The Senate has just handed down its final report dated March 2014 concerning the investigation by the Department of Agriculture (the Department) into the effect, and potential risk, of allowing imports of certain fruits, vegetables and spices into Australia. In short, the report criticises the Department’s current biosecurity operations and recommends a new, single and stand-alone statutory authority to oversee Australia’s Federal level quarantine and biosecurity policy and operations.
Biosecurity is an umbrella term that refers to a particular geographic region’s efforts to prevent or reduce the risk of intrusion of exotic biological pests, species and diseases. It is almost synonymous with quarantine.
Australia’s biosecurity policies are not the exclusive province of the Federal Government, but are overseen by both Federal and State governments - hence ‘fruit bins’ on various State highways sitting just across State boarders. Each level of government has used its powers to enact numerous pieces of legislation that together form Australia’s biosecurity shield.
Despite sharing biosecurity responsibility with the States, the Federal Government’s control of Australia’s boarders gives it biosecurity primacy. It exercises powers that prevent, or indeed allow, certain imports reaching our shores. Its policy in this regard, overseen by the Department, aims to strike a balance between ‘reducing risk [of an agricultural emergency] to a very low level’, in order to protect Australia’s agribusiness, and allowing the safe importation of fresh fruit and livestock to enhance our economic prosperity and build trading relationships.
When the importation of a new fruit or animal is first mooted - usually by a ‘market access request’ - the Department has a series of complicated measures it takes to assess the risk of allowing the importation on scientific, industry and regional bases. This process is known as an ‘import risk analysis’ or IRA.
The Senate report
The recent Senate report was specifically set up to consider the Department’s investigations, including the sufficiency of its IRAs, into the potential importation of pineapples from Malaysia, ginger from Fiji and potatoes from New Zealand. These imports have not commenced, and the report expressed concern on whether risks had properly been assessed, and whether stakeholders and peak bodies had been kept abreast of the Department’s investigations and given the opportunity to make submissions concerning the competency of those investigations. The undercurrent here was that the Department was considering recommendations based upon risk assessments which could have been improved by broader industry consultation, and that the failure to do this potentially jeopardised the ongoing prosperity of important agricultural sectors of the Australian economy, particularly South Australian potato production.
Some specific recommendations made by the report included:
- establishing a single, independent, statutory authority - separate from the Department - with responsibility for quarantine and biosecurity operations
- ensuring that stakeholders’ risk perceptions be incorporated into the risk criteria used to assess an import risk and to improve communications with stakeholders
- enabling stakeholders to review any scientific evidence which the Department regards as showing there to be a minimal pest risk from new vegetable imports.
We may now see an overhaul of risk assessment for biosecurity, giving greater voice to local industry over the lure of imports.
Author: Bede Haines
Ron Eames, Partner
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