Expiring leases increase quarantine centre urgency

James Nason, 21/05/2012

The Federal Government has pledged to have a new $380 million quarantine ‘mega-centre’ up and running before leases on the five quarantine facilities it will replace start to expire in three years' time.

After a series of reports which have uncovered deficiencies in Australia’s biosecurity preparedness, the Federal Government announced $524m in funding to strengthen the quarantine system in its 2012-13 budget.

The centrepiece of the announcement was $379.9m over seven years to build a state-of-the-art post-entry quarantine centre on a yet to be determined site near Melbourne.

The centre will replace five quarantine centres currently operating across Australia (two in Victoria, and one each in NSW, WA and SA).

The existing quarantine centres were sold by the Howard Government and leased back. The leases on the five centres are due to expire between 2015 and 2018.

The office of federal agriculture minister Joe Ludwig says the new facility will be operational by the time the first lease expires.

“The new post entry quarantine facility announced by the Gillard Government will be up and running prior to the first closure of a quarantine station,” a spokesperson said.

“As subsequent leases expire additional capacity and facilities will be opened at the site.”

The $524m biosecurity funding includes $124.5m to strengthen “core frontline biosecurity operations” and to improve external review and verification processes.

“This investment will also support the move towards risk-based operations that will see resources allocated according to the level of risk,” Minister Ludwig said. 

An additional $95.9m was also allocated from the Caring for our Country program to fund eradication programs for nationally significant pests and diseases.

The Federal Government is also in the process of completely rewriting the Biosecurity Act, which was first written in 1908.

Spending in right places?

More than half a billion dollars is a significant investment, but has the money been targeted in the most effective places?

After reviewing the budget announcement, the chair of the National Farmers Federation's biosecurity and animal management committee, Victorian producer and former Cattle Council of Australia president Bill Bray, believes it has.

The need for one central facility to handle the quarantine of plant and animal products and genetic material were key recommendations of the Beale and Callahan Reports, he said.

The $524m appeared to represent "new" money, he said, not funds re-diverted from previously committed programs.

“When you’ve got five national import facilities, when we think back to what happened with the Callahan Report (which examined the quarantine failures at Sydney’s Eastern Creek that led to the 2007 Equine Influenza outbreak) there was a lack of process there, so having one dedicated facility seems a fair rationalisation,” Mr Bray said.

“You will have experts operating at one facility that will have hopefully the most modern equipment to be able to identify quarantine risks.”

Victoria’s selection as the preferred location was supported by its proximity to an international port and airport and the Animal Health Laboratory at Geelong.

With the size and location of the new facility still to be determined, Mr Bray said the Government would need to act swiftly.

“The time frame from the producer’s point of view is quite urgent, with the leases on those facilities to expire in 2015,” Mr Bray said. 

“They have got two years to establish where it is going to be, and will need to have it up and running by 2015.”


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