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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 333

Senator O’BRIEN (5:49 PM) —At the outset, consistent with my return of interests to the Senate, I declare that I own horses. They are thoroughbred mares and, potentially at least, I would be impacted by the outcome of this legislation through the operation of any levy mechanism.

It is important to put this debate into context. The Horse Disease Response Levy Bill 2008 and related legislation follow upon the worst disease outbreak that the Australian horse industry has ever seen. That outbreak occurred, as has been established by a commission of inquiry, by totally inadequate quarantine arrangements administered by the previous government and by a quarantine facility that took what can only be described as totally inadequate—indeed, laughable—precautions to prevent the spread of disease in what was supposedly a high-security quarantine facility. It is remarkable that we did not experience an outbreak prior to the one that occurred in 2007. It was a matter of coincidence and coincidence only that it occurred because of a thoroughbred introduction of the disease. What needs to be understood is that at that time there were instances drawn to the attention of some people of questionable procedures operating in relation to horses of other breeds, particularly Arab breeds, introduced into Australia for show and display purposes in earlier years. So it is not accurate to say that the only risk that Australia faced, or continues to face, from the introduction of disease comes from the shuttle stallion arrangements, which was the argument put by opposition senators in a dissenting report of the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport inquiry as a part justification for the position that they take.

The reality of course is that the shuttling of thoroughbred stallions is a significant part of the risk factor but only part of it in relation to the introduction of disease. With any import procedure that involves live animals there is a risk, and therefore it is incumbent upon a country like Australia, which has a very good record of controlling and excluding animal diseases, to operate a set of quarantine arrangements which are rigorously observed and which take into account risk factors which can make the introduction of those diseases extremely unlikely.

In relation to horse flu, the evidence is well and truly in that the risk was known—that the previous government had been alerted to the prospect of a great impact on the Australian racing, breeding and other horse industries in this country by the introduction of the disease, but in fact it presided over a system which saw us move away from a rigorous quarantine system to one which was haphazard and indeed doomed to failure. The evidence of the royal commission, as contained in the royal commissioner’s report, is a damning indictment of the way that our quarantine system, in relation to those particular animals and indeed others, was run. The Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport saw consistent criticism of the quarantine arrangements that existed under the previous government. We saw criticisms which related to the introduction of plant disease as well as animal disease. It is certainly timely that our quarantine system is under review and it is certainly timely that the government has received a report, as indicated, and it will give effect to the recommendations of that report to strengthen the quarantine system so Australia can be best served by the arrangements that the government put in place to protect Australian industries from the predations of disease from other countries.

In relation to the measures in this piece of legislation, the position taken by the opposition and the Greens is, frankly, not one which is consistent with positions taken in relation to legislation that came before this chamber under the previous government, and certainly not from the opposition when in government, because on a regular basis—and certainly during the last three years of that government—this chamber was faced with legislation without seeing the content of regulations which would have a substantial effect on the industry that was the subject of the legislation. So here we have the opposition’s hypocrisy being revealed: in government they said, ‘You should trust the government, you should accept the undertakings of a minister as to consultation and you should accept that there is the ability to disallow legislation’—even when they had the numbers in the chamber—but in this case, where this government will not have the numbers in this chamber and will have to put regulations before the chamber, they are saying, ‘We shouldn’t pass this legislation until we see the regulations.’ What kind of hypocrisy is that? The fact of the matter is that if this government cannot justify the regulations then clearly, with the position taken by opposition senators and the Greens in relation to adequate regulatory mechanisms underpinning the legislation, any regulation put before this chamber would be in grave danger if the minister had not conducted himself in a way that complied with the undertakings that were given to all parties and the industry in relation to how his role in the regulatory process would be carried out—indeed, even if the process were carried out, if the form of the regulation had some flaw in it that was identifiable and which both the Greens and the opposition were unhappy with.

So all of those fail-safes now exist in relation to this legislation and all the government is saying is, ‘Let’s put in place a piece of legislation which will allow the matter to go forward, will allow the industry to have the benefit of the protections that the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement will have and will allow for the industry in a broad sense to make provision to pay for the cost of these incursions in the future’—because it is unfair to taxpayers if we do not do that. The fact that the previous government did that is not an exoneration for this government to not take on the responsibility of taxpayers and say, ‘Let the other animal industry that wants the benefit of the government be prepared to contribute to the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement, but in this case we’re going to let the horse industry off.’ I do not think that is equitable to taxpayers and I do not think it is equitable to the industries that make the contribution.

