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Wednesday, 28 May 2014
Page: 4562

Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (11:53): The Export Control Act 1982 provides the basis for ensuring exports meet the requirements of the importing country. Labor welcomes this bill, the Export Legislation Amendment Bill 2014, which will provide a fairer and more consistent approach to cost recovery for services provided by the Department of Agriculture to exporters. The bill seeks to remedy technical defects and inconsistencies, which will in turn allow the Department of Agriculture to recover an estimated $1.9 million each year for the provision of export services for commodities which are currently excluded from cost-recovery mechanisms. It does so in part by tidying up and standardising the definition of 'prescribed goods' across, I think, seven statutes.

These changes are important because Australia exports around 65 per cent of our farm products, 75 per cent of our fish products and some 60 per cent of our forest products. So, obviously, our international markets are absolutely critical to the health, wellbeing and profitability of our agriculture sector. As we strive to fully capitalise on the Asia-led dining boom, a full and efficient cost recovery of export services will be of increasing importance, given how important our brand image is in those international markets.

Changes to the export legislation will ensure that Australia's exports meet importing-country standards and that our reputation for clean, safe, green food is maintained in those markets. However, changes will be required to Australia's biosecurity legislation more generally for the above points to be achieved and maintained. At this point, I will move the second reading amendment which has been distributed in my name. I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading the House notes:

(1)    the importance of updating legislative requirements that impact on Australia's biosecurity;

(2) that the Quarantine Act 1908 is over a century old and new legislation is needed to support safe and seamless transition of goods and services across Australia's borders; and

(3)    the Beale review recommended that Australia update its biosecurity legislation to ensure Australia's biosecurity systems remain world-class."

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Vasta ): Is the amendment seconded?

Ms Kate Ellis: I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

Mr FITZGIBBON: This legislation is important. The former Labor government, in response to the Beale review, had a larger reform and modernisation program for our biosecurity system. Raising farm gate profits in a sustainable way should be—and I am sure it is—a common goal for all of us in this place, particularly those of us who have an intense interest in agriculture. To achieve this we must ensure that pest and disease threats are minimised and well managed, and a modern, robust biosecurity act will be a powerful step forward in this process.

On 28 November 2012 the former Labor government introduced the Biosecurity Bill 2012, which established the office of Inspector-General for Biosecurity. That bill was introduced in the Senate by the former Minister for Agriculture, Senator Joe Ludwig. Until that legislation was passed, we appointed on an interim basis an Inspector-General for Biosecurity. This was a first step in our modernisation plan—a step taken after the Beale review, which was one of many reviews, including the Nairn report, into our biosecurity system. That legislation was referred to the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee for further consideration, but subsequently lapsed as a result of the proroguing of the 43rd Parliament.

So here we are nine months into this new government and we still have not seen the return of those bills. Interestingly, we asked in Senate estimates this morning about the status of those bills and when the parliament might see them again. Unfortunately, we were not able to get an answer. As the Beale review reminds us, Australia's privileged pest and disease status confers a significant economic, environmental and community benefit for this country. And there is some urgency to get this modernisation program completed, and I urge the minister to, at the very least, inform the House when he sums up on this bill where that reform program is and, indeed, whether we can expect to see it return, if not in the same shape and form as that produced by the former Labor government, in some form in the government's own name.

I said that our clean, green, safe image gives us a competitive advantage around the world—and it certainly does. That is why I have expressed concern about the suggestion that the government is considering merging our biosecurity services into the new border force—which, of course, has responsibility for both immigration and customs. Labor is always happy to talk about reforms and potential efficiencies, but imagine a government entity which is responsible for immigration, customs and biosecurity control. I suggest that, in the absence of significant safeguard mechanisms, in that equation biosecurity runs the risk of being the third poor cousin with less money, less resources and less love and attention.

Further, biosecurity is a highly complex area and requires a high degree of expertise and experience. The department has thousands of officers working in this area—not just sitting behind desks in Canberra but also sitting and working in our seaports, in our airports and in our quarantine stations right around the nation. We cannot accept any diminution of our biosecurity protections. As we look to the Asia-led dining boom, our clean, green, safe image, as I said, will be of critical importance. The Australian brand will be of critical importance as we compete with other nations for the growing food demand around the globe and in Asia. This really should be front and centre of the minds of every government.

