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Thursday, 30 June 1994
Page: 2438

Senator BURNS —My question is directed to the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy. I refer to a press release issued by Senator Chapman yesterday in his capacity as Deputy Chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Industry, Science, Technology, Transport, Communications and Infrastructure which inquired into natural disasters management. Senator Chapman states in the release that he has obtained support for his campaign to have a national mouse plague commission established and for existing disaster relief classifications to be broadened to include mouse plagues to enable farmers to qualify for maximum financial assistance. He further claims that the committee's findings are a strong rebuff for Senator Collins as minister who `displayed contempt in parliament for rural communities with his refusal to heed the plight of our farmers'. Will the minister respond to these claims by informing the Senate of the true position?

Senator COLLINS —It is true that the committee made a qualified recommendation for the establishment of a mouse plague commission. What the committee said was that if a commission was not established there should be guarantees given that there would be sufficient stockpiles of strychnine—and that is a multiple use commodity—stored to ensure that there would be enough on hand. But at that point Senator Chapman's press release and the truth part company. To be specific—

Senator Schacht —Well, that wouldn't be unusual, would it?

Senator COLLINS —It is in the middle of the second line of the first paragraph of the press release. Senator Chapman's press release is a gross misrepresentation of the committee's findings and certainly a misrepresentation of my position on this issue. In fact, the three-page extract of the committee's report that was distributed by Senator Chapman along with his press statement gives the lie to his own press release.

  He clearly has not checked the actual report against his press statement or he is deliberately setting out to mislead the press and certainly the rural community. He says wrongly that the committee has recommended that the disaster guidelines be changed with consideration to including mouse plagues. What the recommendation says is—and I will take it up—that the NDRA guidelines be reviewed with consideration given to including mouse plagues.

  The report contains not one word of criticism of me as implied in the press release, nor would I expect it, considering the action I have taken on this to contain any such criticism. The Hansard record of proceedings in this place shows clearly that I do consider this to be a very serious issue for the rural community. It was the first thing I said in response to a question from Senator Chapman in this place in February this year.

  After acknowledging the seriousness of the issue, I said that I was yet to be convinced of the merits of establishing yet another commission and I would convene a meeting of all the relevant experts. What I said was that if I could be convinced by the experts that the establishment of yet another commission would result in the death of one additional mouse, I would set it up. I convened that meeting. I met with experts from the CSIRO, the Grains Research and Development Corporation rodent task force, the Bureau of Resource Sciences, the Australian Plague Locust Commission and my own departmental officers. The meeting was held in Canberra in late February. Unsolicited by Senator Chapman, I wrote to him and advised him of the outcome of that meeting. I table the letter I sent to Senator Chapman.

  Essentially, the meeting acknowledged that the functions of the proposed commission were largely being carried out already by the rodent task force at present, and I am sure that that information was probably not given by Senator Chapman to the committee. It was agreed that the GRDC, which has already spent over $1 million on the problem, should be encouraged to continue funding the rodent task force.

  Senator Chapman's claim that I have shown contempt for the issue is a reference to my suggestion in February—and it is in the Hansard—that the then opposition leader, Dr John Hewson, might like to attend this meeting to pick up some handy hints on how to deal with rats. He did not heed my advice and, as they say in the classics, the rest is history.

  At the very least, I think that Senator Chapman owes an apology to the committee and the farmers he is trying to mislead with such a gross misinterpretation of the recommendations of the committee of which he is a member.