Thursday, 1 November 2012
That the Senate notes the Government’s approach to biosecurity and quarantine matters in respect of Australian agriculture and issues of WTO compliance.
This is a crucial issue. The concerns from industry and our farming sector about Australia's biosecurity and quarantine arrangements are ongoing. There have been several past Senate committee inquiries, including a comprehensive report from the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee in April this year. There are also currently not one, not two but three separate inquiries under the same committee into the proposed imports of potatoes, pineapples and ginger. We have also seen past cases relating to apples, beef from BEC affected countries, and pork.
This is tied in with issues of food labelling. Issues have also been raised in the inquiry of the Select Committee on Australia's Food Processing Sector—a very useful inquiry chaired by Senator Colbeck—which raises issues about whether there are backdoor ways for produce to come into this country and circumvent fair labelling requirements. Part of the problem is that our food labelling laws in this country are simply too weak. They are not just weak but positively misleading in the way that products can be described as 'Made in Australia' but they only include a 51 per cent so-called substantial transformation in Australia, which in effect means that you could have orange juice, for instance, that is 90 per cent Brazilian concentrate but, because of packaging and the water being added here and the final processing taking place in Australia, you can still label that orange juice as 'Made in Australia'. To me, that is entirely unsatisfactory. It is actually deceives consumers as they cannot make an informed choice as to whether they want to buy Australian produce. That, in turn, has an impact in terms of biosecurity concerns by virtue, for instance, of our closer economic relationship with New Zealand. That is a very important relationship, but there are concerns that, for instance, fruit and vegetables contaminated with pesticides could be imported to New Zealand, repackaged there and sold in Australia as a product of New Zealand. That was identified in the select committee inquiry into the food-processing sector, chaired by Senator Colbeck, and is very much a live issue.
It is clear that there is considerable concern among some people in this place that, as parliamentarians, we should be doing much more to protect our producers—and I do not mean protect in the old tariff way of protection but protecting our producers from disease and from their produce being contaminated. That goes to the heart of Australia's clean, green image as a producer of the finest quality food and produce. That is something that we must protect—we must protect our producers from pests and diseases that could literally destroy entire industries. Yet we see inquiry after inquiry into our biosecurity measures. We hear from witness after witness who can quantify the impact that an exotic disease will have on their industry, and sometimes the impact can be quite subtle. For instance, concern has been expressed to me by apple growers in the Adelaide Hills and, indeed, around the country that, about allowing the importation of New Zealand apples. New Zealand has for many years had fire blight, a disease that can be absolutely devastating for the apple and pear industries. Even if the disease has not come in, by virtue of those apples being allowed to be imported into the country, those producers are looking over their shoulder. They are wondering, 'When will the outbreak occur? Should I be making a major investment decision in terms of a packaging plant or planting more trees or making a significant investment decision that will require mortgaging my home if there is even a very small chance of that disease coming into this country through the importation of those New Zealand apples.'
We heard just recently during the current Senate inquiry into potatoes that zebra chip disease has the potential to devastate the Australian potato industry. We heard from representatives just a week ago—Tasmanian, Victorian and South Australian growers as well as the peak body, AUSVEG—about the potential for devastation through zebra chip and the impact it has had on New Zealand. We still are trying to find out what the true science is in relation to that and I do not think that the department responsible for this has considered all of the evidence. I do not believe it has considered the most recent evidence, which is very concerning when it comes to the potential impact. Even though there is all this talk of a closed loop, as Senator Heffernan says time and time again in the committee that he chairs, every human endeavour is prone to failings. The risk is just enormous of something going wrong and the risk matrix being used by the department really needs to be looked at. I know that Senator Boswell has been quite passionate in leading the charge in relation to issues around the importation of pineapples and ginger and the potential impact it has on disease. The question needs to be asked whether the current risk matrix used by the department is appropriate.
The question also needs to be asked whether we are drawing a literalist, purist interpretation of WTO rules in a way that other countries do not. I understand the importance of world trade. I understand the importance for a small, open economy such as Australia to be open to trade and be a great exporting and, indeed, importing country, but there must be a key safeguard when it comes to the issue of keeping our clean, green image in agriculture intact. That is something that ought to be quite sacrosanct, and I am concerned that the current risk matrix, the current resources being employed and the current approach to biosecurity in this country are inadequate.
I want to recount to you a conversation that occurred at the hearing. I cannot, because I am bound by an undertaking I have given to the person who relayed this conversation to me to not disclose the names of the parties, and it will not be useful for my colleagues to speculate about who those people would be, including the government official involved. At the hearing into the potato inquiry, it was put to me that there was a conversation between a senior official who had a role in biosecurity—not trade but biosecurity—and a potato industry representative. The official is alleged to have said to the potato industry representative—and there were a number there—that this is actually causing harm to our international reputation or that this does have an effect on our international reputation in trade terms. This has an effect through people around the world reading the Hansard and damaging our reputation as a trading nation. I will be circumspect in relation to what more was said, but, if that is the case, it concerns me because I would have thought the role of the department is, first and foremost, related to biosecurity.
Dealing with issues of trade is Minister Emerson's department. Of course, if one of Minister Emerson's officials put that position forward, I could understand that because it was coming from a department responsible for trade. But, if someone involved in issues of biosecurity is expressing a position in respect of trade, saying that this could be counterproductive to Australia's trade, I think that is quite improper. I think that is the wrong approach to take and it raises to me issues of an inherent bias in the approach. The people involved in that conversation know who they are, but I think it is important that that be put on the record and seen as an improper approach to take to that.
It reminds me of the remarks made by the head of the CFMEU, Michael O'Connor, a union leader who I actually have a lot of respect for. He said at an international trade forum for the timber industry several years ago that in Scandinavia there was a joke about Australia when it comes to the WTO. We are referred to as the 'free trade Taliban' because we take such a fundamentalist, literal, purist approach to free trade issues that no other country does. So I believe that the current approach to biosecurity and quarantine arrangements is concerning. In many instances we are told that it will all be okay and that there is only a small risk. But a small risk can have a massive impact. To write off the concerns of Australian producers, many of whom have been involved in the agricultural sector for generations, is unreasonable. To go one step further and in some instances to accuse producers of scaremongering is, I think, completely unfair.
