House debates

Wednesday, 16 June 2021


Biosecurity Amendment (Strengthening Penalties) Bill 2021; Second Reading

4:50 pm

Photo of Anne WebsterAnne Webster (Mallee, National Party) Share this | Hansard source

This bill is urgently needed to strengthen the penalties for a number of civil penalty provisions and criminal offences under the Biosecurity Act. The proposed increases to maximum penalties will more appropriately reflect the impact these contraventions may have on Australia's biosecurity status, market access and the economy than the current provisions. Pests and diseases of all kinds pose a high risk to Australia's biosecurity in an increasingly complex trade environment. In late 2020 we had several detections of khapra beetle, including in packages for fridges and—believe it or not—high chairs sold to customers. We are currently seeing the emergence of a new variant of African swine fever. Although the original variant of African swine fever is yet to be detected in Australia, due to the strong biosecurity controls in our borders, any variant could have a devastating impact on our pork industry and associated businesses.

I know that strong biosecurity controls are critically important to farmers in my electorate, such as John Watson, a pig farmer from Hopetoun. An incursion of African swine fever or any other disease dangerous to his animals could destroy his business and the entire industry. He told me he's very pleased this government is taking a strong stance on biosecurity to protect his livelihood.

We are also seeing increasing prevalence of citrus canker in over 30 countries in Asia, South America and the United States. Citrus canker can spread quickly over long distances on citrus fruits and leaves as well as on people and equipment. There is no cure for the disease, so any infected trees must be destroyed and orchards replanted, at enormous cost. Let us remember that orange trees take seven years to grow to full maturity, so an incursion of citrus canker disease would have a devastating impact on the industry. The citrus industry is vital and provides employment and business opportunities in several towns and regions in my electorate. The value of citrus fruit commodities in Mallee is worth close to $100 million, with many more millions across our borders in the New South Wales and South Australian Riverland. If citrus canker established in our nation, it would decimate the regions and towns that rely on this vital industry.

In the face of these growing regional and global threats, the current penalty regime needs to be significantly enhanced to provide an effective deterrent against noncompliance with Australia's biosecurity requirements. As the economy recovers from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, growth in international trade and travel is expected to increase the risk of biosecurity threats, making it critical the appropriate penalties are in force as soon as possible to send a strong message that breaching Australia's biosecurity law is not worth any potential commercial gain. An increase in civil penalties will deter noncompliance with the Biosecurity Act, so breaching the law will not be seen as a cost of doing business or otherwise worth the risk. The increase to criminal penalties for the fault based offences would allow for proportionate and appropriate punishment for offences under the Biosecurity Act and align maximum penalties.

Importantly, this bill does not add any additional administrative burden on industry. That's what this government is all about. We are implementing measures across the board to secure the future of the agricultural sector through ongoing investments in industry without increasing red tape. Funding for biosecurity and export services has increased from $258 million since 2014-15 to now $888 million in 2021.

The government is committed to a strong biosecurity system that protects regional jobs, grows our agricultural exports and maintains our environment and lifestyle in the face of the devastating impact of pests and diseases. In the 2020-21 budget the government announced $400.1 million in new funding for biosecurity to support industry to grow agriculture to $100 billion by 2030. This year's package of measures will reinforce the Australian biosecurity system to keep pest and disease threats offshore and respond to any pests in Australia. The measures will protect against threats while cutting red tape to ensure that goods and people can enter Australia smoothly and efficiently.

The package complements the significant reforms we've already committed to across our biosecurity system to ensure that it is modern and efficient and keeps Australia safe from pests and diseases that would harm our agricultural industry. We will invest $84.1 million in critical frontline measures to better manage the risk of pests and diseases coming to Australia. This includes more on-the-ground resources to target known and emerging threats and make use of modern technology to better detect and respond to threats. We will also invest $80.9 million to build a modern, effective biosecurity system that is underpinned by the right technology and analytical capabilities. We will invest in technical solutions to keep biosecurity threats out of Australia, including through a trial of new screening technologies for people and goods at the border. We will also fund a series of groundbreaking trials to screen for biosecurity risks offshore and continue the development of modern, innovative detection systems.

We will expand diagnostic capabilities to support the rapid flow of plant and animal based goods at the border while managing biosecurity risks. We will also improve digital capability to better manage biosecurity risks in international postal services. We'll commit $235.1 million to be allocated to strengthen partnerships and improve our ability to detect and manage threats offshore while increasing capacity to respond to incursions. Our investment supports more proactive management of emerging biosecurity risks, consistent with independent reviews of the biosecurity system by the Inspector-General of Biosecurity, CSIRO and other reviews. These are all hugely important measures to protect our regions and our farmers from dangerous pests and viruses. They will protect regional industries such as citrus and livestock farming in my electorate of Mallee.

