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Thursday, 30 June 1994
Page: 2458

Senator CHAPMAN (3.26 p.m.) —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (Senator Collins), to a question without notice asked by Senator Burns this day, relating to the establishment of a national mouse plague commission.

The Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, Senator Collins, must be feeling the heat from the government's lack of concern for rural communities because, for the first government question of the day, he had to organise a dorothy dixer from Senator Burns to assert that I am misrepresenting the findings of the Senate inquiry—

Senator Collins —You did.

Senator CHAPMAN —I did not, and I will come to that in a minute. He asserted that I am misrepresenting the findings of the Senate inquiry into natural disasters regarding mouse plagues and that I also misrepresented his position on this issue. In essence, the minister made two charges against me: firstly, that I misrepresented his attitude on this issue, especially by drawing attention to what I regard as his contempt for rural communities when I questioned him about it; and secondly, that I made false claims regarding the recommendations of the committee.

Senator Collins —Correct.

Senator CHAPMAN —That is not correct. On the first issue, the press release that I issued on the committee's report devoted just two sentences to the minister. I said:

Earlier this year, Federal Primary Industries Minister, Senator Collins, refused to support the establishment of a Mouse Plague Commission and questioned the effectiveness of strychnine baiting.

Senator Collins —Correct.

Senator CHAPMAN —The minister admits that is correct. The second sentence reads:

The Committee's findings are a strong rebuff for the Minister who displayed contempt in Parliament for rural communities with his refusal to heed the plight of our farmers.

Senator Collins —That's the wrong bit.

Senator CHAPMAN —The minister has already admitted that my first sentence is absolutely correct with regard to his attitude. As far as the second sentence is concerned, let me say that some two-thirds of his answer to the question I asked on 3 February were devoted not to the issue of the mouse plagues and the farmers' plight but to gratuitous advice to the then leader of the opposition, Dr Hewson, about how to deal with the rats, as the minister described them, in the opposition. It had absolutely nothing to do with the disastrous circumstances that the farmers were facing because of the devastating effects of the mouse plague. That is what the minister calls taking things seriously.

  When I raised the issue in the estimates hearings later in February the minister again treated it with levity. In comparing the establishment of the Plague Locust Commission with the establishment of a mouse plague commission, he said, `I don't want one of those because mice can't fly.' He completely ignored the fact that mice can and do cross borders.

  Indeed, one of the major problems with the last mouse plague was the fact that the plague crossed the South Australia-Victoria border and, because the different states had different means of dealing with that plague, it was not dealt with adequately. A national mouse plague commission is needed so that we have a nationally coordinated strategy to such a situation. On the second issue—my reaction to the committee's recommendations—I refer again to my press release, which says:

The Senate Committee's Natural Disasters Inquiry Report, released today, recommends that a Rodent Plague Commission be established as soon as possible—

Senator Collins —Correct—read it.

Senator CHAPMAN —He admits that is a recommendation.

Senator Collins —I confirm it. Read the second thing it says.

Senator CHAPMAN —Fine. Let me quote the second thing. Secondly:

that existing disaster relief classifications be broadened to include mouse plagues.

I quote from the report:

The Committee recommends that NDRA guidelines be reviewed with consideration given to including mouse plagues.

And the reason for that, among others, is to enable maximum financial assistance to be given to affected farmers. The report also says that mouse plagues are just as catastrophic as the other forms of disaster that are currently included within the definition of natural disaster for NDRA assistance. Quite clearly, the recommendation exists for mouse plagues to come within that definition.

Senator Collins —Read the review.

Senator CHAPMAN —The minister is playing with semantics if he asserts that the committee is not in favour of including mouse plagues within that natural disaster definition. Let me state quite clearly that that was certainly my understanding of the committee's discussion and of its recommendation. Had that not been the case, I would certainly have drafted a recommendation to that effect and, had it not gained the full support of the committee, would have put it in as a minority recommendation. There was never any suggestion of conflict with regard to the fact that mouse plagues ought to come within that definition.