Senate debates

Wednesday, 23 June 2021


Biosecurity Amendment (Strengthening Penalties) Bill 2021; Second Reading

9:35 am

Photo of Kristina KeneallyKristina Keneally (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

Labor will be supporting this bill. As outlined in the explanatory memorandum, the purpose of the Biosecurity Amendment (Strengthening Penalties) Bill 2021 is to amend the Biosecurity Act 2015 by increasing the maximum penalties that a court can impose for noncompliance with requirements under the act. Penalties will be increased for specific existing civil penalty provisions to provide a proportionate regulatory response to the conduct covered by those provisions. The bill increases the penalties for specified criminal offences to ensure appropriate punishment for those who jeopardise Australia's biosecurity status by breaking the law.

The explanatory memorandum states:

In the face of growing regional and global threats such as African Swine Fever and hitchhiker pests (such as khapra beetle) the current penalty regime needs reinforcement to provide an effective deterrent against non-compliance.

The explanatory memorandum also states:

The growth in trade and travel expected as part of the economic recovery from the current COVID-19 pandemic is expected to accentuate the threats, making it imperative to send a strong message that breaking Australia's biosecurity laws is not worth the potential commercial gain.

Under the act, penalties for a contravention may include a civil penalty, a criminal offence or both. The increases to the civil penalties are intended to deter noncompliance with the act and to ensure the maximum penalties available reflect the gains that individuals and businesses might obtain, or seek to obtain, in engaging in conduct that jeopardises Australia's biosecurity status. The civil penalties will be set at a level that means the penalty is not merely perceived as a cost of doing business. This is particularly the case for corporations. There are 28 separate penalties being increased. For example, some will increase from 120 penalty units to 300 penalty units; others will increase from 300 penalty units to 1,000 penalty units. It is noted that the explanatory memorandum states:

The Bill would have no financial impact on the Australian Government Budget.

But, of course, Labor has concerns about the bill. It's clear the Morrison government has shifted away from the biosecurity levy that was recommended in an industry review back in 2017 and moved to a penalty based system that relies on a court determining if a civil or criminal offence has taken place. The bill appears to be just another ad hoc measure reliant on the court system to apply penalties, rather than a genuine attempt to upgrade Australia's biosecurity arrangements. Labor has spoken to many farmers and other stakeholders across the agriculture sector, and they continue to raise concerns about Australia's biosecurity system. It's clear there has been a huge policy void over the past few years when it comes to the Morrison government doing anything of note around strengthening Australia's biosecurity system. This has been extremely disappointing, given the significant risks pests and disease could pose to Australian produce.

Labor also want to take this opportunity to put on the record our ongoing concerns in relation to the Morrison government's current management of Australia's biosecurity system. We know that Australia's biosecurity system underpins more than $60 billion of agricultural production, $53 billion of agricultural exports and $42 billion in relation to the country's inbound tourism industry. The cost of a single outbreak of disease or pests has been conservatively estimated to exceed $50 billion. So, with so much at risk, where has the government's urgency been to update Australia's biosecurity system over the past eight years?

We've already seen the Morrison government axe a biosecurity levy. As already mentioned, this levy was a recommendation made in 2017 as part of the Craik review. This report included 42 recommendations and found that the system was underfunded. At the March estimates the department revealed the government's progress in relation to the Craik review. In four years the government has only completed 17 of the 42 recommendations. Twelve recommendations require enduring effort, eight are in progress, four require no further action and one is on hold. Given the serious risks to Australia's agriculture sector, this slow response from the Morrison government is not good enough.

This brings me to the biosecurity funding that was included in the budget. The budget's commitments to biosecurity just make up for what the Morrison government was planning to take away after the biosecurity levy failed. It's not good enough that farmers were left for years waiting to see what the government would do to update Australia's biosecurity arrangements. This budget is a missed opportunity, and Australian farmers deserve better.

