Senate debates

Tuesday, 3 March 2015


Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee; Government Response to Report

5:15 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

I also want to take note of the government's response to the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee's report on the future of beekeeping and pollination service industries in Australia.

This is an extremely important issue and I am pleased to see the government has responded. I am more often than not critical of the government, but I do note that they have responded in a timely manner on a number of the Senate committee reports and joint reports. That is good, because it facilitates the committee work that we all put so much time into.

Unfortunately, I cannot be as positive about the way the government has responded to this report. They have not agreed to many of the recommendations. Some of them are noted and some of those in the additional comments response they have not agreed with. This is an extremely important issue. The latest science came out last week. I would urge the government to reconsider the urgency with which they take up some of these recommendations.

Bee-colony collapse is an issue around the world, and Australia is not immune. It is more intense in some areas of Europe and, particularly, in the US. Research that came out last week indicates scientists think they understand much better the reason for bee-colony collapse. It is associated with multiple environmental stresses, such as pathogens, pollution and pesticides.

I understand the scientists to be saying—this is very recent research by Australians—that those multiple environmental stresses mean the younger bees are having to go out and forage much earlier than they used to. When you had older worker bees out there foraging, younger bees would learn how to look after the young, clean the colony and build up strength et cetera. Because those older worker bees are now dying off, the younger bees are leaving the colony earlier and only foraging for a small amount of time. They are not as experienced, and they are not coming back to the colony—that is my layman's version of the science. This is leading to colony collapse. As we get a better understanding of colony collapse, governments and our scientists will be able to direct resources more carefully into addressing it. Bees are absolutely essential for pollination of our agriculture and horticulture.

I urge the government to have a renewed sense of urgency in looking at these recommendations. There is clearly work that needs to be done on pesticides and the impact of pesticides as part of the multiple stresses on bees. There are clearly areas we need to look at about clearing of native vegetation. That is another point that was raised in this report. There are issues around registrations, the use of pesticides, exclusion zones around colonies and access to areas. This is an extremely important issue.

Some of the recommendations in the report should not be written off as much as the government is writing them off. It is an issue we need to keep a very careful eye on, particularly the use of pesticides and which ones are impacting on bees. This is contributing to environmental stresses that lead to the young leaving the colonies. If we do not get this right, our agricultural and horticulture will be under threat—particularly horticulture, because of the critical role bees play in pollination.

5:20 pm

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I endorse and congratulate Senator Siewert for her remarks. This is an urgent issue and has not been taken seriously by successive governments. To put it bluntly—and I know you will pull me up on this, Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle—if we do not sort out the problems we have with our bees, Australian agriculture is stuffed. Bees are important for pollination for so many sectors of the agricultural sector. It is not good enough for the government to simply say that we will leave it up to the states to work this out. This will affect agriculture across this country. It is a federal issue. The Commonwealth has a key role to play in this.

We know that honey production and pollination industries are worth billions of dollars to the Australian food-production industry. The importance of bees to the agricultural industry and the need for better labelling, from the consumer point of view, are important. Senator Siewert talked about pesticides and environmental issues. These are key issues to ensure that we do not destroy this important link to our agricultural production. My fear is that we are seeing risk of colony-collapse disorder, fewer bees and, with it, greater issues and problems with pollination. This is a key issue that must be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

The Australian Government considers all industries when it negotiates free trade agreements (FTAs). The impact of tariffs, quotas and the rules of origin that facilitate the free flow of trade between the Parties are integral to the final provisions of all FTAs. The beekeeping industry is free to make submissions to the government when the intention to negotiate a new FTA is announced, …

With respect to the government—and I am not singling out this government, because I think that previous governments have failed on this—that is not good enough. If we do not do something about this before it is too late we will see catastrophic consequences for our agricultural sector. There have been a number of previous reports. The More than honey: the future of the Australian honey bee and pollination industries report back in 2008 was very comprehensive. It was sidelined by the former government and I fear that this government will sideline these recommendations.

I particularly want to thank the beekeepers of Australia who made submissions to this inquiry, particularly people like Lee Duffield in South Australia and many others who made submissions in respect of this inquiry. If we do not get this right the consequences will be catastrophic.

If I can just finish off with an issue in respect of Sichuan province in China? They are pear growers there, and they have to pollinate because their bees have had colony collapse disorder. Pollination by bees just does not exist anymore. They have to pollinate their pear trees using sharpened bamboo sticks with feathers attached—dare I say it?—because there are no bees in the province anymore. That is the consequence of that. I wonder whether some sharpened bamboo sticks might be used to prod some of our bureaucrats to deal with this issue, fundamentally, because otherwise we are facing a catastrophe in Australian agriculture unless we act on this with utmost urgency. The government's response is very poor indeed.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question before the Chair is that the Senate take note of the documents presented by the minister.

Question agreed to.