Senate debates

Tuesday, 25 February 2020


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

12:02 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Concluding from where I was yesterday, the Greens will be supporting this legislation, but we do want to underline that this is just a minor tweak to our biosecurity legislation. It is not the main game. It is not where the attention of this government should be. We're doing these minor tweaks, fiddling around the edges; meanwhile, the country has been on fire. We are facing a climate emergency. The government cannot claim to be doing things in the interests of streamlining agriculture and supporting farmers while they are ignoring the elephant in the room. This legislation is just like a flea on that elephant's back. We need to be addressing that elephant in the room. We have reports on the front pages of the newspapers this morning absolutely outlining the reality of the science: unless we get to zero carbon emissions much earlier than 2050 we as a society and our civilisation on this planet is facing an existential crisis. It's not hyperbole. It is reality. We know that we need to be taking rapid, urgent action to reduce our carbon pollution. We need to be taking action to be rapidly reducing it far earlier than 2050. We need to have the strategies in place to be getting out of fossil fuels, to stop burning coal, gas and oil, to be shifting to renewable energies, to be transforming our agriculture sector so that it is sustainable.

Otherwise things are looking pretty grim. It is a very scary future that our farmers are facing, that we are facing, that our children and grandchildren are facing. We are facing a world where the climate of our wheat-growing areas under four degrees of warming—which we are well and truly on the road towards—becomes like the climate of the central deserts. We know that you cannot grow wheat in Hermannsburg.

We are facing a future of ongoing, more-intense, more-frequent droughts. We are facing a future of ongoing, more-intense other extreme weather events. We are facing the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. We are facing a future of fire events such as we have just experienced this summer, where 20 per cent of the forests of Australia have been burnt—massively, compared with any other fire event in forests around the globe; a massively greater proportion of our forest estate has been burnt. That is the future we are facing. We have only had just over one degree of warming so far, and even if we meet our Paris targets we are signing up to a world of 3.4 degrees of warming.

We cannot go on this way. We cannot continue just having tiny, minor tweaks to bits of legislation and this sense of, 'Oh, well, we're keeping busy in here,' when the huge issues that are facing us are going unconsidered and certainly without the necessary action being taken. So yes, the Greens will be supporting this legislation. But we call upon the government and we call upon Labor to actually take stock of where we are headed as a society and to take the action that's required to address the huge existential issue that we're facing: our climate emergency.

12:06 pm

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank Senator Rice for her contribution to this second reading debate on the Agriculture Legislation Amendment (Streamlining Administration) Bill 2019 and that the Greens will be supporting this legislation. This is very important legislation to support our agricultural industries, which we don't want to see destroyed by bad policy. I will just take note of Senator Rice's comments around reducing emissions. I think reducing emissions is a very important step that this country needs to take. I am very proud of this government's commitment to meeting or beating its Paris targets. While we're talking about practical ways that we can reduce our emissions, let's also talk about the fact that gas-fired power releases half the emissions of coal, so that should be an option, and nuclear power has zero emissions and should be an option. Hydropower, with new dams, is zero-emission power generation, so that should also be an option. When the Greens are willing to talk to us about those options for reliable baseload power with zero emissions, I think we would welcome them at the table.

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Gas is not zero emissions!

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Gas is not, but it has half the emissions. Nuclear has zero. Hydro has zero. Let's talk about what we could do practically to reduce emissions while keeping industry in this nation and while ensuring that we have reliable and affordable baseload power.

But back to the bill at hand, the Agriculture Legislation Amendment (Streamlining Administration) Bill 2019: this bill will strengthen the ability of the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment to ensure the efficiency and effectiveness of our biosecurity system. It will allow the use of current technologies that will ensure that biosecurity controls are enforced efficiently for vast cargo volumes. Biosecurity is so important for Australians. It is so important for our $62 billion agricultural industry, our food safety and our way of life in this country. Our work to protect biosecurity often flies under the radar, and I would like to commend all the dedicated Australians who work in this field, on our borders, to make sure that our biosecurity measures are robust.

Yes, we have the occasional high-profile biosecurity issues, like the discovery of illegally imported dogs Pistol and Boo. Then there are the headline issues, like the equine influenza outbreak and, more recently, putting up defences to ensure that we don't have African swine fever cross our borders. In fact, the African swine fever issue is still alive. Just last December our government announced funding of $67 million to address the threat of African swine fever, a disease for which there is no known vaccine and which kills about 80 per cent of the pigs it infects. We responded to and continue to respond to the severity of this threat, with more biosecurity officers, more detector dogs and new 3D X-ray machines installed in mail centres—taking no chances.

We've got a new squad of post-border biosecurity officers to help identify and target incorrectly declared products that have been brought into Australia for sale. We are putting significant resources towards keeping swine fever out, and so we should because if our efforts fail our $2.8 billion pork industry and the 20,000 individuals that work for that industry would be devastated. But the biosecurity reality is that much of the risk to our agricultural industries is far less obvious and far more insidious. It is bugs, mites and disease that can be hidden in a container of cargo. It can be a piece of fruit, a lost termite in a wooden article or even a stray leaf. The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment process, on average, 45,000 commercial cargo referrals a month. These cargos carry different goods from different regions. Thus, from cargo to cargo there exists a great variation in threat to Australian biosecurity. It is vital that our process to adapt to this reality ensures we can put the resources necessary when the threat is high.

For example, we are currently in the peak season for the brown marmorated stink bug. This tiny little pest ravaged the United states destroying tens of millions of apple crops. Imagine that replicated here. We have 500 commercial apple and pear growers in this country producing a crop worth over half a billion dollars. Managing this little stink bug in the US has proved difficult. The population continues to grow in the absence of effective pesticides. We can't allow that bug to come here. Some of our apple orchards so dramatically devastated by the bushfires, particularly around the Batlow area, need to rebuild. They don't need to be worrying about pests like this stink bug.

