Parliament House Speech 9th February 2015

Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (15:40):  When you think about it, there are two things in agriculture policy that rise above all others; there are two things that are paramount. The first is natural resource management and sustainability. The second is biosecurity. As a bill implementing the reform of our biosecurity construct and architecture, this is one of the most important debates this House will have this decade. That is no exaggeration. Indeed, maybe I should have said 'this century'; after all it has been just a little more than a century since we last put our quarantine system into effect.

So this is very much—so far at least—a once-in-a-century proposition. This bill means as much as any defence or national security bill. It is that important. On that basis, it is as deserving of bipartisan support as is any other matter that comes before this parliament. By the way, I have sought to bring bipartisan to the agriculture portfolio more generally, because agriculture is so important. Agriculture is so important to our future, so complex and in need of such long time-horizons—we will always have our disagreements, and any opposition not having its disagreements with the government would not be doing its job to full effect—that we must, generally speaking, strive to take a bipartisan approach to agriculture policy.

It is important to the nation debate because, like defence, it goes to our very existence. Dropping the ball on agriculture policy would be an existential threat, because maintaining our food security—our ability to sustain ourselves independent of any other country—goes to the very survival of our country.

So biosecurity—formerly or more commonly known as our quarantine regime—is of paramount importance to this place. Yet, as the Beale inquiry—a seminal report into our biosecurity system—noted, biosecurity in this place usually only rates a mention when something goes wrong, rather than regularly rating a mention as things almost always go right. That is somewhat a source of disappointment to me and I am sure to many others in this place.

This bill, like the Beale review and other reviews that went before it, is a Labor government initiative. It was churlish, I have to say—departing from the bipartisan tone for just a moment—for the current minister not to acknowledge that fact. Indeed, the Abbott government has now sat on this bill for almost 18 months. It was an initiative of a Labor government. It was progressed and developed by a Labor government. The Labor government was ready to implement the reform when it lost office 17 months ago. Indeed, it was reported that:

Mr Joyce said his northern venture also allowed him to prepare for impending legislative changes, with a comprehensive redesign of the Biosecurity Act on the table.

"The Biosecurity Act has been sitting with us since Methuselah was a young child," he said.

Somewhat of an exaggeration, I think—

It’s an incredibly complicated piece of legislation that we have to completely update for 2014.
He was speaking last year—

In the legislative framework, we’re rewriting the whole Act so in essence it takes into account all of the requirements we have … bringing it into the modern world to deal with modern problems—the problems of 1908 are not the problems now.

I do not disagree with any of that. Again it was rather churlish of him to be claiming this bill as his own when, as we all know in this place, it had its origins with the member for Watson when he was the minister and was progressed right through the tenure of Senator Ludwig, so a long time ago. It was Labor that recognised the importance of upgrading and modernising Australia's biosecurity laws and it was a Labor government that first introduced the bill right back in 2012.

On 19 February 2008 the then minister for agriculture, the member for Watson, announced the comprehensive independent review of Australia's quarantine and biosecurity arrangements to be undertaken by an independent panel of experts and chaired, as I indicated, by Roger Beale AO. The current bill before the parliament is essentially identical to Labor's bill, save for a few minor adjustments, which on face value at least I do not have any great difficulty with, and save for a very big departure—the absence of any guarantee that the Inspector-General of Biosecurity will continue to play a role. I will return to that point.

The bill is about modernising the now 107-year-old Quarantine Act. As Beale points out in his seminal report, the very name change from Quarantine Act to Biosecurity Act in itself reflects changing challenges, aspirations, emphasis and of course methods. There has been a shift away from the isolationist approach that those who were around just after the turn of the century were more familiar with to a seamless, broader—from pre border right through to post border—approach to protection of our clean, green, safe image and therefore the protection of our food security.

The Beale report concluded that we have a very good biosecurity system. Its overwhelming success is testament to that. We have had by any measure a very successful approach to keeping disease and pests out of our food chain. Beale also concluded that the system is not perfect. That is fairly obvious. Sadly and tragically we have seen examples of failures in recent years, including during the equine influenza outbreak and crisis, which by the way had a very bad impact on my electorate where you will find, amongst other things, the horse capital of Australia. Beale also reinforced very importantly the view—and I am sure this is a view shared by every person in this place—that a zero risk approach to quarantine is not a feasible approach, not one that is likely to lead to success and certainly not one we could afford in fiscal or resourcing terms. Rather he reinforced a risk based approach to our quarantine system.

Again this bill this a significant modernisation that has been a long time in the making. It has been a long time from 1908 till now and a long time since the Beale inquiry was first initiated. On that basis the opposition will be supporting the bill—our bill—but I want to spend some time expressing very great concern about the key departure I made mention of—and that is the decision to deny the very important initiative in Labor's bill: the establishment and ongoing existence of an independent statutory officer known as the Inspector-General of Biosecurity.

