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Thursday, 10 November 2011
Page: 8777


Senator MILNE (TasmaniaDeputy Leader of the Australian Greens) (10:01): The Quarantine Amendment (Disallowing Permits) Bill 2011 is an important piece of legislation because it brings to the Senate a matter of grave concern for Australia's primary producers and for biosecurity nationally. We should bear in mind that the seven billionth person has now joined us on this planet at a time when we have accelerating climate change. A recent report on food security, which is becoming absolutely front and centre in global negotiations, from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations through to the United Nations Framework ConvenĀ­tion on Climate Change, recognised that with extreme weather events, a changing ice melt and so on areas that have been food bowls up until now will become less productive as we proceed into the future. One example I will give of this is South America, where there is a huge dependence on glacial melt to maintain irrigation over the dry season. We are now finding that those glaciers are melting at a great rate, and there is real concern that Peru, for example, will have a major problem feeding itself, let alone anyone else.

In California, the Colorado River feeds one of the world's largest fruit and vegetable growing bowls. It is a competitor in the global context. In California they are not getting the snow they used to get and therefore not getting the snow melt that is necessary to maintain their rivers and their irrigation levels. So we are going to see both threats and opportunities emerge globally, but the reality is that we need to produce as much food as we possibly can, not only for ourselves in Australia but to feed into a global marketplace. I have little confidence in the predictions of some of the profesĀ­sionals in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry in analysing already evident trends in global warming, glacial melt and snow melt and in looking both at opportunities to maximise penetration in world markets and at where there will be shortages and therefore higher prices in certain commodities at certain times of the year.

Things are changing and, as I said, there are threats and opportunities. We are now in a position where we have to maximise agricultural production in Australia at a time when we are seeing extreme weather events and shifting rainfall patterns. We saw this last year in Queensland with the flood events, we have seen it with the extreme drought in the Murray-Darling and we have seen it with fire. We need to think about how we maintain agricultural land and ecosystems for maximum food production, and we have all the challenges from urbanisation, coal seam gas and the like. But if you make a priority of maintaining the health of ecosystems and agricultural land to maximise productivity then biosecurity is front and centre. We have to make sure that we stop any further incursions into Australia of diseases we do not have already and that when those incursions occur we get onto them immediately and do everything we can to eradicate them before they become a major problem.

Senator Xenophon's bill today is as a result of the controversy over the decision to allow apple imports from New Zealand into Australia, therefore threatening Australian apple and pear producers with fire blight. He has brought in a piece of legislation which would impact not just the issue of fire blight but in fact all agricultural imports. The issue that has brought us to this point is that Australia does not have fire blight. A commonsense test of the person in the street would ask: if we are a country without fire blight, why would we allow the import of apples from a country that does have fire blight? Biosecurity Australia gave evidence to a Senate inquiry a couple of years ago saying that, yes, fire blight would come to Australia as a result of allowing apples from New Zealand. Their main argument then was: however, it will not spread; it will come here but it will not spread. How can we possibly take the view that it will not spread? Conditions are changing, and I am concerned that not only will it come here but it will spread.

The question is: why would you have to do that? Why would a country have to take apples from a country with a disease we do not have and risk biosecurity in this field? The answer is: the World Trade Organisation rules. That is where it all comes back to. That is the reality. That is why we are doing this; otherwise, common sense would say, 'We're just not going to do that. We're not going to allow in an import of a product that could threaten our biosecurity in any shape or form. We don't need to do it. We don't need New Zealand apples in the Australian market. We've got quite enough apples of our own.' But it is because of the World Trade Organisation rules. Of course it is well known to all of us that New Zealand took Australia to the WTO over this particular issue and Australia lost in that international forum, and that is why we are in the space we are in. Then it was up to Biosecurity Australia to look at the risk assessment and the rules that would cover the import to make sure they are stringent enough so that they minimise the risk to Australia of the entry of the disease. That is the point where Senator Colbeck is right.

