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(Cairns... Far North Queensland)


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Selwyn Johnston



One person, with the support of the community, can make a difference




A System Designed for our Eternal Detriment 

It's not all that long ago that Australia had a perfectly good Quarantine Service whose record in keeping Australia free of exotic diseases was excellent. The Quarantine Service was staffed in the field by a "no-nonsense" team of Quarantine Officers consisting of experienced men and women not afraid to make the hard decisions in Australia's interests. 

These field officers were backed up by a professional staff of veterinarians, pathologists, entomologists, and generally by scientists in every relevant field. These scientists in turn had access to some of the best research talent and facilities in the world and these people, and institutions, were also driven to work in the interests of Australia. In short, ours was a Quarantine Service that worked professionally for the protection of Australia, and particularly our pastoral and horticultural industries. 

We are given to believe that the system changed somewhat when the old "General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade" [GATT] morphed into the new "World Trade Organisation" [WTO]. There can be little doubt, as it has turned out, that the change was a retrograde step for Australia, a country with a very favourable disease-free rating had always responded positively to international initiatives such as this in the pious and unfulfilled hope that international markets would open their doors to low cost, high quality Australian agricultural produce. This, of course, has never happened. 

Consequently, we saw former Prime Minister Keating decimate the number of quarantine field officers, and field support staff, and it was only a couple of years after this that exotic disease worries became a reality. No Government since has elected to address the problem satisfactorily and the trouble we are presently in with quarantine matters are evidence of this fact. The most recent examples that come to mind are fire blight in New Zealand apples, a grab bag full of banana diseases from the Philippines including Moko, Black Sigatoka and Freckie, and white spot associated with imported seafood. 

Whereas prior to the WTO formation, quarantine was handled by the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries [or its then equivalent), the present quarantine process runs out of at least three separate government entities. The Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries, runs among other things the field services in conjunction with the States, its basically border control. 

A new entity called Biosecurity Australia "that provides science based quarantine assessments and policy advice that protects Australia's favourable pest and disease status and enhances Australia's access to international animal and plant related markets" has been created to absorb the previous decision making powers of the DAFF, or at least that's one claim, and, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which takes an overview of the lot and quite often, it is claimed, creates the hurdles for primary producers and other players to jump over. 

This is principally achieved by entering into and negotiating trade agreements, the terms of which are seldom helpful to Australia and put pressure on more objective decision makers at the coalface. In addition, the Productivity Commission does cost assessments should things go wrong when the wrong decision is made. Apart from raising the costs and decreasing efficiency the present system allows persons wishing to professionally avoid the system multiple opportunities to do so. The new Biosecurity Australia, apart from parading on the international stage with the WTO concocting academic procedures, undertakes things called Import Risk Assessment/Analysis [IRA], even though practical attitudes and past experience seldom muddy these beautifully isolated waters. 

This involves "identifying and estimating the risks associated with an option and evaluating the consequences of taking those risks". They also do Risk Management Analysis, which involves "identifying, documenting and implementing measures to reduce these risks and their consequences". 

Finally, they do Risk Communication. This involves creating "an interactive exchange of information and opinions concerning risk between risk analysts and stakeholders". 

Conspicuously missing from their studies are the probability of their RA procedures failing at any or all points and nowhere is the actual benefit of taking the risk estimated. Clearly if we are to save just a cent or two on the price of apples, bananas or prawns, should we put those industries at risk for that sort of gain. 

In fairness to the WTO it has been quoted as saying that "we need to remember that the WTO has only one rule for quarantine. A WTO member can be as strict or as lax as it wishes but must accord equal treatment to all WTO members". 

So why all the hassles with the importation of bananas! Couldn't we just be "strict"? 

After all the bottom line is that we don't want diseased bananas from anyone. Or do we? 

Surely it's enough distinction now to say that we will accept bananas from countries that have a similar pest and disease profile to our own. Countries that don't fit this profile clearly could be excluded without recourse. They simply don't fit the "offer" made to all countries. 

2007 is an election year and in Australia apple and banana growers, pig and prawn farmers, to mention but a few, should be particularly watchful as it is unlikely that "adverse" decisions will be made this year allowing imports from diseased countries. 2008 will be a critical year, as the party politicians will by then be protected from their electorates with their confident three-year term before them. 

But it's not just 2007 and 2008 that Australians should be concerned about because, after the coming election the same flawed decision making process will still be in place. What the electorate is looking for, and not only in relation to quarantine, is a decent practical management system that will adequately look after Australians to the exclusion of all others. If our present party politicians can't or won't meet this standard, they must be ignored at the ballot box, and let someone who can take over. 

Biosecurity Australia quotes that the 'perception' here is that we have 'lowered' biosecurity standards in response to trade pressure despite never having had a "zero risk" approach. 

So Biosecurity Australia is aware that they are risk takers and considered as such by the industries concerned. 

The problem is that it is not their chips that they are playing with. The rule should be that if they want to play the risk, they buy their own chips.




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Written and Authorised by Selwyn Johnston, Cairns FNQ 4870