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Tuesday, 19 March 1985
Page: 429

Senator MacGIBBON(8.52) —It is a pleasure to be following Senator Teague on this side of the chamber. He is one of the three senators still left from the Senate Standing Committee on National Resources whose report, entitled 'The Adequacy of Quarantine', initiated, in large part, the changes in the Quarantine Amendment Bill. Before I speak to the Bill I must refer to the extraordinary behaviour of the Government tonight after the suspension of sitting for dinner when this chamber was left for a period of 11 minutes without one Minister being present. We recognise, as does the Australian community, that this is a government in total disarray. Nothing could more adequately and eloquently demonstrate that than the actions of the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Hayden) on his latest overseas tour. Really, for the Government not to be able to man this chamber, when it has six Ministers, for a period of 11 minutes through the course of two speakers is just very bad housekeeping and quite inexcusable.

Senator Puplick —He was out getting instructions as to who was not to get information any longer.

Senator MacGIBBON —Probably. The Opposition supports the Quarantine Amendment Bill 1985, which is an amendment of the Quarantine Act 1908. Formerly, all quarantine matters were handled by the Department of Health. This Bill quite simply provides for a dual administration. Human quarantine will be handled by the Department of Health, as it was formerly, but the Department of Primary Industry will take over the matter of plant and animal quarantine. I must confess to the Senate that I had been here for years before I realised that plant and animal quarantine was not handled by the Department of Primary Industry; I assumed that that was the logical way it would have been done. It was only when representations were made to me by Queensland cattle breeders, when the first lot of cattle were being imported and were held in quarantine on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, that, having approached the Department of Primary Industry for some details, I was informed that it was all being handled by the Department of Health.

What is proposed in this Bill is a logical administrative move. As I said earlier, it is the culmination of the report of the Senate Standing Committee on National Resources entitled 'The adequacy of Quarantine'. I should like to quote some passages from the opening part of the report because they set the scene for what this Bill is about. Under the heading 'Summary' the Committee stated:

Recognition must be given to the changing nature of quarantine which is now primarily concerned with preventing the entry of agricultural pests and diseases and not human disease as was the case when the Quarantine Act was introduced in 1908.

It continued:

The creation of an Australian Quarantine Service located in the Commonwealth Department of Primary Industry would reflect the changing priorities of quarantine and effectively link quarantine to the overall agricultural health responsibilities of the Commonwealth.

In relation to the administrative arrangements, the kernel of the Bill, the Committee reported:

The Committee has been concerned with many aspects of the current administrative arrangements and considers that many of the existing problems stem from the lack of attention and initiative paid to quarantine matters in the past by the Department of Health. The recently improved performance by the Department of Health has been noted but on balance the Committee considers that the future interests of quarantine will be best served by transferring quarantine from the control of the Department of Health to the Department of Primary Industry.

As Senator Georges said, governments take a while to act, but in this case they did act. All the speakers on this Bill have made reference to the importance of adequate quarantine for Australia's animal and plant economies. As Senator Teague said, we earn a great deal of money from our rural exports. In fact, this country has been built, from the time it was settled, on the earnings from our primary exports both in the field of agriculture and from mining. We export live beasts and we export meat in the form of beef, mutton, pig meat and poultry. We can sell those products on world markets to a large degree because we are free of many important diseases which plague the agricultural and pastoral industries in other nations. It is very interesting to look at some of these diseases: African swine fever in pigs; bluetongue in sheep, cattle and goats; brucella melitensis in sheep; contagious bovine pleuropneumonia in cattle; Newcastle disease in birds; rift valley fever in sheep; vesicular stomatitis in cattle and horses; and, above all, the disease that has popular attention, foot and mouth disease, which affects cattle, sheep, pigs, deer, et cetera. All these diseases are not native to Australia. They have not colonised or invaded Australia in any way at all and, because of that, our primary industry has been able to market its products free from any risk of transferring diseases to other countries.

The Bill is part of a two-pronged drive by the Government of this country to control disease in plant and animal industries. The first prong is to deny entry, and that is what the Quarantine Amendment Bill does. Supporting that, we have to have means of detection and eradication. At the time this report was made another report was made which led to the construction of the Australian National Animal Health Laboratory. Now, unfortunately, as a result of the Luddites in the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Democrats, that has been put into limbo until a more enlightened time for an Australian government.

Since the Animal Health Laboratory at Geelong has a relevance to this Bill I would like to spend a minute or two talking about it. There has been very little debate in this place about the Australian National Animal Health Laboratory. It was built to provide an essential service for Australian primary industry. It is a maximum security biological laboratory. It is the most advanced in the world and it is a very great credit to Australian technology that that facility could be built. It is absolutely biologically secure. It will hold large animals and cattle. Every effluent from that laboratory is sterile when it comes out-the air, liquids, and faeces. Carcasses can be destroyed at no risk to the surrounding Australian countryside or the Australian community.

