LEGISLATION to modernise the Biosecurity Act underwent a lively political debate in the House of Representatives on Monday, with support from both major parties.
Nanjing Night Net

The Biosecurity Bill 2014 was introduced into parliament by Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce late last year and will now move into the Senate, after it passed the House of Representatives this week.

The century-old Biosecurity Act will be modernised via the Bill, and four accompanying Bills, to implement new rules that meet current agricultural industry demands while cutting red tape.

Several regional MPs debated the new laws, including Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon.

Mr Fitzgibbon said he had sought to bring general bipartisan to the agriculture portfolio, “because agriculture is so important”.

“Dropping the ball on agriculture policy would be an existential threat, because maintaining our food security – our ability to sustain ourselves independent of any other country – goes to the very survival of our country,” he said.

But Nationals MP Mark Coulton accused the Shadow Minister of being “a little mischievous” in his contribution to the debate, after the Hunter MP demanded Mr Joyce explain why he’d abolished the Inspector General for Biosecurity position.

Mr Fitzgibbon said the former Labor government had developed the Bill while in office, but raised concern it was being re-introduced minus a permanent Inspector General’s position.

“It appears to me that now, rather than having an independent statutory officer reviewing the performance of our biosecurity system and all of its players, we will have no less than the Minister overseeing these processes,” he said.

“It should be of concern to the Minister, quite frankly, because it is not a responsibility he should even seek to have.

“It will certainly in my view be of concern to the broad agriculture sector.”

Mr Fitzgibbon said retaining the Inspector General’s position was recommended in numerous reviews over the course of the last 17 years but “the Minister has apparently unilaterally decided that we do not need him or her”.

On behalf of the Minister, Liberal MP Bob Baldwin assured Mr Fitzgibbon while the interim Inspector General’s term ends on June 30, the position would continue past that date. Mr Baldwin said the changes did not diminish the importance of the key position.

“It just means that, consistent with the government’s regulatory policy, an additional piece of legislation will not be created to establish this position,” he said.

“The Minister has advised me that I can assure the member that the position and its funding will continue.”

Mr Baldwin said the Inspector General would continue to be independent by reporting to the Minister for Agriculture directly and also transparent by making their recommendations public.

He said the current Interim Inspector General of Biosecurity, Dr Michael Bond, had proven the role can operate administratively, “with a high level of independence and transparency”.

Mr Baldwin said the Bill provided a new regulatory framework that supported the biosecurity system “now and into the future”, allowing biosecurity risks to be managed by the agriculture and health portfolios “in a modern and responsive manner”.

“This legislation will support the competitiveness and productivity of the agricultural sector, a key undertaking of this government,” he said.

“Australia is free of many pests and diseases that are common around the world. This allows our farmers to produce higher quality products and increase the demand for those products.

“The Biosecurity Bill will help maintain Australia’s enviable pest and disease status, which is essential for Australian farmers to maintain access to overseas markets and build on our position as an exporter of the highest quality agricultural goods.”

Mr Baldwin said the Bill would also reduce red tape for the thousands of compliant businesses that regularly interact with the biosecurity system, reducing costs to business by an estimated $6.9 million a year.

Mr Coulton said the Quarantine Act 1908 had been amended no less than 50 times throughout its history.

But he said during that time, Australia’s biosecurity risks had changed “significantly” due to passenger and trade volumes increasing and from imports from a growing number of countries and new and sea craft technologies.

Mr Coulton said the Bill was first introduced into parliament in 2012 and was referred to the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee.

He said it lapsed when the parliament was prorogued – but areas of concern identified during the inquiry had now been addressed in the new legislation.

“There have been a number of significant reviews of the biosecurity system – most recently, the review of Australia’s quarantine and biosecurity, the Beale review, outlined opportunities to improve the system, including development of new legislation,” he said.

“This legislation has been developed over many years, with significant consultation undertaken with industry, state and territory governments, environment groups, health professionals, the general public and trading partners.

“There has been an issue surrounding the Inspector General of Biosecurity.

“While there have been some changes to that position, the position is now part of the biosecurity legislation, with delegated information-gathering powers to be granted by the minister to ensure the role can be carried out effectively.”

Victorian Liberal MP Sharman Stone said over time the Act had become “clumsy, complex and unwieldy” and contained “a lot of repetition”.

“It is like our tax acts,” she said.

“So this is the time. These new Bills were introduced in 2014 and in 2015 we should have a world best biosecurity system supported by appropriate legislation.”

Dr Stone said diseases like foot and mouth, blue tongue and “a whole range of other diseases” not experienced or seen in Australia were “perhaps to good luck”.

But she said, “I would argue it is also due to past scrupulous and careful quarantine inspection services”.

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