Ovine Johne's Disease
OVINE JOHNE’S DISEASE
Mr AMERY (Mount Druitt - Minister for Agriculture) [3.17 p.m.]: I move:
I thank the House for being convinced by my argument as to why my motion should be treated as urgent. Ovine Johne’s disease is a serious disease which has been explained on numerous occasions in this House, and I will not take up the time of the House to explain it again. Currently 186 properties in New South Wales have been classified as infected. The disease is causing increasing and severe personal financial hardship not only to affected producers but to other sheep producers in areas where there are infected properties. Infected or suspected properties cannot sell sheep other than for slaughter. Property values of infected properties have been reduced markedly and some regions have become blacklisted as being unsafe areas from which to purchase restock of sheep.
Whilst the consequences of the disease are bad enough for commercial breeders of flock sheep, they are catastrophic for the stud breeders whose livelihoods depend on the sale of stud rams and ewes to other breeders. In addition to the losses to the individual producer, loss of the superior genetic seed stock from sheep studs is a loss to Australia’s entire $4 billion per year sheep industry. If immediate action is not taken to control the spread of ovine Johne’s disease it can be guaranteed that the disease will spread throughout all States of Australia and become a serious national problem. This situation is one which should cause great concern to the Federal Government as it does to the State Government. An ongoing detailed surveillance program undertaken by New South Wales Agriculture and rural lands protection boards indicates that in New South Wales the disease is largely localised within the central tablelands and that the majority of cases outside this area can be directly linked to movements of sheep from the central tablelands.
The situation in other States is much better than in New South Wales, with no cases being recorded in Western Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania, apart from Flinders Island, and only one case in South Australia. Already last summer Victoria embarked on a preliminary eradication program but several new infected flocks have since been detected. A special market assurance program developed by industry and government veterinarians is now operational and already 12 flocks have met the requirement to join the scheme. This includes some of our large merino studs. Many more flocks are in the process of joining and this will help to provide a source of clean sheep.
Fortunately, recent investigation into a possible trace-back involving major poll Dorset studs has failed to produce any evidence of infection and many of these properties will now be included in the market assurance program. This means that if decisive action is taken this summer, New South Wales and Australia can localise the disease and progressively eradicate it. To ensure eradication, infected properties need to be destocked for at least 15 months, including two summers, to ensure that all infected organisms on the property are killed. Organisms are very sensitive to heat and it is essential that a commitment is made for financial support of the program to allow affected producers to commence an eradication program this summer.
The substance of the motion is that the Agricultural Resource Management Council of Australia and New Zealand, known as ARMCANZ, agreed at its Darwin meeting in August this year to endorse the proposed national program for control and progressive eradication of ovine Johne’s disease, subject to consultation within jurisdictions. Judging from the speech last night by the honourable member for Southern Highlands, she agrees with the progressive eradication of ovine Johne’s disease. Despite this pledge, which was made under the chairmanship of Mr John Anderson, Federal Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, the Commonwealth Government has yet to honour this agreement and financially commit itself to the program. This delay has already seen the anticipated start of this campaign delayed from 1 December 1997 to 1 January 1998. Failure by Mr Anderson and the Federal Liberal and National Party Government to make this commitment is placing the national ovine Johne’s disease program in peril.
If a positive financial commitment by the Federal Government is not immediately forthcoming, the campaign cannot commence this summer, and will be delayed for 12 months. Any further delay may well mean that eradication will never be successful and that Australia will be forced to live with this disease and its associated control costs, production losses and possible trade restrictions. In New South Wales at least 30 affected producers have prepared property disease eradication plans to commence this summer, subject to financial assistance for eradication. If this financial assistance is delayed or is not forthcoming, the considerable momentum to eradicate this disease that currently exists within the farming community will be lost or seriously delayed.
It is vitally important that the Federal Government provide financial support for assistance to affected producers and for operational expenses to help run the campaign. National Party members and Liberal Party members in country seats should also take this matter up with the Federal Minister because signals have been received from Canberra that indicate that the Federal Government considers its existing contribution to research is all that is required. Much of this research is directed at cattle Johne’s disease and not the sheep Johne’s disease, and still the Federal Government is trying to claim credits. This is definitely not the case and it was never the intention, following the ARMCANZ resolution, that governments would make in-kind contributions to this program.
