Urgent biosecurity fix in limbo as swine fever emergency grows

Urgent biosecurity fix in limbo as swine fever emergency grows


Can Australia plug big border protection gaps and beat deadly pig disease?


Government is mobilsing to confront the devastating African swine fever as it sweeps south across the globe, but a question mark hangs over the funding and capacity of Australia's border protection system.

Senator McKenzie has convened an emergency roundtable of industry and experts in Canberra today to discuss tactics for the looming economic and animal disaster.

"African swine fever is potentially the biggest animal disease event the world has ever seen and it's marching south through Asia, towards Australia," said Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie.

"Less than 10 per cent of Australia's pig meat by value is destined for overseas markets. Australian consumers would be hard hit should the unthinkable happen to our pork industry."

African swine fever has wrought havoc on China's staple meat. The pig herd is set to be halved by the end of the year with the loss of 200 million animals, or one-in-four of the world's pigs.

Senator McKenzie said biosecurity checks for swine fever had been "ramped up", seizing 23 tonnes of pork from swine fever countries. Of the pork that was tested, 15 per cent bore the virus.

Australia's biosecurity system has significant challenges.

The independent Inspector General has warned of big holes in border protections, but government has bungled the implementation of a levy system to boost funding and improve the performance of the biosecurity system.

The Commonwealth Inspector General of Biosecurity Helen Scott-Orr issued a report in May, which warned the dogs of war on biosecurity had been halved. Literally.

Numbers of sniffer dogs in international airports, seaports, mail centres and courier depots have fallen nearly 50 per cent in the past six years, with just 43 dogs operating across the country as of last year.

It's a particular concern for swine fever.


Sniffer dogs were responsible for more than half of the detections of meat products at the border. A whopping 20pc of detected breaches that come via mail and passenger pathways contain meat.

Meanwhile, the government has no plan to get its long-awaited budget boost for biosecurity back on track.

The independent Craik Review in 2017 found more funding was needed to bolster the biosecurity system. The government developed a Biosecurity Imports Levy, which would apply to incoming freight and generate about $300 million over three years.

The government's initial levy applied a flat rate to all cargo and vessels.

It was intended to begin on July 1, but after complaints from industry it was sent for review and the start date was delayed to September 1. That deadline has sailed by like uninspected cargo, and still there is legislation to bring to parliament.

A broad coalition of import industries argued for the levy to be redesigned, arguing for a risk based model that charged in proportion to the biosecurity threats of different.

They also warned that as the levy would flow to consolidated budget revenue, there was no guarantee government would spend the takings on biosecurity.

This week the Australian Financial Review reported that the former Japanese Ambassador Sumio Kusaka wrote in December to Trade Minister Simon Birmingham with concerns that the levy would be a risk to trade.

Australia's second-largest trading partner said the levy could be viewed as an import tariff and not in the spirit of free trade agreements.

The levy was reviewed by an industry steering committee, including the National Farmers' Federation, which has suggested government pursue a more risk-based model. Senator McKenzie is considering its findings.

NFF chief executive Tony Mahar said Australia cannot afford delays on beefing up biosecurity.

"A singular biosecurity incursion has the potential to bring one or more of our farm industries to its knees," Mr Mahar said.

"The volume of goods, people and vessels arriving in Australia each year continues to grow.

"It is crucial that the levy makes available additional funding to strengthen biosecurity systems and is not a substitution of existing Government funding, or lost to consolidated revenue."

Labor agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon said the policy was "a mess"

"The government has focused on revenues, not biosecurity, and as a result it hasn't been able to deliver a model that industry can accept," Mr Fitzgibbon said.

"Japan is one of our largest trading partners - any hint of tariffs is not helpful to this important relationship."

"What use is a (biosecurity) roundtable when the Government already has industry's Steering Committee report, delivered in May?"

Senator McKenzie is considering the steering committee's report.

"I am working closely with my ministerial colleagues, considering all the concerns raised across various sectors," she said.


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