We've also seen a number of amendments needing to be made to legislation regarding biosecurity. There was a bill that passed the parliament last month that was essentially fixing a past drafting issue. There must be confidence in Australia's biosecurity system given it protects the agriculture industry from pests and disease. But the Morrison government, having to amend the act over past drafting issues, reduces the confidence the agriculture sector has to adequately maintain Australia's biosecurity framework.

Further reducing confidence was the publication last week of the Australian National Audit Office report around biosecurity. The findings of the ANAO report are extremely concerning. The ANAO concludes that the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment's arrangements to respond to noncompliance with biosecurity requirements are largely inappropriate. What does this say about the Morrison government's interests around biosecurity risks? The ANAO findings in relation to the inadequacies of Australia's biosecurity system must be taken seriously. A biosecurity system that is deemed to be inappropriately managed has massive implications for the agriculture sector and it puts Australian farmers in a very vulnerable position, and that is totally unacceptable.

The ANAO report also validates numerous and serious concerns raised by farmers and the agriculture sector. As already mentioned, biosecurity threats and inadequacies of the current system are issues that are consistently raised with Labor and, no doubt, MPs from all parties. Incursions of pests and diseases are of great concern to farmers, who know the significant risks if and when Australia's biosecurity system fails them. The Morrison government must do better for the agriculture sector when it comes to Australia's biosecurity system.

Of course, we know there are other issues impacting on the agriculture sector that the Morrison government has failed to address even though the government knows the impact these issues are having on Australian farmers. For example, the Morrison government has known that there is a structural reliance on migrant workers to pick produce on Australian farms. This reliance has been occurring for some time. The COVID-19 pandemic further highlighted this structural reliance, given the issues of travel and quarantine arrangements over the past year. Labor has written to Minister Littleproud three times now about our concerns around the agriculture workforce shortage: first in January, then in February and then another letter in April. Why have we written so often to Minister Littleproud? Because he promised to fix the workforce shortage because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The minister has admitted there are 25,000 prevetted and work-ready Pacific islands workers. The minister promised these workers were ready to go, but clearly they were not. It's one of those classic Morrison government marketing moments: all announcement, no delivery. Where are these 25,000 prevetted workers? How many of them are working on Australian farms? There are obviously not enough workers, because produce is rotting on Australian farms. It's just another broken Morrison government promise.

What's in the budget? Well, the Morrison government has again missed an opportunity to properly fix Australia's agriculture workforce issues and set the industry up for growth. The question for the government is: what measures in the budget will help farmers pick their produce today—not next year, not the year after, but today? There's a grab bag of half-measures and pilot programs that will not solve the serious issues in Australia's agriculture workforce today. The minister said in March that the government 'will continue to address the immediate needs of our farmers' when it comes to the workforce. But where are the budget measures that go towards addressing these immediate needs? There are none. When you look at the funding in the budget for employment in the agriculture sector, it is over either two or four years; there's no funding to help farmers now. Even the minister's media release didn't give the workforce any attention. That gives you an idea of the lack of attention this government has given to the workforce shortage in agriculture.

In the budget there's no substantial response to the Agriculture Workforce Strategy, which was handed to the Morrison government more than six months ago. The budget predicts that COVID-19 restrictions that have caused huge labour shortages and crop losses on farms will last another year. But there is no plan to deal with this issue in agriculture now. We know that the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to a serious shortage of workers across Australian farms. However, the Morrison government has long been aware of the these structural issues with the agriculture workforce—long before COVID—and it's done nothing to address this chronic labour shortage. What is clear is that the minister continues to turn his back on the Seasonal Worker Program and quarantine arrangements, both of which are the responsibility of the Morrison government. The government has done nothing.

The latest figures from the National Lost Crop Register indicate that these labour shortfalls have resulted in around $50 million of crop losses to date. That is a national shame. Produce is rotting and being dumped by farmers because the government couldn't deliver on their announcement—their promise to deliver 25,000 prevetted workers. So there's nothing from this government for the immediate workforce issues for farmers, and that is a great disappointment. Over the medium to longer term, we look forward to seeing the Morrison government's formal response to the National Agriculture Workforce Strategy report. Given the strategy has been on the desk of the minister since October last year, we really should be seeing a response sooner rather than later.

