NATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Colin TeeseNews Weekly
Quarantine and trade policy - a deadly mix
, August 27, 2005
Upholding strict quarantine standards is essential for maintaining Australian agriculture's global reputation as a disease-free source of produce, argues former deputy secretary of the Department of Trade, Colin Teese. The Federal Government, however, has been prepared to sacrifice quarantine protection on the altar of free trade, and, in doing so, risks jeopardising the future health and prosperity of our important farm exports.It's bad enough to identify policy heading off in the wrong direction. It's worse still when the Government's policy actions leave us guessing about its real intentions. Quarantine is an example of the latter dilemma.
What is more, the issue itself is of critical importance to our country's future.
Since the end of the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations in 1994, successive governments have managed - without ever signaling their intentions - to turn our traditional approach to quarantine policy on its head. The same is true of our policy on dumping - and, one is inclined to suspect, for the same reasons.
There is an eerie similarity about the current policy approaches to both quarantine and dumping. In each case, the Government seems determined to promote the idea that imported goods should enjoy an unfair advantage over local products in our own market.Level playing-field
The Hawke Government's free-marketers were fond of calling for a "level playing-field" - that is, equal opportunities for locally made and imported products. What we now seem to be aiming for is a field tilted in favour of imports.
Any relaxation of our regulations on quarantine risks exposing our nation to the introduction of exotic plant and animal diseases. The danger to our rural industries, and to the nation as a whole, has never been properly assessed; but we do know that specific industries could be crippled by such actions.
Since Federation, we have recognised that one of the most important natural advantages our farmers enjoy over the rest of the world has been a physical environment free from many of the diseases which afflict our competitors in export markets.
The difficulty in managing plant and animal diseases imposes an additional cost burden on our less fortunate competitors and flows through into a price advantage for our producers.
Indeed, for many of our products, these advantages represent the single differentiating factor in our favour. Furthermore, it is one which allows us access to a number of important markets from which we would otherwise be excluded. Apples and beef are notable examples, though there are others.
Our advantages exist because we are an island continent; but we will retain this advantage only so long as we remain duly vigilant in the manner in which we treat imports from countries which are, to greater or lesser degree, plagued with diseased animals and plants. It would seem irresponsible to behave otherwise.
It would be a mistake to believe that all advantages we enjoy as an island continent are theoretical. We have many examples, dating back to before Federation, of the dangers of not maintaining proper control of our borders.
Various form of plant and animal pests and diseases slipped in under our guard in those colonial days.
Rabbits and cane toads and a whole range of plant pests well-known to farmers, are the consequences of those times. We continue to pay for the costs of those mistakes, not in the eradication of them (that has proved to be impossible), but in containing the harm they bring.
But, by the time of Federation, we had set ourselves on the right course. And, when we joined the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1948, we were able to maintain our quarantine regulations - by agreeing not to use them as concealed trade barriers.
We were, however, obliged to tell our GATT partners that matters of plant, animal and human health were, constitutionally, matters for the various state governments. And the Commonwealth could not override their respective authorities on those matters.
Thus, in perfect conformity with GATT rules, we continued to impose restrictions on importing goods which carried the possibility of introducing, into Australia, exotic diseases from which we were free.
Since that time, Australia has routinely received requests from countries asking that our quarantine regulations be relaxed. Frequently, the Trade Department was involved. And always the answer was that the restriction was maintained for quarantine reasons and, therefore, our international trade obligations were not affected.
Further, it was added that, ultimately, the Commonwealth could not speak for the various state governments. As a matter of practice, the states did, and still do, impose restrictions on the movement of plant and animal products between states on health grounds. Obviously, they would maintain the same restrictions against imports.
The negotiation and completion of the Uruguay Round of international trade negotiations in 1994 resulted in the World Trade Organization succeeding the GATT as the body defining international trade rules. Since that time, successive Australian governments have attempted to advance the new WTO rules as a reason for relaxing our traditional quarantine policies.
But, despite what might have been said by various government officials and ministers, joining the WTO has not obliged us to change our policy on quarantine.
Apart from certain elaborations, the GATT rules on quarantine were transmitted unchanged into the new WTO agreement. The commitment still is to ensure that rules on quarantine are not used as disguised trade barriers.
In fact, Australia's prevailing practices have been specifically endorsed by the WTO secretariat, as wholly appropriate and understandable for a country relatively free from plant and animal diseases.
