Senate debates

Wednesday, 18 March 2015


Biosecurity Bill 2014, Biosecurity (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2014, Quarantine Charges (Imposition — General) Amendment Bill 2014, Quarantine Charges (Imposition — Customs) Amendment Bill 2014, Quarantine Charges (Imposition — Excise) Amendment Bill 2014; Second Reading

6:00 pm

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to say how tremendously important the Biosecurity Bill 2014 is. It is absolutely essential that it be passed to protect Australia's agriculture industries. Before I conclude I would like to put on the record that Australia's relative freedom from many pests and diseases is an extraordinarily invaluable asset to Australian agriculture, and it must be protected at all costs. Regardless of the fact that we have been left in a financially extraordinarily difficult position by the largess of the previous government and their lack of financial control, it is absolutely essential that we continue to fund biosecurity and to protect our Australian industries.

The intelligence gathering about new and emerging biosecurity threats is absolutely critical. As I mentioned in the earlier part of my contribution to this debate this morning, it is very clear that the increasing amount of movement and activity around the world, and the fact that we have become a global marketplace, puts continuing and increasing pressures on Australia's biosecurity systems. We must ensure that we are at the forefront of intelligence gathering to ensure that any new and emerging biosecurity threats are dealt with before they become an issue. This absolutely emphasises the need for pre-border activities designed to do exactly that. It is too late once the threat gets here.

However, one of the things that must be commended is the flying squad, which was provided $20 million at the election to have a fast and effective response to biosecurity emergency. Obviously the first thing we want to do by this legislation is ensure that we do not have the incursions at all and that we deal with them pre-border. But, if in the unfortunate circumstance we do have a post-border incursion, we need to be very, very quick to respond to it, as you would know yourself, Mr Acting Deputy President. The quick response to any incursion, not only rescues our industries, but will save millions and possibly billions of dollars for Australian taxpayers and obviously protects Australian industries. In the case of some of the industries in Australia, they face a lot of threats from our borders. We have a very long border and we have a very small population. The potential for incursions is alive and well every single hour of the day.

One of the things I would like to put on the record, which has been a very positive initiative of this government, has been the establishment and re-ignition of the National Fruit Fly Strategy, which is so terribly important in my home state and in the Riverland where I live. We all know that we have fruit fly in Australia, but there are hundreds of different types of fruit fly that exist in other parts of the world. It is absolutely essential that we prevent those fruit fly from coming to Australia so that we can maintain our reputation as being a pest- and disease-free country and continue to be able to access the export markets around the world in the way that we do. We are renowned for the fact that we do not have many pests and diseases, and people aspire to eat Australian food and to wear Australian fibre, and they want to continue to buy products from Australia.

In speaking on this bill today I want to emphasise how terribly important it is that we get our biosecurity settings absolutely right. Australia's future is going to be based, I think, very solidly on our agricultural industries, therefore it is absolutely essential that we protect them.

6:04 pm

Photo of Joe BullockJoe Bullock (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Before I start, given that Senator Ruston was just referring to the fruit fly problem, it would be remiss of me as a Western Australian not to express my great disappointment in the effective banning of fenthion in Western Australia, which is a known and effective method of combating Mediterranean fruit fly. Orchardists in Western Australia deeply regret no longer being able to use it, given that it never caused any known human side-effect, and it has been removed from their arsenal in combating the fruit fly which is peculiar to Western Australia.

I was asked earlier today to share a few thoughts on the Biosecurity Bill, and I only had a few. I have now had a look at this bill and I may have some concerns that others may have not picked up. It may be that at least a couple of the things I say in this debate will not have been referenced before, and that gives us an opportunity to look at some of the provisions in some detail.

The first issue I want to raise relates to the declaration of a biosecurity emergency. To put that in context I want to start by referring to the scope of the application of the bill to invasive pests. At section 25 it says:

(1) This Act (other than Part 1 of Chapter 8 (biosecurity emergencies)) applies in relation to a pest only if:

(a) the pest is capable of:

(i) infesting humans, animals or plants; or

(ii) acting as a vector for a disease; or

(iii) causing disease in any other way; or

(b) the pest is an invasive pest.

To know what an invasive pest is you have to go to the definitions. An invasive pest:

… means a pest that:

(a) is an alien species (within the meaning of the Biodiversity Convention); but

(b) is not capable of:

(i) infesting humans, animals or plants; or

(ii) acting as a vector for a disease; or

(iii) causing disease in any other way.

So it would seem that the bill sets out to cover the field in dealing with pests, and to look at pests that are and are not capable of infesting humans, acting as a vector for disease, or causing disease in any other way.

When we go to the relevant section dealing with a declaration of a biosecurity emergency, which is section 443, we find:

(1) The Governor-General may declare that a biosecurity emergency exists if the Agriculture Minister is satisfied that:

(a) a disease or pest is posing a severe and immediate threat, or is causing harm, to any of the following on a nationally significant scale:

(i) animal or plant health;

(ii) the environment;

(iii) economic activities related to animals, plants or the environment; and

(b) the declaration is necessary to prevent or control the establishment or spread of the disease or pest in Australian territory or a part of Australian territory.

All of that is subject to note 2, which states:

This Part does not apply in relation to invasive pests …

All of those invasive pests are excluded for the purposes of declaring a biosecurity emergency. I think this is a serious deficiency in the bill. There are many alien invasive pests that are not capable of infesting humans, animals or plants and acting as a vector for disease or causing disease in another way which could well and truly constitute an emergency. The example that comes immediately to mind is our new visitor to Western Australia, the cane toad, which the good people of Queensland brought to our shores, and it has been making its way westward, seeking a better place to live, ever since. It seems to me that some future invasion of a pest like that of the cane toad should rightly be regarded as an emergency, yet this bill specifically excludes invasive pests from being defined as a biosecurity emergency. This seems to me to be a rather serious shortcoming in this bill.

