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Tuesday, 14 June 2011
Page: 5979

Mr BURKE (WatsonMinister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities) (17:54): A number of issues have been raised. If I start to work through them, hopefully that will get us a fair way. There is some information that is still coming to me. As it comes I will be able to answer those issues as well.

Mr Chester: Where's your iPad tonight?

Mr BURKE: I will have the iPad later tonight, when it is my area. I am reliant on paper here.

Mr Sidebottom: It's in his head.

Mr BURKE: To begin, the member for Calare asked questions regarding myrtle rust and the related issue of guava rust. The information I have is as follows: myrtle rust was first detected on the Central Coast of New South Wales in April 2010, as the member for Calare referred to in his question. It is not known and never has been known how it entered Australia. The rust fungi do produce spores which are carried by wind. They can be carried on people's clothing; they can also be carried on plants or goods that are shipped around the world. Myrtle rust does belong to a group known as the guava rust complex; it is part of that group. It is native to South America and is present in the United States and Mexico. Immediately after it was identified as myrtle rust the Commonwealth-state Consultative Committee on Emergency Plant Pests developed a response plan to attempt to eradicate the fungus. I am advised that after several months of effort it was determined in December 2010 that it was not technically feasible to eradicate it. The member for Calare asked quite specifically how these decisions are made and why we make the judgment call that we do. It is on the best available scientific information that comes forward. I do believe that is the appropriate way for advice to be given to a minister.

A similar question was asked by the member for Calare, the shadow minister, with respect to Asian honeybees. We do need to remember that when Asian honeybees were first found, in May 2007, the agriculture minister was Peter McGauran, a former member for Gippsland. No immediate action was taken by Minister McGauran. I should read directly from the notes of Minister Ludwig: 'In fact it took the Labor government under Minister Tony Burke to approve the funding to combat this pest.' But, in fairness to Peter McGauran, at that point you initially do your assessments, you work out whether to use containment or eradication, and you work out what might be possible. He did what I have just described as subsequent ministers doing, and that is to take the best available scientific advice that is in front of you. That is why the decision was taken on Asian honeybees. Subsequent decisions were similarly taken on the basis of scientific advice which came forward.

The member for Gippsland then asked about pest animals generally, with specific reference to wild dogs and other animals. The first answer to that is that, in working these issues through with the states, eradication jobs in the first instance do fall to state jurisdictions. They then come to a ministerial council where it is worked out whether a cooperative approach might be possible. The department does fund a number of surveillance programs from the Office of the Chief Veterinary Officer. We do work closely with state and territory governments but funding is also available through Landcare, the National Landcare Program, and through Caring for our Country. I will simply give an example which, while it is probably not of great concern to the Victorian end of the country, is one of the great examples of the extraordinary damage that is done by an invasive species, and that is the damage currently being caused across the north of Australia in the rangelands by camels. One of the biggest projects that Caring for our Country has ever undertaken was $19 million to deal with the problem of camels across the country. One of the challenges is that whenever we act we need to do it at the same time as the states are acting. (Extension of time granted) Otherwise, all you do is keep trimming the numbers rather than making a real impact. When it can be coordinated, and from time to time it is done, there is an opportunity to be able to have a very direct impact on invasive species. The member for Calare also asked about the Export Certification Reform Package and specific undertakings which were given by me at the time. I will try to get more information during the course of this session—or, if not, provide it subsequently—on the independent auditing. I do remember dealing with the issue at the time. I just want to make sure that my recollection matches the most up-to-date advice. If you can bear with me, I will seek further information on that; hopefully, we can get that information. The information I have deals with the implementation of a number of issues but not specifically the audit that the member for Calare referred to. I do not want to waste your time with the other parts of it.

The issue of New Zealand apples was also raised. I do not yet have information on that here, which is probably as you would want it. That will also arrive shortly. I will move to the issue of biosecurity reforms, which was raised by the member for Makin, but, firstly, I flag for the member for Calare that the issue of the National Skills Needs List would, I suspect, be better directed to a different section of the estimates process. I am not sure of the extent to which we will be able to get direct information on that tonight. I suspect that is a list maintained through a different portfolio and the question may well be best asked of that portfolio.

