HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES - HANSARD - BIOLOGICAL CONTROL BILL DEBATE - TUESDAY 15 MARCH

Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (12:49):  If you asked members of the broader community to list the greatest challenges facing our farmers and agricultural production, they would probably place drought at the top of the list, and at times that is no doubt true. But the more constant threat is that of invasive weeds and pest animals. One study estimates that our battle with weeds costs agriculture some $4 billion every year.

Another suggests that the loss of agricultural production attributable to pest animals is as high as $6 million each year. Of course, pest animals and weeds are also a threat to our biodiversity, so in this country we need a war on weeds, we need a war on pest animals. Our weapons will of course be many and varied, and money is always involved. It is a productivity issue and one that this parliament must take very seriously.

Of course, part of the armoury will be biological control. What is that? I think the best way to explain it quickly is to mention the word 'myxomatosis', because most Australians relate to that. Myxomatosis is, of course, the biologically induced virus that was produced to control the out-of-control rabbit population here in Australia some 70 years ago.

The Biological Control Act 1984, which we are amending today, in conjunction with state and territory legislation, provides the legislative framework for assessing biological control activities to ensure that they are in the public interest and that safety is foremost in the regulatory mind.

The Biological Control Amendment Bill 2016 provides some clarification and greater certainty for biological control programs. In particular, the bill clarifies the definition of an organism under the Biological Control Act.

Basically, these clarifications have been made necessary by the potential movement in the consensus in many complex areas of scientific endeavour. To take one small example—my favourite example—I refer to Minister Joyce's second reading speech, where, amongst other things, he says:

Given that there is also debate about whether a virus can be considered to be a living entity (as it is neither alive nor dead), the bill also omits the term 'live' from references to agent organisms.

The proposition is that, if it is neither alive nor dead, then it could be dead or it could be alive. It highlights, almost in a humorous fashion, how complex some of these issues in this field are. The bill is supported by the opposition, but the bipartisanship seems to digress, divert or come apart in another area of the minister's second reading speech, where he says:

The bill supports this government's strategic approach to farming smarter—

I have not seen too much evidence of a strategic approach—

as outlined in the 2015 White Paper on Agricultural Competitiveness, which supports giving farmers better tools and control methods for pest animals and weeds … Biological control is a cost-effective, highly specific and self-sustaining control method, but one that should be used as part of an integrated approach to pest management …

I do not disagree with those key points—of course biological control is an important part of our armoury, as I said. What I do not agree with is that the minister is taking a strategic or coordinated approach.

Currently we are having a debate inside and outside this place, although I am not sure you would call it a debate, because the minister has been reluctant to engage. But certainly I am driving a debate about the minister's decision to relocate the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority—the regulator in this area of biological control and the chemicals farmers use generally—from Canberra to Armidale. This is a very dangerous proposition for Australian agriculture and all the matters that are contained within this bill. The APVMA has a workforce of almost 200 people based here in Canberra. Its customers are not farmers; its customers are the big chemical companies that produce the crop protection products which farmers rely upon so heavily. The efficacy and efficiency of its work is of critical importance to the farming community. For example, the speed at which it approves farm chemicals—and, indeed, biological controls—is of great importance to the farming community. The workforce is largely made up of professionals, scientists and the like—highly qualified people—who live here in Canberra and send their kids to Canberra schools. It is a statement of fact to say that most of those people are unprepared to move to Armidale, for obvious reasons. That is going to have a huge impact on the capacity of the APVMA, the regulator, to deal with the issues we are talking about today and crop protection and other issues more generally. These are not people who can easily be replaced; if you lose scientists out of the APVMA—scientists who are not prepared to move to Armidale—you will have a great deal of difficulty replacing them. It is a very serious issue for the agriculture sector.

I know the minister is under the pump in his own electorate. He is under siege from Tony Windsor in his electorate, and, according to the polling, is now at risk. But you do not fix that problem by uprooting a major and important organisation here in Canberra and sitting it in your own electorate. Minister, that is not the solution to your problem. The solution to your problem is a coordinated approach to Australian agriculture more generally, a strategic approach to agriculture more generally, and a little bit more attention to some of the other issues that matter in your electorate, including health, education and cost-of-living issues.