On top of the bushfires, the drought, the COVID-19 pandemic and the workforce shortage, we know we have another crisis that farmers and regional communities, particularly in my home state of New South Wales, have to face, and that is the mouse plague. The mouse plague is now impacting across multiple states. Has there been a national response from the Morrison government? No. The response from the Nationals was not to come up with a plan to deal with the mouse plague; it was to come up with a plan to deal with their former leader and install a new leader, in Barnaby Joyce. Has there been a request for the Morrison government to fix the mouse plague with a national response? Yes, there has: Labor has written to the minister, calling on him to help the states fix this crisis. Instead, the Nationals have been too busy fixing the crisis inside their own party room. The New South Wales agriculture minister—the Liberal-National coalition agriculture minister—has written to the Morrison government, asking for it to provide assistance with the mouse plague. So we've got the Nats and the Libs in New South Wales asking for federal help from the Morrison government to assist with the mouse plague. We have no response from the Morrison government. I'm concerned about the impact the plague is having, and will continue to have, across Australian farms. New South Wales farmers have estimated that the plague has already cost $1 billion in lost crops. The mouse plague has to be discussed with state and territory agriculture ministers. I hope the minister puts the mouse plague at the top of the agenda when he next meets with them.

Australian farmers must have confidence and certainty that the Morrison government will manage the biosecurity system so we can protect and mitigate any risks to our agriculture industry from pests and disease. It's a huge risk to our agriculture sector, with production being more than $60 billion. It is clear from the experts that the Morrison government has more work to do to make sure that our biosecurity system is well resourced and not at risk of failing. Labor will be keeping a close eye on how the Morrison government continues to manage our vital biosecurity system.

9:50 am

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

The Greens support the intention of the Biosecurity Amendment (Strengthening Penalties) Bill 2021 to raise penalties to make sure that lack of compliance with biosecurity laws isn't just a cost of doing business for some enterprises or some individuals. We accept that higher penalties provide a level of increased deterrence or are a push to get more compliance; however, the punitive system of applying penalties still relies on court cases potentially in the case of criminal offences. I understand this covers civil and criminal offences. This requires, firstly, resourcing so that noncompliance can be detected, which can be through a whole range of different measures, through to levying the penalties and getting convictions in courts, so it's a long and difficult process. As I think has already been alluded to here, the alternative was a levy based system, which has been rejected by the government.

Being a Tasmanian I am especially aware that my agricultural community and our clean, green and clever exports to the world and to the nation are very vulnerable to biosecurity risks. We only very recently saw a fruit fly outbreak in Tasmania that literally brought the stone fruit and other industries to their knees for well over 12 months. Biosecurity outbreaks like that can cripple our agricultural enterprises. I commend the collaborative approach with regulators to stamp that out. It took a long time and there was a lot of work done on compliance, but eventually it was successful. It's not the kind of thing we want to see in future. I note that it's still very uncertain as to the source of that outbreak.

Having had my own agricultural enterprise, having had a vineyard, I'm well aware of the pests and diseases farmers are constantly having to fight across many horticultural and other agricultural industries to be sustainable and to produce crops. Of particular concern to me working in the wine industry was European wasps. This is an example of a biosecurity breach and risk. Once again no-one to this day can point to exactly when European wasps made their way into Australia and Tasmania. It's believed they came in on cargo shipments as early as the 1960s and went undetected.

Of course, these wasps are not just a massive problem for agricultural crops like grapes—in one year I had my entire riesling crop stripped by European wasps before we could kick it, and I know that wasn't uncommon—but also a massive threat to biodiversity in Tasmania because they are capable of stripping an entire area of its insect life as they go through a protein phase before they go into a sugar phase, which is when they tend to go into agricultural crops. It is a textbook example of why we need to have much stronger compliance on biosecurity and the kinds of unintended consequences of having a system that allows pests and diseases to spread.