The government's support for agriculture doesn't stop there. Our government is committing $32 million to extend opportunities to reward farmers for the stewardship of their land under the Agriculture Stewardship Package. There are farmers in Mallee who are working hard to sustainably care for their land and plan for their future. Farmers like Paul and Sally Bethune, of Bethune Lane Dairy, are one such family. Not only do they make the best chocolate milk in the country; they work hard to ensure that their environmental footprint is as light as possible. Farmers like the Bethunes deserve to be rewarded for their responsible practices.

Our government is also committing $129.8 million to deliver a National Soil Strategy. The red Mallee dirt is some of the most versatile and accommodating in the country but we are seeing our precious topsoil being kicked up in dust storms more and more frequently. There are businesses in my electorate that know how important our soil is. One of those is ALTSA, based in Merbein, an analytical laboratory that provides soil testing services to locals. They use cutting-edge technology to examine local soils, and they use their research to provide advice to farmers. It's an important service that is improving the longevity and sustainability of farming in the region. I recently spoke to Ray Harris, general manager of ALTSA, at the Mildura Field Days. He told me he's excited about the Agriculture Stewardship Package funding and wants to pursue opportunities to contribute to the implementation of the strategy. The focus on soil health is vital because if we don't preserve the health of our valuable soil our agriculture industry will suffer greatly.

Biosecurity measures such as those contained in this bill are becoming increasingly important as our nation continues to expand our trade agreements with international partners. In positive news, this week Australia secured a free trade agreement with the United Kingdom. This is a comprehensive and historic agreement that is in the best interests of our nation and our primary producers. It's a truly liberalising agreement, one of the most significant we will ever sign. Australian producers and farmers will receive a significant boost by getting greater access to the UK market. I know this agreement is welcome news to growers in my electorate, many of whom I have spoken to today. Australian consumers will also benefit from cheaper products, with all tariffs eliminated within five years and tariffs on cars, whiskey and the UK's other main exports eliminated immediately. The UK will liberalise Australian imports with 99 per cent of Australian goods, including Australian wine and short- and medium-grain milled rice entering the UK duty-free when the agreement enters into force. All other tariffs will be eliminated by 2015.

Another change will mean that working holiday-makers from the UK will be exempt from the requirement to work in a regional industry like agriculture to secure a subsequent year visa. The Nationals understand that this would result in a massive supply gap of harvest workers if a solution is not developed. That's why I'm so pleased that the Nationals have secured a new seasonal agricultural worker visa to meet the supply shortfall and create a more sustainable supply of agricultural labour. I've been calling for a seasonal agricultural visa for some time now. This visa will allow producers to get the right workers in the right place at the right time. The seasonal agricultural worker visa will allow workers from ASEAN countries—Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, among others—to come to Australia for seasonal work for nine months a year, three years in a row, for skilled and unskilled positions. Many growers have expressed to me their preference for workers from ASEAN countries, who they find ideally suited for the horticultural industry in Mallee. One farmer, Ian McAllister, told me today that they are passionate and dedicated workers and he loves having them on farm.

This visa has been achieved through collaboration between industry and government. Our local industries have made it very clear to me that a sustainable source of labour is crucial to their survival. At every step of the way, I've repeated their concerns to my colleagues in government and fought for this reform. The creation of an agricultural visa was a recommendation of the report into the Growing Agriculture to $100 billion by 2030 inquiry by the standing committee on ag and water resources. As a member of the committee, I pushed hard for the inclusion of this particular recommendation, drawing from the close consultation I've had with industry. I understand that this visa will help local producers in Mallee.

I'm thankful for the engagement of local growers and peak bodies, including the Australian Table Grape Association, Citrus Australia and the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance. Ultimately their feedback is what led me to push so hard for this visa. I also know that this visa is widely supported by the National Party as a whole. At the 2021 federal conference I raised a motion recommending the creation of an ag visa which was carried unopposed. The Commonwealth government will have the new visa in place before the end of 2021. This is a great result for Mallee farmers.

There are further reforms that I wish to pursue. I want to see labour hire licensing reforms at a national level to rein in corrupt labour hire contractors who continue to dodge the patchwork of existing state regulations. I'm also calling for a one-off status resolution for undocumented workers in horticulture. This is an ambitious goal, but my feeling is that the debate on this topic has shifted. COVID-19 has provided a paradigm shift in how horticulture is viewing this issue.

I am eager to support the ongoing sustainability of the agriculture sector in Australia. This government has demonstrated its commitment to the agriculture industry in the 2021 Commonwealth budget and continues to do so through the changes outlined in the bill before the House.


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