Another example closer to home has been the incursion of the zebra chip disease in New Zealand in 2008. This little pest, carried by the tomato potato psyllid, cost the New Zealand potato industry $45 million. So when the carrier of zebra chip disease, the tomato potato psyllid, was discovered in Australia back in 2017—and we heard from the Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre that up to 50 per cent of our production was at risk—we made sure we put in the right early interventions. We've ensured that the zebra chip disease has not yet infiltrated our country.

But let me make it clear, biosecurity is also not limited to agriculture. It has implications for your family pets, for your domestic gardens and even for your recreation. I pity anyone who's tried to picnic in a park that has a fire ant incursion. The red imported fire ant is native to South America and, unfortunately, has been found in Australia, thought to have arrived in a shipping container back in 2001. It is now prolific around the south-east corner of Queensland. Had we at the time had access to the technology available today, technology that this bill enables us to utilise, maybe those pesky ants would never have seen the light of day on our shores.

Biosecurity is important not only to our industries and to our lifestyles but also to our international reputation. We know that once you have an incursion, even if you are able to eradicate the problem, you have to then deal with the international reputation for the countries we export to. It's not just lost production and the costs involved in attempting to eradicate the problem, but the lingering cost of lost confidence in our biosecurity, in our clean production systems, that remain.

The Nationals, in government, are absolutely committed to protecting Australia's important and unique agricultural and food industries, our pets and our plants, and our lifestyle in the same manner as we are committed to a strong economy. For us to maintain such protection is key and we continue to look at ways in which ongoing changes in technology can assist in ensuring that our process for identifying and managing risk remains positive, responsive and flexible.

The new technology that this bill proposes is computerised decision-making, as was reported by the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport. Their report said:

Computerised decision-making, as proposed by this bill, presents a number of benefits to stakeholders who engage with the importation of a large volume of various products. For example, it will allow more efficient clearance processes, and reduce the administrative burden on both importers and biosecurity officers.

It achieves this since, as the report goes on to say:

… the automation of decision-making for a limited number of administrative actions may provide biosecurity and other authorised officers with more time and resources to spend on the ground, focusing on those areas where there are existing threats and emerging risks to Australia's biosecurity.

This bill will allow us to keep pace with the changing biosecurity environment. The safeguards present in this bill will ensure that there is no weakness in the enforcement of the Biosecurity Act and the Imported Food Control Act. As I said earlier, we have a vast number of dedicated officials working to protect our borders from biosecurity threats, and they need to be supported by robust legislation that allows them to make best use of the technologies that are available. The many incidents of biosecurity concern demonstrate how important it is for us to ensure these officers are given the flexibility necessary to focus resources on these severe threats. That is what this bill achieves, and that is why I support this bill.

12:16 pm

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

The bill before the Senate, the Agriculture Legislation Amendment (Streamlining Administration) Bill 2019, seeks to amend laws relating to biosecurity and imported food to provide for streamlined administration through computerised decision-making. It allows risk identification and management across a large number of goods and conveyances, reduces the burden on importers, enables a fast, accurate clearance, and provides some flexibility in relation to existing and emerging risks. The Labor Party will support the legislation, but I want to make a few comments about the legislation and about biosecurity and Australian agriculture more broadly.

The bill itself allows for discretion for authorised officers to override a computer decision if it's inconsistent with the objects of the act or if another decision is circumstantially more appropriate. It provides a process of reviewing both computer and human based decisions to ensure that they're accountable. This does represent an important balance between the efficiency of computer decision-making and the inherent risks that exist in an important and sensitive area such as biosecurity.

The use of artificial intelligence is controversial. The government's robodebt approach to social security demonstrates some of the hazards that are involved in AI approaches to managing policy. They are sensitive issues. We're waiting on a full report from the Human Rights Commission, to be released later this year, on the legality and ethics of the use of artificial intelligence in areas of policy like this. However, in a discussion paper last year, the Australian Human Rights Commission said:

The progress in AI-informed decision making since the early 2000s could not have been contemplated by lawmakers at that time. The possibility of full automation of AI-informed decision making, for example, is now a realistic prospect. This means that older legislation dealing with this issue should be reviewed. Technological development necessitates a new approach to ensure AI-informed decision making is accountable.

So there's a democratic imperative and there's a policymaking imperative here. There are proposals that the Australian Human Rights Commission has provided to the government about the government use of artificial intelligence, including a requirement of cost-benefit analysis and public consultation with affected groups before deploying AI-informed decision-making; legislation to require that an individual is informed where AI is materially used in a decision that has a legal or similarly significant effect on their rights; and legislation which creates a rebuttable presumption that the legal person who deploys an AI-informed decision-making system is liable for the use of the system.

We will see plenty more bills and much more legislation come before this parliament, and future parliaments, that grapple with the implications of regulating and utilising this technology. Caution on this bill is understandable. However, this bill represents the opportunities that artificial intelligence can bring to government and explores some of the possibilities involved in regulating its use.

On biosecurity more broadly: we are an island nation. Our agriculture, environment and tourism are not just fundamental economic values but social values that make this country a great place to live. We have to fiercely protect our ability to prevent contagions coming from overseas. It's a key competitive advantage in agriculture, a key competitive advantage for the environment and our tourism sector, and a key competitive advantage for not just agricultural exports but food sector exports as well. We have $59 billion of agricultural production, $45 billion of agricultural exports and $38 billion of inbound tourism.

Equally, biosecurity efforts protect human health and social amenity and help to maintain our unique biodiverse natural environments. The Australian Bureau of Statistics—and it's extraordinary that you would do such a thing—sought to value our environmental assets in dollar terms. In 2016 they valued Australia's environmental assets at $6 trillion. It was, therefore, reckless and dangerous to have made the kinds of cuts to biosecurity regulation that have occurred under this government.

In 2014 Mr Abbott—remember him?—abolished key agencies that work with industry to increase compliance in biosecurity, abolished the Biosecurity Advisory Council and abolished the National Biosecurity Committee stakeholder engagement consultative groups. There are fewer biosecurity workers on the ground than there were under the last Labor government. The economy and the volume of imports have gotten bigger but there are fewer people protecting Australia, Australians and Australian agriculture from imported pests than there were a decade ago.