The next thing that attracted my attention as I flicked through the bill were the provisions dealing with entry requirements to the country. When dealing with entry and exit requirements, section 44 provides:

(1) This section applies for the purpose of preventing a listed human disease from entering, or establishing itself or spreading in, Australian territory or a part of Australian territory.

(2) The Health Minister may determine one or more requirements for individuals who are entering Australian territory at a landing place or port in accordance—

in accordance with provisions within the act. It goes on in a few subsections later to say:

… Without limiting subsection (2), the determination may specify one or more of the following requirements: (a) a requirement for an individual to provide either:

…   …   …   

(b) a requirement for an individual to complete a questionnaire on his or her health, which may include confirmation of whether the individual is undergoing or has undergone specified treatment within a specified previous period;

(c) a requirement for an individual to provide a declaration in relation to a specified listed human disease;

(d) a requirement for an individual to provide a declaration or evidence of where the individual has been before entering Australian territory;

It goes on with all the requirements that the health minister may determine. That is all good and well. I think it is appropriate that the health minister should determine requirements along those lines. Let us turn to section 46, which deals with civil penalties for failing to comply with certain entry or exit requirements. These are the requirements that the minister has determined under section 44, and if you fail to comply with them you are subject to penalties. It states:

An individual to whom a requirement determined under section 44 4 (entry requirements) applies must comply with the requirement.

There is no discretion there. It is a requirement and it must be complied with. Subsection (2) and (3) go on in the same vain that the requirements must be complied with.

And then there is this section, which attracted my attention. It states:

(4) To avoid doubt, an individual may contravene subsection (1) or (3) of this section even if the individual is not able to comply with the requirement.

This section concerns me a great deal. It is one thing to say that requirements must be complied with—they are requirements, so one would presume that they must be complied with—but I can envisage a range of circumstances in which a person might not be able to comply. The person might be desperately ill. The person might be disabled. The person might be from a non-English speaking background with regard to the completion of a form that the minister might require. I am concerned about subsection (4). It says that even if you are not able to comply—and the bill presumes that the person concerned just cannot; they are not putting it on, they cannot comply—they will be deemed to have contravened the section and be subject to a civil penalty of 30 penalty units. I am not sure how much 30 penalties is when you translate it into dollars, but I am sure it is not an insignificant amount.

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Joe BullockJoe Bullock (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I am very grateful to you, Mr Acting Deputy President, for whispering to me that it was $5,000. It is not peanuts, indeed. So this is a serious penalty, and even the legitimate inability of a person to be able to comply with that requirement will not prevent them from feeling the force of this law. I am concerned about that provision. I think it should be reviewed and removed and that the mandatory nature of the 'must require' in the bill be sufficient. If a person cannot comply then it is something they could use in defending themselves against the charge that they have failed to comply with the provision with which they must comply.

Another issue which attracted my attention in the bill was the change in the definition of the 'quarantine zone' It has long been the case that Australia's exclusive economic zone, extending 200 nautical miles from the coast, has been the benchmark for establishing requirements for quarantine. That is no longer the case. The bill says in section 12:

A reference in a provision of this Act to Australian territory is a reference to:

(a) Australia, Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands and any external Territory to which that provision extends; and

(b) the airspace over an area covered by paragraph (a); and

(c) the coastal sea of Australia, of Christmas Island, of Cocos (Keeling) Islands and of any other external Territory to which that provision extends.

Note 2 to that provision refers to 'The definition of coastal sea of Australia or an external Territory in subsection 15B(4) of the Acts Interpretation Act 1901.' As I understand it, that definition extends the coastal sea only 12 nautical miles from our coast.

Like you, Acting Deputy President Back, I come from Western Australia. Off our shores are riches beyond comprehension, which we are endeavouring to exploit. The biosecurity regimes employed on those rigs and operations off our coast are renowned for being of an exceptionally high standard. The vessels servicing those offshore installations can today leave the mainland, supply the offshore installation and return, and remain comfortably within the 200-nautical mile border of our exclusive economic zone. But that will be the case no more under the terms of this bill. Those vessels will be leaving Australia and then returning and having to meet all of the compliance requirements as if they had come from foreign shores. This is something that has concerned the Australian Shipowners Association. They have said:

This change will result in an enormous compliance and operational burden for thousands of vessel movements compared to the handful of international facilities that previously required quarantine clearance each year.

They are concerned, as they say, that this will result in an enormous operational burden for thousands of vessels. The Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association share those concerns. They say that they estimate that the change in this definition will add compliance costs of $10 million a year. Our LNG industry, which is soon to be leading the world, is facing an extra $10 million a year in costs. For a government that is committed to cutting red tape, this is just a ridiculous additional expense. At the stroke of a pen, by changing the definition of our maritime boundary in this way, it is imposing that sort of a cost on our industry for no good reason, when the facilities that the industry visit offshore are of renowned biosecurity standards. Again, that provision needs to be revisited.

I understand it is suggested that it will all be sorted out in the regulations. That is another issue that we are very concerned about, because we have not seen the regulations. When the Labor Party had carriage of these sorts of measures, it brought forward at the same time, in draft form, some regulations that people could see to see whether concerns such as this—a $10 million impost on the shipping industry—were going to be adequately addressed. The Australian Shipowners Association say this:

"We'll sort it out in the Regulations" is not a satisfactory basis for industry to be assured that the requirements will not pose an excessive burden.

They are absolutely right, and they are echoing the concerns that the Labor Party has raised that the regulations are nowhere to be seen. This legislation operates at quite a high level, with the nuts and bolts hidden in unseen regulations that we really do need to examine before we can cast a judgement as to whether or not this bill is deserving of being passed. That is a third issue that I have drawn from the provisions of this bill.