The decision by the Prime Minister when she went to New Zealand to address the New Zealand parliament to use that opportunity to say that Australia would take New Zealand apples when the revised import risk assessment was still underway meant that every single producer in Australia saw the Prime Minister take a political opportunity in the country in question to get a big cheer from that parliament. But what it said to producers here was: the revised risk assessment really was not worth anything. The deal had already been done. Everything had already been stitched up. To add insult to injury, when the New Zealand Prime Minister came to Australia and spoke in our parliament, the Prime Minister then made a joke of it with him saying that if Australia won the world cup she would eat a New Zealand apple, and if New Zealand won—you know what I am saying. Conversely, they would each eat the other country's apple in the event that that was the outcome of the world cup.

Again, you can imagine what that did to apple growers around Australia who are very, very concerned about what the risk to their whole business, their community, their district was to see this being turned into a political joke. It is actually the reverse here: the argument against Senator Xenophon's bill—and I think it has been put quite succinctly by the Animal Health Alliance when they said in their contribution to the Senate committee that, historically, Australia has had a reputation internationally of being a difficult country to import into due to its strict quarantine requirements. They argued that 'including a political step in the quarantine assessment process would further erode our international credibility.' The political step they were referring to was Senator Xenophon's requirement that this could be a disallowable instrument; that any permit of this kind, whether it is apples or something else from another country, could be a disallowable instrument. That is the political step because it plays in a Senate committee or a parliamentary committee which must report within 15 days based on that.

The political step that was taken—in my view, a very poor judgment—was to make this announcement in the New Zealand parliament and then make a joke of it in the Australian parliament. That was a political intervention in the process and it has undermined confidence in apple growers that when the revised risk assessment went around it was anything other than just a cosmetic procedure.

What we do know is that Australia as a member of the World Trade Organisation is obliged under the SPS agreement to consider all import requests from other countries concerning agricultural products. That World Trade Organisation agreement states specifically that:

Members shall ensure that any sanitary or phytosanitary measure is applied only to the extent … [it] is based on scientific principles.

The issue here is to whether we are taking the scientific principles seriously enough, whether we are doing adequate research, whether we are actually out there arguing the science. I am concerned and I have lost a lot of confidence in Biosecurity Australia in terms of application of the science and indeed how the whole thing is managed.

When I was first elected to the Senate in 2004 we had the citrus canker outbreak in Queensland around Emerald. To this day we still do not know who tipped off the owners of the property that Biosecurity Australia were coming on a raid, and overnight, the night before the raid, the evidence was dug up and taken away. To this day no-one has ever been charged in relation to that and they got away with it.

The next issue I have been dealing with lately is the Asian honey bee. Biosecurity Australia has said, 'There is no evidence to say that it can be eradicated therefore we have downgraded it. It is no longer an eradication effort; it is now a management effort. We are going to manage the incursion of the Asian honey bee.' I can tell you, Madam Acting Deputy President, that the Asian honey bee will progress beyond the tropics into New South Wales and it will probably come even further south. When it does, the community is going to ask: how on earth did this happen? What is more, on the science base—apart from my concern about the beekeepers and the cross-pollination services and so on that are currently offered by the beekeepers of Australia and of course their honey production—I have got major concerns about wiping out native bee populations and our whole biodiversity.

I am disgusted with the department of the environment in that whole process about determining the risk of the Asian honey bee. The department of the environment sent an observer only and then the observer said nothing during all of this. There is an expert at the CSIRO who has spent 25 years studying the Asian honey bee and he was not given the run of the floor in terms of explaining the biodiversity impacts. Regardless of that, why weren't our Biodiversity people talking about what was going to happen?

