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Thursday, 28 February 1985
Page: 355

Mr PORTER(11.16) —The Opposition supports the Quarantine Amendment Bill 1985, which will make administrative changes to effect the transfer of the animal and plant quarantine sections from the Department of Health to the Department of Primary Industry. Those animal and plant sections will now be under the Director of Animal and Plant Quarantine, who will be the Secretary of the Department of Primary Industry. The human quarantine section will remain with the Department of Health and will be under the charge of the Director of Human Quarantine, the Chief Commonwealth Medical Officer, who is a deputy secretary of the Department of Health. In effect, what has occurred is the physical move of the animal and plant quarantine section from the Department of Health to the Department of Primary Industry. This move has already occurred.

I have been advised that the actual number of staff in the three sections will not change and the classifications of those members of staff will also remain the same. Whilst the Minister for Health (Dr Blewett) did not make it clear in his speech, also to be transferred to the responsibility of the Department of Primary Industry are the animal quarantine stations which are situated in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands facility. In addition, the actual work done within the States will continue to be undertaken by State quarantine officers under the existing arrangements whereby the Commonwealth reimburses the States for that work. I have taken the time to explain the details of the transfer because to date the public are unaware of the nature and extent of that transfer. Country people often have reason to raise quarantine issues of concern. I therefore believe it is important that they be made aware of the details of these changes in order that they will know to whom they can direct inquiries.

The importance of effective quarantine arrangements cannot be understated. As an island continent with natural barriers to the import of diseases and pests, Australia has remained one of the few countries today free of serious animal plagues and plant pests and diseases. It is now generally recognised that the spread of animal and plant diseases in other parts of the world has been increasing, which highlights the need for an efficient and effective quarantine service in this country. Clearly, the increase over time in air travel, as a result in part of cheaper air fares, and the increase in trade poses significant additional threats to Australia's position as a relatively disease-free nation. The rural sector is particularly concerned about the growing risk of the introduction of exotic diseases and pests of livestock and plants. The importation of such diseases or pests could have a devastating effect on our primary industry. The fact that we do not have many of the disease problems known in other parts of the world also provides significant trade opportunities which would not otherwise be open to us. It is therefore essential, in order to protect our existing primary industry and our export opportunities, for us to continue to give quarantine a very high priority.

The Senate Standing Committee on National Resources highlighted the problems to which I have referred in its report which was published some time ago-1979. That Committee, chaired by Senator Andrew Thomas, recommended the creation of an animal quarantine service to be located in the Department of Primary Industry. The Committee made that recommendation for two reasons: Firstly, to reflect what it considered to be the changing priorities of quarantine; and, secondly, effectively to link quarantine to the agricultural responsibilities of the Commonwealth. What are the changing priorities to which the Committee refers? They are based on the changing nature of quarantine which is now primarily concerned with preventing the entry of agricultural pests and diseases and not human diseases because the Committee considered that, at the port of entry, humans are now more important as vectors of animal and plant diseases than as vectors of human diseases. The Committee suggested that exotic human diseases are rarely discovered at ports of entry; they tend to appear later when the traveller is out in the community.

The Committee made a large number of recommendations which I do not intend to recount today, but it will be recalled that as a result of this report a major publicity campaign was launched by the previous Government to increase the public's awareness of the importance of maintaining Australia's relative disease free status. If my memory serves me correctly, that campaign involved the expenditure of about $750,000. I am sure the House will recall Harry Butler's role in presenting those advertisements. The government of the day responded to the recommendation regarding the transfer of plant and animal quarantine to the Department of Primary Industry by indicating that it would be considered as part of a subsequent review to be undertaken of the administrative arrangements. That was late in 1980. Today those changes are being made. It just shows how slowly the wheels of government turn.

The importance of having the policy-making divisions of animal and plant quarantine within the Department of Primary Industry relates to that Department's closer liaison with and knowledge of primary industry interests. In my view, the increased prospects of cross-fertilisation of ideas and concerns between the Department of Primary Industry and its quarantine sections will be to the advantage of both and will enhance the effectiveness of our quarantine arrangements. There has been a feeling in the bush that, by having the plant and animal quarantine sections within the Department of Health, we did not have the advantage of the cross-fertilisation to which I refer. With the transfer to the Department of Primary Industry, the quarantine sections will now have direct and immediate access to the full resources and information available within the Department of Primary Industry. Certainly one would expect that the important and detailed feed-back of developments overseas available to the Department of Primary Industry would assist the plant and animal quarantine sections now placed within that Department.

I have already stated that a breakdown in our quarantine arrangements can have disastrous consequences for primary industry. One has only to look to the relatively recent experiences following the arrival in Australia of the sirex wasp and the lucerne aphid. The lucerne aphid alone has cost primary industry millions of dollars, both in lost production and in capital expenditure involved in the re-sowing of areas of Hunter River lucerne to new resistant varieties. Even now farmers still have large areas to re-sow. I am particularly aware of this problem because it seriously affected the farmers in my electorate. Indeed, I know it affects those in adjacent electorates and electorates further away-in New South Wales and Western Australia. However, this example does bring home the need for our quarantine people to be constantly on guard, and they are more likely to be effective with access to the fullest information possible.

Another example which highlights the need for us to be constantly on guard was a matter I raised recently with the Minister for Health. In this case shipments of citrus from the United States of America sent to New Zealand were found in New Zealand to be infected with bean thrip. I understand bean thrip is an insect which could attack our extensive lucerne and clover stands. To overcome a bean thrip attack would cost millions of dollars in research and replanting. The reason this shipment was of particular concern was twofold: Firstly, I understand that the ship called at some Australian ports before travelling on to New Zealand with the infested cargo. Secondly, we also import citrus from the United States. Following this occurrence, I understand Australia now requires additional pre-export inspection and certification specifically for this pest. I could go on forever with similar examples which concern the primary industry sector.

Another example which worries potato growers in my electorate and electorates in Victoria concerns the risk of importing a disease called potato cyst nematode from New Zealand. Apparently that disease is not present in Australia, but it is present in New Zealand. Local growers in Australia are very concerned that strict measures are taken to ensure that infected potatoes are not imported into this country and that, as it is a soil borne disease, other vegetable imports, packaging, and bags, such as onion and potato bags, which come into this country are clean. That, of course, leads to the question of how far we should go in ensuring diseases and pests are not allowed into the country. Obviously we cannot totally stop the flow of people or items of trade into the country. That, of course, is the only absolutely sure way that we can prevent disease from coming into this country. However, we can prohibit the import of particular products where the risk of disease or pest importation is too great. The question then becomes one of how low the level of risk has to be to be an acceptable risk. That is a matter which, clearly, must be judged on the facts of each case. Some countries use supposed health and quarantine regulations to impose an effective ban on imports. I know our own exports have been affected by such bans. In normal circumstances, I do not believe quarantine arrangements ought to be used in this way. It is an underhand way of imposing trade barriers.

I am hopeful that areas of disagreement between producers and our quarantine service will be reduced by the transfer of responsibility to the Department of Primary Industry. The Opposition sees this transfer as a positive and long overdue move and supports the Bill.