There are other issues that have arisen in more recent times. For example, I am sure everyone is concerned about the 27 Australians who have been infected with hepatitis A as a result of the importation of berries into this country from China. I am sure that the average Australian thinks that somewhere along the line these contaminated berries slipped through a sound testing regime, that somehow there was some failure with the tests that would normally be applied to detect hepatitis being brought into this country on berries or anything else, and that these berries just slipped through the net. I think that was generally the feeling of senators at estimates—that somehow this had been an anomalous breach of a testing arrangement, which the department should explain. I was not convinced that that was the case, so I asked whether they had the capacity to test for hepatitis. The answer was a shocking no; there was no testing for hepatitis A or any other pathogens, merely for some chemical residues in imported foodstuffs. That is something that I am sure the people of Australia would be very concerned to know.

The bill defines an appropriate level of protection, which I am sure will come to be called an ALOP, for the high level of sanitary protection aimed at reducing biosecurity risks to a very low level but not zero. I am very concerned that we as a country have not learnt from the other outbreaks of hepatitis A, in this country and around the world, and have so far taken no action. In 2009, a multistate outbreak of hepatitis A affected 280 people in Australia. As far as I have been able to ascertain to date, there were no steps taken to prevent a repeat of this outbreak associated with any of the foods known to be a real risk of carrying hepatitis A. There is a list. Pomegranate seeds, tomatoes and, surprisingly, berries are commonly known to carry hepatitis A. But it is not just in Australia. Just a couple of years ago, there was an outbreak of hepatitis A, associated with frozen berries, in several European countries. It affected some 1,318 people between January 2013 and April 2014. I have not been able to find out any steps that have been taken to protect Australia from a similar outbreak. Authorities in Ireland and Italy recommended that consumers boil their berries. If similar advice had been issued here, perhaps we would not have suffered the outbreak that we did. There have been a range of measures taken by other countries to reduce the chances of hepatitis A contamination.

Now we have in Australia the Biosecurity Bill that is before the Senate. Will the Biosecurity Bill improve things? I have got no idea, because this bill does not deal with matters at that level. The answer to these questions will be in regulations, which we have not seen. Until we have got a good view of what the whole package of this legislation offers us, we should be very cautious in dealing with its terms. We have consistently said we need to see the regulations. Issues like the hepatitis A outbreak are certainly sufficient to attract our attention in the biosecurity area, and yet there can be no confidence, based on this bill alone—without the material that we have not seen—that we will have those issues resolved.

I was going to talk briefly also about the importation of prawns and the level of antibiotics that is found in prawns from Vietnam. (Time expired)

6:24 pm

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Biosecurity Bill 2014 and four separate but related bills. My colleague senator Rachel Siewert has set out in a detailed way why this bill does need to be supported but it needs to be strengthened to gain that support. The majority committee report has a number of very useful recommendations regarding the bill, and the Greens amendments detail why we need to protect our environment, our industry and our economy. Biosecurity issues go to the very fabric of society. They are just so important.

In these introductory remarks, I would like to give particular emphasis to the issues of the health of our communities and the health of our agriculture. In many ways, these are the two key factors when one starts talking about biosecurity. I acknowledge that there is obviously a huge impact—and I will deal with this later—in relation to trade from this country and therefore our wider economy.

Biosecurity risks are very real, and the current framework we have and the legislation we have before us highlight the need for a comprehensive overhaul and far-reaching improvement. Unfortunately, the coalition and Labor are often conflicted when we get into the details of what needs to be dealt with here. Having said that, I do not doubt the commitment that many on all sides of politics have to addressing biosecurity. So many members have spoken about it with understanding, recognising the need to take this issue very seriously. Members have spoken with passion about the need for a comprehensive, responsible response. However—and it is a big qualifier—the profits of agricultural businesses, many of them giant multinationals, and the trade deals that are pushed and backed by conservative governments, are obstacles. When they butt up to our consideration of biosecurity, too often biosecurity measures are weakened. That needs to be put on the table and recognised, because it reminds us why this bill needs to be tightened.

I want to return to some of the work of my colleague Senator Siewert. We have important recommendations, from the committee that looked at this bill, about how we can strengthen the bill, and we have the extensive work that Senator Siewert has undertaken over many years. The comprehensive amendments that we will be putting forward cover a range of issues, and I want to consider some of these, because I think they should be front and centre while we are in the second reading debate.

There is the all-important need for the creation of a separate biosecurity agency. The director of that agency should be separate from the Department of Agriculture secretary. This is one of the things that you see as a theme through the suggestions that the Greens are making. We need the expertise and we need the independence, and that needs to be in legislation. Enshrining the independence of the inspector-general is very important. It needs to be done in legislation by reintroducing the Inspector-General of Biosecurity Bill 2012.

Then we have the need for draft regulations, but they should be provided to the committee and industry stakeholders for review. I will come back to this issue about the regulations, because there is a real weakness with this legislation—a failure on behalf of the government to ensure that the regulations are front and centre before we sign off on this legislation.

We know consultative arrangements are needed. That should be a priority. A prime example here is the need for the Eminent Scientists Group to be established in the legislation itself. If it is not there, we do not have confidence in how this is going to play out. We need to establish a body that can act on environmental health in the same manner as Plant Health Australia and Animal Health Australia. That is clearly needed. What we need is not only for that to be established, obviously, but for it to be thoroughly resourced. We need to use this body to establish partnerships between communities, governments and environmental businesses—those people who are working in this area. That is a key role; it needs to happen. It is needed in order to deliver on high-priority policy and planning issues within biosecurity. This really goes to the heart of dealing with biosecurity—how we are going to be organised. This is where we feel there is a failure with what we have before us at the moment.

We are also suggesting there is a need for a category of biosecurity zone for high-value conservation areas. This should be the basis for implementing biosecurity measures, plans and monitoring. We need to state clearly those regional variations, both on land and in the marine environment, and that they need to be considered in biosecurity import risk analysis.

