Labor hoses down biosecurity flare-up

22 Oct, 2014 07:30 AM
Opposition leader Bill Shorten.
The insiders would say this was another Scott Morrison land grab at the expense of his colleagues
Opposition leader Bill Shorten.

OPPOSITION Leader Bill Shorten and former Agriculture Minister Tony Burke have scotched suggestions biosecurity should be moved out of the agriculture portfolio and into immigration.

Reports resurfaced this week about Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce’s long-running battle with Immigration Minister Scott Morrison over responsibility for biosecurity.

Leading into the federal budget, the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) raised fears biosecurity could be moved out of the Department of Agriculture and into Mr Morrison’s department as a potential cost saving measure.

'A dumb idea': NFF

When asked by Fairfax Agricultural Media about the rumour in June, Mr Joyce said: “If something like that was to happen I’d be very upset and I’d probably stop it. Biosecurity is not moving into immigration”.

Then NFF chief executive officer Matt Linnegar said the proposal was “a dumb idea” and “whoever thought of it should take the piece of paper, screw it up and throw it in the bin”.

He also warned an incursion of foot and mouth disease (FMD) would cost $50 billion over 10 years; a sentiment reiterated by Mr Joyce on his recent visit to northern Australia to inspect biosecurity operations.

In June, Mr Joyce said there was no such proposal to move biosecurity into the immigration department but speculation has persisted.

Mr Shorten, who was a guest speaker at the NFF Congress in Canberra yesterday, told ABC radio today he’d read about a split emerging in the government about biosecurity but backed Mr Joyce’s position in support of farmers’ views.

“It seems to me that the insiders would say this was another Scott Morrison land grab at the expense of his colleagues,” he said.

“For me though, the real issue here is biosecurity, which helps protect our agricultural industries, for example, has a scientific role as well as a compliance role.

“I'm not sure that just moving everything into Customs would help our farming communities be secure from international diseases.”

NFF President Brent Finlay said his group was strongly opposed to the transfer of agricultural border protection functions out of the Department of Agriculture.

"A robust, rigorous and focussed biosecurity capability underpins agricultural productivity," he said.

"Our ‘clean, green and pest-free status’ is one of the significant competitive advantages we have in our agriculture industry.

"The Department of Agriculture has the scientific expertise and industry-specific knowledge to ensure the robust scrutiny required to keep pests and diseases out of Australia.

"This is not just about policing the borders – it’s about working closely with industry, business and technical specialists to keep our export markets operating effectively.

"Australia has world-class biosecurity capabilities.

“Any breach would be devastating for the farm sector and, more broadly, the Australian environment.”

Skill sets specific to roles

Mr Burke said the proposed shift had been “bounced around” when he was Agriculture Minister from 2007 to 2010, but it was rejected given the different skills sets required for the specific tasks conducted by each department.

“We you deal with ordinary Customs issues, you’re dealing with one specific skill set,” he said.

“When you’re dealing with biosecurity, you’re dealing with a very different skill set.

“People only have to look at what the impact would be on the Australian livestock industry for example, if FMD got in.

“With Customs they can say well if one thing gets through there might be a bust there might not be, with biosecurity if one thing gets through entire industries can be wiped out, they are a very different skill set.

“You would need an extraordinarily good reason to the merging what is purely an enforcement role very much with Customs, to something that is a combination of enforcement and a very high level scientific role within biosecurity.

“Certainly a few years ago when the issue was put to us around the Cabinet table, when we analysed it the case was not made to combine those and as I say the risk with biosecurity, people think oh yeah it’s a few farm diseases things like that; depending on what comes in the impact can be extraordinary and it would be a very brave government that took a risk with that.”

Time for PM to jump in

Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said the Prime Minister must immediately intervene in the spat between his ministers and rule out any transfer of biosecurity out of the Department of Agriculture.

“Biosecurity goes to the heart of both our own food security and our export future,” he said.

“Our safe, clean, green food image is what provides us with our export competitiveness.

“Australian agriculture has a wonderful opportunity to capitalise on growing food demand in Asia but success will only come if the integrity of our biosecurity remains intact.

“Labor won’t sit back and allow biosecurity to become a third order issue behind border control and terrorism in another portfolio.

“Biosecurity is an area which requires a high level of specific expertise in both compliance and the science of pests and diseases, and has different requirements to customs," Mr Fitzgibbon said.

“The Prime Minister must act, and act quickly.”

Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media


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