Let us get back to basics. As a nation we are blessed geographically. In part our geography has enabled us to remain free of most of the major pests and diseases affecting production in the rest of the world. We have a reputation of being clean and green, and this is not something we should take lightly. In recent years there has been a shift towards the idea of free trade as the absolute, or it appears to be that in terms of biosecurity arrangements. It is quickly taking over as a priority ahead of protecting our own interests in countless sectors, including manufacturing, innovation and investment as well as agriculture. I acknowledge Australia's position. I acknowledge that we are a signatory to the WTO, but the query that I have is: are we taking too much of a literalist, purist approach to WTO rules to the disadvantage of protecting our clean, green image?
The importance of accepting products from other countries so that they will import our products in turn is often talked about. That theory does not seem to get taken to the next steps: what happens if the products we export become a biosecurity risk for that country because of a disease or pest that has been introduced through other imports? What would they do then? I look to my home state of South Australia and in the Adelaide Hills the town of Lenswood is well known for producing some of the nation's finest apples, pears and cherries. In July last year I went to a 200-strong rally in Lenswood attended by farmers, families, schoolchildren and, much to everyone's chagrin, even politicians. These locals were protesting against the proposed importation of New Zealand apples, which are known carriers of fire blight, as I have indicated. We know that fire blight is highly contagious. We know that it has had a massive impact in North America, Europe and of course New Zealand. We do not have fire blight yet but, despite the significant impact fire blight could have on our apple and pear industry, the import permits were allowed.
That is why I put up legislation, the Quarantine Amendment (Disallowing Permits) Bill 2011, so that the parliament can have the ultimate say, based on the science, based on the evidence, but this is such a fundamental issue that we ought to have a say on this. This is an issue that goes to our food security, that goes to ensuring that our agricultural sector has a fair go and is able to fight to survive on a level playing field. Goodness knows how difficult it is with the high value of the Australian dollar and the value of commodity prices for them to do that. We need to ensure that our farmers are not pushed to a tipping point of being unviable as a result of not having appropriate and thorough quarantine measures.
When we look at the issue of New Zealand potatoes which could carry the devastating tomato and potato spilled, a destructive drug that transmits a condition called zebra chip which results in black stripes and a burnt taste that makes potato inedible when cooked, I think it is important that we look at the risk matrix. We should look at issues that Senator Colbeck—who I note is in the chamber—has very capably raised in the Senate committee process about how the risk matrix works, to ensure that there is a risk process, to ensure that our own industry is not exposed to a pest or disease that has an irrevocable impact on that industry. The psyllid does not just affect potatoes; tomatoes, capsicum and eggplant crops are also at risk. Combined, these crops represent $1.5 billion worth of agricultural production in Australia. My home state of South Australia has much to lose should the pest enter Australia. South Australia produces 80 per cent of the nation's fresh washed potatoes and the industry employs 2,000 South Australians—a huge economic impact in my home state. But one tiny bug has the power to wipe all that away, and what is there to be gained from such a great risk.
We know that the Closer Economic Relations trade agreement with New Zealand includes a clause that allows other country to decline products if they pose risks to domestic industry. New Zealand was prepared to challenge that clause and take the case all the way to the WTO. Would Australia do the same thing if New Zealand refused to import certain goods? We will wait and see. In principle the CER is good for those countries but we should not let free trade principles stand in the way of protecting our clean, green image. Much more needs to be done in relation to the matrix, as Senator Boswell has quite rightly pointed out. More needs to be done to ensure that industries are not forever looking over their shoulder in terms of the impact of these pests and diseases, so that they can make long-term investment decisions with some certainty. If Australia did become infected with one of these diseases or pests, would other countries keep taking our products and put themselves at risk? I very much doubt it. One of the reasons we have such great success in Asia, in Japan and South-East Asia with our products is our clean and green image.
We are not just talking about imports. In June last year another Senate committee inquiry was undertaken into the eradication of the Asian honeybee. This inquiry looked at how Australia responds when we discover that a pest has already arrived. In this case the Asian honeybee was discovered in the Cairns region in 2007. Since then over 350 nests have been found and destroyed. This bee is a virulent pest, one that targets and consumes all available food resources, cutting out the native and European bees. It is also a natural carrier of the varroa mite, which can decimate existing colonies. The collapse of native and European honeybees in Australia would mean significant environmental impacts. It is not just the honey industry that would be affected, it would also affect industries that rely on natural pollination for their crops. I know that Senator Milne, for instance, was a very active participant in that inquiry and senators from all sides of the fence understood what the potential impact of this would be in terms of its environmental impact, the impact on other crops. The concern here was that it was the view of some experts that the Asian honeybee was not ineradicable. This decision obviously affected the way that infestations were approached and many who were fighting against this pest felt that the government had decided to surrender and accept that this particular pest was now here to stay
The process for dealing with infestation of pests is incredibly complex, but the question has to be asked as to whether enough was being done to eradicate this pest and whether we did throw everything at it. Even if it costs several million dollars more but the impact ensures that we do not have a multibillion dollar impact on our agricultural industry, that is a matter that needs to be taken into account.
These are matters that will not go away. The fact that there have been so many Senate inquiries into this reflects not just the will of the Senate to have these inquiries but also an ongoing concern that our biosecurity arrangements must be looked at more deeply, must be forensically dealt with and must have the adequate resources to deal with these matters. When it comes to WTO obligations we need to get appropriate advice, not just from those who take a literal—some would say fundamentalist—interpretation of how the WTO rules should apply but from those who are willing to push the envelope and say: 'No, we should not go down this path. We should challenge these rules. We should not take them as a given.' It concerns me that the approach of some in biosecurity is basically to fly the free trade flag in a way that takes a purist interpretation.
To give an example in an area not to do with agriculture, in relation to a question I asked today about wind turbines and wind towers, we have seen just recently that a number of companies based in China have been slapped with tariffs in the United States of 30 per cent to 70 per cent in relation to those wind towers. We are not producing them anymore in Australia, as I understand it—or the Australian manufacturing has shrunk to a negligible amount—and those very companies that were slapped with tariffs in the United States recently are now able to import into our market without any duty and without any penalty for the dumping of goods. Why is it that the United States Department of Commerce is taking a much more active approach to protect their industry from dumped products? Why are we not taking a more active approach in this country to ensure that diseases and pests are kept out of this country at all times, so that we do not make the same mistakes that other countries have made.
