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Tuesday, 2 December 2003
Page: 23485

Mr HAASE (6:33 PM) —I rise in the House tonight to speak on the Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2002, the purpose of which is to amend the Quarantine Act 1908, the Imported Food Control Act 1992, the Pig Industry Act 2001 and the Wool Services Privatisation Act 2000. The content of this legislation is a clear indication that the Howard government are deeply concerned with quarantine issues. The detail of this legislation is a very strong indication that we are committed to the protection of our quarantine borders and our unique and disease free status as an island nation. The bill will extend the Quarantine Act to Christmas Island in accordance with the Howard government's policy to align conditions and standards in the Indian Ocean territories with those of comparable communities in the rest of Australia.

Amendments to the act were developed in conjunction with the Department of Transport and Regional Services after consultation with the inhabitants of Christmas Island. The amendments will see the replacement of the existing quarantine regime on Christmas Island, which was constructed on a law adopted from the colony of Singapore a very long time ago. The new legislative changes mean that the responsibility for animal and plant quarantine functions on the island will come under Australia's own strict regulations, standardising quarantine strategies for lands in Australian waters.

This change does not mean that diseases and pests on Christmas Island can travel more freely to Australia—quite the contrary. The quarantine barriers to be set in place on Christmas Island recognise the differences in pests and disease status between mainland Australia and Christmas Island. People, vessels, animals, plants or other goods entering Australia from Christmas Island will continue to be treated with the same quarantine precautions and procedures as for those same items entering Australia from a foreign country. The bill will extend and maintain Australia's marked quarantine zone but at the same time will allow Christmas Islanders a more flexible approach to developing protection strategies that are aimed at their own trading needs and quarantine status.

The bill will also amend the Quarantine Act to provide for some much needed flexibility in the current arrangements for the employment of quarantine officers. You may well ask why these changes are necessary. At present, there is a limitation in the act which says that only government employees can be deputised to assist in protecting Australia's borders in an unpredictable, non-emergency situation. This means that a high level of full-time staff are potentially employed for intermittent or low-frequency quarantine situations. The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service—AQIS—is currently severely limited in its ability to respond to quarantine intervention situations quickly and efficiently. A restriction on the type of staff able to be deputised by AQIS means increased costs to the Australian taxpayer in the employment of full-time staff for part-time or very rare situations.

The amendments are particularly relevant to remote areas of Australia—including a great deal of my Kalgoorlie electorate. They will effectively allow the Director of Quarantine to appoint a person who is not a Commonwealth, state or territory employee to be a quarantine officer. As a result of the proposed changes, the Director of Quarantine will have the freedom to make the choice to appoint a qualified person from a contract pool who can perform quarantine duties as required and is available on call. Contract hire firms can place staff quickly and efficiently to meet increased and fluctuating demands. This means we can have fully qualified and fully-fledged quarantine officers operating border protection programs as required. We are not here to waste resources on paying staff working full time who have no choice but to sit on their respective backsides in quarantine stations when there are no duties to perform or inspections to carry out. Additionally, the use of contract staff frees up fully trained quarantine officers to concentrate on risk management and enforcement tasks.

The speed and efficiency of our quarantine operations have the potential to be greatly improved as a result of the changes in this bill but Labor, unfortunately, would have those improvements squashed for the sake of their own misperceptions. AQIS already employs contract staff, contrary to what we are hearing in this House from the opposition, so no precedent is set by this bill. At present those contract staff do not have the benefit of a legal safety net to ensure that they and all the duties they perform are protected under law. Yet Labor would deny them the legal protection that we propose.

The amended legislation will provide for a sound legal base to empower those existing or new contract workers, giving them the opportunity to be a real force in the protection of this nation's borders and pristine quarantine reputation. In the event of an unpredictable arrival, deputised or casual employees are a front-line defence against breaches of quarantine, but at present they are limited in their tasks for the simple reason that they are not legally empowered to perform a task as simple as opening a bag. In the case of a major breach of quarantine regulations and an attempt by Australian authorities to bring those that would perpetrate such a breach to task through the courts, if there were a charge that perhaps the officers involved in the search for or discovery of the goods that contravened quarantine regulations were not fully qualified—were not qualified, under the law, to be involved—such a prosecution would be thrown out of court. As a nation we cannot afford to have our cases thrown out of court. We need to have real deterrence in place that will deter and therefore curtail some of the operations that may be engaged in by potential smugglers that would contravene our quarantine regulations.

The contract staff that Labor calls `outsourcing' are already engaged in the quarantine procedures carried out by AQIS. The savings that are proposed as a result of the amendments to this legislation are legitimate, and it is not a case of breaking down union domination in the AQIS area just for the sake of it. Unfortunately, I feel that many of those opposite would talk down this legislation because of the belief that if they did not they were in some way letting down their union mates. I find that deplorable because what is at risk here in the long run is the protection of our borders, the maintenance of our quarantine service and the continuation of the knowledge overseas that Australia is the source of good quality, safe, disease-free product.

If our market situation is contaminated with the belief that we are not tough on quarantine measures—that we will potentially allow exotic diseases into this country—and we lose the faith of our potential buyers, my constituents are going to be directly affected in a very harsh economic way. We are already seeing a situation that is absolutely deplorable where people, through a total lack of responsibility, have put at risk a longstanding and very valuable export market in the form of live sheep exports. Such unconscionable behaviour is, in my opinion, absolutely unforgivable. I believe that no penalty would be sufficient to castigate the perpetrator of an act that put at risk the reputation of this country as a reliable supplier of high-quality product to overseas markets.