I am going to invite the minister in closing this debate to clarify for the House exactly what the bill now means in practical and technical terms. It appears to me that now, rather than having an independent statutory officer reviewing the performance of our biosecurity system and all of its players, we will have no less than the minister overseeing these processes. That would be of concern to me and of concern to everyone in this place, I am sure, if they are speaking honestly. It should be of concern to the minister, quite frankly, because it is not a responsibility he should even seek to have. It will certainly in my view be of concern to the broad agriculture sector.

This will not be the first offence. The Labor government already had in place the Interim Inspector-General of Biosecurity. We had proposed also to further strengthen confidence and to build sustainability in the live cattle trade by putting in place an inspector-general for live animal welfare and live animal exports. Sadly, that commitment did not survive the transition to the new government, much to the chagrin of those who are deeply focused on animal welfare, particularly animal welfare in our live animal export market. The minister seemingly, as far as I can see, without any advice—and if he has reasons and good advice, I certainly invite him to share them with us—a little bit like CBH's exemption from the Wheat Board access code, has unilaterally made a decision that this statutory officer is not needed.

The inspector-general that Labor had in mind has, on an interim basis, and would have, reported independently of the minister's view and indeed the view of the department. It is a mistake to remove this position. The position plays an important role in ensuring the integrity and transparency of the biosecurity import risk analysis process. Stakeholders have the opportunity to appeal where they believe there was significant deviation from the biosecurity import risk analysis process which might have adversely affected their interests. Not only does the inspector-general ensure transparency and integrity in the biosecurity system more broadly; the position also establishes a number of powers to ensure transparency in the way the role is carried out. The position of Inspector-General of Biosecurity is a position that was recommended in numerous reviews over the course of the last 17 years, and yet the minister has apparently unilaterally decided that we do not need him or her. By having a dedicated office to review the performance of functions and the exercise of powers by the director of Biosecurity Australia all Australians can expect an efficient, modern and robust biosecurity framework.

The minister's office appears, on the surface, to remain supportive of the Interim Inspector-General of Biosecurity and the continuation of that position for the time being. But given I, as minister, signed off on the interim arrangements, I think in financial year terms almost two years ago, it is my understanding that the interim inspector-general will cease to exist on 1 July this year. It appears to me that, while feigning support and being complementary of the work of the inspector-general thus far, the minister has, without any fanfare, without any sufficient highlight of this fact—certainly I do not think there was any reference to the fact in his second reading contribution but I would need to check that—just decided to let this position expire on 1 July this year. Why, as we strive, I hope on a bipartisan basis in this place, to capitalise on the growing global food demand, taking advantage of our clean, green, safe image and our high quality food—which gives us our competitive advantage—would we now undermine that in any way by taking away a position which, for the last couple of years, has been very effective, as acknowledged by the minister himself?

This was the same issue with live animal exports. The pause has been broadly criticised and it was painful. It was painful and it was regrettable but born out of it was the best animal welfare system in the world—a system which now is allowing us to open new markets; a system which is building confidence in the regime, in the trade, in the broader community and; therefore, a system which allows us to grow and strengthen the sector and to create so many jobs. It is a shame that the minister does not occasionally acknowledge that when he is taking credit for establishing new markets—although, ironically and almost bizarrely, he does recognise that he was able to do so thanks to the implementation of Labor's quality assurance supply chain.

This is the same. We must have full confidence in our biosecurity system, and we must be able to allow the citizens of this country to see that there is a statutory officer there acting independently and protecting that system. As I have pointed out and as Mr Beale pointed out, it cannot be perfect, but the statutory officer is a key component in my view and in the view of, I am sure, the majority of people in this place—if they were being honest—to making sure that our biosecurity system is the best it possibly can be.

Let us not have the minister claim credit for this bill. Let the credit go where it belongs, and that is to the former Labor government. That is not to say that after 107 years a coalition government would not have got around to the same exercise. I have no doubt it would have done, because the globe—every country—is facing new challenges with the ongoing globalisation of our population and the emergence of new disease and new pests et cetera. So I have no doubt that the coalition government would have come around to the same form of reform itself at some point. But let us not promote this idea that this was somehow something Barnaby Joyce dreamt up overnight. We know he often has those dreams, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott. I am told he brings them to work regularly on a Monday morning, and you might have heard the same.

I began by talking about the importance of agriculture. There is no doubt in my mind that over the course of the next 20 years our economy will transform substantially. We are now thinking of the mining boom. We will be then be thinking more about what I like to describe as the dining boom. But the dining boom will not just come to us; we will need to go to it. Despite the growing demand and doubts about our capacity to meet that demand as a global community, there is a lot of competition out there, a lot of people in other countries seeking to capitalise on the opportunities that dining boom presents. For us it will not be about volume; it will be about quality and profits. With our limited natural resources, we cannot possibly triple or increase our food output fourfold or even greater. But what we can do is ensure that our limited natural resources are dedicated to the areas where we will secure the highest return and the highest quality jobs for Australians. Our advantage will only continue to exist if we maintain our clean, green, safe image.

