February 7th 2009

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Where will President Obama take America?

GLOBAL FINANCIAL CRISIS: Can Australia avoid an economic depression?

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Australia should brace itself for worse to come

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM: Blatant political bias in human rights body

JUDICIARY: High Court nominee's gay rights, abortion activism

GLOBAL TERRORISM: The great lie of 'home-grown' terrorism

QUARANTINE: Shake-up for Australia's quarantine system

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: Being smart about using soft power

MEDIA: What to make of the Obama cult

OPINION: Is there any point to suffering?

CIVILISATION: Created equal: how Christianity shaped the West

OPINION: Legislative change could help first home-buyers

Should democracy always have the last word? (letter)

Deserted by the Liberals? (letter)

A future for News Weekly (letter)

FORUM: Free markets and libertarianism

CINEMA: Slumdog Millionaire - Indian orphan tale a box-office hit

BOOKS: ENOUGH: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life, by John C. Bogle

BOOKS: THE WHITE WAR: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919, by Mark Thompson,

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Shake-up for Australia's quarantine system

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, February 7, 2009
The Federal Government will establish an independent statutory authority to replace Australia's current flawed quarantine system, reports Peter Westmore.

The Federal Government will establish an independent statutory authority to replace the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) and Biosecurity Australia, adopting the recommendations of its independent inquiry into Australia's quarantine and biosecurity system, the federal Minister for Agriculture, Tony Burke, has announced.

This was the principal proposal put forward by the National Civic Council to the inquiry last year. ("Overhaul Australia's quarantine system!", News Weekly, May 10, 2008).

The Commonwealth will establish a new authority to bring together the major functions currently delivered by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS), Biosecurity Australia, and parts of the Product Integrity, Animal and Plant Health Division of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF).

The inquiry had been promised by the Labor Party before the 2007 federal election after the equine influenza outbreak, and was given a broad-ranging brief when established early last year. Headed by Roger Beale, a former departmental head, it reported to the Government last September, and its report was released on December 18.

Damning report

It followed the damning report by former High Court judge Ian Callinan QC into the outbreak of equine influenza in 2007. Mr Callinan found that the $1 billion outbreak was caused by systemic failures in Australia's quarantine system, which permitted the escape of equine influenza virus from the Eastern Creek Quarantine Station in Sydney.

There have, however, been a number of other major breaches of Australia's quarantine system in recent years. The report referred to "incursions, some of which have been eradicated, of several [other] exotic pests and diseases into Australia, such as European house-borer, tramp ants, sugar-cane smut, grapevine leaf rust, citrus canker, Khapra beetle, and currant-lettuce aphid".

The Beale Report recommended that the new national biosecurity authority should be established independent of the existing Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, but that the director of the new authority should be responsible to the Minister for Agriculture.

The Government also accepted the recommendation that there should be a major increase in funding for the new authority of $260 million a year, and a further $225 million to upgrade information technology and business systems for biosecurity.

This is to be funded by cost recovery from importers and consumers of imported produce, by exporters and by travellers to cover the cost of providing quarantine services at airports and on the wharves.

The report recommends that the cost of treating outbreaks of exotic diseases into Australia should be borne jointly by industry and government.

While this is appropriate in some circumstances, there is a strong argument that importers should be required to indemnify Australian industries, through appropriate insurance policies, for the cost of treating exotic diseases coming into the country.

There will undoubtedly be issues relating to the application of the Beale inquiry's recommendation that the new Commonwealth Biosecurity Act should unify Commonwealth and state governments' biosecurity roles.

At present, individual states, particularly Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania, have their own quarantine regimes which are significantly tighter than those of the Commonwealth. These restrict the import of plant matter into particular states, to prevent the spread of plant and animal pests.

The inquiry recommended that the Commonwealth should expand the scope of its responsibility for quarantine matters, and seek the co-operation of the states to achieve this. The increased role of the states in the new quarantine system should lead to improved sensitivity to the importance to Australia of particular primary industries.

However, if implemented, it would restrict or remove the capacity of states to introduce their own quarantine regimes. The report said, "The Panel's recommended approach is a One Biosecurity: a working partnership model, under which the Commonwealth would broaden its legislation, underpinning a partnership with the states ... so as to make it quite clear that an authority to import goods into Australia under that legislation also authorises the goods to be imported into a state on the same conditions (if any).

"This implies that goods landed in one state should be able to be moved to another without additional biosecurity conditions being imposed. Any state law which attempted to apply conditions or restrictions on imports in excess of those applied by the Commonwealth would be invalid."

The report pointed out that if this were to work, "it would be important for differences in regional pest and disease status to be genuinely taken into account as part of the import permit decision."(p.19).

The Government's adoption of the report lays the foundation for a new start to be made to address the major defects in Australia's quarantine system.

— Peter Westmore

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