I mentioned before resources and, to give that more emphasis, there needs to be sufficient funding allocated by the government to ensure that the arrangements that are proposed under the bill can be properly implemented. I also want to mention the precautionary principle. My colleague, Senator Larissa Waters, will go into this in more detail. This is a prime area where we need the precautionary principle in place. That is the very foundation of how decisions and actions should be taken forward. The precautionary principle is something that should be so integral to life and to the work of government in the 21st century. It is still not given enough emphasis at all, and that is why I was so pleased to see that my colleagues have been raising it in a very comprehensive way.

To elaborate further on the need for the biosecurity agency that I have mentioned, and the need for it to be separate from the Department of Agriculture's secretary, that is something I have given some coverage to. Then there is the issue of the inspector-general. We see that this should be a statutory position. It is very important for this position to be independent. The decision to not create a statutory inspector-general position we see as one of the most significant differences between the 2012 and the 2014 versions of the bill. It goes back to the point I made in my opening remarks about the conflict the major parties have when they come to deal with this issue, because biosecurity butts up against the trade deals they are doing and how they work with big agribusinesses. Again, this position is urgently needed. The dropping of the Inspector-General of Biosecurity, proposed in the Biosecurity Bill 2012, remains one of our big disappointments. The minister, when the minister comes in at the end of the second reading debate, really should address this issue—he should put on the record why that has happened.

I also want to take up and make reference to some of the important work undertaken by the Invasive Species Council. I found their submission and I have been aware of their work over many years; it has been very useful here. The Invasive Species Council submission to the inquiry outlined why it is not suitable for the minister to have the level of control currently set out. The Invasive Species Council submission made a very useful contribution here and I will share some of it with you:

The Minister for Agriculture has a clear conflict of interest as both Minister administering biosecurity legislation and person responsible for reviewing biosecurity performance. The areas subject to review are likely to be influenced by political considerations, and matters that could embarrass the government of the day are likely to be avoided. The risk of this would be substantially reduced and the public would have greater trust in the reviews if they were initiated and conducted by an independent statutory officer.

How can you argue against that? If you are sincere about biosecurity and you really want to ensure that the bill before us is top rate—that it will really work to deliver on biosecurity measures that will protect not just our current arrangements but will be a solid process for decades and generations to come—that needs to be taken on board. That is why the Greens have taken this up very strongly.

I want to move on to the issue of regulations. I know some earlier speakers also spoke about their concern that the regulations are still not known in detail. That becomes a problem because it means that the legislation leaves a significant amount of detail about the practical effects of the reform to what can best be called subordinate legislation. This is something that, again, I would urge senators to consider very carefully. If you are sincere about biosecurity, the detail needs to be there. Again, I would return to the example of the Eminent Scientists Group. We need to get that detail in there because we need to have that independence locked in. It needs to go hand-in-hand with greater transparency because, at the moment, there really is a lack of clarity about the role of external expertise. I find that very concerning. The Eminent Scientists Group is urgently needed. It needs to be locked into the legislation and it needs to be independent. I would really argue that should be obvious.

Another area that is relevant when we are considering biosecurity is what are often called ag-gag laws. These are laws that we often see—

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I acknowledge the gasp—that is probably the way I would refer to it—from Senator McKenzie. Maybe it is a favourite issue of hers.

Often at a state level, when you have state legislation on biosecurity, it is cover for introducing laws that are about restricting the role of investigators and whistleblowers who are working to end animal cruelty. It is an issue that also needs to be injected into this debate. First off, I want to put on the record the important role that undercover agents, whistleblowers and investigators play in exposing the abuse of animals. There is already a huge amount of criminal law at a federal and a state level across this country that can allow it to be handled if people believe or are concerned that the law is being broken. But the purpose of ag-gag laws is not about addressing biosecurity; it is about stopping and limiting the opportunities people have to expose animal cruelty issues. I have seen this issue misused on many occasions. People who are taking often personal risks to expose the cruelty to animals are described as a biosecurity risk. That is the total misuse of the term. It really does no credit to those who use it. I notice Senator Back, in many of his speeches about his legislation currently before this parliament and in interviews about it, attempts to make this association, which really does not wash.

The other issue I want to turn to is about international trade agreements. This is something that is very relevant and really does highlight the massive failure of the Liberal-National government when it comes to dealing with biosecurity. How we manage our trade, what deals are made and how the trade is conducted are enormously relevant to biosecurity, particularly for a country like Australia where we know we have an advantage. We are an island—yes, we have a huge border—but being an island does give one some protection.

But trade is the link between Australia, which has been relatively free from so many of these diseases that can wreak such havoc on the health of our agriculture and of our communities, and countries that unfortunately suffer from some terrible diseases amongst their livestock, amongst their agricultural produce. Clearly, how trade is going to operate needs to be open, needs to be transparent and needs to be on the record. But what did this government do? It came up with some arrangements that are the most secret that you could ever imagine. We just cannot get any details about how it is going to operate. That is so deeply offensive. I think it is actually quite insulting to the people who are putting so much time into trying to get this legislation right, to the people who wrote the submissions and to the people who give advice on how we should conduct our biosecurity.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the trade agreement right at the top of the list at the moment that should be out there for the public to scrutinise, to understand. There should be a thorough debate in this place firstly about what it means for the Australian economy, for Australia's environmental and industrial relations standards because we know they are in the target when these agreements operate. But there is also the issue of biosecurity. What does it mean in terms of how trade is conducted? When you hear from the Nationals, you are not going to hear them say, 'Let's learn how our trade arrangements are going to play out in the coming years, the coming decade'.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

More jobs in regional Australia.

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I just heard Senator McKenzie say 'more jobs in regional Australia'. The Greens are working hard for more jobs in regional Australia but we want reliable jobs, jobs that are based on industries that are sustainable and on agriculture that is sustainable. If we have biosecurity risks or biosecurity break-outs in our agriculture, that is what is going to devastate jobs in those areas, and this is where Senator McKenzie really trips over her own argument.

