EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Horse flu: Canberra makes the victims pay
, March 15, 2008
Horse-owners will be forced to meet the cost of last year's horse flu outbreak. This is despite increasing evidence that the outbreak was caused by the failure of Australia's quarantine authorities to follow correct procedures.Horse-owners, including the recreational horse industry, will be forced to pay a levy to meet the cost of the equine influenza (EI) outbreak, despite appalling failures by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) which have come to light at the inquiry into the outbreak of the disease in Australia.
Federal Agriculture Minister Tony Burke introduced legislation to this effect in Federal Parliament on February 21. Mr Burke said it would impose "a once-off statutory levy on the registration of horses to meet the industry's commitment to share funding of responses to emergency disease outbreaks that affect horses".
In an accompanying statement, the Commonwealth Government said the legislation was "necessary so that the horse industry can fund its share of obligations in responding to a national emergency disease outbreak affecting the industry". The statement added that, unless the levy was imposed, "there is a risk that ... the Commonwealth will bear the industry component of the current equine influenza outbreak".Failures
The failures of Australia's quarantine system at Sydney Airport and at AQIS's Eastern Creek quarantine station have been starkly revealed in the commission of inquiry into the EI outbreak which crippled the equine industries in New South Wales and Queensland from last August. This inquiry is being conducted by a retired High Court judge, Mr Ian Callinan.
In light of what the Callinan inquiry has heard about lax quarantine, there is a strong case that the Commonwealth should be paying for the entire cost of the outbreak.
Both the racing industry and the recreational horse industry have been severely damaged by the disease, in terms of lost income and veterinary fees, as well as costs associated with quarantined properties and livestock.
It is bizarre, to say the least, that those who had responsibility for the disease outbreak should now be inflicting further cost on an industry which has already suffered from it.
Under the new Commonwealth legislation, the Horse Disease Response Levy will be imposed on horse-owners, and will be collected by the horse registration bodies, including recognised breed societies and performance organisations.
The proposal has the support of the Horse Industry Council, but is opposed by the Equestrian Federation of Australia (EFA), whose members are lobbying both the Government and Opposition against the levy.
The federation said that, by pushing through the bill at this time, the Government is "pre-empting any findings by the Callinan inquiry" and forcing a very small percentage of Australian horse-owners to bear the huge costs of fighting the outbreak.
It said that, under the government plan, the horse industry would have to pay 80 per cent of the cost of fighting the disease, and the government only 20 per cent.
The federation added, "It is iniquitous that we should be required to pay for the control of the recent outbreak, particularly if the Callinan inquiry finds that AQIS was negligent and responsible."
In the meantime, evidence given before the Callinan inquiry has confirmed that the Department of Agriculture, as well as AQIS, is in a state of denial over its role in the disease outbreak.
After hearing many witnesses, Commissioner Ian Callinan asked the head of the Agriculture Department to face the possibility of a finding that the virus escaped from either the Eastern Creek quarantine station, Sydney Airport or from horse transport, any of which would be a failure by AQIS.
The secretary of the department, Dr Conall O'Connell, said he did not accept that the outbreak was the result of a failure by quarantine officers.
The failure to accept responsibility for the disease outbreak is similar to the department's response to the outbreak of citrus canker in Queensland, and to concerns expressed by primary industry bodies over falling quarantine standards affecting imported pork, apples, grapes and bananas.
The imposition of the horse flu levy, at a time when the cause of the outbreak was apparently a failure of quarantine, is manifestly unjust and will cause deep disaffection across the industry.
It is more extraordinary in light of the fact that, shortly before the legislation to levy horse-owners was introduced, the minister announced an independent inquiry into Australia's quarantine system, including Biosecurity Australia and AQIS.
As a matter of principle, AQIS and the Commonwealth Government should be fully accountable for import protocols they adopt. If, for example, they decide to allow New Zealand apples into Australia and this leads to an outbreak of fire blight, then affected farmers should be entitled to compensation by AQIS and the Commonwealth Government.
For the same reason, any decision on the proposal that horse-owners should meet the lion's share of the cost associated with the equine influenza outbreak should be deferred - at least until the report of the Callinan inquiry is made public, and the findings of the independent inquiry into existing quarantine arrangements are released.- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.