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Thursday, 18 October 1984
Page: 2024

Senator HILL(9.58) —I want to address the Biological Control Bill 1984 but not with the same enthusiasm as some other senators. There are aspects that cause me considerable concern and I want to register that concern tonight. The purposes of the Bill, if I might refer to the explanatory memorandum, are:

to provide an opportunity for equitably assessing proposed biological control activities to ensure that they are in the public interest . . .


to authorise the release of biological control agents . . .

As the Minister for Science and Technology (Mr Barry Jones) notes in his second reading speech:

The Bill is to establish procedures for assessing and, where appropriate, authorising biological control programs in Australia . . . which will ensure that biological control programs that have been indentified as being in the public interest can proceed in accordance with law and without interruption by litigation.

In principle one must, therefore, support the objectives of the Bill. They appear sound and, taken at face value, one would see the Bill as a worthwhile piece of legislation. In reality, however, we all know that it has been devised to circumvent a South Australian Supreme Court injunction and to permit the release of three species of insects to control the plant echium plantagineum- Paterson's curse as it is known in some places, or salvation Jane as it is known in my home State of South Australia.

The Bill has been devised in such a way that, in all certainty, an application to release insects to control echium will be approved despite the wishes of a minority group of beekeepers and farmers. In their opinion they will be detrimentally affected by the release of these insects. Therefore the Bill is designed to legitimise the majority desire although it will harm minority interests, a minority that until now has been protected by the common law. However, we know that the tort of nuisance is concerned with the protection of rights of the individual and it is that tort that has been used by this group of individuals to protect their interest in this matter. Under this Bill, however, the rights of the individual to be protected to date must be sacrificed if it is in the best interests of the majority. To some extent that is what democracy is all about, and we should not complain in principle about that. But we, in this chamber, must ensure that those minority rights are not being unreasonably trampled upon. We must ensure that the minority receives reasonable protection. I note in passing, for example, that there is no compensation provided in this Bill for the loss that these minority beekeepers and farmers are going to suffer .

Therefore I suggest that we should address the other alternatives there would be to the release of insects in this case. Some honourable senators have addressed themselves to the question of chemicals and have spoken about the danger of using chemicals to control pests; such dangers as residual effects and matters of that nature. But chemicals can be isolated. A farmer can rid a particular piece of land of a noxious weed by the use of chemicals. It is not in dispute that a weed can be controlled by chemicals. On the other hand, biological control is different because not only will it rid the first farmer's land of the particular weed or grass but it will also rid the neighbour's farm of that weed or grass. So here we have a classic case of majority farming interests-if I might say, interests that originated a decade ago in New South Wales, when only New South Wales wanted this course of action-which have relentlessly over the years, through debate, through rural and lobby groups and after finally losing in the courts, been able to persuade the Government to take action and been able to persuade all political parties to support this legislation and the release of these insects in relation to salvation Jane, but, of course, at minority expense.

It is no coincidence, as you may well have gathered, Madam Acting Deputy Speaker, that the particular minority interests concerned in this case are South Australian farmers who, as I indicated, look upon this item as salvation Jane because, although it may well be Paterson's curse in the eastern States, it is salvation Jane in South Australia. But for salvation Jane in some of the drier, more marginal areas of South Australia many a farmer would have been without fodder for his sheep and cattle. Their salvation is, therefore, to be destroyed because wealthy farmers in higher rainfall areas regard it as an inconvenient weed, and that is notwithstanding, as I said, that there are chemical agents available that have the capacity to rid them of it.

I particularly want to look at the controversy arising from the differing views of the net value of the plant to agriculture. Although we are told by some that it causes livestock losses, it has in fact considerable value. I will refer to a whole series of research programs that have been conveniently gathered by the Parliamentary Library, and in particular to three different areas in which value is seen by these minority farming interests. The first of those that I have mentioned are the apiarists who led the battle against the biological control of echium, because it is estimated that some 20 to 30 per cent of Australian honey is produced from echium.

It is regarded as the most important honey bee resource in south eastern Australia because of its abundant supply of nectar and pollen especially in years when it is the only significant spring crop available for bees. The amount of protein content of the pollen is very significant, I understand, in the restocking of hives after winter. As a matter of interest, the value of Australian honey exports has averaged almost $11m over each of the last four financial years. So it is not surprising that bee keepers have been leading the reaction against biological control of echium. As I have indicated farmers in marginal areas and graziers have seen it as a green fodder crop for sheep. Also, it is supported by farmers and graziers, who have had to rely on it to provide healthy wild honey bees to pollinate various crops.

On the other hand, as I have indicated, it has been said that it causes loss among livestock. That is the balancing aspect. However, it appears that as further research is done it may well not be causing the loss that was originally believed. For example, one recent Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation study showed only marginal toxic effects on merino wethers from long term feeding of echium. Of the 10 sheep which were fed 80 per cent echium during the feeding cycle only one developed mild liver damage. As I have indicated it was 80 per cent concentrated feed of this product. All of that leaves me with a feeling of some nervousness. I know-it has also been said in this debate by others-that biological control of rabbits has been successful and biological control of prickly pear has been successful but here we have a divided issue. I fear that those who call the target, in this case salvation Jane, who do not have political clout will suffer at the expense of those in the eastern States who call the target Paterson's curse and do have political clout.