There has also been a little bit of debate more recently about the way that investors in the future, typically those who manage big superannuation funds for example, will be discerning in their investment decisions, taking into account the ethical standards used in particular sectors. And let there be no doubt that in the future the growing middle classes of Asia will be looking for food from sources where all those ethical standards have been maintained. One of those measures will be the way in which we manage our natural resources, the way in which we manage our water and our soils being the two key examples. That is why it just astounds me that this government has not only still not produced a strategic plan for agriculture in this country but also that it laid down terms of reference for a white paper—now months late—that excluded any consideration of natural resource management and sustainability. The biggest challenge in agriculture for us in the future will be the growing challenge of resource sustainability, in particular the ongoing dry nature of our continent. You cannot have a strategic plan for agriculture without having, as part of that strategic plan, an idea about how you are going to tackle those natural resource sustainability issues, particularly climate change and the ongoing heating up and drying out of this continent.

While we have had 17 months of policy inertia, in other words 17 months without an agriculture policy in this country, our competitors are on the march. They are already working in Asia with their plans; they are already taking advantage of their natural competitive edge. In the meantime, we are just jogging on the spot, marking time. It makes me angry when I see what were very good Labor initiatives, like the one before us today, being undermined by a decision like that going to the position of the Inspector-General of Biosecurity without any real effort to explain the decision, without any real effort to highlight that decision before this place and certainly without any effort whatsoever—in fact, arguably just the opposite—to alert me, as Labor spokesperson on this question, to that initiative and the likely verification of that initiative.

I invite him, when he returns—that is, the minister—to now highlight that point, to provide the sources of advice for his decision and to share with us what he sees on balance as the positives and negatives of that decision. There will always be some of those, I am sure. I welcome the fact that he might be able to come up with some good reasons why it is not necessary to have the inspector-general, but if he does so he needs to also concede that there are real problems with that decision and then attempt to argue that it is a net positive. I do not think he will be able to do that. In fact, I am very sure he will not be able to do that because (1) I have looked at the issue and taken my own advice and (2) I know that if he was confident in this decision, I know that if he really thought this was a good idea, it would have been writ large in the briefings to me and it would have been writ large in his earlier contribution in this place.

Maybe he was rolled; maybe this was not his idea. Maybe this was not his idea and he is not proud of it and he wants to sweep it under the carpet. He does not want to talk about it; he knows the adverse consequences for agriculture. I can understand that. Many of us in this room have been ministers and we know how difficult the challenges can be. But for all that Barnaby might be—sorry, the minister—I did not think he was a guy who lacked courage. I would have expected that, even if he did not agree with the cabinet decision, he would have come in here and alerted all those in his constituency who rely so heavily on our biosecurity regime, that he would have come in here and explained the situation to them. The very fact that he did not do any of that confirms in my mind that this is a bad decision, and he needs to come back in here and explain himself. There will be a Senate inquiry into this bill, and the minister can be sure that we will pursue this issue in great detail in the other place. He has an opportunity to save everyone a bit of time and come in here, on closing this debate, and explain it to everyone in the agriculture sector as well as everyone in the Australian community who are relying upon us to have the best biosecurity system we can possibly have for the future growth, wellbeing and wealth of this country.

I finish where I began: this bill and our biosecurity system are as important as anything else we discuss in this place. It does go to our food security, and beyond that it goes to how wealthy we are likely to be as a country in the coming decades. We cannot grasp that wealth, we cannot make the most of those opportunities without the best biosecurity system in the world. I believe very sincerely that all those who participated on the panel of review would say that the bill Labor had before the House provided the very best biosecurity system we could possibly have. I am not convinced the bill that is before the House, simply because of the exclusion of an ongoing role for the Inspector-General of Biosecurity, is a bill that provides us with the very best biosecurity regime we could possibly have.

There is plenty of time for the minister to reflect on that; there is plenty of time for the cabinet to reflect on that; there is plenty of time for the Prime Minister to reflect on that as he contemplates some of his necessary changes in the coming days and weeks, if he lasts that long. There is an opportunity here either to explain and justify it or to reinstate Labor's very important initiative.

The Inspector-General of Biosecurity might cost some money—I know he does—but on any cost-benefit analysis it is hard to see how what would be very small savings in the context of a billion-dollar budget is justified given the risks that would be posed by not ensuring this bill is as strong as it possibly can be and therefore not ensuring that we have the strongest quarantine and biosecurity systems this country can possibly have. So there is our qualified support. Other than for the inspector-general issue, we very strongly support the bill. Now it is over to the minister.


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