Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP calls for stronger biodiversity laws

1 August 2023


Part 1

Part 2


 I rise today in support of the Biosecurity Amendment (Advanced Compliance Measures) Bill 2023, which updates the Biosecurity Act to ensure the legislation is fit for purpose in managing emerging biosecurity risks and that penalties reflect the seriousness of the offences. I recently spoke to Lyall Grieve, from the Invasive Species Council, and I'm very grateful for the work that they are doing to advocate for strong biosecurity laws and enforcement in Australia.

Biosecurity laws are incredibly important. This is important work, and its success is crucial for Australia's environment, agriculture and economy. Their work is especially important in highlighting the importance of addressing threats to the environment, as well as to agriculture and forestry. This is something that is incredibly important as we strive for a nature-positive environment. That is too often overlooked when we talk of biosecurity. The focus is on agriculture, not on biodiversity loss and the risks to native flora and fauna. Awareness of that link needs to be increased from the minister's perspective.

I don't have to convince this parliament or the Australian people of the significant threat that invasive species, diseases and pests pose to Australia's environment and economy. Our biosecurity system protects our agriculture, forestry and fishery export industries, which are worth some $51 billion; our tourism sector, which is worth $50 billion; our environmental assets, which are worth more than $5.7 trillion; and more than 1.6 million jobs.

Some of the top biosecurity concerns include foot-and-mouth disease, which recently broke out in Indonesian cattle. An outbreak in Australia would cripple the livestock sector, cause immense animal suffering, destroy business for farmers, create food insecurity and have massive trade impacts for Australia.

Another continuing threat is the varroa mite. We're fighting to eradicate it from New South Wales beehives. It is a year since it was first detected in Newcastle and new infestations continue to be discovered. Eradication efforts will continue for at least three years.

Beekeepers in my neighbouring electorate have, sadly, had to euthanise their hives to prevent the spread of this parasite which has already caused tens of millions of dollars of financial loss. The consequences for agriculture and the environment of a significantly reduced bee population are truly scary as well.

Australia is also struggling to contain the spread of red imported fire ants, which were first identified in Brisbane in 2001. When funding to eradicate the ants was prematurely reduced, new incursions led to several new populations spreading. Now, more than 20 years later, Australia is still striving to eliminate red fire ants, and populations have been found in Sydney. If red fire ants become established in Australia, it's projected that it will cost us $1.2 billion, along with more emergency room presentations, loss of the use of outdoor spaces and a 40 per cent reduction in farming output. Fire ants have caused more than 85 deaths in the United States and would have significant impacts on native wildlife.

The discovery in February of myrtle rust, a highly infectious and invasive fungus native to South America, has recently led to nearly 70 per cent of Lord Howe Island being closed to non-essential businesses. Rusts like myrtle rust spread rapidly over thousands of kilometres on wind currents and can cause huge losses in plant production. Myrtle rust on the east coast of Australia has already caused the near extinction of at least three rainforest species. In agriculture, wheat rust has been estimated to have cost hundreds of millions of dollars. We've been lucky to date that we've only been subjected to the least dangerous form of the rust.

We need greater assessment of the risk that rusts and insects can pose to our native environment, and we need improved prevention methods against their spread. Right now in Western Australia a borer mite is spreading, and, if this gets to the east coast, it would have a devastating impact. It impacts a wide variety of native species, including Moreton Bay figs. Imagine Sydney's iconic parks, like the Botanic Garden or Hyde Park, without those glorious trees.

It would also be difficult for Australians to forget the consequences of failing to prevent early human biosecurity breaches during the COVID pandemic. We have become all too well aware of the importance of that. A report by the Inspector-General of Biosecurity in relation to the Ruby Princess cruise ship prompted many of the amendments to the Biosecurity Act proposed by this bill. It was identified that the Biosecurity Act needed to be amended to provide greater flexibility in managing human biosecurity risks and provide greater penalties for breaches.

Biosecurity threats to Australia continue to grow each year. Australia is home to a unique and fragile natural environment, and protecting it requires consistent adaptation and updating of our biosecurity practices. Threats to Australia's agriculture industry from pests and the like are extremely important and well publicised. However, it's equally important to remember that our natural environment is at risk from biosecurity threats as well. As we move towards rebuilding Australia's environment and meeting our climate targets for 2030, it's extremely important that our government remains focused on our environment. It's fragile, it's unique and, in many areas, it's already under strain from the effects of climate change, so we must ensure that our biosecurity laws and processes are geared towards protecting the environment as much as agriculture.

Since the year 2000, Australia has recorded 136 incursions by 106 invasive species. These are species established in the wild that have been assessed as environmental invaders or noted as potentially having an environmental impact. The continuing increase in global trade and tourism, and climate change exacerbate the risk of new incursions and the spread of existing pests and diseases.

I commend the government for strengthening the Biosecurity Act with these proposed amendments. But it's also vital that adequate resources be allocated to the identification and eradication of biosecurity risks, and enforcement of penalties. The funding needs to be ongoing and sustainable to safeguard our agricultural sector and ensure our natural environment is protected. Powers of enforcement and increased penalties will be useless if there are inadequate resources for contingency planning, surveillance programs, research, and the policing of biosecurity.

Threats to biosecurity must be treated as seriously as cyberthreats. A systemic program which includes key performance indicators for compliance programs also should be introduced. In this regard, I support the position of the Invasive Species Council that the cost of biosecurity services should be primarily borne by risk creators—for example, the importers of exotic plants and animals. We must also strengthen environmental biosecurity capacity, resourcing and focus so that they are at the same level as those for agriculture. So I urge the government to strengthen Australia's biosecurity by ensuring it is properly resourced and securely funded across all areas, and for the natural environment as well as for agriculture.