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Speech: Biosecurity Bill 2014 et al Second Reading

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 18 Mar 2015

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (18:24): I rise to speak on the Biosecurity Bill 2014 and four separate but related bills. My colleague senator Rachel Siewert has set out in a detailed way why this bill does need to be supported but it needs to be strengthened to gain that support. The majority committee report has a number of very useful recommendations regarding the bill, and the Greens amendments detail why we need to protect our environment, our industry and our economy. Biosecurity issues go to the very fabric of society. They are just so important.

In these introductory remarks, I would like to give particular emphasis to the issues of the health of our communities and the health of our agriculture. In many ways, these are the two key factors when one starts talking about biosecurity. I acknowledge that there is obviously a huge impact-and I will deal with this later-in relation to trade from this country and therefore our wider economy.

Biosecurity risks are very real, and the current framework we have and the legislation we have before us highlight the need for a comprehensive overhaul and far-reaching improvement. Unfortunately, the coalition and Labor are often conflicted when we get into the details of what needs to be dealt with here. Having said that, I do not doubt the commitment that many on all sides of politics have to addressing biosecurity. So many members have spoken about it with understanding, recognising the need to take this issue very seriously. Members have spoken with passion about the need for a comprehensive, responsible response. However-and it is a big qualifier-the profits of agricultural businesses, many of them giant multinationals, and the trade deals that are pushed and backed by conservative governments, are obstacles. When they butt up to our consideration of biosecurity, too often biosecurity measures are weakened. That needs to be put on the table and recognised, because it reminds us why this bill needs to be tightened.

I want to return to some of the work of my colleague Senator Siewert. We have important recommendations, from the committee that looked at this bill, about how we can strengthen the bill, and we have the extensive work that Senator Siewert has undertaken over many years. The comprehensive amendments that we will be putting forward cover a range of issues, and I want to consider some of these, because I think they should be front and centre while we are in the second reading debate.

There is the all-important need for the creation of a separate biosecurity agency. The director of that agency should be separate from the Department of Agriculture secretary. This is one of the things that you see as a theme through the suggestions that the Greens are making. We need the expertise and we need the independence, and that needs to be in legislation. Enshrining the independence of the inspector-general is very important. It needs to be done in legislation by reintroducing the Inspector-General of Biosecurity Bill 2012.

Then we have the need for draft regulations, but they should be provided to the committee and industry stakeholders for review. I will come back to this issue about the regulations, because there is a real weakness with this legislation-a failure on behalf of the government to ensure that the regulations are front and centre before we sign off on this legislation.

We know consultative arrangements are needed. That should be a priority. A prime example here is the need for the Eminent Scientists Group to be established in the legislation itself. If it is not there, we do not have confidence in how this is going to play out. We need to establish a body that can act on environmental health in the same manner as Plant Health Australia and Animal Health Australia. That is clearly needed. What we need is not only for that to be established, obviously, but for it to be thoroughly resourced. We need to use this body to establish partnerships between communities, governments and environmental businesses-those people who are working in this area. That is a key role; it needs to happen. It is needed in order to deliver on high-priority policy and planning issues within biosecurity. This really goes to the heart of dealing with biosecurity-how we are going to be organised. This is where we feel there is a failure with what we have before us at the moment.

We are also suggesting there is a need for a category of biosecurity zone for high-value conservation areas. This should be the basis for implementing biosecurity measures, plans and monitoring. We need to state clearly those regional variations, both on land and in the marine environment, and that they need to be considered in biosecurity import risk analysis.

I mentioned before resources and, to give that more emphasis, there needs to be sufficient funding allocated by the government to ensure that the arrangements that are proposed under the bill can be properly implemented. I also want to mention the precautionary principle. My colleague, Senator Larissa Waters, will go into this in more detail. This is a prime area where we need the precautionary principle in place. That is the very foundation of how decisions and actions should be taken forward. The precautionary principle is something that should be so integral to life and to the work of government in the 21st century. It is still not given enough emphasis at all, and that is why I was so pleased to see that my colleagues have been raising it in a very comprehensive way.

To elaborate further on the need for the biosecurity agency that I have mentioned, and the need for it to be separate from the Department of Agriculture's secretary, that is something I have given some coverage to. Then there is the issue of the inspector-general. We see that this should be a statutory position. It is very important for this position to be independent. The decision to not create a statutory inspector-general position we see as one of the most significant differences between the 2012 and the 2014 versions of the bill. It goes back to the point I made in my opening remarks about the conflict the major parties have when they come to deal with this issue, because biosecurity butts up against the trade deals they are doing and how they work with big agribusinesses. Again, this position is urgently needed. The dropping of the Inspector-General of Biosecurity, proposed in the Biosecurity Bill 2012, remains one of our big disappointments. The minister, when the minister comes in at the end of the second reading debate, really should address this issue-he should put on the record why that has happened.

I also want to take up and make reference to some of the important work undertaken by the Invasive Species Council. I found their submission and I have been aware of their work over many years; it has been very useful here. The Invasive Species Council submission to the inquiry outlined why it is not suitable for the minister to have the level of control currently set out. The Invasive Species Council submission made a very useful contribution here and I will share some of it with you:

The Minister for Agriculture has a clear conflict of interest as both Minister administering biosecurity legislation and person responsible for reviewing biosecurity performance. The areas subject to review are likely to be influenced by political considerations, and matters that could embarrass the government of the day are likely to be avoided. The risk of this would be substantially reduced and the public would have greater trust in the reviews if they were initiated and conducted by an independent statutory officer.
How can you argue against that? If you are sincere about biosecurity and you really want to ensure that the bill before us is top rate-that it will really work to deliver on biosecurity measures that will protect not just our current arrangements but will be a solid process for decades and generations to come-that needs to be taken on board. That is why the Greens have taken this up very strongly.

