House debates

Monday, 17 September 2007

Quarantine Amendment (Commission of Inquiry) Bill 2007

Consideration in Detail

Bill—by leave—taken as a whole.

6:44 pm

Photo of Gavan O'ConnorGavan O'Connor (Corio, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move:

Schedule 1, item 5, page 4 (lines 1-8), omit paragraph 66AY (1) (a), substitute:
conduct a Commission of inquiry into matters specified in the instrument of appointment relating to the following:
the outbreak and spread of equine influenza in Australia in 2007;
quarantine requirements and practices relating to the outbreak and spread;
Australia’s quarantine requirements and practices that relate to equine importation and whether these requirements and practices accord with international best practice;
any matters incidental to the matters referred to in subparagraphs (i), (ii), and (iii); and
Schedule 1, item 5, page 4, after subsection 66AY(4) (after line 16), add
the Minister must table the Commission’s report in each house of the Parliament within five sitting days of its receipt.

As I said in my speech on the second reading, Labor does support the general thrust of the Quarantine Amendment (Commission of Inquiry) Bill 2007 but, through the amendments that have been circulated in my name, we believe that we can improve it and we ask the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry to consider the amendments.

We on this side of the House are not convinced that the legislation will necessarily deliver the comprehensive and open inquiry that the minister has just referred to. Schedule 1, item 5A lists a number of matters on which the terms of reference must be based. However, the current bill requires an inquiry to be conducted into all or any of the matters on that list. I ask the minister: if the government considers all the matters on this list to be important, why has it used the words ‘all’ or ‘any’ in this bill? These words seem to give the government the flexibility to ignore matters on its own list. Two of the matters on the list require the commission to inquire into matters concerning the outbreak of the disease, but there is no requirement in the bill, as far as we can ascertain, to inquire into its spread. Surely finding out how this disease has been spread is just as important as finding out how the disease came into the country in the first place? I ask the minister why the legislation was not framed to ensure that the inquiry covers the spread of the disease as well as how it entered the country.

Labor believes that it is important that the inquiry also focus on how Australia’s current quarantine structures and practices stack up against international best practice. Labor’s amendments will ensure that this happens. This government has form when it comes to bearing reports that are politically embarrassing or critical of its actions. That is why we are moving an amendment that will require the report to be tabled on the floor of this parliament.

Labor has already asked the government a number of questions relating to the management of this particular matter and of equine quarantine. We are yet to receive responses to those answers. I ask the minister again to provide answers to the questions that the opposition has raised in relation to the warnings the government may have received in recent years about the possibility and impacts of an equine influenza outbreak—allegations that workers at the Eastern Creek quarantine facility have regularly left the premises without changing their gear or showering, in clear breach of normal quarantine requirements; allegations that the minister acted to bend the rules relating to the normal allowable period, in order to allow three horses from France to enter the country; and allegations that, against normal quarantine protocols, horses from Europe and Japan have been allowed to intermingle while they have been in quarantine.

We have yet to receive adequate answers to these questions. I now invite the minister to provide them to this House. Labor’s amendments will improve the inquiry by ensuring that it is comprehensive and open, and that the report is tabled on the floor of this parliament not only for members of this parliament to see but for the industry and the general community to see as well. I urge the government to support these amendments.

6:48 pm

Photo of Peter McGauranPeter McGauran (Gippsland, National Party, Deputy Leader of the House) Share this | | Hansard source

I have looked at the amendments proposed by the opposition and find no merit in them for two reasons. The first reason is that their principal concerns are already covered in the terms of reference. I am proposing that Mr Callinan report to me, firstly, on the circumstances that have contributed to the outbreak of equine influenza in Australia; secondly, on the need for any strengthening of biosecurity procedures for quarantine management of imported horses; and, thirdly, on any matters incidental to these. Justice Callinan, who has approved these terms of reference—and there can be no doubting his resolve and independence in leaving no stone unturned to get to the truth of these matters—inserted the words ‘any other matter incidental to these’. He will have a free range and capacity to look at not only the escape of equine influenza from quarantine and the circumstances surrounding it but also its penetration into the horse population.

I venture to suggest that, in all likelihood, the epidemiological trail needs to be followed before the inquiry can determine its initial breach of the quarantine system. I would think that, as a matter of common sense, the inquiry would have to look at the effect of the virus on the horse population, how it travelled and how it was spread, before it can determine its original source. Remember that this is an inquiry incorporating a large team of investigators who will follow the human trail, interview those who handled the horses or who came in contact with them, as well as those who handled horses who were subsequently infected, in parallel with an epidemiological trail as to the strain’s own journey. I have no doubt at all that every aspect of the cause and outbreak of equine influenza will be pursued by the inquiry under the terms of reference that are not limiting on Justice Callinan.

