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Thursday, 1 November 2012
Page: 8844

Senator COLBECK (Tasmania) (16:11): I have to say that I am very surprised that that is all the government can come up with on this particular issue. But I guess Senator Furner decided to take the road of discretion being the better part of valour and quit while he was well and truly behind, because I have to say that I have sat in some of the inquiries that the senator referred to and Senator McKenzie and Senator Xenophon were at those hearings. I did not see Senator Furner at the hearings, for example, on potatoes, ginger or pineapples for that matter. Nor was he at any of the inquiries on apples, Asian honey bees—which he did mention. If that is all the government has got to offer to this debate, it is a clear demonstration of their complete and utter failure in the management of AQIS and biosecurity matters since they came to government in 2007, and I am more than happy to run through some of the examples that we have had to deal with in that period of time.

Senator Xenophon quite rightly talked about Australia's unique status—in fact, that is probably about the only thing that Senator Furner got right in this debate—in respect of its biosecurity. We are fortunate to be an island continent. The fact that we are an island continent or an island nation gives us significant protections from a whole range of pests and diseases that other countries have to deal with. I sincerely believe that it is the role of members in this place to ensure that we do maintain, as Senator Furner quite rightly says, a science based approach to our biosecurity, but our role is also to ensure that there continues to be community confidence and industry confidence in that system. That is what the Senate inquiry's has undertaken. I think there have been three or four inquiries into apples from New Zealand over a period of time. It went through a WTO challenge process, and we ought not be frightened of that. It has been through a number those processes, as has been mentioned already in this debate. There are currently inquiries into pineapples, potatoes and ginger. It is quite reasonable that that process is undertaken. In respect of potatoes, the government is doing a science review right now. Senator Furner said they have not made a decision, and they have not, but it has been the science based submissions that have come from industry that have led the government to the approach that they should conduct a review of the science to make sure that they have all that they need to ensure that we do not end up with zebra chip in Australia. We just cannot afford to impose those additional costs and that disease on our industry.

I think we all understand the importance that trade has to this country and that we cannot afford to have artificial non-tariff barriers around our trade because there will be retaliation. But we should not apologise for the strength of our biosecurity system. All of us in this debate have talked about the status of this country in respect of biosecurity, and not for one moment should we apologise for wanting to stand up for that. We should ensure that we have the strongest possible science based biosecurity system to ensure that that status is retained. I do not apologise for any of the work that I have done on that in my time here. But we must demonstrate to industry that we are actually undertaking appropriate processes.

Senator Furner referred to the work that the government is allegedly doing with respect to biosecurity. Correct. It did commission the Beale review—a significant piece of work that had a number of recommendations, and we acknowledge that that process took place—but what have they done since? This government has only taken up one of the recommendation from the Beale review. What was that recommendation? That recommendation was to remove a 40 per cent rebate for export fees and charges—in other words, increase the cost of export for Australian industry into its overseas markets by removing a 40 per cent rebate. They were prepared to do that and they asked industry to just deal with that cold turkey—a $40 million impost on Australian exporters overnight back in 2009.

Members of the coalition quite rightly said that was not on. The government said: 'It's a terminating program. You made the decision to make it a terminating program'—referring to the opposition when we were then in government—'so we're just going ahead with what was coalition policy.' That is not the case. They know as well as we know that a government at any point in time can make a decision to continue any particular program. Do not try to pin on us the Labor Party decision to remove the 40 per cent rebate on AQIS export fees and charges, because it was a government decision at the time. They were going to impose it from day one—that $40 million extra cost. And $34 million of that cost, as Senator Williams said a moment ago, was on the beef industry—one of Australia's major agricultural export industries. 'Just flick a switch and find an extra $30-odd million and impose that on the cost of your business.'

Quite rightly, members on this side said that is not on. The coalition moved a disallowance motion for those new AQIS export fees and charges, and that motion was duly passed by the chamber. The government was obviously fairly desperate to get new export fees and charges into place and they did a deal with Senator Milne at the time. They were prepared to put in an extra $20 million—I think that was the deal. They even gave Senator Milne the opportunity to announce the deal, attempting to sideline the opposition. Fortunately, the other Independents in the chamber were prepared to stay with the opposition and refused to accept that deal. The opposition actually held out and said, 'That deal is not acceptable because it doesn't actually achieve anything for the industry. Okay, there's $20 million extra sitting there.'

The opposition held out and called for an inquiry, and every single industry commodity group involved in the process came in and said: 'We don't want this. We're not prepared to accept it.' The government told us that they could deal with these reforms within 12 months. The government gave evidence to the inquiry, 'We can change the system in 12 months time.' We did not believe them and industry did not believe them, more importantly.

The opposition then went back to the government and said, 'If you're prepared to do a real deal, we'll consider it.' That is what happened. We asked for the immediate recommencement of the reform process. We asked for a reinstatement of the 40 per cent rebate for the following two years. We asked for a removal of all debt incurred by the industry in the period from 1 July, when the new fees and charges would come into place, to the time when we struck the deal, which was in September. One thing they promised to do that they have not is to do a study of the legitimate costs of government—what the government reasonably should pay for. They said that they would do it and they still have not done it, and it is now three years later. We asked for a cost-recovery impact statement for each sector and we asked for a review on an annual basis.

