Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 28 October 2021
Page: 10310

Mr CONAGHAN (Cowper) (13:00): We talk regularly in this place about issues of national security around terrorism and policing and those who would wilfully do us harm and impact our way of life. I have said before in this place 'what you can't see can hurt you', and this statement is true not just of people causing intentional harm to our citizens and our property but of other organisms that can carry within them the same result. The introduction of COVID-19 to Australian shores has caused undeniable devastation to Australian lives and livelihoods. It has altered the Australian psyche in ways that few things really could. The issues posed by difficulties in the detection and the effective and appropriate management of COVID-19 spreading have seemed insurmountable at times, and at other times have shone a spotlight on the areas in which the government has the power to adapt and better control matters of biosecurity in years to come. This bill, the Biosecurity Amendment (Enhanced Risk Management) Bill 2021, forms part of that important adaptation.

As its primary purpose, this bill seeks to strengthen the management of human health risks across maritime and aviation pathways, improve the efficiency and effectiveness of administration of the act and increase the range of civil and criminal penalties. With the country set to open back up to the world in a matter of weeks—as we certainly need to—it is critical that these measures be in place to preserve the hard-won freedoms that our world-leading vaccination rates have recently allowed.

Much of the detail contained within the bill is a direct result of learning from the Ruby Princess incident on 19 March 2020. I do not believe anyone would deny that considerable mistakes were made when the Ruby Princess was allowed to dock in Sydney Harbour and passengers were able to disembark into our communities. But the fact remains that, at that time, what we in hindsight consider—and hindsight is a very comfortable carriage to travel in—to be appropriate checks and balances, communication channels across departments and necessary tools for containment did not exist. We as a country had not experienced an incident of this magnitude before, particularly in relation to a maritime vessel.

The incident was subsequently reviewed by the Inspector-General of Biosecurity, and a New South Wales special commission of inquiry was undertaken. A number of recommendations were then made to prevent a repeat occurrence from impacting on Australians. They included: the operation of provisions within the Biosecurity Act; prearrival reporting obligations and the importance of human health assessments prior to entry to a port; and powers to manage the human health of groups arriving in terminals, including an increase to civil and criminal penalties under that act. It should be noted that none of the above changes are considered onerous or disproportionate to the risk posed.

When looking at the Ruby Princess as a single incident, the ripple effect included at least 28 deaths and 662 coronavirus cases linked to the Ruby Princess, noting that at the time testing was not readily available to the wider community. It was also an immediate catalyst for the lockdown of New South Wales and the nation, as the world braced itself to learn more about the disease and how to manage it. Additionally, it's widely accepted that the first cases of the virus that seeded into my own electorate and, indeed, the first death from coronavirus in Cowper were as a direct result of the Ruby Princess incident.

Taking this into account, I believe the following measures included in this bill to be appropriate. A group direction may require those in the determined classification of people covered by the direction to stay in a certain place or to wear protective equipment. They may be required to provide information for contact tracing or undergo certain testing with consent. It should be noted that, in relation to the use of group directions, protections have been built in so that force will not be used against an individual and appropriate medical standards will be applied.

Decisions about whether to make group directions and what requirements may be included in the direction will be made by human biosecurity officers who have appropriate public health training and experience. Human biosecurity officers must be satisfied of certain things before making a group direction or including a requirement in a direction, such as ensuring that the direction and its requirement will be effective in or contribute to managing the risk posed. Civil penalties will apply if people fail to comply with a requirement specified in a group direction.

I feel it's important to note that the bill has been developed through consultation with the state and territory health departments and through the cross-jurisdictional Chief Human Biosecurity Officer Forum, chaired by the Commonwealth's chief medical officer. It has also been considered by the scrutiny committee of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. While a number of suggestions were given which led to the finessing of finer detail, all conceded that strengthening biosecurity measures at Australia's borders is vital to protecting the environment and the economy, and all accepted assurances that biosecurity group directions would be proportionate to the risk level. It is also accepted that the creation and use of greater penalties for a wider range of responsibilities is a necessary deterrent for noncompliance with the Biosecurity Act.

Whilst this bill refers entirely to marine biosecurity, I want to pay attention to the work that this government has done—both on a federal level and in New South Wales, including in my electorate—with tropical soda apple, which was introduced into New South Wales, unfortunately, in 1988. Whilst tropical soda apple sounds like a wonderful cocktail that you could sip on around the pool on a Friday afternoon, it is an insidious weed from Brazil that was introduced into the Mid North Coast.

This government has invested millions of dollars in my electorate alone to attempt to eradicate tropical soda apple. I would like to commend the Kempsey council, in the Macleay Valley, for the work that they're doing with farmers to attempt to eradicate tropical soda apple. It is a six-foot high weed that, if left for six months, can turn into a very thick privet-style bush and overtake acres and acres of very fertile, high-yield paddocks. It is completely devastating. The farmers around my electorate have spent a great deal of time and a great deal of their own money, but they are very appreciative of this government's financial assistance to look after their own paddocks. Only recently, there was a grant to Kempsey Shire Council for some $300,000 to assist those farmers to continue with their efforts. Hopefully, it won't spread further north into the member for Page's electorate or further south down into the electorate of Lyne. Again, I'd like to recognise the work done by Kempsey Shire Council and the contribution by the New South Wales state government, and also the contribution of the federal government, in trying to eradicate this very noxious weed.

In conclusion: we, as a government, must take all reasonable consistent and appropriate measures to ensure the safety of Australian lives and livelihoods, whether from a conscious human threat or any other. COVID-19 has undeniably altered our perception of appropriate measures and highlighted issues within the current assessment process of risk. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It has provided us with the opportunity to learn, adapt and plan for the future security and success of this country, and this bill is one step in that important process. I commend it to the House.

Debate adjourned.