Senator McKenzie interjecting

I think it is interesting that she comes in with these in interjections. I will listen with interest when the Nationals come in on this debate to see if they have the courage to bring the issue of trade into this consideration of biosecurity. Because if they do not know how our trade is operating, biosecurity is weakened enormously and at least they should acknowledge it. It would be one area where the Nationals should have the courage to break ranks with their partners in government and their partners in crime and have some courage to stand up on this issue. Biosecurity is absolutely central to how the Nationals say they operate but when it comes to the hard issues, they are missing in action. Australian agriculture does depend on high standards.

Photo of Fiona NashFiona Nash (NSW, National Party, Assistant Minister for Health) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I just have to point out to the chamber that the senator is misleading the Senate. Far from being missing in action, the Nationals are actually leading the way.

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I think that is a point of debate, Senator Nash. Resume, Senator Rhiannon.

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Acting Deputy President Back, for your ruling. I was recognising that Australian agriculture depends on the highest standards of biosecurity and that is why the Greens put so much effort into this issue at all stages when it has come before this parliament and in our discussions and consultations with groups in the community.

Pests and diseases can potentially wreak such havoc not just on our agriculture, not just on our health but on the whole economy. That is what is central to this debate. But the problem we have with this legislation now is, yes, it is a step forward, yes there are areas where we can agree but the safeguards are inadequate. We need to address the tough issues. We need to get the transparency right. We need to get the independence right. This legislation has a long way to go if it is going to address the challenges that we will face in this century.

6:43 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to pay a particular thanks to your own role, Mr Acting Deputy President Back, in all matters pursuant to biosecurity over the time that I have been in the Senate. I have seen your involvement in the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee and Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee where we have discussed this numerous times. Your leadership in this area given your background has been significant. I would also like to pay similar respects to Senator Siewert, who, with her agricultural science background, has similarly made a contribution over a long period of time. And obviously Senator Nash as Deputy Leader of the Nationals in the Senate has been a strong proponent of stronger borders when it comes to all things nematode. Sorry—those in the room who know what we are talking about found that joke quite interesting!

It gives me great pleasure to stand today to address the Biosecurity Bill 2014 and related bills. This is a bill that has been a long time in the drafting. I think that in 2012 we had Senator Ludwig begin the process with the Quarantine Act 1908—a fledgling young nation decided to have its own quarantine act—to turn that into a modern-day biosecurity bill that actually addresses all the challenges that an island nation such as ours and an agricultural-producing nation such as ours face. We are a destination for many tourists and travellers, whether by boat or by plane, who can bring significant risk to one of the key economic underpinnings of our nation, and that is our agricultural industry. I like to think that there is a bipartisan approach to ensuring that our borders are safe from disease risks from overseas.

Let me please turn to the bill in front of us. As I said, it is actually built on a long period of work by the Rural and Regional Affairs Committee under the former government. I remember that one of the first inquiries I arrived at when I arrived in this place was around fire blight and the apple industry, which is so important to my home state—in the Goulburn Valley and Shepparton area. We grow a lot of the apples. There were issues around the former risk assessment model that was being used to assess the risk of the trash of apples coming in from New Zealand. It was a severe concern for local growers right throughout the Goulburn Valley.

I remember attending a very large gathering of angry growers and also angry processors and community members in Shepparton, where the local member, Dr Stone, was very loud and passionate in her defence of the local industry. Indeed, I and the then member for Indi, Sophie Mirabella—who was then the shadow industry minister—spoke to the crowd about the risks posed by the importation of apples from New Zealand and that we needed to be forever vigilant in our quarantine and biosecurity measures and in our risk assessment.

The risks are significant. As an island nation we have seen what happens with the Hendra virus, for instance—a disease that attacked our equine industry. That affected millions and millions of dollars and jobs, not to mention the human and animal impact that virus had right throughout the north-east seaboard. So it is a significant issue.

Right now in the modern era it is not a couple of wooden boats that make their way over here from the motherland with some convicts and some brave settlers, but rather 16 million international passengers arriving here every single year, wearing clothes and having walked in dirt, bringing all manner of potential risks with them. That is something that a modern-day biosecurity system actually needs to address. One hundred and eighty-six million mail packages arrive. You can find Glocks mailed from overseas. Any manner of plant or animal material can be mailed and we need a system that can actually assess appropriately the risks contained in those 186 million packages.

In terms of shipping, we have 1.7 million cargo movements and 26 million container consignments. This is a lot of stuff. We are a trading nation. There are a lot of people, a lot of packages and a lot of potential for risk to damage our very clean, green image internationally. Our disease-free status underpins so many of our trade negotiations, which Senator Rhiannon made reference to. It has just been so fantastic, I think Mr Acting Deputy President Back, that the current government has built on that strong trade relationship and the capacity for free trade agreements—and bilateral agreements in the absence of multilateral agreements—to actually develop and grow our regional economies and contribute to the national economy.

The free trade agreements with South Korea, with Japan and with China will absolutely deliver; the opportunities are just so exciting. But we must be very careful that the risks they pose are adequately dealt with; that we do have a system that can ensure confidence for consumers here and, obviously, buyers overseas, that the products they are purchasing—whether locally in supermarkets or overseas as part of an export consignment—are actually disease-free and continue our great reputation internationally.

This is providing the primary legislative means and modern regulatory framework for biosecurity in Australia. It was first introduced in 2012 and referred to the Rural and Regional Affairs Committee, which is a fabulous bipartisan committee which does some really great work. Obviously, that inquiry was put on ice while parliament was prorogued for the last election. So many areas of concern that were raised by that committee, chaired by Senator Heffernan, are identified within this new legislation.

A number of significant reviews have been held of the biosecurity system. Most recently, the review of Australia's quarantine and biosecurity—the Beale review—has outlined opportunities to improve the system, and we have taken the opportunity to do that. I think we have heard numerous senators over today and yesterday outline the many benefits that the new legislation will provide.

