Biosecurity Amendment

Tasmanians take biosecurity seriously. Whether the threat is from fruit fly or coronavirus, we like to keep the bad bugs out. Even for a small state like Tasmania, it's no easy task. We're helped by having a big moat, but we still have multiple points of entry by sea and by air. Travellers are greeted at airport gates by beagles eager to sniff you and your bags, and we have big signs warning of the dire consequences for those who try to sneak in their contraband bananas.

In 2019, more than 4.2 million people flew into Hobart, Launceston and Devonport airports, and another 200,000 arrived on cruise ships. More than 230,000 containers and 15.5 million tonnes of freight came into our state. Before COVID hit, the numbers were only getting bigger. Examples of things intercepted by Tasmanian biosecurity officers include turtles, a gecko from Noumea, a stink bug from France and salmon from Denmark. Yes, someone tried to bring Danish salmon into Tasmania—a bit like taking a bag of ice from the servo to Antarctica! On one flight from mainland Australia, biosecurity officers discovered 10 kilos of fish and seafood products in a passenger's checked baggage. We wouldn't have wanted that plane to have been delayed on the tarmac on a hot day. Another time, officers found bags of tamarind, soybeans, leafy greens and unidentified fruit on a flight from interstate. That package was infested with live ants and larvae. Of course, there are more common items such as flowers, plants, seeds, edible items and fruit. There are millions of travellers, millions of tonnes of freight and, in relative terms, a handful of biosecurity officers standing guard. I take my hat off to each and every one of them.

It's worth noting that in 2018 federal Labor and Tasmanian Labor committed $5.7 million to recruit an extra 20 officers in Tasmania. Sadly, that did not come about. But, for every idiot or criminal that these biosecurity officers intercept, for every bag of larvae infested salad greens they catch, how many are making it through? We know that across Australia in 2018-19, biosecurity officers issued, on average, 410 infringement notices every month or just under 5,000 a year. Compare that with the tens of millions of passenger arrivals and it doesn't take a genius to work out that there is a lot of raw pork and dodgy seafood coming into the country undetected. With passenger and freight numbers expected to soar 70 per cent in the next five years, the challenge is only getting bigger.

The fact is that effective biosecurity takes money—real money. Smart governments know that good biosecurity is insurance. You close your eyes, you hold your nose, you sign the cheque and you pay the premium, year in, year out. You complain about the cost, but you know that the risk is too great not to carry the insurance. Stupid governments cut corners. They shave off a few dollars here and there on biosecurity, hoping no-one notices. They cut shifts, they reduce staffing, they outsource. They hedge that the risks are low enough to do it. But, of course, it is a false economy. All it takes is one outbreak, just a small one, and then, to clean up the mess, you have to spend many multiples of the few dollars you have saved.

Tasmania had the lived example of this when our state Liberal government cut its biosecurity budget to save a million or two. A short time later, we had a fruit fly outbreak that threatened our horticulture industry. The measures put in place to isolate and eradicate the outbreak were costly and time-consuming both for the taxpayer and for growers in affected areas, who were told they could not move their produce to market. It's farmers who end up paying the heavy price when governments fail their biosecurity obligations. More recently, Tasmania has suffered a biosecurity failure of another kind. Despite Prime Minister Morrison's declaring that cruise ships were banned from Australia because of the coronavirus risk, the Ruby Princess was allowed to dock in Sydney and more than 2,500 passengers were allowed to disembark without undergoing any assessment or any checks. Those passengers wandered throughout the country, taking the virus with them, including to the north-west of Tasmania, which suffered a heavy, devastating and lethal toll in the early days of the pandemic.

Just in the past week or so Tasmanians have learnt of a new biosecurity threat—not from foreign shores, but from South Australia. The Tasmanian Liberal government quietly allowed a big South Australian producer, Mitolo, entry into the Tasmanian whole potato market, with no consultation with the public and no consultation with Tasmanian growers, who contribute $400 million annually to the state's economy. Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Vegetable chair, Nathan Richardson, said the approval posed several risks. On 24 September, The Examiner quoted Mr Richardson as follows:

This announcement is shocking; there has been zero consultation with the industry.

Mr Richardson said that the approval did not take into account end-of-life use of the imported potatoes. He said:

What we could see is potatoes grown in the garden, or in a compost, where diseases could flourish and spread to the commercial crop.

The decision puts at risk the contracts that Tasmanian growers have in place with lucrative export markets, which prize Tasmania's status for disease-free potatoes. Mr Richardson hit the nail on the head when he said, as quoted in The Examiner:

'A few years ago we had a fruit fly outbreak, and a few years before that it was blueberry rust,' he said.

'What happened in those outbreaks is we thought everyone was doing the right thing, but they weren't, and the Tasmanian industry paid for it.'

This government has not done much in the biosecurity space in its seven years on the Treasury benches, despite its revolving door of agriculture ministers sprouting from the farmers' party, the Nationals. It has promised a lot but it has delivered hardly anything. That sounds familiar: all slogan, no solution; all headline, no story. It's the story of this government and this Prime Minister: talk big, do little.

The bill before the House today, for example, is worthy of support, but it's just good housekeeping. It increases penalties for idiots and criminals who breach biosecurity laws and it empowers the director to make some penalties heavier than others, depending on the severity of the breach, without having to seek legislative approval. We are supporting it, but not before we say a few things about how this government has been failing Australia's biosecurity challenge. As the deputy chair of the House Standing Committee on Agriculture and Water Resources, I often talk to farmers and others involved in primary production. Along with access to water and the impacts of climate change biosecurity is often cited as the most important issue confronting Australian agriculture and yet it remains woefully under-resourced.

In 2017 Wendy Craik was given the task by this government of reviewing our national biosecurity systems, with the goal that her report would inform any changes necessary to the Intergovernmental Agreement on Biosecurity. She handed down 10 recommendations, of which only four have been implemented. One outcome was an announcement that the federal and state and territory governments would come together to create a cohesive national biosecurity system. We've seen how well national coordination on biosecurity goes under this government with the Ruby Princess. The Craik review makes it clear that resourcing and funding are biosecurity's greatest weaknesses. So this government did what it generally does, it tried to offload its responsibility onto somebody else. Just like the Prime Minister tried to offload his responsibility for borders onto New South Wales, the government tried to offload its responsibility for biosecurity onto freight operators.

The government said it would introduce an industry levy that would raise $325 million over three years. In May this year it abandoned the levy, earning some brickbats along the way for the uncertainty that it had created. The National Farmers Federation CEO, Tony Mahar, described the decision as a blow to Australian farmers and a poor look for the government. Critically, the government has not proposed an alternative model to better resource biosecurity. If the levy is going to be raising $100 million a year to improve biosecurity, what is the government's plan to find that money? Yesterday's budget certainly provided no comfort to farmers.

The Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association recently reported that even a small outbreak of foot and mouth disease, lasting just three months, would cost the Australian economy more than $7 billion. A 12-month outbreak would cost more than $16 billion. Tens of billions of agricultural dollars are at stake and this government can't get its act together to find even $100 million a year to protect our crops from threats. The prevention of agricultural disease deserves to be a national priority and it's time this government took that responsibility seriously.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms Claydon ): I thank the member for his contribution. I note that the original question was this bill be now read a second time, to which the honourable member for Hunter has moved an amendment that all words after 'that' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. I understand it suits the House that I will state the question in the form that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.