Industry has already given a commitment to fund 50 per cent of the costs associated with the eradication program over a 10-year-period, subject to an equivalent contribution from government. The amount of money required to eradicate this disease is not excessive if the Federal Government and all State governments contribute. The initial estimates presented to ARMCANZ were $38.2 million. I understand that revised estimates, prepared by the Australian Animal Health Council in consultation with industry, now place this figure at approximately $50 million. This would be shared by the industry picking up 50 per cent and the Federal Government and State Government agreeing on a formula for the whole program to be jointly funded. On many occasions the farming community has put to the Government that industry is not prepared to fund an eradication program unless government provides dollar-for-dollar funding. I use the generic term "government" to include the Federal Government and State governments.
If the Federal Government met its expected contribution of 25 per cent, this would amount to only $12.5 million over a 10-year period, that is, $1.25 million from the Federal Government per annum. This is a modest amount for a disease that the Government is trying to contain within New South Wales and ultimately to eradicate. It is important that the Federal Government supports the progressive eradication of ovine Johne’s disease in a clear and positive manner. The Federal Minister and all State Ministers were present at the ARMCANZ meeting, as, I understand, were representatives from New Zealand, which has been living with Johne’s disease for 30 years. The feeling at that meeting was very positively that the disease could be eradicated. The Federal Government should immediately contribute $12.5 million for financial assistance and operational expenditure. I am sure that the Opposition will ask what the State Government is doing about funding. I give an assurance that the matter is before Treasury, and the Government has not suggested that it will not meet its commitment to this program. All State governments should contribute and the Federal Government must make an equal commitment. This clearly signals that the Federal Government is prepared to act rather than just talk about the problem.
Only last night this matter was raised by the honourable member for Southern Highlands. She said that many farmers in her electorate had been suffering as a result of controls placed on their properties. Wool producers can still get wool from sheep that are not severely affected or send them to slaughter, but the farmers most seriously affected are the stud breeders. Though the honourable member for Southern Highlands indicated that I had not received advice from some people in her electorate,
I have received a deputation from stud breeders around the State and an organisation that briefed her also visited me in Sydney to discuss how the eradication program should be implemented. That organisation argued for a progressive program over an extended period to give industry an opportunity to put in place market assurance and other projects. This motion should be agreed to, to enable a resolution to be sent to the Federal Government and a response to be obtained. The Australian Animal Health Council has until the end of this month to report on the mechanics and the nuts and bolts of raising the industry levy. The Government is awaiting that advice and a commitment from the Federal Government that it will honour the pledge and positive spirit of the ARMCANZ meeting held in Darwin in August.
Mr ARMSTRONG (Lachlan - Leader of the National Party) [3.27 p.m.]: Two principles must be strictly observed in this process. The first is that as Minister in charge of animal health in this State, the Minister for Agriculture, has to provide the money. He cannot move an urgent motion and then say that the matter of the commitment of New South Wales is before Treasury. The people of New South Wales believe Cabinet is in charge of their State and that it should be a simple matter for the Minister to present a minute to Cabinet. I am sure that 90 per cent of people would have thought he had already done that and received approval. The second essential principle is that full industry co-operation is necessary. This disease cannot be eradicated by groups or individuals in isolation. That brings me to the politics of this disease, be it professional politics of governments trying to make points off each other - State to Federal or State to State - or, more to the point, politics within the industry. I am pleased that the Minister referred to the stud industry because unarguably New South Wales has the cauldron on the fundamental genes of the fine wool industry in the world today. New South Wales fine wool sheep have the most significant and historically valuable genes in the world. Therefore, New South Wales has a different mission to other sheep countries when it tries to eradicate ovine Johne’s disease.
From time to time it is argued that other sheep countries have ovine Johne’s disease and have learnt to live with it. New South Wales has a cauldron of world-superior genetics, which cannot be replicated. It is a nonsense to talk about a major cloning operation involving a number of foundation studs in the case of an emergency. Every ewe would have to be cloned. The cloning of 5,000 ewes would cost at least $15 million and a clean property would have to be found. This is an impractical proposition so far as the concentration of family groupings and genetic space within the studs is concerned. We have to control and eradicate ovine Johne’s disease. As the Minister for Agriculture said, a number of flocks have been identified. However, few flocks have been identified subsequent to the initial identification. The Minister did not get off his proverbial butt and do something about this until the New South Wales Farmers Association and the rural lands protection boards put a plan together. Since the initial identification of ovine Johne’s disease, more flocks would have contracted it but farmers have not come forward.
The rumour and innuendo that are being circulated for commercial reasons from farmer to farmer and district to district have become rampant. Serious trade barriers have been applied to some people in the stud business. The New South Wales Government has displayed a lack of leadership; it has failed to understand the magnitude of the problem. Secondary trading embargoes have been imposed on some stud breeders; a rumour machine is running rampant; and many farmers are not prepared to have their sheep tested. Ovine Johne’s disease is difficult to test - one has to kill the sheep and test the lining of the gut. A blood test is approximately 95 per cent accurate on 40 per cent of the flock and a faeces test is only 50 per cent accurate. Over the past decade many flocks have been tested on a regular basis for internal parasite infections. The veterinary laboratories at Armidale and Wagga Wagga used to test for such parasites. However, since the closure of those laboratories the rate of testing in the New England area has fallen from 70 per cent to 20 per cent.