You really need to question the effectiveness of New Zealand's biosecurity arrangements, given that they have had. I think there is an agreement there from Senator McKenzie. It has raised issues. It is not a criticism of the good men and women who work in the ministry of agriculture in New Zealand, but there is a real issue there of why so many diseases have got into their country in recent times, particularly in relation to zebra chip disease. Why are we not taking more active steps? This issue will not go away, and it is an issue that requires urgent reform. I believe much more can and should be done to protect Australia's clean, green image in agriculture.
I welcome the opportunity to speak about the Gillard government's commitment to Australia's biosecurity system because this government inherited a run-down biosecurity system and we have been doing the right thing by Australian farmers and by the community. We are building a biosecurity system for today and for the future. I will say a bit more about that later.
Firstly, I want to remind senators about the role of the biosecurity system and then talk about the role of parliamentarians. Our biosecurity system exists to protect Australia's unique biosecurity status. I repeat: to protect Australia's unique biosecurity status. That is what it is there for. To do that, biosecurity decisions must be based on science. If they are not based on the science, then, quite frankly, they put the Australian community at risk. That is a lesson that the Leader of the Nationals, Mr Truss, became only too familiar with when he ignored all of the evidence, including warnings from industry, and assured the community that 'there would never be an outbreak of equine influenza in Australia'. We all know what happened in August 2007.
Over 11½ years of government, those opposite left us with a dishevelled quarantine system. They gave us: white spot disease in prawns in Darwin in 2000; black sigaota in bananas in 2001—
Thank you for that correction. They gave us fire ants in 2001; small hive beetle affecting bees in 2002; citrus canker, and a poorly managed investigation into its source in 2004; and let us not forget sugarcane smut in 2006; and the biosecurity quinella of Asian honeybees and equine influenza in 2007. They flogged off Australia's post-entry quarantine facilities, stripping hundreds of millions of dollars from the budget. Now, Campbell Newman is making the same short-term budget mistake. He is flogging off Queensland's Eagle Farm post-entry quarantine facility, without consultation with all the affected parties. They say a lot but deliver very little. They were all alarm and no action on New Zealand apples and Mr Cobb, despite the profligacy of the Leader of the Opposition, has not managed to get a single dollar to improve Australia's biosecurity system through the shadow cabinet.
If they checked what they said about quarantine with their record in government and in opposition, they would hang their heads in shame. It was up to the Labor government to commission a comprehensive review of the quarantine and biosecurity system—the Beale Review. The review made 84 recommendations to improve Australia's biosecurity system, one of which was to take the politics out of the system. The government has agreed, in principle, with the recommendations and is systematically implementing Beale's recommended science based risk-return framework.
With respect to potatoes from New Zealand, there is a Senate inquiry into the matter. The minister has announced an independent review of the department's potato report and no decision has been made on the matter. In fact, the Senate Rural Affairs and Transport References Committee has three inquiries into science based import policy reviews, one of which is into potatoes from New Zealand. The other two are inquiries into ginger from Fiji and pineapples from Malaysia.
Because of those inquiries, I will not make any further comment on those topics. But I will say that all of the participating senators on those inquiries are politicians; none are plant pathologists. Perhaps of even more concern is that none of the National Party senators on the committee seem to have the slightest grasp of risk assessment. They seem to think that the risk assessment matrix, which is used to assess risk, is some kind of biosecurity ouija board. Perhaps that is why they have such a bad track record on biosecurity, because risk and risk management is too big a concept for the monkeys in the zoo. Senator Xenophon, by the way, is a lawyer and, as a lawyer, he should—
I am. I am wondering who the monkeys in the zoo are, because I was at the inquiry into potatoes and biosecurity. I did not see any monkeys in the room. I do not know what Senator Furner is referring to, and I can assure him that the Nationals are very well aware of the issues with the risk management system under this government.
As I was saying, Senator Xenophon is a lawyer and, as a lawyer, he should know there is no conflict between Australia's biosecurity system and Australia's commitment to science based decision making and our rights and obligations at the World Trade Organisation or in any of our bilateral trade agreements. He knows that none of the multilateral and bilateral trade agreements that Australia is a party to limit our capacity to protect human health and the environment as long as these measures can be justified. Australia's biosecurity is not sacrificed in favour of trade objectives; in fact, it is protected by Australia's trade objectives. Australia's stated approach on biosecurity—
Madam Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. The point of order is that Senator Furner is purporting to say what is in my mind and what knowledge I have about a particular matter. Unless I have made a particular statement that can be referred to, I do not know whether it is fair to say what I know or do not know.
Australia's biosecurity is not sacrificed in favour of trade objectives; in fact it is protected by Australia's trade objectives. Australia's stated appropriate level of biosecurity protection—and I remind the Senate that this statement was made when Warren Truss was a minister—is manage risk to a 'very low level but not zero'. That is because zero risk is impossible. Zero risk would mean no wind, no ocean currents, no migratory birds, no immigration, no tourism, no mail. None. Senator Heffernan might be excited that zero risk would mean no imports, but it would also mean no exports. There would be no vessels, no aircraft arriving here to load up the $36 billion worth of agricultural products to the export markets that Australia's regional communities depend upon.
If any senator in this place has any evidence that would support tougher conditions on the import of ginger from Fiji, potatoes for processing from New Zealand or tomatoes from Timbuktu they should provide it to the scientists in the department. If the scientists ignore serious evidence that would stand up to academic scrutiny, then that is the time to bring it before parliament, not before it is ignored. If the motivation is to discredit biosecurity itself, to attack public servants, to pull a political stunt or to use our biosecurity system as a form of protection from competition, wouldn't that be ironic! The once great Liberal Party, the party of deregulation, the party of the free market, the party opposed to interventionist government, are being bullied by the agrarian socialists over there. The monkeys are in control of the circus again, trashing our international reputation, trashing the biosecurity system and trashing the environment all at once—in the same way that Mr Abbott bullied the Nationals into voting against wheat market reform yesterday, in the same way that Mr Abbott broke his clear election commitment on illegal logging and in the same way that Mr Abbott is running out of puff on carbon.
