by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Agriculture: Inquiries to look at AQIS apple decision
, February 10, 2001
Strong industry and community protests have resulted in Biosecurity Australia, part of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS), extending until February 28 the period for responses to its report that recommended allowing the importation of apples from fire blight-affected New Zealand.
Its controversial report has also prompted an inquiry by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee. The Senate inquiry will look into "all aspects of the consideration and assessment of proposed importation to Australia of fresh apple fruit from New Zealand" by Biosecurity Australia. The inquiry begins in February and is to report by the end of March.
At issue is not just the scientific evidence about the risk of fire blight, but also whether Biosecurity Australia/AQIS have taken unto themselves a role alien to their charter.
The agency's right to assess risk to Australian based industries from the entry of diseased product from overseas sources - and, according to its evaluation of risk, to deduce whether or not such imported goods should be allowed entry into Australia - is not in question.
What can be objected to is the view, put forward by Biosecurity Australia/AQIS and some of their supporters, that interpret quarantine laws in the light of the free trade policies which Australia, by its accession to the provisions of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), has agreed to follow.
It is this second role which has brought Biosecurity Australia/AQIS into conflict with local industries affected by its decisions, and, in some quarters, has called into question the agency's objectivity. This is an unhealthy development for both Australia and the agencies.
What needs to be clearly understood is that Australia's commitments under the WTO are the same as under the earlier General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The language from the GATT has been carried into the WTO.
Some have argued, including some in AQIS, that there are new rules and that, as a consequence, Australia can no longer maintain a policy of absolute protection against the entry of diseased products, however slight the risk.
The fact is that Australia never has, and never could have maintained such a policy, without completely cutting itself off off from the world.
However, Australia - which is free of many costly plant, animal and human diseases - has generally maintained stronger quarantine policies than countries where particular plant, animal and human diseases are widespread.
The maintenance of this policy is entirely consistent with the WTO rules, provided that the assessment of risk is objectively scientifically measured, and that our quarantine is not used as a de facto trade restriction on imports.
The Australian Government has set guidelines within which its quarantine agency should operate consistent with WTO rules. It is for the agency to operate with those guidelines without attempting to judge what does or does not meet WTO requirements.
Nevertheless, it should not be concluded that, however diligently Australia follows these rules, it cannot avoid having its policies examined within the WTO. Almost certain, in this litigious age, any country denied access to the Australian market, will contest Australian quarantine processes. That is their right and the WTO (like the earlier GATT) has established rules for handling such disputes.
Least of all should Biosecurity Australia/AQIS bow to the argument that we must relax our quarantine requirements, in order to avoid retaliation - either of a trade or quarantine kind. If they believe in the WTO, then surely, in this respect at least, it is our best protection.