Mr Schultz: That is a disgrace.
Mr ARMSTRONG: Yes, it is. The Minister waited for his department to give him the answers. The disease has a long incubation period, and the long survival of the organism in the environment, the shedding of the organism by apparently normal but infected sheep, and the unreliability of diagnostic tests that detect the disease contribute to the difficulty of detection and control. The Minister’s motion is responsible and we respect it. However, we want to know why he has not shown leadership. He should take charge of what is essentially the leprosy of sheep in this State.
Some honourable members may question the value of the sheep industry to the New South Wales and Australian economies. I do not wish to get into the figures, but time and again the wool industry has been the catalyst for the revival of our economy. Despite the fact that returns for wool are somewhat
depressed, the industry is still the backbone of the rural economy west of the mountains in New South Wales. It is a reliable income earner year in and year out. The industry cannot lose its stock and then rebuild it in a short period of time; we cannot allow the base stock to disappear.
A compensation scheme has been developed for farmers whose flocks will be eradicated. They will have to spell their properties for up to 18 months, over two summers. I question what I understand to be the range of valuations that have been arrived at, particularly for stud ewes. Based on the current market for rams, cast for age ewes, and surplus 1½-year-old ewes, why are stud ewes not worth in the vicinity $600 a head? Perhaps the Minister will answer that question. One could do some simple mathematics on the back of a cigarette packet and work out the returns from ram, cast for age, and surplus 1½-year-old sales and auctions to see what the stud figure should be. The stud industry holds a paramount place in our economy that must be recognised. The Minister’s footprint to identify where and how widespread the disease is, is inadequate. Abattoirs have tested fewer 1,000 sheep. Why will the Minister not test across the State? He would then know how widespread the disease is. Why will he not establish a proper statewide footprint?
Mr McManus: He is doing that.
Mr ARMSTRONG: He has tested only a random sample. Honourable members from both sides of the House support the eradication of the disease. It is up to the Minister to listen to the industry, to appreciate the stud industry, to recognise that he has to stop the innuendo and the slander, to encourage people to come forward. [Time expired.]
Mr CLOUGH (Bathurst) [3.37 p.m.]: I am saddened, but not surprised, that the Leader of the National Party has made no reference to the failure of the Federal Government to assist New South Wales farmers to eradicate ovine Johne’s disease. I am equally saddened, but not surprised, that he did not support the motion of the Minister for Agriculture. Ovine Johne’s disease commenced in areas around my electorate on the central tablelands of New South Wales. I understand why farmers are trying to hide this disease - sheep are important to their livelihood. The Minister for Agriculture understands the necessity to do something about this disease, and a compensation fund has been established. However, it will not operate without the Federal Government’s involvement. The disease is prevalent in the colder areas of New South Wales, such as the central tablelands and highlands.
My constituents are committed to the eradication of the disease. Three or four months ago some of them paid their own way to New Zealand to study the New Zealand system. As the Leader of the National Party said, New Zealanders live with the disease because they cannot afford to eradicate it. The honourable member for Monaro was part of the deputation to New Zealand, which was led by Mr John Seaman. Unfortunately I was unable to be part of that delegation at that time.
The Bathurst Rural Lands Protection Board has an ongoing testing program. Urgent steps have to be taken to ensure that farmers are assisted to deal with the problem. This matter should not be the subject of argument between the State and Federal governments, and there should be no argument about availability of funds. The Federal Government has a greater responsibility than the State Government because this disease will make its way into the colder southern States. I understand the infection has spread as far as Flinders Island, off the coast of Tasmania.
If flocks are eradicated, farmers will have no income. Paddocks have to be left for at least two years in order to eliminate the virus. The effects of the virus will result in grave ramifications for the sheep industry in this country, and in particular in New South Wales. If sheep are removed from affected lands, cattle can be brought into the same area immediately because they are not affected by this strain of the disease. My constituents depend on all honourable members to support the motion. Very few of the farmers on whose behalf I speak today vote for me, but they recognise that I put their points of view in this place, as I am doing today.
