EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Overhaul Australia's quarantine system!
, May 10, 2008
Quarantine should be treated as an integral component of Australia's national security, along with the Customs Service and Australian Federal Police, not as a subsidiary to the Department of Agriculture.As a result of the outbreak of equine influenza last year, the Rudd Government has ordered a full inquiry into Australia's quarantine system, the first for about 12 years.
The new inquiry follows a separate inquiry into the equine influenza outbreak, headed by a former High Court judge, Ian Callinan.
This inquiry heard alarming evidence of failures of quarantine clearly contributed to the outbreak of a disease which cost Australia's racing industry and horse-owners in general hundreds of millions of dollars in 2007 and 2008. When the impacts on the tourism, gaming and recreational industries are taken into account, the cost was undoubtedly in excess of $1 billion.Terms of reference
The new inquiry has wide terms of reference, and is looking at the effectiveness of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) and other agencies, and what can be done to assist them to perform their vital national functions.
Since the last full inquiry into Australia's quarantine system in the 1990s, the world has changed dramatically.
The integrity of Australia's quarantine system is under pressure from the increase in global trade and the revolution in aviation which now carries millions of people around the world every day, undermining Australia's geographic isolation.
Every year, over two million air and sea containers enter Australia, along with approximately 12 million air and sea passengers, around 146 million mail items, over 50,000 aircraft and 12,000 sea vessels.
The scale of these movements makes the detection of exotic pests and diseases much more important, and also much more difficult than was the case 10 or 20 years ago.
Additionally, Australia is under growing pressure from countries which wish to export their agricultural produce to Australia, including the Philippines, New Zealand and the United States.
In some instances where imports have been prohibited or delayed on quarantine grounds, countries have threatened action against Australia via the World Trade Organization.
Within Australian, many agricultural industries have expressed deep dissatisfaction with the procedures adopted by AQIS and Inspection Service and Biosecurity Australia to minimise the quarantine risk.
In a submission to the EI Inquiry, for example, the NSW Farmers Association identified 15 separate events over the past decade in which it appeared that Australia's quarantine system had failed, leading to outbreaks of citrus canker, the escape of fire ants in Queensland, and outbreaks of deadly viruses among Australian fish.
It also documented a number of cases where agricultural products were imported into Australia without compliance with quarantine requirements, which could easily have led to serious disease outbreaks.
Unless there is a thorough change in both the legislative framework of the Australian quarantine system and the culture within AQIS, further outbreaks of exotic plant and animal diseases are only a matter of time.
A study by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) in 2006 estimated that a "medium level outbreak of an avian influenza pandemic in Australia is estimated to result in a 6.8 per cent reduction in Australia's gross domestic product (relative to a reference case) in the short term."
As Australia's GDP is currently $1.1 trillion, the study suggests that the cost of an avian influenza outbreak could be around $74.8 billion, a staggering figure.
In evidence given to the recently completed equine influenza inquiry, it was apparent that the escape of the equine influenza virus was due principally to organisational deficiencies within AQIS.
Evidence given to that inquiry showed that, repeatedly, quarantine decisions were made by senior officers in AQIS with no practical knowledge of quarantine.
Under the Quarantine Act, the secretary of the Department of Agriculture is the director of Animal and Plant Quarantine, although he has no expertise in quarantine issues!
To address these matters is a matter of extreme urgency.
Quarantine should be treated as an integral component of Australia's national security, along with the Customs Service and the Australian Federal Police, not as a subsidiary to the Department of Agriculture.
To achieve this, quarantine services will need to be separated from the Department of Agriculture, and established as an independent statutory authority, responsible to the Minister for Home Affairs or the Attorney-General.
In this new authority, senior officers must have appropriate scientific qualifications in quarantine management and direct experience with exotic diseases, or law enforcement.
To ensure transparency in the conduct of import risk analyses which potentially affect the economic future of primary industries, these should be conducted by a properly established judicial body, headed by a Federal Court judge.
If these steps are taken, it will provide real protection for Australia's vital primary industries.- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.