I want to move on to the issue of regulations. I know some earlier speakers also spoke about their concern that the regulations are still not known in detail. That becomes a problem because it means that the legislation leaves a significant amount of detail about the practical effects of the reform to what can best be called subordinate legislation. This is something that, again, I would urge senators to consider very carefully. If you are sincere about biosecurity, the detail needs to be there. Again, I would return to the example of the Eminent Scientists Group. We need to get that detail in there because we need to have that independence locked in. It needs to go hand-in-hand with greater transparency because, at the moment, there really is a lack of clarity about the role of external expertise. I find that very concerning. The Eminent Scientists Group is urgently needed. It needs to be locked into the legislation and it needs to be independent. I would really argue that should be obvious.

Another area that is relevant when we are considering biosecurity is what are often called ag-gag laws. These are laws that we often see-

Senator McKenzie: Ah!

Senator RHIANNON: I acknowledge the gasp-that is probably the way I would refer to it-from Senator McKenzie. Maybe it is a favourite issue of hers.

Often at a state level, when you have state legislation on biosecurity, it is cover for introducing laws that are about restricting the role of investigators and whistleblowers who are working to end animal cruelty. It is an issue that also needs to be injected into this debate. First off, I want to put on the record the important role that undercover agents, whistleblowers and investigators play in exposing the abuse of animals. There is already a huge amount of criminal law at a federal and a state level across this country that can allow it to be handled if people believe or are concerned that the law is being broken. But the purpose of ag-gag laws is not about addressing biosecurity; it is about stopping and limiting the opportunities people have to expose animal cruelty issues. I have seen this issue misused on many occasions. People who are taking often personal risks to expose the cruelty to animals are described as a biosecurity risk. That is the total misuse of the term. It really does no credit to those who use it. I notice Senator Back, in many of his speeches about his legislation currently before this parliament and in interviews about it, attempts to make this association, which really does not wash.

The other issue I want to turn to is about international trade agreements. This is something that is very relevant and really does highlight the massive failure of the Liberal-National government when it comes to dealing with biosecurity. How we manage our trade, what deals are made and how the trade is conducted are enormously relevant to biosecurity, particularly for a country like Australia where we know we have an advantage. We are an island-yes, we have a huge border-but being an island does give one some protection.

But trade is the link between Australia, which has been relatively free from so many of these diseases that can wreak such havoc on the health of our agriculture and of our communities, and countries that unfortunately suffer from some terrible diseases amongst their livestock, amongst their agricultural produce. Clearly, how trade is going to operate needs to be open, needs to be transparent and needs to be on the record. But what did this government do? It came up with some arrangements that are the most secret that you could ever imagine. We just cannot get any details about how it is going to operate. That is so deeply offensive. I think it is actually quite insulting to the people who are putting so much time into trying to get this legislation right, to the people who wrote the submissions and to the people who give advice on how we should conduct our biosecurity.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the trade agreement right at the top of the list at the moment that should be out there for the public to scrutinise, to understand. There should be a thorough debate in this place firstly about what it means for the Australian economy, for Australia's environmental and industrial relations standards because we know they are in the target when these agreements operate. But there is also the issue of biosecurity. What does it mean in terms of how trade is conducted? When you hear from the Nationals, you are not going to hear them say, 'Let's learn how our trade arrangements are going to play out in the coming years, the coming decade'.

Senator McKenzie: More jobs in regional Australia.

Senator RHIANNON: I just heard Senator McKenzie say 'more jobs in regional Australia'. The Greens are working hard for more jobs in regional Australia but we want reliable jobs, jobs that are based on industries that are sustainable and on agriculture that is sustainable. If we have biosecurity risks or biosecurity break-outs in our agriculture, that is what is going to devastate jobs in those areas, and this is where Senator McKenzie really trips over her own argument.

Senator McKenzie interjecting-

Senator RHIANNON: I think it is interesting that she comes in with these in interjections. I will listen with interest when the Nationals come in on this debate to see if they have the courage to bring the issue of trade into this consideration of biosecurity. Because if they do not know how our trade is operating, biosecurity is weakened enormously and at least they should acknowledge it. It would be one area where the Nationals should have the courage to break ranks with their partners in government and their partners in crime and have some courage to stand up on this issue. Biosecurity is absolutely central to how the Nationals say they operate but when it comes to the hard issues, they are missing in action. Australian agriculture does depend on high standards.

Senator Nash: Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I just have to point out to the chamber that the senator is misleading the Senate. Far from being missing in action, the Nationals are actually leading the way.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Back ): I think that is a point of debate, Senator Nash. Resume, Senator Rhiannon.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you, Acting Deputy President Back, for your ruling. I was recognising that Australian agriculture depends on the highest standards of biosecurity and that is why the Greens put so much effort into this issue at all stages when it has come before this parliament and in our discussions and consultations with groups in the community.

Pests and diseases can potentially wreak such havoc not just on our agriculture, not just on our health but on the whole economy. That is what is central to this debate. But the problem we have with this legislation now is, yes, it is a step forward, yes there are areas where we can agree but the safeguards are inadequate. We need to address the tough issues. We need to get the transparency right. We need to get the independence right. This legislation has a long way to go if it is going to address the challenges that we will face in this century.

 

 

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