Biological Control Amendment Bill 2016

The biosecurity of this great nation is one of the most important issues we face and a constant challenge. We are an island nation, and this has provided significant natural barriers to foreign pests and diseases—significant but not infallible. There have been incursions which have cost the country dearly, and at the base of almost every one of those has been human intervention.

Our forebears brought in rabbits for food and for hunting, only to see them take over the country and cause devastation. In recent times the introduction of myxomatosis and calicivirus have helped manage them, but the time will come when the rabbit population develops resistance to both of these, and a new control mechanism will be required. Foxes were introduced about the same time, and the impact of them on native species has been, and still is, significant. It is interesting that there is not much that will eat a dead fox—even a crow struggles. We could use a good biological control agent for them, because baiting and shooting have some effect but will never eliminate the problem.

Perhaps the greatest invader, the infamous cane toad, is an example of good intent resulting in disaster, because of a lack of knowledge and the abandonment of the precautionary principle of environmental management. Brought in to control the cane beetle, it has been one of the most damaging invaders. It is a good example of what not to do, but, having said that, it is also a great study for the future—as long as we learn from our mistakes. It is interesting to observe how the front of the toad invasion sees massive numbers of toads inflict serious ecological damage, followed by a rebalancing of the environmental balance, where the toad population stabilises to a more manageable number. We need more work and study on this example of how we got it wrong to make sure we do not make the same mistakes again.

In Western Australia, like the rest of the country, biosecurity has been an ongoing challenge. We see new invasive species enter to be classified as ‘the highest priority for removal’. Then, as the response by authorities proves inevitably inadequate, we watch those species get moved down the categories from ‘eradication to prevent the spread of’; then ‘to prevent the spread of in certain areas’; and then to ‘it is now endemic’ and landowners, who usually expect governments to control them, are expected to control them on their own land. For example, in my area narrow-leaf cotton bush has simply dropped down the categories, without government forcing the issue and now, to all intents and purposes, has become endemic. And blackberry has taken over huge areas of state managed land in the South West to the point that, again, eradication has been abandoned and replaced by an effort at containment.

I would also like to mention an invasive species, which is having a huge impact in my electorate, and that is feral pigs. Feral pigs are an absolute curse to landowners, especially farmers. They damage crops and pastures, and do enormous damage to soils. When you see how they dig it up, they can do a huge amount of damage. But, equally, they are a risk to people. My own son was down in the back paddock—I think he was going to change the irrigation with a four-wheeler motorbike—when he got a sense of something coming at him. Fortunately, he turned the motorbike sufficiently for the feral pig, with its decent sized tusks, to hit the side of the bike and lift it off the ground. He was fortunate to be able to get away from it. It was a very large feral pig. Feral pigs carry a huge weight and can do enormous damage to not only the pasture, the ground and the soils but also, if you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, humans. The saddest part of the feral pig problem in my part of the world is that many are deliberately released by weekend hunters. The hunters release them into the wild with a litter and then come back later just to hunt them. This is deliberate desecration of our great south-west environment, and it has to be fought with all possible vigour.

This bill amends the definition of an ‘organism’ for the purpose of the Biological Control Act 1984 to specifically include viruses and sub-viral agents. It also omits the term ‘live’ from references to organisms. The Commonwealth act and mirror legislation in the states and the Northern Territory provide a legislative framework for assessing proposed biological control activities to ensure that they are in the public interest—for the reasons that I mentioned earlier in my speech. The need for the bill has arisen out of ongoing contemporary scientific debate as to whether a virus can be classified as an organism and as a living entity. Because viruses are incapable of reproducing without a host, the majority scientific view at this point in time is that they are not organisms. Some scientists would, however, consider a virus to be an organism. Biological science, by its very nature, is constantly evolving in light of new knowledge and evidence. ‘Sub-viral agent’ is a taxonomic category that includes viroids, satellite viruses and prions—agents that are smaller than viruses and have some of their properties. This category is included because it is plausible that sub-viral agents may be useful as agents for biological control in the future.

There is no requirement that all proposed biological control programs be submitted for consideration under the biological control legislation. Most biological control agents are not a source of controversy and all biological control agents are subject to other rigorous approvals and scientific testing under other legislation. The biological control acts of 1984 to 1986 were created to solve the issue of a court injunction on the release of biological control agents for the weed Paterson’s curse. The injunction was lodged by a small group of graziers and apiarists in South Australia, as they considered the loss of Paterson’s curse a threat to their livelihoods. The act provided an equitable means of assessing whether the proposed release of the biological control agents was in the public interest.

Since 1984, the act has been used to declare three biocontrol targets and agents. Rabbits and rabbit calicivirus disease organisms were declared in 1996. The combination of the calicivirus, or rabbit haemorr—haemorrhagic disease virus, RHDV—

Mr Perrett: What was it again?

Ms MARINO: How about you say it, and we will all be right! The combination of it and myxoma virus has suppressed wild rabbit populations to about 15 per cent of their potential numbers. Blackberry and blackberry leaf rust were released in 1991 and 1992. Leaf rust has slowed the rate of spread and reduced total biomass, particularly in Victoria. To combat Paterson’s curse, seven different types of insects have been approved for release in Australia. Six of the insects have been established in the field and they are helping to suppress the weed as part of an integrated management approach.

The amendments will provide greater certainty for stakeholders who research, deliver and benefit from biological control programs, including scientists, farmers, land managers and the community. The amendments are consistent with the original intent of the act, which was established to provide an equitable means of determining whether a proposed biological control program is in the public interest and, where appropriate, to authorise the release of biological control agents. The bill will not affect the existing basic scientific, technical or safety procedures and standards applying to biological control. We need this level of confidence.

Biological control agents will continue to be subject to considerable testing and approval processes prior to release in Australia. The act then provides for the declaration of ‘target organisms’, for example, the weed Paterson’s curse, and ‘agent organisms’, for example, the crown weevil. It contains provisions to ensure that biological control activities are subject to liability protection and can proceed without interruption by litigation. The Australian Chief Veterinary Officer and Australian Chief Plant Protection Officer provided scientific advice during the drafting of the bill and supported the approach.

I will go back to where I started. We are an island nation. This has given us significant national barriers to foreign pests and diseases. But, as I said, while such barriers are significant, they are not infallible. I spoke earlier about feral pigs, and I will raise this subject once again in finishing my comments today: this is a significant and growing problem. My area in the south-west is not the only area that has this problem. The fact that we have people actively releasing pigs to then hunt them later does not in any way reflect the enormous cost that this brings to landholders and farmers, or the risk to people who might find themselves confronted by one of these feral pigs if they are out in the bush or even in farmland, as I mentioned earlier in my speech. On that basis, I commend this bill to the House.