I am interested in whether those who have less clout are given a fair go under this Bill. I come to the methodology of the Bill. The Australian Agricultural Council, under the terms of this Bill, would recommend to the authority who is the Minister that echium should be a target. The Minister would publish a notice stating that he is contemplating declaring echium a target. He would call for submissions for and against this move. The Minister would consider the submissions and at his discretion call an inquiry. The discretion is reviewable by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal and therefore, in all likelihood in this instance, there will be an inquiry. A similar set of procedures exists with regard to the agent organism.

The task of the inquiry is set out in clause 38 (3) of the Bill and that is to look at the benefits and disadvantages from the broad community viewpoint. The authority must then report to the Minister. If the Minister, under what will be section 20, is satisfied that harm caused to one sector-in this case it would be the apiarists and the marginal land farmers-would be significantly less than the harm caused to the more well to do farmers in higher rainfall areas, he shall authorise the program to commence. But how is he to measure that program? If he measures it in money terms obviously the minority will lose. If he measures it in numerical terms obviously again the minority will lose. The report of the previous inquiry which has taken place may not even be relevant to the considerations that the Minister must make. In this instance we know the attitude of the Council and we know the attitude of the Minister. Therefore what appears before us is simply a fait accompli. There is no effective right of appeal because under clause 56 there would have to be shown to be an inconsistency, and as the Minister and the Council have different tests which they have to apply it would be impossible to find an inconsistency. I suggest to the Minister at the table, Senator Button, that the Minister who is responsible under this Bill should look at the question of what alternatives there are to biological control. Will those alternatives mean less injury, that is loss, to the minority farmer? I would suggest that both tests should be redrafted to mesh . Not only that, the tests provided should be clarified to make clear that it is not purely a mathematical calculation, that the Minister should have to look at the social, environmental and other benefits, as well as the economic benefits.

There are four additional concerns that I have about this Bill. The first is in clause 2 (3) which, I would think, is supposed to provide the definition of ' public benefit'. But it simply produces a circular argument. It says:

For the purposes of this Act, organisms of a particular kind shall be taken to cause harm if the control of those organisms would be for the public benefit.

That obviously in itself is a nonsense. The main aim of this legislation is to assess public benefit of the biological control of organisms and therefore the Bill should provide a comprehensive definition of 'public benefit' and that definition should include the social, environmental and other benefits as well as the economic benefit of control.

The second extra matter to which I draw attention is that although the legislation was designed so that public comment and input would have to be considered for the assessment of target organisms, when we look at the question of agent organisms it would appear that under clause 26 the Authority is not required to publish a request for public comment in major newspapers.

Senator Macklin —I have amendments on that.

Senator HILL —I am pleased to hear there are proposed amendments on that. Apparently there is some rationale that the public would not be interested in the agent organisms to be released in the environment, or alternatively the public will be treated as being ignorant of the consequences of the release of agent organisms. That is offensive. There is a great deal of knowledge within the universities and without in the community. Before agent organisms are released the matter should be advertised and the public should have the opportunity to comment thereon.

The third matter I raise is that the Bill separates in some circumstances the target and control organisms. I suggest that that is unnecessary and unwise. Surely both the target and the organism itself should be considered in the one inquiry and should be interrelated. The Government should give further attention to that matter before the legislation is passed.

The fourth additional matter is that in some circumstances there is no requirement for biological control programs to be assessed by the legislation. The Bill was introduced to prevent court action to halt biological control programs, but we find when we look more closely at the Bill those that are deemed not contentious will not come under the Bill and they will not be subject to the same public inquiry procedure. The public scrutiny goes to the very core of this Bill and that should be the case in relation to all programs.

The fifth additional matter is that the Bill provides for an emergency declaration of target and agent, and therefore the release of organisms without the need for public comment. I would suggest that there can be no emergencies in biological control programs. Chemical agents should be used if circumstances that are unexpected occur. Biological agents need the thorough consideration that a full public inquiry will give.

There are five additional reasons why I express serious concern about the Bill. It is structured to provide a method by which public input to assess biological control can be made. Therefore, as I indicated at the outset, the concept deserves support. However, as I have also indicated, the tests are deficient. They do not provide for a proper evaluation. They do not provide for a proper examination of all other alternatives. They do not provide for a proper balancing of all economic, social and environmental factors. As I have indicated , the definitions are inadequate, and the exceptions from public scrutiny are unnecessary and unwise.

Perhaps the deficiencies simply reflect the fact that the Bill is not what it seems but it, rather, a mechanism to override the interests of an agricultural minority whose individual rights have, to date, been protected by the courts. Therefore, I remain concerned. I invite the Government, as I have already done in this speech, to look again at these deficiencies. I know that that will not occur and that the Bill will be passed tonight. But certainly, as one senator, I indicate that I shall carefully monitor the inquiry that we anticipate under the Bill with regard to echium. In that monitoring, I trust that my fears will be proven to be not well founded.