Biosecurity Legislation Amendment (Incident Response) Bill 2023

Melina BATH (Eastern Victoria) (15:08): I am pleased to rise to make my contribution to the Biosecurity Legislation Amendment (Incident Response) Bill 2023, affectionately known as the BLAIR bill. In doing so I want to put on record my thanks to our current Shadow Minister for Agriculture Emma Kealy in the other place and indeed our former Shadow Minister for Agriculture the Honourable Peter Walsh. To say that this has been an interest of mine is an understatement, and I am very keen to see elements of this bill go through. The bill really focuses on three particular acts – the Livestock Disease Control Act 1994, the Plant Biosecurity Act 2010 and the Livestock Management Act 2010 – and is designed to strengthen emergency management procedures and traceability and control outbreaks of exotic animal diseases, external parasites and significant plant diseases. It is supposed to mitigate, minimise and control what would decimate our livestock and our horticultural and pollination industries. It would cripple our food and fibre industry in Victoria should some of these very exotic diseases infiltrate and decimate our farms, our livelihoods.

I grew up on a dairy farm, and I know very much the importance of being a farmer. I know their value – that when the rest of the state goes into lockdown the essential services are farms and food production – and I thank all those people every day for the work they do to put food on our plates and clothes on our backs and provide wool for our blankets et cetera. We have a world-class dairy industry: sheep, pigs, beef, wool fibre, poultry and even niche market livestock such as goats, turkeys and even rabbits for our domestic and international plates – somewhere in the vicinity of $85 billion in ag production and value across Victoria, somewhere in the vicinity of 21,000 farms and thousands upon thousands of workers every day. These farms, particularly livestock farms, focus on animal welfare, and they focus on keeping biosecurity measures at a premium.

Let me give you an example of one that I really want to focus on. I want to focus on clause 96, to start with, in this bill, which looks at the Livestock Management Act 2010. One of those particular farmers, whose evidence I want to read into Hansard, was a Tyabb chicken farmer who presented to our animal activist inquiry hearing, which I introduced and the government tweaked the wording of and ran in 2019. Indeed we had many and varied submissions and a broad range of opinions and investigations and hearings. The gentleman, the Tyabb chicken meat farmer, came and spoke, but he asked for his name to be withheld. It is in the minority report that the Nationals and Liberals put out, but you can also go and look at it online. He said:

“They manage our farm under strict biosecurity with locks on all gates and appropriate legal signage. We have footbaths to sanitise all footwear. We have a visitors declaration for contact with any avian species or pigs before they are allowed to enter our farm and that is for disease control, particularly the H5N1 bird virus and 1LT, which is rife in the industry and easily spread on people’s bodies.”

At this same inquiry we also heard this gentleman speak about how animal activists thought they had not just the right to protest – people have the right to law-abiding protest – but the right to storm onto this person’s farm. The house, as we know, is often directly beside the shed, the farm or whatever. They stormed onto their home and farm, and 70 people spray-painted it, yelled abuse at this farmer and his wife and stormed into that shed and ended up suffocating over 300 birds. This is not what we would call peaceful protest; to identify this non-acceptable behaviour, this is vigilantism, and I will always call this out. All sides of this house should call that out and mitigate it.

Indeed as part of the other investigation into that animal activist inquiry there were people who I became very friendly with. Now, unfortunately, John has passed on, but there were John and Penny Gommans from the Gippy Goat case, where 70 people – I wonder if they were the same people – also thought it would be a good idea to enter that property unlawfully and steal a goat. I met the Italian vet who actually worked on that farm on a daily basis and supervised Gippy Goat farm. Through abuse online they also shut down a cafe and displaced workers who were working in the local area of Yarragon. These are not things that I think should be praised. These are things that should be condemned.

Moving on, both John and this gentleman – and others – spoke to our inquiry about suitable on-the-spot fine penalties and how where there is a biosecurity breach those should be implemented, and strong penalties they had.

There is just one other thing that I thought I would put on record. I know we have a pig inquiry happening in the Economy and Infrastructure Committee, so this is from Rivalea Australia and was in one of their submissions. This is a particular piggery site, and they spoke about some of the biosecurity measures that they implement on a daily and weekly basis:

“We shower in. We monitor vehicle movements. We use company clothing and boots. We use exclusion periods between contact with pigs and restrictions for staff. We have exclusion bans on bringing pork, naturally, into the site – ham, bacon et cetera. We have cleanliness materials brought into the piggery site. All must be clean and free of organic matter.”

