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Prime Minister discusses establishing the commission of inquiry to determine the cause of the equine flu outbreak.



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This transcript has been prepared by a source external to the Parliamentary Library.

 

It may not have been checked against the broadcast or in an y other way. Freedom from error, omissions or misunderstandings cannot be guaranteed.

 

For the purposes of quoting verbatim from a transcript, it is advisable to verify the transcript against the broadcast.

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PM

 

Monday 3 September 2007

Prime Minister discusses establishing the commission of inquiry to determine the cause of the equine flu outbreak

 

MARK COLVIN: The Prime Minister John Howard has defended the government against accusations that it was repeatedly warned that Australia was susceptible to an equine influenza outbreak. 

 

Yesterday, the Australian Racing Board produced letters it had sent to the then Agriculture Minister, Warren Truss, back in 2004 and 2005. The letters laid out its opposition to quarantine changes, which allowed private vets to inspect imported horses. 

 

But Mr Howard says that while the government did consider those letters, it decided that the fact that quarantine vets would still be supervising was a sufficient safeguard. The recently retired High Court judge, Ian Callinan, will soon start an inquiry into the flu outbreak, and he says he is prepared to make findings against the government if it's in any way to blame. 

 

From Canberra, Gillian Bradford reports. 

 

GILLIAN BRADFORD: He may have retired from the bench, but far from putting his feet up, Ian Callinan, is about to embark on one of his most challenging tasks: finding the cause of this equine flu outbreak which has devastated Australia's racing industry. 

 

IAN CALLINAN: I hope I've got at least some understanding of the magnitude of the problem. It seems to be a very, very great one with a lot of people seriously affected, and not just the racing industry. 

 

GILLIAN BRADFORD: While it mightn't be called a royal commission, the Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran says it will have almost identical powers. Mr Callinan will able to compel witnesses to appear and hold public hearings  

 

There are already 14 quarantine investigators working to try to find out how this virus came into Australia. Now their work will be scrutinised by Mr Callinan, and if he is not satisfied they're independent, he'll demand outside help 

 

IAN CALLINAN: I've told the minister that if in my view independent investigators should be brought in, I will certainly tell him that, and I will not hesitate to do it. And the minister has told me that he is prepared, if I make such a recommendation, to facilitate that. 

 

GILLIAN BRADFORD: The Prime Minister John Howard says this inquiry should leave no stone unturned, and that might mean the government itself will come in for considerable scrutiny. The Racing Board has already fired shot, saying it warned ministers a few years ago that allowing private sector vets to screen imported horses was a mistake, and could allow equine influenza through the door. 

 

But Mr Howard says its wrong to say the government ignored its concerns. 

 

JOHN HOWARD: No, that's absolutely wrong. We considered that view, and we were satisfied that that view was not properly based because I'm told, in part, the overall supervision still remained in the hands of government vets. 

 

GILLIAN BRADFORD: Mr Callinan says, if called for, he would not hesitate to make a finding against the government. 

 

IAN CALLINAN: They're often made. It's the whole purpose of commissions of inquiry and inquiries that the executive appoints the person to make the inquiry and then the person reports. It's not something that a court can do, so there always has to be somebody appointed. The appointee is usually appointed inevitably by the government, the government has to provide the resources. 

 

But all the time people are reporting on executive action whenever they undertake an inquiry of this kind.  

 

GILLIAN BRADFORD: The racing industry may have been hoping for it, but this inquiry will not address the issue of compensation and it won't look more broadly into the quarantine service. The terms of reference, according to the Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran are designed to get to the bottom of this current crisis. 

 

PETER MCGAURAN: To determine the cause of the outbreak of equine influenza in Australia, and to make recommendations to prevent and eradicate the disease in Australia, and any matters incidental to those are primary objectives. 

 

GILLIAN BRADFORD: Ian Callinan says it will probably take a few weeks to get this inquiry up and running, and he can't even give a rough guess on when it might end. But he points out already there have been 1,000 people interviewed by quarantine. So he, and his yet to be formed inquiry secretariat, will have a mountain of information to wade through. 

 

IAN CALLINAN: Look, I don't like long inquiries, that's all I can say. I've been in long inquiries, and I would hope to make it as quick as possible. But I think the reality is that actual … anything done publicly, there won't be very much done publicly, for some weeks. But that doesn't mean that we won't be able to do a lot of other things. 

 

MARK COLVIN: Retired High Court Judge, Ian Callinan, ending Gillian Bradford's report.