The import risk analysis review was crucial, and it really did arise from the fact that the matrix used in the previous risk assessment was not appropriate and we needed to review its applicability. We took on board stakeholder concerns around many of the issues that were raised through the fire blight issue with the apples and also zebra chip in our potato industry. There is a great potato industry down in Victoria, down at Koo Wee Rup and across in Ballarat. We grow some of the best potatoes in the land—sorry, South Australia and Tasmania, but I do believe that Vic potatoes are the best!

There were some significant issues with the zebra chip virus, so we need to ensure that the risk assessment is actually adequate. There were significant issues with the old one. So some stakeholders expressed the importance of considering regional differences in biosecurity legislation, and that is another thing that our legislation takes into consideration.

So there has been a wide consultation process. Since 2009, I think, we have been talking about how we can make that 1908 Quarantine Act more functional. We have consulted with over 400 stakeholders to ensure that. It is not just the government; it is primary producers; it is all state and territory governments; it is importers and exporters; it is the wider Australian community. We have had Senate inquiries; we have independent inquiries. The department has been on the ground consulting. So I think the Senate can rest assured that the minister has brought to this place a bill that reflects the concerns, and indeed the solutions, that the community broadly sees that we need in a 21st century biosecurity bill. Over 440 organisations have been included in terms of actually being able to facilitate and develop this bill.

In terms of a deregulatory impact, I know our government is absolutely committed to reducing red and green tape and reducing the regulatory burden on farmers, on communities, on small businesses, on exporters and on importers. Part of that means that our economy is more productive, and that is exactly what this nation needs. I look forward to the Labor Party, and indeed the Greens, supporting us in our efforts to streamline those processes around environmental tape and red tape—processes that have put a stranglehold on the capacity of our small businesses, in particular, to employ more Australians and to get on with doing what we do best, which is growing fabulous, clean, green produce to send overseas. The legislation will have a deregulatory impact of approximately $6.9 million per annum. It is anticipated that the bill will commence 12 months after royal assent, and we are hoping that that can occur by early to mid-2016.

What is the purpose of the Biosecurity Bill? I have touched on a couple of key issues for me as a Victorian senator, and that has been the zebra chip virus, fire blight with our apples. There has also been the issue of the entire Queensland citrus industry being wiped out. This is big stuff. There is the risk of foot-and-mouth disease entering this country and wiping out significant producer holdings and key underpinnings of our rural sector in one fell swoop.

The bill includes managing 'the risk of listed human diseases entering Australian territory or a part of Australian territory, or emerging, establishing themselves or spreading in Australian territory or a part of Australian territory'. Also it deals with the management of risk of causing harm to human, animal or plant health, the environment or the economy; because this government cares about the environment. We want to ensure that our human animal or plant biosecurity framework actually protects our environment. I think our environmental credentials are unparalleled.

It also looks at the management of the risk of ballast waters. When we think about the shipping industry, there are fewer and fewer Australian flagged ships entering our ports. Ballast water can come from far away, and contains many, many risks to our local environment, and it is just being pumped out into our ports. We need to be sure that we have a legislative framework that ensures we can have confidence that that ballast water will not infect and degrade our marine and land environments.

The bill also seeks to remove current complex regulatory requirements and administrative practices in an effort to streamline processes. It is designed to provide greater flexibility for the Commonwealth to manage our biosecurity risks—as I have said—in a much more modern and flexible way. It is designed to have compliance tools which are much more reflective of how best practice exists in today's modern environment.

I did want to touch on a couple of issues, such as how the Biosecurity Bill addresses environmental biosecurity. In this bill we specifically ensure that the environment is protected from biosecurity risks; the same weight is given to that as is given to the harm posed to human, animal and plant health and the economy. So we are actually taking a triple-bottom-line approach to biosecurity risk. How does this risk affect the environment, the economy and our citizenry? And that is actually viewing our nation as a whole and all its components. And I think clause 9 deals with how we are going to do that.

Biosecurity risk is a core concept of the legislation and part of the threshold test for the use of the powers throughout the bill. The bill provides powers to assess these risks where there is an unacceptable level of biosecurity risk and allows measures to be imposed to manage that risk. It is designed to work in conjunction with other Commonwealth state and territory marine protection and conservation legislation, regulations and policies.

The definition of environment in the Biosecurity Bill is consistent with the definition provided under the EPBC Act. And the Commonwealth powers as reflected in the bill have been extended to allow for the management of invasive pests consistent with articles 7 and 8 of the international convention of biological diversity.

I just want to briefly touch on an issue that Senator Rhiannon mentioned, and that is how the Biosecurity Bill gives effect to Australia's international rights and obligations. We talk about FTAs and the importance of having biosecurity measures in our national interest. That is what we are all here to do, to ensure that Australia's best interests are protected by the federal government. We should all be putting our shoulders to the wheel in that effort. I am very proud of our government's efforts in this regard.

The bill allows for the management of biosecurity risk in a manner that is consistent with our international obligations. This includes our obligations under the WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, the International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments, the International Health Regulations 2005 and the Convention on Biological Diversity. When we talk about how this interacts with other nations, those other nations that are signatories to those international agreements will find great sympathy with the legislation before the Senate today. We look forward to the support of the opposition, both in the form of the Labor government and the Greens, as this bill will ensure that as an international community we can start to manage some of the global biosecurity risks and ensure that those nations that are disease free continue to maintain that status.

I want to briefly touch on what the process will be for biosecurity import risk analysis. That is contained in chapter 3 of the bill and it is intended to replace the import risk analysis process currently prescribed in the quarantine regulations. As I said, I think that was as a result of very direct feedback from producers, exporters, industry bodies and, indeed, Senate reference committees—of the time—that there was an issue with the matrix. I do not want to get all Neo on everybody, but there was a significant issue with how we were assessing risk under the former process—hats off for actually dealing with this issue. I think our producer bodies will take great confidence from the fact that our government has done the hard thinking, because it is not easy. We had to go international to get expertise in this area and to get some evidence to ensure that we came up with a system that works for us, for our producers and for the type of nation that we want to be in the international environment. We are an island nation. The systems and processes that other countries have in place are not for us. I think it was entirely appropriate that we completely reviewed the IRA—so thank you. We now have the BIRA. It assesses the level of biosecurity risk posed to Australia if a specific good is imported and it considers what conditions, if any, might be needed to meet Australia's appropriate level of protection.

