June 17th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The Great Barrier Reef is dying? ... Again?

CANBERRA OBSERVED McCain, Keating wade into South China Sea

EDITORIAL No heads roll despite quarantine foul-ups

EDUCATION FUNDING With Gonski reboot, Turnbull taps in to way to lose Catholic vote

INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS Aboriginal recognition in the constitution?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Low job prospects keep a generation at home

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Donald Trump has the world in a spin

EDUCATION FUNDING Gonski numbers shrink in the light of day

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE Qantas bans pensioner: an abuse of process

MUSIC Jim Black: accent on rhythm

CINEMA King Arthur: Legend of the Sword: The East End treatment

BOOK REVIEW Apocalypse and redemption

BOOK REVIEW Poems exhibit delicate strength


ELECTRICITY Bad science + bad economics = bad policy

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No heads roll despite quarantine foul-ups

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, June 17, 2017

It is normal practice in the corporate world when there has been a significant failure of administration, that senior executives are held to account, being downgraded or even dismissed.

Apparently this principle does not apply to the government employees who have presided over a disaster in Australia’s quarantine service, even when it has devastated the livelihoods of Australian families.

Aussie staple off the barbie.

Evidence given to a Senate Estimates Committee on May 24 revealed that massive and repeated failure to enforce Australian quarantine laws led to an outbreak of white spot disease that has devastated the prawn industry in Queensland. Millions of dollars of investment in the Australian aquaculture industry has been wiped out by the devastating outbreak.

Contaminated raw prawn imports have been blamed for the outbreak of the disease in Queensland’s Logan River and Moreton Bay. Logan River prawn farms will remain shut down for one year, in an effort to contain the outbreak.

The officials who presided over the fiasco, led by the head of biosecurity of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS), Lyn O’Connell, remain in place.

The repeated failings of Australian quarantine service and its inability to learn the lessons of past breaches have made the agency an international joke. Its failures over many years to protect Australia’s horticultural, racing, agriculture and aquaculture industries have led to incalculable financial loss, and damage to Australia’s reputation as a source of clean and green produce.

Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce announced in May that the Commonwealth Government would allocate $20 million to prawn farmers in Queensland’s Logan River. The prawn farming industry will pay some of that back through an agreed levy on production.

Agriculture Department officials told a Senate Committee last month that testing conducted by the Australian Animal Health Laboratory showed that nearly half of all imported raw prawns were infected with white spot disease before imports were suspended in January.

White spot disease in prawns is highly contagious, lethal to crustaceans and has reduced prawn farm productivity by up to 40 per cent overseas.

Agriculture Department investigations revealed that several importers engaged in the “deliberate subversion” of quarantine processes, including deliberately mislabelling prawns as other product to avoid testing. Investigations also revealed that white spot testing at the border failed properly to detect infected prawns.

Under more sensitive testing at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory, a large percentage of raw prawns that had been initially cleared by quarantine officials were subsequently found to be infected with white spot.

Queensland LNP Senator Barry O’Sullivan said the outbreak was “a catastrophic collapse” of Australia’s biosecurity arrangements and the so-called risk-based approach to raw prawn imports which involved testing a percentage of consignments at the border.

Mounting failures

This is not the only recent quarantine failure. A month ago, farmers from the Bundaberg region blamed an outbreak of the exotic cucumber green mottle mosaic virus, recently discovered on five local properties, on imported seeds.

The virus, which is damaging to a range of melons, has been confirmed in cucumbers at four of Eden Farms’ greenhouses, all on separate sites.

The owner of the farm, Andrew Youngberry, told the ABC that it was difficult to understand how the farm could have become infected, as his farms operated on a closed system whereby no plant matter entered or left the property.

“The fact that it’s spread over all our farms simultaneously points very clearly that it is the seeds that have caused the problem, and obviously I’m a bit disillusioned at the testing regimes that have been put in place,” Mr Youngberry said.

As Australian agriculturalists and environmentalists demand more focus on biosecurity, ABC Rural recorded the following list of recent exotic disease outbreaks:

• Tomato potato psyllid. This exotic pest insect was discovered for the first time in Australia last month, in a suburban garden in Perth and in a commercial capsicum crop north of the city.

Once established, the psyllid is impossible to eradicate, and it has spread zebra chip disease which cost the New Zealand potato industry $45 million when it arrived there in 2008–09.

• Chestnut blight was first detected near Eurobin in the Ovens Valley in Victoria’s northeast in September 2010. It is a bark-inhabiting fungus that has already spread through North America, North Asia and Europe.

It is new to Australia and has significantly affected the Victorian chestnut industry, worth $8 million annually, according to Agriculture Victoria.

• Banana Panama disease tropical race 4 (TR4), first found on a property at Tully, in far north Queensland in March 2015.

Previously, the soil-borne pathogen had wiped out the banana industry in the Northern Territory in the 1990s. It is spread in contaminated soil and plants and cannot be eradicated.

The emergency and ongoing response has cost the Queensland Government $22 million, with large additional outlays also coming from the Federal Government and growers.

Plant Biosecurity CRC estimates the cost of eradicating banana freckle and Panama TR4 at currently $26 million.

• Myrtle rust is a fungal disease that discolours leaves before the tree dies back. First detected in Wyong, NSW, in April 2010, it has since spread across the eastern Australian landscape and is found in bushland reserves, home gardens, commercial operations, parks and street plantings.

The NSW Department of Primary Industries said myrtle rust could now also be found in Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania, and on the Tiwi Islands in the Northern Territory.

It has been declared endemic and cannot be eradicated.

• Fire ants entered Australia through a port in Brisbane in 2001 and arrived again in 2006, 2012, 2013 and 2014.

The Invasive Animals CRC last year recommended that the Federal Government double its spending on eradicating the fire ant.

The red imported fire ant has arrived several times since first being detected in 2001 and was declared eradicated in May 2016.

• Asian honeybees, which are carriers of the destructive varroa mite, were discovered in Cairns in 2007.

Authorities have declared the Asian honeybees endemic and they cannot be eradicated.

• Russian wheat aphid was first discovered in South Australia in May 2016.

Researchers said the pest had the potential to affect 75 per cent of a grain crop but it was not technically feasible to eradicate it from Australia.

Plant Health Australia is developing a national management plan for Russian wheat aphid.

• Pacific oyster mortality syndrome (POMS) was discovered in Australia in January 2016.

Tasmanian farmers of Pacific oysters are slowly rebuilding after an outbreak of POMS destroyed approximately $50 million worth of stock.

Taken together, it is clear that in the administration of Australian quarantine laws, there have been repeated and grave failures of administration for which no one is being held responsible, and no one has yet been prosecuted. This is a national disgrace.

Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.

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