Biosecurity Bill – six years in the making

Our Work  |  Biosecurity

The Biosecurity Bill, passed by the Senate in May 2015, marked the final stage of a major overhaul of the way Australia protects its borders from invasive animals, weeds and diseases and what happens when inevitably they are breached.

A replacement for the century-old Quarantine Act 1908, the Biosecurity Bill 2014 was an unprecedented opportunity to recast Australian biosecurity. While there are benefits in the bill’s broad approach, we were concerned about the Bill’s lack of accountability and transparency, the failure to properly consider the environment and the failure to require a science-based risk minimisation approach.

Throughout the six-year development of the Bill, neither major political party was willing to respond to important issues raised by stakeholders. Chronicled below are key events during the development of the Biosecurity Bill.

The Biosecurity Bill 2014 was referred for an inquiry by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport legislative committee. The committee reported to the Senate on Tuesday 17 March 2015.

On Wed 13 May, the Biosecurity Bill passed the Senate. Labor and the Government rejected key amendments supported by the Invasive Species Council. The Biosecurity Bill, now to be called the Biosecurity Act 2015, has become law and will start operation by June 2016 after the regulations that define the detailed operation are developed.

We analysed the passage of the Biosecurity Bill in our recent Feral Herald blog post: The industry-centric birth of a biosecurity law.

Priority changes sought by the Invasive Species Council:

  1. Structure: Implement the structure proposed by the Beale review of a statutory Biosecurity Authority, an expert Biosecurity Commission and an independent Director of Biosecurity. Specify that at least one-third of Biosecurity Commissioners must have primary expertise in disciplines relevant to environmental biosecurity, including ecology and conservation biology, and be appointed by the Environment Minister, as recommended by the Hawke review of the EPBC Act.
  2. Precaution: Require application of the precautionary principle in decision-making under the Biosecurity Act.
  3. Partnership: Implement a genuine partnership with community by providing rights for access to information, consultation, representation in policy processes and legal review at least equivalent to such rights under the EPBC Act. Require that all government committees with a focus on environmental issues include representation from the Environmental NGO sector.
  4. Environment Health Australia: Establish an organisation equivalent to Plant Health Australia and Animal Health Australia – Environment Health Australia – to facilitate a cross-jurisdictional, cross-sector collaboration to develop more ecologically informed approaches to biosecurity, improve biosecurity preparedness, promote effective responses to environmental incursions, enhance community awareness, vigilance and action, and monitor and report on progress in environmental biosecurity.
  5. Environmental role: Provide for the Secretary of the Environment Department and the Environment Minister to have roles in decision-making and policy direction on important environmental biosecurity issues, including issuance of biosecurity guidelines and priorities for BIRAs, review and auditing of environmentally relevant risk assessments, BIRAs and import decisions, declarations of biosecurity zones for conservation purposes (This applies if the biosecurity agency is situated within DAFF rather than as an independent authority.)
  6. Biosecurity obligation: Require all biosecurity participants to exercise a general biosecurity obligation to take all reasonable and practical measures to prevent and minimise biosecurity risks, with provisions similar to those in Queensland’s Biosecurity Bill 2011.
  7. Risk assessments: Ensure that decisions to permit new imports are transparently based on risk assessments and the best available evidence by providing for public input and review. If the Beale-recommended model of an independent authority and expert commission is rejected, establish a Risk Assessment Authority to undertake risk assessments and BIRAs.
  8. Biodiversity: Define ‘environment’ to include biodiversity indigenous to Australia, including ecosystem, species and genetic diversity, and ecological processes.
  9. Biosecurity risk: Define ‘biosecurity risk’ to (a) recognise changes through time, so that risks are assessed over an ecologically relevant time frame taking account of climate change; (b) include the likelihood of new genotypes of a disease or pest combining with others to exacerbate the potential for the disease or pest to cause harm or to cause greater harm than existing genotypes; and (c) recognise regional differences and different levels of biodiversity (ranging from ecosystem to genetic diversity).
  10. National approach: Implement a ‘one biosecurity’ approach by adopting a national risk assessment protocol for pre-border and post-border application and establish a listing process for nationally significant invasive species to provide for risk-based management across the biosecurity continuum.
  11. Conservation zones: Establish a category of biosecurity zone for high value conservation areas with high biosecurity risks known as ‘conservation biosecurity zones’, as the basis for implementing biosecurity measures, plans and monitoring. The zones should be declared by the Secretary of the Environment Department on advice by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee or other scientific committee, and biosecurity arrangements negotiated in bilateral agreements between governments and/or private property managers.
  12. Islands: Extend the operation of the Biosecurity Act to Australia’s island territories. Facilitate biosecurity protection of high value islands by the systematic declaration of conservation biosecurity zones.
  13. Biofouling: Adopt a national regulatory approach to biofouling, covering international and domestic traffic, for all Australian waters, as is provided for ballast water management.