On the issue of apples, a science based review is being conducted by Biosecurity Australia of Australia's import policy for New Zealand apples. The question was asked in terms of why New Zealand is responsible for a lot of these decisions. The information that I have is that Biosecurity Australia is conducting the science based review of Australia's import policy for New Zealand apples. The review is being conducted because the World Trade Organisation found that our import policy for New Zealand apples was not supported by the science. We fought that in the international court, as growers and all Australians expected us to, but we now have to deal with the decision as it came down. As I say, it is Biosecurity Australia that is conducting that review on Australia's import policy as a result of that decision.

I now turn to the question from the member for Makin on biosecurity reforms generally. We need to remember where the biosecurity reform process came from. Members—fewer on the Victorian side of the border, I have to say, but everybody north of that—will very much remember the impact that equine influenza had across much of the east of Australia.

Dr Stone: The biggest warmblood industry in Australia.

Mr BURKE: I know, but you actually did a little better in terms of avoiding equine influenza than elsewhere with the eradication programs that then had to be conducted and which were concluded after we came to government in 2007. That set the context for why it was necessary to have a look at the entire biosecurity system in Australia, which resulted in the Beale review, to which this budget has continued to respond.

The 2011-12 budget provides for a smarter approach to the management of biosecurity risks and reaffirms this government's commitment to reforming Australia's biosecurity system. It includes $425.4 million over four years for border operations at our airports and mail centres, including $205.6 million for the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service; $15 million—there is a point in every one of these; I will skip the decimals—for continuing eradication programs for nationally significant agricultural and environmental animal and plant pests and diseases; and $4.2 million for improved information and communications technology systems across the biosecurity system. (Extension of time granted) It also includes $19 million for staged investment for post-entry quarantine arrangements with funding for urgent capital works.

The way to reform our biosecurity system is to focus on further developing a risk management approach, progressing risk based intervention initiatives across the organisation, drafting new legislation to facilitate reforms, developing a sustainable funding model for biosecurity and continuing to build a partnership approach to industry. We have the answer to the member for Calare's question regarding the Export Certification Reform Package. An independent review of the export certification fees and charges has been conducted by Ernst and Young as per the agreement that was made last term. The minister has undertaken to publish the review on the DAFF website. It finds that AQIS fees and charges are consistent with government cost recovery guidelines. Hopefully that provides some information in direct response to that.

If I can then go to questions raised by the member for Murray. First of all, in terms of page 64 of the papers and the profile of biosecurity funding. I want to refer to a couple of issues. The first is that a number of biosecurity programs have for many years now been budgeted as four-year programs. At the end of the four years they get announced again, as has continued to happen. But as you go across the forward estimates and get closer to the expiry, you see the profile going down. That has always been the case in biosecurity funding. It is the nature of so much of it happening through four-year programs.

There is an added issue on the figures that the member for Murray referred to, and it goes to some comments I made in the opening statement. That is, for some of the quarantine facilities that were previously leased, and that the government is now looking at entering back into a permanent situation of purchasing these properties, the dollars for those purchases currently under contract negotiation do not appear in the budget papers. There would be an obvious impact in the contract negotiations if midway through figures of what we thought we might end up paying on behalf of the Commonwealth at the conclusion of those negotiations suddenly appeared. Those two principles combined tell the story that had raised the concerns of the member for Murray.

The member for Murray also asked about the drought pilot, as did the member for Braddon. Both are in electorates which had experienced exceptional circumstances declarations and have alternately dealt with the devastation of lack of water and then the devastation of too much water at different points. One of the challenges of the drought reform pilot was to change from crisis management to risk management; that is, instead of waiting for the devastation before the Commonwealth would step in in any way, the Commonwealth would actually play a role in the preparation period so that farmers were better prepared to be able to deal with the inevitable crises that come on our continent, given the nature of our climate.