The government was even prepared to ask industry to pay for the cost of redundancy of government employees. They wanted the meat industry to pay the cost of the redundancies for AQIS employees. We said that was not on. Most importantly, we wanted to ensure that smaller players were not negatively impacted by the process. As several inquiries into the fees and charges occurred, more and more small players came out of the woodwork. The government did not even realise that the cool-store industry was going to be affected by the process until we told them. They had no idea of the reach of this decision into the Australian export sector

Of course, in the end, Minister Burke did a deal with opposition shadow minister John Cobb and me. Instead of $20 million, this put an extra $67.4 million into the process with a two-year cycle to do it. Unfortunately, they did not even meet that deadline. It took them three years to finalise horticulture.

Worse, at estimates back in May, the horticulture sector, who were listening to the estimates process, found out through answers given to us that a deal had been done over a month beforehand but nobody had bothered to tell them. So the minister announced that there was a $6 million deal with the horticulture sector. They were happy with it—once they found out about it—but nobody had bothered to tell them. Only this year in the budget has the government started to allocate any funding towards one of the principal recommendations of the bill review, which was to start to update the IT systems, and even then the money is only to patch up the holes in the base of the system that they currently have. They are still not working towards building a new system; they are basically patching up the base. That is the information that we have to date.

Then we come to all of the incursions. Senator Furner talked about the Asian bee incursion. There are a number of question marks about the date it actually arrived, but the critical element of this whole discussion is the government's management of the problem. They went to a critical meeting where they were to decide whether or not the Asian bee was eradicable or not, and the most respected entomologist bee specialist in the country was not at the meeting. Why was he not at the meeting? It was because they lost his email address. So for that reason, the government goes ahead and makes a decision that this potentially devastating pest to Australia—and not just to the honeybee industry, as has already been quite rightly mentioned by Senator Xenophon, but to agriculture more broadly—is not eradicable. But the person with the most knowledge about it is not in the room because the government lost his email address. What a complete and utter indictment.

Then of course there is myrtle rust. I do not think anybody yet fully understands the potential impact of the incursion of myrtle rust into Australia. It has spread broadly throughout the south-east. It is going to have a significant impact on our forests, but I do not think we really understand the potential risks and the problems that will occur.

We also come to a matter that has been through a number of Senate inquiries and, as I indicated earlier, a WTO challenge—and that is, apples. How does this government handle that? The Prime Minister, before the finalisation of the WTO process, goes to New Zealand and announces to their parliament that we will take their apples. She does not say anything here in Australia; she does not wait for the completion of the WTO process. She goes and announces it. And, to add insult to injury, when the WTO process is completed, when the final protocols have been designed, the New Zealand growers are told before the Australian growers are told. What sort of respect does this government have for our agricultural sector when that is the sort of action that they undertake? Why is it that there is such concern in this chamber about the government's management of biosecurity?

Then we had the decision that was made, on my understanding, in the then Minister for Trade's office—and I am sure Senator Williams would have some understanding of this too—to allow beef from BSC-infected countries without a risk analysis process, and the industry was forced to sign confidentiality agreements so that the information would not get out. Without any analysis of risk, we would just allow beef to come in from countries that have been infected with BSC. Through the activities of the coalition that was overturned. There was a risk identified; the government had not done the work. Yet the government claims that it has some real desire to maintain our status, when it is making decisions of that nature. You have got to be kidding me.

We then go on to the incursion this year of potential foot and mouth diseased materials from South Korea. It took 14,000 man hours to round this material up. Over 100 tonnes of material came in from South Korea, which was potentially at risk of foot and mouth disease. We asked a question on notice at estimates: can you tell us whether the IT system has been used to track down some of this information? What answer did we get back? It was, 'You did not tell us which IT system you were talking about so we can't answer the question.' What sort of respect for this parliament, for this chamber, for the estimates process, is that sort of answer? The reality is that they did most of the work by hand. Their systems could not actually do the work that they were looking for. Granted, it was spread far and wide, but why not just give us a straight answer so we can try to provide a level of confidence to our constituents and to the broader community about the efficacy of our programs and our processes? Why can we not just get a straight answer from the government?

It was the same thing when the import risk assessment process around apples was being discussed, and we saw something similar again in the inquiry around potatoes last week. The whole process for the importation of apples from New Zealand was based around their standard orchard practice. The industry asked to see that—a simple request, you would think: can you show us your standard orchard practice?

We were told—because the New Zealanders said—it was commercial-in-confidence. We could not see it. We were not given access to that information. We fought over it; we asked questions about it; the industry asked questions about it, for months and months and months. When we finally got to the bottom of it, when the New Zealanders finally relented, we found that the full detail we needed to know was in the import risk assessment documents. Why could they not just say that in the first place? Why could they not give us that simple answer? Then they wonder why people do not trust what they say, why people have doubts about the process, when all you need is to give a simple answer to a question, to let people understand that everything you need to know is contained in the import risk assessment document. All of the other things that are in the standard orchard practice do not relate to the process of importing apples from New Zealand.

It is very, very simple. This government, through a range of activities, has brought upon itself a number of inquiries, as has been mentioned during the debate today. We do not have confidence in their decision-making. I am not having a go at the departmental officials, I have to say. It is the government's direction of the department that is lacking. You look at the situation with respect to the Beale review, the one decision they have made is to charge industry more. When it comes to the key recommendation, which was to upgrade the IT systems, it took them over three years to allocate any money for it, and then some of that was taken out of industry funds as their contribution. I commend Senator Xenophon for bringing the motion to the chamber, because it is an opportunity to demonstrate how poorly this government is managing Australia's biosecurity system.