Quarantine Charges Amendment Bill

As a farmer, as well as a member of parliament, I am particularly pleased to speak on the Biosecurity Bill 2014 today. I really understand how important biosecurity

  1. It is vitally important—something I am passionate about defending. I have spoken repeatedly in this House about the need to protect Australia’s environmental and agricultural resources. It is a priority for this government.

However, I want to raise a personal note of caution and concern about the status of biosecurity in recent years and to look at how changes to the definitions we use have changed the way we manage the process. Since 1908 we have had a quarantine act. The word ‘quarantine’ derives from a Latin and later Italian reference to ‘forty days’—the period of time one spent in isolation. Today its meaning is much broader, and Webster’s dictionary describes it as: the period of time during which a person or animal that has a disease or that might have a disease is kept away from others to prevent the disease from spreading the situation of being kept away from others to prevent a disease from spreading

I would ask members to take note of the words ‘prevent the disease from spreading’. Today we are debating the  replacement of the Quarantine Act with the Biosecurity Bill. The explanatory memorandum of this bill says the following:

The Biosecurity Bill 2014 will provide the primary legislative means and a modern regulatory framework for the Australian government to manage the risks of pests and diseases entering Australian territory and causing harm to animal, plant and human health, the environment and the economy.

The bill is designed to manage biosecurity risks, including the risk of listed human diseases entering Australian territory or emerging and establishing themselves or spreading in Australian territory or a part of Australian territory. The bill will also enable the management of risks relating to ballast water and sediment, and biosecurity emergencies. Quarantine is designed to prevent the spread of a disease, of a plant or of an invasive animal species.

It has an authoritative ring that demands action to prevent incursion. The modern meaning of biosecurity is to ‘manage the risk’ of such incursion. This alone suggests a downgrading of the target from a measurable standard of action to a qualitative opinion of risk. Please note the difference.

Regional Australia, which is where I live and work as many in our farming sector do, and especially our agricultural sector have long been concerned about the level of protection given our environmental and agricultural assets. It is something I have heard a lot about for a lot of the years that I have been a farmer.

The Beale quarantine and biosecurity review that was commissioned by the previous Labor government called for hundreds of millions to be spent on AQIS and quarantine annually to provide proper real protection to our nation’s borders. But in government Labor failed to act, except to spend two and a half years after its release running it down and stripping out its assets.Australian agricultural and food producers rely on our clean image and high quality produce to find markets and to retain markets. Agricultural and food production in this country drives $155 billion a year in economic production, generating around 1.6 million Australian jobs and $32 billion a year in farm exports. And it is happening out in regional Australia.

Cheaper foreign food products are often underpinned by cheap labour or low quality control. That means our producers rely on the perception of higher quality, safety and of an ethical reputation. Around the world Australian produced food is regarded as safe, clean and high quality, and it is essential that we maintain that reputation.

Australian farmers and food manufacturers are some of the best in the world and they know that our greatest marketing and health asset is our virtual disease free status, and it is too valuable to lose. As I said, it is a food safety issue also. This is particularly important in this debate because of the cost advantage that most of our competitors get, especially on labour. Australian producers and manufacturers have to rely on quality and safety to compete effectively in the marketplace, be that domestic or international. In addition, Australia’s status as a premium international tourist destination makes vigilance in pest and disease protection paramount. Our native plants, animals and ecosystems are a major part of the attraction that brings tourists here and brings them back, and protecting them should be a government priority.

It should be noted by the parliament that the previous Labor government had a poor record of defending Australia’s borders and maintaining our quarantine and biosecurity. Labor consistently stripped funding and personnel from all of the Commonwealth law and border enforcement agencies. This included: over $1 million from the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity; 750 staff cut from Customs from 2009-10; $64.1 million cut from Customs in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 budgets; $264.5 million and 97 staff cut from the Australian Federal Police; $22.2 million and 144 staff cut from the Australian Crime Commission; $15.2 million and 35 staff cut from Austrac; $8.7 million cut from CrimTrac; and $1.2 million cut from Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity. Labor’s 2009 federal budget also slashed $58.1 million from the quarantine and biosecurity budgets, reducing the inspections of arriving passengers and cargo and leading to the loss of 125 jobs.

Veterinarians, scientists and other experts in the field know that if we have a poor focus on biosecurity and border protection, the next major outbreak of an industry-crippling exotic disease or foreign pest or weed incursion is not a matter of if, but when. They know this, because the aim of Biosecurity Australia has too often been not to prevent the entry of exotic diseases and pests, but instead to calculate and minimize the risk of diseases or pests entering with other products. This simple statement means that it becomes a numbers game—and this bothers me very much as a farmer in this nation.  Even with low statistical risk, when enough products are imported a breakdown will eventually occur. The maths makes it inevitable. So we need to constantly question the balance of prevention of incursion with management of risk. In the modern trade environment, certainty of border protection has become a thing of the past. There is no such thing as guaranteed quarantine. And because Australia is a massive exporter of primary produce we need to recognise, acknowledge and understand why this is so. ‘

However, it is also important not to give up our natural environmental and agricultural advantages that our relative disease-free and pest-free status provide. There is no dollar amount that can quantify these. We have an obligation to ensure prevention where possible—and I for one would feel more secure if Biosecurity Australia had this at the forefront of their policy and action agenda.

This bill has taken some time to get here. The Biosecurity Bill was first introduced in 2012, referred to the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee and lapsed when parliament was prorogued. There were areas of concern identified during that inquiry that have been addressed in the new legislation.

One great interest is that of regional differences of biosecurity status. This is of particular importance to Western Australia and my electorate in the south-west. Many pests and diseases found elsewhere are not found in my region, and it is essential that regional exclusion remains a key focus of governments both state and federal. The issue of regional differences was raised by a number of stakeholders during consultation on the 2012 bill. Some stakeholders considered that the original legislation did not include appropriate consideration of regional differences during risk analysis processes. This issue was further explored during consultation on the IRA examination. To address concerns, the provisions in the Biosecurity Bill 2014 have been strengthened to include a note in the provisions for conducting biosecurity import risk analyses, which explicitly states that the department can and will consider areas of different pest or disease status when conducting IRAs under the Biosecurity Bill 2014.

Australia does not use the words ‘regional difference’ in legislation, because it is not a term defined in relevant international agreements or standards. The Biosecurity Bill 2014 uses the words ‘part of Australian territory’ to enable the important consideration of ‘regional differences’. This wording has been included in addition to the definition of biosecurity risk, which is defined as: ‘The likelihood of a disease or pest: entering Australian territory or a part of Australian territory or; establishing itself or spreading in Australian territory or a part of Australian territory’.

As I said when I started, all of us who are engaged in the primary sector—in farming, in food manufacturing, in exporting—understand the opportunities that will arise out of the free trade agreements. But a key part of that opportunity is and will remain a very vigilant approach to biosecurity, which is why I will continue to take a direct interest in this issue.