I also note what has been talked about in the chamber today. The bill we have before us today has come eight years into the process of looking at how we can better manage biosecurity risks in this country. There doesn't seem to have been any urgency at the federal level at all to update our biosecurity system. The Craik review, which was released in 2017, included 42 recommendations. I remember being on the Senate RRAT Committee when this exact system was being looked at and, crikey, I remember some of the criticisms of Senator Bill Heffernan from this place about the biosecurity system and what we needed to do to update it. Of those 42 recommendations, I understand that only eight have been implemented. When we look at the bigger picture, this is window-dressing.

What is one of the biggest vectors for the spread of biosecurity risks for pests and diseases? Climate change. I want to talk a little bit about that today because, if we are talking about future threats to biosecurity and how we manage those risks, we need to talk about how we're going to manage climate change. An interesting panel discussion was reported in the Farm OnlineNational back in April 2017. It was a panel discussion at the New South Wales Farm Writers conference entitled 'Biosecurity: National Strategies and International Challenges'. It had a number of interesting speakers, including Rennylea Pastoral Company director Lucinda Corrigan, who was formerly a director of Meat & Livestock Australia. She said altered weather patterns had changed the biosecurity challenge for her cattle enterprise located in New South Wales. 'Climate change is a major factor for the spread of pests, weeds and disease, which have spread south from hotter areas,' Mrs Corrigan said. An example she gave was Theileria, a blood cell destroying parasite carried by cattle ticks, which has appeared in her region over a short period of time. She said, 'A virulent form of the disease appeared in the Murray Valley 10 years ago, and some people lost 10 per cent of their stock, calves and cows.' She went on to list fleabane and subtropical weeds which she said had spread into her district with changed rainfall patterns—which, of course, had significant impacts on the viability of their operations.

That panel went on to discuss other challenges from climate change. Professor Tim Reeves, from the University of Melbourne Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre, said climate change will bring an added degree of difficulty to the already onerous task of biosecurity and managing bio security risks. 'Climate change is really important when modelling likely incursions, and where and how they might spread,' said Professor Reeves, who is also a Crawford Fund board member. 'While some very good research is being done, climate change brings a third element to the task,' he said. 'If we manage biosecurity with a steady as she goes, business as usual approach, it is highly unlikely to be satisfactory in the coming years.' Senators can read more of his contribution in that article themselves if they want. He talked further about the balance between summer and winter rainfall patterns across the continent and how that has led to changes and, of course, extreme weather events, which he said 'create the spread of plants with high-wind events, while changing rainfall patterns could alter the range of pests bringing new biosecurity threats into different regions'. He said: 'It will impact on the number and type of exotic pests and diseases that can survive and thrive in certain regions. For example, northern Victoria is no longer a winter dominate climate, but has uniform rain throughout the year. A shift of moisture conditions of that nature will change many things, including the ability of pest and diseases to encroach on new areas.'

Sharing the panel at that event with Ms Corrigan and Professor Reeves was Australia's inaugural Inspector-General of Biosecurity, Dr Helen Scott-Orr, who is also the coordinator of the New South Wales Crawford Fund and its training program and the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research. Dr Orr said the focus of her role, to which she was appointed on a three-year term—this is going back to 2017—was the federal agriculture and water department's performance of biosecurity functions. That article in the Farm OnlineNational states:

Dr Scott-Orr is reviewing incursions into Australia of pests and diseases over the past 10 years; hitchhikers and contaminants that have come in cargo which is not subject to quarantine regulations; invasive exotic mosquitoes; and the military’s application of biosecurity regulations for when its own forces return from overseas duty, as well as its regulation of overseas forces that travel to Australia.

And she added a number of comments there about biosecurity risks that need to be managed around climate change.

