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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 327

Senator STERLE (5:23 PM) —I rise to speak on the Horse Disease Response Levy Bill 2008 and associated bills. The purpose of the bills is to impose a levy on the initial registration of horses and to allow for its collection by persons or bodies that, in their administration, register horses, so that the horse industry can repay any amount paid by the Commonwealth on behalf of the horse industry in the event of a disease outbreak. To allow the repayment arrangements via a levy to come into law, it is also necessary to provide for legislation to collect and administer the levy. This is provided for through the Horse Disease Response Levy Collection Bill 2008 and through the Horse Disease Response Levy (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008. The Rudd Labor government is protecting Australia’s horse industry and looking ahead to the future.

The Australian Horse Industry Council, the Australian Harness Racing Council and the Australian Racing Board support the imposition of a horse disease response levy, and the levy rate will be set by regulations under the new Horse Disease Response Levy Bill 2008. The arrangements provide for Animal Health Australia, known as AHA, to manage the levy received on behalf of the industry, where the main priority is to repay any amount paid by the Commonwealth on behalf of the horse industry in the event of an outbreak of an emergency horse disease. There are no direct financial implications for the Commonwealth as the intention of the new bill is to facilitate the imposition of a horse disease response levy on the registration of horses, payable by owners.

I would like now to spend some time discussing the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement, commonly known as the EADRA, which is at the core of this issue. The EADRA was launched in March 2002, following a number of concerns about the scope and effectiveness of the then Commonwealth-state cost-sharing agreement in place since 1955, which covered only 12 diseases. As you know, Mr Acting Deputy President, when there is an outbreak of an exotic disease in any of the animal industries there needs to be an emergency response to minimise damage to the affected animals and the industry involved. The preferable outcome is the eradication of the disease and the return of the affected industry to its state prior to the outbreak.

The EADRA is a contractual agreement between animal industries and governments and is the only way that industries at risk of disease outbreaks can be certain of a timely and appropriate response from government to their needs. As with all contractual arrangements, there are financial implications and obligations for all parties. The EADRA provides a mechanism for an affected animal industry to call for assistance from governments to provide vital skills and resources to identify, contain, control and eradicate an exotic disease incursion. Under the EADRA governments are obliged to provide and maintain sufficient resources to assist animal industries in their times of need. Without the EADRA no legally-binding obligation exists.

The outbreak of equine influenza, EI, in August 2007 was absolutely devastating and, despite the coordinated efforts of government and industry bodies and horse and animal health specialists, the Australian horse industry was completely tipped on its ear. The epidemic made its way to Australia via Japan and lasted some 130 days from August 2007 until the last case was reported in December 2008.

We all remember that. What a catastrophe that could have been! It was bad enough. If we cast our minds back, we would remember that for the first time in our history we were faced with the possibility of not having a Melbourne Cup campaign—not to mention, more importantly, the fiscal damage that was done to those employed in the industry. When we talk about the effects of EI, everyone seems to think, for some strange reason, that horse racing is the sport of kings and that it is therefore only the rich and the privileged that suffered through the EI period. I do not pretend to know a great heap of people employed in the horse industry but I am sure there are strappers, trainers, owners, suppliers of veterinary products, and the like—those who are employed on Saturdays or mid-week, whether they be from your great state of Victoria, Mr Acting Deputy President, or my even greater state of Western Australia—who are certainly not in the league of kings. So it was absolutely disgraceful that we ever got to that stage, and I just cannot believe that someone has not been chucked in jail and had the key thrown away, over that episode.

I will get back to the bills. The passage of these bills will enable the horse industry to become a party to the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement, something the industry has wanted for many years. By establishing a levy arrangement through these bills, the horse industry would become a signatory to the EADRA and would have certainty of resources in responding to emergency horse disease outbreaks. As mentioned earlier, the bills establish a mechanism to apply a levy on the initial registration of horses and provide arrangements for the collection and administration of that levy so that the horse industry could repay the Commonwealth of Australia for underwriting the horse industry’s share of costs. Such a levy would be payable once on the initial registration of a horse with a recognised breed society or performance organisation. For horses already registered prior to any emergency response people would not be liable to pay a levy. I want to reiterate that: they would not have to pay the levy. It will only apply to new horse registrations.

As the horse industry does not need to repay its share of the costs of the 2007 equine influenza emergency response, these bills establish a zero rate levy. No rate can be set unless the industry is consulted; however, regulations would prescribe a future levy rate. Regulations will be developed in consultation with industry to help ensure that they are fair and equitable. Regulations cannot go beyond the scope of the bills and will be disallowable in parliament. I think it is very important that we get that message out, that they will be disallowable. Nevertheless, drafting instructions and principles underlying the intended operation of the proposed regulations have been provided to the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport.

As you know, the bills were sent off to the committee and the committee did have a number of hearings here in Canberra. There were quite a few groups that presented to the committee. While I am on that, there were difficulties that we experienced through the committee stage. When we were first talking about this, and this goes back to the previous government, the Howard government started the conversation with the horse industry through those three major groups—thoroughbreds and racing and harness racing—and at all stages I believe that the previous government had only the best interests of Australia and the horse industry foremost in its mind. I acknowledge that. But it was absolutely frustrating to have conversations going on between the representative body—I think this went on for eight to 12 months, but I will stand corrected if I have those figures wrong—and the government, which believed the body was speaking for the majority of the industry, only to discover in the committee hearings that there were a number of other associations, such as camp drafting and pony clubs, that came out diametrically opposed to what was being said and saying the horseracing industry did not represent them. The frustration I had as the chair of the committee was: why did it take that long for someone to come out and say that they were not being represented? In all fairness to the previous government—I take my hat off to them—I honestly believe they thought, as did we, that they were dealing with the industry. It was very frustrating when a couple of groups turned up to tip a bucket of bile on the representatives of that industry and to tell us at the committee stage that their voice was not being heard and that the horseracing industry did not speak for them.

