House debates

Wednesday, 17 February 2021


Agriculture Legislation Amendment (Streamlining Administration) Bill 2019; Second Reading

10:37 am

Photo of Stuart RobertStuart Robert (Fadden, Liberal Party, Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme) Share this | | Hansard source

I present the explanatory memorandum to this bill and move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

Australia's world-class biosecurity framework has ensured that our $60 billion agricultural industry, local communities and natural environment are protected from the incursion of pests and diseases.

The Agriculture Legislation Amendment (Streamlining Administration) Bill 2019 will assist the efficiency and effectiveness of our biosecurity system, by authorising automated decision-making for decisions made by biosecurity officers under the Biosecurity Act 2015 and authorised officers under the Imported Food Control Act 1992. This approach will support deregulation and improve the effectiveness of the biosecurity framework and imported food system.

Australia's biosecurity framework plays a critical role in reducing risk of incursions by pests and diseases. The Department of Agriculture currently processes on average 45,000 commercial cargo referrals and an increasing value of imported foods each month. Australia is currently operating in the peak season for the brown marmorated stink bug, or BMSB, which entails considerable administrative and manual effort by biosecurity staff and stakeholders to prevent an incursion of this potentially devastating pest.

The department is also dedicating intensive resources to prevent African swine fever virus, or ASFV, from entering Australian borders. ASFV poses a significant biosecurity threat to Australia as it is a highly contagious disease that spreads rapidly through domestic and wild pigs, killing up to 80 per cent of the pigs it infects. As of September 2019, ASFV had reached the shores of our near neighbour East Timor. Other high-risk pests include the khapra beetle and the continued threat posed by foot-and-mouth disease.

If we do not provide Australia's biosecurity framework with all possible tools to prevent the entry of such high-risk pests and diseases, Australia's agricultural industry and world-leading reputation for biosecurity may be irreparably damaged.

This bill clarifies the legislative basis for the government to issue directions to importers and brokers arranging the entry of goods and imported food into Australia, through the use of computerised decision-making. Such automated decision-making will enable the government to maximise resources addressing critical risks, and ensure current and planned decision tools can be implemented as efficiently as possible, with minimal impacts on importers.

The bill will provide the secretary the power to determine, by legislative instrument, the types of decisions a computer program may make on behalf of a biosecurity officer or an authorised officer. This will allow the government to adapt to developments in technology and account for future iterations of automated decision-making systems. In this, the bill will provide a platform for immediate and ongoing improvement in regulatory decision-making.

To take into account technical difficulties that may be experienced by computer systems, the bill also enables a biosecurity officer or an authorised officer to substitute automated decisions where appropriate.

As the government enters the peak pre-Christmas season for cargo referred for inspection, including the increased inspection for ASFV and BMSB, optimising our operational efficiencies is critical. The operational environment of high volumes of goods and people entering Australia, and the potential for negative impact on Australia's agriculture, environment and economy if biosecurity risk or food safety is not effectively identified and managed, mean that it is necessary to provide automated decision-making. The bill is therefore critical for Australia's biosecurity framework to operate efficiently and effectively for the health and safety of all Australians. I commend the bill to the House.

10:42 am

Photo of Julie CollinsJulie Collins (Franklin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Agriculture) Share this | | Hansard source

The Agriculture Legislation Amendment (Streamlining Administration) Bill 2019, as we heard from the minister, does seek to amend Australia's biosecurity laws in relation to imported food and imported goods to provide for streamlined administration through automated, computerised decision-making. The current bill is intended to amend the Biosecurity Act 2015 and the Imported Food Control Act 1992. The explanatory memorandum states that the bill will allow risk identification and management across a large number of goods and conveyances. It will also reduce the burden on importers by enabling fast, accurate clearance and providing flexibility in responding to existing and emerging risks. It also states in the EM that it's intended that the principles set out in the Administrative Review Council will be taken into account during implementation of the automated decision-making scheme, 'to the extent consistent with maintaining biosecurity and food health and safety standards'.

