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Tuesday, 5 June 2001
Page: 27248

Mr CAUSLEY (3:00 PM) —My question is directed to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. Would the minister outline to the House the federal government's commitment to protecting Australia's prized disease-free status for our agriculture and fisheries industries? How is the federal government backing this commitment?

Mr TRUSS (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) —I thank the honourable member for his question. As a former minister for agriculture in New South Wales, he would know very well how important and how precious Australia's clean and green image, our disease-free status, is to our nation. This government has massively increased Australia's effort in relation to quarantine, an effort that had been run down by Labor: they had actually reduced services and border patrol activities in their latter years. We immediately commenced turning it around, and there are now more than two-thirds more full-time staff in border activities than when we came to office. But, in the budget handed down last month, there was another $600 million boost to Australia's quarantine services. This demonstrates very clearly this government's commitment to our nation's disease-free status. It will almost double the size of our quarantine service and also significantly boost the number of people engaged by Customs. The number of dog teams will be tripled to 98 and we will have an extra 50 X-ray machines. The number of inspections will increase dramatically, and indeed we will be moving to a 100 per cent inspection of passengers' luggage, cargo containers and, of course, mail items coming into this country.

There is a very real commitment by this government to quarantine issues. We regard very highly our quarantine services and the important work that they do, and our disease-free status. It is in fact one of our most important national assets, one that the trade minister and I and others are always talking about to our international customers. Unfortunately, there are some people opposite who do not give such an important priority to quarantine issues. Indeed, there are a range of diseases—not just foot-and-mouth disease, which has attracted so much attention lately—which are of real concern to Australian industries.

One, for instance, is the white spot virus in prawns. That is a disease which has potentially the same kind of devastating effects on the seafood industry as does foot-and-mouth disease on livestock. Australia's disease-free status, our freedom from white spot disease, is also an important asset to our seafood industry. I was naturally therefore concerned—indeed appalled—when last month we had the New South Wales fisheries minister, Mr Obeid, announcing that white spot disease had been discovered in Sydney Harbour. He actually went on to make comments that the prawn population was probably already being devastated by white spot virus in Sydney Harbour. Naturally, Mr Obeid's announcement caused shock waves throughout the entire seafood industry, and, indeed, concerns internationally about whether Australia's $2 billion seafood export industry was at risk.

I naturally sought additional tests and asked the CSIRO to do some studies. It seems that the New South Wales minister made his announcement, to get a few headlines, on the basis of a preliminary protein test—an entirely unreliable guide to whether or not the disease is actually present. When the CSIRO did more detailed testing, it became abundantly clear that there was no evidence of white spot disease in Sydney Harbour at all. So we had the New South Wales minister undermining the credibility of the clean and green image of Australia by his attempting to get a cheap headline, rushing around doing an Aquilina to get a cheap headline, caring nothing about the damage to the reputation of our multimillion-dollar seafood export industry. I am pleased to report to the House that there is no evidence of white spot disease in Sydney Harbour nor, for that matter, anywhere else in Australia. It is absolutely disgraceful that we have a state Labor minister rushing around trying to damage our disease-free reputation.

I might add one other thing: his action has undermined Australia's tough new quarantine laws in relation to prawn imports. How can we sustain these high standards and demanding testing regimes if we have one of our own state fisheries ministers going around telling the world that we have got the disease that we are trying to keep out of the country? I think it is high time Mr Obeid apologised to the fishing industry. The shadow minister opposite should call him into line and give him the Bracks treatment on barley: pull him into line and make sure that we have a situation in Australia where all people regard highly our disease-free status and are determined to maintain our good quarantine status.