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Thursday, 1 November 2012
Page: 8842

Senator FURNER (Queensland) (16:02): I welcome the opportunity to speak about the Gillard government's commitment to Australia's biosecurity system because this government inherited a run-down biosecurity system and we have been doing the right thing by Australian farmers and by the community. We are building a biosecurity system for today and for the future. I will say a bit more about that later.

Firstly, I want to remind senators about the role of the biosecurity system and then talk about the role of parliamentarians. Our biosecurity system exists to protect Australia's unique biosecurity status. I repeat: to protect Australia's unique biosecurity status. That is what it is there for. To do that, biosecurity decisions must be based on science. If they are not based on the science, then, quite frankly, they put the Australian community at risk. That is a lesson that the Leader of the Nationals, Mr Truss, became only too familiar with when he ignored all of the evidence, including warnings from industry, and assured the community that 'there would never be an outbreak of equine influenza in Australia'. We all know what happened in August 2007.

Over 11½ years of government, those opposite left us with a dishevelled quarantine system. They gave us: white spot disease in prawns in Darwin in 2000; black sigaota in bananas in 2001—

Senator Colbeck: Sigatoka.

Senator FURNER: Thank you for that correction. They gave us fire ants in 2001; small hive beetle affecting bees in 2002; citrus canker, and a poorly managed investigation into its source in 2004; and let us not forget sugarcane smut in 2006; and the biosecurity quinella of Asian honeybees and equine influenza in 2007. They flogged off Australia's post-entry quarantine facilities, stripping hundreds of millions of dollars from the budget. Now, Campbell Newman is making the same short-term budget mistake. He is flogging off Queensland's Eagle Farm post-entry quarantine facility, without consultation with all the affected parties. They say a lot but deliver very little. They were all alarm and no action on New Zealand apples and Mr Cobb, despite the profligacy of the Leader of the Opposition, has not managed to get a single dollar to improve Australia's biosecurity system through the shadow cabinet.

If they checked what they said about quarantine with their record in government and in opposition, they would hang their heads in shame. It was up to the Labor government to commission a comprehensive review of the quarantine and biosecurity system—the Beale Review. The review made 84 recommendations to improve Australia's biosecurity system, one of which was to take the politics out of the system. The government has agreed, in principle, with the recommendations and is systematically implementing Beale's recommended science based risk-return framework.

With respect to potatoes from New Zealand, there is a Senate inquiry into the matter. The minister has announced an independent review of the department's potato report and no decision has been made on the matter. In fact, the Senate Rural Affairs and Transport References Committee has three inquiries into science based import policy reviews, one of which is into potatoes from New Zealand. The other two are inquiries into ginger from Fiji and pineapples from Malaysia.

Because of those inquiries, I will not make any further comment on those topics. But I will say that all of the participating senators on those inquiries are politicians; none are plant pathologists. Perhaps of even more concern is that none of the National Party senators on the committee seem to have the slightest grasp of risk assessment. They seem to think that the risk assessment matrix, which is used to assess risk, is some kind of biosecurity ouija board. Perhaps that is why they have such a bad track record on biosecurity, because risk and risk management is too big a concept for the monkeys in the zoo. Senator Xenophon, by the way, is a lawyer and, as a lawyer, he should—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Boyce ): Senator McKenzie, are you making a point of order?

Senator McKenzie: I am. I am wondering who the monkeys in the zoo are, because I was at the inquiry into potatoes and biosecurity. I did not see any monkeys in the room. I do not know what Senator Furner is referring to, and I can assure him that the Nationals are very well aware of the issues with the risk management system under this government.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator McKenzie, that is not a point of order.

Senator FURNER: As I was saying, Senator Xenophon is a lawyer and, as a lawyer, he should know there is no conflict between Australia's biosecurity system and Australia's commitment to science based decision making and our rights and obligations at the World Trade Organisation or in any of our bilateral trade agreements. He knows that none of the multilateral and bilateral trade agreements that Australia is a party to limit our capacity to protect human health and the environment as long as these measures can be justified. Australia's biosecurity is not sacrificed in favour of trade objectives; in fact, it is protected by Australia's trade objectives. Australia's stated approach on biosecurity—

Senator Xenophon: Madam Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. The point of order is that Senator Furner is purporting to say what is in my mind and what knowledge I have about a particular matter. Unless I have made a particular statement that can be referred to, I do not know whether it is fair to say what I know or do not know.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Indeed, are you claiming to have been misrepresented, Senator Xenophon?

Senator Xenophon: Unless Senator Furner is a mind reader, yes, I am.

Senator Kim Carr: This is quite frivolous, Madam Acting Deputy President.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Carr, there is no point of order.

Senator FURNER: Australia's biosecurity is not sacrificed in favour of trade objectives; in fact it is protected by Australia's trade objectives. Australia's stated appropriate level of biosecurity protection—and I remind the Senate that this statement was made when Warren Truss was a minister—is manage risk to a 'very low level but not zero'. That is because zero risk is impossible. Zero risk would mean no wind, no ocean currents, no migratory birds, no immigration, no tourism, no mail. None. Senator Heffernan might be excited that zero risk would mean no imports, but it would also mean no exports. There would be no vessels, no aircraft arriving here to load up the $36 billion worth of agricultural products to the export markets that Australia's regional communities depend upon.

If any senator in this place has any evidence that would support tougher conditions on the import of ginger from Fiji, potatoes for processing from New Zealand or tomatoes from Timbuktu they should provide it to the scientists in the department. If the scientists ignore serious evidence that would stand up to academic scrutiny, then that is the time to bring it before parliament, not before it is ignored. If the motivation is to discredit biosecurity itself, to attack public servants, to pull a political stunt or to use our biosecurity system as a form of protection from competition, wouldn't that be ironic! The once great Liberal Party, the party of deregulation, the party of the free market, the party opposed to interventionist government, are being bullied by the agrarian socialists over there. The monkeys are in control of the circus again, trashing our international reputation, trashing the biosecurity system and trashing the environment all at once—in the same way that Mr Abbott bullied the Nationals into voting against wheat market reform yesterday, in the same way that Mr Abbott broke his clear election commitment on illegal logging and in the same way that Mr Abbott is running out of puff on carbon.

The Labor Party is the only party in this place with a clear commitment to protect Australia's biosecurity system. We are the only party with a track record of investment in the sort of biosecurity system Australia needs, and the lack of a policy from those opposite and the crossbenchers is something Australia's farmers should be concerned about.