House debates

Wednesday, 16 June 2021


Biosecurity Amendment (Strengthening Penalties) Bill 2021; Second Reading

5:04 pm

Photo of Brian MitchellBrian Mitchell (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I stand to speak to the Biosecurity Amendment (Strengthening Penalties) Bill 2021 and the shadow minister's amendment. Labor recognises the immense value of strong and reliable biosecurity for Australian agriculture. We on this side know that strong and reliable biosecurity is vital for agricultural production and exports. Yet I also stand today with a damning truth: for eight years this government has demonstrated a complete lack of engagement with Australian biosecurity. This was evidenced just last week in a damning report from the Australian National Audit Office.

On June 7 this year, the ANAO found that the federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment compliance framework was largely inappropriate. It found that the department's arrangements to respond to noncompliance with biosecurity requirements were largely inappropriate. It found shortcomings in record keeping, random inspections and the department's ability to detect and act on noncompliance. The report concluded:

There is no current plan to guide the department's biosecurity regulation, and the department is unable to demonstrate it has effectively implemented key reform plans.

I wish I could say I was surprised, but the Morrison government has already demonstrated how little it cares about biosecurity. We saw that just today and this week. You need only look at the complete reluctance to act on the mouse plague that is sweeping our eastern states. My Tasmanian colleague the member for Franklin, the shadow agriculture minister, has exposed the fact that the Morrison government has no intention of implementing a national response to the plague, which is devastating farmers' incomes and regional communities. Three times now my colleague the member for Franklin has put a motion to this parliament to encourage the government to act. Three times this government has shut her down, not even prepared to have the debate.

What instead occurred was a bizarre rant from the Acting Prime Minister, who today unleashed on activists and declared the mice should be 're-homed into their inner city apartments so they can nibble away at their food and their feet at night and scratch their children at night.' What on earth is going on? Why would the Acting Prime Minister, the Leader of the National Party, make light of a nationwide plague and a biosecurity hazard while his agriculture minister sits on his hands and continues the Morrison government's legacy of buck-passing? Labor knows that a national response to this crisis is needed, so, while Labor supports this bill, we have a duty to call out the government's ongoing failure to properly address biosecurity.

Australian agriculture is worth $60 billion, and we all want it to get to $100 billion by 2030. It's a shared goal across parliament. It's an industry that employs hundreds of thousands of Australians and keeps all of us fed—some of us better than others! It's a core industry in my electorate.

Mr Pasin interjecting

I'll take that interjection, Member for Barker. It's a core industry in my electorate, which covers 51 per cent of Tasmania and includes some of our state's most vibrant and productive farmlands. Agricultural production is what keeps us moving forward as a state and as a nation. We are a nation built on the sheep's back, but we aren't just producing for our own domestic consumption. Exports provide billions of dollars in revenue each year, and those exports put money in the pockets of regional families. That's food on the table, kids in schools and a roof over families' heads.

Tourism—particularly regional tourism—is another core driver of our state's economy. It contributes significantly to Tasmania's economy, especially in communities in my electorate, and it puts money back into the hands of small, locally owned businesses. It is biosecurity that underpins the ongoing success and prosperity of both agricultural and regional tourism.

We all know the risks of mismanaging and under-resourcing biosecurity. Few in Tasmania will have forgotten the fruit fly incursion that wreaked havoc on our agriculture sector in 2018. An outbreak detected in northern Tasmania led to millions of dollars being poured into last-minute biosecurity, with restriction zones imposed to prevent spread. The eradication program was tough on the sector but preferable to the impact of fruit fly ever establishing itself in our state. The Liberal government in Tasmania is keen to make people forget the fact that, in the years prior to the outbreak, it had cut Tasmania's biosecurity budget. It was a foolish and short-sighted decision and one they came to regret.

The fruit fly outbreak as well as other pest incursions, such as white spot, show how easily Australian agricultural wealth can be put at risk. This is a message that should have been heard loud and clear by the Morrison government, yet it seems to be constantly turning a blind eye or a neglectful ear to properly resourcing Australia's biosecurity. It seems intent on staying in the slow lane. We all remember the last few years and the lack of speed at which they rolled out the recommendations of the Craik review, only to abandon them in the end and then come up with a last-minute save in this year's budget.

