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Thursday, 28 February 1985
Page: 359

Mr EVERINGHAM(11.36) —I support the Quarantine Amendment Bill. I accept that it is generally conceded that the division of responsibilities for quarantine is universally accepted as being an advance. Obviously in most cases a division of responsibility would seem to be a retrograde step in administrative terms but, quite clearly, human, plant and animal quarantine are all subject to their own peculiarities. The Department of Health and the Department of Primary Industry will obviously have the particular concerns and specialties. Certainly we all hope that in this case a desirable result will be achieved.

The honourable member for Barker (Mr Porter) and the honourable member for McMillan (Mr Cunningham), in speaking in this debate, alluded to particular instances where breaches of quarantine or breakdowns in the quarantine process have led to serious hardship to the rural community of this country. I do not want to speak so much about particular examples of where quarantine has been broken, but rather from a northern Australian context to look at how quarantine procedures might be enforced. Of course we have a vastly different situation in northern Australia from that which exists in the southern half of this continent. The thousands of kilometres of lonely northern coastline of this country lend themselves to illegal entry to Australia. Over the years many instances have been documented where this has taken place.

At least two-thirds of the coastline of the Northern Territory is Aboriginal land and, of course, people other than Aboriginals who live in those areas are restricted from entering that land so that tends to make the coastline even more isolated than it would otherwise be. At times there are literally several hundred kilometres between settlements. It is true that people who live in remote areas seem to be able to keep a pretty good eye on what is going on around them, even though to people who live in the cities it may seem that vast distances are involved. However, information does tend to spread quickly, for example, by aeroplane or vessel. Generally speaking, somehow or other word does get around. There are many old and many more new air strips right along the northern coastline. There is really no way that full surveillance can be carried out of all of the airstrips and all of the thousands of miles of coastline. There are many rumoured landings.

The previous Government established a system of surveillance after a considerable outcry in the north of Australia and, as I recall it, as a consequence of a drug runner's plane being forced down somewhere near Katherine. My impression-it can only be an impression because, although I move around the north a great deal, one has to gauge these things in a fairly subjective way-is that it certainly does not seem that any more aircraft are being used in coastal surveillance today. In fact, from my observations, there are perhaps rather fewer than there were some years ago. But my impression in a general sense is that the situation has improved with the establishment of the Coastal Protection Unit within the Australian Federal Police, although, again as I understand it, the responsibility was handed over without any additional manpower. However, I do not think that by any means the situation is ideal.

In the north there has been a considerable argument about and support for a specialised coastguard force. But the most serious of the problems today is the ability to respond to sightings. It is all very well for a plane flying overhead somewhere between Darwin and Nhulunbuy-a distance of some 600 miles or 800-odd kilometres-to be able to see something happening, either an intrusion of an aircraft or, most frequently, vessels. But, if we are unable to respond effectively, what good are the sightings? It is true that these days the Royal Australian Navy has bigger and better boats, with the Fremantle class patrol boats, but there has been no increase at all, at least in my part of the world, in the numbers of craft available.

I refer to a particular case which involved a sighting of wooden vessels off the northern coast of Bathurst and Melville Islands. The only response possible was to send out an 18-foot fibreglass emergency services dinghy, equipped with a hand-held spot light-it was at night time-a compass and a radio. In the event, when the dinghy reached the vessels, they were found to have on board, amongst other things of course, shovels, axes and seeds of corn, which seemed to indicate at least the possibility that a landing was to be made along the coast.

The point is that prevention is not just better than cure in preventing landings; it is also considerably cheaper in the long run. If a sighting cannot result in the prevention of a landing, and the issue at stake is an exotic disease, such as the foot in mouth disease to which the honourable member for McMillan referred earlier, although I would say that perhaps the Premier of New South Wales could have been--

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Mildren) —Order! The same rule applies to the honourable member for the Northern Territory as applied to the honourable member for McMillan.

Mr EVERINGHAM —Perhaps I should speak more quickly. I was saying that if the issue at stake was an exotic disease, the damage would have been done-I think the damage has been done this morning by the Premier-before surveillance was able to react. To clean up the introduction of disease through a landing would involve enormous cost and resources in comparison with a proper allocation right now of helicopter or hydrofoil facilities which could effectively respond, intercept and prevent such landings.

The fact is that on the northern coastline, when we get away from centres such as Darwin, Nhulunbuy, the one centre in the Gulf, Karumba, Thursday Island, Cairns, Cooktown and the Western Australian coastal centres, there is really nothing in between. Something, other than just planes flying overhead, has to be done, not so that we can just have sightings but so that we can enforce in northern Australia the provisions of this legislation, which I support.