SUBJECTS: Bio security, White Spot, Australian Prawn industry


HOST: It’s been described as the biggest biosecurity crisis to face the aquaculture industry in this country. Now Australia’s biosecurity authorities will be called on to explain exactly how White Spot disease infected Australia’s prawn farming industry. A Senate Inquiry has been set up to investigate how the disease got into Australia, any failures in bio security practices and how to prevent future outbreaks. To discuss the implications of the White Spot outbreak and the inquiry into it, opposition Agriculture Spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon is with us on the Queensland Country Hour. Mr Fitzgibbon, you have already dismissed the Senate Inquiry as an attempt of the Australian Government to white wash White Spot, but surely prawn farmers deserve to get some answers about why and how this happened to them.

JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES, FORESTRY AND RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: Well that’s not quite right. In fact Labor put on notice a referral to a Senate Inquiry with a very broad terms of reference and the Government senators tried to defeat that and replace it with their own terms of reference which was very narrow and in my view, an attempt to protect the Minister.

HOST: What should have been done differently?

FITZGIBBON: Well we should have broad terms of reference so the committee can have a good look in detail at what went wrong, who was responsible and the damage not to just prawn farmers but to the wholesale and retail sectors. As you said it’s one of the most serious incursions we’ve had. It needs to be taken very seriously. I find it inconceivable that the Minister didn’t know between August last year and late last year- December last year makes any sense to me.

HOST: But aren’t they the very questions the Senate Inquiry will be asking?

FITZGIBBON: It was me that initiated the Senate Committee. The point is that Government Senators in the Senate yesterday tried to water down the scope of the inquiry with their own terms of reference. It is going to have to be for the committee to determine what the terms of reference will look like but I’m determined they will be sufficient to ensure we have all the important questions answered and to ensure we don’t have a repeat of this incursion.

HOST: People’s livelihoods are at stake, I don’t have to tell you that, but can’t we do better than a debate of whose inquiry is better?

FITZGIBBON: I’m really disappointed that the National Party Senators and LNP Senators in particular tried to frustrate the process. All I was doing was asking the Senate Committee to have a serious look at the issue with broad terms of reference.

HOST: Okay let’s put politics at one side for a moment, how do you believe this incursion happened?

FITZGIBBON: Well the experts can’t tell us unfortunately. Everyone has their best guess and theories but certainly the spectre of fisherman using imported prawns for fishing in our waterway is likely to be the cause, but no one is in a position to prove that. That’s why we need to be forever vigilant now as there are still large stocks of prawns in the value chain that risk still making their way to our waterway and further spreading this infection and that’s a concern to me.

HOST: What needs to happen to that product?

FITZGIBBON: Now the Government has to act. I’m very cautious about making decisions or calls from opposition but certainly the Government … the Government is speaking with retailers and wholesalers to contain any further outbreaks. We don’t really know what that means this is one of the things I want the Senate Committee to inquire into.

HOST: But in the here and now, do you support the industry calls for a total recall of imported prawns from Australia off the supermarket shelves?

FITZGIBBON: I’m in support of the Government doing all that is necessary to minimise the risk of any further us of prawns for fishing for example and if for the government of the day on all the advice in consultation with all those others in the country who would be affected by that, including wholesalers, retailers, restaurateurs etcetera to ensure we do everything to protect the sector while not overreaching. Now the Government has that capacity.

HOST: Mr Fitzgibbon we heard from Sunfish the recreational peak body for recreational fishers here in Queensland today saying the only way to eliminate that risk and to guarantee that contaminated product doesn’t end up on the end of a fishing hook in wild caught environment is to take that product off the shelves so it’s as simple as that in their mind. Do you support that call?

FITZGIBBON: Well that’s for the experts to advice. If in the end, given our clean, green safe image in this area is so important to us, were are one of three countries I believe in the world that is free up until now of White Spot and that is a credential we need to hang on to most aggressively and energetically. Again it is difficult from Opposition but, Government has received advice, advise it hasn’t been prepared to share with me but it has received advise as that’s the only way to stop the spread of the disease, well its advice it should take seriously.

HOST: Well let’s talk about when you were in Government, the Labor Party at that point did not see fit to ban or suspend the importation of imported prawn products despite these very fears being expressed by the industry, now that those fears have been realised, is it a bit rich for you to take the high moral ground when the warning signs were there?

FITZGIBBON: Well sadly this is the LNP trying to deflect the attention back to a former Government. It was the Labor Government right back in 1992 which decided that for the first time we had to have controls on imported uncooked prawns. Sadly it took 17 years to put that import risk assessment into place and I think that’s partly because the science of these things are so complicated. I’m happy to have a look at the import risk assessment again. But it’s not just the IRA it’s about how the IRA is implemented and there are rumours swirling that sufficient ratio of sampling wasn’t being undertaken and I believe this all goes back to the state of Department of Agriculture. We are losing very significant capacity in the Department of Agriculture as the smart people we have relied on for many years are leaving.

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