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Thursday, 13 September 2007
Page: 68

Mr MURPHY (1:40 PM) —I strongly support the contribution just made by my colleague and good friend the member for Gorton on the Quarantine Amendment (Commission of Inquiry) Bill 2007. I also strongly support the amendment moved by my other good friend and colleague the shadow minister for trade and regional development, the Hon. Simon Crean, the member for Hotham.

While the Howard government dithered during the initial outbreak of the equine influenza epidemic around Australia, Labor has consistently called for an independent inquiry into how the disease was introduced, whether quarantine procedures are adequate and whether there has been a breach of quarantine procedures and protocols. From this perspective, I am broadly supportive of the bill but particularly of Simon Crean’s amendment. It is ludicrous that it took so long and so much arm-twisting to compel the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry to launch this independent inquiry into what is such an obvious breach of Australia’s biosecurity regime. In light of the scale of the breach involved on this occasion, one can only wonder what level of quarantine breakdown would be required before the Howard government initiated an inquiry of its own volition rather than being pushed into the one that we have now with Commissioner Callinan. Surely Australians have a right to expect that quarantine procedures are being administered effectively by their government rather than with the indolence, complacency and lethargy that it has demonstrated on this occasion.

Such was the level of lethargy in the minister’s response to this outbreak that many Australians would be entitled to ask whether he too was suffering some form of influenza. Australians have a right to expect that, in the event of a quarantine failure, the government will act decisively to find out why it happened and how it can prevent a repetition. Unfortunately, after 11 years in government it is clear that the complacency, indolence and lethargy that I mentioned have submerged the Howard government, putting biosecurity enforcement at great risk.

It is obvious that the minister needs all the help he can get when it comes to identifying flaws in Australia’s quarantine procedures or failures in their application. Rather than being forced into an independent inquiry, the minister should have initiated one immediately—but he chose not to. The consequences were painfully obvious to all Australians and particularly those whose livelihoods depend on the racing industry. We all had to endure the unedifying sight of the minister responding on the run and contradicting himself as he went. We know some members of the Howard government are masters of projection and we saw new heights reached on this occasion with this crisis. On 24 August 2007, the minister stated:

It is likely that the infection has originated from another horse in quarantine that has contracted the disease but has not shown any clinical signs of it.

Then, three days later, on 27 August, the blame shifted when the minister indicated that ‘the Maitland event may be the source of the outbreak’. In a sign of defiance, the minister proclaimed on the following day, 28 August:

... there has been no breach of the impenetrable quarantine barriers at Eastern Creek ...

I will come back to the folly of that statement later in this debate. Finally, on 31 August, another three days later, the minister saw the light and questioned his own quarantine regime, when he stated:

We want to identify what went wrong so it can never happen again and so we can repair the breach.

He said:

It’s going to be human error, there’s no question, but were the quarantine procedures adequate?

It is clear that the Howard government has felt for several years that quarantine procedures were adequate, despite several legitimate concerns raised to the contrary.

During the course of the Callinan commission, we will no doubt hear of the prophetic warnings about equine influenza which were raised in years gone by. One of these warnings came from a very unlikely source, a former Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, the Hon. Mark Vaile. In a press statement the then minister stated:

The horse ... facilities at Eastern Creek have served Australia well for over 20 years and Australia remains one of the few countries in the world, which have never had an outbreak of equine influenza.

Now here is the clincher:

An outbreak of equine influenza would cause massive disruption to Australian horse racing and would be expensive to contain.

Indeed. Another former Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, the Hon. Warren Truss, had this to say:

We have a thriving, five billion dollar horse industry that deserves to be protected by the most stringent quarantine controls.

If only both those ministers had taken their own advice.

Mr Deputy Speaker, you know we are an island continent. For this influenza strain to get into Australia there must have been a breach of what Minister Truss labelled ‘stringent quarantine controls’. As Minister Vaile foreshadowed, this outbreak of equine influenza has caused massive disruption to Australian horseracing and it will be difficult to contain, and the effects have been debilitating. In New South Wales alone, 1,300 horses on 146 properties have tested positive to equine influenza. So much for Australia’s so-called ‘stringent quarantine controls’.

In an excellent article by Fiona Carruthers titled ‘The human pain from horse flu’, published in the Australian Financial Review on 1 September 2007, the human toll of equine influenza was very accurately described. The horseracing industry is worth $8 billion a year to gross domestic product, and it is not hard to see why. Ms Carruthers accurately identifies the forgotten victims of equine influenza, be they children’s riding teachers, trainers, strappers, grooms, university students with part-time track jobs, promotional staff, barrier attendants, track workers, maintenance staff, hospitality workers and cleaners. And that is not to mention the truck drivers, veterinarians, horse chiropractors, hairdressers and lingerie and fashion shops that have lost enormous amounts of trade through this crisis.