Senator Kilgariff —How much did it cost the taxpayers?

Senator MacGIBBON —I forget how many hundreds of millions of dollars it cost, but it is a huge capital investment that is just lying idle now down in the marshes at Geelong. The reason we went ahead and built this National Animal Health Laboratory was so that we would have a means of detecting exotic diseases in Australian livestock because we did not have that facility then. It was designed not only to detect foot and mouth disease, although all the crazies started running around and protesting about foot and mouth disease, but also to cover the whole field of those important exotic diseases that I mentioned earlier in my speech.

It is important to be able to hold samples there, to do the titrations to identify the various strains of foot and mouth disease or swine fever or whatever is coming in. That means of course that one has to hold live viruses and things like that so one can check the reagents that one is using and know that they are valid when one applies one's tests. But no, the Luddites got in. Horror and shock! We are invading Australia with all these nasty things that we do not have, overlooking completely the professional advice and the integrity of the place. The fact is that that facility is biologically secure. We can keep viruses there in the certain knowledge that they will not get out into the community.

I was so interested in this matter that when the debate was running in the early part of this present Labor regime I went to Purbright in England because Purbright is the reference laboratory that we are forced to use. Because we do not have this facility in Australia we have to send our samples to England. They are sent to England for identification, for example, in the case of foot and mouth disease, and because of the time delay that is involved in the collection of samples, their transportation and their identification in the laboratory at Purbright, we are losing the majority of those samples. The samples are not valid for an assessment as to whether they are positive or negative. It is not that we are getting false negatives or false positives; it is just that the samples are biologically useless because of the time involved. The other thing about the people at Purbright is that, although they have been very happy to do this for us in the past, it is a facility that we do not have any guarantee of being able to use in the future. There will come a time when they will say, 'We are sorry, we have so much work we cannot assess these samples from Australia', whenever we get a suspected outbreak of an exotic disease.

The other point about the analysis by people at Purbright is that when we send things to them-of course, our great fear is foot and mouth disease-they will say that it is not foot and mouth disease but they will not tell us what it is. If it is an exotic disease and it is causing us trouble we have to have the facilities in this country to be able to identify that disease. That was another reason why we designed the Animal Health Laboratory. One of the by-products of the Animal Health Laboratory was not only that we could have developed vaccines for use in Australia to protect our livestock but also that we could have got into that high technology field in genetic engineering and the production of vaccines and we could have marketed them to a world that was willing to buy them. Again we lost the commercial side of it, to the detriment of this country.

These people who criticise the Animal Health Laboratory have said that everywhere an animal health laboratory has been built in the world, at Purbright, at Plum Island in the United States of America and in Europe, it could always be shown that the disease got out of those laboratories into the surrounding countryside. That is perfectly true; it is not in dispute. What we have to do is go back historically and look at the origins of this. A place such as Purbright was built in the 1920s. It was built on an open plan. People did not know how the virus of foot and mouth disease was transmitted in those days and, therefore, they just could not build to control it. What is more important is that the disease was endemic in the countryside and in the countries that the laboratory served. So there was not any need for a maximum security laboratory.

The position at Geelong is quite different. We have recognised and identified how the virus is transferred and we have built the laboratory so that we can control viruses. There is no reason at all for these people to come out with the idea that if we import live foot and mouth virus or any of these exotic viruses we cannot hold them, with the secure methods for which Geelong is designed. The consequence is that Australia's rural industry continues to remain at risk. We are very vulnerable, if there are breaches of quarantine in any way at all, accidentally or intentionally, to the introduction of any of these exotic viruses. This legislation is a parallel, of course, with the plant variety rights legislation and members of the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Democrats, with their Luddite mentality, have again ganged up against and have denied Australian agriculture the benefits of the genetic breeding which has gone on in plants and which opens up so many markets around the world for us.

The final thing I would like to say about the Geelong laboratory is that it is a brilliant piece of original design. It is the most complex facility that has ever been built in Australia. It was designed from first principles. It is as complex as an oil refinery, but whereas hundreds of oil refineries have been built around the world and it is just a matter of working off a standard plan and modifying it for local needs, this Geelong facility is a brilliant piece of creative designing which does enormous credit to Australian engineering and architectural capabilities. There was a market for one, two or three of these facilities around the world. There was a market that Australia could have captured, as the design consultant, to build these facilities. But what have we got? We have this brilliant facility that is not being used. It is locked up and is just turning over. How can we turn around and say to countries such as Canada or Japan that want to build one of these facilities: 'We have the ability to do it'? They could turn around and say: 'Yes, your facility is so good that you are not even game to use it'. So we lost out on that. At least with respect to the quarantine side of the legislation this Government has got something right and the Opposition supports that part of the Bill.