The Labor Party is the only party in this place with a clear commitment to protect Australia's biosecurity system. We are the only party with a track record of investment in the sort of biosecurity system Australia needs, and the lack of a policy from those opposite and the crossbenchers is something Australia's farmers should be concerned about.
I have to say that I am very surprised that that is all the government can come up with on this particular issue. But I guess Senator Furner decided to take the road of discretion being the better part of valour and quit while he was well and truly behind, because I have to say that I have sat in some of the inquiries that the senator referred to and Senator McKenzie and Senator Xenophon were at those hearings. I did not see Senator Furner at the hearings, for example, on potatoes, ginger or pineapples for that matter. Nor was he at any of the inquiries on apples, Asian honey bees—which he did mention. If that is all the government has got to offer to this debate, it is a clear demonstration of their complete and utter failure in the management of AQIS and biosecurity matters since they came to government in 2007, and I am more than happy to run through some of the examples that we have had to deal with in that period of time.
Senator Xenophon quite rightly talked about Australia's unique status—in fact, that is probably about the only thing that Senator Furner got right in this debate—in respect of its biosecurity. We are fortunate to be an island continent. The fact that we are an island continent or an island nation gives us significant protections from a whole range of pests and diseases that other countries have to deal with. I sincerely believe that it is the role of members in this place to ensure that we do maintain, as Senator Furner quite rightly says, a science based approach to our biosecurity, but our role is also to ensure that there continues to be community confidence and industry confidence in that system. That is what the Senate inquiry's has undertaken. I think there have been three or four inquiries into apples from New Zealand over a period of time. It went through a WTO challenge process, and we ought not be frightened of that. It has been through a number those processes, as has been mentioned already in this debate. There are currently inquiries into pineapples, potatoes and ginger. It is quite reasonable that that process is undertaken. In respect of potatoes, the government is doing a science review right now. Senator Furner said they have not made a decision, and they have not, but it has been the science based submissions that have come from industry that have led the government to the approach that they should conduct a review of the science to make sure that they have all that they need to ensure that we do not end up with zebra chip in Australia. We just cannot afford to impose those additional costs and that disease on our industry.
I think we all understand the importance that trade has to this country and that we cannot afford to have artificial non-tariff barriers around our trade because there will be retaliation. But we should not apologise for the strength of our biosecurity system. All of us in this debate have talked about the status of this country in respect of biosecurity, and not for one moment should we apologise for wanting to stand up for that. We should ensure that we have the strongest possible science based biosecurity system to ensure that that status is retained. I do not apologise for any of the work that I have done on that in my time here. But we must demonstrate to industry that we are actually undertaking appropriate processes.
Senator Furner referred to the work that the government is allegedly doing with respect to biosecurity. Correct. It did commission the Beale review—a significant piece of work that had a number of recommendations, and we acknowledge that that process took place—but what have they done since? This government has only taken up one of the recommendation from the Beale review. What was that recommendation? That recommendation was to remove a 40 per cent rebate for export fees and charges—in other words, increase the cost of export for Australian industry into its overseas markets by removing a 40 per cent rebate. They were prepared to do that and they asked industry to just deal with that cold turkey—a $40 million impost on Australian exporters overnight back in 2009.
Members of the coalition quite rightly said that was not on. The government said: 'It's a terminating program. You made the decision to make it a terminating program'—referring to the opposition when we were then in government—'so we're just going ahead with what was coalition policy.' That is not the case. They know as well as we know that a government at any point in time can make a decision to continue any particular program. Do not try to pin on us the Labor Party decision to remove the 40 per cent rebate on AQIS export fees and charges, because it was a government decision at the time. They were going to impose it from day one—that $40 million extra cost. And $34 million of that cost, as Senator Williams said a moment ago, was on the beef industry—one of Australia's major agricultural export industries. 'Just flick a switch and find an extra $30-odd million and impose that on the cost of your business.'
Quite rightly, members on this side said that is not on. The coalition moved a disallowance motion for those new AQIS export fees and charges, and that motion was duly passed by the chamber. The government was obviously fairly desperate to get new export fees and charges into place and they did a deal with Senator Milne at the time. They were prepared to put in an extra $20 million—I think that was the deal. They even gave Senator Milne the opportunity to announce the deal, attempting to sideline the opposition. Fortunately, the other Independents in the chamber were prepared to stay with the opposition and refused to accept that deal. The opposition actually held out and said, 'That deal is not acceptable because it doesn't actually achieve anything for the industry. Okay, there's $20 million extra sitting there.'
The opposition held out and called for an inquiry, and every single industry commodity group involved in the process came in and said: 'We don't want this. We're not prepared to accept it.' The government told us that they could deal with these reforms within 12 months. The government gave evidence to the inquiry, 'We can change the system in 12 months time.' We did not believe them and industry did not believe them, more importantly.
The opposition then went back to the government and said, 'If you're prepared to do a real deal, we'll consider it.' That is what happened. We asked for the immediate recommencement of the reform process. We asked for a reinstatement of the 40 per cent rebate for the following two years. We asked for a removal of all debt incurred by the industry in the period from 1 July, when the new fees and charges would come into place, to the time when we struck the deal, which was in September. One thing they promised to do that they have not is to do a study of the legitimate costs of government—what the government reasonably should pay for. They said that they would do it and they still have not done it, and it is now three years later. We asked for a cost-recovery impact statement for each sector and we asked for a review on an annual basis.
The government was even prepared to ask industry to pay for the cost of redundancy of government employees. They wanted the meat industry to pay the cost of the redundancies for AQIS employees. We said that was not on. Most importantly, we wanted to ensure that smaller players were not negatively impacted by the process. As several inquiries into the fees and charges occurred, more and more small players came out of the woodwork. The government did not even realise that the cool-store industry was going to be affected by the process until we told them. They had no idea of the reach of this decision into the Australian export sector
Of course, in the end, Minister Burke did a deal with opposition shadow minister John Cobb and me. Instead of $20 million, this put an extra $67.4 million into the process with a two-year cycle to do it. Unfortunately, they did not even meet that deadline. It took them three years to finalise horticulture.
