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Monday, 11 May 2015
Page: 2753


Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (15:40): I indicate that I will support the second reading of the Biosecurity Bill 2014, because our biosecurity framework does need to be revamped. I know enormous work has been done by the previous government and, indeed, by this government and the Minister for Agriculture, the Hon. Barnaby Joyce. I support the second reading stage of this bill being passed, but I still reserve my position in terms of a number of amendments that have been put up by the opposition relating to the framework of this bill and how it would work. I expect that I will be speaking to the agriculture minister later today or this evening—in fact, by tomorrow morning—in respect of those matters.

I have attended a number of inquiries in respect of biosecurity, and a number of my colleagues have been at these inquiries too. The most recent that I recollect was about potatoes. There is a real concern that bringing in fresh potatoes from New Zealand could subject our potato industry to the real risk of zebra chip disease. Zebra chip disease, for those who are not familiar with it, is a pretty nasty disease that can affect potatoes. It is a disease that Australia is free of at the moment, but in New Zealand they have a real problem in managing the zebra chip disease. The disease means that once you cook a potato it has black-and-white stripes like a zebra in the potato. It is rendered inedible because of the high sugar content. That is something that, if it gets into Australia, if it infects our potato crops, will have disastrous implications. It will affect the viability of the potato industry; it will mean enormous costs in dealing with zebra chip disease and the like.

There is another disease from New Zealand—I am not picking on the Kiwis—

Senator Moore: You are.

Senator XENOPHON: I am not picking on the Kiwis, Senator Moore. The fact is we have close economic relationships with New Zealand. We have deep bonds that were forged in blood from the time of the Anzacs, from the time of Gallipoli, and since then. Fire blight is a disease that affects the apple industry. We do not have it here in Australia. New Zealand apples do have it. It causes enormous damage to the apple and pear industries in that nation. We do not want it here.

What concerns me is that at the potato inquiry—my understanding is that there was a bureaucrat who took one of the witnesses from the potato sector to task. I think Senator Colbeck, as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture, would be appalled by this. The bureaucrat took one of the witnesses aside and said words to the effect: 'How dare you raise this issue! Do you realise that this sort of inquiry, this sort of evidence, actually damages our reputation internationally in free trade forums?' I am sorry, but if it is the Department of Agriculture involved in biosecurity, then its priority ought to be preventing pests and diseases coming into this country and affecting Australian agriculture. Issues of free trade are not its business; it is the issue of protecting Australian industry from pests and diseases.

An enormous amount of work has been done by the current minister and the previous minister in getting to this stage. This bill is a very comprehensive piece of legislation. It needs to be revamped, I understand that, but there are issues in terms of the degree of supervision of this bill, the degree to which this framework ought to be subject to independent scrutiny in a watchdog or ombudsman type role, and I am sure that will be the subject of vigorous debate in the committee stage.

I just want to raise an issue in relation to my position on this. Unambiguously, I can state what my preferred position is. We ought to look at the matters raised in a bill introduced in this place: the Quarantine Amendment (Disallowing Permits) Bill 2011. What that bill effectively did was insert provisions into the act which:

… effectively make the Biosecurity Policy Determinations legislative instruments and provide that any import or removal permit issued otherwise than in accordance with such a disallowable Biosecurity Policy Determination are themselves disallowable by the Parliament.

That is not about political decisions being made; it is about having an extra level of protection in this nation in respect of biosecurity. Once a disease comes into this country—if it is zebra chip, if it is fire blight, if it is foot-and-mouth—that is it; it irrevocably changes that industry and that sector and it damages our clean, green reputation internationally. And we do not want that. I do not think anyone in this place wants that.

My concern is with the risk matrix that has been applied. I remember the strong advocacy by former Senator Boswell in this regard, for the pineapple industry and for bananas in particular. He expressed those concerns time and time again. Former Senator Boswell was absolutely right in respect of those concerns. We are mugs internationally and we are schmucks internationally when we take such a literal view of free trade. In fact, at international forums Australians have been referred to as a 'free trade Taliban' because we take such a fundamentalist approach to free trade issues and because we do not protect our national interest, which obviously intersects with ensuring a clean, green, disease-free reputation that we have fought very hard to maintain.

