Summary

On November 27, 2014 the Australian federal government introduced the Biosecurity Bill 2014 (Cth) (the Bill) into Parliament. The Bill is to replace the Quarantine Act 1908 (Cth) (the Quarantine Act), and has been designed to streamline and modernise Australia’s biosecurity laws.

It is expected that the reform will save time and money both for businesses and the Australian government. But what will the changes mean for agribusinesses in practice? And do they address the policy concerns of biosecurity industry experts? In this article, we provide our overview of the changes, and consider their impacts on industry.

What is biosecurity?

Biosecurity means the procedures or measures designed to protect people, animals and the environment against infectious disease, pests and other biological threats. It involves the prevention of new pests and diseases arriving, and the control of outbreaks when they do occur. The success of a biosecurity system relies on cooperation across borders and between governments, industry, businesses and the community.

Risks to Australia’s biosecurity future

As an island nation, Australia has largely been able to maintain an enviable biosecurity status.

However, the release of a report from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) on November, 24 2014 – Australia’s Biosecurity Future (the CSIRO report) – has raised public awareness that Australia could be under-resourced to deal with future serious biosecurity risks.

The CSIRO report identifies five ‘megatrends’ that will develop over the next 20–30 years. It also predicts 12 ‘megashocks’ which may result from the ways in which the megatrends relate to each other over the same period. These megashocks involve ‘significant, relatively sudden and potentially highimpact’ events. The five megatrends and megashocks are represented in the diagram below.

Biosecurity Megatrends

A significant shift in social, environmental, economic and technological conditions that has the potential to reshape the way an organisation, industry or society operates.

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Biosecurity Megashocks

The way that biosecurity megatrends play out and, importantly, how they interact with one another can create ‘megashocks’ which involve significant, relatively sudden and potentially high-impact events, the timing of which is very hard to predict.

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While it is helpful to predict these risk areas in biosecurity, it is recognised that the greatest risks are usually unknown – the initial Ebola outbreak, for example, arose with little warning.

Key changes introduced by the Bill

The Bill introduces major changes to the way businesses deal with Australia’s Department of Agriculture (the Department) in managing their biosecurity risks. The Bill allows for businesses to:

  • enter into a single arrangement with the Department to manage their biosecurity risks in an approved way. This will replace the need for businesses to be registered for multiple and duplicate Quarantine Approved Premises and Compliance Agreements (which exist under the Quarantine Act), and is estimated to save businesses A$6.9 million in administrative costs per year
  • approach the Department with proposals for managing biosecurity risks that fit into their existing business practices.

Searches without warrants and control orders for the sick

The Bill includes a range of penalty options and enforcement powers, including:

  • infringement notices, civil penalties, enforceable undertakings and criminal sanctions
  • the power for biosecurity officers to enter premises without a warrant if they suspect a pest or disease hazard in a ‘biosecurity emergency’ – where the Minister for Agriculture considers the pest or disease poses a nationally significant threat
  • control orders for people believed to have a communicable disease (e.g. Ebola)
  • broader control orders over specific ‘zones’ that allow biosecurity officers to conduct surveillance activities.

New considerations: Past compliance and known associates

The Bill allows for action to be taken to respond to a risk without the need to refer to prescriptive lists. Responses to biosecurity risks will be dictated by the level of risk assessed. Risk assessments involve first determining the hazard, then considering the likelihood and severity of the associated risk occurring, combining this with risk management requirements under the other framework.

Currently, the Quarantine Act requires biosecurity risk assessments to be conducted based on the risk associated with only the goods themselves. The Bill introduces a risk assessment which also takes into account both:

  • the compliance history of businesses, using a ‘fit and proper person’ test
  • whether the business has any associates the Department considers not to be fit and proper.

The introduction of the ‘fit and proper person’ test aims to ensure that people or companies seeking import approvals are suitable entities to be responsible for the management of biosecurity risks. The test allows the Department to consider a person or company’s history of compliance with Commonwealth legislation and then deny approval where there is a history of noncompliance. It can also be used as a basis to suspend, revoke or alter the conditions of an existing arrangement with the Department. The Bill sets out an exhaustive list of factors which must be considered in determining whether a person is fit and proper.

The associate test aims to prevent a person or business who has been denied an import permit or an industry arrangement in the past from reapplying under another name, such as that of a family member or former business partner.

Observations

The changes introduced in the Bill are expected to address some of the policy concerns relating to biosecurity identified in the CSIRO report. In theory, the changes will allow for a holistic approach which integrates intelligence, evidence and science-based decisionmaking, to allow resources and processes to be tailored to respond to emerging risks. The recognition and reward of good past compliance will introduce an industry incentive to increase involvement and participation in surveillance and reporting.

The introduction of the new penalty options and enforcement powers mirrors the broad range of options available to regulators under Work Health and Safety legislation in Australia. It remains to be seen whether the increased powers will be applied consistently and strike the right balance between providing the necessary level of response while not underestimating the potential long-term implications of seemingly small threats.

The new considerations for risk assessment and the absence of a prescription-based response to risks will allow more dynamic risk processes to be implemented as threats arise. This will include the adoption of preventative and mitigating controls during the critical initial period of a biosecurity threat, consequently reducing the risk of spread and impact. Despite this, some commentators have raised concerns about how the legislative framework will be equipped to respond to national threats in the context of an ageing workforce and diminishing resources in biosecurity, including a decline in the number of farmers, the number of agricultural graduates in Australia, and biosecurity-specific human resources. For example, there has been a steady fall in the number of taxonomists (a vital part of diagnostics) and there are estimates that 50 per cent of Australia’s diagnostics capability will be lost by 2028.

The Bill is expected to provide a clear framework which will equip Australian jurisdictions to work together to ensure a nationally coordinated approach to biosecurity threats, and allow for flexible and proactive prevention activities that can adapt to emerging biosecurity risks.

In light of the changes to the risk management requirements under the Bill, it is recommended that agribusinesses in Australia do the following:

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The Biosecurity Bill and supporting Bills are currently drafted to commence 12 months after they receive royal assent.

Links

A copy of the 2014 CSIRO report, Australia’s Biosecurity Future

More information relating to the Biosecurity Bill 2014 (Cth)