The Federal Government is willing to lower Australia’s high quarantine standards to pursue its free trade agenda.
The damning Senate report into the handling of an outbreak of the exotic plant disease, citrus canker, which devastated the citrus industry in Emerald, central Queensland, has turned a searchlight on the inadequacies of Australia’s quarantine regime.
The Emerald citrus canker outbreak is far from being an isolated case.
Late in June, the Queensland Primary Industries Minister, Tim Mulherin, revealed that at least 12 Queensland sugar-cane farms had been quarantined after the discovery of the exotic disease, sugar-cane smut, which can devastate the sugar industry.
Sugar-cane smut, a destructive disease first identified in South Africa in 1877, has spread to nearly every sugar-growing country in the world. The highly infectious fungal disease is spread by wind-borne spores which can travel long distances.
That the disease has spread so far in Australia has been clearly owing to the failure of Australia’s quarantine authorities, particularly AQIS.
Exotic fish diseases
Further concerns have been raised by the Victorian farmers’ newspaper, The Weekly Times, which recently reported that “Australia’s fish stocks face being devastated by exotic diseases because of lax quarantine laws” (June 21, 2006).
Sydney University veterinary scientist, Professor Richard Whittington, raised the question of AQIS’s inspection of ornamental fish coming into Australia last year, in light of the appearance of exotic diseases which have appeared in farmed Murray cod, silver perch and trout.
The number of imported ornamental fish coming into Australia has risen from 3.4 million in 1999 to 15.5 million last year.
AQIS confirmed that fish consignments are tested for exotic diseases only if 25 per cent or more fish died during the 1–3 week quarantine period, and if the owner was willing to pay for it.
Prof. Whittington said that survivors of disease outbreaks were still being released from quarantine consignments, and that there were “alarming” failures in the quarantine system.
He said there were “inadequate pre-border policies, inadequate duration of quarantine, and inadequate inspection and surveillance during quarantine”.
Ornamental fish have also been identified as a possible source of diseases which have killed large numbers of Australian frog species.
A separate problem arises from the fact that, under current import protocols, species of ornamental fish can be imported into Australia without their being subjected to an import risk-assessment.
It has been reported that 34 foreign freshwater species have escaped into Australian waterways, 22 of them introduced through the ornamental fish trade.
When challenged over breaches of Australia’s quarantine regime, the Federal Government’s clear line, articulated forcefully by Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile, is that “it is impractical to have a zero-risk approach to quarantine”, and that we must consider the trade responses of other nations to Australia’s quarantine rules.
In fact, Australia does not have to consider the trade responses of other countries to our quarantine law.
Quarantine is not a trade issue, as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has clearly stipulated. The WTO states that every nation is entitled to set its own quarantine standards, but it is not permitted to use quarantine as a pretext for restricting trade.
As an island-continent, Australia is free of many exotic plant and animal diseases which are prevalent in other countries. The recent entry of exotic diseases into Australia highlights our vulnerability to these diseases, and the necessity to keep them out.
While it is true that Australia risks retaliation for maintaining high quarantine standards — New Zealand has threatened it in relation to apples, and the Philippines in relation to bananas — Australian agriculture is protected by these standards, and it gives us a huge competitive advantage as a supplier of clean, green food to the rest of the world.
In New Zealand, fire blight is endemic in apples and pears, while dangerous plant diseases such as black sigatoka are found in bananas from the Philippines.
The Australian beef industry has been the major beneficiary of a Japanese ban on U.S. beef exports arising from the discovery of “mad cow” disease in the U.S. Since 2003, the loss of the Japanese market has cost the U.S. industry an estimated $U.S.6 billion, to the benefit of Australian beef producers.
Australia has prevented the entry of “mad cow” and other diseases, such as foot and mouth disease, by prohibiting imports from countries where these diseases are established.
While publicly claiming to uphold Australia’s high quarantine standards, it is clear that, in practice, the Federal Government is willing to accept lower standards to pursue its free trade agenda. Once again, Australia is being sacrificed on the altar of free market capitalism.
- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.