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Ardern: NZ Biosecurity Institute Conference

Shane Ardern MP
National Party Biosecurity Spokesman

26 July 2006

Address to NZ Biosecurity Institute 2006 Conference

Thank you for the invitation to speak to you today. I have always been passionate about New Zealand and in particular our countryside.

As a Taranaki dairy farmer, I understand the need to protect our primary industries against incursions. As a politician I want to ensure that we play our part in protecting our environment and our valuable primary industries.

Like many New Zealanders, as a young man my focus was on working hard, buying a farm and then struggling to make the mortgage payments. The outside world was just that – outside, not really my business. However, as time went on I realised that decisions made outside the farm gate were having a direct impact on my life.

These decisions appeared to me to be made by people who were out of touch. This was the reason I entered politics at a local branch level. The end result was becoming the MP for Taranaki-King Country eight years ago when the Rt. Hon. Jim Bolger resigned. For the past four years I have been the National Party Biosecurity Spokesman.

I am known as a politician who speaks out if I think something is wrong. Recently I did that when a school teacher in New Plymouth was threatened with court action over the killing of a possum which was trapped in a school hall cupboard. I spoke up in the teacher’s defence. This was a possum – a pest and what was more important, a trapped possum in a hall full of school children. In other words, a threat to the children.

The uproar was incredible. One doctor from Christchurch emailed and accused me of being the cause of all the problems and violence that we have with our youth today. According to this doctor, the possum had rights, I had no integrity, and basically I should resign. How far we have moved from understanding the damage pests are causing to our country and getting our priorities right.

There are too many people who have plenty to say, but don’t put their hand up and always sit at the back of the hall. They are never prepared to step up and be counted, and for that reason I congratulate the New Zealand Biosecurity Institute, its members and the audience today. You obviously care about New Zealand and you are prepared to make a difference.

I see the role of the politician as one that requires doing what he or she can to ensure our nation’s future.

In the past five years there have been 229 new organisms enter New Zealand. We cannot claim that we have the “best biosecurity system in the world”. We are not managing our biosecurity risks and we are in danger of losing the battle. If the Painted Apple Moth incursion achieved one thing, it was the recognition that biosecurity is not just a rural problem. It woke New Zealanders up to the fact that we are all in this together and, more importantly, eradication can be achieved.

New Zealand’s isolation has given us a special environment to enjoy and protect but increasing trade and tourism means greater biosecurity risk.

The question that has to be asked is how much insurance is too much? And how much is not enough?

Do we fight or do we give up and open up our borders to what some people are saying is the inevitable invasion?

The most dangerous enemy for biosecurity at the moment is a culture of apathy that has started to appear and an almost indecent willingness and haste to think that it is too hard to stop incursions and protect our borders.

We are too slow to react and we are too quick to dismiss eradication as an option. Well I don’t accept that it is too hard, I don’t accept that we have to live with more and more incursions entering our borders, and I will not accept that we should give up.

The tax monies we allocate to this task are, and should be widely understood as, an investment. It is an investment to preserve our environment and a way to lower prohibitive costs in the future.

There are three threads to the management of biosecurity in New Zealand:
prevention of incursions, management of incursions, and eradication of incursions. They must all work effectively to provide a biosecurity net that will protect our primary industries, our environment, and our economy and our health from the devastating effects of an imported disease or pest.

The prevention of incursions has to be at our borders. The control at the borders is failing. The latest Auditor-General’s report on high-risk containers was a damning report. The Auditor-General was critical of the Government’s efforts to protect New Zealand's biosecurity. The report found the ministry had fallen down in its handling of sea containers deemed to be of high risk.

It highlighted problems with training of inspection officers, identifying high-risk containers, and a lack of prosecutions. The ministry was also criticised for failing to implement changes asked for by the Auditor-General four years ago.

Many of you here today are struggling with management and eradication efforts as a result of those incursions. You know the cost, you know the fight and you know how difficult it will be to achieve success.