We had a big enough problem recently when we had in excess of 50,000 sheep wandering around the Indian Ocean on the Cormo Express. Our reputation as a supplier of high-quality product was sadly damaged in that exercise, and it was damaged through absolutely no fault of Australian producers. They filled the Cormo Express with very healthy, high-quality product and, through some misunderstanding—be it accidental or deliberate—those sheep were charged with being unhealthy. We all know about the consequences—we had a dreadfully embarrassing situation and, thank goodness, that was satisfactorily resolved in the final exercise.

Most indelibly, it highlights for me the fragile nature of our reputation as a reliable supplier of a reputable product, and it is only with the maintenance of that reputation that the long-term economic sustainability of my graziers and pastoralists can be maintained. The last thing we want is to have our quarantine borders breached as a result of a situation where we simply have not been able to have enough inspectors on the ground to guarantee that thorough searches are carried out. We need a flexible and more cost-effective approach, and that is particularly relevant in the current environment where AQIS is implementing enhanced border controls in accordance with the Howard government's initiative announced in the last budget.

In 2001, the Howard government introduced the increased quarantine intervention, or IQI, program. The IQI program has provided almost $600 million for the development of a strategy to identify and act on potential quarantine risks. Since the implementation of the IQI program in 2001 there has been a marked increase in the successful intervention of sea cargo containers and passengers by quarantine staff. The importance of that early detection and intervention was brought to light this year in the north of my electorate. I am pleased to congratulate quarantine officers at Dampier Port in the shire of Roebourne on their quick and decisive actions in identifying a potential risk.

An exotic mosquito species Aedes albopictus was identified aboard an overseas vessel arriving at Dampier Port in March this year. Aedes albopictus is considered to be a serious exotic pest, capable of transmitting a variety of diseases, that can be controlled by the application of strict quarantine measures and screenings. Through the diligent efforts of Ken McFarlane, the environmental health officer for the Roebourne shire, and his staff the situation was dealt with by immediately fogging and monitoring the port area. These quick response measures have resulted in Roebourne shire being recently awarded both a quarantine certificate of commendation and a quarantine national award in recognition of its outstanding preventative measures and efforts. Roebourne shire's response to the mosquito incident, coupled with its ongoing commitment to quarantine waste management, make it a worthy recipient of national recognition.

The shire's strategy for dealing with waste material deemed to be a quarantine risk is an example of how highly they view the necessity for strict quarantine procedures. Tony Battersby, Roebourne's waste management coordinator, and his staff have worked closely with AQIS in Karratha to develop longterm, effective quarantine waste disposal measures for the shire. AQIS staff have been able to contact Tony at all hours to make arrangements for the safe removal and disposal of this waste. The flexibility and willingness of Tony and his staff to accommodate quarantine requirements have enabled AQIS in Karratha to operate at its optimal level.

We are on track financially and practically to take full advantage of our enviable quarantine status. We enjoy a unique location and the luxury of a disease free status that huge economic trade centres like Europe and the United States cannot claim. Our agricultural industry relies on Australia's national and international reputation as a country that produces safe, high-quality produce, and I wish to do all I can to see the successful passage of this legislation, which will maintain that reputation.

The Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2002 is not just about quarantine. The proposed amendments to the act are designed to help our agricultural industry in every way possible. We have an effective quarantine policy in this country, but if we are to maintain our pristine status we must be vigilant and uncompromising. We must have the courage to make adjustments to legislation wherever necessary in order to achieve the best possible quarantine protection. We owe that to our farmers and we owe it to ourselves as a nation. It is vital that all Australians are made aware of the importance of quarantine in protecting Australia's unique environment and agricultural industry from exotic pests and diseases.

Vessels arriving illegally to our shores have gone through none of the strict quarantine measures that have been set up to protect our native flora and fauna. These vessels pose serious quarantine risks from possible infestations of timber pests, insects and vermin, not to mention the exotic diseases which may be carried by animals on board. People may also carry all manner of diseases. The world watched in horror at the spread of the highly infectious and highly lethal SARS virus. What if we could prevent the rapid spread of dangerous illnesses or pests simply through interception? The answer is: we can.

To improve our border protection we need to amend legislation so that remote locations in my electorate and throughout Northern Australia can call upon quarantine staff at a moment's notice. The contracted quarantine staff will be able to deal with an identified quarantine risk or breach within an effective time frame. We should not have to wait for a full-time AQIS staff member to be transported to the area to deal with the situation. By then it is often too late. It would take just one aggressive exotic pest or disease for our agricultural industry to suffer devastating effects that could spell utter disaster for people's livelihoods and the economy of Australia.

That is why I call on the opposition to pass without further amendment this proposed legislation. The issue is far too important to be bogged down by party politics. We have heard today from the new Leader of the Opposition that now is a time to turn over a new leaf and an opportunity for the Labor Party to work with the government to provide a better course for this nation in the future. I call on the Labor Party again: do as your new leader has said, agree with us on the passage of this legislation and make sure that the agriculturalists, horticulturalists et cetera of this nation, who are still the backbone of regional Australia, are in a position to be assured that this parliament will collectively put in place legislation as required to guarantee our clean and green status into the future. With determination and a strong stance on border protection in this country we can prevent any such quarantine breakdown and consequent disaster. I applaud the Howard government's commitment to quarantine, which was so sadly neglected under the Labor government. I urge all in the House this evening to put aside traditional party differences and pass this legislation without further amendment.