Senate debates

Wednesday, 23 June 2021


Biosecurity Amendment (Strengthening Penalties) Bill 2021; Second Reading

10:04 am

Photo of Tim AyresTim Ayres (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

As has happened so many times this week, Labor's support for this imperfect piece of legislation, the Biosecurity Amendment (Strengthening Penalties) Bill 2021, comes after eight years of neglect by a tired, self-obsessed government that has lost its way. In biosecurity, that neglect has led to failure. That failure has led to an obvious crisis, and it's only in an utter crisis that this government can be provoked to action. In the midst of that, Australian agriculture suffers, Australian family farmers suffer, and there are risks to our exports, to food safety and to public health.

Our biosecurity system is fundamental for $59 billion worth of agricultural production and $45 billion worth of agricultural exports. The ambition of this government is very narrow in agriculture. There is no ambition, really, to lift Australian agriculture up. There is no ambition, in particular, to lift Australian agriculture up the value chain. That's where the good jobs are: in food processing and value-adding into agriculture.

It is inescapable—even this government can't escape the fact—that federal biosecurity is a federal government responsibility. It keeps out critical threats to our agriculture, like African swine flu, foot-and-mouth disease and other diseases or pests that would be catastrophic for farmers. As trade and travel resume after the pandemic—if they do, if the government can get its act together on vaccines and quarantine and if we can finally open the country up after the government's manifest failure in these areas—it is indeed a critical time to re-evaluate our biosecurity regime.

This bill increases civil and criminal penalties for breaches of the act. The penalties send a clear message that breaking these laws is not worth the potential commercial gain. But what this bill doesn't do is establish consistent funding for our biosecurity arrangements at the border. Strengthened biosecurity laws are only as useful as their enforcement, so you require stiff penalties, but effective enforcement also requires certainty amongst potential perpetrators that they will be caught. For this government, the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government, there is a long history of neglect in this area. In the 2014 budget, the Abbott government abolished key biosecurity agencies: the Biosecurity Advisory Council and the National Biosecurity Committee stakeholder engagement consultative groups. Those cuts meant there are simply fewer biosecurity officers on the ground enforcing these laws that we're strengthening in the chamber today.

The consistent solution expressed by farmers and by every stakeholder in the industry was a biosecurity levy, which would mean that the importers that necessitate the biosecurity enforcement effectively pay for it. That levy proposal was the product of a comprehensive review of biosecurity arrangements which found there is:

… broad concern that existing funding and resourcing arrangements are inadequate and ad hoc and, if continued, will not be able to support the national biosecurity system into the future.

The proposal was simple: $10 a container for shipping and $5 a container for airfreight. There's a familiar pattern here: the coalition government made a big announcement, they set a deadline and then they comprehensively failed to deliver it. It's hard to understand why they would fail to deliver it. Perhaps it is because the National Party spends a lot more time listening to the Minerals Council than to farmers who rely on biosecurity.

And who was the agriculture minister during this period who put Australian agriculture and our biosecurity at risk? It was the member for New England, in his usual orgy of self-promotion and his usual approach, where he responds to the stimuli around him rather than thinking about the national interest. He was very focused on a fight with American actors about their pet pooches, but under his watch we saw lapse after lapse after lapse in biosecurity. Cuts under the member for New England's watch meant that our biosecurity scheme saw 39 per cent fewer seizures of items from air passengers and 56 per cent fewer mail articles seized. His ideological commitment to cutting public services, which you can hear him talk about in any pub throughout New England, where he denigrates public servants, has put our biosecurity regime at risk.

