THE government's commitment to biosecurity has been slammed as rhetoric, after evidence of illegal plant importation was handed to the government but no fines or penalties were enforced.
Larger questions have been raised about exotic plants with potentially devastating diseases bypassing the nation's biosecurity quarantine facility, simply by being mailed directly to a buyer's house after being purchased on sites like Facebook or eBay.
Admins of the Heritage and Rare Fruit Network Australia Facebook page were alarmed when one of its members offered fig and apple cuttings not known to be legitimately available in the country.
The man, who ACM has chosen not to name, admitted the cuttings were purchased internationally and sent directly to his house, rather than going through the biosecurity quarantining facility, which holds and monitors imported plant material for diseases for up to two years.
Neil Barraclough, an admin of the Facebook group, felt the need to report the matter, because just one individual "importing stuff willy nilly" could cost the country "billions and billions of dollars".
"If fire blight got into this country, it would devastate the apple and pear industry," Mr Barraclough said.
He handed over extensive evidence to the Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment in mid-2021. But Mr Barraclough is alarmed and concerned by the lack of action, and the man is still actively selling exotic plant species online.
The department would not confirm what action had been taken, however Mr Barraclough said when he handed over evidence, the department told him he would be notified of any fines or changes.
The department refused to share details of the case due to "privacy concerns", other than to say the matter had been finalised. But ACM understands department officials visited the offender in September, confiscated some plant materials and later followed up with a phone call.
Mr Barraclough also wrote to Agriculture Minister David Littleproud, who responded he was "satisfied the department has taken appropriate actions".
"I could not believe the response from Littleproud, it was beyond frustrating," Mr Barraclough said.
"It's total rhetoric. The buck has to stop somewhere and it should stop with the minister."
The government has made several large biosecurity announcements over the past 12 months, including $370m in the last budget.
Australian Nurserymen's Fruit Improvement Company chief executive Gavin Porter, who also raised the same incident with the department, was appalled by the response and concerned infected material has already been spread.
"We've given them real, credible, tangible information and they've done nothing about it," Mr Porter said.
"We understand that sometimes things slip through the cracks, but what's the point of a hotline if they're not going to address it?
"This guy continues to sell, biosecurity offices have not followed up the chain of distribution, so if there was infected material, we have no idea where it could have gone."
All plant-based industries have biosecurity plans in place to prevent outbreaks, but just "one individual can undo all that good work".
"It only takes one, and we saw that happen in the citrus industry in 2018, when there was an outbreak of bacterial canker in the Northern Territory," Mr Porter said.
"They had to use a scorched earth policy. It was years until they could replant and the cost to businesses was huge.
"It's not just the fruit industry that's at risk, if Xylella gets into the country, it can spread to natives and ornamentals. It is a super serious risk - in Europe it's killing 100-year-old olive orchards."
When the department was asked if it was aware the man was still selling exotic cuttings on Facebook and Ebay, the department said it's "legislative remit currently only covers plants illegally imported and does not cover progeny or plants established here".
"The department is working closely with eBay to restrict the sale of live plant material from overseas," a department spokesperson said.
"In mid-2021 eBay implemented a filter on plant and seed listings by overseas sellers. This means that a significant number of listings are no longer visible to Australian based buyers, which is having a positive impact.
"Those attempting to flout our biosecurity laws by importing live plants face a $444,000 penalty or 10 years in jail, or both."