So it is my view that the best way of dealing with this is an extra layer of protection. I know that it is opposed by my colleagues—both government and opposition. My preference is to have that extra level of scrutiny, that extra level of safeguard, by allowing for these instruments to be disallowable.

The question that I wish to raise with the government is: will they support such an approach being investigated? If not, why not? At the very least, I want to ask whether they consider that having that extra layer of safeguard would be a preferable approach. In my view it ought to be. In my view, you ought to have it as a disallowable instrument so that there can be a risk analysis tabled in both houses of parliament and cause a motion to be moved to refer it to the relevant committee in each House. That is the sort of thing we ought to be looking at.

My view is that we cannot be too careful in relation to this. I think that there are some in the biosecurity sphere, in the Department of Agriculture, that have confused their roles between looking after the biosecurity of this nation and being tied up with free trade negotiations. We cannot sacrifice just one part of the agricultural sector for another on the altar of free trade. We have to be extremely vigilant about this.

It is not just about whether the disease comes in or not. If New Zealand potatoes are allowed into this country, you actually change the economics of the potato industry, because they must manage that risk. They must factor in future investment decisions and what the potential is for zebra chip disease to come into this country. They make decisions accordingly. It is an investment killer and a job killer, because it is an extra level of risk for that industry. We must avoid that at all costs.

We also need, in the context of our agricultural sector, to look at issues of countervailing duties and to pursue those aggressively. It is related, in the sense that the European Union spend a lot of money supporting their wine industry—for instance, promoting their wine industry. We have a situation where overwhelmingly the wine grape sector and our wineries are doing it very tough because of an unlevel playing field. That is another issue which makes our sectors more vulnerable and less profitable. That lower degree of profitability makes them particularly vulnerable to any biosecurity threats as well.

If this is going to be the ultimate renewable resource—which I believe agriculture is—we cannot afford for anything to go wrong. That is why I support the second reading stage of this bill. I look forward to speaking to the minister and the shadow minister in relation to some of the key amendments in respect of this. I still believe we need to ultimately have a method of disallowing permits and having a degree of parliamentary scrutiny of this so that, if there is a move to bring in New Zealand potatoes with the risk of zebra chip, then the parliament ought to have a role to play. Do not leave it just to the bureaucrats, some of whom have confused their roles in biosecurity with that of being free trade advocates, and that is a very dangerous path to go down.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Xenophon, there is a second reading amendment that Senator Siewert has put before the chair at the moment, so I cannot ask you to move your foreshadowed second reading amendment at this time. There is also a foreshadowed second reading amendment that Senator Waters had indicated she will move. So, when we get to the point of dealing with the second reading amendment before the chair, I will give Senator Waters or someone on her behalf an opportunity to move that amendment. Once that is disposed of, or if it is moved and disposed of, I will then give you an opportunity to move your amendment if you are in the chamber.

Senator XENOPHON: Sorry; we were just waiting for it to be drafted. I seek your guidance on this, Mr Deputy President. I would like to foreshadow an amendment, which would add to the end of the motion: 'But the Senate calls on the government to review the biosecurity framework to provide that biosecurity policy determinations are subject to disallowance and, therefore, parliamentary scrutiny.' As I understand it, that means that it can only be dealt with after Senator Siewert's second reading amendment?

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Yes, and, as I was saying, there is already another second reading amendment foreshadowed by Senator Waters. So I will go to Senator Waters first, because that was foreshadowed earlier than yours. Once that is disposed of—if it is moved—I will then give you an opportunity to move yours. I am really just saying to everybody now: senators who want to move second reading amendments that have been foreshadowed need to be in the chamber when we dispose of Senator Siewert's amendment, because that is the only opportunity people will have to then move a second reading amendment.

Senator XENOPHON: I will superglue myself to my seat.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator Xenophon.