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Transcript of press conference: 12 June 2008: inquiry into equine influenza outbreak.

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The Hon. Tony Burke MP Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

Discussion about the inquiry into the Equine Influenza outbreak and other matters

12 Jun 2008 DAFF08/017tb

TONY BURKE: Okay. About half an hour ago now, I tabled the Callinan report into equine influenza, regarding the outbreak that occurred some ten months ago. I'd like, first of all, to thank Justice Callinan for his report. Forty-four days of hearings, 260 witnesses, 80,000 documents and 41 formal submissions. It wasn't an easy task. He was thorough, dedicated, used a sharp legal eye to produce his recommendations. And also, as some of you have now had the chance to have a look, was certainly frank with his language.

We have to drive cultural change in our quarantine and biosecurity systems so that Australians can have public confidence in them. The report found clear inadequacies in Australia's quarantine system, best described in Commissioner Callinan's own words where he said, “What I describe bespeaks an organisation that lacked clear lines of communication between those responsible for formulating procedures and work instructions, and those responsible for implementing them.”

If you ever wanted to find a reason for needing to drive cultural change in our quarantine services, it's this. When a former High Court judge refers to ‘systemic failures’; ‘understaffed’; ‘not adequately funded and resourced’; ‘inadequacies and breakdowns’; ‘an impenetrable maze of bureaucratic confusion’; ‘a place of ignorance, misunderstandings, misconceptions about fundamental matters, absence of clear communication and assumptions’; and ‘inertia, inefficiency, lack of diligence, incompetence and distraction by unproductive bureaucratic processes - all played a part’. When you hear that, the arguments for cultural change are clear.

The report is a scathing assessment of aspects of our quarantine and bio-security arrangements, in particular for horse imports prior to August 2007.

The first thing I need to refer to is what you'll find on page three of the report, which is where Justice Callinan says, “The evidence does not enable me to make a precise finding as to how equine influenza escaped into the general horse population. It has enabled me, however, to reach clear conclusions concerning, principally, inadequacies and breakdowns in the practices and procedures relating to the importation and quarantining of horses.”

While there's no clear finding, Justice Callinan does make clear the most likely way equine influenza reached Australia was from horses imported from Japan. The most likely way it then escaped was via persons or equipment being moved out of the quarantine facility at eastern creek. And he's much clearer on the way it spread broadly across the NSW and Queensland population by referring to an event near Maitland, a one day event, at which point equine influenza spread.

The Government is determined to act on the previous government's neglect. There are some 38 recommendations in this report. The Government is accepting every single one of them. Those that can be implemented immediately will be implemented immediately. And we'll be working our way through every one of those recommendations.

My priority now is to act on these failures without delay as a way of restoring public confidence in our quarantine and biosecurity systems. Commissioner Callinan also refers to there being shared responsibility. Commissioner Callinan refers to the way in which it wasn't that responsibility does not only lie with our quarantine and biosecurity services, but is shared among a number of people, including the grooms, farriers, vets and other personnel who were moving in and out of Eastern Creek Quarantine Station.

I opened by referring to the need to drive cultural change. As part of driving cultural change, the Deputy Secretary of my Department responsible for quarantine, Stephen Hunter, wrote to the Secretary of my Department, Dr Conall O'Connell, offering that he be stood aside from his current role as the Executive Director of quarantine as a way of assisting in the driving of cultural change.

I thank Stephen Hunter for his offer to be able to do this. The report acknowledges that he actually had not been in the role for a long time at the time of the outbreak. Notwithstanding that, his decision to stand aside as director of quarantine helps pave the way to drive cultural change through change at the top.

I've also asked the Australian Public Service Commissioner to advise me on any further issues regarding staffing that need to be brought to the attention of the Secretary of my Department as a result of this report.

To make sure that those 38 recommendations are appropriately implemented, I wanted to make sure that we had an oversight taking place, an external watching over of the implementation of these recommendations. For that reason, I've asked - the Government has appointed Professor Peter Shergold to oversee, over the next two years, the implementation of the recommendations of this report. He has accepted that request, and Professor Shergold will be reporting to me regularly over the next two years.