The bill sets out the broad principles and states the powers and obligations relevant to managing our biosecurity risk. It is largely administrative in nature and for this reason the details are to be included in regulations and supporting guidelines rather than in the bill. Earlier, I heard Labor Party senators decrying the fact that the regulations were not in the bill. There is a reason for that: they are heavy to carry around and regulations need to be flexible enough to allow for significant changes without having to come back and re-prosecute the whole bill. I think it is absolutely imperative that ministers and departments have the discretion that the regulatory environment allows them. It is completely appropriate that that level of detail is not contained in the bill. The details that are intended to be included in the regulations and supporting guidelines include the use of independent scientific expert advice. I love that . Every single time we must be using independent scientific expert advice even if we do not like it. Even if you do not like what they choose to put in front of you, you can absolutely have the public debate, but do not hide behind the veil—

Senator Waters interjecting

Senator Waters, you are here and I know we can have a coal seam gas argument any time—

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator McKenzie, please address your comments to the chair.

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

My apologies. I was pushed right back to the by-election where we had a significant win over the Greens on the weekend on the coal seam gas issue. But I digress. I ask the Senate to support the bill. (Time expired)

7:03 pm

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

That could have gotten interesting, but I will stick to the matter at hand. I rise to speak on the Biosecurity Bill 2014 and related legislation that we have before us tonight. We all know that Australian agriculture, in particular, is dependent upon high-quality biosecurity arrangements. After climate change, which is of course the greatest threat to that sector and many other facets of our very existence on this planet, the introduction of pests and diseases is the biggest threat that this sector faces.

Modernising and consolidating the arrangements that have been in place and developed over the past 100 years is a positive step, but the Australian Greens are deeply concerned that this bill does not sufficiently safeguard, in particular, our natural environment as well as not safeguarding appropriately industry and community from biosecurity risks. Nor do we think that it provides the right framework for ensuring that scientific risk based assessments are not simply undermined by other considerations such as international trade agreements.

As a replacement for the century-old Quarantine Act of 1908, this Biosecurity Bill of 2014 is an opportunity to bolster Australia's capacity to protect the environment from invasive species. We know that more than 70 per cent of the 1,700 species that are listed as nationally threatened and more than 80 per cent of our listed ecological communities are imperilled by introduced animals, plants or diseases. Sadly, Australia's most recent State of the environment report gave the worst possible rating for invasive species impacts on biodiversity. It found it is very high or deteriorating, and it found that management outcomes and outputs are 'ineffective'.

This deteriorating trend is due both to new invaders such as myrtle rust—which I want to focus on particularly tonight—and Asian honey bees, and there is also the spread of already established species. The Greens support the one biosecurity approach that was recommended by the 2008 Beale review that envisioned a seamless cross-sectoral cross-jurisdictional approach to biosecurity. But protecting the natural environment differs in many ways from protecting industry assets. It requires an ecological approach to biosecurity. Environmental biosecurity cannot simply be a bolt-on to existing industry practices. Biodiversity values at stake far outnumber industry assets. The scale and the complexity of the threats are far greater, knowledge is unfortunately much more sparse, the predictability of the impacts is lower and the management options are more constrained.

The Biosecurity Bill 2014 has some powers and tools to provide for more robust environmental biosecurity, but it is limited by inadequate institutional arrangements as well as deficient decision-making and review processes. I will go through those in greater detail. Some of the positives are the inclusion of the biodiversity convention in the objects of the act, and that provides, of course, the direct legal basis for measures to:

Prevent the introduction of, control or eradicate those alien species which threaten ecosystems, habitats or species …

That is article 8(h) of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Clearly, also, a national system for regulating the discharge of ballast water and sediment is a big advance, and we welcome that. There are other positives such as powers and tools like control orders and biosecurity zones, which could be applied positively and for environmental benefit.

However, and contrary to recommendations made by the Beale review in 2008, the proposed Biosecurity Act maintains functions within the Department of Agriculture rather than establishing an independent statutory authority. Instead of the recommended expert biosecurity commission and independent director, most decisions are to be made by the Director of Biosecurity, who is actually also the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture—although we are not too sure who that actual person might be, given the events of this week. The person who will fill that role has potentially conflicting roles in trade and industry promotion as well.

There are also some serious concerns about the lack of transparency about decisions that will be made under this act, including for the import of new species or new taxa. We are concerned that the decisions will be opaque, given that there is no requirement for community consultation; there is no publication of assessments; and there are, alarmingly, no third-party appeal rights or merits review. Only import applicants would have the legal right for review. Transparency—I would have thought it was pretty clear—is important to maximise community value-adding such as expert information and policy suggestions, for example, as well as to limit the potential for inappropriate political or commercial influences, which, again, I would have thought should have been a consideration that this place would turn its mind to.

Moreover, whether biosecurity import risk analyses, control orders or biosecurity zones will be applied for environmental priorities is the decision, again, of the Department of Agriculture secretary. There are no systems in the bill to ensure that they are applied in any sort of systematic way, and of course those sorts of measures have budgetary implications for the department, so one can infer that they would be more likely to be used for issues of highest priority for the Department of Agriculture—particularly when they are in times of budgetary constraint, as they continue to be under the current government—rather than issues of high priority for environmental biosecurity.

Another key concern—and I am going to elaborate on this shortly—is that there is no legislated involvement of the Minister for the Environment or the Department of the Environment in environmental decision making.