Just look at the Morrison government's response to the mouse plague. On this side, we recognise the real danger this plague presents. New South Wales farmers say it could wipe $1 billion off the value of winter crops. It's no laughing matter. I don't know how to describe it—$1 billion off the national revenue and there is no national response from this government. The incompetence and neglect are difficult to fathom. Farmers in regional communities are desperate for help.

The New South Wales agriculture minister, a National Party MP, has called for the federal government to 'come to the table and help'. On May 31, Adam Marshall told the Weekly Times: 'It was incredibly disappointing to hear the Commonwealth admit they have no national response and throw their hands up as our regions face this problem.' Mr Marshall has written to this government to ask for assistance, but his request has been ignored. This government's response? Today the Acting Prime Minister said that Marshall didn't attend a meeting—whatever that means.

At Senate estimates, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment secretary, Andrew Metcalfe, told senators 'at this stage' there would be no national response. He said:

… the very longstanding arrangements are that each state and territory is responsible for pest and animal management within its jurisdiction.

…   …   …

it's their job and they should get on with it.

There's a departmental secretary talking about the difference between national and state responsibility, yet we've seen over the past year just how much this federal government is willing to buck-pass to the states on just about everything—quarantine, vaccines, everything. Mr Metcalfe also said:

Mice arrived with the First Fleet, and we've had mice plagues roughly every four years since the 1870s, so it's not a new phenomenon …

This government lets the mice run rampant and passes the buck, again. It's an unsurprising response from a government that takes no responsibility for anything: 'I don't hold a mouse trap, mate.' They're happy to take the credit but they just don't want to do the work. This plague has run for more than 10 months and it is crippling the drought recovery. These pests are devouring new crops and destroying machinery. Mice are biting people in their beds. People have been hospitalised. It's sickening. It's deadly serious. It deserves more than derision from those opposite, and the heavy lifting has been left to the state governments. One billion dollars is at stake, and it's all been left to the states. So much for all those Liberals and Nationals who claim to represent regional Australia. Their neglect at the national level is destroying the lives of people on the land.

Many farmers are losing most, if not all, of their first big crop since 2017 to this plague, and regional homes and businesses desperately need help. The government must develop a national plan to address this crisis. The government's not responsible for the mouse plague. We know it has natural causes. But this government is responsible for coming up with a national plan to help address it. It's a real biosecurity issue. Failing to come up with a national plan only furthers this government's legacy of inaction and incompetence. Remember 2016, when an outbreak of white spot disease devastated prawn farms in South-East Queensland, causing an estimated $50 million in production and associated losses? Remember 2019, when disgraced prawn outfit EB Ocean pleaded guilty to two counts of breaching the Biosecurity Act, for hindering inspections and storing prawns outside of the biosecurity area, but was fined just $80,000? The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment has shown no transparency and has declined to answer specific questions about EB Ocean. Even now, the department is considering proposals to allow lime imports from Mexico, where there has been a recent outbreak of citrus canker. Australia was only recently declared free of citrus canker, following an outbreak in 2018. That cost our country more than $19 million.

The bill before us today seeks to increase the maximum financial penalties, both civil and criminal, that can be imposed for a number of offences that are already subject to penalties under the Biosecurity Act 2015. Labor supports strong penalties to deter people from putting Australia's biosecurity at risk. People cannot expect to walk through airport security with bags of uncooked pork and jeopardise our billion-dollar pork industry, which happened twice in 2019 under the Morrison government. But penalties cannot be the only instrument. We must do more to ensure that Australian biosecurity is strong and reliable on every front. Australian farmers have been put at risk by this government maintaining an under-resourced and underfunded biosecurity system. It's a system that is the last defence for industries worth billions of dollars to the Australian economy. This bill does nothing to better detect and identify pests and diseases that may be making their way into Australia. That's a significant deficiency. The bill does nothing to improve the capabilities of Australian biosecurity to ensure that Australia never faces a situation that puts at risk the billions of dollars made through our agricultural production, export and tourism industries.

Australians deserve better. Farmers deserve better. We deserve biosecurity that is capable of protecting Australia's assets. This government has all the tools available to it to provide strong and reliable biosecurity, and it's got a willing opposition. We're willing to stand with those opposite on biosecurity. They just aren't utilising these tools. Australia deserves a government that gives a rat's about biosecurity.


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