Worse, at estimates back in May, the horticulture sector, who were listening to the estimates process, found out through answers given to us that a deal had been done over a month beforehand but nobody had bothered to tell them. So the minister announced that there was a $6 million deal with the horticulture sector. They were happy with it—once they found out about it—but nobody had bothered to tell them. Only this year in the budget has the government started to allocate any funding towards one of the principal recommendations of the bill review, which was to start to update the IT systems, and even then the money is only to patch up the holes in the base of the system that they currently have. They are still not working towards building a new system; they are basically patching up the base. That is the information that we have to date.
Then we come to all of the incursions. Senator Furner talked about the Asian bee incursion. There are a number of question marks about the date it actually arrived, but the critical element of this whole discussion is the government's management of the problem. They went to a critical meeting where they were to decide whether or not the Asian bee was eradicable or not, and the most respected entomologist bee specialist in the country was not at the meeting. Why was he not at the meeting? It was because they lost his email address. So for that reason, the government goes ahead and makes a decision that this potentially devastating pest to Australia—and not just to the honeybee industry, as has already been quite rightly mentioned by Senator Xenophon, but to agriculture more broadly—is not eradicable. But the person with the most knowledge about it is not in the room because the government lost his email address. What a complete and utter indictment.
Then of course there is myrtle rust. I do not think anybody yet fully understands the potential impact of the incursion of myrtle rust into Australia. It has spread broadly throughout the south-east. It is going to have a significant impact on our forests, but I do not think we really understand the potential risks and the problems that will occur.
We also come to a matter that has been through a number of Senate inquiries and, as I indicated earlier, a WTO challenge—and that is, apples. How does this government handle that? The Prime Minister, before the finalisation of the WTO process, goes to New Zealand and announces to their parliament that we will take their apples. She does not say anything here in Australia; she does not wait for the completion of the WTO process. She goes and announces it. And, to add insult to injury, when the WTO process is completed, when the final protocols have been designed, the New Zealand growers are told before the Australian growers are told. What sort of respect does this government have for our agricultural sector when that is the sort of action that they undertake? Why is it that there is such concern in this chamber about the government's management of biosecurity?
Then we had the decision that was made, on my understanding, in the then Minister for Trade's office—and I am sure Senator Williams would have some understanding of this too—to allow beef from BSC-infected countries without a risk analysis process, and the industry was forced to sign confidentiality agreements so that the information would not get out. Without any analysis of risk, we would just allow beef to come in from countries that have been infected with BSC. Through the activities of the coalition that was overturned. There was a risk identified; the government had not done the work. Yet the government claims that it has some real desire to maintain our status, when it is making decisions of that nature. You have got to be kidding me.
We then go on to the incursion this year of potential foot and mouth diseased materials from South Korea. It took 14,000 man hours to round this material up. Over 100 tonnes of material came in from South Korea, which was potentially at risk of foot and mouth disease. We asked a question on notice at estimates: can you tell us whether the IT system has been used to track down some of this information? What answer did we get back? It was, 'You did not tell us which IT system you were talking about so we can't answer the question.' What sort of respect for this parliament, for this chamber, for the estimates process, is that sort of answer? The reality is that they did most of the work by hand. Their systems could not actually do the work that they were looking for. Granted, it was spread far and wide, but why not just give us a straight answer so we can try to provide a level of confidence to our constituents and to the broader community about the efficacy of our programs and our processes? Why can we not just get a straight answer from the government?
It was the same thing when the import risk assessment process around apples was being discussed, and we saw something similar again in the inquiry around potatoes last week. The whole process for the importation of apples from New Zealand was based around their standard orchard practice. The industry asked to see that—a simple request, you would think: can you show us your standard orchard practice?
We were told—because the New Zealanders said—it was commercial-in-confidence. We could not see it. We were not given access to that information. We fought over it; we asked questions about it; the industry asked questions about it, for months and months and months. When we finally got to the bottom of it, when the New Zealanders finally relented, we found that the full detail we needed to know was in the import risk assessment documents. Why could they not just say that in the first place? Why could they not give us that simple answer? Then they wonder why people do not trust what they say, why people have doubts about the process, when all you need is to give a simple answer to a question, to let people understand that everything you need to know is contained in the import risk assessment document. All of the other things that are in the standard orchard practice do not relate to the process of importing apples from New Zealand.
It is very, very simple. This government, through a range of activities, has brought upon itself a number of inquiries, as has been mentioned during the debate today. We do not have confidence in their decision-making. I am not having a go at the departmental officials, I have to say. It is the government's direction of the department that is lacking. You look at the situation with respect to the Beale review, the one decision they have made is to charge industry more. When it comes to the key recommendation, which was to upgrade the IT systems, it took them over three years to allocate any money for it, and then some of that was taken out of industry funds as their contribution. I commend Senator Xenophon for bringing the motion to the chamber, because it is an opportunity to demonstrate how poorly this government is managing Australia's biosecurity system.
I rise today to comment on the motion on biosecurity and quarantine arrangements put forward by Senator Xenophon. I concur with many of the things that have been said in the chamber today in relation to what has been the poor management of Australia's biosecurity and the ongoing list of incursions that are occurring in all kinds of ways. The Greens have been long-time supporters of trying to improve the biosecurity system. We backed the Beale recommendations, for example, and I have referred numerous times to matters for inquiry by the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, for example, on the issue of beef imports and mad cow disease, the Asian honeybee—I pushed that as hard as I possibly could. Time after time what we get are trade considerations completely outweighing appropriate biosecurity.
We now have a situation where nothing will change under the coalition either. The reason I say that is that there has been an agreement between the Labor Party and the coalition that, when push comes to shove, it is about free trade agreements. That is what the whole process is about—free trade agreements. No matter how many times you say that free trade agreements are not benefitting Australian farmers, that Australian farmers cannot possibly get a level playing field because they are competing against farmers who are not meeting the costs of environmental compliance or labour standards, the reality is that that is the case. We were told so much about what the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement was going to do but it was a disaster. It has not delivered for Australian farmers at all. In fact it has cost us a great deal. I just smile to myself and remember Minister Vaile talking about the 300,000 jobs in rural and regional Australia that were going to come from the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement, but they never materialised.