In terms of involving the community in decisions, the bill fails to give effect to the notion of a biosecurity partnership with the community and therefore to ensure productive involvement in policy setting and decision making. The Greens are concerned that this is likely to perpetuate the existing disparities in investment and response capabilities for environmental biosecurity as opposed to agricultural biosecurity. It is perfectly clear to us, as it is to many of the folk working in this area, that there is a real need for a body equivalent to the industry bodies—currently Plant Health Australia and Animal Health Australia. We need an equivalent body to focus on priorities for environmental biosecurity. Again, I will have some more to say about that in the course of my contribution tonight.

In short, unfortunately the architecture of this bill falls short of the highly regarded Beale review, and it fails to fully capitalise on the broad support that that review had generated in this area. From the perspective of the Greens, the key recommendation that has not been implemented from that review in this legislation is the creation of a separate biosecurity agency. My colleague Senator Rachel Siewert outlined our position in detail and, I believe, moved a relevant amendment in her contribution, so I will not go over that other than to reiterate our key concern in that regard.

I want to focus on the fact that we still see in this legislation the continuation of the environment being subservient to agriculture when it comes to biodiversity. Under the current arrangements in the Quarantine Act 1908—yes, it is very old—there is a requirement for the director of quarantine to consult with the environment minister over decisions that may involve a significant risk of environmental harm. This requirement, which is in that old legislation, is, alarmingly, not being carried over into this new legislative regime, the 2014 bill. One consequence of that is, of course, that the Director of Biosecurity is not therefore obliged to include officers from the Department of the Environment. The other consequence has been emphasised by Mr Andrew Cox, who is from the Invasive Species Council and is certainly an expert in these matters. He said:

… from a practical point of view, without a statutory basis, when those subjects are competing for priorities, they—

the environment department—

cannot justify spending any time or any resources on that issue.

To overcome these problems, the Greens have recommended that the Secretary of the Department of the Environment or, alternatively, the Minister for the Environment, as appropriate, have designated roles in decision making and in policy direction on important environmental biosecurity issues. We will be moving amendments in that regard when it comes to the committee stage of this legislation.

But of course it would not be enough just to include environmental biosecurity in the legislation; there would have to be a corresponding commitment from the government to resource that and to provide the resources to deliver on the environmental components if they were to be included in the legislation. Mr Andrew Cox says:

One important institutional change that needs to accompany this is setting up a body like Plant Health Australia and Animal Health Australia, which we have called 'Environmental Health Australia'. Those two other industry-based bodies do great work, and without the foresight, preparation and risk work that needs to be done on behalf of the environment, you have not got a good biosecurity system for the environment. We are missing out. The government is not investing in that, but they are investing in that for the industry.

Of course, the consequence of not having such a body—an institution that focuses on environmental biosecurity specifically—is that, because environmental threats are largely in the public interest, there is generally no-one willing to stump up the money and deal with them, except of course for government. But, when government takes it on, the current system does not properly involve the community, which also shares that public interest. A perfect example of this was with myrtle rust. Again, I am looking forward to elaborating on how, unfortunately, the management of that incursion was poor, particularly on this point: there was no consultation with the conservation community or with any part of the community beyond the government when we responded to myrtle rust. Of course, when an ordinary industry based risk happens, industry is actively involved in the response through those bodies, Plant Health Australia and Animal Health Australia. It would have been far preferable if this bill acknowledged the important role of the community and actually codified it and, again, made sure that the environment was not simply forgotten.

I foreshadow that we will be moving a second reading amendment. I believe Senator Siewert has moved one, so I foreshadow the second reading amendment, which has been amended and circulated in the chamber. It is on sheet 7679, and it reads 'but the Senate calls on the government to establish and resource Environmental Health Australia in the same manner as Plant Health Australia and Animal Health Australia in order to establish a partnership between community, governments and environmental organisations to focus on high-priority policy and planning issues in environmental biosecurity'.

I want to touch briefly on some issues, and Senator McKenzie took up some of these issues. Firstly, there are a number of definitions in the bill that we believe could be strengthened and clarified. Again, we will be moving amendments in the committee stage to achieve that. The definition of 'environment' in the bill is lifted from the EPBC Act, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, but it is quite broad and such that the definition itself could be taken to include invasive species—which, of course, is going to present difficulties. Likewise, it does not distinguish between biota that are indigenous and those that are non-indigenous, and it also neglects ecological processes. So we will be moving amendments in the committee stage so that 'environment' is defined so as to include Australian biodiversity, which is of course the variety of life indigenous to Australia and her external territories, encompassing ecosystem, species and genetic diversity. Secondly, I refer to ecological processes, the interactions and connections between living and non-living systems, including movements of energy, nutrients and species. Lastly, I refer to natural and physical resources.

We also believe that the definition of 'biosecurity risk' is not sufficiently broad and needs to include reference to regional variations. So likewise, in the committee stage to this bill, we will be moving that the definition of 'biosecurity risk' at least include consideration of changes through time to require that risks be assessed over an ecologically relevant time frame and also, importantly, take account of climate change; to include the likelihood of new genotypes of a disease or pest combining with others to exacerbate the potential for the disease or pest to cause harm, or to cause greater harm than the existing genotypes; and to recognise regional differences and different levels of biodiversity, ranging from the ecosystem to the genetic level.

In the short time that is left available to me tonight, I want to touch on the fact that this bill, amazingly, does not include reference to the precautionary principle. That is a fairly common occurrence in our law books, and certainly it permeates our environmental legislation. There needs to be a legislative requirement to apply the precautionary principle in decision making taken under this proposed biosecurity act. Clearly, when there is insufficient evidence to determine the biosecurity risk or if the available evidence is inconclusive, the precautionary principle should apply. The stakes are simply too high. Interestingly, Queensland has done quite well in this regard. Our Biosecurity Act 2014 uses the precautionary principle as a trigger for action. It says:

… including in risk-based decision-making under this Act the principle that lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason to postpone taking action to prevent a biosecurity event or to postpone a response to a biosecurity risk …

Debate interrupted.