What is my point here? My point is really obvious. We have a party in this Senate, in this country, that has four per cent of the national vote: the National Party. It is in coalition with the Liberal Party. It has a gun to the head of the Liberal Party. It is clearly a climate denying party that purports to represent farmers but doesn't represent farmers. It has just toppled its previous leader, Mr McCormack in the other place, and inserted Mr Barnaby Joyce in the other place. He is openly a climate denier. He refuses to entertain the idea of even weak 2050 emissions targets. We heard this morning that there was some kind of secret deal done behind closed doors to keep their coalition together, where farmers will be paid to take climate action, which they already are and they certainly were under Greens-Labor climate action plans.

But what's my point? Climate change is a threat to biosecurity. It's a threat to farmers across a whole range of factors. It's a threat to farmers because of changes to rainfall, because of extreme weather events and because of extreme heatwaves. It's a threat to farmers because of biosecurity. And yet we have a party in this place that doesn't represent farmers, that doesn't believe that climate change is a threat or a risk, that doesn't believe in taking climate action. How are we going to manage biosecurity risks if we don't take effective action on climate change? How do we even expect to do that as a country? When you consider what we've got before us today—which the Greens support; I will reiterate that—you see it really is a bandaid on a severed limb when you consider the challenges that we face as a country and the challenge that's not being acted on by this government.

Farmers around the country need to stand up on climate change, and many of them, thankfully, are. There's been a big outpouring of sentiment across many organisations and from many farmers around the country disgusted, quite frankly, at the role that the National Party are playing and have continued to play in this government after the last eight years to hijack any action on climate change. Let me say this very clearly: the National Party do not represent the interests of farmers in this country. If they don't have a plan for climate change, if they don't even believe in climate change, if they don't want any climate action and if they're prepared to do whatever it takes to undermine or blow-up climate action, including this unstable coalition that they govern in, then they don't represent farmers. They certainly don't represent the future of farmers.

Farmers know climate change is a threat. They know it's one of the biggest threats they face. Climate action is good for farmers. It can be good for farmers in many ways. The costs of inaction by far outweigh any costs of action. The costs of inaction are severe, and farmers understand that. We know that, with discussions with the EU on a potential trade deal, the EU wants to see carbon tariffs. I know the US is talking about this. The world is talking about penalising countries that don't take climate action, and it seems as though our farmers are going to be penalised because of this government's stupidity and downright short-term, self-interested politics, which has delivered no climate policy in this country for the last eight or nine years.

So by all means bring in a biosecurity bill to try to help farmers and to help share the risk of biosecurity outbreaks, but don't kid yourself for one minute that this bill before us today is going to have any major impact on managing biosecurity risk if we don't manage one of the main causes of future threats to biosecurity, which is climate instability.

10:04 am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It further found:

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

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

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

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

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

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

10:18 am

Photo of Rex PatrickRex Patrick (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Biosecurity Amendment (Strengthening Penalties) Bill 2021 and to give support to the bill. I will be brief in my remarks. It is clearly important for Australia to maintain its biosecurity. We have a fantastic agricultural industry, which would be put in jeopardy if we don't have strong protections in relation to biosecurity. However, I will just foreshadow that I'm moving an amendment in the committee stage, and I'll talk to that amendment now. The amendment I'm moving seeks to deal with a situation we had a few weeks ago where the government sought to use biosecurity measures to prevent Australians from returning home—in fact, to make it a criminal offence for Australians who may be overseas during a biosecurity emergency to return back to their home country. That is inconsistent with the idea of the rights of citizenship; it's inconsistent with the moral obligation the government has to assist Australians when they are overseas and find themselves in difficulty. My amendment will make it very clear that the power that was exercised by the health minister to prevent Australians who were in India from returning home can never be exercised again in that manner.

It's an example of what can happen when a power is granted for good measure—I went back and I read through the explanatory memorandum for when the power was initially granted by the parliament. There's not a mention of that sort of use of the power that was requested of the parliament, so it was an abuse. I think the government knows that they made a big mistake in the exercise of it. But with the coalition government you just never know what they're going to do next. They are secretive in the way they do business. They don't respect the Senate—we saw that yesterday when we were talking about the provision of information to the Senate. They are quite disrespectful in terms of openness and transparency.

