(Image: Tom Red/Private Media)

If nothing else, the Coalition is supposed to pride itself on two things: border security and looking after farmers. It lavishes tens of billions on both, and relentlessly promotes its credentials on tight border control and supporting farmers.

But in yet another report that illustrates the gap between the government’s spin and cold reality, the auditor-general has exposed systemic failures in the government’s enforcement of biosecurity.

Scott Morrison and Agriculture Minister David Littleproud have been on an announcement spree in recent months about biosecurity, presumably aware a shocker of a performance audit from the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) was on the way.

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In the lead-up to the budget, Morrison and Littleproud announced “a new $371 million biosecurity package strengthens Australia’s ability to keep out exotic pests and diseases”. That was a prelude to “Commonwealth Biosecurity 2030”, a document released in late May. All after “our record spending on biosecurity and export services in 2020-21”. In between was the announcement of a study on risks to the cattle and pig slaughter industry.

Back in February, Littleproud had been forced to respond to industry criticism that his department was impeding imports. “Biosecurity must come first,” he insisted, but “it is also important that we explore more innovative ways of operating.”

But biosecurity announcements are nothing new. In 2018, Littleproud announced “$137.8 million for further, new biosecurity investment over five years” on top of $180-odd million in that year’s budget. In 2015, Barnaby Joyce overhauled the Quarantine Act, which would “underpin a strong and seamless biosecurity system to cover human, environment, plant and animal health”. Biosecurity was a crucial part of Joyce’s right-wing pastoral fantasy, the Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper, which announced “$200 million in biosecurity surveillance and analysis to protect our animal and plant health status”.

There have also been three major reviews since 2008, including a 2017 review that prompted a joint Commonwealth-state response. Littleproud unveiled the response and claimed the government was already working on many of the recommendations.

In reality, according to the auditor-general, the government was badly fumbling biosecurity and particularly enforcement.

The ANAO looked at the biosecurity compliance framework set up by Littleproud’s department and declared it “largely inappropriate”. That’s not a phrase deployed very often by the auditors.

Four failures

Of the five elements used by the ANAO to assess the framework, the department failed four and only partially met a fifth. Despite an agreement with Home Affairs to share information, the department couldn’t even access information on cargo and travellers. The department’s processes for detecting biosecurity non-compliance were only partially effective and there was evidence “undetected non-compliance is increasing”.

And its enforcement processes were only partially effective. The department preferred to hand out infringement notices and didn’t bother pursuing people that didn’t pay. It avoided using its enforceable undertaking and injunction powers entirely — despite telling Littleproud in 2018 it was developing a policy to use them and receiving nearly $30 million to use them.

It has yet to even issue an infringement notice in either the cargo or mail sectors — suggesting the department finds it easier and simpler to go after individual travellers rather than corporate offenders.

But of the infringement notices handed out to travellers at airports for offences such as inadvertently bringing some fruit in, more than 10% were found to be faulty and had to be refunded. And normal best-practice processes like evaluating how effective enforcement tools actually were at stopping non-compliance hadn’t been done.

The department didn’t dispute the findings (AKA “chucking a Pezzullo”). Instead it “welcomes the findings … there is a need to mature our regulatory capability to meet new and emerging challenges. Substantial progress has been made to implement a suite of regulatory practice improvements, and the federal government’s 2021–22 budget biosecurity package will further support the department to enhance its biosecurity functions including its compliance program”.

Except, we’ve been there, done that, before — the big announcement, the extra funding, the assurances that an already strong system would be further strengthened. For a department that struggles to pick the low-hanging fruit of passengers forgetting an apple in their bags, the reality has never matched the press release.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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