The development of the Biosecurity Bill

2015 Jun 16 The Biosecurity Bill 2014 receives royal assent. The Biosecurity Act 2015 and related legislation (Biosecurity (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Act 2015) comes into law. Commencement of the Biosecurity Act must occur by 16 June 2016.

2015 May 13 The Biosecurity Bill is passed by the Senate with only one change – the addition of a statutory Inspector-General of Biosecurity. Green amendments implementing key recommendations of the Invasive Species Council were not supported by the government or Labor and hence failed.

2015 May 12 Labor backs down with its stronger version of the Inspector-General of Biosecurity and supports the Coalition government’s version.

2015 March 20 The Coalition government supports the creation of a statutory Inspector-General of Biosecurity, but in a more simplified form compared to Labor’s version.

2015 March 17 The Senate committee submitted its report to the Senate about the Biosecurity Bill 2014 after which debate in the Senate will begin. Labor made a dissenting report supporting a statutory Inspector-General of Biosecurity while the Greens made additional commenting seeking further changes, including recommendations from the Beale review to establish an independent National Biosecurity Authority.

2015 March 10 Labor supported amendments to create an Inspector-General of Biosecurity.

2015 February 10 House of Representatives passes the Biosecurity Bill 2014 without amendments. Referred to the Senate.

2015 January 16 Submissions closed to the Senate committee inquiry. The Invasive Species Council along with 27 other environment groups submitted a detailed 65 page submission.

2014 November The Biosecurity Bill 2014 was tabled in Parliament and referred for inquiry by the Senate to the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport legislation committee. Despite it differing very little from the 2012 bill, there is no plan to complete the report for the original Senate inquiry held during 2012-13, a waste of considerable effort by stakeholders and committee members.

2014 September The Coalition government offered ‘targeted consultation’ to selected stakeholders, including the Invasive Species Council. The Department of Agriculture failed to meet with the Invasive Species Council until after the bill was tabled in Parliament.

2013 September The Biosecurity Bill 2012 lapsed with the calling of the federal election. The Senate inquiry was halted before its report was completed.

2012 November The Biosecurity Bill 2012 was tabled in Parliament and referred to a Senate committee, originally to report by February 2013, but later extended to the end of 2013. The Invasive Species Council and others made submissions and participated in hearings.

The Bill tabled in Parliament was effectively unchanged from the exposure draft referred for public consultation, ignoring the large numbers of submissions. Only one small technical amendment was made to half a page of the 620 page Bill!

2012 September The Labor Government released an exposure draft of the Biosecurity Bill for public comment.

The Invasive Species Council along with 18 other environment groups prepared a detailed 65 page submission that argued for improved transparency and accountability and greater emphasis on the environment.

2009-2012 The Invasive Species Council, together with agricultural and industry groups, participated in government-run workshops to respond to drafts of a Biosecurity Bill. Few changes were made in response to concerns raised by stakeholders.

2008 The Labor Government commissioned a comprehensive independent review of Australia’s quarantine and biosecurity system. In September, the result of this review, the landmark Beale review titled One Biosecurity: a working partnership, was released. The report’s recommendations were widely supported by all quarters and included major changes to quarantine laws and institutional arrangements. The Labor Government initially supported all recommendations ‘in principle’.

2007 Equine influenza outbreak occurred in NSW and Queensland that directly cost $110 million as well as broader costs borne by the community.