Saturday, August 20, 2022

FMD is far more important than festivals

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This opinion piece is all about the failure of our Ag Minister to understand the importance of elevating biosecurity to the top of DPIRD’s list of things to do.

Disinfectant point

Biosecurity is DPIRD’s number one responsibility. The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development should really have Biosecurity included in its title, just as DBCA, the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions has Biodiversity in its.

Recent DPIRD Media Releases on Biosecurity:

  • 8 June – Mertle Rust found in WA
  • 27 June – Banana Freckle alert
  • 9 June – Oats Red Leather Leaf found in WA
  • 13 May – Polyphagous Shot-Hole Borer quarantine area increased
  • 12 April – Blueberry Rust found in WA for the first time
  • 1 March – Japanese Encephalitis alert

There is a pattern here, every month or so DPIRD is putting out a press release on the discovery or alert of a pest and disease threatening our farmers and environment.

With the arrival of Foot and Mouth Disease in Indonesia, DPIRD needs to be up to the task of stopping it at our borders or wiping it out within the 3-4 months that a recent CSIRO report claims is possible for localised outbreaks.

Across DPIRD, its senior Departmental Directors like Heather Brayford and Bruce Mullan understand the importance of biosecurity and are doing their best on a limited and shrinking budget to manage a increasing array of risks.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the Minister places the same level of priority on what should be her Department’s number one responsibility.

With a budget of over half a billion dollars at her disposal, one would think that a good proportion of the Minister’s 300 or so media releases over the past five years would have biosecurity front and centre and a swag of them would have covered FMD over the past few months.

Quite the opposite in fact, while the Department has a strong focus on biosecurity the Minister’s focus is on buying regional love with grants like $250,000 to reopen the Collie Premier Hotel or $90,000 to enable Collie Cycle Club to stage the Labour Day Festival or yet another $1million to continue her push for carbon farming.

No doubt all this cash is welcomed by the lucky recipients, but one would have thought that the Minister might have had something to say on the arrival of FMD in our near neighbour and how her Department, under her direction has been amping up its preparations for the last five years for just this occurrence.

But no, not one media statement on FMD, in fact you have to go back to the previous Liberal Minister Ken Baston to find a Ministerial Media statement talking up the Department’s preparations such as the last livestock standstill rehearsal.

The best this Minister has done on biosecurity is announce $15 million last August to employ 22 new staff plus announce “preparation of new surveillance plans to response to capacity and capability” (whatever that means).

At the time, WAFarmers welcomed the new funding even though it amounted to adding just a handful of people to the Department’s Biosecurity team of 451 (Budget Papers 2021).

What was more concerning is the funds are spread over four years and are just about enough to cover the inflationary impacts on the annual budget allocation, which is probably why there was only enough left over to work on some plans rather than to buy the expensive insect and disease sniffing machines the Department desperately needs or even just more dogs and people.

Worse, in the most recent budget the government’s allocation for biosecurity will be reduced from $98m last year down to $96m in 2025-26, which in real terms is a cut of about 15%.

In other words those additional 22 staff will this time next year be looking for jobs in the climate change part of the Department as biosecurity won’t be able to afford them.

Some of those new staff who stumble across my articles and find out what’s coming across the whole Department might even join the ongoing exodus of senior talent and bail out altogether once they work out the whole department’s budget is on a long downward slide from the $528m in 2017-18 towards just $435m in 2024-25, which is equivalent to a real cut of more than 20%.

This is despite the arrival of four more pests and diseases into the state over the past 12 months along with several additional ones banging on the door. Obviously the penny has still not dropped that we need more funding, vastly more funding along with a greater sense of political leadership.

The madness of this Minister allowing biosecurity to be cut in real terms under her watch after what we have learnt from COVID-19 and the multiple plant and animal incursions that just keep coming is beyond words.

Even a localised outbreak of FMD in the South West would cost the equivalent of building the whole Metro Net rail link, that is the bill comes in the billions. As a result one would think that the Minister at the very least would have reallocated funds within the department from grants and climate change into biosecurity. But no, tens of millions continue to be wasted buying votes and encouraging farmers to stop chasing the god of yield.

The clearest indication that the Minister remains totally focused on climate change is the 20 media statements she has released on climate change over the past 12 months.

The Minister’s failure to extract funding from the government coffers for core responsibilities while spending up big on hydrogen, carbon and grants to renovate pubs and fund Labour Day festivals is not what I would call responsible government.