In the short period I was agriculture minister, I often thought that the title of the ministry—and I still think it—would be better described, if biosecurity were part of that title, for example, as the 'Minister for Agriculture and Biosecurity.' I think, apart from those in this place who have been the minister, the shadow minister or had an intense interest in this area, including my good friend the member for Parkes—I know it is not Parkes—Calare; they keep changing the names, including the member for Calare—they appreciate that biosecurity is a very large part of the work of the agriculture minister in this place; and rightly so, given the complexities and the importance of biosecurity in keeping pests and disease out of this country. Imagine, if in this country, we had the sort of outbreaks we have seen in the UK and in Europe more broadly with foot-and-mouth and other diseases like BSE, and the outbreaks of BSE in northern America. These are critical matters for Australian agriculture and therefore the Australian economy.

I had a meeting just before I came in here to make this contribution with the Invasive Species Council. I make no judgement at this stage on the merits of the case they put to me but they made some very, very important points which I am going to have a closer look at. They are calling for a Senate committee inquiry into Australia's state of preparedness for new environmental invaders. Their concern is not predominantly for agriculture but for the natural environment. Of course, as the member for Calare would know, it is difficult to differentiate between the two, because the future of our agriculture sector is very much tied to the future of our natural environment. That is why in this place I have often expressed dismay at the government's decision to exclude natural resource sustainability from its agricultural white paper.

I do not know how you properly prepare for the opportunities the Asian dining boom presents to us while not also asking how we are going to produce more food with the same level of land, water and people resources or, in some cases, depleting resources—and I am referring there to land resources and water resources, which are a real issue for this country. I do not know how you plan for agriculture without dealing with the state of those natural resources, including the impact of climate change.

The Invasive Species Council alerted me to the fact—and I was not so much aware of this when I was agriculture minister because they are probably more an issue for the environment minister—that since 2000 there have been multiple failures of environmental biosecurity, resulting in new extremely serious threats to biodiversity and putting increasing pressures on environmental and biosecurity budgets. They give a whole list of those from red imported fire ant, yellow crazy ant right down to myrtle rust.

They say there has been no parliamentary oversight of environmental biosecurity, no investigation of the factors that have led to repeat failures and no evidence of changes made to improve biosecurity processes. They also go on to say that, since 2000, there have been at least 18 Senate inquiries into specific biosecurity failures or perceived inadequacies, all initiated for industry reasons; just one had relevance to the natural environment. If those figures are correct, I think they make an important point about whether we are properly focusing on all of the issues that present risk for our natural environment and therefore the agriculture sector.

Again, I make no judgement about the issues they have put forward but I will certainly, having just come out of the meeting, have a look at what they have had to say and determine whether there is sufficient merit in their proposition to warrant a Senate or some other form of inquiry into the issues they raise.

As the Beale review points out, we can never hope to have a zero risk in our biosecurity system. It is impossible for an island country like Australia in this part of the world, but we must strive to have the very best biosecurity system in the world, one that protects the clean, green, safe image I was talking about.

The idea of consolidating biosecurity into the Border Force is not one that was recommended by Beale—and I did not recheck the Nairn review but I am sure it was not recommended back when Professor Nairn did his review. I make the point that even the Prime Minister's own Commission of Audit showed reluctance in making such a recommendation. It made reference to it but it certainly did not make a recommendation that that course of action be pursued.

I make an appeal to the minister, the Prime Minister and the Treasurer not to rush forward with this idea of folding biosecurity into the Border Force. I think that is a discussion that should happen over a long period of time and I can foreshadow that this side of the House would take some convincing that the same level of resourcing, funding, attention and priority and the same retention of sufficient expertise, including our scientists, that we expect would maintain the level of biosecurity in this country.

I also make a last-ditch appeal to the minister to say something about the border biosecurity reforms when he sums up in this debate. With your indulgence, Mr Deputy Speaker Vasta—and it is particularly relevant, given you are currently occupying the chair—I take this opportunity ahead of tonight's game to say: Go the Blues.