Quarantine should be treated as part of the front line in the protection of our national security.
The report of the equine influenza inquiry, released by the federal Minister of Agriculture, Tony Burke, has already led to the resignation of the director of quarantine and deputy secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Stephen Hunter.
The inquiry was conducted by Mr Ian Callinan, a former justice of the High Court of Australia.
After summarising the compound failures of quarantine which led to the outbreak, Mr Callinan said, “What I describe bespeaks an organisation that lacked clear lines of communication between those responsible for formulating procedures and work instructions and those responsible for implementing them; one in which there was insufficient training and education in relation to the procedures and instructions to be followed; one in which there was no checking to ensure that those procedures and instructions were being implemented; and one in which any business plan or other reporting system did not alert senior management to these failures.” (p.xxii).
Mr Callinan was also critical of Biosecurity Australia (BA), the advisory body which conducts biosecurity import risk assessments.
The findings of the Callinan inquiry have been referred to the broader inquiry, established by the Minister for Agriculture last March, which extends beyond equine influenza into the totality of Australia’s quarantine and biosecurity system.
This inquiry, headed by Mr Roger Beale, is the first since 1996 to consider the entire quarantine system.
Mr Callinan expressed the view that the Beale inquiry would “require some form of restructuring of both AQIS and Biosecurity Australia” (p.315).
The Quarantine and Biosecurity Review has invited submissions into many different aspects of Australia’s quarantine system, including whether the existing administrative arrangements, in which AQIS and Biosecurity Australia are part of the Department of Agriculture, serve Australia, or whether they should be independent of the department.
The NSW Farmers Association submission directly addressed these issues. It said that, as a result of fundamental flaws in Australia’s quarantine system, it feared that a major exotic disease outbreak of plants or livestock was “imminent”.
It said that apart from the EI outbreak, there had been a succession of breaches of Australia’s quarantine system over the years, some of which had had serious consequences for affected industries.
The NSW Farmers Association said that there were a number of problems within AQIS, including its public service culture, the lack of authority given to professionally qualified staff, and the over-arching free trade policy of the Department of Agriculture.
Although the Department of Agriculture did not make a submission to the inquiry, another submission from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has amply justified these concerns.
In its 15-page submission, DFAT argued that Australia must base its quarantine standards on its World Trade Organization (WTO) obligations and those contained in the various free trade agreements into which Australia had entered.
While conceding that under WTO rules each country has the right to set its own appropriate level of quarantine protection, it nonetheless conveyed the impression that Australia had to respond to international concerns about its restrictive quarantine policies.
It said that “Australia’s trading partners [i.e., the US, EU and New Zealand] view our quarantine system as a de facto trade barrier”, and added, “These perceptions weaken the impact of Australia’s advocacy for more open markets” through the WTO and the Cairns Group of agriculture exporters.
DFAT also expressed concern about the resources needed to defend cases taken by other countries to the World Trade Organization, specifically mentioning New Zealand’s WTO challenge on apple imports.
The reality, surely, is that other countries with inferior standards will continue to challenge Australia on these issues, because of Australia’s disease-free status.
To resist these pressures, it is imperative that Australia’s quarantine system be completely independent of other branches of government committed to a free trade agenda which is incompatible with strong quarantine standards.
Only the establishment of an independent quarantine authority, separate from the Department of Agriculture, will enable the creation of a quarantine service in which the Australian people can have confidence.
Today, quarantine is part of the front line in the protection of Australia’s national security, with functions closely related to those of the Australian Customs Service which exists to provide Australia with strong and effective border protection.
The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service and Biosecurity Australia should operate as a single statutory body, such as Quarantine Australia, as recommended by the Australian Quarantine Review Committee in 1996.
— Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.