But the work the minister is doing goes beyond the relocation. The minister is, I suppose as part of the government's red-tape reduction program, also looking at a range of issues in the APVMA to—in his words or words to this effect—make it more efficient and to reduce red tape. One example which is being foreshadowed is the abolition of the need for the APVMA to assess efficacy. In a cost recovery business like that of the APVMA, at first blush that might make some sense. Industry is paying for the right to have its chemicals, for example—or, indeed, its biological control method—assessed and approved by the APVMA for farm or other use. So, in a cost recovery circumstance, it makes sense that you do not want the APVMA doing what is potentially unnecessary: not only checking for possible threats to human health and other unintended consequences of the chemical or biological control involved but also testing its efficacy—in other words, sending a message to the farming community about how effective the chemical will be for them if they decide to purchase it. I beg to differ, and I am happy to have the conversation in this place, but it seems to me that the efficacy of the chemical or biological control is also very important, because I think it is fair to say that, no matter how safe the agent is, there are always going to be adverse environmental effects—maybe not in the short term, necessarily, but in the medium to long term. As time goes on we are learning a lot more about these long-term effects, fertiliser being a perfect example. Over the years the overuse of fertiliser and other sprays has affected the productivity of our soils. The efficacy issue is an important one because farmers want to be able to discern not only whether the chemical is safe but whether the use of the chemical has efficacy, in that there is a positive cost-to-benefit outcome.

My appeal to the government is that these are bipartisan issues and that a lot of conversations should be had before any dramatic changes are put in place with respect to how the APVMA assesses these biological controls and, more typically, chemicals, remembering that the APVMA is already under pressure and has already slowed down the process of farm chemical approvals. That is simply because, quite frankly, staff are worried about their future, they know they will not be able to move to Armidale and so they are taking days off—days owed to them—to look for alternative employment. So, already, the agriculture minister's thought bubble, his crazy idea, of moving the APVMA is having an impact on the processes within the APVMA and therefore already having an adverse impact on the farming community.

I was delighted when the Prime Minister intervened and said that he would insist on a benefit-to-cost ratio study on the APVMA's relocation—to the minister's electorate, of course—but I was concerned when I saw a press conference by the minister yesterday in which he indicated that he still determined to move the APVMA to Armidale, notwithstanding the fact that the Prime Minister has issued his edict: a study must be done. That study has not been completed, if indeed it has begun. I appeal to the Prime Minister once again to intervene to save the APVMA, to save that workforce to make sure those skills and expertise are retained, so that we continue to deliver to the farming community the services it deserves.

On a similar topic, today I announce my intention to ask the Senate rural and regional affairs and transport committee to hold an inquiry into a very serious problem being played out in many regional communities: flying-fox infestation. Nowhere is this issue more serious than in the townships of Singleton and Cessnock in my electorate, and this is not an issue that is unfamiliar to this place. I have spoken with the committee's chair and today I will begin a dialogue with both the Minister for the Environment and the shadow minister for the environment to shape the terms of reference. The terms of reference will need to be balanced, acknowledging both this very serious issue in our communities and the endangered species status of the grey-haired flying fox and its role in maintaining biodiversity. If the Senate agrees, I do not want the inquiry to be one of conflict; rather, I want it to be one which find solutions for local communities while recognising and respecting the sites. As I said at a rally in Singleton yesterday, surely in this 21st century we have the wit to do both—to respect and defend the science, to defend the endangered species status of the bats, and at the same time deal with the very serious issues they cause in our local communities.

In Singleton, in my electorate, the local central park has around 15,000 flying foxes in it. With the noise and odour problems, the park can no longer be used. We used to hold Anzac Day services there; we have not done that for years, simply because the presence of the bats does not allow it. Recently, sadly, the council has found it necessary to close the park. The park is no longer in use. Right next door to Cessnock East Public School, in my electorate, is a huge bat colony of at least 10,000, and that is causing all sorts of problems both for the school and for the broader community.

As the bill before us today seeks us to do, we need to respect the science and we need to respect the endangered species status of the flying foxes and their role in our biodiversity. But, to understand the impact the bats are having on the communities, I want the Senate committee to come to these regional towns, including Singleton and Cessnock in my electorate. In this place, they can learn plenty about the science and the role bats play maintaining our biodiversity, but, to understand the impacts on the communities, they really need to get out there and talk to local people about the noise, about the smell and about the way in which they have had taken away from them their capacity to enjoy the local amenities—in the case of Singleton, that local park. Surely a Senate committee inquiry taking evidence from both scientists and the community can find a way through, and surely, in this 21st century, local government, state government and federal government can find a way to ensure that the species is protected and, at the same time, that the rights of communities to enjoy their local amenities are protected.

Again, the opposition supports the bill before the House.


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