The proposed bill provides discretion for authorised officers under the respective bills to override an electronic decision where satisfied that the electronic decision is inconsistent with the objects of the relevant act or where another decision is more appropriate in the circumstances. It goes on to say that decisions made by a computer program will be subject to merits and judicial review in the same way as a decision made by an officer under the relevant provision. In the case of the Biosecurity Act, a decision will be taken to have been made by the director of biosecurity but not in a personal capacity, and, as such, the decision will still be subject to an internal initial review in that first instance.

This is all very important because we know what has happened with this government, particularly in relation to automated computer systems, in the past. They don't exactly have a great record when it comes to this. All you need to do is talk about things like the ABS. Who remembers the census of 2016, when everything crashed? What a debacle, it really was. The census website crashed and then the blame game started, but, instead of us accepting responsibility, the government blamed everybody else—as usual. The ATO website, as we know, crashes several times every year, usually around 1 or 2 July, when it gets high traffic coinciding with the end-of-financial-year activities. This continues to happen. We've seen the myGov website crash several times. We saw it crash spectacularly during the beginning of COVID, the pandemic, with distressed people trying to get access to critical government services at that time. At the time, I and many members on this side, I'm sure, received many contacts from people desperately trying to get into government services and get access to the system. We had the responsible minister apologise for claiming hackers had targeted the website. Later we of course found out that it wasn't hackers, and his response was just, 'My bad.' That's the response that you give when you don't have anything else to say, when you know that you were just making up excuses.

We also have seen many older Australians who had sadly passed away receive letters from the My Aged Care government website and system. We know that people are getting letters for deceased relatives more than a year after their relatives have deceased, and this continues to go on. Then there is the tech debacle to end all tech debacles, the robodebt disaster, where we saw innocent Australians believe they had occurred a Centrelink debt when indeed they had not, all because they were sent incorrect information by a computer—

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the minister standing on a point of order?

Photo of Stuart RobertStuart Robert (Fadden, Liberal Party, Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme) Share this | | Hansard source

I am, Madam Deputy Speaker, on relevance. The word 'agriculture' is yet to be mentioned. I would have thought, on a bill dealing with agriculture, that that word would probably have some prominence somewhere at some time.

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Relevance stands. I believe there's a second reading amendment on its way.

Photo of Julie CollinsJulie Collins (Franklin, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Agriculture) Share this | | Hansard source

There is indeed a second reading amendment in relation to the government's systems. It's about streamlining and automated computer systems, and that is exactly what the government is going to do with our biosecurity system. Whilst we're saying that we want to see the government succeed in this, we are cautious that the government may not succeed, as they have not in the past when it comes to other automated government systems. The government needs to get this right.

As we heard from the minister, some pests getting into Australia will have a massive impact on our producers if the government doesn't get this right. We cannot afford for the government to fail in this as it did with robodebt, as it did with the census and as it did with the other government websites and systems that we know continue to fail Australians. We cannot have the khapra beetle come in and destroy our grain growers and cost the sector an estimated $900 million. We cannot have the stink bug that the minister talked about getting into Australia. We cannot have our producers put at risk if this government doesn't get this right. So we are being very cautious and putting on record our concerns that the government may not get this right.

Indeed, I will be moving a second reading amendment at the end of my speech in relation to our concerns around this because we are very concerned that the government hasn't got it right in the past. This is a risk that the government says it's willing to take, but we know from the past that the government doesn't do things like this well. We also know from past history that the government takes a very long time to do these things. Indeed, this bill was first introduced into the parliament in 2019, so they are clearly in no hurry to do this. It was introduced in late 2019 and debated in the Senate in early 2020.

