July 2nd 2005

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Unanswered questions about the Chinese defectors

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Senator Brian Harradine retires

EDITORIAL: How best to help our children

TRADE: 'Benign neglect' no answer to debt crisis

RURAL POLICY: Water trade to shift water from farms to cities

QUARANTINE: Government appeals against court ruling

TASMANIA: Potato-farmers' outrage at fast-food giant

ABORTION: Feminist luddites of the abortion lobby

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM: Christianity under threat in Sri Lanka

HUMANITARIAN CRISIS: East Timor in grip of major famine

ENERGY: China exchanges nuclear technology for Iranian oil

STRAWS IN THE WIND: The improvident society / A pub with no beer / Beazley's tax strategy / To Hell and back

Europe's malaise (letter)

Colin Teese on Europe (letter)

Strategy to prevent bushfires (letter)

Big Brother: sewage on TV (letter)

Child support reforms (letter)

BOOKS: GAY MARRIAGE: Why it is good for gays, good for straights, and good for America

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Government appeals against court ruling

by Patrick J. Byrne

News Weekly, July 2, 2005
The Federal Government is being accused of compromising Australia's quarantine standards for the sake of free trade, reports Pat Byrne.

Australia's $1 billion pork industry is being threatened by fresh pork imports carrying Post-Weaning Multisystemic Wasting Syndrome (PMWS), a disease deadly to young pigs. It has cost the European Union A$1.5 billion in lost production.

Australian Pork Ltd went to the Federal Court to challenge Biosecurity Australia's decision to allow into Australia fresh pork imports, which come largely from countries where the PMWS disease is endemic.

The Federal Court's Mr Justice Wilcox found that, as a result of Biosecurity Australia's decision, an outbreak of PMWS was a "virtual certainty" within 10 years.

Justice Wilcox was scathing about the poor quality of scientific research behind Biosecurity Australia's import risk analysis (IRA). He was equally scathing about the Federal Department of Agriculture's Director of Animal and Plant Quarantine, who authorised fresh pork imports based on this IRA.


He described the director's decision as "bizarre, especially having regard to concerns expressed by successive Australian governments about maintenance of high quarantine standards".

Now, Australia's Trade Minister, Mark Vaile, has announced that the Federal Government will appeal against the Federal Court ruling.

This has led to allegations that the Government is seeking to have the ruling overturned, because Australia had given an undertaking last year to the US that it would soften the application of its quarantine rules on pork imports, as a condition for Washington agreeing to the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

Recently, US Senate Finance Committee chairman, Senator Chuck Grassley, was reported in the publication, Inside US Trade, as calling on Canberra to appeal Justice Wilcox's ruling.

Grassley argued that the ruling was inconsistent with the spirit of the FTA. He said that Australia's decision to open up its market to imported fresh pork meat was an important factor in persuading the US Senate to pass the FTA.

Early last year, Jon Caspers, president of the US National Pork Producers Council, said that support from the US pork industry for the FTA was "contingent upon the resolution of 'technical' matters pertaining to Australia's quarantine protocols for imported pig meat."

Justice Wilcox's ruling was applied to only one of the 84 two-year pork import licences. Australian Pork Ltd's request to the secretary of the Federal Department of Agriculture to now apply the ruling to all import licences - because they were all based on the same science - was refused.

US sources told the Australian Financial Review (June 17) that the Australian Government's decision to appeal the Federal Court ruling was welcome and that any extension of the ruling to now cover more import permits would be of "great concern".

Senator Grassley has warned that the US could take the dispute to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The European Union and New Zealand have separately begun proceedings in the WTO against Australia's quarantine standards.

On the one hand, Australian Trade Minister, Mark Vaile, said: "There should be no misunderstanding that we gave away access to [US] pork to get the FTA" (The Land, June 16).

On the other hand, he also told the Australian Financial Review (June 17) that his government's decision to appeal against the Federal Court ruling against pork imports "sends a very powerful message to our trading partners in terms of the intent of the government on this issue".

The WTO does not seek to make rules binding countries to particular forms of quarantine regulations. A country's regulations are deemed to conform to WTO rules so long as they are (a) not used as an artificial barrier to trade, (b) are based on legitimate scientific risk analyses, and (c) are consistently applied to all food imports.

But, as News Weekly has pointed out before, the Australian Government's misuse of its own quarantine rules may well have left it vulnerable to challenges in the WTO.

First, because quarantine is not a trade issue, it should never have been on the table in negotiations for the Australia-US FTA.

Second, farm groups have argued that a number of Biosecurity Australia's import risk analyses (IRAs) have compromised Australia's high quarantine bar. In some cases, the compromises appear to have been made as trade concessions.

In question are recent IRAs recommending imports of:

  • apples from New Zealand, risking the introduction of fire blight;

  • grapes from California, where Pierce's Disease is prevalent;

  • citrus fruit from Florida, where citrus canker is endemic;

  • bananas and pineapples from the Philippines, risking the introduction of a number of exotic diseases and pests not found in Australia.

In appealing against the Federal Court ruling on pork imports, Australians are left asking: who is our Government supporting - Australian farmers or foreign producers, regardless of the quarantine cost?

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