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Thursday, 13 April 1989
Page: 1500

Senator DEVEREUX —My question is directed to the Minister for Resources. Is the Minister aware that an outbreak of foot and mouth disease could cost Australian agricultural production in the order of $1.6 billion per year, with an estimated cost of eradication of around $4 billion per year for some years? What sort of mechanism has the Government got in place to allay fears about the possible introduction of these diseases? What is the Government doing to ensure that first time arriving passengers and, indeed, returning passengers are made aware of the importance of quarantine controls?

Senator COOK —Yes, the Government is concerned that Australia, as a country with a very healthy farm stock and agricultural base, could disrupt that base quite considerably, affecting our trade balance and the standard of living of all Australians, if we did not ensure that we protected this country from the importation, either accidentally or deliberately, of exotic pests and diseases. Senator Devereux has referred to foot and mouth disease. An item as innocuous as a pork sausage brought into Australia without proper quarantine screening could, through the introduction of foot and mouth disease, lay waste to our entire pastoral industry. It is estimated that an outbreak of this disease in Australia would cost about $1.6 billion per year, with flow-on effects of eradication and reconstruction costing the national economy over $4 billion per year for several years. That is just one type of disease. There are other diseases. Screw-worm fly is a disease that could have a similar effect to foot and mouth disease if it came into Australia. Newcastle disease could destroy our poultry flock. There are diseases that affect grapes, wheat and citrus that would have a devastating effect on our position as a trading nation.

The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) conducted research during 1988 on the public perceptions of quarantine in this country and found that there is negligible awareness of the range of quarantine services provided in Australia by the Quarantine and Inspection Service. Knowledge of its existence virtually does not penetrate the public consciousness at all. It must be observed that no amount of vigilance or expertise on the part of the officers of the AQIS can protect us from a quarantine breach in the face of this apparent public apathy. Thus it is that the Quarantine Service has embarked upon a series of advertisements to try to lift public understanding of what the potential threat to Australia is, not just in economic terms but, as well, in environmental terms, if any of these diseases should pass the barrier. Honourable senators would have seen some of these advertisements in the newspapers recently. Mr President, I display for the Senate one of them. It says:

Want it so bad you'd kill for it?

This is an advertisement that refers to the potentially damaging effects of sausages, meats and cheeses that could be host to the exotic diseases I referred to or woodcarvings and other artefacts that may be purchased in foreign countries and brought into Australia that could be hosts to other sorts of diseases that would affect our housing or our forests.

Senator Crichton-Browne —What has been done to educate Torres Strait Islanders in respect of that?

Senator COOK —I will come to that point since you raise it, because it is a very good point. There is the question of what flowers can be brought into this country that would affect our population and industry as well. All those things are aimed at encouraging ordinary Australians to take responsibility themselves, as travellers coming back to this country, to work with our Quarantine and Inspection Service to prevent the importation of those diseases. There is some lightness being made of this in the chamber. I am terribly disappointed about that, because it is an extremely serious thing. One mistake in this area can be of devastating cost to the economy. I hope that the lightness that is being made of this by Opposition senators will not continue in their more sober moments and that they will be examples to the rest of the country of how we, as a trading nation, should conduct ourselves.

Senator Crichton-Browne interjected about Torres Strait Islanders. We have in place the northern Australian quarantine strategy. That strategy consists of sending working groups of both Papua New Guinean and Australian quarantine officers throughout the Torres Strait with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander officials and officials from Papua New Guinea to sit down with the various communities in Torres Strait to explain to them what the problems of quarantine are. There was a swing through the whole of the Torres Strait late last year; there is another one planned for August of this year. We have a constant campaign so that indigenous people in the Torres Strait are aware of what the--

Senator Michael Baume —We'll call a quorum. This is a supplementary question from Senator Crichton-Browne.

Senator COOK —I take great offence at that. I am answering a question. One of Senator Baume's colleagues interjected in the interests of seeking information. I am replying to that. Senator Baume is threatening me that if I do not stop my answer he will impose quorums. I am not going to bow to his intimidations. I am respecting this chamber and helping one of his colleagues. So, Senator Crichton-Browne, we do have that in mind. Christmas Island and other islands in the Indian and Pacific oceans are areas to which we have directed our attention, too. We have recently also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Papua New Guinean Government to make sure that we regulate that zone. In February of this year I signed an intention to form a memorandum of understanding with the Indonesian Government so that we can do the same there.

Senator Michael Baume —That's two quorums.

Senator COOK —I am not going to be intimidated by you.

The PRESIDENT —Order! There are too many interjections. The Minister will address the Chair and not the interjectors.

Senator COOK —The point that Senator Devereux's question allows me to make is that this is a serious issue, a serious problem, and we enlist the willing cooperation not only of the Opposition but, hopefully, the more intelligent wider Australian community to protect Australian herds and our agricultural industry in this way.