Last night when we were dealing with an ARENA regulation, we saw the government table an amendment that was 180 degrees from the intent of the objects of the act. It was unlawful. The Scrutiny of Bills Committee had made it very plain and clear that that was unlawful amendment. It would have been struck out if someone decided to take that measure to court. But the Senate should never have allowed that regulation. Thankfully, we found ourselves in a situation where, at the recommital of the vote thanks to an injury with Senator Whish-Wilson, the Senate did its job really well last night. But it just shows you what happens when governments stray off the pathway. They stray away from the proper use of power granted by the parliament when they, in legal terms, act ultra vires, beyond power. That's what we saw in relation to the use of the biosecurity laws in the pandemic.

Just so everyone's clear: my amendment makes it very clear that you cannot prevent an Australian citizen returning from overseas during a biosecurity measure on the basis of a biosecurity concern. It doesn't affect other measures that we have in law related to terrorists and other people that we know we wish to keep from this country. Any Australian who's overseas and in trouble and wants to return home can. Of course, the minister or the government can apply other measures, such as the requirement to quarantine, and issue other directions to make sure that the community is safe. We bring our people home, we put them in a place that doesn't endanger the community and we make sure they have the best medical attention that they possibly can. That's what my amendment seeks to do, to clarify that that power which was exercised is not to be exercised in the future. That would be unquestionably beyond power. I will be asking that the Senate accept and support my amendment.

10:24 am

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Biosecurity Amendment (Strengthening Penalties) Bill 2021. This bill is about sending a clear message to individuals and companies that put at risk Australia's $61 billion agriculture industry and over $1 trillion in environmental assets by contravening the Biosecurity Act.

A strong biosecurity system is critical to Australia's prosperity. Remembering that we are a trading nation, we need to protect our trade at all times. Our biosecurity laws protect agriculture, tourism and other industries, plant and animal health, the environment and our market access. They are necessary to allow us to trade and for our nation to continue to thrive.

Agriculture continues to be one of the nation's economic powerhouses, despite the effects of droughts, floods, bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic. As the world recovers from COVID-19, it won't be business as usual. Trade has changed forever and will be more competitive than ever. Keeping Australia free from pests and diseases is key to maintaining Australian agriculture's clean and green status.

The government's 2021-22 budget announcement of $400 million of new funding for biosecurity confirms this government's longstanding commitment to safeguarding Australia from exotic pests and diseases before they reach our shores. These biosecurity measures introduced by the Australian government will deliver lower costs for producers and support market access. Effective biosecurity systems, aligned to the whole of government initiatives for simplified trade and reopening our international borders, benefit Australia's trade and travel supply chains. We are stepping up our resourcing and our efforts to stop pests and diseases such as African swine fever, khapra beetle or foot and mouth disease establishing in Australia and potentially devastating our livestock, crops and, more importantly, our total environment.

On average over 2.5 million shipping containers arrive in Australia each year. We are improving the arrangements for clearance and risk management, which will have substantial benefits for government and importers. We will ensure Australia's biosecurity system supports our agricultural sector to contribute to both Australia's national economic recovery and industry progress towards its goal of $100 billion in value by 2030. We are addressing increasing global threats by better anticipating and interpreting risks, enabling the rapid detection of pests and diseases before they reach Australia.

This bill is urgently needed to strengthen the penalties for a number of civil penalty provisions and criminal offences under the Biosecurity Act. The proposed increases to maximum penalties will more appropriately reflect the impact these contraventions may have on Australia's biosecurity status, market access and the economy than the current provisions. The increased civil penalty amounts will more effectively deter noncompliance with the act and provide a proportionate regulatory response. Increased amounts for criminal financial penalties will provide appropriate punishment for those who jeopardise Australia's biosecurity status by breaking the law.

