Cover Story: Apples and AQIS
by Colin Teese
News Weekly, October 21, 2000
Colin Teese, former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Trade, warns against moves to overturn our stringent quarantine regulations in the name of free trade.
Matters associated with quarantine are in the news, in particular, the circumstances under which imports are permitted of plants, animals and fish from countries where such items carry transmissible diseases, and where such diseases do not exist in Australia.
The trouble over salmon imports from Canada is a recent and well-known example. It is not the only one. The public record shows that some 150 such applications are before quarantine authorities.
Quarantine - or at least aspects associated with imports in the context of trade flows - has not previously been a sensitive issue either on trade policy or quarantine grounds. Whether by design or accident, acts of government policy, apparently arising from Australia's signing the agreement giving effect to the World Trade Organisation, seem to have changed all that.
That need not necessarily have been so. On any ordinary reading of the relevant provisions of the WTO agreement, the rules relating to quarantine are no more onerous - as to purpose and intent - than were those under the GATT, except in two respects.
There is now a requirement to conduct what is described as a "risk analysis", where none existed before. It should be emphasised, however, that what now is required is nothing more than was done informally under the old arrangements.
There is also an obligation to be guided by scientific evidence, where possible, and otherwise to use objective reasoning in reaching decisions. Similarly, these prescriptions appear to add little to what previously was part of normal practice.
There is, further, a requirement to apply measures consistently, as between countries.
Agreeing to such an arrangement could give rise to serious problems. This commitment appears merely to extend the same treatment to all. That is fine in trade matters, but in quarantine it is not. If we set down rules can we assume that all suppliers are willing and able to follow with equal diligence? Almost certainly not.
The right of any country to exclude goods on quarantine grounds is absolutely guaranteed, when the accepted procedures have been properly applied.
But the administration of the new arrangements has been changed. It is now handled by a so-called independent organisation - the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) - established within the Ministry of Primary Industry and Resources.
The Secretary of that Department is the Director of Quarantine. That official apparently has authority to accept or reject the conclusions of AQIS - it would seem - without reference to the Minister.
Politicians appear to have divorced themselves from a capacity to intervene in the deliberations of AQIS. It is no doubt their fond hope that this will immunise them from responsibility and pressure from interest groups within the community dissatisfied with AQIS findings.
They will, of course, be disappointed. As Mr Howard is already finding out with his efforts to distance himself from the Reserve Bank and its conferred power to fix interest rates, political power may, indeed, be delegated to so-called independent authorities, but governments will nevertheless be held responsible for the actions of those agencies, in the last resort, at the ballot box.
In the matter of quarantine and its crossover with trade, there is a further complication. Suppose AQIS publicly exposes a ruling permitting the entry of foreign goods and, under political pressure from local interests, that ruling is overturned by politicians. That act will almost certainly be considered trade-related rather than quarantine-related within the WTO. The consequence could be either the original quarantine decision being reinstated, or retaliation could be approved by the WTO against Australian exports.
The work of AQIS seems to be confined to preparing a risk analysis assessment, according to the specified criteria. And, on the basis of this assessment, AQIS claims to decide whether to permit the imports in question.
The new and disturbing element in this whole equation is the requirement that AQIS makes its determination of risk assessment, if possible on the basis of scientific evidence, or, if that is not possible, then at least upon the basis of objective and consistent practices.
Quite obviously, these various criteria are hopelessly unrealistic. Assessment of risk to the local production or to the health of local human plant or animal life from infected imports is simply not susceptible to true scientific or even objective evidence. It will always come down to a matter of judgment. What is more, it will be obvious that, by definition, trade implications flow from any decision taken, no matter what may have been the criteria used.
One thing is certain. At the moment it appears that AQIS is proceeding under the assumption that existing practices used in Australia in relation to health and sanitary measures are, if challenged, prima facie illegitimately maintained and constitute barriers to trade, unless proved otherwise.
There is another consideration. In pre-WTO days, the Commonwealth did not have the final say on matters involving the imports of goods which carried the risk of affecting human or animal health through the spreading of transmissible diseases. The Commonwealth enjoyed certain border control authority in this regard, by virtue of its powers under the Constitution relating to trade and quarantine. But, overwhelmingly, the power of regulating the flow of goods into the commerce of each State rested with that State - and still does - by virtue of their responsibility for human and animal health.
The States did - and still do - enjoy power under the Constitution to maintain restrictions against the importation of goods from any source on health grounds. In other words, no matter what AQIS decides, the entry of goods subject to health considerations ultimately is a matter for the States.
This dilemma is not easily resolvable. There can be no doubt about the States' ultimate power. Equally, the powers conferred upon AQIS, and the way they are being interpreted by that agency, is having two important adverse consequences for Australia. First, they are undermining the States' powers under the Constitution, at least as they apply to health. Second, they are making it easy for prospective importers to represent our genuinely maintained health and sanitary regulations as disguised barriers to trade.
It would seem that Australia has signed the WTO agreement without due consideration for the Constitutional proprieties, presumably with the intention of demonstrating our superior commitment to the principles of free trade.
In view of the fact that 150 applications are before us for entry of goods previously banned, our action in committing to the rules without qualifying them in any way to meet our special circumstances is a folly for which we may pay an appalling price.
Fire Blight: horticulture's 'foot and mouth'
* The value of the apple and pear industry to the Australian economy is $2 billion annually.
* Apple and pear growers are in significant numbers in 32 Federal electorates.
* Fire blight is the foot and mouth disease of horticulture. It is not found in Australia. One bacterium can multiply to one trillion in 3 days. It can easily enter Australia on fruit like apples, apple leaves, twigs from apple tress, and apple cartons from infected areas of the world.
* One infected piece of fruit or infected container from an infected area of the world can devastate Australian horticulture.
* It is very easily spread by birds, wind, rain, insects, and human contact. It can live up to 40 weeks on wood chips.
* It is so virulent that it has spread to 41 countries.
* It infects 75 species of plants including: apple, pear, rose, blackberry, cotoneaster, crabapple, hawthorn, Japanese or flowering quince, raspberry, mountain ash, cherries, choke cherries, June berries, apricots, blackberries, strawberries etc.