I want to send a clear signal that change has begun. All of the information contained in this report I passed on to Roger Beale, who is conducting the overall review of our quarantine and biosecurity arrangements well beyond the issues specifically relating to the importation of horses.

With that in mind, I would like to say that today, and the tabling of this report, is by no means the end of the process.

We are a long way from the finishing line - or the finishing post I guess - in being able to deliver the level of community confidence that we want to see in our quarantine and biosecurity agencies.

But in implementing all of the recommendations contained in this report, we're certainly taking the next step.

QUESTION: Will upgrades at Eastern Creek quarantine station be completed before this year's Spring Carnival?

TONY BURKE: The time line on all of those upgrades is something that Dr Shergold will now be able to report to me on.

A number of people within the department have been working on preparing the response to this. I want everyone to bear in mind, including for the people who are named in this report, the first moment that a lot of people have seen the whole report, even if it directly affects them and their work, has been in the course of the last half hour.

But, in terms of the specifics of the upgrades, the time line on that is something that we'll have more information on once Dr Shergold's role kicks in.

QUESTION: The report also suggests Tullamarine should have facilities built. The fact that you've mentioned time, time lines, will there be something there in time for the Melbourne Cup, or is it essential for something to be there for the Melbourne Cup to go ahead?

TONY BURKE: What's essential is to get it right. And certainly in making the undertaking to implement all the recommendations that are there, we want to implement them responsibly and effectively.

So, my determination isn't to rush any particular individual upgrade, but to make sure that we implement the upgrades that are required effectively, responsibly.

And so I'm not going to end up with second-rate reforms and second-rate improvements because we were rushing through a particular event.

QUESTION: [Indistinct] staff in AQIS because he mentions many many failures by many officers from [indistinct], being disciplined in any way, and should, shouldn't the Secretary of your own Department also stand aside [indistinct] his ultimate responsibility?

TONY BURKE: Certainly I have full confidence in the Secretary of my Department. Dr Conall O'Connell has played an effective role in particular in helping oversee that we were in a position to accept every one of the 38 recommendations.

I raise as well, and remind people that the decision of Stephen Hunter was a decision that he took at his own volition. It certainly is not something that was asked of him, but we do, I do thank him for making the decision that he made.

Dr Conall O'Connell has my full confidence, and I see him as part of the solution in being able to improve public confidence in our quarantine services.

Like Stephen Hunter, he had not been in the role for long at the time of the Equine Influenza outbreak.

QUESTION: …AQIS, any disciplinary action likely?

TONY BURKE: This is why the report's been referred to the Public Service Commissioner, and I have no doubt that, as people now have a opportunity to read the report in full, the Public Service Commissioner will be able to provide recommendations, and Dr O'Connell will be able to make decisions of his own.

But those staffing decisions will be made by the department. There won't be ministerial interference in that.

QUESTION: Given the damning evidence on this one particular aspect of quarantine, do you have confidence in wider quarantine and other biosecurity threats?

TONY BURKE: If I had a belief that we couldn't improve our quarantine services I never would have started the Beal Review.

We said in Opposition, and I've repeated in government, in interviews and on the floor of the Parliament, that we can significantly improve our quarantine and biosecurity services.

This is why we commissioned the Beal Review, and whenever you're dealing with a risk management system, you want to make sure that you are doing everything you can to minimise the risks that quarantine always involves.

If I thought we were doing that adequately at the moment, I never would have commissioned that review.

QUESTION: Minister, has the vaccine run out, and are you getting any more?

TONY BURKE: On the issue of the vaccine … there are differences of opinion as to whether, within industry, as to whether vaccination should continue beyond the end of this month.

There was to be a summit of the horse industry that was to be convened during the course of this month. Industry chose to postpone that, because they wanted to have the advantage of this report.