Mr Deputy Speaker, you know and everyone in this House knows that the horseracing industry employs many Australians. It is a huge industry. No doubt the list of those impacted on by this equine influenza crisis outbreak could go on and on. The racing industry sustains 77,000 full-time equivalent jobs. The Sydney Turf Club and the Australian Jockey Club, of which I am a proud member, employ up to 1,000 casuals between them on big race days. As this crisis draws out, more and more families will wonder where they will find the additional money to pay the mortgage, feed the kids and pay the other bills. All this could seemingly have been prevented if someone—anyone—in the Howard government had taken heed of the warnings presented to them.

It will not be difficult for Commissioner Callinan to spot flaws in Australia’s quarantine system. The commissioner need only scratch the surface to find them. Many concerns have already been raised, as referred to by the member for Gorton in his contribution about lax quarantine procedures at the federal government’s Eastern Creek quarantine facility. The AUSVETPLAN disease strategy for the control and eradication of equine influenza highlights the importance of making horse handlers aware of the risks of transmission of the virus by mechanical means. AUSVETPLAN also states that personnel handling horses in quarantine stations must shower before leaving the station to minimise the risk of transmission. This is for very good reason, as the virus can be spread on clothing or equipment.

Despite this, there is a considerable body of opinion and evidence which shows that pathetic quarantine arrangements existed at Eastern Creek quarantine station. A stallion groom formerly employed by a leading United States stud has stated that he, as well as others, was allowed to come and go from Eastern Creek without changing clothes, washing or showering. The groom was also witness to people unloading horses from trucks at the quarantine station and leaving without washing themselves or their trucks. These are not isolated claims.

On Saturday, 8 September 2007, Mr Alan Frogley, a very respected veterinarian, told Radio 2SM that he went to look at a horse at Eastern Creek, expecting to go through rigorous biosecurity procedures. Like many of us, Mr Frogley must have been duped by the former minister’s claims that Eastern Creek has the most stringent quarantine controls. To the contrary, Mr Frogley advises that he ‘breezed in as if it were just another stable’.

So I ask today, on behalf of the industry: where are these so-called stringent quarantine controls? The minister should immediately answer my questions Nos 6310, 6311, 6312 and 6313, which I placed on yesterday’s Notice Paper. I am still awaiting an answer. Perhaps I should not be asking where the stringent controls are. Given the examples I have just mentioned, a more pertinent question would be: are there any quarantine controls at all?

We must remember that this has all taken place against a background of AUSVETPLAN warnings that equine influenza could potentially be introduced to Australia by imported horses if quarantine procedures were inadequate. The quarantine failures I have mentioned all took place against a backdrop of an equine influenza outbreak in Japan and horses arriving in Australia from Japan at around the same time.

Rather than stepped-up quarantine precautions at Eastern Creek quarantine facility as a result, we now know that people have been walking in and out of the facility without showering, scrubbing down trucks and changing their clothes. So I ask again on behalf of the racing industry: what is going on at Eastern Creek? It is no wonder that leading trainer John O’Shea from Randwick said:

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out that there is the introduction of this virus into Eastern Creek and now the same virus is in the general population

…            …            …

... there is no doubting that it’s come from Eastern Creek.

John O’Shea is a much respected trainer at Randwick. It may not take a rocket scientist to work that out, but the minister still has his doubts. While the minister already has a lot to answer for, the scandal does not end there for the government. It is now common knowledge that concerns were raised about Australia’s quarantine system as far back as 2004. It would seem that quarantine standards have been slipping for some time under the Howard government.

Mr McArthur interjecting

Mr MURPHY —And I know that the member for Corangamite would understand this very well in his electorate. In 2004 and 2005 the former Australian Racing Board Chairman, Mr Andrew Ramsden, warned then Minister Truss that a ‘quarantine breakdown’ would be the only way equine influenza could enter Australia, potentially causing ‘catastrophic economic consequences’. At the time, the ARB’s concerns included the quarantine risks from the use of private vets to inspect imported horses at the expense of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service. The ARB cited an example in South Africa where private vets had played a prominent role in a quarantine breakdown, and there was an outbreak in 2003. The government dismissed those concerns and, in a perfunctory fashion that many stakeholders have become accustomed to, the government suggested all imported horses would be under the ‘direct control of an AQIS veterinarian’. Whether this has actually been the case is unknown.