This would also avoid some of the division that has constantly been there within communities where assistance was very much driven by the extent to which an individual producer was in debt. It was thought it was worth looking to see if there were another way other than exceptional circumstances to be able to conduct this. At the time the decision for the pilot to be in Western Australia was taken for two reasons: first of all, the Western Australian agriculture minister, Terry Redman, a member of the National Party, came to us and suggested that a pilot of the new policy be conducted there in Western Australia. All ministers had been involved in the discussions about the new approach, but it was Western Australia that actually suggested that the pilot happen there. The second reason for doing it in Western Australia was that it eliminated the capacity of a fear campaign for people who were at that point in drought, because at the time no new areas were being designated for exceptional circumstances assistance. It created a situation where it was easier to pilot something gently with the communities there. (Extension of time granted). The government does not prejudge the outcome of the pilot, but we have now extended the pilot for another year. Extending the pilot in this way will ensure that farmers currently receiving assistance continue to do so while the review is under way and the government considers the next steps on national reforms to drought assistance. The extension of the pilot will also allow more time to properly test the measures and therefore assist the government in its consideration of drought reform. Reform of drought policy nationally will be considered in the light of the independent review of the pilot which is currently underway and discussions with state and territory agriculture ministers. The government intends to settle its new approach in the context of the 2012-13 budget. Hopefully that provides some of the information that was being sought by the member for Murray.

Dr Stone: It leaves about 1,200 farmers in limbo.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms K Livermore ): Order!

Mr BURKE: The farmers who are in situations currently where there is not an exceptional circumstances declaration or a drought are in the identical situation they would be in if there was no pilot of a new system. They are experiencing better seasons than they were during drought. People know that that there are still individual hardships, and no-one is skating over that, but it is important to remember that, if the biggest challenge that we have is communities saying that the new way of approaching drought is not being rolled out quickly enough, that certainly is an endorsement of the approach the government has taken in going down the path of the pilot in the first place.

The member for Braddon also asked me to deal with some of the issues as to where we were up to with negotiations regarding forestry in Tasmania. The member for Braddon has a very deep concern, representing a large number of timber workers—both people working for contractors and also people working for mills, with jobs in haulage or other areas—within the seat of Braddon. For many years the debate on forestry in Tasmania has been characterised by conflict. It has always been a situation of governments of one colour or the other, in a political circumstance, doing their best to arbitrate on who would win in a battle between conservation and forestry.

About a year ago, a whole lot of people who had never been at the same table before sat around the table. Environmental groups, the union—the CFMEU—and industry all sat around the same table for the first time. I remember at the time the key issue that people were talking about was not whether or not they could reach agreement but whether or not they could cope being at the same table. The level of passion after years of conflict was extremely high.

That resulted, in the second half of last year, in a high-level statement of principles. The government took the view, together with the Tasmanian government, that we needed to know whether the statement of principles could in fact be turned into a formalised agreement. That was why the government took the view that the appointment of Bill Kelty as a negotiator to work with the parties and see if it could get to an agreement was something worth doing.

There is a level of concern in many communities, knowing that Gunns have made the decision to get out of native forestry. There are many people facing very high degrees of uncertainty at the moment, including businesses, in the wake of what has happened with markets—initially buyers in Japan insisting for the first time on FSC certification of timber, combined with the devastation that occurred in Japan, added to the impact of the high dollar, which of itself has caused significant challenges for industry. When you put that against the backdrop of the decisions being made by Gunns, there are very high degrees of uncertainty.

It is still the preference of the government, though, for the parties to reach their agreement and for us to look at what they bring to the table. There is still a high level of opportunity here for an agreement to be put together the likes of which we have not seen in Australia—indeed, what we have always seen has been starkly the opposite. Each time I talk to the parties—and I talk to them often—they are closer than they were the day before. They are not there yet. I know that Bill Kelty is again working on the issue tomorrow. (Extension of time granted). I am hopeful that there will be an agreement soon that both the Commonwealth and the Tasmanian governments can deal with directly. The Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation is the only issue of the ones that were put forward that I have not yet touched on, and that was discussed by the member for Murray. In response to that, I can offer the information that I have. When you look at the funding for any of the research and development corporations, we need to remember that most of their funding—and RIRDC is a little bit different from the others—is through matched government levies. So the government money goes up and down depending on projections as to what happens with the various industries. For many research and development corporations it is relatively simple to forecast where they think things are going. For the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, which has many, many small levies for small, growing industries, it is more complex. The actual revenue from government will increase over the next financial year for the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. Revenue from levies will also increase in 2011-12. However, the corporation has spent some of their reserves, so their opening balance in 2011-12 has gone down for that reason. Hopefully that provides some insight into the budget figures that the member for Murray was referring to.