As I said, there is an adequate fail-safe for both the opposition and the Greens in relation to the regulatory process which would follow this legislation. So what is the problem? Are there groups out there who think they will be done over, or is it the case that there is a secret agenda that somehow all of the costs should be shifted to the thoroughbred industry because there is a perception that only the thoroughbred industry brings a risk? That proposition is demonstrably false. An examination of the records of importation of horses into this country will show it and an examination of horses that have been through quarantine facilities will show it.

Let’s look at the proposition that all newly registered animals should be the subject of levy raising and let’s look at some numbers. It was suggested in the report of opposition senators that the racing sector would be exempt from the levy. The racing sector is not the breeding sector, but they buy from the breeding sector—in some cases they pay a lot of money to the breeding sector for the animals that they race—and the breeding sector is the sector that registers thoroughbreds. Recently I had a look at the numbers of animals registered with the Australian Stud Book. That is where all thoroughbreds are registered. On their registration figures, somewhere between 17,700 and 18,700 thoroughbreds have been registered for each of the last five years. On the statistics, which are imprecise, in the opposition’s dissenting report a very significant proportion—I suggest well over a third in all likelihood—of the animals which would be registered would be thoroughbreds, and so well over a third of the cost would be borne by the thoroughbred industry.

It is a distraction from reality to talk about whether the racing industry pays or not, because the industry is actually divided into a breeding sector. It is in the breeding sector and through the Australian Stud Book that registration takes place. I am not sure what the basis of the opposition’s concern is, given the very significant number of animals that are registered there. I am not familiar with other sectors such as the standard breed sector as to how many foals are registered, but I believe they have similar registration arrangements. There are also other breeds that have registration arrangements which would equally benefit from these arrangements and, in terms of equity, ought to make a contribution.

There are many owners of animals of a variety of breeds who use animals for pleasure—possibly members of the Equestrian Federation of Australia and various pony clubs. With an equitable sharing of cost, I suggest that they would have an equal right to be considered in any future cases of disease outbreak as to disease mitigation, cost-sharing and the like. If a disease were to break out, for example, in pony clubs rather than in the thoroughbred sector, they would be beneficiaries of these sorts of arrangements, as it might be said that parts of the thoroughbred sector were recently.

But some of the benefits which were given to the thoroughbred sector by the then government, now opposition, and which were supported by the now government, then opposition, were based upon economic impact. I am not sure that anyone is suggesting that those arrangements should not have been put in place. It may be that there are suggestions that others should have received benefits who were not eligible for benefits under those arrangements, but this legislation cannot correct that and nor should it. This is a piece of legislation which is about creating a mechanism for the horse industry to sign up to the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement and for the matter to be progressed to the point where there is a levy collection mechanism in circumstances where the minister, I believe, has given very proper and adequate undertakings to this chamber and to the industry as to how the development of the regulations would proceed. Indeed, as I outlined earlier, in circumstances where there was significant dissatisfaction with those regulations the regulations would be subject to disallowance. Given the position of the Greens and the opposition, the minister would probably have reason to fear, if he did not get strong agreement, that there might be a move to disallow. In all of those circumstances, why oppose the legislation? What is the barrier? As I said, from the opposition’s point of view, this is a matter of hypocrisy, given the position that they in government took in relation to various pieces of legislation and the regulatory arrangements that followed upon them.

Having read the one-page dissenting report by the Greens, it seems like a toss of the coin decision. You could read it either way. On the one hand, they say that it is too early to condemn the legislation without consideration of the regulations that would follow; but then, on the other hand, they say that maybe it is too early to support the legislation without considering the regulations. I suggest in the circumstances that that is not a justification to defeat this legislation. That is not a reason to send this back to the drawing board. That is not a reason to delay the implementation of a mechanism which, as I said earlier, potentially will deal equitably with taxpayers; it will deal equitably with other industries that are already contributors under the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement and who have made their commitment to make such contribution; and it will deal equitably with the horse industry and its future viability. Certainly, arrangements such as this ultimately will be in the interests of the horse industry.

Perhaps numbers will make sure that this legislation does not proceed and that this matter is further delayed. I hope that is not the case. As I said, I do have an interest in the horse industry. I do think that it would be better that this legislation passes and the minister is allowed to get on with the job that he is committed to doing, which is to get proper regulations and to get a levy system in place that has significant support in the industry and that is equitable to all.