Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Thursday, 25 July 1912

Senator ST LEDGER (Queensland) - - There can be no two opinions as to the necessity for a strict Quarantine Act to preserve the health of the people of Australia. We cannot doubt that if Australia is going to progress, a large portion of our trade will be done with the Eastern countries; and there will be considerable traffic in passengers, goods, animals, and plants between eastern tropical countries and Australia. It is, therefore, absolutely necessary, in the interests of public safety, that we should have strict quarantine laws to prevent the introduction of disease. I very seldom agree- with'. Senator Givens, but I do agree with his statement that the success of our quarantine system must depend, to a very great extent, upon its administration. The Minister cannot be expected to have the technical and scientific knowledge necessary, and he must depend upon tnt scientific knowledge, and administration of his officers. Unfortunately, many officials possessing high scientific qualifications, have no powers of management. It seems an impossible task to drive into the heads of scientific officials the A, B, C of administration. On the other hand, we find that men who are past-masters in administration, are incompetent on the scientific side. I "refer to both cases, because the officials of this Department may shelter themselves under one qualification or the other. In view of recent happenings, as narrated by Senator Givens, it is about time that our Quarantine Department was thoroughly overhauled from top to *bottom I do not say this because of Senator Givens' remarks alone. A similar outbreak to that which occurred on the Yawata Maru occurred some time previously. I put some questions on the subject to the Government. Those questions were intended to elicit definite and explicit information on the facts reported to me that, about a fortnight before the Yawata Maru arrived at Townsville, the Changs ha arrived at that port with a small-pox case on board. I have reason to believe that the Changsha came from the same port, by die same route, and belongs to the same class of steamers as the Yawata Maru. The difficulty is that the Quarantine Department, with that warning of a fortnight before the report of the case on the Yawata Maru, seems to have failed to recognise the importance of the matter. It must have been very dead when, with such a warning only a fortnight previously, no attempt was made to make adequate provision to prevent a repetition of so serious a danger to Australia. . If my information with respect to the Changsha be correct, that is an additional reason why the officer in charge of this Department should come down from the. clouds of his recent trip and set to work upon the scientific administration of a quarantine system. I have been informed, also, that some time ago the special attention of the Department was called to the unsatisfactory condition of the quarantine station at Townsville. I have also addressed a question to the Minister on that point. I hope he will not take sides in the matter, but will do his duty as between myself and the officials. I hope that, in answer to my question, we shall learn whether it is a fact that, some twelve months ago, . information was given to the officials of the Quarantine Department that the station at Townsville was in a disreputable state of repair, and required attention. If no notice was taken of that report from Townsville, the Department is very seriously to blame. We may regard it as providential that Townsville and the eastern States of Australia have not had to suffer from a very serious epidemic of disease. I am prepared to admit that the subject is a remarkably difficult one. I recognise that when a steamer, with its passengers and cargo, is held up by quarantine officers, the Department is regarded as the common enemy of every one interested. It is an almost impossible task for any official to satisfy the objections and the clamour raised in such circumstances. My criticism, and that of Senator Givens, are not offered with the intention of paralyzing or weakening the administration of the Department, but with the object of calling, by a reference to recent incidents, special attention to this important question. Senator Givens has not spoken to me. nor have I spoken to him, upon this matter. He has made his speech from actual observation, and I have made my remarks from information received from entirely different quarters long before the incident to which Senator Givens has referred took place.

Senator McGregor - The honorable senator does not require any one to prompt him.

Senator ST LEDGER - I ask the Government to treat this matter seriously ; but J believe that if the Vice-President of the Executive Council were sentenced to death, and was walking to the scaffold, he would not take that seriously, nor possibly would any one else. It was with the object of securing reliable information on these matters that I directed my inquiries. The unsatisfactory feature of these matters is that, when one does make inquiries, he is bumped about from Department to Department, and put off with one excuse and another, until a private member of this Parliament is inclined to wash his hands of the whole business. I hope that it will be possible for the Department to refute my statement; but I am informed that the officials had ample warning long ago of the unsatisfactory condition of affairs at Townsville, from one of the ablest of their medical Ok cers. The danger which was threatened in the case of the Changsha, and which actually arose in the case of the YawataMaru, was due to the fact that warnings administered from Townsville over and over again have not been attended to. Senator Givens has informed us, from actual experience, that the quarantine station at Townsville was not in a proper state of repair.

Senator McGregor - It is in' the same condition, evidently, as the post-office.

Senator ST LEDGER - Exactly. If the quarantine buildings at Townsville are in no better condition than the post-office there, it would be no wonder if an epidemic of small-pox occurred. The Vice-President of the Executive Council apparently wishes to side-track me by his reference to the Townsville post-office, because, on a former occasion, I directed attention to the discreditable state of that building. I spoke of that from actual observation ; but I speak of the condition of the quarantine station from information received from a reliable and scientific authority. For the purposes for which it is required, it is in comparatively a disreputable condition, and the attention of the Department was called to the fact long before the discovery of the case of small-pox on the Yawata Marti. When the Vice-President of the Executive Council meets such statements with silly interjections, it is almost hopeless for honorable senators to expect that their complaints will be attended to; but this is much too serious a matter to be dealt with in any such way. The Quarantine Department must surely recognise that Townsville is the most important port in Australia in this connexion, since it is the first port of call for our trade with the Eastern countries. The Government should have recognised that long ago, when the Commonwealth took over quarantine from the States, and they should have at once seen that a properly equipped station was established at Townsville, in charge of competent officers properly paid for the services required of them. If Ministers will make inquiries, they will find that the trade of Townsville with the East is veryconsiderable, and is increasing in volume The danger of the introduction of disease from the East is increasing proportionately, and so is the necessity for greater vigilance on the part of the Quarantine Department. I hope that, in Committee, we shall, find that improvements are proposed in our legislation to deal with quarantine. The rest depends upon administration.

Time after time, however, the officers of the Department have turned a hostile ear to the requests of their subordinate officers. Under these circumstances we can hope for little improvement. If I thought that this condition of affairs arose through the advice given by the officers of the Department to the Government in the past I should say that there was only one thing to do, namely, to get rid of those officers from top to bottom. There can be no doubt from the direct testimony that we have before us that the arrangements in regard, to the Changsha and the Yawata Maru were a disgrace to the Department. It is our duty to make this Bill effective, and to enable the officers to be clothed with ample powers. I, at all events, welcome the Bill. The cost of the administration of quarantine will probably increase, but in a matter affecting the public health this Parliament is not going to spare reasonable expenditure. I hope that it will be shown that my information is incorrect, but inasmuch as it has been confirmed by the personal experience of some members of Parliament, I think I am justified in making my speech somewhat warm in order to direct attention to several examples of weak administration in connexion with quarantine.

Suggest corrections