Farmers are worried about the prospect that their flocks will be tested for ovine Johne’s disease and that they will be found to be infected. The only cure is eradication, but they receive no income from that. A reasonable compensation plan must be provided, to be divided equally between the producers on the one hand and the State and Federal governments on the other. I deplore the fact that the Federal Government has, in effect, failed the farming community in my area and in other areas by not making funds available for these most important programs. Ovine Johne’s disease is not a joke. It is one of the most important problems affecting farm life today.
Ms SEATON (Southern Highlands) [3.42 p.m.]: I thank the Minister for acknowledging what I said last night about ovine Johne’s disease in the southern highlands and the southern tablelands. It is important for those who have approached me in the
last year to know that at last the message is getting through. But I am concerned that he has missed the point slightly. Compensation is not the only solution to ovine Johne’s disease. It is uncertain what the State Government’s contribution would be. The Minister said today he has provided Treasury with a document, but that does not give me any joy because we all know Treasury is $500 million in the red this year.
I hope the Minister will argue assiduously for ovine Johne’s disease to be recognised in the budgetary process. As I said last night, the solution to ovine Johne’s disease involves a good deal of research and a tight and reliable method of eradication. My local producers know that until we are confident of the viability of the method we are using, we have no idea what the total financial implication will be. The figure is unknown because not enough is known about the disease or about the reliability of the method of eradication.
It is important for the Minister to recognise that he cannot avoid the State’s responsibilities on this issue. The Department of Agriculture has a pivotal role to play. The Minister is aware of some of the feedback I have received about lack of confidence in some of the research strategies that the department has recommended and followed. More research needs to be carried out into soil science and the causes of ovine Johne’s disease, and into what other vectors will spread it. A single animal test is needed, and we need to go beyond the department’s straitjacket of research. We need independent co-ordinators and researchers and we need to think outside the department’s envelope.
The Department of Agriculture is satisfied that testing which produces less than a 100 per cent result is fine, but anything less than 100 per cent OJD-free status is not all right for farmers. There is one rule for the department and one for farmers. It is the farmers and their families who pay. The stigma in regard to zoning proposals is that they will greatly affect the value of properties over time. The Minister recognises the impact of the disease on families, particularly on stud breeders who cannot continue to produce wool if their flocks are affected. Some people are relatively asset rich but are finding it difficult to hold things together.
I congratulate the Federal member for Hume and my colleagues the honourable member for Burrinjuck and the honourable member for Monaro, who have all shown great interest in and compassion about this problem. I also congratulate the staff of the member for Hume, some of whom wear a couple of different hats. One works with the Rural Lands Protection Board and others are farmers. They genuinely understand the problems and have all worked positively towards a solution. We are dealing with families, human situations, psychological problems and family break-ups. I congratulate all my colleagues on their approach to this matter.
I agree that this matter is urgent. I suspect it would not have been urgent if the Minister had taken more interest in it this time last year. I have made private members’ statements about the issue, as have some of my colleagues. I invite the Minister to visit the southern tablelands area at any time, alone and independent of the Department of Agriculture. Once he gets outside that fairly rigorous straitjacket he might begin to see some creative solutions to the problem. I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this matter today. This issue is so important to me that I devoted my entire contribution on the Address-in-Reply to it. I hope some solution can be found to this problem.
Mr McMANUS (Bulli) [3.47 p.m.]: I support the Minister again today on the issue of ovine Johne’s disease. I listened with interest last night to the contribution of the honourable member for Southern Highlands. Today she has reiterated some of the issues she raised last night. She said that the United States of America is ahead of Australia in research and that we should send people to the United States. That statement is false. This country leads research into this type of disease, and in fact the United States has called on Australian ministries for support and assistance in research. The honourable member is completely off the track with what she knows about ovine Johne’s disease.
She has called for 100 per cent accuracy in the tests. It is impossible to get 100 per cent accuracy. Has she not heard of false negatives in biological tests on human beings? A 100 per cent result cannot be achieved even for humans, yet she asks a mere Minister to achieve what medical science cannot achieve. That is absolutely ridiculous. Last night the honourable member mentioned that she was seeking a commitment for trace backs to be finished by 1 October. She said that this Government had made such a commitment. That is not true. The Government never made that commitment, simply because it was impossible to achieve it: it could not be done. I do not know why the honourable member even raised the matter.
The Federal Government is getting cold feet on this issue. The New South Wales Government is keen to see a speedy eradication of this disease, but the Federal Government will not bite the bullet and
make the same commitment that this Minister has made. When this Government came to office, what did it find in the bottom drawer? The Minister found ovine Johne’s disease, the helix cotton trash issue, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, the Sydney Market Authority and the issue concerning the rural lands protection boards. All those things were in the bottom drawer. When the former Government was in office it did nothing about those issues, yet Opposition members have the hide to abuse people on this side of the Chamber when they are trying to defend the farmers in this State. The former Government had an opportunity to do something about those issues, but it did not. I cannot believe the number of untruths that Opposition members have told in relation to these issues. Even the farming community does not believe them.