Four years! That is far too long to have high-risk containers entering our borders without stringent controls.

In 2004/05 MAF found the following on aircraft passengers:

15.855 tonnes fruit fly material
8.243 tonnes meat products
3.782 tonnes seeds/grain
2.981 tonnes dairy products
45.626 units cut flowers/foliage.

Any one of these has the potential to cause untold damage to New Zealand, and MAF estimate that at least 10% get through our controls.

Clearly our $200 instant fine is not working as a deterrent.

In 2005 we issued 7,627 instant fines. Of those, 5,316 were for visitors. We have to do something and what we should do is deport visitors who deliberately flout our biosecurity laws.

I am not talking about the person who forgets they have an apple or piece of fruit on them. I am talking about the thousands of visitors who deliberately try to sneak food, plants or animals through our borders.

Obviously we need to upgrade and improve our education in airlines and at our international airports. For New Zealand citizens we need to increase the instant fine to an appropriate level - to make them think twice before they take the risk of trying to bring in an item that is illegal.

This isn’t a game! Their stupidity comes at a cost which is too high for New Zealanders to pay.

The management of incursions means we must all work as a team. It involves Biosecurity NZ, it involves the Government, it involves regional and local councils, scientists and the local communities. It takes leadership, it takes commitment and it takes planning. We have the enthusiasm for the task, but we lack leadership from the Government.

At the moment there is no emergency response contingency and precious time is wasted while agencies wait for Cabinet to receive reports and make a decision. Too often the time wasted has meant that eradication has been dismissed as an option.

The question must be asked: has it been dismissed too quickly?

We have seen how hard it is to control certain incursions. It was with huge sorrow that just recently the Varroa bee mite was discovered in Nelson.

I know that many of you are involved in trying to fight the Argentine Ant and the Salt Marsh mosquito. The Huntsman spider is continuing to march throughout both islands and the Clover Weevil is now firmly established in the South Island.

The estimated cost of just a few of these run into hundreds of millions of dollars. It is appallingly short-sighted of any Government to give up at the first hurdle, and it doesn’t make economic or environmental sense to give them permanent residence without a fight.

A perfect example of this is the spread of Didymo, and it is a good example of what is wrong with New Zealand’s biosecurity systems.

The new Minister of Biosecurity, Jim Anderton, was quoted as saying that “he did not regard Didymo as a major threat”! Officials quickly took him to the South Island so he could see the damage Didymo is doing to our environment, tourism, fishing, irrigation schemes, and the threat posed to our hydro power.

I was surprised and alarmed to learn that when Didymo was first discovered, Cabinet chose the weakest response option available to them, that is, a focus on public awareness.

It didn’t work and it didn’t need a brain surgeon to know that it wouldn’t work. The notices were confusing and scarce, and it was people, not wildlife (as first thought) that spread Didymo to other waterways.

So we have already made several costly errors. Wetsuits, waders and other water equipment are not automatically cleaned before entering our shores. Didymo was probably introduced this way.

Secondly, when discovered, the waterway was not closed off immediately. And so it spread. Thirdly – there was no “plan of action” set up. Instead, regional groups and Biosecurity NZ had to send recommendations to Cabinet and wait for their decision. I hasten to add that these decisions are the responsibility of a government. Our biosecurity people are often tied up with bureaucracy and an outdated Biosecurity Act.

Reaction time is crucial and costly. And in this case it has cost a great deal to New Zealand. The Minister continues to mock my plea that generic systems be set in place so that when an incursion is discovered, Biosecurity NZ can, along with regional groups, react swiftly and not wait for the protracted Cabinet decision.

Interestingly, Biosecurity NZ, along with eminent biosecurity experts, also support generic schemes. Only the Minister is against them. I don’t know why, because they make sense. He suggested it would be a waste of money. Well, how does he balance that against the predicted $285 million that Didymo will cost us - more than the $62.4 million it cost to eradicate the Painted Apple Moth? And the list goes on.

