DISMAYED by the paltry penalties handed down by the courts for serious quarantine breaches, the Federal coalition is planning to beef-up Australia's quarantine laws.
Agriculture Minister Warren Truss has signalled the government intends to create a new offence of "commercial smuggling" under the Quarantine Act, to apply heavier penalties to those who attempt to break Australia's quarantine laws for their own commercial benefit.
Recent penalties applied by the courts indicate just why the changes are being proposed.
pSomeone who illegally imported two live pigeons and two pigeon eggs was fined $1500 and $52 costs
pSomeone who illegally imported viable plant material - fined $600
pSomeone who illegally imported bull semen - fined $2000
The amendments want to lift the current maximum fine from $66,000 to $100,000, while keeping the 10 year maximum jail penalty in place. The amendment would also bring fines in line with penalties available under the Customs Act.
But more importantly it signals to both the courts and would-be smugglers, that smuggling is a far more serious matter than an inadvertent failure to declare other prohibited, but low risk, items.
Only last week National Farmers Federation president Ian Donges warned that rural Australia was a prime target from agro-terrorism.
Not only was Australia susceptible to an attack, but also to the trade fallout from such an event, Mr Donges said.
"After being caught in Washington during the recent terrorist attacks on the US, I believe we are compelled to think more carefully about risks that were previously extremely remote," he told a quarantine conference in Canberra.
"There's no need for us to be melodramatic about this. Australia has some of the world's strictest border protection measures in place in terms of surveillance, monitoring, interception and rapid response.
"But we know that there are people out there that want to cause maximal disruption to society, are not concerned about killing innocent civilians and they have no regard for their own personal safety."
Agroterrorism experts from around the world had acknowledged that chemical or biological terrorism attacks against livestock and the food chain were substantially easier and less risky to carry out than those directed at civilian targets, Mr Donges said, so Australian agriculture, and border protection authorities needed to be vigilant.
"It is a risk that is being taken very seriously overseas and a risk that Australians should also take very seriously. The social, economic and trade implications, as well as consumer confidence in the products we work so hard to produce safely, of chemical or biological terrorism would be horrendous."