The department of agriculture is now prohibited by the government from reporting total inspection figures, but in the last report that it made it found that, over the decade, there have been 39 per cent fewer seizures of items from air passengers—and you can pretend to be worried about African swine flu—and 56 per cent fewer mail articles seized. So the volume of imports has increased but the numbers of inspections and seizures are down.

Where on earth are the National Party? They come into this place talking about standing up for agriculture and they make a big noise in country towns, hoping that people don't read the big-city papers. They have been part of an operation that has materially compromised Australia's biosecurity capacity. The National Party, sucking up to the Liberal Party and their ideological commitment to cutting public services, has put Australia's biosecurity regime at risk.

There are innumerable threats to our biosecurity. The Russian wheat aphid has the potential to affect 75 per cent of our grain crop. Fire blight in apples can destroy a whole apple orchard in one season. The tomato potato psyllid, discovered in Australia for the first time in 2017 in a suburban garden in Perth, has the potential to reduce tomato and potato production by 50 per cent. The cucumber green mottle mosaic virus was discovered on watermelon farms in Katherine and Darwin in September 2014. The Panama TR4, an existential threat to the banana industry, has already cost the Queensland government $26 million in attempting to eradicate it. The Pacific oyster mortality syndrome, discovered in Tasmania in 2016, destroyed $50 million worth of Tasmanian oysters. These threats have all happened over the course of the last decade, and the risks presented by these diseases or pests is far greater because the government does not understand its biosecurity responsibilities. White spot disease, discovered in the Logan River, near Brisbane, has already done $25 million in damage to the Queensland prawn industry. It's highly infectious and kills more than 80 per cent of prawns in an infected farm.

There are even bigger threats out there. African swine fever has spread across the world and killed 25 per cent of the world's pork population. Farmers understand what such an epidemic would mean. They are counting on the government to deliver a biosecurity regime that works, but the government has comprehensively failed to deliver for Australian agriculture, in terms of biosecurity. We know what's required. In 2017, a comprehensive review of the Intergovernmental Agreement on Biosecurity came out. It spelled out what banana farmers, oyster farmers and prawn farmers in southern Queensland already know. It said there is:

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

There are 42 recommendations, all set out there. Recommendation 34:

Funding for the national biosecurity system should be increased by:

• implementing a per-container levy on incoming shipping containers of $10 per twenty-foot equivalent unit and a levy of $5 on incoming air containers, effective from 1 July 2019 …

That is straightforward. One of the critical aspects of maintaining biosecurity is maintaining funding for biosecurity. It makes a great deal of sense for those importing goods into the Australian economy to cover the cost of funding the biosecurity regime that monitors those imports. The levy was promised by the then minister, David Littleproud. It was supposed to come into effect last year and generate $100 million a year for biosecurity. Well, where is it? Did it come into effect on 1 July? No, they moved it back to 1 September. Did it come into effect on 1 September? No. The government missed the deadline again.

They can deliver an ad in record time in the middle of a bushfire season but they cannot deliver this basic requirement for funding biosecurity monitoring in this country, because it's not politically important to them. Where is the National Party? Nowhere to be seen. It's of no political importance to Prime Minister Scott Morrison. It's of zero political importance to the government. They've missed the deadline again. In December, the next Minister for Agriculture, Senator McKenzie, pushed it back to July 2021, claiming that it needed more consultation with industry. When The Nationals talk about consultation with industry, are they talking about family farms? Are they talking about food processors? Are they talking about agricultural employers or people who work in country towns? No. They're talking about the Minerals Council of Australia. Here's what they had to say:

The levy would impose additional costs on the import of key inputs that are crucial to the ongoing success of the minerals industry, including fuel, chemicals, construction materials and mining equipment.

So, when it came to backing in the interests of either big miners or the farming industry, the government made a choice and they left Australian agriculture behind and backed the profits of big miners up to the hilt. The National Party went missing—nowhere on country towns and nowhere on workers. These are country towns in which the grandparents of the residents had jobs as rural labourers and workers in factories, but these towns have now not had decent work in generations.

What passes for the National Party now—Senator Canavan and the member for New England—can produce weird podcasts but they cannot produce a sensible level of pressure on government to actually deliver what is in the national interest, and that is a sensible biosecurity regime. Remember when the Deputy Prime Minister was asked to list a single instance of the National Party backing farmers over the interests of mining bosses, and he couldn't do it? He couldn't do it, because it's never happened. That's what the modern National Party is. They don't represent farmers. They don't represent workers. They represent bigwigs in corporate suits and their donors. And that is all they are good for.

The government's response on biosecurity is a mess. It's a shambles. But no wonder the government is confused—not because the policy area is particularly complicated, but they've had six agriculture ministers over the course of the government. And the National Party is consumed by their weird psycho dramas about who's going to be the next leader of the National Party and who's going to have whatever ministry it is. The current leader couldn't fight his way out of a wet paper bag. The guy who wants to be the leader, the member for New England, has really gone troppo over the course of the last four or five years, and he's absolutely unelectable and unsuitable for office.

We're still waiting for somebody to take the interests of Australian agriculture seriously and deliver for country communities and call this government to account. You would think, in the position they're in, that the once great National Party of Australia could pull it off, but they are completely distracted and unable to face up to their real responsibilities. They can squabble, they can suck up to mining bosses, they can even threaten to kill Johnny Depp's dogs if it gives them a cheap headline, but there will be a price to pay for this failure of policy, and it will be paid by rural and regional Australia, it will be paid by blue-collar workers in the towns, the country towns that traditionally vote for the National Party, and it will be paid by Australian agriculture. The Nationals have failed them on water, they have failed them on drought and they have failed them on biosecurity.