We have seen it again with myrtle rust, another disaster for the natural environment. The Lamington National Park in Queensland has been devastated now by myrtle rust. In it came and it just got away from a flower farm in New South Wales before it was taken seriously. A small hive beetle had come into New South Wales. The beekeeper concerned alerted the authorities, saying: 'I'm worried about this. I haven't seen it before.' It was near the Richmond Air Force base. Might that not give you a few clues? The Air Force there had been flying backwards and forwards from South Africa at the time. You should think: 'That hive is near the Air Force base. They've been going backwards and forwards from South Africa. We might have a good look at that.' But, no, quarantine New South Wales just said, 'No, it's fine to move that hive into Queensland.' That was done and now this small honey beetle has had a huge impact right through New South Wales, leading to massive reductions in honey production as a result of a complete failure.

I heard just recently that we have now discovered a bacteria in the Riverina that has come from semen straws imported into Australia, and it is leading to a significant reduction in fertility in the beef herds in the Riverina. A PhD student is doing her work on that. That bacteria will become an increasing concern. Is it any wonder the apple growers in Australia are worried sick about fire blight? Is it any wonder that the beef growers of Australia are going to be panicking shortly with regard to the imported product that is bringing in a bacteria previously unknown here? These are the sorts of realities we are facing.

Every year there are more and more incursions into Australia's ecosystems that will reduce our agricultural productivity at a time we need to be maximising our productivity. That is the biggest challenge for agriculture, as I said at the start. We need to lift our agricultural productivity. We cannot do it in the same way we have done it in the past. We cannot clear more land. There is no more water for irrigation. We are faced with an oil crisis and we have to get off petrochemical fertilisers. How are we going to lift our productivity? We are going to need massive research and development. What we do not need are additional costs on growers and producers around the country because they have to manage incursions of disease that they ought not to have been confronted with in the first place.

So I have a good deal of sympathy for what Senator Xenophon has put on the table. I note with interest that Senator Colbeck did not mention that the shadow minister for agriculture, Mr Cobb, had a private member's bill in the lower house which was practically the same as Senator Xenophon's—the ability to disallow. He went to several districts around Australia, waving the private member's bill and saying that the coalition would do this and that to stop the import of apples from New Zealand. When it came to it in the House of Representatives, Mr Cobb was given the opportunity to speak to the bill and move it. He did not do so, saying instead that he would go to New Zealand to have a look, when in fact many coalition members of parliament and senators had already been to New Zealand.

The issue here and what is really weighing on people's minds is: how do you weigh up Australia's national interest and how do you weigh up our obligations under the World Trade Organisation rules? The accusation of course always is that Australia is using its concerns about quarantine—our sanitary and phytosanitary measures—as non-trade tariff barriers. That is the accusation and that is one of the criticisms here—that what Senator Xenophon is trying to do is to add a political step which will give other countries a greater reason to say that we are putting politics ahead of the science and therefore undermining our credibility in markets. Of course this goes both ways. Other countries can then say that they will not take Australian product if we start this. So you can see that there is potential for a trade war, with other countries joining in and so on, if this were to proceed. The Australian Greens cannot support this legislation either, for the reason that I am just outlining.

We think Australia rushes into way too many free trade agreements and we think it is time that we absolutely lifted the scientific and R&D effort that goes into biosecurity and quarantine in Australia. We cannot tolerate these continuing failures in our own bureaucracy. On the Asian honey bees, Biosecurity Australia have provided no scientific evidence whatsoever that the Asian honey bee cannot be eradicated in Australia. They have said it cannot be but they have not gone up to Cairns and collected the data, and they have not supported the on-ground effort around Cairns. They say that it cannot be done. The scientists say that they do not know whether it can be done or not but we should try because of the consequences. That is what the Greens have been saying—go up there and get the evidence. It is not just the Greens saying this; it was a tripartite agreement from this parliament. The government, the coalition and the Greens in the Senate committee all said, 'Go and get the evidence.' And they did not. I think Biosecurity Australia are absolutely remiss in utterly refusing to give effect to what the Senate committee unanimously asked them to do—that is, to go and get the evidence. So I have grave concerns.