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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 319


Senator FARRELL (4:39 PM) —I rise to speak in favour of the Horse Disease Response Levy Bill 2008 and the cognate bills. This legislation is intended to protect the horse industry from future disease outbreaks by bringing the industry into the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement, which is otherwise known as the EADRA. It is intended to ensure that the horse industry funds its obligations under the agreement.

From the outset I have to say that I am disappointed that the opposition has decided to oppose this legislation on the grounds that it fails to completely satisfy every single stakeholder in the horse industry. This legislation is long overdue. The coalition has known for years that the horse industry should be covered by the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement, but it has procrastinated on this issue for far too long.

The catalyst for the changes in this legislation was of course the equine influenza epidemic that devastated the horse industry in 2007. The equine influenza outbreak exposed serious deficiencies with Australia’s quarantine system and a lack of preparation and foresight as to how the Australian government would fund its disease response in the event that it would one day have to deal with an emergency animal response.

This highly contagious horse virus was first detected in August 2007 and it spread rapidly throughout New South Wales and Queensland. Fortunately, it did not affect my home state of South Australia. Nevertheless, South Australia did feel the ramifications from the disease. I consider South Australia to have been very fortunate to have escaped being directly affected by the outbreak. We were lucky that the quarantine procedures that were introduced once the virus was detected did in fact work very well. However, South Australian horse owners still had to abide by the quarantine restrictions that were introduced in the eastern states, which meant that many horses were stranded at whatever location they happened to be in when the restrictions came into effect.

Many horse owners were extremely inconvenienced by having to care for their horses that were stranded great distances away from their home stables. Racing horses especially have very particular routines and special requirements, which were disrupted by these restrictions. South Australia has, of course, a great reputation in the horse racing industry, with many great champions having been trained in the state.

The inconvenience caused by the quarantine placed incredible stress on horse owners. I believe that the final estimate of the cost to the horse industry will not adequately describe the enormous indirect costs of the outbreak. We do know, however, that the cost to the Australian government—to the taxpayers—was more than $350 million. This is a very significant expenditure and a costly reminder of the importance of quarantine in Australia. The independent report into the causes of the equine influenza outbreak, authored by the Hon. Ian Callinan AC, was presented in June of last year. It found:

Fundamental biosecurity measures were not being implemented in the largest government-operated animal quarantine station in Australia. This constituted a serious failure by those within the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and AQIS who were and had been responsible for the management of quarantine risks and, in particular, the management of post-entry quarantine arrangements. Among the people who ultimately must take responsibility for that failure were the Secretary of the department as the Director of Animal and Plant Quarantine and the person who, under the Minister, is charged with execution of the Quarantine Act 1908, the Executive Director of AQIS and the Executive Manager of Quarantine within AQIS. Various people have held those positions in recent years.

However, the disaster that was the equine influenza outbreak was further compounded by the absence of any cost-sharing structure to deal with such a crisis. The Australian taxpayer was ultimately left with the clean-up bill, whereas for many other livestock industries the costs are shared between government and industry. In the event of a future emergency disease outbreak, the legislation seeks to establish a mechanism to put a one-off levy on new horse registrations to recover upfront costs after agreement has been reached on appropriate cost-sharing arrangements.

In the event of any future emergency animal diseases within the horse industry, the government will initially underwrite the cost of the response. This is essentially because the horse industry may not have the cash reserves to deal with the crisis when it strikes. Initially, as there is presently no emergency outbreak, the levy will be set at zero. It is important to note that the legislation is not retrospective. There will be no recovery of past moneys spent by the government to eradicate equine influenza or any of the other assistance measures paid out. Surely the opposition would agree that, after spending millions of dollars to deal with eradicating equine influenza, the government does have a responsibility to ensure that a proper system is put in place to deal with the crisis should it happen again—but apparently not. The opposition is prepared to oppose these bills because they are not 100 per cent to their liking. I think that is a very poor reason to oppose the legislation, as this legislation is so essential.

As I mentioned earlier, this legislation is effective because it will finally bring the horse industry into the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement. Livestock industries that are already party to the EADRA include the cattle, sheep, pig, dairy, poultry, goat and honeybee industries.


Senator Birmingham —Honey bees?


Senator FARRELL —Honey bees, yes, and pigs—you would know something about them. In his closing remarks to the House of Representatives, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry made the excellent observation that, if the horse industry were allowed to avoid paying their share in an emergency quarantine response, then other livestock industries would have little incentive to remain in the EADRA. There is the risk that other livestock industries would conclude that there is no need to pay a levy, because the government will bail them out in the event of a crisis. The alternative would be for the Australian government to let the entire industry collapse—obviously a completely unacceptable alternative.

I remind senators opposite that the government consulted extensively before drafting this policy. It has the support of the three peak horse industry bodies, including the Australian Horse Industry Council, the Australian Harness Racing Council and the Australian Racing Board. It also has the support of many other  smaller horse industry bodies such as Riding for the Disabled, Australian Horse Riding Centres and the Equestrian Federation of Australia. After much consultation it was agreed that the fairest way to impose a levy was at the point of registration of a new horse. The coalition has expressed a view that the sporting and hobby clubs will bear too much of the cost of the levy while the racing industry will get off lightly. Any future levy established is going to be negotiated between the government and the horse industry. I am confident that any future increase in the levy will be fairly negotiated. The current government has already acted fairly and reasonably by not pursuing the costs of the equine influenza outbreak and has wisely chosen to set the current rate at zero.

If the coalition votes down this legislation, it is in effect condemning the horse industry to future uncertainty and the whim of future governments who may not be inclined or in a position to act so reasonably. These bills at the very least put down a framework which will move the horse industry forward and provide certainty to the industry, in the event of a future emergency disease outbreak, that their horses will be protected. In the absence of any real alternatives being offered by the alternative government, the most sensible and responsible course of action is to support this legislation. As I have said before, all the other major livestock industries are party to the EADRA agreement. If this legislation fails to pass the Senate, I fear that the horse industry will be left in a state of limbo for a significant period of time, so the time to pass this legislation is now. There is consensus among the peak horse industry bodies that this needs to happen. They are willing to sign up to the EADRA and to be a party to this agreement. They were asking to be party to the EADRA even before the horse flu outbreak because they understood that they were in a vulnerable position, being, as they are, outside of this agreement. This was a request that the previous government failed to action.

I seek to summarise the current situation. I think it is important that we cover all of the circumstances. The first point that is worth noting is that both sides of politics have known for some time that the horse industry should be a party to the EADRA. The second point to note is that the horse industry as a whole wants to be a party to the EADRA. The third point to note is that in 2007 the quarantine system broke down and emergency control measures were rapidly implemented, but at a huge cost and distress to the racing community. In the aftermath, the Australian government was left with the clean-up bill—as I indicated earlier, at a very significant cost of $350 million to the Australian taxpayers. After the disaster of the equine influenza outbreak, we have the opportunity to pass legislation that will fix this problem. The legislation will provide certainty for the future, yet the opposition has decided to oppose the legislation because it is not entirely to its liking. I believe this to be an irresponsible position for it to take, and I sincerely hope the legislation passes the Senate. (Time expired)