EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Horse flu outbreak: time to face hard facts
, September 29, 2007
The thoroughbred industry, and all those affected by the horse flu outbreak, have every right to take legal action against negligent authorities.As this issue of News Weekly goes to press, the Senate is voting on legislation to establish a judicial inquiry by former High Court judge, Mr Ian Callinan, into the outbreak of equine influenza (horse flu) which has paralysed the racing industry in New South Wales and Queensland, and affected the industry Australia-wide.
Since the outbreak was first confirmed on August 26, and its source identified as the Eastern Creek quarantine station near Sydney, the disease has spread through the state with alarming speed, despite a complete lockdown on the movement of all horses and related species in NSW, Queensland and other states.
The disease appears to have been spread by about 200 horses which attended a large equestrian event held near Maitland, New South Wales, about a week earlier. Initially, just 415 horses were quarantined on five properties.Rapid spread
Since then, it spread from the leisure to the thoroughbred industry, with horses at Randwick Racecourse testing positive for equine influenza. By August 28 there were confirmed outbreaks on 11 properties, and by September 1, on 79 properties in New South Wales.
By September 4, there were 1,311 horses on 146 infected properties, and by September 1o, there were 4,427 horses on 410 infected properties. On September 16, there were 1,063 infected properties with over 9,700 horses.
The economic and social impact of the disease is far more than the paltry $110 million compensation package offered by the Federal Government to the horse-racing industry.
The outbreak is unlikely to be contained for months, and its cost will amount to hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, in lost employment and revenue.
When the Prime Minister, John Howard, announced that an independent inquiry would be held into the outbreak, he emphasised that it would be exhaustive.
"We are determined to find out what happened, how this disease was introduced, whether there's been a breach of quarantine procedures and protocols," he said.
"Quarantine is critical to an island nation such as Australia and we're therefore not going to leave any stone unturned.
"We want the racing industry and people generally to be assured that if there has been a lapse of quarantine protocols, it will not happen again," Mr Howard said.
A starting point in the process must be to acknowledge the failure of the Eastern Creek quarantine station, administered by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS), which is now known as the source of the outbreak, a Japanese strain of the horse flu virus.
Behind this, however, is the fact that the centrepiece of the Government's quarantine policy is "acceptable" or "manageable" risk, as one Government report stated.
Further, Australia's quarantine system is being undermined by the self-imposed requirement to assess quarantine measures against "Australia's international obligations", in particular, the World Trade Organization's free-trade agenda.
Once this position is accepted, failures of Australia's quarantine system, including the entry of exotic plant and animal diseases, are inevitable.
This policy must be questioned. The objective of the Government's quarantine policy must be to prevent - not to minimise - the entry of exotic plant and animal diseases and pests into Australia.
Unlike almost every other country in the world, Australia's isolation as a continent has meant it has been spared many of the diseases and pests which are endemic elsewhere in the world. Their entry into Australia is even more damaging than elsewhere, because there are no natural defences against such pests and diseases.
To protect Australia's unique habitat justifies higher quarantine barriers than exist elsewhere in the world.
Where these arguments have been put forward in the past, they have been ridiculed by Australia's quarantine advisers who dismiss such a strategy as "unsustainable", despite the fact that other countries, including notably Taiwan, are now lifting their quarantine standards.
The direct consequences of the "acceptable risk" approach currently pursued by the Federal Government have been the outbreak of equine influenza, the citrus canker outbreak in Queensland a few years ago and the fire-ant invasion, along with the eventual erosion of Australia's unique status as a nation free from many exotic diseases and pests.
The equine influenza outbreak provides an occasion to undertake a major review of quarantine authorities, to impose heavy penalties on those who deliberately breach Australia's quarantine laws, and to make companies or agencies which are responsible for outbreaks, including the Federal Government, directly financially responsible for the cumulative damage their negligence has caused.
It is to be hoped that the thoroughbred industry, and all others affected by the current horse flu outbreak, take legal action to recover the damages caused by the negligence of the Federal Government. Perhaps then Canberra will get serious about the issue.- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.