I expect now that the report's been tabled that that summit will reconvene, and that will provide an opportunity to have a better informed determination as to whether a vaccination program should properly be revisited.

QUESTION: But has it run out?

TONY BURKE: The vaccination program and the approvals to continue were approvals given to the end of this month.

QUESTION: Is it your understanding of that there is any threat to the Melbourne Cup?

TONY BURKE: I'm, I'm not aware of that.

QUESTION: But if you don't have those facilities built at Tullamarine before the Melbourne Cup, then importing horses through there, then puts the country at risk of another outbreak.

TONY BURKE: Can I say, I haven't ruled it out. What I have ruled out is that we will use any deadline other than getting the services in place to the best possible standard. That's the priority.

QUESTION: But will then horses be allowed in, to be imported into Melbourne if the facilities aren't built?

TONY BURKE: The, the process is as I have just described.


QUESTION: If the quarantine service is under-resourced why haven't you allocated more budget funds for it?

TONY BURKE: Well this is where the Beale Review was always intended to conclude when it concluded so that we were able to feed into the next budgetary cycle.

In terms of providing immediately, immediate improvements in funding, you will see a final recommendation which we've accepted about increasing the fees on the, the user-pays process with respect to the quarantine services.

That was part, the under-funding issues raised by Justice Callinan don't only go to government funding, they also go to the fees.

He recommended that a review be taken, that the fees he believed were radically lower than they should properly be, and also recommended some interim fees that be put in place straight away. And we're acting on that.

QUESTION: Why should the industry put more money in now if the Government's not prepared to? You did get this well before the Budget?

TONY BURKE: In terms of the full development of the Budget process, the Government is putting extra money in. There's about, I think it's $1.3 million involved in the response to this report directly.

And, we've accepted all the recommendations which have been offered by this report by Justice Callinan.

QUESTION: Does the $1.3 million offset the two per cent deficiency dividend which you would [indistinct]? How - what does that do to a department that's already understaffed and underfunded?

TONY BURKE: To - well there's more to the department than our quarantine services. And so to pick one part of the department and say there's your efficiency dividend would be an inaccurate way of describing it and I think some of this was actually discussed at Senate Estimates.

QUESTION: Quarantine [indistinct]?

TONY BURKE: I think you will find, as we go through the processes of the reviews, that at every step of the way nobody is arguing that we can deliver a better quarantine service with fewer resources. I don't think you'll find anyone arguing that.

QUESTION: The cost of this was somewhere in the area of $1 billion. What's the Government's position of compensation then?

TONY BURKE: Well first of all, in terms of the total cost, I don't think anybody can accurately measure just how devastating this has been. We're not only talking about people whose jobs are directly involved with horses. This goes right through to the people who cook the fast food at the Spring Carnival. This goes through to people in knock-on industries. We've had milliners call the office about how the cancellation of the Spring Carnival shot their business to pieces. I don't think anyone can fully quantify the damage which was caused to Australian industry as a result of this outbreak.

In terms of the issue of compensation, I have no doubt that this issue will be tested in the courts. Well in advance of me receiving the report, one prominent racing identity said to me, he said, “You know Tony, it doesn't matter what's in the report, we're punters and we reckon this is a good bet.” So, I've no doubt that this will be tested in the courts and the determination about liability and quantum will be appropriately resolved there.

QUESTION: Doesn't the public have the [indistinct] that heads will roll if it's going to cost the public purse even more if there's court action?

TONY BURKE: I think for me to make a declaration on that in advance of the Public Service Commissioner reporting back would take away the reasons that I asked for the referral to the Public Service Commissioner. So, I will wait for that advice to come back.

But certainly, the gravity of the situation, I think, should be made clear by the reference that I made.

QUESTION: Did the Secretary [indistinct] offer to stand aside?

TONY BURKE: There was no offer and there was no expectation from me that an offer of that nature would be made. I have full confidence in him. And as I say, bear in mind the report refers specifically to how briefly both Dr Conall O'Connell and Stephen Hunter had been in their roles at the time of the outbreak.

