Fundamental biosecurity measures were not being implemented in the largest government-operated animal quarantine station in Australia, a former High Court judge has found. Peter Westmore reports.
The report of former High Court judge Ian Callinan into the horse flu outbreak last year has highlighted the responsibility of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service for the outbreak, and indicated that a change in the culture of the organisation is necessary to preserve Australia from further failures of quarantine.
Mr Callinan concluded: “Fundamental biosecurity measures were not being implemented in the largest government-operated animal quarantine station in Australia.
This constituted a serious failure by those within the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and AQIS who were and had been responsible for the management of quarantine risks and, in particular, the management of post-entry quarantine arrangements.
“Among the people who ultimately must take responsibility for that failure were the secretary of the department as the director of Animal and Plant Quarantine and the person who, under the minister, is charged with execution of the Quarantine Act 1908, the executive director of AQIS and the executive manager of quarantine within AQIS. Various people have held those positions in recent years.”
Not to be privatised
Despite submissions to privatise Australia’s quarantine facilities, Mr Callinan concluded that the Commonwealth should continue to provide equine quarantine facilities, and that they should not be privatised.
He said, “The reasons for my view that horse quarantine should continue to be operated by the Commonwealth are as follows:
“(a) There is a wide and deep community interest in the effective quarantining of imported horses, beyond the interests of those who own valuable stallions.
“(b) Australian primary production, the business of horse-racing, equestrian sports, and other equestrian activities make an important contribution to government revenues and to employment and are of great importance to the national economy.
“(c) There is at least a question about whether all privately operated quarantine stations in other countries have always performed satisfactorily.
“(d) As a matter of fairness, and despite provision that might be made, by way of conditions, new legislation and current competition law, for access by all importers of horses, thoroughbred or otherwise, privatised stations might not be accessible to all horse-owners on fair and reasonable terms.
“(e) Since before Federation, large animal quarantine has been an important government (state or federal) function and has generally been conducted with few detected failures.
“(f) The Constitution confers power over quarantine on the Commonwealth.
“(g) Questions of international arrangements, comity and expanding trade, which are Commonwealth matters, can influence and are involved in decisions about quarantine.
“(h) The Commonwealth already has a substantial investment in its existing, albeit leased, quarantine stations.
“(i) Quarantine is not a service: people whose animals are subjected to it are not customers or clients; and quarantine officers have regulatory and policing functions and need to be unmistakably armed with official powers to carry out those functions.
“(j) If the recommendations I make are implemented, the Commonwealth should be able to ensure proper quarantining of horses in the future at stations it controls and operates.” (Report pp.60-61).
In relation to the conduct of Eastern Creek Quarantine Station, Mr Callinan concluded that “AQIS (so far as Eastern Creek Quarantine Station was concerned) was trapped in a seemingly impenetrable maze of bureaucratic confusion.” (p.121).
He added: “It is evident that horse quarantine at Eastern Creek Quarantine Station was a place of ignorance, misunderstandings, misconceptions about fundamental matters, absence of clear communication, and assumptions. I gained the impression that Mr Hankins [manager of the Eastern Creek facility] had a sense of this and was trying to rectify the situation.
“But he did not have the time, the support from his superiors, and the training and resources that would have enabled him to do that before the equine influenza was imported into, and probably escaped from, Eastern Creek.”
Mr Callinan recommended a series of measures designed to prevent further outbreaks.
The Government has accepted his proposal to appoint a senior executive officer, called the inspector-general of horse importation, who will be responsible and accountable for the importation of horses into Australia, and also to appoint an external auditor to oversee all aspects of horse quarantine.
Additionally, quarantine procedures in countries which send horses to Australia will be improved and subject to periodic inspection; airport facilities in Sydney and Melbourne will be upgraded; and import fees will be charged to meet the actual cost of importing horses.
— Peter Westmore