There is a list of things that farmers do on a regular basis to keep out these sorts of biosecurity incidents and problems.

John Gommans and others put on record that they felt that there should be on average a $23,000 penalty for biosecurity breaches where farms had those biosecurity plans in place and then up to $440,000 for organisations, corporations et cetera.

Moving on, after that occurred the report was tabled, back at the start of 2020. The government of the day, which is now the Allan government but was then the Andrews government, took another two years to bother to bring around the livestock management amendment animal activist debate. It was debated in 2022. That was very tardy, and it was quite stressful for those farmers, who deserve to have better protection to deter. Now, people are going to be obstinate, stupid and vigilantes. We need to have proper deterrents there. What we do know is that at the time of that debate on behalf The Nationals and the Liberals I moved an amendment to have the exact penalties put in that legislation that are now in clause 96 today.

So I am not saying, ‘Wow, well done.’ I am just saying that the government for whatever reason refused to listen back in that period of time in 2022. What I do know, looking up the Hansard and the discussion by Ms Tierney – and I will speak to Ms Tierney in a minute; she is one of the many agriculture ministers that this Labor government has had. She said that this advice on the penalties was provided by the Department of Justice and Community Safety and they were considered to be consistent with other penalties in the Livestock Management Act 2010. Now I guess I question whether or not that did come from the department, because for whatever reason the same department is now – and welcomely so – through the government looking at doubling those penalties against these sorts of people coming on farm.

One other thing that we did, in the lower house Mr Walsh and me in the upper house, was move a private members bill that looked to address that problem at the time. It also looked at the licensed riverfrontages and access to those. The Liberals and Nationals felt the need to ensure that a licensed river frontage had the same legal protections as a freehold piece of land or one that was rented and therefore considered to be that farming property. Again this government did not want to give that sort of protection to farmers.

One thing I know in speaking with Ian Cane, who lives just out of Bairnsdale in East Gippsland – he has been an apiarist for 40 years – is the vitality and the importance of our apiary industry and pollination industry. We saw very concerningly sometime in about August last year there was an infiltration via ships, I am sure, into Newcastle and therefore varroa mite hit the land of Australia and was making its way down. Indeed it was seen at the top of the Murray River not far from Victoria – not far from Mildura – and I would like to put on record my thanks to the minister at the time, Minister Tierney, for giving us a briefing. I asked a number of questions at question time in relation to mitigation and protection and those biosecurity commitments and requirements to mitigate this terrible varroa mite.

I know up there there was an eradication program. It is very important to have that communication between federal government and state government and between state governments, and I think some of the information that is contained within this bill is about making those better communications. But one of the concerns I have is that at the end of the day, varroa mite is here, and it felt like there was a bit of indecision about, ‘Will we try eradication or will there be containment?’ I think, in speaking with Ian Cane, there needs to be significant funds put into mitigation and containment. It is a bit like that other thing that we had a couple of years ago – you are never going to eradicate it once it is in the system.

We have heard from a number of speakers, so I will not go on in a great level of detail, about foot-and-mouth and lumpy skin disease, and indeed I know the acting chair spoke about mad cow disease in the UK. That absolutely decimated the economy, but how devastating must it be for farmers to see their prized stock with decades of blood lines having to be destroyed in protection? We understand why, but we do not need that in our regions – in our country, nor in our state. Certainly there were traces of foot-and-mouth disease found in pig product in Melbourne, and that caused a great deal of alarm.

What I do have a question about, and I know Emma Kealy raised this during the bill briefing and at other times, is the staff required should there be a massive outbreak of a significant nature, an exotic disease outbreak. The government has assured us that they are going to, I guess, redirect some 5000 extra staff from other places, migrating them from other departments, and my concern around that is: what level of professionalism or skill set will they have to mitigate and to be really helpful and supportive in the ag department? We know the agricultural department has had cuts over recent times.

As you can see, there are a number of issues that I would particularly like to discuss. I think my time is running out. I see that there are some amendments, and I know we will speak more to those. I believe that the Greens amendments and the Animal Justice amendment, should they hit our floor, will certainly not be things that we will support. We want protection for our farmers. We feel that law-abiding farmers should have protection. If that means additional penalties to deter activists, then that is something that we would certainly support. It will be interesting in committee of the whole, and I wish this a speedy passage.