12:29 pm

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

There are good reasons why Australia has an outstanding reputation of being the cleanest and greenest food bowl in the world. Australia's superpower status as a food producer continues to be a cornerstone of the national economy and promises much more in the future. When it comes to quality produce Australia is simply second to none, because of our impeccable standards upheld by the tireless dedication of our farmers and other land managers.

According to the Global Food Forum, Australia already feeds 50 million people every year—way beyond our own needs. Some forecasts say that we can quadruple our primary exports to feed a staggering 200 million people. The forum was told that within 10 years Australia could have 20 times more arable land per capita than China, Indonesia and India and 60 times more than Japan's available space for agricultural production. There are three billion people in Asia, a huge market ready to anticipate a massive boost in the export of valuable commodities from our great and bountiful country. But with our potential, for delivering vast quantities, will come the quality.

The coalition is committed to ensuring every level of government supports the hardworking men and women of Australia's farm and rural industries. The latest estimate of Australia's total farm production sits at $62.2 billion, up 28 per cent since we came to office. Despite all the challenges of what can be a punishing environment, there are very strong prospects for dynamic growth. The value of agricultural exports is estimated at $49 billion, up almost 27 per cent on our watch. Much of the credit for this stunning growth can be attributed to Australia's world-class biosecurity framework. This ensures our agricultural industry, local communities and natural environment are protected from pests and disease.

The Agriculture Legislation Amendment (Streamlining Administration) Bill 2019 will enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of our biosecurity system by authorising automated decision-making for biosecurity officers under the Biosecurity Act and the Imported Food Control Act. This bill will support deregulation and improve the effectiveness of the biosecurity framework and the imported food system. There is an urgent need for this bill. We need to maximise the use of current technologies to effectively and efficiently enforce biosecurity controls over vast cargo volumes with a potential to increase risk to Australia. These incursions would have a devastating impact on Australia. It doesn't bear thinking about.

Every month, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment processes an average of 45,000 commercial cargo referrals. The need for innovation in identifying efficiencies is critical to the effective operation of Australia's biosecurity framework. This bill is particularly timely as we deal with the peak season for one of Australia's high-risk pests, the brown marmorated stink bug. Intensive resources are also being devoted to stopping African swine fever virus and other high-risk pests and disease, including the khapra beetle, from entering Australia's borders. There is an ongoing threat posed by foot-and-mouth disease. The amount of work needed to prevent biosecurity incursions of these high-risk pests and diseases has increased rapidly in recent months and continues to require considerable amounts of manual effort.

Automated decision-making promises to reduce the operational burden in high-risk times and allow the department to concentrate on other priority areas. In supporting the implementation of computerised decisions, this bill will provide appropriate safeguards as the department streamlines services and reduces decision times on biosecurity matters while minimising costs and freeing up resources. The risk of not providing Australia's biosecurity framework with all possible tools is just far too grave. We need to prevent the entry of such pests and diseases to avoid irreparable damage to Australia's impressive record of world's best practice in biosecurity. There will, of course, be careful consideration of what decisions will be suitable for automation, in line with administrative law requirements. Ordinarily, they will be decisions where particular facts are confirmed, without the need for any subjective assessments.

We all know that biosecurity has played and will continue to play a leading role in reducing risk and enhancing our chances of remaining free of the world's most severe pests and diseases. It's true enough that our geographical isolation comes into play in maintaining this status, but we can't be complacent in any way. As we've seen with the recent coronavirus, borders are becoming incidental, as record numbers of people travel from country to country. It's confronting enough to know that more than 60,000 kilometres of coastline offers many varied unguarded gateways for exotic pests and diseases, but the Morrison government is doing all it can to reduce the risk of incursions, and it will be controlled.

Every year, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment screens, inspects and clears millions of people, mail parcels, baggage, ships, animals, plants and cargo using x-ray machines, surveillance and detector dogs. According to the department, the prevention efforts use a range of sophisticated technologies and approaches, including research, shared international resources and intelligence. Surveillance and monitoring of risk areas are the highest priorities, along with border-control activities focusing on assessing and managing potential biosecurity threats at Australia's airports, seaports and international mail centres. On our farms, biosecurity practices also include disinfecting; signage; maintaining boundary fences; checking for strays; restricting visitor and vehicle movements; ensuring all machinery brought onto the property is cleaned; good husbandry; ensuring purchases are from reliable sources; regular inspections of flocks and herds; and quarantining new stock. In recent years, changes to biosecurity have focused on the consequences of some pests and diseases, increased emergency powers for swift responses to biosecurity threats, and nationwide consistency in emergency situations.

If Australian agriculture is to become a $100 billion industry by 2030, premium produce will be central to that ambition, and maintaining our impeccable clean and green reputation is essential. We've worked hard to earn the trust of countries buying our produce, and biosecurity has played a huge role in consolidating that belief and our reliability and consistency. These standards and the determination of our primary producers to uphold them are central to the Morrison government's policy of underpinning the integrity of Australia's agricultural industries. Indeed, our nation's history and evolution as an economic force are inextricably linked to the quality of our primary production, and that's a proud past we are determined to honour and respect.

12:39 pm

Photo of Sam McMahonSam McMahon (NT, Country Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Agriculture Legislation Amendment (Streamlining Administration) Bill 2019 and something that is dear to my heart—agriculture and biosecurity. The backbone of our great nation is, and always has been, the people who have ventured away from the urban areas and who have settled in rural and remote areas. These bold people established themselves to be part of Australia's farms and rural industries, a mighty machine that provides food and fibre not only for all Australians but also for our export markets. It was once said that Australia rode on the sheep's back. Whilst those days are long gone, agricultural and primary production remain vital to our economy.

As a measure of success in our agricultural sector, consider that in 2018-19 Australia's total farm output was estimated to be $62 billion, representing a substantial increase of about 28 per cent in nominal terms since this government came to office. The value of agricultural exports is estimated to be $49 billion for this same period. This represents a significant increase of almost 27 per cent, again, since we came to office. Furthermore, we are proud to say that we have strong prospects for dynamic growth in the future, ensuring continued development and opportunities for the hardworking Australians of our rural industries. Make no mistake about it: these are staggering achievements and a testament to the ingenuity and tenacity of our producers.