Despite all this, the administering bureaucracy (currently called Biosecurity Australia) has chosen to adopt a much more permissive attitude to requests for the importation of agricultural products from disease-afflicted countries. The product list is extensive. It includes, among others, salmon, apples, bananas, pork and beef.
The bureaucracy and ministers have gone to great lengths to justify the new policy.
Initially, it was maintained that the "new rules" of the WTO agreement required that we relax the stringency of our quarantine restrictions. We were told that it was no longer possible, under WTO rules, to continue with what they chose to call our traditional "zero-tolerance policy", which was judged to be a concealed trade restriction. It was also inconsistent with our reputation as a country committed to "free trade".Misleading
All of these assertions are misleading. Quarantine and trade are separate issues. Those officials making quarantine judgments are not required - indeed, they should be precluded - from taking trade issues into account.
Quarantine requirements should be decided on their merits, by officials specifically dedicated to that end. And, for the record, Australia has never maintained, a "zero tolerance policy".
Biosecurity bureaucrats have not been discouraged from taking trade matters into consideration in evaluating quarantine risks. That this has been done with the acquiescence of the Government may be inferred from the fact the Agriculture Minister shifted quarantine issues into the trade section of his department. It was only after pressure applied during the election that it has been moved out again. But all the moving back and forth has not changed the disposition of the Biosecurity bureaucrats - nor, it would seem, the minister to whom they are responsible.
At the time of the really heated discussions about importing apples from fireblight-infected countries, it was asked by some of those wanting to hold the line that more than apples was at stake: If diseased apples could come in, what about foot-and-mouth-infected beef?
In response, the National Party leader, Mr John Anderson proclaimed that beef from infected countries would never enter Australia.
The sigh of relief that went up was premature. It turns out that at the same moment as Mr Anderson made his announcement, beef was being allowed into Australia from Brazil (a foot-and-mouth-infected country) at the demand of a foreign-owned processor in Wagga, which threatened to close if it was not allowed to import the cheaper Brazilian product.
The whole sorry tale was revealed on SBS television which highlighted the most commendable role of Senator Heffernan in exposing the entire scandal and in managing to bring the Agriculture Department and Biosecurity Australia before the Senate to explain themselves.
Their responses were thoroughly unimpressive. They attempted to defend the safeguard measures they used against infected Brazilian meat. The department's head insisted that what was done was perfectly legal.
Understandably, the senator was not impressed. Imagine a departmental head having to assure an elected representative that his department's actions were perfectly legal! Surely, that would be a given.
It turns out that the so-called safeguards amounted to taking the word of a French-based authority that the area from which the imports were sourced in Brazil was free of foot-and-mouth disease. Biosecurity accepted the French authority's word without checking. But SBS did check by going there, and found that the area wasn't safe.
And so, the meat that Biosecurity allowed in was infected, and apparently was dumped on the Wagga tip before being discovered and burned.
So far there has been no backlash, but no thanks to Biosecurity and the Department of Agriculture, both of whom seemed well satisfied merely because there had been no illegalities.
Furthermore, the same agencies seem to be behaving no less outrageously on the matter of pork imports. The courts having found against them, Biosecurity has appealed against the decision, and meanwhile has taken refuge in a technicality to allow pork of questionable purity to continue to enter Australia. Legal, no doubt, but is it responsible?
The issue is that these officials are dealing with matters of immense importance for Australia, and we expect better of them. Conformity with the law is fundamental. But that is the beginning of it all, not the end. Public officials have a duty to do everything possible within the law to protect the public interest.
Serious doubts have been raised in the minds of certain concerned legislators and the public, as to whether quarantine officials are not seeking to serve interests - for example, trade interests - rather than confining their activities to the area they are strictly required to administer. In doing so, they risk allowing enormous harm to be done to Australia's farmers and to the wider community.
There is a feeling that neither Senator Heffernan nor a number of other elected members - both Government and Opposition - are prepared to let go of this issue, and when the time comes, they will pursue it further.
What they are doing is an enormous public service; but, given all that has happened, we have every right to expect more of the responsible ministers. Is it possible that there are forces within the Government prepared to sacrifice quarantine protection on the altar of free trade, and, in doing so, risk the future health and prosperity of our important farm exports?
- Colin Teese is a former deputy secretary of the Department of Trade.