AUSTRALIA should activate an emergency response levy to boost funding of exotic disease and pest incursion preparedness, the National Biosecurity Forum was told today.
In a forum panel discussing Australia’s national response on Foot and Mouth Disease, Australian Dairy Farmers animal health and welfare advisor Justin Toohey addressed the need for sustainable biosecurity funding.
Mr Toohey said he suspected Minister for Agriculture Murray Watt’s efforts to establish a sustainable funding model was “very heavily government orientated” and he raised the issue of what industry should do in recognising its responsibility to provide additional funding.
He said industry funding currently coming through the research development corporations was “targeted”, but it was difficult to determine what is being spent on biosecurity at the industry level.
“And are we maximising our cross-sectoral efforts?”
Mr Toohey said there is an existing levy that applies to all of the livestock sectors and most of the plant sectors: the emergency response levy.
According to the Department of Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry’s website ‘Biosecurity Levies’ section, under the emergency response deeds, emergency response levies provide a funding mechanism to cover industry’s share of any exotic pest or disease eradication program.
“Generally set at zero ($0), emergency response levies are activated in the event of an incursion of an exotic plant or animal pest or disease, to which an eradication response is agreed to by industry members of PHA.
“The Australian Government may initially meet an industry’s cost-sharing obligations for an eradication response, but the relevant industry will then repay the government within a reasonable time period – generally up to 10 years,” the website outlines.
Mr Toohey said although the levy is currently is set at zero and is aimed at industry providing its share of the cost of an eradication response, the legislation also for the levy to be raised above zero for “proactive purposes.”
He said the emergency response levy has been activated in the poultry sector for avian influenza and in the prawn industry for white spot after disease incursions.
“Yet nobody out there yet has activated it for proactive purposes and to me it’s a sitter; it’s a bit of a no-brainer.
“It’s a very simple mechanism, it’s something we’ve already discussed with DAFF,” he said.
“My original thought was that we were going to have to change the legislation quite a bit, but I was informed by DAFF no you just have to change the word zero to a number; so it’s as simple as that.
“But the difficult bit is of course, is of course convincing our members, our dairy farmers, that it is worth funding, so we have to put up a good argument for that, they’re already paying levies … so it’s not going to be an easy sell,” Mr Toohey said.
“But at this time with FMD just on our border, LSD (Lumpy Skin Disease) up there, and the dairy sector being heightened in awareness around those exotic diseases and, except for the flood victims who are no doubt struggling, there is reasonable money in dairying and it’s now a good time to strike.”
“I think there is a way forward, but it would be nice if all the livestock sectors pulled together on that one.
Levy suggestion is timely
Mr Toohey’s suggestion followed Chief Veterinary Officer Dr Mark Schipp’s disclosure that Foot and Mouth Disease had been declared as endemic in Indonesia and Minister for Agriculture Murray Watt’s comments on the biosecurity funding situation. Indonesia now joins 70 other countries with endemic FMD.
In his forum address, Mr Watt said Australia’s biosecurity system had served it well up to now and the nation remained free of large scale biosecurity outbreaks that would bring industry “to it’s knees.”
However, he said: “The truth is, despite all of that, we have started to see some cracks in our national biosecurity wall.”
Mr Watt said risks of biosecurity incursions are growing, driven in complexity by factors including climate change, increasing trade and travel, and changes in land use.
“That’s why we need, as a country, a biosecurity system that keeps pace with today’s needs and prepares for the threats of tomorrow.
“What we need is a strong, smart and sustainable biosecurity system that is supported by people across the country, because that helps us to manage growing biosecurity risks and protects Australia’s multi-billion dollar agriculture sector, among other industries,” he said.
“The benefits of this touch everyone and that’s why from the day we came to office, about 10 months ago the Albanese Government has made strengthening our biosecurity system one of our top priorities.”
Cost recovery funding has led to DAFF deficits
On biosecurity funding, Mr Watt said as the risks grow so too does the cost of keeping out exotic pests and diseases.
“And just upholding our biosecurity is a share responsibility, so too is funding our biosecurity system.
“This shared funding responsibility has been a longstanding practice between government, industry and the wider public, but unfortunately over the last few years, the truth is that the way in which we fund our biosecurity system has not kept pace with these growing threats and costs.”
“The truth is that cost recovery settings for biosecurity operations have not been properly reviewed in this country since 2015 and that’s resulted in budget deficits for the department in three of the past four years,” he said.
“Rather than passing on increasing costs to industry as has traditionally occurred under the Australian Government charging framework and as recommended by the 2017 Craik Review, the reality is that the former government plundered departmental cash reserves that were hidden within larger departmental structures.
“And as a result of that the Department of Agriculture has needed to fund the shortfall in cost recovery, totalling more than $100 million dollars in recent years … and that’s money that could have gone to improving our biosecurity system rather than simply doing the basics.”
He said Australia has never really had a sustainable biosecurity funding model and despite it being recommended to the previous Federal Government in several reports and requested by a range of industry leaders.
“Short-term, temporary and terminating funding measures became the order of the day, rather than sustainable ongoing funding year-to-year.
“And what that has meant is that staff at our department have continually been asked to do more with less, particularly in relation to biosecurity.”
He said the staff had done a terrific job in keeping Australia free of exotic plants and disease but needed help.
“I think there will always be a place for surge funding to be provided by governments when event occur or appear likely, but clearly we need to lock in a more sustainable way of funding our biosecurity system with predictable funding from year to year rather than continuing on relying on the temporary funding injections that we have seen over the past few years.
“At the same, we do need to lock in affair system of how we pay for our biosecurity system, a funding system that shares the cost between tax payers, risk creators and the beneficiaries of the system.”
Mr Watt said the government had been working on a sustainable funding system with industry and he saw the $134 million investment in new biosecurity measures in the October 2022 budget as “a down payment on a long-term sustainable method.”
“It wasn’t always going to be able to do the job on its own, but it was a good start while we worked on that broader policy.”
No change in FMD threat level to Australia
Mr Watt said the endemic FMD declaration for Indonesia doesn’t change the threat level to Australia and will not change the government’s determination to keep FMD out.
“We always knew the fight against the spread of FMD would be a marathon not a sprint.
“We will keep working with Indonesia to reduce the spread of FMD, particularly to nearby countries like Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea,” Mr Watt said.
A departmental spokesperson said the Australian Government is aware of media reports coming out of Indonesia stating that Indonesia has revoked its emergency status conditions for Foot and Mouth disease (FMD), following a ministerial-level meeting held on 3 April 2023.
“The Indonesian media also reported that although the “emergency status conditions” were being revoked following the peak of the epidemic, further conditions would be put in place to control FMD.
“A joint taskforce will be developed to manage COVID-19 and FMD, at least until June 2023 at which point the need for the taskforce may be reviewed as FMD control moves to a ‘business as usual’ footing,” the spokesperson said.
“This development is not unexpected given the complexity of dealing with this challenging disease.
“Australian biosecurity settings were developed in the expectation that FMD would become endemic in Indonesia for a period of time.”
To start with, food bio-security affects all Australians and all Australians should pay for it. New South Wales land owners have paid a state levy for 140 years. It is the only state that has such a system. The LLS levy is now used to partially fund the NSW Department of Primary Industries. If a national system was to come into place, the NSW levy must be abolished.