The second issue is that I have made it clear that the findings of the inquiries will be made public. The Hon. Ian Callinan himself has indicated his preference to conduct as many of his hearings in public as possible or appropriate. However, the government does not support a legislative requirement that the report be tabled in parliament for one important reason: it could narrow the scope of what Justice Callinan can include in his report. The report might contain personal information or commercially sensitive material that could not be made public without unfairly disadvantaging individuals involved in the inquiry. If required to table his report, Justice Callinan would effectively be limited to only including information that could be made public. It is never a legal requirement that the reports of royal commissions be tabled, and with good reasons. In the case of the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry, the government was able to act on the commissioner’s recommendation that one volume of his report remain confidential as it might unfairly prejudice future criminal prosecutions. Accordingly, without knowing the exact nature of Justice Callinan’s report, it would be inappropriate and potentially irresponsible to include any legislative requirement that the report be tabled. Nonetheless, the government remains fully committed to making the findings of the report public, as I have made clear many times in preceding weeks.

Finally, the member for Corio asked me to answer some perfunctory questions that were put to me by the member for Hotham last week. That would require me to make a judgement about the efficacy and workings of the quarantine system, and I am not prepared in any way to criticise or condone a system that Justice Callinan is being empowered by this parliament to inquire into. It would be grossly improper of me to in any way seek to exonerate the AQIS, the quarantine system or those associated with it from the private sector, just as it would be for me to criticise it. Let us leave these things to Justice Callinan’s inquiry and let it get on with its job.

6:52 pm

Photo of Gavan O'ConnorGavan O'Connor (Corio, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I take the minister’s comments in relation to Justice Callinan and the investigation not only of how this disease entered the country but also of how it spread. As I understand what the minister is saying, there are two specific matters that he has directed Justice Callinan to inquire into and then any other matters incidental to those. Under this umbrella, the minister is suggesting that the issue of the spread of the disease will require Justice Callinan to investigate and report.

From the opposition’s point of view, we take the minister’s second reading speech at its word. In that speech, as I recall—and I must admit that I do not have it in front of me but I did quote from the minister’s second reading speech in the contribution I made to this debate—he refers to the fact that this investigation will cover not only how the disease entered the country but also how the disease spread. I say to the minister: if you are willing, in your second reading speech, to be quite specific about the nature of this inquiry, I simply invite you to incorporate that particular provision in the bill. It seems a logical extension of what you have already said in your second reading speech to incorporate that specific provision in the bill, and then there will be no argument. There will be unanimity on both sides of the House and in the industry and the community about the particular inquiry.

We restate some things that perhaps we do not like to restate on the floor of the House time and time again. But on this side of the House we are sick and tired of the government initiating inquiries where there are, shall I say, ‘nobbled terms of reference’. I used that term in my speech. I am not suggesting that the minister is nobbling the terms of reference; I am merely saying that we have had a very bad experience in terms of AWB and the capacity of the terms of reference in an inquiry to actually limit where the justice entrusted with the task of the inquiry can go. All we are simply asking the minister to do in the amendments we have proposed is to be true and specific to what he has already stated in his second reading speech ought to be the subject of inquiry. We do not think it is a big step to take. I think it would allay the fears of the opposition. It would certainly temper any ongoing criticism we might have of the minister and what he might be attempting to do in framing the terms of reference to shield himself and the government in an election environment and a post-election environment from proper scrutiny. We are simply asking that this matter be transparent and that the government be accountable. We think the best way to do that is to implement the amendments that we have proposed, because they are very specifically consistent with the terms that have been used by the minister in his second reading speech.

6:57 pm

Photo of Peter McGauranPeter McGauran (Gippsland, National Party, Deputy Leader of the House) Share this | | Hansard source

With the greatest respect to the member for Corio, I think his paranoia is clouding his judgement. These terms of reference are all-encompassing. They were drafted in consultation with Justice Callinan, and there is a catch-all provision which says:

... any other matters that are incidental to these ...

The member for Corio concedes that there is no prospect of determining the cause of the outbreak in Australia unless you follow the epidemiological trail and discover just how it was transmitted from horse to horse and what handlers were involved. After all, it is possible for people to conclude that there was a human breach of the quarantine facility either at Mascot airport, when the horses first landed from Japan, or at the Eastern Creek facility.

Photo of Joel FitzgibbonJoel Fitzgibbon (Hunter, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

What was the source country?

Photo of Peter McGauranPeter McGauran (Gippsland, National Party, Deputy Leader of the House) Share this | | Hansard source

Japan is almost certain to have been the source country.

Photo of Joel FitzgibbonJoel Fitzgibbon (Hunter, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

Will the inquiry extend to events in the source country?