Mr McArthur —Have you ever seen a racehorse in your life?

Mr MURPHY —I certainly have. You were not listening. I am a proud member of the Australian Jockey Club. I know more about the racing industry than you do, member for Corangamite—with great respect. The minister must immediately answer whether any private vets paid for by importers inspected imported horses without an AQIS vet present. If the minister will not answer that, the terms of reference of this inquiry must be broad enough to allow Commissioner Callinan to do so. Indeed, this inquiry’s terms of reference are far too restricted, and that was very adequately pointed out by the member for Hotham and shadow minister for trade and regional development when he foreshadowed his amendment, and that is why I am supporting his amendment.

By God, if there is a change of government, which we are all aching for on this side of the House and across Australia—whenever the election is called; perhaps the Prime Minister might tell us that today—we in government will move that amendment to really get to the root causes of this terrible crisis of equine influenza. Like the tricky terms of reference that we had in relation to the wheat for weapons scandal, this inquiry is designed to shield the government from criticism. We all know that.

I note with great interest that the terms of reference within this bill do not include an investigation into the culpability of Howard government ministers. This is consistent with the pattern of this government—again, crafty terms of reference may allow senior ministers to escape scrutiny. They never want to know anything. Remember children overboard? Weapons of mass destruction? Wheat bribes to Saddam Hussein? They never knew anything. In the best of Christian charity we can forgive them and say they are not lying; but Australia will not forgive them for their incompetence. If they are not lying about any of these things and if they are not covering up then, okay, we will forgive them for that but we will not forgive them for their incompetence.

Surely we deserve some answers in relation to this crisis. What action has been undertaken in the last three years that the Australian Racing Board’s letter has been in existence? We are all entitled to know that. This inquiry should investigate any instances in which concerns have been expressed to the government ministers by the horseracing industry about the integrity of the quarantine system.

Mr Fitzgibbon interjecting

Mr MURPHY —The member for Hunter and shadow minister for defence made a valuable and lasting contribution to this debate. He has a very important horseracing industry based in Broadmeadows in his electorate. He understands it clearly. This inquiry should investigate any instances in which concerns have been expressed to government ministers by the horseracing industry about the integrity of our quarantine system, because clearly it is in grave doubt today—and the member for Corangamite knows that too. More importantly, this inquiry should have the power to carefully scrutinise the adequacy of the responses provided to those expressions of concerns.

Mr Fitzgibbon —Where is the member for Paterson?

Mr MURPHY —That is a very good question, member for Hunter, because I notice that when you made your contribution you invited him to come into this chamber and make a statement. While we are fortunate that our geographic isolation provides a natural defence against exotic diseases, keeping threats away from our borders requires eternal vigilance on the part of the minister. That is why we are going to move Simon Crean’s amendment when we get into government. That is why it is so important to do it. We are entitled to have serious concerns about the Howard government’s lack of vigilance with respect to quarantine procedures. Scientists have claimed that at least three deadly contagious bird diseases have bypassed Australian quarantine controls. Other exotic diseases which have been reported in Australia on the Howard government’s watch include fire ants in 2001, small hive beetle in 2002, citrus canker in 2004 and sugarcane smut in 2006. What a record! Now we can add equine influenza in 2007.

Oh, here is my good friend the Prime Minister, right on queue, coming into the House.

Mr Howard —I have come in to hear you!

Mr MURPHY —I know you have. I have been begging you to tell me when the election is going to be held and you have not answered my question. I will give you some friendly advice about when not to have the election. All right? We have been talking about equine influenza; I suggest on Sunday you go out to the Governor-General’s and have a quiet cup of tea—

Mr Howard —Go where?

Mr MURPHY —Out to see the Governor-General, and call an election for either 20 or 27 October, because the last thing you would want to do is sully the Melbourne Cup racing carnival. It opens on Saturday, 3 November, as the member for Higgins knows, and goes through to Saturday—

Mr Costello —Derby Day!

Mr MURPHY —Derby Day. The Melbourne Cup is on 6 November, Oaks Day is on 8 November and then you have the ‘family day’ on 10 November. You do not want to sully the Melbourne Cup carnival by having a politician get in the way of punters around Australia analysing the form guide or interrupting the commentary on television.

Mr Costello —Give us a tip.

Mr MURPHY —I have not got a tip at this stage.

Mr McGauran —You know nothing about horses!

Mr MURPHY —I know a lot more than you know about horses, and I am telling the Prime Minister not to have the election on 3 November or 10 November.

The SPEAKER —Order! It being 2.00 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 97. The debate may be resumed at a later hour and the member will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.