuesday, 18 September 2007
Page: 110


Senator MILNE (9:09 PM) —I too rise this evening to support the Quarantine Amendment (Commission of Inquiry) Bill 2007 in order that there be an appropriate investigation into this outbreak of equine influenza in Australia. I was interested when this was first reported, having spent the last few years in this place on the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport looking at issues of quarantine. I was immediately conscious of the fact that, if this had come from a quarantine centre, it was a major breach of Australian quarantine protocols and regulations. It is just another reminder of how vulnerable Australia is to the outbreak of disease and how important it is for us to maintain disease-free status in as many areas as we possibly can.

I welcome the fact that the government has decided to have an inquiry which is effectively a royal commission inasmuch as it has all the powers of a royal commission but is set up under Quarantine Act because it will allow for the additional powers that the act also affords investigating authorities. I am hopeful that this inquiry under Justice Callinan will get to the bottom of how equine influenza got to Australia and how it got from the quarantine centre into the broader population.

I certainly concur with remarks to date on the massive impact equine influenza has had in the Australian community and the rural community in particular. Not only has it had an economic impact but you only have to listen to the stories of people involved in eventing, for example, people involved in getting their horses ready for the Olympics, to hear of the heartbreak suffered by people who innocently have been caught up in the disaster that has been equine influenza. That, of course, is not to mention those people who have huge investments in the racing industry. Whilst the government has moved to offer some income compensation, you can never compensate people adequately for the loss of opportunity. Of course, racing is a gaming industry as well and you can never compensate people for the fact that they may have had their animals in preparation for a certain race at a certain time and that opportunity will not come again. It will present in different ways but not under the same sorts of circumstances. There are a lot of people around Australia whom I would classify as being in the amateur field around horses and who have been devastated by this in the same way as those who are involved in a professional capacity. Of course, in rural communities it has had a significant impact as well.

My initial response to this was to be quite mystified as to how horses that had arrived in Australia on 8 August could have been carrying the disease when the protocol, as it is set down, means that those horses had to have been in quarantine in Japan for four weeks before they started their journey to Australia. Assuming that their journey to Australia took a maximum of 24 to 48 hours, they had already been in Japanese quarantine for four weeks. So I am glad to see that this inquiry is also going to enable an investigation into the appropriateness of protocols at the Japanese end. With the way that the horseracing and breeding industries are these days, you have horses in Eastern Creek and probably in Japan which have come from, for example, the United States and Ireland. They are going to be servicing the breeding industry in Japan and then moving on to Australia and back and so on. It is very indicative of how difficult it is to try to contain a disease of this kind once it begins.

At the Japanese end, I am particularly keen that there be an investigation of the appropriateness of the time response. Certainly, when I looked on the internet to see when this was first reported in Japan, I found that the Japanese racing authority had had a press conference on 16 August to say that 20 thoroughbreds in Japan were infected with equine flu. At the press conference they admitted that the day before, 15 August, 200 vets had been despatched across Japan to look at various racing facilities, and presumably quarantine facilities as well.

Yet the Japanese government did not officially report the disease until 24 or 25 August, some considerable time—at least 10 days—after vets had been dispatched in Japan because there was a suspicion of the disease. We have got to ask ourselves: ‘Do Australian authorities wait to be officially informed when the internet will tell you that the racing authorities in the home country have had a press conference and told the whole country that they have this disease and that there is a lockdown and cancellation of races?’ The Kanazawa racetrack did not hold its races the weekend after that because of the symptoms of disease in horses in Japan. All international trade depends on countries being timely in their notification of globally notifiable infectious diseases. Countries also rely on timely, authoritative and accurate certification when they give export or import permits. Australia relies on that system globally, and every other country does as well.

In this case, the Australian embassy would be reporting back, one would hope, to the Australian government on a daily basis on anything that is reported in the Japanese press—and any other press around the world where we have an embassy—on issues that may well affect Australian trade or interests. There would have been an awareness, you would have thought, once that press conference was held, that that was the situation in Japan. If those horses had been in quarantine for four weeks before that in Japan, we should have been able to make some calls to the Japanese government fairly quickly to establish where those quarantine horses had come from and whether any of the horses stabled there had in fact already come down with the disease.

This is not to excuse the fact that this disease has escaped from Eastern Creek. We all know that is the case and there has been a breakdown of quarantine at the Australian end. We also have to look at the protocols under which we agree to import and export permits of live animals around the world to make sure that we have immediate notification the minute there is a suspicion of a notifiable disease—and not just at the point at which finally it is officially confirmed some 10 days after a domestic announcement. That is not good enough and it is not fair to the international community.

One would wonder whether there will be another move now in the breeding industry to have artificial insemination in the thoroughbred industry. I know it is a very contentious thing to say, but realistically we are dealing with very valuable animals moving around the world. When people assess the losses to the breeding industry because of this outbreak and the likelihood of this continuing they may have to reconsider the definition of what constitutes a thoroughbred horse. That will be a debate for another day. I am aware of the smiles in the chamber about opening a Pandora’s box, and I know that is the case. But if you own a valuable stallion, like those that are being transferred around the world, you would have to be asking yourself at the moment about the risks associated with the international movement of animals in this way.

I do not wish to delay the Senate further, except to say that I support the establishment of the inquiry. I am hopeful that it will be as comprehensive as is required to get to the bottom of how the disease was spread, looking at the existing protocols and the rules which govern the movement and control of the quarantine facilities in Australia. But, as with the comments made by Senator O’Brien, I do not believe it is appropriate that the report, when it is finally completed, simply goes to the minister. I think it is essential that it be tabled in each house of parliament so that the community can read the report in full and therefore be in a better position to both assess the government’s reaction and, I would suggest, assist the government in coming up with improvements to the protocols to make sure that this does not happen again and that we have a better process in place. It is in the government’s interest as well to engage in an open and transparent partnership with the community, particularly the horseracing and breeding community, which will need to be involved in such a response once we get a full investigation and analysis of what has occurred. I too have an amendment asking that once the report goes to the minister it be tabled in the parliament within 14 days of receipt of the report. I look forward to hearing what Justice Callinan finds out during this inquiry and hopefully to seeing some amendments over time to improve the protocols internationally and domestically to try to maintain Australia’s disease-free status.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.