Photo of Peter McGauranPeter McGauran (Gippsland, National Party, Deputy Leader of the House) Share this | | Hansard source

Sure—well, there may not be any need to. Justice Callinan will want to know whether it is the exact strain of the equine virus. What we know is that the Japanese and Australian virus is the Wisconsin 2003 variety, but the Animal Health Laboratory at Geelong wants to go one step further and make sure it is the exact strain. I am sure that Justice Callinan would want to satisfy himself as to the link with Japan, but it seems too much of a coincidence that the horses arrived from Japan on approximately 8 August, equine influenza was notified in Japan on 15 August and both events happened to involve the same family of equine virus, Wisconsin 2003. But, from the moment the horses landed at Mascot and were transported to Eastern Creek, it would seem to a lot of people that somebody breached the quarantine safeguards—somebody in contact with the influenza-affected horses left and then transmitted it to another horse, because none of the horses with equine influenza that arrived from Japan have ever left protective custody. So Justice Callinan will of course follow the trail of humans and of the virus itself.

I appreciate the points being made by the member for Corio, but they are unnecessary. We could get into a word game here in which every possible scenario has to be reduced to print. I much prefer, with the agreement of Justice Callinan, the broad terms that in no way hinder his lines of inquiry.

6:59 pm

Photo of Joel FitzgibbonJoel Fitzgibbon (Hunter, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Defence) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the minister for attempting to answer my question, which inappropriately came by way of interjection. Can I say that I am genuinely seeking information here as this impacts significantly on my electorate. My question really was: what activities, if any, does AQIS undertake or participate in in the source country before the horse actually leaves that country? Is there any suggestion that there was a breakdown within the source country and, again, will the inquiry extend to any activities that did or did not take place in the source country?

7:00 pm

Photo of Peter McGauranPeter McGauran (Gippsland, National Party, Deputy Leader of the House) Share this | | Hansard source

Now that the honourable member for Hunter phrases it in those terms I see the logic of his question. And you are right: of course Justice Callinan will want to know how the horses were handled in Japan before they arrived in Australia to see whether or not procedures were followed in that country and whether or not there were any faults or errors that led to the horses being infected with equine virus and coming to Australia. It is a very good point; I had not quite appreciated it. My understanding is that the standard operating procedures were followed in Japan. The horses were isolated for the required 14 days in quarantine in Japan at a quarantine station and they were in the care and under the authority of the Japanese quarantine officials. At this stage I am not aware of any breakdown in the system there but, again, that is a matter for Justice Callinan.

7:01 pm

Photo of Gavan O'ConnorGavan O'Connor (Corio, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will make some concluding comments. I hope the minister takes the amendments that are proposed in the spirit in which they are being proposed. I am certainly not paranoid about this matter. I do this in the context of the fact that in 2004 the government was warned of the potential devastation that this disease, if it entered the country, could have on the Australian equine industry. Of course, the matters relating to how governments and ministers responded to the industry’s concerns in 2004 will not be covered, as I understand it, by this inquiry. That is an overall political concern that we on the opposition side would have because, at the end of the day, governments and ministers—whether it is the current minister or previous ministers—must be responsible on the floor of the House for the portfolios that they administer.

This a very critical area in Australian agriculture and the Australian equine industry. This particular disease has already devastated the industry in two states and has the potential to wreak economic havoc in my and the minister’s state of Victoria. I put on the public record that warnings about the virulence of this disease and its potential impact on the Australian industry were around, as far as the industry was concerned, in 2004 and that those matters and how the government responded to them at the time will not be the subject of this inquiry. That is the simple point I am making.

7:03 pm

Photo of Peter McGauranPeter McGauran (Gippsland, National Party, Deputy Leader of the House) Share this | | Hansard source

Again, I appreciate the member for Corio taking the time to clarify his concerns for me so that I better understand them. No, I do feel that the first term of reference would cover any of the events involving industry, AQIS or the government in the lead-up to the outbreak having a relevance to Justice Callinan’s considerations. The first term of reference refers to ‘the circumstances that have contributed to the outbreak of equine influenza in Australia’. I would take it, on my interpretation, that anybody with a concern or a grievance previously held about the conduct of the quarantine system with regard to the importation of horses will make themselves known and heard, bearing in mind that there will be public hearings. If the member for Corio is referring to the highly publicised exchange of letters in, I understand, late 2004 and through the early part of 2005 between the Australian Racing Board and my predecessor as minister for agriculture, these are sure to be closely examined by the inquiry for no other reason than that the ARB are certain to bring them to the judge’s attention. If there were no public hearings and there was no opportunity for people to come forward with their views and experiences of the past practices of the quarantine system, as well as current ones, then I would concede the member for Corio’s point. But I think the fact that there will be public hearings and Justice Callinan will be calling for persons with a view on the working of the system as it applied to imported horses should satisfy him.

Question negatived.

Bill agreed to.