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Thursday, 16 October 2008
Page: 6229


Senator BOSWELL (3:03 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by ministers to questions without notice asked today.

Today we saw one of the worst abuses of parliament that I have experienced in a number of years. I sent, as a matter of courtesy, Senator Sherry a question that I thought deserved a serious answer. I sent that question about 11 o’clock. The convention in this place is that if you want an answer you give the minister the courtesy of sending the question. That is a convention that has been part of this Senate for as long as I have been here. But when you do give the minister that courtesy you do not expect two minutes of vitriolic abuse on a question that has very serious implications for the fishing industry in Australia. I considered it abuse, and I will certainly be writing to the President of the Senate. I thought the President should have stepped in and reprimanded the minister, or certainly directed him to the question. If we want to abuse convention in this place, it just will not work. We do not do that, because we have a consideration for the Senate and we want it to work.

The Vietnamese Prime Minister, when in Australia, made an announcement—I do not know whether he was talking with some knowledge—that the regulations would be changed to allow prawns from Vietnam to come into Australia. I spent a great number of months with my colleague Senator Ian Campbell working to stop prawns coming in from Vietnam to South-East Queensland because white spot virus is involved. It is a very important issue because if that white spot virus gets into the wild catch of Australian prawns and crustaceans, including crayfish, then it has the potential to wipe out the whole of the wild catch. In fact, there are only two countries in the world that do not have this white spot virus: Brazil and Australia.

It is so important that we maintain that disease-free status for white spot that I thought it was worth sending the question over to the minister, but we got roundly abused for our trouble. I still do not know—and I have the transcript here—what the position is, because the minister just obfuscated the question. The position that we took was that we prevented prawns coming in from South-East Asia from countries that had white spot disease. We allowed cooked prawns to come in but prevented raw prawns from coming in because they offered a real threat to our wild catch industries.

Today, the minister could have said, ‘No, we are not going to allow prawns to come into Australia from white spot countries or from South Vietnam,’ but we did not get that answer. We got some obfuscation, and I do not know at the moment whether prawns will be allowed in or whether they will not be allowed in. We will have to wait to take this matter further in the estimates committee next week. I thought it was a terrible way to answer a question, when it was an absolutely serious question that did not have any political implications in it. It was a clear and concise question: will you prevent prawns coming in from countries that carry white spot to prevent it getting into our wild catch? A number of fishermen and a number of processors are very interested in this question. We still do not know whether Senator Sherry actually got a brief from the appropriate minister or he just tried to fly it and did not know what he was talking about. (Time expired)