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Issue #1670      January 28, 2015

Which way is Australia’s biosecurity headed?

A recent CSIRO report has raised questions about the nation’s ability to deal with biological threats to Australia’s security.

The report, Australia’s Biosecurity Future, discusses biosecurity megatrends, i.e. significant shifts in “social, environmental, economic, technological or geopolitical conditions” with potential adverse impacts on industry and society.

The coincidence of two or more megatrends often creates megashocks, crises which may totally overwhelm government emergency planning and resources.

Supervised by the Department of Agriculture, Australia’s quarantine policy has to date been highly successful in excluding hazardous plants and animals.

But according to the report over the next 30 years Australia may face incursions of noxious insects, viruses and destructive organisms, as well as a rapid spike in antibiotic resistance, all of which would have devastating effects on primary industry.

Quarantine is often controversial, because of its impact on primary production and international trade. However, the report also mentions possible bioterrorist attack and outbreaks of zoonotic diseases (transmitted between humans and animals and possibly stemming from loss of biodiversity). These issues are far more politically-charged than quarantine.

The situation has become volatile because the Immigration Department’s militaristic border protection division may take over the nation’s biosecurity operations, under the direction of the aggressive, secretive and ruthless minister Scott Morrison.

The scope of the threats

The report warns our current practices are inadequate to deal with potential biosecurity threats. Impacting mega trends include climate change, global population growth (particularly in cities), global demand for food, decreasing natural resources, biodiversity pressures, pesticide resistance, water scarcity and increased global movement of goods and people.

In Australia marine and atmospheric warming stemming from climate change will result in the southward movement of marine organisms and tropical diseases such as dengue fever. The impact of international trade agreements has been demonstrated by New Zealand’s appeal to the World Trade Organisation, which resulted in the Australian government abandoning quarantine prohibition of apples imported from New Zealand.

The Australian fruit industry is now threatened by fire blight, a plant disease prevalent in New Zealand and regarded by many Australian orchardists as their primary biosecurity hazard.

Can we rely on the government?

On its performance to date the government has not demonstrated reliability regarding biosecurity. One of its first acts after taking office was to eliminate the Department of Science.

Many CSIRO staff members are reaching retirement, and the intake of new personnel, has been inadequate for years. But in last May’s budget the government slashed the CSIRO’s four-year funding by $115 million. As a result, staff now face redundancy, including scientist San Thang, who together with two other CSIRO scientists has been nominated for the Nobel prize.

The report recommends pro-active off-shore biosecurity measures, but the Abbott government’s reaction to the recent Ebola crisis was slow, miserly and callous.

The report also stresses the importance of the rapidly developing “niche markets’ for Australian non-genetically-modified food, but the government has raised no objection to the sowing of genetically-modified crops.

Bioterrorism attacks, highlighted in the report, are an enormous threat to national security, but Australia’s subservience to US interests in the Middle East has exponentially increased the risk of such an attack.

The 2008 Beale Review recommended the creation of two new bodies, the Biosecurity Commission and the Biosecurity Authority. But the government won’t have a bar of that; it is ideologically committed to privatising public authorities rather than creating new ones.

Instead, last month it proposed legislation to amend the Quarantine Act. The current situation is certainly far more complex than when the Act was introduced in 1908, but the new legislation has disturbing implications.

Under the bill the responsible minister could issue control orders for the sick, or order biosecurity officers to forcibly enter homes on the grounds of concern about the presence of hazardous material.

Many people would accept that as reasonable, if a major danger to public health existed. However, a raid by biosecurity officers on a Western Australia laboratory last year was a disaster for the firm, which collapsed, and the warrant for the raid was subsequently deemed to have been unlawfully issued.

Moreover, as recent experience of raids in the Sydney suburb of Lakemba has shown, the possibility of a bioterrorist attack increases the likelihood of unjustified forced entry by police.

And finally, the government has approved replacement of the precautionary approach to biosecurity with “a risk-based approach …. by aligning the level of regulatory effort with the level of risk”, and the minister will make the decision on the appropriate level of protection.

That approach has already been criticised with regard to foot and mouth disease. The government considers the risk of contagion in Australia is very slight, and doesn’t justify the cost of inoculating cattle against the disease. However, an outbreak could cost $50 billion, ten times more than an inoculation program.

Quarantine the minister!

Morrison has enthusiastically enforced the cruel banishment of asylum seekers who arrive by boat from conflict and impoverishment countries and the denial of citizenship to any of their children born here. He has his eye on defence, and would like to take over biosecurity, a move the government has been seriously considering.

However Minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce has declared adamantly that “Agriculture must retain biosecurity”. Morrison responded that “… in relation to agricultural biosecurity then of course that’s the proper domain of the Department of Agriculture”.

But he could still argue that dealing with the arrival of bioterrorists or persons carrying zoonotic diseases is part of border protection, and should be handled by Immigration with the support of the military, just as the government has treated asylum seekers.

But transferring responsibility for biosecurity in whole or in part from Agriculture to Immigration border protection in the hands of the super-ambitious, control-obsessed Morrison is an appalling prospect.

The situation calls for Morrison and the Abbott government to be quarantined to the opposition benches, and preferably banished from Parliament altogether, at the earliest possible opportunity.

Next article – The rise of German imperialism

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