Critical to the success of the agricultural industry is Australia's world-class biosecurity framework, which has ensured our $62 billion agriculture industry, local communities and natural environment are protected from the incursion of pests and diseases. As our industries develop, expand and grow, we need to maintain our biosecurity standards while fostering an evolution of practices to ensure industries are not placed at risk by red tape. This same evolutionary process must also allow procedures to become more fluid and automated whenever possible in order to achieve greater capacity without compromising our high standards. We also need to standardise these processes. The agriculture legislation amendment bill will achieve precisely this.

Biosecurity incursions of high-risk plants and diseases would have a devastating impact on Australia. We have not always been great at biosecurity throughout our last couple of centuries. Either accidentally or by intention, we have introduced many bacterial, viral and fungal diseases, as well as many plant and animal pest species—things like cane toads, rabbits, lantana, prickly pear, tuberculosis, brucellosis and, more recently, prawn white spot disease, equine influenza and fire ants. Consider the enormous cost associated with eradicating or containing these pests. Across others nations we have seen the oceans of devastation caused by numerous diseases such as swine flu and foot-and-mouth disease. I myself have worked in the UK and witnessed firsthand the effects of foot-and-mouth disease and the immense financial and social toll that that took. Examples we have seen of such outbreaks serve to strengthen our resolve and focus our determination to ensure such events do not occur here in Australia.

This being said, I am concerned that right now we are at higher than acceptable risk levels due to our inability to keep pace with growing volumes of products and people needing to be screened. This is a situation that cannot be allowed to continue. The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment processes an average of 45,000 commercial cargo referrals each month. This represents huge quantities of products that must be thoroughly and completely examined. This is a monumental task and one that needs to be streamlined. It is critical that the department be innovative in identifying deficiencies and improving all efficiencies that can be made in the operation of Australia's biosecurity framework. Such measures must be suitable for broad implementation, allowing the application across multiple locations throughout Australia and at all ports of entry, while maintaining a uniform level of control and consistency in application. For these reasons the Agriculture Legislation Amendment (Streamlining Administration) Bill 2019 is an excellent means of achieving these goals. Only by legislating these processes and procedures can we be assured that specific standards are achieved.

Another focus of the bill is to promote the efficiency and efficacy 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. A pressing example of where this bill is needed is in our ability to properly inspect and scan vast cargo volumes that potentially pose a high biosecurity risk to Australia. This bill will allow us to immediately make use of current technologies to effectively and efficiently enforce biosecurity controls over this state of affairs, and will be able to do this right across Australia.

Every day we face the constant threat of diseases reaching our shores, with one such current example being the worrisome presence of African swine fever in Timor-Leste, just off our northern coast. African swine fever is potentially the biggest animal disease event the world has ever seen. It is marching south through Asia towards Australia and is now less than 700 kilometres away. Hardening our defence against this threat is no easy matter, requiring multifaceted approaches, which include expedient and effective scanning of products, detection of illegal products and managing cases where offenders are identified. In doing so, we not only protect our 2,700 pork producers, including their families and employees, but we also protect Australia's reputation as a supplier of clean, green, safe and nutritious food. It is a splendid reputation that has taken an extraordinarily long time to earn. When we consider that approximately 50 per cent of pork products detected and seized at our borders tested positive to African swine fever, including a ham sandwich from an airline, we understand the enormity of this task.

A constant threat to our biosecurity is the high volume of international visitors arriving in Australia with undeclared food products. Well over 30 tonnes of illegal and potentially catastrophic product has been intercepted by our vigilant border security personnel in recent months. This bill will enable them to respond not only faster but also with greater efficiency. As diligent as our border security members are, there are limitations on available resources. Working smarter is pivotal to overcoming these.

There are a large number of pests and diseases that currently pose a high risk to Australia's biosecurity, challenging our perpetual state of preparedness. This bill is particularly crucial right now, as we are in peak season for one of Australia's high-risk pests—brown marmorated stink bug. Other high-risk pests and diseases include the copra beetle as well as the continued threat posed by foot and mouth disease. The volume of work associated with preventing biosecurity incursions of these high-risk pests and diseases has increased rapidly in recent months and continues to require considerable amounts of manual effort. Our hardworking border security staff punch well above their weight, and by implementing automated decision-making we can improve their reach by lessening the operational burden during these high-risk times and allowing the department to focus its efforts on other high-priority efforts. Effectively, new measures enabled by this bill will allow us to do more.

This bill supports implementation of computerised decisions, with appropriate safeguards, to provide the department with the flexibility to streamline services, reduce the length of time for decision-making in relation to biosecurity matters, reduce costs and free up resources. We will also have improvement in consistency of decisions and send out a strong message to those who would be reckless with our biosecurity standards and those who would threaten our products and industries. In essence, the measures promised by this bill allow us to keep pace with the changing biosecurity environment and ensure that there is a clear statutory basis for application of automated decision-making under the Biosecurity Act. It will allow wider use of automated decision-making to issue biosecurity directions and notices for imported food control certification. The Director of Biosecurity is able to determine by legislative instrument which biosecurity officer decisions under the Biosecurity Act may be made by operation of a computer program. The secretary can arrange to have automated decision-making for certain sections of the Imported Food Control Act.

If we do not provide Australia's biosecurity framework with all reasonable tools to strengthen our high standards, the entry of a high-risk pest or disease becomes inevitable—something that Australia cannot afford. Australia's agricultural industry, our hardworking producers and farmers, and our world-leading reputation for biosecurity may be irreparably damaged. We owe it to all Australians to utilise new and emerging technology to enhance our surveillance and detection wherever appropriate.