When it was introduced, the minister at the time said that the system would also introduce a biosecurity levy. We might all remember about the biosecurity levy. The government was going to charge importers a levy that was going to raise over $300 million, apparently, in four years. This biosecurity levy was actually going to fund a whole range of programs that the government outlined. Interestingly, what happened to this biosecurity levy? After a very long delay, government said this would be introduced and it would be operating by 1 September last year. Of course that didn't happen, because they dumped it. They decided, after heavy lobbying from importers, I assume, that this perhaps wasn't a good idea, because they might not be able to get this levy right. They dumped it. I don't know where the $300 million that was going to be raised by this biosecurity levy over four years is going to come from now and whether the programs it was going to fund are actually going to happen. This backflip was not announced by the government; it was just announced by the department and popped up on the website. No government minister fronted the decision to backflip on the biosecurity levy. None—nowhere to be seen.

But this is typical of the government, as I said, because they do seem to take forever to do anything, or they don't do it well, or they don't do it at all. So I think it is fair and reasonable for me to be talking about the government's past failures when it comes to technology and IT systems. It's interesting that the minister who was trying to object to me talking about that is in fact the minister responsible for Services Australia and robodebt, where we've seen the government now have to settle $1.2 billion of taxpayers' money, borrowed money, to deal with their debacle. This has impacted hundreds of thousands of Australians. What I don't want to see is the government fail on another technology issue—with biosecurity.

As I said, producers in Australia are doing a great job in what has been a very difficult time for them. We do not want to see them or their crops put at risk or, indeed, Australia's reputation as a high-quality producer put at risk because this government doesn't do its job well. I am putting them on notice that we expect this to be done incredibly well. We expect the government to make sure that its technology systems, its artificial intelligence, gets this right. And, if it doesn't, we expect the government to make sure that its biosecurity officers and the department have the resources to ensure this doesn't delay imported goods coming into Australia. As we heard from the minister, 45,000 tonnes of imports are coming into the country and being assessed by biosecurity officers. It is a mammoth task to be dealt with, and this will only increase over time as our producers start to get more stuff going overseas and, as we've seen with the trade agreements, more imports coming into our country. So we need to make sure that all of our systems are right.

After talking to grain growers, I know it's easy for these things to come in, and I'm going to tell you a story about how easy it is. I was talking to a grain grower who told me that the last khapra beetle inception was actually in Canberra, in the ACT. A person who unpacked their fridge noticed a small beetle in it. Now, most Australians would probably crush the beetle and not think anything of it, but this person called somebody and got it checked, and it was one of these khapra beetles that had come into Australia. It's that easy. The government needs to make sure that the systems are robust, with checks and balances in place. It needs to make sure that the systems are audited well and that they are doing the job the government intends them to do. We are really very concerned that this government isn't up to this very significant task.

As I said, the government introduced the bill in 2019, and here we are in 2021. They said it was urgent at the time—it had a levy with it—but here we are all this time later. This is typical of the government when it comes to a whole range of portfolios. Our producers have had bumper crops because we've had such a great growing season, here in Australia, for a whole range of crops. But what we've seen during the global pandemic is our producers not having access to enough workers to get their produce off farms. That has been a very significant issue, and I've been critical of the government's response. We heard from the agriculture minister that the government had 22,000 vetted seasonal workers to come to Australia, but what we've seen instead are states and territories having to do their own thing, with no national leadership on this issue.

We're supposed to have a national workforce strategy come from the government. The government went out to consultation on it, and it's been sitting on Minister Littleproud's desk since October last year. We know this is an urgent issue: $45 million worth of produce, to date, has rotted or been tossed by farmers because they haven't been able to pick it. That is the reality of what's happening in Australia today. This government is not doing its job when it comes to agriculture. This government is not doing its job in terms of making sure that our farmers and our producers are being supported. That is not happening, so we are concerned, in relation to the streamlining of importations, that this government will not be doing its job there also.