As I was saying, at present we are at the stage where the peak bodies involved in the horse industry have a levy system that is at least acceptable and agreeable to all involved to help protect against any of the potentially devastating effects of a future exotic disease incursion. We must create these protections now so that the sector is protected into the future. The worst option for Australia and for the horse industry would be for there to be no levy put in place. It would be devastating and neglectful if this parliament were to end up leaving the horse industry in the same position it was in at the beginning of EI. I want to stress that to senators opposite: it would be devastating and neglectful.

This package of bills will give the horse sector the certainty that other livestock sectors have when responding, with government, to emergency animal disease incursions. The levy is currently set at zero dollars, as I said, and will only be raised upon an incident or break-out of an epidemic. In 2006 the horse industry had proposed to the Howard government a levy arrangement to protect the horse industry against the impacts of emergency disease outbreaks. Of course, under the previous government arrangements were not put in place to sign up the horse industry to the EADRA and establish the industry’s emergency disease preparedness. As a result, at the time of the outbreak of the equine influenza in August 2007, the horse industry was not a signatory to the agreement and was left dangerously exposed. The horse sector remains the only major livestock group not included in the EADRA.

Without cost-sharing arrangements in place in the event of another disease outbreak, the sector could be liable for considerable cost to contain and eradicate any disease which would normally be shared with governments under the EADRA framework. I ask senators opposite: is that what you really want to see? Let us keep our fingers crossed that we are not ever faced with such a situation, but what a shocking situation it would be if this package of bills were knocked back with the assistance of senators opposite and others. It is worth noting that the former Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, the Hon. Peter McGauran, is now the CEO of Thoroughbred Breeders Australia, which supports the passage of the bills. I find that absolutely incredible, that a former senior minister is on side.

Senator McGauran interjecting—

Senator STERLE —If we are talking about the good old days, Senator McGauran, you should have taken your brother out the back and sorted it out, but unfortunately it has not worked. The opposition opposed these bills in the House and incorporated dissenting reports within the Senate committee report. However, the Independent member for New England, Tony Windsor MP, supported the passage of the bills in the House. There needs to be some system to cope with the consequences of an outbreak, and these bills provide for this. It seems reasonable that the Australian taxpayer will expect to be reimbursed for at least part of the cost of an emergency response—not all, but at least part. The financial security of many thousands of Australians relies on a strong and secure horse industry, as I said earlier on.

In my home state of Western Australia the industry employs an estimated 12,000 people and the Rudd government will not sit back and wait for the outbreak of disease in the horse population. The government will implement the recommendations of the Callinan report and will act to strengthen our quarantine and biosecurity services. The government will give those people working in the horse industry a solid footing so that they know that if there is another outbreak they will have governmental protection and not an industry catastrophe. The measures in the main bill are appropriate and they are necessary. There is ample capacity within the legislation for the levy schedule to take into account different sectors of the industry and, as I have mentioned, the bill sets the proposed rate of horse disease response levy at zero. I cannot stress that enough.

As senators are aware, the bill did go to the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport for further examination. It was evident to the committee that the general principle on which this legislation is based is soundly consistent with measures applying to all livestock. This legislation represents an insurance measure to ensure that horse owners will have funds to deal with any future outbreak of equine diseases. The committee resolved to support compulsory registration for all horses and believes that this, together with the establishment of a national register, would greatly enhance the ability of animal health agencies to respond in the case of emergency. The establishment of such a register would of course require further consultation and agreement between the states and territories. We have not backed away from that through this whole process.

A number of submissions and testimonies were made by interested and affected parties over the course of the hearings, and the committee heard a number of concerns of community recreational owners and riders. It is important for all senators to remember that the policy detail of the horse disease response levy are not yet available and should not be condemned or discarded at this time. The bills before us are enabling legislation. That detail will be provided and, as I said before, we will be open for comment and consultation.

It is also important that all senators be aware that these bills have the support—I must stress this again—of a number of industry groups, such as the Australian Racing Board Ltd, Harness Racing Australia and the Australian Horse Industry Council, as well as Thoroughbred Breeders Australia, Riding for the Disabled and the WA Horse Council, to name a few.

I am confident, as is the committee, that the regulations can be framed so as to take account of a wide diversity of horse ownership and riding activity in the community and that they will also be equitable. Equity issues are important to consider when discussing these bills. Whilst all parties agree with the principle of a broadly based levy, it may be appropriate to exempt some classes of owners, riders and community groups.

In summing up and without sounding like a broken record, I do wish to stress once more that, in regard to performance organisations, the intent is to cover organisations that hold regular events or competitions, such as polo matches, endurance events, campdrafting, equestrian rodeos and dressage. However, small community organisations and groups, such as some pony clubs and Riding for the Disabled, will likely be excluded from the levy arrangements where these organisations do not conduct regular competitions. As I have said previously, and I reiterate this, the regulations have not been prepared, as detailed consultation with industry has to take place, needs to take place and will take place. This will be done following the passage of the bills. The regulations cannot, as I said before, go beyond the scope of the bills and will be disallowable in the parliament.

So, for fellow senators and senators opposite, this bill has been debated in both houses and has been reviewed by the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee—a wonderfully hardworking committee, if I can say so myself, and that is all members of that committee. Upon review of the submissions made, comments and testimony received, and extensive consultation, it was the committee’s recommendation to the Senate that these bills be passed without amendment. I commend these bills to the Senate.