12:51 pm

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I'd like to rise on this bill, the Agriculture Legislation Amendment (Streamlining Administration) Bill 2019, and second the remarks of my good colleague from the Northern Territory Senator McMahon in relation to the importance of biosecurity and of the broader agricultural industry across Australia.

Those who are regular listeners to Senate FM will have noted that I will bore for Australia about the yellow crazy ants. The yellow crazy ants are an invasive species that have come from somewhere—we think the east coast of Africa—and I'll tell you how bad the species is and explain the situation of a man south of Cairns called Frank Teodo. Frank is what you call one of those true characters of Far North Queensland. He is very frank in his views and very earthy in his approach to politicians. Frank woke up one night, as you sometimes do, because he could feel something moving across his face. He wiped it away, and what was happening was that a swarm of yellow crazy ants were deciding that his face was going to be a nice resting place. The yellow crazy ants don't bite, but they spray a form of acid on their prey to immobilise them, and Frank was blinded for a number of weeks because of the acid that had been sprayed on him by the yellow crazy ants. Frank also has a number of dogs that he uses for hunting wild pigs or wild boars, and the yellow crazy ants were able to get into their nostrils and destroy their sense of smell, which unfortunately meant that the dogs were not particularly efficient at chasing wild boars. This is just one example of the impact of yellow crazy ants on one individual.

Supercolonies—and that might sound like slightly emotive language—of yellow crazy ants have formed up in the tropics. Luckily a number of people—such as Frank Teodo and a staffer for the Wet Tropics Management Authority, a lady by the name of Lucy Karger—have been leading the efforts to fight against yellow crazy ants. And the local federal member up there, Warren Entsch, has been particularly strong in advocating down here for extra funds so that we can try to stop these supercolonies from growing and developing and actually wipe the supercolonies out. So, the federal government has spent millions of dollars, in conjunction with an amount of funding from the state government, to bait these supercolonies of yellow crazy ants, not just through using what used to exist, in terms of the Green Army, but also by using helicopters to drop the baits into wild areas—because unfortunately the yellow crazy ants didn't just stay in and around the southern parts of Cairns, around Gordonvale and Edmonton, but actually got up into Kuranda—hence the interest of the Wet Tropics Management Authority.

With this invasive species, you might think it's a little ant—it's quite a tiny ant—that can't do much damage. But when they form these supercolonies they have the ability to wipe out the native animals of Far North Queensland. And although this is not a point for partisan politics, I know that the Labor Party has also supported the granting of money to local groups up there to fight this scourge of yellow crazy ants. That's why it is so important that we do everything possible to utilise and streamline our biosecurity measures, because Australia is one of those rare countries that has such a pristine natural environment where invasive species, notwithstanding the aforementioned yellow crazy ants, are kept at a minimum because of our biosecurity measures—and it's not just because we don't want to wake up in the middle of the night with a swarm of yellow crazy ants deciding to nest on our face and temporarily blind us; it is because of the importance of the agricultural industry to Australia.

We all know that back in the 1950s and 1960s Australia rode on the sheep's back. We still ride on the back of sheep, and on the back of cattle, and we also ride on the fields of barley, maize, wheat and sugarcane. Our total farm production is estimated at $62 billion. That is a lot of money in anyone's terms. It's many, many Lotto rollovers on a Saturday night. But the potential that is there for our agricultural sector is so important. Our exports are valued at $49 billion, and that's up by almost 27 per cent since we came to office. This bill is so important because of how it could help protect our agricultural sector. We've done a number of things over the years since we came into power in 2013 to protect and grow the agricultural sector as well as to grow our biosecurity measures. In the 2019-20 financial year the government has made available $852 million for biosecurity to maintain our strong pest- and disease-free status and to support agriculture trade. Senator McMahon mentioned earlier the threat of swine fever to our pork industry in terms of the damage that has previously been caused and could be caused if our pork industry is wiped out.

We're spending $29 million to strengthen our agricultural export trade through developing an internationally competitive and profitable horticultural sector and working to minimise the impact of non-tariff measures, and that's particularly important in terms of our trade with some of the South-East Asian countries. What is interesting is that when you travel around Queensland, which I do as a senator for Queensland, all farmers have one eye to the horizon—to the clouds—to see if rain is coming, but they also have one eye open to where the markets are. The days when farmers would necessarily just trade with each other are still there in certain small quantities. but so many farmers are dependent on our ability to trade not interstate but overseas. Queensland farmers know that their ability to grow their farm and to grow their property comes from their ability to export their goods overseas to that growing market in South-East Asia and also across South Asia, Sri Lanka and India.

But it's not just biosecurity and trade where we're spending money to ensure the future of our important agriculture sector; it's also to do with what's happened with the drought. As much as I've bored senators about yellow crazy ants in this place for this years, I've also bored senators for many years about the impact of the drought in Queensland. It was only about two years ago that the drought came onto the national stage. For many people in Queensland who, at that point, had been living in drought conditions for up to six or seven years, it was a little bit like saying: 'Welcome to the party, ladies and gentlemen. This is what we've been dealing with.' There were kids in western Queensland who had never actually experienced rain. We're talking about six-, seven- and eight-year-olds who had never experienced rain, such was the length of the drought and such was the impact of the drought on local communities. You just think about that—trying to explain to a child that there's a thing called rain, and it's just something they see on the television.

We're spending not just millions of dollars or tens of millions of dollars but billions of dollars over the coming years to help droughtproof Australia and to help ensure the resilience—that's probably a word that is overused—to ensure the future of farming in this country. This country is a dry country. I live out in the Darling Downs. I live in an area that has been drought declared for a number of years. And, even though, in the last four weeks, we've had as much rain as we received in all of last year, we are still a drought declared area. Because of what's happened now, we've got what's called a green drought. The grass is green and the grass has grown a bit, but, until we get more sustained rain and the restoration of the normal rain patterns, then we are in a green drought.