Exactly the same thing will happen with the Australia-Malaysia Free Trade Agreement and the Transpacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement, which is being negotiated now. Most people in rural and regional Australia do not have a clue that that is under way and that, once again, we will see the US come back for what it did not get under the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement. The issue is this: under a free trade agreement, Australia accesses overseas markets on the basis of minimal risk—'negligible risk' is the term. So the instruction to Biosecurity Australia is that if we want our goods accepted under negligible risk then other countries expect to land their product into Australia under the same definition of negligible risk. We are constantly accused of using biosecurity as a way of getting around negligible risk but what actually happens is that Biosecurity caves in and allows the import.
At the moment, we have not only all those problems that have been cited, including potatoes from New Zealand, but also a threat of the ginger nematode coming into Australia. For example, with our ginger industry, particularly around the Bundaberg processing plant with its famous Bundaberg ginger beer, we are prepared to threaten that to allow ginger to be imported with a nematode associated with it. Why? Because we are pursuing more free trade. It is a really stupid decision. I can say exactly the same when it comes to fresh pineapples. I worked with Senator Boswell previously when it came to bananas.
There is no use us fighting this commodity by commodity, product by product, because the answer is the same every time. We get done over, because it does not matter how much you raise the new science, under our import risk assessment system the new science, for some reason, does not count. What we have to do is challenge the import risk assessment system rather than try to do it with individual products, because we lose every single time. Each time we are told, 'It is negligible risk,' but the loss if that negligible risk leads to the outcomes that you might expect—the potato and tomato psylla is a classic case—could wipe out an industry. That is the risk we are looking at.
That is why the Greens have said it is time to go to the transparency of the import risk analysis process. We have to go to the scope and quality of the science used and the ability to upgrade that process for the latest science. We need to look whether the latest scientific evidence relevant to particular pests and disease threats is being considered or not and the adequacy of the risk assessment matrix being used by DAFF. I am very well aware that the rural and regional committee did seek to secure an independent expert assessment of the DAFF import risk assessment matrix. They wrote to the DAFF secretary to ask that that happen and that any decisions be put on hold until the matrix was looked at. Of course DAFF has refused that request, so we are back to square one. We are back to where we have been, and it is not going to be any different under the coalition because they will come in and, regardless of whether they are in government or in opposition, they are going to agree with the government of the day or the opposition of the day that trade trumps quarantine and biosecurity. That is the fact of the matter.
How do we know that that is the government's response? Look at how they have walked away from the Beale review. This has not received much publicity, but the fact of the matter is the government have walked away from their acceptance of and commitment to the Beale recommendations on independent science based decision-making, and above all you can see it because they said that they would accept the recommendation to enact a new independent and statutory biosecurity assessment body. One of the Beale review recommendations was for the establishment of such a body, but the government rejected it. First of all they accepted it but now they have walked away from it and rejected it.
They have done a complete 180-degree turn by investing that role in the powers of the director of Biosecurity who is in fact the secretary of DAFF. We will be back to exactly where we were despite the Beale review and the acceptance of the Beale review recommendations. The secretary of DAFF is going to do it. They are even proposing to dump the current eminent scientists panel that advises on import risk analysis. We are not even going forward, we are going backwards, and we are going to go even further backwards in terms of the analysis of the science. Not only is there a backflip on Beale's improvements to the scientific independence and rigour of import risk analysis but they are proposing even less in the new act than exists now.
This is at the heart of industry and environmental concerns with the new act. I think it is really important to raise that to let people know that that is where the Greens are going to be coming from in this assessment of the new biosecurity act. The Greens believe that, far from taking us forward and implementing Beale, we are going backwards to exactly where we are now, which is saying as far as Australia is concerned we are prepared to risk certain agricultural products and sectors because we want to pursue business as usual with our absolutely zealous adherence to free trade.
This is one of those really stupid ideological commitments from both the government and the coalition. They believe free trade is good and must be pursued at all cost regardless of any analysis. Why do we not have evidence based analysis? Has it worked? What is it doing for rural and regional Australia? There is no evidence base. The Productivity Commission had a look at free trade agreements and it said, 'Yes, it is pretty much as the opposition to the US-Australia free trade agreement said. We have to do the analysis. We have this mantra that it must be good.
When I was asked to address the NFF last week on the biggest problem facing Australian agriculture, I said it is the mindset that business as usual can be pursued, only let's do it bigger, let's do it faster, let's do it more expansively. As Einstein said, you do not solve problems with the same mentality that created them. That is exactly what you are doing. The most precious commodity Australia has in a global environmental when we are threatened with greater food insecurity is the fact that we have managed to keep ourselves free of a lot of pests and diseases over time. A clean and healthy ecological system is going to support agricultural production as other countries run up against food insecurity. We will all suffer the same consequences of extreme weather events and climate change at different times, but we will have greater resilience in our ecosystems and our soils if we have saved ourselves from these incursions of disease.
I am really passionate about this. We are going the wrong way, and for all that the coalition might bang on about how they do not like it and they want more money put into biosecurity, they are as bad as the government when it comes to the ideological decision to prefer free trade over biosecurity and to allow us to compromise our biosecurity in order to swing some trade deals, even though no analysis of those deals will say how those deals will benefit rural and regional Australia. If these free trade deals have been so great for rural and regional Australia, why is our manufacturing sector in food processing collapsing from one end of the country to the other? Why are we losing? Why do we have such a high level of mental health issues in rural and regional Australia? Why are farmers struggling to stay on the land? All of these issues point to the fact that the whole system as we currently have it is not working for the people who live in rural and regional Australia. How clever is opening up free trade agreements to get larger volumes of cheap imports into Australia to undermine jobs further?