We have seen the government obfuscate. We've seen the minister say that states and territories are responsible for seasonal workers and for getting fruit off farms—particularly fruit, but a whole range of other produce too. Quite frankly, I am amazed that we continue to see from the government more obfuscation, more blame on states and territories and less action. I keep hearing that the national workforce strategy will be released soon. I've only been the shadow minister for this portfolio for two weeks, and I'm absolutely loving it! I want to thank the farmers and the producers for their generosity and for showing me around in the last few weeks. But what I have learnt in those last few weeks is that they are incredibly disappointed in the government for not releasing this national workforce strategy. I have been told it has been imminent from the first time that I took up this role, and we still haven't seen it. That speaks again to the government's delays and the government's lack of action when it comes to supporting our primary producers across the country.

We want to support this bill and we want it to work, but I do want to move an amendment to this bill because we really are incredibly worried that what the government says and does are not the same thing. We have seen and heard before, in so many portfolios, including in agriculture, that the government says one thing and then fails to deliver as it intended or as it claimed it would. This system that the government's talking to—we cannot afford for this to be another one of those. We absolutely cannot. We cannot afford for the government to fail when it comes to biosecurity.

The minister talked about a whole range of possible incursions and how we have to keep Australia's primary producers and our country clear of some of these pests that are coming in. Clearly not everything that comes into Australia can be inspected. But the artificial intelligence systems that the government is going to use when it comes to biosecurity streamlining needs to do risk assessments about what is most likely to have some sort of pest in it, it needs to be able to know immediately about changes in systems and where the high-risk origins for some of these things may be, and it needs to be able to respond quickly. I'm not confident that the government is going to be able to do that.

I know that primary producers around Australia are very keen for the government to streamline this system. They are very keen and very pleased that the government is looking at this, but there is also some caution, given what has happened in other IT systems that the government has been responsible for, that this might not work. What I'm saying to the government is: when you introduce this, when this is happening, make sure we have backup systems ready if we make an assessment or an evaluation that it's not working as intended. We cannot afford for this to fail. We absolutely need to make sure that no pests come into Australia through our imported goods. We need to make sure that this AI system does what the government says it's going to do. We need to make sure that we don't have incursions like we saw with the Queensland prawn farmers, with white spot. We need to make sure that the African swine flu doesn't come into our pork industry. We need to make sure that these industries and sectors are protected as much as they possibly can be.

The government keeps saying this will all work—'We've been working on this and it it's going to be great'—but we have seen before that it absolutely has not been. We have seen before that, when the government says it is all great, that is not the case. And this is one area that is incredibly critical, as are the other areas I've named where the government's IT failures have let Australian citizens down. We cannot afford another one of these. The Australian public are really over government IT systems failing them. They totally are. We have seen the court case on robodebt. It shouldn't have had to go to court. The government should have admitted that there was an issue early on and resolved that. What I'm saying to the government is: if there is an issue here early on, fix it and fix it quickly. Do not let it go on. Do not let this system go unchecked. Make sure that all the checks and balances are built into this system. Make sure that all of the high-risk stuff coming into this country has a backup system while we're relying on the artificial intelligence in the first place. We've seen far too many failures of our technology systems and we cannot have another one. We absolutely cannot.

The government said the biosecurity levy it was going to introduce, which it scrapped, was going to raise the $320 million. I am concerned about what is going to happen to some of those programs they said they would fund with that levy. One that piqued my interest was funding to deal with fruit fly in Tasmania, which Tasmania dealt with in the last couple of years when we that did come into Tasmania.

I'm not sure what the government is going to do in relation to funding the programs that the $300-odd million was going to fund and I would ask the government to be honest and upfront about why it scrapped the biosecurity levy and what is going to happen to the programs that the biosecurity levy was going to fund. As I said, we had no minister actually front the government's decision on this and we assume it's because (a) people weren't consulted properly in the first place; (b) they worked out this levy was going to be very hard to implement because they were lobbied by a whole range of importers who said, 'This is going to be a problem for us.'