But this bill—the Agriculture Legislation Amendment (Streamlining Administration) Bill 2019, to give it its full title—is something that's going to 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. That may not sound particularly exciting to those listening at home, but, to those who are sitting on their tractors, this is very exciting. To those who've come in to have a lunch break, this is particularly exciting news, because what the government is doing is ensuring that we are making our biosecurity system more efficient. Produce not only leaves this country but comes into this country. And what those on certain sides of politics—the far Left and the far Right—sometimes don't understand is that trade means we can export our brilliant produce around the world, but it also means we do need to import. But we need to make sure that our imports that come into this country go through the proper mechanisms, through proper screening and through the proper processes to make sure that we do not get invasive species, like yellow crazy ants, coming into this country and allowing them to damage and destroy our agriculture industry.

The approach of this bill will be to support deregulation and improve the effectiveness of the biosecurity framework and the imported food system. The bill is urgently needed to enable the use of current technologies to effectively and efficiently enforce biosecurity controls over vast cargo volumes that may pose a high biosecurity risk to Australia. Briefly, I did reach the dizzying heights of Assistant Minister for Immigration and—

Photo of Jonathon DuniamJonathon Duniam (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Forestry and Fisheries) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Lofty heights. What was interesting about that, working under Minister Dutton, was going and looking at our airports and looking at our ports in terms of the huge volume. Sometimes we forget about it, but there is a huge volume of produce that actually does come into this country. We realise that we rely so much on technology in terms of screening—seeing what's there. We rely so much on the professionalism and the hard work of those staff who are on the front line fighting against bad things trying to come into this country. We do put invasive species into the category of bad things, considering they pose such a threat to the economic security of this country. That's why this bill is so important.

The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment process an average of 45,000 commercial cargo referrals each month, that is a lot, and that is why this bill is needed. Senator McMahon talked about the brown marmorated stink bug. I'm just going to call it the stink bug. In terms of the—

Photo of Jonathon DuniamJonathon Duniam (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Forestry and Fisheries) Share this | | Hansard source

Doesn't it have an acronym?

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It does have an acronym, but I'm just going to call it the stink bug. In terms of the impact that stink bug can have on—I don't want to say on our biosecurity—our home. Biosecurity is about protecting our home. What this bill does is make sure that the screens we have around our homes—the guard dogs, the burglar intrusion systems and the security cameras—are all working efficiently. That is why this bill is a good bill and it is a bill that is needed to make sure that our agricultural sector is protected, that jobs are protected, that small businesses are protected and that security of Australia is protected. Australia is one of those rare countries around the world where we have such a pristine environment. We are so strongly protecting this environment because we know it is so important in protecting our economy. Thank you.

1:07 pm

Photo of Jonathon DuniamJonathon Duniam (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Forestry and Fisheries) Share this | | Hansard source

It is, indeed, a pleasure to rise to conclude debate on the Agriculture Legislation Amendment (Streamlining Administration) Bill 2019. I do thank senators for their contributions to this very important debate.

Having heard some of the remarks made by my colleagues, and in particular Senator McGrath who has just concluded his, not enough emphasis can be put on how important the agriculture sector is to our nation's economy and the jobs that that industry produces for our regional communities. The point that was made by Senator McGrath in his contribution about protecting the brand and ensuring we remain pest and disease free as best as we possibly can is critical to that sector being able to trade on its brand. Our trading partners have very high expectations of the goods we export. We, as discerning consumers, also have very, very high expectations of the quality of the produce we consume. So having in place robust and far more than adequate biosecurity measures is essential to underpinning the confidence that is required by domestic consumers and our trading partners when it comes to our primary production sector. This bill does go some way to assisting that sector and the authorities—the department of agriculture and the teams at biosecurity Australia—to do their jobs to make sure that we can retain a strong border when it comes to protecting our country from pests and diseases, and most importantly protecting our brands. Because we know what happens when we have incursions. It does have an impact on our produce and people will make a consumer choice—be they international markets or domestically. That, in the end, has an impact on jobs, particularly in regional communities. So, that's where the rubber hits the road with this bill and that's why I'm so pleased to be speaking to it today.

The point has been made by a number of my colleagues already about how much cargo is processed and the amount of cargo that comes into our country. The high volume of the cargo that is brought in to this nation in, itself, like you would expect, does present an opportunity for pests and diseases to enter our country. As Senator McGrath mentioned, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment process roughly 45,000 commercial cargo referrals each month—not each year, but each month. That is a huge number of referrals to process and to ensure meet the standards we require in this country when allowing goods to enter. That's why this bill assists the department in being innovative in how it deals with this high number of referrals, while preserving the integrity of the system and maintaining that robust biosecurity framework that we need.

As I'm sure has been stated by my colleagues and of course Senator McGrath, the presence of one of Australia's highest-risk pests, the brown marmorated stink bug—which has a terrible name but I'm sure would have a much more terrible impact on our primary producers—and the fact that we're coming into peak season is why this bill and passage of this bill is critical. As has been referred to by the previous minister for agriculture, Bridget McKenzie, who I acknowledge, along with the current minister, Minister Littleproud, a huge amount of resources have been allocated to ensuring that we do have in place the resources to be able to stop other problems that can be encountered in this space, including the African swine fever virus, ensuring that they can't enter Australia's borders. There are other high-risk pests and diseases, including the khapra beetle and the foot-and-mouth disease, just to name a few. The volume of work associated with preventing these incursions does mean we do need to look at ways to ensure that work can be done in the most timely way to ensure that goods can come into our country in an expeditious manner. We've seen it in other jurisdictions where things get stuck on docks because they've got to be processed by the quarantine or biosecurity authorities of that relevant jurisdiction. Particularly with fresh produce, that poses a problem. Timeliness and innovative ways of utilising the resources available to us is critical to allowing the department to preserve the integrity of our biosecurity system and our relative status when it comes to pests and diseases.

