Our praise for the recent Senate inquiry into environmental biosecurity was tempered only by disappointment at its failure to recognise the need for institutional change.
The Senate committee didn’t even consider the Beale review proposal for an independent biosecurity authority (previously rejected by both major parties) and turned down our proposal for Environment Health Australia, a national organisation dedicated to protecting the nation’s native plants and animals from invasive species.
State and federal governments as well as industry groups established the jointly-funded Animal Health Australia and Plant Health Australia to improve defences against the arrival of new pests and diseases affecting agricultural interests.
So far, these two bodies have identified 348 priority risks for plant industries, 65 disease risks for livestock industries and prepared contingency plans and strategies for biosecurity, diagnosis, surveillance, research and development. So successful is the model that in 2014 government funded a third organisation, Wildlife Health Australia, to focus on new wildlife diseases – mainly those that affect livestock and human health.
In contrast, biosecurity preparations for the environment have been poor to non-existent. In 2012 we proposed Environment Health Australia (EHA) to lead preparations for the environment as a partnership between government, industry and the community.
Ninety of the 92 submissions to the inquiry that considered this proposal were in favour of EHA or similar. Even the National Farmers’ Federation supported the concept. Only two opposed it: the federal government and the Nursery Growers Industry Association.
The committee cited two reasons for not supporting EHA: the ‘potential cost and the danger that it might further fragment the biosecurity system, which is already very complex’.
The final report concluded EHA would ‘not be the best use of the limited resources available for biosecurity measures’. Instead it said environmental biosecurity could be improved through ‘better coordination and information sharing between existing organisations and through addressing shortcomings in present response agreements such as the National Environmental Biosecurity Response Agreement’.
We are sceptical this work will occur without a dedicated body that engenders community-government partnership. After all, the biosecurity agency doesn’t even acknowledge the need for a greatly strengthened environmental focus.
Let us look at the strength of each of the committee’s arguments against EHA.
We proposed an initial yearly budget for EHA of $1-2 million to be provided by state and federal governments. Over the past five years the federal government alone invested on average $4 million a year in Plant Health Australia and Animal Health Australia. So, there is an enormous disparity in resources allocated to agricultural and environmental work.
Ineffective biosecurity is proving expensive. As the committee said, ‘incursions by exotic organisms with the potential to harm Australia’s natural environment are a regular occurrence’ and for some invasive species, once they are established they are ‘very expensive to either eradicate or manage’.
Prevention is the most cost-effective use of biosecurity resources. Through more targeted surveillance programs, risk prioritisation, contingency planning and other prevention work, the work of EHA would reduce the costs of future eradications and avoid damage from new invasive species. The federal government attributes indicative benefits of $100 for prevention for every $1 invested in prevention.
The organisation would also bring more resources into biosecurity by engendering greater community involvement (eg. in surveillance) and attracting philanthropic support for some projects. Community involvement would greatly increase the value of government investment.
If there is value in a coordinating body for preparedness efforts for the environment, the modest costs of one to two million a year should not be an impediment.
Fragmenting the biosecurity system
This committee suggests a special focus on the environment will undermine the goal of integrating a biosecurity system that benefits human health, agriculture and the environment.
This is a strange argument given all the ways in which agriculture and human health get a special focus within the biosecurity system. Integration is harmed by the way in which environmental biosecurity is left to lag behind these other foci.
Contrary to the committee’s argument, a body dedicated to filling major gaps in the current biosecurity system and engendering partnerships (including with agriculture) would assist with biosecurity coordination.
Biosecurity for human health is managed by the Department of Health. Agricultural biosecurity has a complex set of arrangements run by the Department of Agriculture and includes a dozen consultative committees, specialist industry-focused staff, and two industry-government collaborative bodies to coordinate preparedness. Biosecurity for the environment is largely run by the Department of Agriculture with support from the Department of the Environment, with very little opportunity for community involvement.
Government’s response to the EHA proposal seemed to create confusion. In evidence to the inquiry, the departments of environment and agriculture said: ‘going down the path of creating a bespoke environmental biosecurity system would be a mistake when we had enormous capacity that already existed in plant and animal health under the national arrangements…’
It is silly to say that EHA would set up a separate biosecurity system. They don’t say this of the industry bodies Plant Health Australia or Animal Health Australia. EHA would support a unified biosecurity system not undermine it. EHA would identify and prepare for those risks facing the environment and feed these plans into the integrated biosecurity system. Specialist preparatory work is necessary under a single biosecurity system where expert knowledge is applied, different stakeholders are involved and plans for particular risks are needed. Plant Health Australia, Animal Health Australia and Wildlife Health Australia offer specialist direction and advice in their respective areas of expertise. The environment lacks a similar focus for preparedness. Although many invasive species affect both agricultural and environmental assets and warrant a joint approach, protecting nature differs in many ways from protecting industry assets,
The main reason why the government claims the environment does not warrant its own focus is that the biosecurity agency and some of its industry stakeholders fear it will take attention and resources from existing biosecurity priorities.
Better coordination and information sharing
Coordination is fundamental to effectively responding to incursions. While the inquiry recommended improvements such as compiling a priority list of pests and diseases of environment biosecurity concern and better targeting ‘known areas of biosecurity risk’, it did not address the underlying weaknesses in current arrangements.
For as long as responsibility lies with the Department of Agriculture and state primary industry representatives under the 2012 intergovernmental agreement on biosecurity, and there are no processes to engender meaningful community involvement, the environment will continue to be accorded low priority.
In evidence to the inquiry, the department argued that instead of EHA, ‘a more effective approach is to continue to integrate environmental issues into existing governance structures, functions and activities and to strengthen collaboration and consultation with relevant stakeholders, including community members.’
In the absence of any detail about how the government proposes to do this, the Australian community can have no confidence that there is a serious intent to address the current major disparities between environmental and industry biosecurity in Australia.
- Proposal for Environment Health Australia >>
- Senate inquiry into environmental biosecurity final report >>
 The Senate Environment and Communications References Committee inquiry into environmental biosecurity, final report. May 2015, p. 133.
 The Senate Environment and Communications References Committee inquiry into environmental biosecurity, final report. May 2015, p. 131.
 The Senate Environment and Communications References Committee inquiry into environmental biosecurity, final report. May 2015, p. 71.
 Department of Agriculture and Department of the Environment, Submission 59 to Senate inquiry into environmental biosecurity, p. 8.
 The Senate Environment and Communications References Committee inquiry into environmental biosecurity, final report. May 2015, p. 37.
 The Senate Environment and Communications References Committee inquiry into environmental biosecurity, final report. May 2015, Recommendations 9 and 11.
 Department of Agriculture and Department of the Environment, Submission 59 to Senate inquiry into environmental biosecurity, p. 16.