The biosecurity levy that was supposed to come with this legislation that the government said it would have implemented has not been implemented. As I said, the government has backflipped and dumped this levy. A bit of an explanation from the government or a government minister on what happened with that levy and why it was dumped would be really useful, I'm sure.

I'm sure, Deputy Speaker Wallace, that you too are interested in why the government has dumped this levy and what is going to happen to the programs that the $300-odd million over that four years was going to fund. Nothing has been said from the government about the programs it was going to fund, so it would be interesting to hear from the government.

It's a shame that the minister responsible is not in the chamber at the moment to answer some questions around his own legislation. But, as we've seen, it seems to be a trend from the government these days for whoever the minister on duty is to read out a speech with regard to legislation but not turn up and show an interest in their own legislation. I've noticed this pattern in the last two years or so, and it's not something I've seen before in this chamber under other governments. It happens very occasionally when ministers are not available, but it is not a regular occurrence and was not a regular occurrence in the government in which I was a minister. I always made an effort to be in the chamber whenever I could when my legislation was on, but that's not what we've seen from this government. We've seen many ministers on duty just read out the speech. They can't answer any questions and don't really know the detail. In fact we've even had two ministers read the same speech. I've already asked you why you dumped the biosecurity levy, Minister at the table, and how you are going to fund the programs that it was going to fund—over $300 million over four years. If you have an answer, I'd appreciate it.

Mr Robert interjecting

Deputy Speaker, the minister is showing, I think, contempt for the whole process of a minister being here and being responsible for the government's legislation. Frankly, the fact that this legislation has sat around for a year, that the minister's not here to talk about legislation nor to answer questions, I think, speaks volumes and I hope it doesn't mean that the minister's not interested in making this work. I sincerely hope the minister is interested in making this work. I hope this streamlining works. I sincerely hope that it works and that the government implements it as everybody relying on the system wishes the same.

To that end, I want to be clear that we want to support this reform and for it to succeed. We are going to support the bill, but I want to move a second reading amendment. I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes:

(1) the importance of ensuring computerised systems are only used in simple and uniform cases to guarantee consistency and accuracy; and

(2) that the Coalition Government has backflipped on its plan to introduce the biosecurity imports levy."

Perhaps the government might like to explain why. I conclude my second reading speech and contribution in this place in moving that amendment. I say to the House and to the members on the other side: please ensure your government gets this tech system right. Please make sure that, if you don't get it right, you admit it early and you fix it. Thank you.

Photo of Andrew WallaceAndrew Wallace (Fisher, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Emma McBrideEmma McBride (Dobell, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Mental Health) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

11:05 am

Photo of Stuart RobertStuart Robert (Fadden, Liberal Party, Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme) Share this | | Hansard source

The Agriculture Legislation Amendment (Streamlining Administration) Bill 2019 will make amendments to the Biosecurity Act 2015 and the Imported Food Control Act 1992 to provide for automated decision-making. The bill will ensure there is a clear statutory basis for applications of automated decision-making under the Biosecurity Act; enable wider use of automated decision-making to issue biosecurity directions and notices for imported food control certification; enable the Director of Biosecurity to determine by a legislative instrument which biosecurity officer decisions under the act may be made by the operation of a computer program; and authorise the secretary to arrange for automated decision-making for certain sections of the Imported Food Control Act.

These changes will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Biosecurity Act and the Imported Food Control Act and ensure that Australia's biosecurity system continues to keep pace with the changing biosecurity environment. This is particularly important in an environment where there are high volumes of goods and vessels entering Australia, with 45,000 commercial cargo referrals a month, and where intensive resources are necessary to prevent incursions of high-risk pests and diseases such as the African swine fever virus and the khapra beetle. I commend the bill to the House.

Photo of Tony SmithTony Smith (Speaker) Share this | | Hansard source

The original question was that this bill be read a second time. To this the honourable member for Franklin has moved as an amendment that all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. So the question is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.