A large number of pests and diseases currently pose a high risk to Australia's biosecurity in an increasingly complex import environment. In late 2020, we had several detections of the khapra beetle that I mentioned previously, including in packaging for refrigerators and in highchairs sold to consumers. We are currently seeing the emergence overseas of a new variant of African swine fever, which we must protect our nation against. Although African swine fever has not been detected in Australia due to our strong biosecurity controls at our borders, either variant could have a devastating impact on our pork industry and associated businesses within that industry. The potential entry and establishment of these pests and diseases is an ever-present threat to the livelihoods of farmers and associated industry participants.

In the face of these kinds of growing regional and global threats, the current penalty regime needs to be significantly enhanced to provide an effective deterrent against noncompliance with Australia's biosecurity requirements. Growth in national trade and travel as the economy recovers from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to increase such threats, making it critical that the increased penalties are in force as soon as possible to send a strong message that breaching Australia's biosecurity laws is not worth any potential commercial gain. Breaching Australia's biosecurity laws can have serious consequences for the country's biosecurity status, market access, and plant, animal and public health. The economy and the environment are all at risk. It is critical that the penalties for individuals in companies who choose not to follow the law are appropriate and adequate.

This bill will amend the Biosecurity Act to increase the maximum financial penalty that a court could impose for noncompliance with certain requirements under the act. It will increase the penalties for specified civil penalty provisions to deter noncompliance and increase criminal penalties to provide appropriate and proportionate punishment in the sentencing of offenders. The increased penalties relate to the assessment and management of biosecurity risks of goods that are brought or imported into Australian territory and the carrying out of biosecurity activities in accordance with an approved arrangement.

This bill increases the number of civil penalties that a court could impose from 120 penalty units to 300 penalty units or, in dollar terms, from $26,640 to $66,000, such as for contraventions relating to the assessment of biosecurity risks—for example, failing to comply with a direction not to move goods under section 128. Where the contravention is committed by a corporation or a body corporate, the maximum penalty may be up to five times this amount. This is because the corporate multiplier can apply penalties to bodies corporate under the Biosecurity Act because of the operation of section 82 of the regulatory powers.

The targeted increase to civil penalties in this bill will offer the flexibility to respond proportionately to those individuals and companies who should be aware of their obligations under the act. The increased civil penalties will deter noncompliance with the Biosecurity Act so that breaching the law cannot be seen just as part of the cost of doing business. Otherwise, it's not worth the risk. The Biosecurity Amendment (Strengthening Penalties) Bill 2021 will ensure that the maximum penalties available to the courts reflect the profit and gain that individuals and businesses might believe they could obtain or seek to obtain by breaking the law. The increase of criminal penalties for fault based offences will allow for the proportionate and appropriate punishment for offences under the Biosecurity Act that align with maximum penalties across the key provisions.

This bill does not add any additional administrative burden on industry, which is very important, or introduce any new civil penalty provisions for criminal offences; it strengthens the existing penalties under specified provisions of the Biosecurity Act. I commend the bill to the Senate.

10:33 am

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

The Biosecurity Amendment (Strengthening Penalties) Bill 2021 will amend the Biosecurity Act 2015 to provide stronger civil and criminal penalties for those who expose Australia to biosecurity risk through noncompliance with the act. The bill will increase the maximum financial penalties that apply to a number of civil and criminal penalty provisions across the Biosecurity Act. The increased civil penalties will serve as a deterrent to anybody considering undermining our biosecurity laws, and the criminal penalties will allow appropriate and proportionate punishment for offences under the act.

The penalty amounts in this bill more appropriately reflect the impact that contraventions may have on Australia's biosecurity status, market access and economy than the current penalty regime. Deterring noncompliance with the Biosecurity Act will help maintain Australia's favourable biosecurity status and protect our $71.2 billion agriculture, fisheries and forestry industries and valuable and unique environmental assets. This is particularly important in anticipation of growing biosecurity risks with anticipated growth in international trade and travel as the economy recovers from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. I thank senators for their contribution to this bill, and I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

(Quorum formed)