Ovine Johne’s disease is a chronic intestinal disorder caused by a tuberculosis-like bacteria. Once introduced, it spreads slowly through flocks and causes mortality in 2 to 5 per cent of adult sheep. Ovine Johne’s disease is serious. I do not believe that Opposition members should knock this Government and this Minister who are desperately trying to achieve something. If we prolong any further research into ovine Johne’s disease and it delays the start of the eradication program I guarantee that it will get out of hand. We must act immediately; we do not have any time to spare. That is why the Minister dragged this issue out of the bottom drawer and that is why he has taken the action that he has. If Opposition members want to do something to help they should get hold of John Howard and make him understand that this Minister is keen to ensure that the farmers are protected. The Minister is prepared to put money into the joint research program or any other Federal Government program but he is up against a brick wall in Canberra. Opposition members should accept the fact that the Federal Government is causing the problem. I congratulate the Minister and the Government on their efforts in this area.
Mr AMERY (Mount Druitt - Minister for Agriculture) [3.52 p.m.], in reply: I thank the Leader of the National Party, the honourable member for Southern Highlands, the honourable member for Bathurst and the honourable member for Bulli for their contributions to the debate. If all honourable members agree to this motion in a non-political sense it will send a message to Canberra that we want the Federal Government to respond to the concerns being expressed by people in rural New South Wales, by departmental officers and by veterinarians. The Federal Government appears to be reluctant to commit itself to a program which it agreed to on 8 August 1997. That is the reason for this motion. I will refer to a number of matters raised earlier by various honourable members. The Leader of the National Party, who was having a bit of fun, said that I should get off my proverbial backside and do something about ovine Johne’s disease. The honourable member for Bathurst and the honourable member for Bulli have already pointed out that I am the only Minister for Agriculture in the history of New South Wales to have said so much about ovine Johne’s disease. The Leader of the National Party is a former Minister for Agriculture. I understand that in 1991 he decreed that this issue should only be monitored.
All honourable members would be aware that since 1991 the spread of the disease has been quite dramatic. The disease was first detected in New South Wales in 1981, but by about 1989 the industry became concerned about the fact that sheep on 100 properties were affected. When this Government came to office it decided to work with the industry to determine the extent of the problem and to find some solutions. We can all have a bit of fun and point the finger and ask what party has done the most to resolve this issue. It is this Labor Government that has the runs on the board. The honourable member for Bulli said earlier that this is one of the matters that was pulled out of the bottom drawer. Those Opposition members who contributed to the debate said the matter has been referred to Treasury. I have placed before Treasury a submission to enable it to determine where money for this project will come from. The matter has also been referred to the Cabinet budget committee. I have been informed by my office that there are no problems with the money being allocated by the State Government. However, we are waiting on the Federal Government to give us a more accurate estimate of the cost of the project. The National Health and Medical Research Council is also doing some work in this area.
There is no lack of commitment by the State Government, whether it be the Cabinet budget committee, my office or the Premier, to the funding of this project. It appears that the Federal Minister, Mr Anderson, is hedging in relation to the agreement reached between him and other State Ministers. The Leader of the National Party referred earlier to the ELISA blood test and the accuracy of post mortems. Those are some of the problems to be resolved when addressing the issue of ovine Johne’s disease. The science of the disease, the cures for the disease and the methods of testing are still in their infancy. Only now are we getting reasonable success rates when we use the ELISA test. I strongly reject - and I hope anyone interested in this issue also strongly rejects - any suggestion that New
South Wales is not keeping abreast of research that is being carried out in this area.
New Zealand has been conducting research into this disease for 30 or 40 years so one would expect it to be one of the top researchers in the world. However, other countries come to New South Wales for advice as it is regarded as a leader in research into ovine Johne’s disease, the methods of testing and its long-term eradication. I reject out of hand the suggestion that New South Wales is dragging the chain on this issue. The honourable member for Bulli was right. The testing for any disease is not 100 per cent accurate, but we want to improve. We are certainly doing a lot of work in this area. This Government established a centre of excellence for sheep diseases at Orange. Before April 1995 very little research was being done. I thank all honourable members for their support for this motion. I hope we obtain an appropriate response from the Federal Minister as a result of this debate.
Motion agreed to.
That this House calls on the Federal Government to fulfil its commitment to financial support of the national Ovine Johne’s Disease eradication and control program as agreed at the ARMCANZ meeting in Darwin on 8 August 1997.