THE Department of Agriculture and Food (DAFWA) is under scrutiny after a recent report by the Auditor General found there were major gaps in its biosecurity management framework.
The report was tabled in parliament last week and Auditor General Colin Murphy found DAFWA's framework actually increased the risk that established pests would spread and have a growing impact on agriculture.
The Biosecurity and Agriculture Management Act 2007 (BAM Act) is at the centre of the report, which Mr Murphy said had made prevention of new pests a priority for the department, but not management of pests already in the State.
"The good news is that no new pests have become established in the State since the arrival of the cane toad in 2009," Mr Murphy said.
"However, 80 per cent of declared pests are already established in the State and these need to be effectively managed to minimise the spread and reduce their impact."
He said DAFWA needed to work with other government agencies and landholders to maintain pest control.
"However, current practice falls well short of this collaborative approach which has left gaps in how established pests are being managed State-wide," he said.
"We also found that we could not get an accurate picture of the spread of established pests, whether their impact is growing, why DAFWA is spending money on some pests and not on others, and which of the current control programs are most effective.
"From the landholder's perspective, the drop in monitoring and enforcement from DAFWA reduces the incentive for landholders to meet their responsibilities."
The prime responsibility for DAFWA under the BAM act is education and regulation, not an operational control responsibility.
Despite the found failings of the management framework, WA remains relatively free from many of the world's pests and animal diseases.
"This report recommends a range of measures be implemented by June next year to strengthen the framework for the collaborative management of pests with government agencies, landholders and community groups," Mr Murphy said.
"This includes the development of a State-wide plan for the management of declared pests, as well as clearly defined roles for key government agencies and establishing an accurate picture of high priority pests."
Mr Murphy said the current framework also increased risk to environment and social amenity and public health.
"Another key challenge for DAFWA is how to fairly align the funding and implementation of pest programs to ensure that those who benefit most contribute fairly to the cost," he said.
"I am encouraged that DAFWA has acknowledged the report's findings and recommendations, and hopeful that both government and private landholders will work together to effectively manage this issue."
Labor Member for Agricultural Region Darren West said the findings clearly highlighted the lack of cohesion in addressing important biosecurity issues.
The report also revealed a 32 per cent cut to full time staff at DAFWA was also putting WA's biosecurity at risk.
"The continued assault on staff numbers at DAFWA by the Barnett-Redman Government shows the Premier and WA Nationals leader are thumbing their noses at the agriculture industry," Mr West said.
"Under the Barnett-Redman Government, 350 DAFWA (employees) have lost their jobs placing real pressure on the remaining staff to carry out this important work.
"These staff cuts also place increased responsibility on the remaining staff to do more with less."
The Auditor General said DAFWA had advised them that reductions in its resourcing had limited its capacity to conduct enforcement.
"This is a cry for help from DAFWA," Mr West said.
"This has happened under the watch of Terry Redman and we can now see why he has been stripped of this important portfolio."
Mr West called on the Barnett-Redman Government to provide DAFWA with the necessary funds and resources to adopt the recommendations set out in the Auditor General's report and keep WA as pest free as possible.
At the State Budget announcement in August, DAFWA was delivered a modest funding increase with a commitment of $218.5 million.
This was an increase of $26.7m on last year's $191.8m DAFWA budget.
But the State Government's Seizing the Opportunity commitment of almost $300m over five years is expected to include money for biosecurity.
In the policy $20m of the Seizing the Opportunity funding was allocated to bolstering WA's biosecurity defences.
Community and Public Sector Union/Civil Service Association also hit out at the Barnett Government following the report with its branch assistant secretary Rikki Hendon saying the State Government was playing Russian roulette with WA's biosecurity by reducing staff numbers.
"We are glad the report supports our long-term concerns," Ms Hendon said.
"There are no surprises in this report as it reaffirms what our members in agriculture have been telling us and what we have been telling the public for some time now.
"We call on the government to immediately stop the cutbacks and to reinvest in biosecurity that protects our vital agricultural industry."
Agriculture and Food Minister Ken Baston said the report was timely as biosecurity was one of DAFWA's most important responsibilities.
"With the new BAM regulations recently coming into force it is vital that the department prioritises its efforts in to keeping out pests and diseases that can devastate WA agriculture," Mr Baston said.
"The Audit's recommendations are mainly around improving processes in areas such as transparency, accountability and prioritisation.
"I am confident this is already underway as part of the roll out of the new regulations."
Mr Baston said the government had an election promise of investing $20m into biosecurity and that would be available in 2014/15.
It remains to be seen if that money will include an increase in staff.
"Effective biosecurity is a lot more than simply addition of staff," Mr Baston said.
"It is about raising awareness to prevent the incursion of pests and diseases, it is about effective livestock tracking systems and it is about planning to be able to respond quickly to an outbreak of something like Foot and Mouth Disease."
The department is already setting priorities for declared pests based on future risk and potential economic impact as part of its Invasive Species strategy.