One thing I heard in talking to one of the manufacturing sectors in recent times is that we have got to the point where foreign investment in agriculture will lead to the purchase of dairy farms in Australia being 100 per cent offshore. The purchasers will then buy 100 per cent owned processing facilities. They will produce milk powder and send it back to the foreign country involved where it will be rehydrated and turned into ice cream. The ice cream will be sent back here cheaper than the Australian manufacturers could make it. The upshot will be that we will lose even more food processing. That is the consequence of pursuing free trade without incorporating the costs of environmental compliance, biosecurity compliance and labour standards when you negotiate free trade agreements.
I thought it was pathetic to see the Minister for Trade and Competitiveness, Craig Emerson, saying that they tried to get labour standards into the deal but it did not work out. There are now two side papers in relation to that. It is not good enough. It is a philosophical view which is failing the country. It is failing us in rural and regional Australia and it is failing us in our environment. In the case of myrtle rust, I warned the rural and regional committee at least a year before we had the incursion that it was making its way from Hawaii and it was already on its way here. I asked: what are we doing about it? We were guaranteed in the rural and regional committee that they had a risk-management team on board, that they would be able to fix it and that we would know about it—'Don't worry, it's all under control.' It is not.
And look at what happened. It went from that flower farm to the Sydney markets and those infected flowers were sent from one end of the country to the other before anything was done about it. Then the excuse was: it probably was in the environment already; it could have come from a national park nearby; that is what could have happened—so it was already too late. And what is the consequence? We are going to lose massive amounts of our native vegetation because of that. Eucalypt rust is going to spread. It is already in the Lamington National Park and a number of other areas around Australia, and we are going to see that whole encroachment right down the east coast of Australia.
Biosecurity is not just about agricultural production, it is about the natural environment. We are now seeing a massive loss of our natural environment as a result of that incursion. In exactly the same way as the Asian honeybee, we will see the same thing happening when it comes to native bees and the cross-pollination that is required in native flora around the country. It is a massive cost to us in a biodiversity sense as well as in an agricultural production sense.
It is about time we got some hard-nosed analysis. It is about time some sacred cows got looked at on an evidence base, and that we poured money into what is precious—that is, protecting our competitive advantage on biosecurity terms, clean and green, protecting our own biodiversity and protecting our farmers by getting into these agreements. There are real costs associated with these trade agreements and with selling our farmers and our environment short. I thank Senator Xenophon for putting this on the agenda today.
I am pleased that Senator Xenophon has raised this debate and I congratulate Senator Colbeck on his contribution, which is detailed and comes from one of the few people in this chamber who understands biosecurity and quarantine matters.
I am in the strange position of agreeing with some of what Senator Milne has just been saying, except that Senator Milne cannot help herself—things are wrong, this government is doing things wrong, but somehow it is always the fault not of the Labor Party but of the coalition. Let me bring a touch of reality to this debate. If everything Senator Milne says is right, if the Labor government has been so poor in cutting funding and cutting staff, then why has she not done something about it? If our quarantine and our borders are in such an atrocious situation, why has Senator Milne not done anything about it? As she knows, it is the Greens political party in Australia that keeps the Labor Party in government.
Ms Gillard said before the last election, 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.' The Greens were at least honest and they said, 'Yes, we do want a carbon tax.' So after that election promise, the Greens went to Ms Gillard and said to her, 'If you want our support, you will bring in a carbon tax.' Similarly, the Greens went to Ms Gillard and said, 'In spite of your knifing of Kevin Rudd over this, if you want our support we want a big mining tax to address all those horrible, multinational millionaire companies.' So the government said, 'Yep, we want your support.' Ms Gillard said, 'I want to be Prime Minister. I want the power. So whatever you say, Greens, we will do, notwithstanding that I have made a solemn promise to the Australian public that I would never do something—for example, introduce a carbon tax.'
Let me ask the Greens if they are concerned about biosecurity. Senator Milne talked about the impact of government mismanagement and inaction on biosecurity. If they are so concerned, why do they not do exactly what they did with the carbon tax and say to the government: 'You want our support to stay in power? Then you will do what we say in relation to biosecurity.' But do Senator Milne, the Greens and Mr Bandt do that? No, they get up here and criticise a government that has now been in power, regrettably, for five years, and somehow it is the fault of the opposition that our borders in this area of biosecurity and quarantine are so porous.
I agree with a lot of Senator Milne's criticism—not all of it—but why does she not do something about it? I would love someone from the Greens to contribute to this debate and explain that. The Greens are able to encourage Ms Gillard to go from a solemn promise that there will be no carbon tax to introducing the world's biggest carbon tax. Why do they not do the same if they are so concerned about quarantine and biosecurity? If it is destroying Australia, please tell me why it is. Does this not have the same importance? Senator Milne says it is going to destroy all our native flora and fauna. I thought they were the Greens political party—would that not be of great concern to them? No, the carbon tax is. That is a big issue. 'If you don't go ahead with that, we're out of here,' Senator Milne tells Ms Gillard. Why did she not do that with quarantine and biosecurity? I would be very interested for anyone from the Greens to participate in this debate and tell me that. It is a pretty simple question.
From the coalition's point of view, we believe that you can have free and open trade, and encourage trade. Indeed, over many years in government the Liberal and National parties—who, I might say, represent most of the farming electorates in rural and regional Australia—have always been very keen to expand our agriculture production and our agricultural exports. In my own portfolio area one of the things that I am very keen to do, and the Greens will be totally opposed to this, is to ensure that all of that good mosaic of agricultural lands up in Northern Australia—the plentiful supply of water up in Northern Australia—is used to produce green and clean food to not only help Australia financially with exports but also help provide food for those seven billion people in the world who go to bed hungry or underfed every night. We have a duty to do that and I think we can do that. We can provide food for the world and at the same time provide employment and wealth for Australians. That is what the coalition has always been on about. But because coalition members represent the farming areas in this parliament, we also are very concerned about imports of other commodities that may impact on our clean and green image. I understand that if you are going to have free trade it has got to be two-way. The real benefit of free trade is that our farmers—and I will name the beef industry and sugar industry in particular—rely on the most free form of trade to make sure that we can export our meat, sugar and wheat anywhere in the world, and we do not want other countries imposing trade barriers on Australian farmers. That is why Australia has always been at the forefront of trying to get a genuine, honest free trade regime. But we will not do that at the cost of having to accept imported foods that are not subject to the same very stringent quarantine rules that apply in Australia, or should apply in Australia.
