AGRICULTURE: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
High stakes in federal quarantine inquiry
, September 13, 2008
One of Australian farmers' few remaining advantages over cheap foreign imports is their reputation as producers of clean and green food and fibre, writes Peter Westmore.Following a six-month study, the independent Quarantine and Biosecurity Inquiry, headed by a former head of the Prime Minister's Department, Roger Beale, is shortly due to report to the Minister for Agriculture, Tony Burke.
The inquiry is the first full-scale review of Australia's quarantine system since 1996, and follows an inquiry into the 2007 horse flu outbreak, which paralysed the racing industry in much of Australia for months, and is estimated to have cost Australia over $1 billion. This was headed by a former High Court judge, Ian Callinan.
The Callinan Report found that equine influenza escaped from the Eastern Creek Quarantine Station in New South Wales. Mr Callinan was scathing in his appraisal of the operations of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS), recommending a complete overhaul of equine quarantine and the administration of the facilities where horses are held after importation into Australia.Experience in agriculture
The Beale inquiry has wider terms of reference, dealing with all aspects of Australia's quarantine system, particularly AQIS and Biosecurity Australia. The other three members of the Beale Inquiry have had extensive experience in agriculture.
Over 200 submissions were received by the Beale inquiry. Many of them came from farmers' organisations, and reflect deep dissatisfaction with a system which has failed to protect Australia from exotic diseases.
The Queensland Farmers Federation, for example, said, "QFF and its members have in the past been concerned that Biosecurity Australia has been compromising the scientific basis of IRAs [Import Risk Analyses] to further Australia's trade agenda. Recent and past controversies concerning the IRAs for apples, bananas and pig meat have led many producers to become very concerned about the future of Australia's biosecurity system."
The NSW Farmers Association was even more outspoken. The association said it feared that "a major exotic disease, or pest of plants or livestock, is imminent given the fundamental flaws it sees in the quarantine system".
It added, "The association believes there exists an inappropriate organisational structure, inappropriate skills for some key staff positions, inappropriate resourcing and an inappropriate willingness by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) to preference trade over quarantine."
It called for quarantine functions to be separated from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, and an independent authority established to oversee Australia's quarantine system.
The NSW Farmers Association, apart from expressing its deep concerns that quarantine had been compromised by the department's free trade agenda, pointed out that quarantine, as part of the federal Department of Agriculture, has been administered using a public service managerial approach, with few key people having quarantine qualifications.
It said that "senior management had key performance indicators related to almost exclusively remaining within or below budget estimates. The association believes this may be an admirable goal for a corporation producing goods or services, but quite inappropriate for an organisation charged with the job of keeping Australia free of exotic pests and diseases".
It added that "there is a limited number of animal and plant health professionals employed in AQIS. Those that are there are at the bottom of the ladder and at the coal face. Management and middle management appear to be vested in people with expertise in financial and human resources. There is no excuse for this."
The association called for the new authority to recruit, to senior and middle management, people with professional qualifications, as is done in bodies such as the CSIRO.
As a result, a strong corporate culture would be created in which priority is given to people with with scientific credibility, rather that managerialism.
For reasons which are not at all clear, neither the Department of Agriculture nor the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) made submissions to the inquiry, although some present and former staff of AQIS did so.
Their submissions referred to the internal administration of quarantine, rather than the broad structural framework under which quarantine services should be provided.
Significantly, primary industry bodies with experience in dealing with AQIS and Biosecurity Australia were highly critical of their actions.
Bodies as diverse as Apple and Pear Australia Ltd, which represents apple and pear growers, the Australian Racing Board, the Banana Growers Council, and Australian Pork Ltd, were critical of the administration of Australia's quarantine system, as a result of the erosion of quarantine standards.
With Australian farmers facing an acute cost-price squeeze from the powerful supermarket chains, as well as soaring fuel and fertiliser prices, one of their few remaining advantages over cheap foreign imports is their reputation as producers of clean and green food and fibre.
The quarantine inquiry will determine whether this continues.- Peter Westmore