SUBJECT/S:. Berry contamination, Hansard, Katter concerns

JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE:  Well, relevations in Senate Estimates yesterday make it clear now that the Prime Minister’s first response to the berry contamination was to protect himself rather than to protect the Australian people.  We now know it was five days before the Prime Minister and his Minister acted at all. And six days after the event when the Prime Minister finally spoke in detail on the issue, he misled the Australian people by indicating they were now screening 100 per cent of berry imports.  That was patently untrue.  It is now time the Prime Minister showed he is serious about this issue, that he is prepared to act and act quickly to protect the Australian consumer.  In Senate Estimates yesterday also we learned more about Barnaby Joyce’s failed attempts to doctor the Hansard last year, you will recall that answering a question from me on drought he chose to mislead the Australian people, to mislead the Parliament and of course he embellished the outcomes of his drought package.  He later came back to the Parliament and admitted the “error” as he described it, and blamed a member of his staff.  It has taken two Senate Estimates sessions, and months, and two FOIs- one to the Department and one to the Minister’s Office, before we learn there are documents relating to this issue that are yet to be handed over.  The Secretary of Barnaby Joyce’s Department was forced to come back into Estimates last night and admit, having considered the matter over the dinner break, that there is a document that hasn’t yet been released.  I believe this is the “smoking gun” that will demonstrate that indeed it was Barnaby Joyce, not a staffer in his office, who doctored the Hansard to make the Minister look better, to cover for his embellishment of what he said in the House on drought.  Now we don’t have that document, Dr Grimes said it was a matter for the FOI officer in the Department to release it.  I am calling upon Barnaby Joyce today to table the document in the Parliament as his opportunity to demonstrate to us that what he told the Parliament which led to the staffer’s invention was true.  It is up to him.  He tables the document to prove his innocence in this matter or he doesn’t table the document and leave us with the presumption, I think a correct one, that indeed it was Minister Joyce himself who chose to doctor his Hansard.  If that is true, he not only misled Australian farmers but he has misled the Australian Parliament, which of course is a very serious offence.


Just on the berries, what do you understand is going on at the moment – are all frozen berries being screened out of China?

FITZGIBBON:  No, not all frozen berries are being screened out of China.  The Prime Minister claimed 100 per cent of berries were being screened, that is not true.  It may be true that 100 per cent of some companies’ berries are being screened but no less than 30 companies in China are exporting berries to Australia.  It was confirmed in Senate Estimates yesterday that what the Prime Minister said about the 100 per cent screening is patently untrue.

JOURNALIST:  So what is Labor calling for?  For all berries out of China to be screened? Or just from that company? For how long? Six months?

FITZGIBBON:  Well more than anything, Labor is calling on the Prime Minister and his Agriculture Minister to be honest with the Australian people.  Their first act should be to protect the Australian people, not to protect themselves, it is the only reason they misled in the first place.  We want more transparency, we got a little more of that out of offices and officials in Estimates last night but we still haven’t got it from the Prime Minister or his Minister.

JOURNALIST:  What is appropriate? In terms of just this company or should they…

FITZGIBBON:  They are the Government with all the Departmental and expert advice available to them, we want them to garner that and to use it and to act rather than spend their time misleading the Australian people.

JOURNALIST:  Are you seeking briefings on this?

FITZGIBBON:  I haven’t sought briefings.  I have been leaving that to Stephen Jones as the lead on health, but we knew Estimates was coming on which of course presents us with our best opportunity to get the facts in a political environment rather than in one when officials are constrained by the politics of the day.  Remembering that it was clear that the Prime Minister had been misleading and that makes it very difficult for officials.

JOURNALIST:  Bob Katter has raised concerns about perhaps the same thing happening in the seafood industry, is that a concern we should be having?

FITZGIBBON:  I don’t want to turn to protectionism here, trade is so important to Australia. We are an exporting country, more liberal trade around the globe is a good thing for Australia, so we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here.  We just want to ensure the Australian Government is doing all it should, and can, to ensure that consumers are safe and cutting funding to the department of biosecurity is not a very good start.  We had confirmed in Senate Estimates yesterday that some 300 people have gone from the Biosecurity Division and that is a fair thing to assume that with 300 less people the Department is less effective than when Tony Abbott came into office.  Thank you.

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