I can think of any number of occasions when government officials, perhaps under too much influence of the trade department, have been prepared to cut corners. Senator Colbeck, Senator Milne and Senator Xenophon gave examples where quarantine officials seem to have been overborne. Of course, under the Labor government, funding to Biosecurity Australia and to the quarantines services has been slashed so much that the bureaucrats who used to be there—the officers who could really look at these things—no longer exist. So you can understand why (a) there are not as many of them to do the work; and (b) under a Labor government perhaps they are overborne by the trade minister. You would understand why the agriculture minister has very little or no authority, and that has been demonstrated time and time again in this chamber—you can understand why he is disregarded—but that has an impact on Australia's biosecurity and quarantine.
But, I have to confess, that happened even under the Howard government. The difference is: because most of the farming electorates around Australia are represented by Liberal and National party people, they would not take that lying down. I could identify a number of examples, but the one that perhaps was closest to me, and it happened five or six years ago, was the banana industry. In the interests of free trade we were looking at bringing in Philippine bananas. If they meet the standard there is no reason why they should not be brought on. But I and my colleagues—particularly Senator Boswell, to give credit where credit is due—fought and fought and fought with the industry to show that the government rules, the risk analysis and the science that allegedly went into that were simply wrong. As a result of persistence from coalition members of this parliament, we forced Biosecurity Australia to have another look and to apply some real science to the issues involved. Once that real science was applied, it was found inappropriate to bring in the bananas that were the subject of that inquiry. As a result of that, the banana industry in Tully and elsewhere in Queensland continues to flourish in a clean and green way.
I might say, as an aside, that for all Senator Milne's protestations about how interested the Greens are in rural and regional Australia and how interested they are in farmers, they do not like to think about what the carbon tax is doing to the banana industry. Many players will be put out of business by the huge increases in the prices of electricity and refrigerant that are so essential for the banana industry. But I digress from the issue of quarantine.
That example of bananas was a good example of where parliamentary vigilance by people from the Liberal and National parties was able to force the authorities to apply the science properly, and the banana industry was saved. Currently I know the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee—and I again congratulate Senator Colbeck and Senator Boswell—are doing very good work on the pineapple import issue. Their perseverance, their diligence, their vigilance will, I am sure, ensure that the proper science is applied to the pineapple industry. Just last Friday I was privileged to be a guest at the opening of the new pineapple factory at Yeppoon, near Rockhampton. What a wonderful event that was and congratulations go to all those farmers and investors who put their money into that new facility with confidence in their industry. It was regrettable that the current federal Labor member for Capricornia, Ms Livermore, was not there. Perhaps she had a good excuse for that and I do not know but it was a bit disappointing. But I was pleased to be there along with Mr Bruce Young, the LNP member for Keppel, and Ms Michelle Landry, the person who will be the next member for Capricornia, being the LNP candidate. It was good to be there to get an understanding of that very significant industry. Certainly when you see the passion and the care with which the participants involve themselves in that industry you can understand why they are concerned about what the import of foreign pineapples might do to their industry and their hard-won reputation for having a clean and green image and for the wonderful product that they produce in that part of the world.
Again I give credit to those on our side who have been in the forefront of doing this. Senator Milne will get up and say 'me too' and also she will add that it is not the Labor Party's fault but all the coalition's fault. I can never quite understand the logic. They are in government but it is still the coalition's fault! Senator Milne cannot help herself and whenever there is blame to be attributed always it is never to her left-wing associates in the Labor Party. We in the coalition believe that you must have the most stringent rules and regulations. Quarantine services must be appropriately funded. Whenever the Labor government, as is their way, see a problem, do they ever do anything about it? No, they set up an inquiry, they have an assessment, they have a review and they have a conference or a forum. Certainly after coming into government the Labor Party did nothing about biosecurity and quarantine, but then they thought that they had better pretend that were doing something. Have a summit? No, they tried that and that disappeared without trace at great expense to the Australian public. But they thought they would establish the Beale review to look at quarantine, and this review, which was set up by the Labor Party, found it was impossible to escape the conclusion that quarantine and biosecurity agencies were 'significantly under-resourced, putting Australia's economy, people and environment at significant risk'. That review made 84 recommendations. Of those 84 recommendations made, as I think it was, in 2009, how many have been actually actioned by this Australian government?
Eighty-four recommendations with one recommendation acted upon—and which recommendation was that? The recommendation for the removal of the 40 per cent rebate to our exporters, especially hitting new and emerging industries that have seen their registration costs go up by about 100 per cent. You might recall, Mr Acting Deputy President, that in the 2009-10 budget Labor cut cargo-screening resources at ports and airports by some $58 million and then new legislation by the Labor government in the last year or so moved 79 positions from airports, where they were funded by the taxpayer, to cargo areas which were funded by industry, so putting more costs on Australia's ever-struggling farming industry, and the story goes on and on.
I repeat that the coalition believes that the most stringent biosecurity standards must be applied for any goods that anyone wants to enter into Australia. We welcome free trade but it has to be on a level playing field. Whilst Senator Milne criticises free-trade agreements, what she should be criticising is not the particular agreement as such but the way it has been dealt with by this Labor government. You can understand why a government who can set up a tax like a mining tax that discourages investment but when the chips are down does not raise one dollar of revenue—so a government that is that incompetent—cannot properly manage the biosecurity and quarantine rules. So it is not free-trade agreements as such that are the problem but the way they are implemented, the way they are managed and the way they are administered. I think it might have been Senator Colbeck or it might even have been Senator Milne who mentioned the fairly recent beef imports that caused real problems. Unfortunately the Labor Party government had no idea.
The BSE beef was imported without any real risk assessment analysis. So this is what you expect from the Labor government.
It is an area of great interest to me as a Queensland senator. I have mentioned the bananas and the pineapples. Ginger from around Nambour and around Bundaberg, in that part of my state, is another industry that is under some threat because of the way the rules are being administered. We have to make sure that science is properly sought, properly gained and properly applied to all of these import proposals. I conclude by again thanking Senator Xenophon for raising what is a very important issue and I commend the motion to the parliament.
Question agreed to.