Banana Industry

Earlier today during senators' statements I talked about my trip a few weeks ago up into Western and Northern Queensland, and I foreshadowed that I would be talking about bananas later today. I now wish to address the very important issue of the banana industry in Queensland. Bananas are Australia's No. 1-selling supermarket product, with annual farm gate production of over $600 million. About 95 per cent of the bananas produced in Australia come from the coastal strip between Babinda and Cardwell and across the Atherton Tablelands, in particular around Tully and Innisfail. Many businesses and communities in this district rely on the banana industry directly and indirectly for income and for their jobs. That is why Panama tropical race 4 represents a very serious threat to the livelihoods of hundreds of banana growers across North Queensland and also a threat to the communities of North and Far North Queensland.

To give some background, Panama tropical race 4 is caused by the soil-borne fungus Fusarium oxysporum. It is spread only by the movement of infected planting material, soil and water, not through the air. Panama tropical race 4 is a very destructive disease of banana plants, but it is important to note that it poses no threat to human health whatsoever. It was originally identified in the Northern Territory during 1997, resulting in the widespread destruction of the banana industry in the Territory. The disease, sadly, was first detected on a Queensland plantation in Tully in March of this year. A second positive test came from a commercial banana farm near Mareeba in early April—and both farms are now under quarantine.

The banana peak industry body, the Australian Banana Growers' Council, has been working closely with growers, biosecurity officials and governments to formulate measures to support growers and to protect the banana industry in North Queensland from further disease. The Australian Banana Growers' Council has formulated a package of measures to deal with Panama tropical race 4, calling for measures including: a Biosecurity Queensland-approved protocol that sets out minimum biosecurity standards that infected farms need to meet in order to restart operations, government assistance for infected farms, including for the costs of destroying infected plants and fencing infected farms; a joint government-grower funded program for other farm biosecurity measures; a Biosecurity Queensland program for ensuring the provision of clean banana planting material; and, finally, a special research and development fund to assist with disease research. The local state member for much of the area, the Liberal-National Party member for Hinchinbrook, Andrew Cripps, has two-thirds of Australia's bananas growing in his electorate. Mr Cripps has thrown his full support behind the Australian Banana Growers' Council's plan and has requested that, in addition to the 5-point plan released by the Australian Banana Growers' Council, the Commonwealth and Queensland governments formalise a bilateral agreement to fund a testing and control program that would continue to battle the spread of Panama tropical race 4. I support Mr Cripps in these efforts.

The potential to find vaccines, better treatment products and fungus-resistant banana varieties is something that certainly needs to be explored. Sadly, the response from the Queensland Labor government and Biosecurity Queensland has, at times, been ponderous and slow, leaving growers tangled in bureaucracy and dealing with uncertainty for too long. I call on the Queensland government to work with the Commonwealth and the Australian Banana Growers' Council, and especially the impacted banana growers and their communities and other stakeholders, to implement these proposed measures to prevent the spread of this disease and the ensuing devastation that it could cause across North Queensland. If the North Queensland banana industry is wiped out, it would be similar to a cyclone wiping out North Queensland—a permanent cyclone hanging over the banana plantations.

Senator Sterle: It would be worse! Worse!

Senator McGRATH: Thank you, Senator Sterle, for acknowledging the threat that this Panama tropical race 4 poses to the Queensland banana industry. I was fortunate in my two trips to North Queensland over the past six weeks to meet with some local banana growers, in particular the families of one of the impacted banana plantations, along with Steve Lizzio in Innisfail. I really appreciate that they have taken the time to speak with me. I commend the Australian Banana Growers' Council Chairman, Doug Phillips, and the CEO, Jim Pekin, for their work towards finding a solution to this menace and for their advocacy of growers' interests. I say to them: 'We are all in this together, and we are all behind you.'