Second Reading – Quarantine Charges

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Mr PITT (Hinkler) (17:05): I rise to speak on the Biosecurity Bill 2014. Having listened to the member for Bendigo and the member for Hunter, I would like to make a brief comment about their contributions. I would like to point out that the Labor Party were in government for six years, last time I checked—and that they had a seemingly endless bucket of taxpayer funds—and I would have considered that that was adequate time to put out this legislation. However, to give the member for Hunter his due, he has provided qualified support for the bill and I certainly thank him for that.

This is an incredibly important bill for our agricultural, forestry and fishery producers, and it aims to strike the correct balance between our trade obligations and, of course, unnecessary burdens on both our producers and our enforcement agents. In 2012-13, we had 16 million people arrive as international passengers, and there were 1.7 million sea cargo assignments. If you went back and spoke to the dairy producers of the 1960s and 1970s, I guarantee you none of them would have thought that we would be exporting fresh milk from Sydney to China by plane. World trade has changed substantially, and this bill puts in place what is required to ensure that we move with it. There is still work to do. Clearly, there are more documents to write, and obviously this bill will be subject to continuous change as long as it is around. Biosecurity threats will continue to change over a long period of time.

But we have a great advantage here, in that Australia is an island—a great advantage. We are separated from our trading partners by a very large expanse of ocean. But it is also great disadvantage: such a large continent has a very open border, particularly with regard to the incursion of pests and disease.

Can you imagine an Australia that was free from foxes, or free from rabbits or rats? That is something that could have been achieved if some of our forefathers had had the foresight to consider just what damage these animals might do. To give you a bit of an idea, foxes in my area at the moment are diabolical for the loggerhead turtle, an endangered species which breeds in only two locations in the world—one of which is at Mon Repos Beach in Bundaberg. So bad has it become that we have brought in professional fox-hunters with dogs to try to sniff out their lairs to thin them out. The foxes get down on the beach; they dig out the turtle nests and eggs and destroy them.

The National Party was in Wodonga last week, of all places. I was walking through the streets of Wodonga in mid-afternoon with my National Party colleagues and, lo and behold, there was a rabbit having a feed in the middle of a roundabout, completely unconcerned about the passing traffic or us walking past. Rabbits are absolutely detrimental to our environment. They are an absolute disaster.

In 2013-2014, there was $53 billion worth of agricultural production. This is an incredibly important bill for our agricultural producers. We currently have no rabies in this country and at the moment there is no foot-and-mouth. I am someone who has been an agricultural producer for over a decade and who comes from a farming family—my parents actually still harvest almost 20 per cent of mill supply in the Bundaberg region with their harvesting contracting business. I was a canegrower myself for many years; I can tell you just how devastating it is to have a disease outbreak. I farmed during the orange rust outbreak; I farmed during the cane smut outbreak. There is nothing more disappointing than walking through your crop, which should be green and looking beautiful, and coming out the other side covered in orange. You were literally orange. It was just devastating. One of the fortunate things about orange rust is that it particularly affected just one variety of cane, which was Q124. Unfortunately about 50 per cent of the district was Q124; but over time you can get rid of it and you can survive. If 50 per cent of your crop is still able to be grown without damage then you are economically viable. However, when sugarcane smut broke out, it was a devastating disease. There were losses of up to 70 per cent. You literally have your crop reduced to a couple of sticks which are thin and black in colour with no green top; it simply does not grow. This is a disease which is incredibly communicable. It travels vast distances as a fungal spore; it is black in colour and just destroys the green top. As a grower, when the disease breaks out the decision you have to make is how you survive. Quite simply, many varieties are not smut resistant and that is the only option. The only alternative is to take out your entire crop and give your farm to the bank, so tough decisions have to be made. Those decisions include whether to take out new rotations and risk that you will produce something or to talk to your bank and extend your overdraft. These are the situations people find themselves in right now as a result of disease and pest incursions.

This bill is based on risk based systems. One of my concerns, and it has been one of my concerns for some time, is around the risk profile we use. We use the WTO risk calculator and, as someone who has used hundreds of different types of risk calculators, I have some concerns about that. However, that is a requirement under our WTO agreements. I congratulate the department of agriculture and those that do the assessment—they are definitely detailed.

There will be no fiscal impact. There will be a $6.9 million a year decrease in costs, in fact. But the most important thing is that the decisions based around this legislation, when we look at our potential for incursion, are based on science. They certainly cannot be based on political interference. This was recently seen with a risk assessment for ginger, which was incredibly difficult for growers in my region. However, fortunately we have looked at the science and the government has gone back to reassess that assessment. Hopefully that will give us a good outcome.

There is also a range of new enforcement options. They include the ability to issue a biosecurity control order, the ability to establish a biosecurity zone and the ability to act across jurisdictions. One of the most difficult things to do is cross state boundaries and still be able to enforce Commonwealth law. That will require people with enforcement powers in different areas.

This bill has been several years in the making. It is one of the most important bills we have on the table at the moment. Our nation is definitely reliant on agricultural production. And it is timely; look at the outbreak at the moment of the cucumber green mottle mosaic virus in the Northern Territory. This is a disease which has wiped out the melon crop in the Northern Territory. It has resulted in growers having to plough in their crops and burn them, never to use that land for melons again. It has cost some $65 million in the last 12 months from just one incursion. It looks like that has potentially come from seed; if that seed has spread across all growing regions—and my region in Hinkler is one of the largest producers of heavy vegetables including watermelons, rockmelons and honeydew—the impacts will be absolutely devastating for my community, which is doing it tough right now.

This is a bill which is designed to operate free of political interference. It is based on science, and I commend the bill to the House.

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