Is it any wonder that we've seen a series of harrowing biosecurity scares since the Joyce cuts came into effect? The tomato-potato psyllid was discovered in Australia for the first time in 2017 in a suburban garden in Perth and in a commercial capsicum crop north of the city. This pest has the potential to reduce tomato and potato production by 20 to 50 per cent. Cucumber green mottle mosaic virus was discovered on watermelon farms in Katherine and Darwin in September 2014 and rediscovered in Western Australia in 2016. Panama TR4, an existential threat to our banana industry, was discovered in Tully in Queensland in 2015 and has already cost the Queensland government $26 million in their eradication efforts. Russian wheat aphid, discovered in South Australia in 2016, has the potential to adversely affect 75 per cent of our grain crops. Pacific oyster mortality syndrome, discovered in Tasmania in 2016, destroyed $50 million worth of Tasmanian oyster crops. The white spot disease, first discovered in the Logan River near Brisbane in 2016, immediately did $25 million worth of damage to the prawn industry. It's highly infectious and kills more than 80 per cent of prawns in an infected farm. Now, all of these things happened over the miserable tenure of the member for New England as the minister for agriculture. He has never accepted responsibility for these biosecurity lapses that happened under his watch.

There was an ANAO report—and it becomes harder to say 'an ANAO report' over and over again the more tired you are—into biosecurity arrangements released in the last few weeks. It found:

The department's arrangements to respond to non-compliance with biosecurity requirements are largely inappropriate. In the absence of frameworks, plans or targets—

Sound familiar? It sounds a bit like the vaccine process—

to determine the desired outcomes of its regulation, the department is unable to demonstrate that its response to non-compliance is effective at managing biosecurity risks.

It further found:

The department's compliance framework is largely inappropriate to support its response to non-compliance with biosecurity requirements.

Now, did this abject failure of our biosecurity arrangements cause any upset in the National Party this week? No. It's all been about themselves. Instead of concern for farmers, this week's coup was the product of the Deputy Prime Minister's naked ambition and nothing else. Farmers—family farmers; Australian agriculture; agribusiness in this country—cannot trust this Deputy Prime Minister to advance their interests.

Remember his work as the drought envoy? As farmers suffered through a catastrophic natural disaster, the member for New England, in a sop to his ego, was appointed to a position where his sole responsibility was to listen to farmers and report their needs to the Prime Minister. He held that position for nine months. He helped himself to $675,000 worth of expenses, including two staff who apparently were engaged with him on that project. And how much of those nine months did he spend doing the work that he was engaged to do? About three weeks. And how did he convey the needs and requirements of Australian agriculture to the Prime Minister, who'd forked out so much public money into this utter boondoggle?

Was it through a report that was tabled to the parliament? No—there was no report. Was it through formal communications to the Prime Minister or the cabinet? Not at all. It was conveyed to the Prime Minister through a series of text messages, apparently. So, with $675,000 in expenses, during an absolute national crisis for Australian agriculture, all this bloke can do is three weeks worth of work and a couple of text messages. That was how seriously he took the hardship Australian farmers were facing.

As regional Australia faces a housing crisis, as thousands of people struggle to find a permanent home in country towns, as biosecurity risks lap at our doorstep under an inadequate biosecurity regime, as we're trying to recover from drought and flood, and as we're trying to deal with the impacts of challenges in our export markets—we are losing markets to key competitors overseas—how can we expect the Deputy Prime Minister to take seriously his responsibility as a public servant, as a person whose job is to serve his constituency, which, for the National Party, is allegedly country people in country industries? How can anybody expect that this particular leopard's spots have changed? There is only one person whose concerns the Deputy Prime Minister takes seriously; there's only one person whose interests he serves. That is, of course, the Deputy Prime Minister himself. It is self-interest all the way down with this lot. And that is why, when we come to this chamber to support this legislation, we do it with no confidence at all that increased penalties and the improvements that are set out in this bill will result in any change in terms of overall biosecurity arrangements for Australians and, in particular, for Australian agriculture and Australian family farms.

What this country needs, what Australian agriculture needs, is a government that's got some ambition for rural Australia. What this country needs is a government that's committed to fixing the biosecurity arrangements, to providing pragmatic responses to problems, to solving issues in the interests of Australian agriculture, including importers and exporters, and to making sure that we deal with our public health challenges. It doesn't need a government that is obsessed with itself and with its own naked self-interest and that can only ever make announcements and never deliver. The only thing that matters to Mr Joyce or Mr Morrison is the glare of the cameras and the headline the following day. It is never about the hard work of working with Australians to fix the problems that it's absolutely in our national interest to fix. I commend the legislation to the Senate.


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