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Quarantine double standards

By Selwyn Johnston - posted Friday, 14 September 2007

There are times when you must genuinely wonder just who our government is working for. In the days of Labor's Hawke and Keating the joke was that they were busy building level playing fields for the rest of the world to screw us on, but believe me, the construction technique of Hawke and Keating has now been turned into an art form by the Coalition.

Nowhere does this apply more so than to quarantine. Quarantine management in Australia is divided into two parts.

First there is the AQIS side, which does a wonderful job given that it is under constant restraint and impediment, and second, BioSecurity Australia, which, in addition to creating policy and assessing risks, gives every appearance of being a remote, impractical policy making body which by and large works in the interests of anyone but Australians and serves to impede AQIS.


There is more than a strong suspicion that the decisions of BioSecurity Australia, while made in accordance with AN interpretation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Rules always seem to come down in favour of any interest but Australia's.

The rules that BioSecurity Australia has to follow are set out in a document called the Import Risk Analysis Handbook, and are available to all those who have Internet access or even perhaps by request to the Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry. These rules follow along the WTO lines but it seems that the document can be interpreted in any number of different ways.

Two parts of this "Handbook" are of particular interest. First is the section on "Objectives" which states in part:

Australia has unique and diverse flora and fauna, has valuable agricultural industries and is relatively free from serious pests and diseases. Therefore successive Commonwealth Governments have maintained a conservative but not zero-risk approach to the management of biosecurity risks. This approach is consistent with the World Trade Organisation 'Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures [the SPS Agreement], and is evident in the range of biosecurity related activities, including policies on imported commodities, procedures at the border, and operations against incursions of pests and diseases.

The SPS Agreement [see Annex 8] defines the concept of an "appropriate level of sanitary or phytosanitary protection [ALOP]" as the level of protection deemed appropriate by a WTO Member in establishing a sanitary or phytosanitary measure to protect human, animal or plant life or health within its territory. In setting its ALOP a WTO Member should take into account the objective of minimising negative trade effects.

Like many countries, Australia expresses its ALOP in qualitative terms. Australia's ALOP, which reflects community expectations through government policy, is currently expressed as providing a high level of sanitary and phytosanitary protection aimed at reducing risk to a very low level, but not to zero! This is not an easy text to read and the jargon is almost total. What we can easily gain from the text is that it can be interpreted in the most subjective of ways and second, saying NO is not an option.


The second part of the handbook of interest is “Annexure 8” and this in itself is well worth a read if only to find out the extent to which the Australian government has abrogated its responsibilities to the Australian public in favour of international pandering.

Without wishing to pre-empt any finding that any future Inquiry may come to, we have to be suspicious that this objective of risk assessment - given the importance it gives to "minimising negative trade effects" - was the primary cause of the present equine influenza outbreak we are experiencing. The ultimate cost of this outbreak to the enormous disadvantage of our racing and equine industries can at this stage only be guessed at, but they can all expect a six-month shut down after the last case is discovered.

If we balance that cost to those industries against the potential gains from introducing horses from a country that at the time of importation was experiencing an outbreak of equine influenza, then the risk was clearly not worth it. But as the risk assessors and takers do not have to pay the costs from their own pockets it is easy to understand how the "sanitary and phytosanitary risks" were acceptable.

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About the Author

Selwyn Johnston is an independent candiate for the federal seat of Leichhardt in far North Queensland for 2007.

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