The amount of work that these high-risk pests require will increase, and has increased in recent months, and will require considerably more amounts of manual effort. Automated decision-making, which is provided for in this through the amendments to the two bills, the Biosecurity Act 2015 and the Imported Food Control Act 1992, enables that work to be done, lessening the operational burden in these high-risk times, allowing departmental officers to allocate those manual efforts and resources to more complex matters, which I think is sensible. We need to make sure that our resources are allocated appropriately and to ensure that we are using that human interface in the more complex situations that require that human touch.

As I mentioned, this bill does amend those two pieces of existing law—that is, the Biosecurity Act 2015 and the Imported Food Control Act 1992. In doing so, these amendments will allow the Director of Biosecurity to determine, by way of a legislative instrument, which decisions under the Biosecurity Act can be made by an automated system. There will be judgement exercised about which decisions are made through these new processes. It also enables decisions under particular sections of the Imported Food Control Act to be made by automated systems as well, enabling the department to provide food control certificates to all food that's imported into Australia, irrespective of whether the food is required to be inspected, which I think should provide consumers the confidence they need when it comes to ensuring that what we consume here in Australia is not going to pose a threat, as already outlined in contributions so far. The certificates for foods that are not required to be inspected will remind both the importers and the brokers of their requirements to ensure food safety. We can never have a high enough standard when it comes to these sorts of things. Across the globe, modern regulators are increasingly relying on automated decision-making for decisions based on risk matrixes to enable a more timely decision-making process, freeing up resources to where they are better allocated. Again, it's about timeliness—ensuring that we do not unduly create delay. We often talk in this place about red tape and bureaucracy and about how to lessen them. This is a prime example of how we are reducing red tape and reducing the time it takes to do business with this country, and that's something I'm sure our trading partners will welcome with open arms.

It's also important to note that, in dealing with these sorts of things—how bills intersect with other parts of government and different pieces of legislation—there was a degree of internal consultation undertaken with the Attorney-General's Department; the Department of Health, which looks after food standards; the Office of Best Practice Regulation; and also, as you would expect for the drafting of a bill, the Office of Parliamentary Counsel.

Those listening might be interested in the sorts of decisions that might well be automated through this process. It's a valid question to ask. Consideration will be given to all sorts of decisions and whether they are suitable for automation in line with administrative law requirements. There are standards around these things, and those standards will of course be applied. Ordinarily these decisions will be ones where particular facts are reliably established without the need for a subjective assessment or the need to assess information to come to a particular position. As such, you would expect fairly straightforward and simple cases where high degrees of resources and effort are not required to reach the conclusion that you would ordinarily reach when making an assessment.

The types of decisions that are not proposed to be subjected to automated decision-making include decisions that require assessment of information provided by applicants and assessment as to whether specified statutory criteria have been met. Complex decisions involving consideration of conflicting information from many sources would require persons adversely affected by the decisions to be accorded procedural fairness and again would not be covered by automated decision-making. I think that is just plain old common sense. Where we need to to-and-fro to establish facts, or go and do some research, or where officers need to apply their judgement and investigative skills to be able to assess whether something should be permitted or not, of course, an officer will be sent in to do that work. That is not what we are talking about. Of course, that means we should retain confidence in the processes we're talking about.

Obviously there'll also be great benefits flowing to stakeholders—importers of food, the brokers, our trading partners—which in turn will be of benefit to us here in Australia. The administration of the act and allowing officers to respond to biosecurity risk are critical. Again, it underpins the whole framework around our trading relations, particularly when it comes to primary produce. While it'll have a minimal impact on Australian domestic stakeholders, if we continue to prevent pests and diseases from entering our country through this process then, as Senator McGrath cited when concluding his remarks, our own crops and produce won't be subject to the risks associated from that exposure. That's what a robust biosecurity system is able to provide.

In terms of small business—the engine room of the economy, as we often refer to it, particularly in regional communities—it's about efficiency, it's about timeliness and it's about ensuring that goods get to market on time. Of course, the faster clearance of goods at the border through the automated decision-making process will reduce the burden on industry—I'm talking about red tape reduction and the timeliness of doing business with government—and result in a dramatic improvement for small businesses at the receiving end of these goods.

The department's systems have the capacity and the capability to automate decisions already; however, this bill will allow for more automated decision-making to increase efficiency. As already cited, this means that we will have faster clearance of goods across the border. It will also enable the department to maximise resources in addressing critical risks and ensure that current and planned decision-making tools can be implemented as effectively and efficiently as possible, optimising resources and minimising impacts on importers. This is something we absolutely need to do, because we do import and consume products from overseas, and that is an important part of what we are looking to do here.

In summing up—and without detaining the Senate any further—a significant degree of consideration has been given to this piece of legislation. We've talked about the acts that will be amended—the Biosecurity Act 2015 and the Imported Food Control Act 1992—to enable the government to put in place automated decision-making. In summary, the bill ensures that there is a clear statutory basis for applications of automated decision-making under the Biosecurity Act. It enables wider use of automated decision-making to issue biosecurity directions and notices for imported food control certificates. It enables the Director of Biosecurity to determine by legislative instrument which biosecurity officer decisions under the Biosecurity Act may be made by operation of a computer program. It also authorises the Secretary of the Department Agriculture, Water and the Environment 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 will ensure that Australia’s biosecurity system continues to keep pace with the changing biosecurity environment and the emerging risks we face every year. This is particularly important in an environment where, as a nation, we import high volumes of goods on vessels entering Australia. We've already talked about the 45,000 commercial cargo referrals per month, a process that we have to deal with—a process which the passage of this legislation will be able to assist with—and where intensive resources are necessary to prevent incursion of high-risk pests and diseases such as African swine fever virus.

I conclude where I commenced, and that is to underscore the importance of the primary production sector, our agricultural businesses and every element of that in the value chain and the production chain, and why we need to protect this sector. By putting in place systems like this and enabling small business to get greater efficiencies out of our importing programs, we are doing the right thing by the rural and regional communities of Australia and by those people who invest in and work on our farms by protecting their biosecurity and by protecting jobs in these communities as well. I commend the bill to the Senate and once again thank senators for their contributions.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.