I note with interest the contribution from Senator O’Brien on the Food Importation (Bovine Meat Standards) Bill 2010. At the outset he seemed to suggest that we were trying to bring this to a vote today. The senator knows full well that, by agreement, there are no votes in the chamber after 4.30 today. Just before I commence my comments on the bill, I will refer to a couple of the comments that Senator O’Brien made. I am on the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport with Senator O’Brien—have been for some time—and I have great respect for his intellect and his knowledge.
Senator Heffernan interjecting—
No, Senator Heffernan, I do. I have a lot of respect for Senator O’Brien as a Senate colleague. But on this issue the government has got it completely wrong. Senator O’Brien referred to a scare campaign. Over the last few months, some sectors of the community have repeatedly said that my coalition colleagues and I are running a scare campaign, as Senator O’Brien has just alluded to. I fail to see how raising an issue in the public domain is a scare campaign. Anybody who is calling it a scare campaign obviously has something to hide. It was entirely appropriate for the Senate rural and regional committee to conduct an inquiry into this very matter. The Australian public deserved to have some scrutiny of this issue. They deserved to know what was going on. They deserved to know what the government was doing. For people to label that as a scare campaign is undermining the appropriate use of the committee system of the Senate. Quite frankly, I think that is appalling.
I will quote Senator O’Brien. I am fairly sure Hansard will show that I am correct, because I would not want to verbal him. Senator O’Brien said that the bill we are discussing this afternoon was created for legislative purposes. Yes, it was. It was absolutely created for legislative purposes, because the government decision to, on 1 March, relax the rules about the importation of beef had no legislation attached to it whatsoever. There was nothing. There was no regulation—nothing. It was simply a decision of the minister to change a policy on an issue this big: the relaxation of the rules for the importation of beef from countries that have had BSE, or mad cow disease.
I think the Australian people deserve more scrutiny and more accountability than is provided by a minister simply deciding that something seems like a pretty neat idea. That was not good enough. That was exactly why the Senate committee held the inquiry: to make sure that we could drill right down into the detail of the issue. What that did, ultimately, was show so many holes in the process that it simply could not go ahead. One of the main difficulties with the process was the fact that there was no recognition at all of the impact on the beef industry. It was done purely on the basis that it was a human health issue, and there were even some questions around the scientific basis of that. That simply was not good enough.
If we take it the next step further, when looking at that impact on human health, all of the assessment was going to be done by Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Let us just have a look at that for a moment. Food Standards Australia New Zealand were going to be providing a questionnaire to the countries that wanted to export beef to Australia and that had had outbreaks of mad cow disease. The questionnaire was provided to the committee and through the inquiry process we looked at it in detail. While the questionnaire showed the questions that were going to be asked of those countries and the detail that it asked them to provide, there was absolutely no indication to the committee or to the general public from Food Standards Australia New Zealand of what their requirement would be to accept beef from those countries. They had said what they were going to ask those countries, but they had not said at any stage what their requirement was going to be for the tick-off for those countries. That raised a lot of alarm bells on our committee. We felt that process simply was not good enough.
Let us take it one step further. Not only was there no indication of the requirement Food Standards Australia New Zealand would have for those countries to receive the tick-off; there was no accountability once they had made their decision. Once Food Standards Australia New Zealand had made their decision, that was it. It simply rested with Food Standards Australia New Zealand. There was no ministerial or parliamentary accountability. The only thing underpinning the risk assessment for this entire process, for allowing the importation of beef into Australia from those countries, was the Food Standards Australia New Zealand questionnaire. There was no indication of what they were going to require to give those countries the tick-off, and, once they had, there was no accountability for the decision they had taken. My coalition colleagues and I felt that this simply was not good enough. It just was not good enough, which is why we so stridently called for the minister to put in place a full import risk analysis.
I again congratulate my Senate colleagues—in particular, Senator John ‘Wacka’ Williams, Senator Chris Back, Senator Richard Colbeck, Senator Julian McGauran and the leader of the pack Senator Bill Heffernan. Without Bill’s input we would not be at the stage right now where the minister has changed his mind. Bill belled this cat long before anybody else and has done an extremely good job of making sure the Australian people knew what was going on—as have the rest of us. It was a coalition effort. If it were not for the inquiry, if it were not for my coalition colleagues and me raising this issue, nothing would have happened. The government would not have done a thing. This process would have started on 1 March and most Australians would not have known about it. It would simply be happening without the right processes having been undertaken, without the right protocols having been put in place, without knowing that the proper stringent process had been gone through before the minister had made his decision. This is the key point.
Witnesses who came before the inquiry said this is all about trade—that we cannot deny access to these other countries because the science says there is negligible risk and we do not want to risk trade retaliation. Even if you agree with that principle, you must agree that the proper processes should have been gone through before the minister made the decision to change the arrangements that were in place. That is simply a no-brainer. The proper processes were not in place. I rarely congratulate anyone in the Rudd government for anything. While I certainly do not congratulate the whole government, I do give a tick to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Tony Burke, because he listened to what the problems were. He listened to the people and he listened to the concerns raised by coalition senators through the inquiry that the government had simply got it wrong and needed a better process. From that, we have seen the IRA put in place.
We have been accused of scaremongering, and some sectors of the beef industry have tried to give us a belting, but I will never take a backward step in doing the right thing for people across the country, particularly those who are involved in agriculture—in this instance, the beef industry. As a National Party senator, it was about doing the right thing not only for Australian consumers as a whole but, in particular, for the beef industry so that they knew the right process had been gone through and that it was fair.
The private senator’s bill before us today does three things, as my very good colleague Senator Williams referred to earlier. It insists on a full import risk analysis, it insists on equivalence when it comes to identification in overseas countries and it insists on labelling. Interestingly, the government has already agreed on two of those three areas, so one would hope that they will insist on equivalence. They have been saying all along that equivalence is very important and that we have to have it. So there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for the government not to support this bill. If the government do not support this bill, they will actually be going back on the things they have said are important and that they would agree to. They have agreed to an import risk analysis, they have agreed to labelling, and they have said in the past that they think there should be equivalence. So there is absolutely no reason for the government not to support this bill.
With that, I will conclude my remarks. Again, I thank and congratulate my colleagues for the work they have done to raise this issue and make sure that we got the right outcome for the Australian people. The fact that the minister has changed his mind and we have a full import risk analysis goes partway there. We know there is still more to do to make this process perfect. But, thanks to the committee, the inquiry and the people of Australia, the import risk analysis is now in place. I am certain that the committee will continue to keep a watching brief over this to ensure that the right thing is done not only by the beef industry but by people right across the country.