EDITORIAL: Quarantine: time is running out
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, September 16, 2006
Do we need a quarantine disaster before Canberra wakes up to its responsibilities and stops eroding quarantine standards?
The Federal Government's recent decision to permit the importing of 11 tonnes of processed bananas from Vietnam, without telling the Australian banana industry, has angered many Queenslanders.
The head of the Australian Banana Growers Council, Tony Heidrich, told the ABC that the industry was "shocked" by the Canberra's decision to permit the imports, and said that growers were seeking urgent advice from the Government as to the scientific basis on which the imports had been permitted.
Queensland Premier Peter Beattie has called for the imports to be banned, but the Federal Agriculture Minister, Peter McGauran, has criticised Mr Beattie, saying he had created a quarantine scare when none existed and caused worry for many banana growers, "who may not know the true situation".
The fact that the processed banana imports had occurred without the industry being notified, at the same time that the Government is considering an application to import bananas from the Philippines, where exotic banana diseases are endemic, lies behind the growers' alarm.
Canberra's recent furtive action comes at a time of widespread concern at the erosion of Australia's quarantine standards, evident in a recent Senate report into the citrus canker outbreak in Queensland and calls by the NSW Farmers Association for a review of Australia's quarantine system.
This follows a 2006 Senate inquiry, into the outbreak of citrus canker in central Queensland in 2004, which was highly critical of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS).
The Senate report said it "beggars belief" that AQIS had not used its search powers to fully investigate allegations of illegal imports of plant material in 2001, and concluded:
"AQIS seems to be so focussed on its important role of combating plant and animal pests that it appears oblivious to its other role under the Quarantine Act, which is to stop the illegal importation of plants and animals that could potentially bring disease into Australia. If there are no deterrents to illegal importation, the country is at risk of being exposed to a number of pests that are prevalent overseas."
Separately, rural industries have cast serious doubts on the allegedly scientific methodology adopted by the Federal Government agency responsible for import risk assessments, in relation to the importation of apples from New Zealand, bananas from the Philippines, and pork.
Other concerns have been raised in connection with the Federal Government's response to the outbreak of "mad cow" disease overseas.
In the past, Australia has prevented the entry of "mad cow" (BSE) and other animal diseases such as foot and mouth, by prohibiting imports from countries where these diseases had been detected. It has taken a similar stance in relation to some exotic plant diseases.
However, there is concern that Australia surreptitiously abandoned this principle, when it signed the free trade agreement with the United States in 2005.
Until BSE was discovered in the United States, Washington banned the import of animals from European countries where the disease had occurred. However, after its discovery of the disease in the United States in 2003, Washington has worked to establish a new international agreement under which countries affected by BSE might continue to export beef, and countries where "mad cow" disease had occurred should not automatically have their exports rejected. It was adopted in May 2005.
The Australia-US Free Trade Agreement included a "BSE side letter" which committed Australia to conform to the weaker international standards drafted by the World Organization for Animal Health, and to secure the compliance of other countries, such as Japan, with these weaker standards.
It appears that the reason for the weakening of Australia's quarantine standards on beef was associated with the promise of greater access for Australian beef into the U.S. market.
A side-effect of it, however, could be that Australia could be forced to accept beef from countries where "mad cow" disease has occurred, and it improves America's access to markets, such as Japan's, which have hitherto been closed owing to discovery of "mad cow" disease in the U.S.
Even before the most recent events, Australia's largest state farmer organisation, the NSW Farmers Association, said that there had been a "litany of exposés" in recent years about failures of Australia's quarantine system.
It said there was a "a crisis of confidence in the general public based on a crisis of competence in the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQIS) and Biosecurity Australia (BA)".
Last month, the Federal Opposition moved for a Senate inquiry, but the Government rejected it. Do we need a quarantine disaster before things change?
In response to these concerns, there needs to be an open public inquiry into Australia's quarantine system, to protect the Australian people and the clean, green image of Australia's agriculture on which the superiority and competitiveness of our primary industry exports depends.
- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.