What would be responsible is to have the Minister find the funds to have her Department employ 100 more people in the biosecurity section of DPIRD, fund multiple regional information sessions, undertake an urgent review of the Department’s ability to track and trace livestock along with conducting a full scale emergency stock standstill rehearsal.

Even little things like having staff attend the sale yards to register all livestock transporters and installing GPS trackers on their trailers plus training drivers on washdown procedures would make a difference.

All this takes money, people and planning and it all needs to happen before we get FMD not after the event.

Interestingly, the NSW government has joined the dots and has overnight ramped up its biosecurity budget by 31% from $125m to $164m for 2022-23 and swung into action with detailed preparation.

Even this Federal government came out last week with $14m in additional funding in response to FMD to amp up border protection. This is on top of the $27.3m announced in the federal budget in March this year plus there is a new $100m levy on containers due to kick in soon to fund even better border control.

While NSW and the Feds have announced new expenditure our State Government sits paralysed in indecision thinking only of its budget surplus and climate change.

WA needs to match the NSW 30% budget increase which would see DPIRD’s biosecurity allocation rise from its $95m to $124m for 2022-23 and good planning would add a reserve fund of at least 10% $12.4m ready to be tapped immediately there was an incursion.

Having dollars in a bank account would save valuable days allowing the Department on the day of an incursion to get on with the job of contracting in vets and recruiting staff to inspect properties and co-ordinate eradication programs rather than having staff sitting around urgently drafting up funding requests for Treasury to umm and err over.

While DPIRD tells us it has 600 people that can be mobilised overnight, I wonder how many are free to go bush and stay on the job for the days, weeks and months needed to get the job done. In the era of labour supply shortages where is the recognition that its difficult to pull people out of the air to fill the capability gap? In fact where is the plan?

With over 1.1 million Australians likely to travel to and from Bali in the next 12 months, an island with over 1.1 million head of pigs and cattle one would hope there is a plan ready to go, and people trained ready to act.

All we hear is the Minister calling meettngs to outline her plans that they plan to do something, soon.

This same Minister tells us repeatedly we need to do more to manage climate change and that the costs to farmers of doing nothing is unacceptably high. I ask what is the cost of being underprepared for FMD?

I wonder if the Minister is aware that a full blown outbreak of FMD across Australia was predicted to cost $80 billion dollars in 2019 and that’s probably closer to $100 billion today.

This means nothing to most people. But when the shelves are empty of milk and eggs 12 hours after the 72 hour stock stop is called then I suspect it will mean something to the mob.

Its when the mob are told that McDonalds and Hungry Jacks can only offer vegan meals is when the riots will start. No toilet paper on the shelves is one thing but no meat!

Maybe it’s time for a Federal-State fact finding trip to the UK for our Minister to visit some of the farmers hard hit by their outbreak in 2001.

The UK at the time was not prepared for the day it arrived, and there was a predictable delay in detection and reaction.

By the time authorities recognised the problem, the infection had spread widely. The response involved tracking and tracing and then culling began.

The disease devastated the UK’s agriculture and tourism sectors, resulted in the destruction of more than 6.5 million livestock and cost 8 billion pounds.

The media coverage at the time presented images of apocalyptic bonfires of burning carcases with soldiers bulldozing up mass disposal pits. Farms went broke, businesses closed down and those who could not cope took their own lives. Who was blamed?

The government was blamed and the finger was pointed at the Ministers responsible for biosecurity.

Even with a quick identification and elimination, if a country demonstrates that the clean up has been successful, it still won’t be able to trade again for many months as its trading partners respond with caution.

This is why, it’s so important to get on top of any incursion rapidly. Days matter.

To Australia’s advantage, because FMD is such a high profile and high impact disease, the Federal, State and Territory governments are supposed to have well-developed response plans and have “war-gamed” FMD scenarios over many decades.

Only problem is this State government does not have the funds to run any games let alone the real thing. Farmers have no confidence it’s war gamed anything other than apocalyptic climate change.

With all the incursions we are getting and facing if there was ever a time to split DPIRD into the Department of Primary Industries and Biosecurity and hand it along with 90% of the DPIRD budget to a new Minister with economic credentials who understands risk management then it’s now.

The existing Minister can then throw all her considerable energies into chasing Carbon and Hydrogen around and handing out community grants to fund labour day festivals and pub rennos.

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