QUESTION: How specific is this reference to the Public Service Commissioner? Have you just given him a list of names or have you just given him the report and said, “Read the report?”

TONY BURKE: I've written with a copy - I've written attaching a copy of the report asking for what advice the Commissioner can give me in terms of action that should be taken as a result of it.

I think to provide a precis or summary of the report would actually devalue the reference.

QUESTION: Why has it taken you so long to release the report?

TONY BURKE: I wanted to make sure that we were in a position to be able to deliver on every last one of the recommendations. I also wanted to make sure we could go one step further, and that was to put the role in place for Dr Peter Shergold. I think even though that level of oversight was not a recommendation of the report, I felt it was an important part of there being public confidence in people seeing the recommendations being implemented.

QUESTION: Have you consulted the horse industry on how to respond or have you just made up your response yourselves?

TONY BURKE: In how to respond? Well certainly I wasn't providing the horse industry a copy of the report in advance of it being tabled.

QUESTION: But have you decided how you should respond to this without talking to the people in the industry that actually know what the problems are?

TONY BURKE: The people in the industry who know where the problems are made sure that they made very strong presentations to Justice Callinan. When you have a formal report process in the role of Commissioner that Justice Callinan took on, then the evidence they present is presented directly there. And the only way that is appropriate to discuss with industry, is to have them feeding their views through the inquiry process and for them to have every confidence, which they can now have, that we are accepting every single recommendation. To involve them otherwise in advance of tabling, I think, would have been highly improper.

QUESTION: How would you characterise the behaviour of the [indistinct] who left Eastern Creek, you know, without ever bothering to decontaminate?

TONY BURKE: I think anybody who reads the report would be deeply concerned about people of varying levels of qualification, all the way up to being formerly trained as vets, failing to decontaminate at a quarantine station. I think most people reading that would find it astonishing, would understand why Justice Callinan has referred to shared responsibility, but would also have an expectation that the cultural change we drove made sure the procedures did not only exist on paper, but were being implemented and enforced.

QUESTION: That's a criminal offence isn't it Minister? It's a criminal offence not to follow quarantine. Are you going to pursue these people?

TONY BURKE: On the issue as to whether or not there's - whether or not there's criminal ramifications, I've no doubt that those would be decisions made by someone other than the Minister for Agriculture.

QUESTION: Well are you going to refer this to the DPP?

TONY BURKE: Well it doesn't need a formal referral from me to the DPP if they believe that there's criminal action.

QUESTION: As a NSW Minister, are you satisfied with Belinda Neal's agreement to undertake counselling?

TONY BURKE: The Prime Minister made his views very clear on that and I saw part of the member for Robertson's media conference yesterday that was broadcast on the news. I really don't have anything to add to that other than the Prime Minister made it clear to each and every one of us that no matter who we are, there are expectations about how we behave.

QUESTION: Do you think she's misled Parliament?

TONY BURKE: I've got nothing to add to what I've said with respect to the Prime Minister's comments and his clarity.

QUESTION: You're a senior figure in the NSW Labor Party. Has the NSW Labor Party damaged the Labor brand? Is it a good Government in NSW? Is it a good Labor Party in NSW?

TONY BURKE: Certainly, my principle relationship as Minister for Agriculture with the NSW Government is with their Minister for Agriculture, Ian Macdonald. The level of cooperation and effectiveness are particularly good on issues relating to quarantine and their concern about it.

I've found it really refreshing. And certainly, we came to Government saying we weren't going to play the blame game. I haven't seen any need to.

QUESTION: On the report, is there any suggestion that your predec… that there were any failings on behalf of your predecessor?

TONY BURKE: There are suggestions regarding my predecessor's predecessor with respect to Warren Truss. There's reference in there to a letter that he wrote on 31 May in 2005, but I'd let people draw their own conclusions from that. I don't want to turn this into a political, point-scoring exercise. My focus is on improving this facility for the future.

Thank you very much.