But these are only the short-term financial costs, not the long-term cost and not the environmental cost. That is why spending in this area should properly be thought of as an investment. The further Didymo spreads, the increase in the likelihood it will inevitably reach the North Island and that eradication and even control ceases to be an option.

But what actions have been put in place to try to stop Didymo reaching our North Island waterways? Very little!

Recreational groups are trying to get funding to advertise the threat and the methods of prevention, and are begging councils and the Government to take a more active role. There was no money in this year’s budget for Didymo control, and although recently there has been some long-term funding announced for Didymo and other incursions, there have been no details released. I am currently seeking clarification from the Minister.

My biggest concern is that there is an atmosphere within the Government that with increased trade, incursions are inevitable and we will just have to live with them.

New Zealand is threatened by thousands of exotic species that could cause harm. Some are well known with recognised impacts, while others are not recognised as pests until too late. We need more work done and knowledge available on the impact of these species on our unique habitat.

The long-term impact of what is perceived as non-threatening could turn out to be as devastating as Foot and Mouth.

A major debate in Parliament surrounded the decision by Biosecurity NZ to allow imported honey into New Zealand. I had spoken with scientists and beekeepers, and received a briefing from the Minister’s office on this topic. With all the information I received there was no doubt in my mind that we were gambling by allowing honey from Australia into New Zealand and potentially import European Foulbrood along with it.

The industry and I agreed with them, and asked for more time. They asked that independent scientists do further tests. We must comply with our trade agreements, but any decision has to be based on good science and we are allowed to refuse to import if it creates a risk to our own products or environment.

What is also not widely publicised is the fact that once we allow one country to import a product, then we have to allow other countries. The Minister’s officials assured me that health import standards would be stringently applied. I think the Auditor-General’s report has poured scorn on that assurance!

Why, at this stage, with our bee industry already suffering from the Varroa bee mite, do we put our pastoral and agricultural industry at risk by allowing the importation of honey without more time to adjust? We are one of the few countries in the world that can export pure honey; that is, honey which has not had antibiotics introduced to fight European Foulbrood.

The Minister and the Director-General of Biosecurity NZ have both told me they cannot guarantee that imported honey would not contain European Foulbrood. So why take the risk? We know they cannot provide tests that show this honey is 100% safe.

The Minister and Biosecurity NZ have taken a huge gamble in allowing these imports.

Reports show that the primary sector offers the best hopes for transforming New Zealand’s economy. Those in the industry already know this, and it is a shame that we have a Minister and a Government that hinder this progress.

Seventy two per cent of all goods exported are generated from the primary sector. We cannot afford to take biosecurity risks that could damage that industry. What we need is to:

- Ensure generic strategies are developed with input from industry before incursions take hold.

- Increase the priority for surveillance including more emphasis on marine biosecurity.

- Introduce a biosecurity emergency response capability to enable swift responses to major biosecurity threats.

- Increase instant fines and deport those who are deliberating flouting our biosecurity laws. This will be in conjunction with improved public education and explicit warnings of instant fines and deportation for offenders.

- Ensure that container inspections are thorough and technology updated, and that used vehicle imports are subject to stringent inspections.

- Regularly monitor the new biosecurity structure to ensure it is delivering the best service to New Zealand.

- Review the Biosecurity Act.

- Investigate synergies between Customs and MAF staff at airports and other entry points into New Zealand.

I have worked hard in the biosecurity portfolio because I believe it is vital to the future success of New Zealand.

If it is naive, as my opponents have suggested, to work towards having strong border controls, if it is naive to believe that we can stop the large number of incursions taking residence in New Zealand, then I would rather be naive than accept the alternative.

We have a great number of experienced scientists, pan groups and workers, all prepared to say that we want to fight to retain the New Zealand that we know. We want to pass on to our children and future generations a country that we can continue to be proud of.

I am delighted to spend time with a group of people who care as passionately as I do about New Zealand and its environment, and are committed to working towards that aim.

ENDS

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