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Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee
25/02/2014
Estimates
AGRICULTURE PORTFOLIO
Interim Inspector-General of Biosecurity

Interim Inspector-General of Biosecurity

[15:16]

ACTING CHAIR: Senator Farrell.

Senator FARRELL: Dr Bond, can you tell us how long you have been in your current position?

Dr Bond : I was officially appointed to the position in July last year.

Senator FARRELL: Was it 1 July?

Dr Bond : I actually took up the appointment in August.

Senator FARRELL: How long is that appointment for?

Dr Bond : Two years. That is until such time as there is legislation to establish the position as a statutory position, and that is currently under consideration by the government. That legislation lapsed with the change of government.

Senator FARRELL: Where does that leave your position?

Dr Bond : It really depends on the minister. If the legislation is passed I understand that presumably the position would be advertised. That is the reason that it has got the 'interim' tag on it.

Dr Grimes : For all intents and purposes the Interim Inspector General operates as an independent officer.

Senator FARRELL: Has the legislation been drafted? Is it planned to reintroduce the former government's legislation?

Dr Grimes : We traversed some of these matters, although in a broader context, earlier today where the government is currently giving consideration to that legislation and that legislation will be progressed in due course.

ACTING CHAIR: I am not as sharp as Senator Farrell. Is it definitely progressing or is it in the whirlpool?

Dr Grimes : It is a matter that is under consideration by the government. Both myself and the parliamentary secretary addressed this matter this morning under active consideration.

ACTING CHAIR: There is a lot of excitement here between all the conversations and side committee meetings, so I missed it. It is definitely not progressing?

Dr Grimes : No. It is being actively considered by the government as we speak. The only issue this morning was the question around the details of the legislation and the timing. We are not able to comment on those at the moment but it is being carefully considered by the government.

ACTING CHAIR: You will need to help me out, only because I have had to go through this fun in Infrastructure and Transport where 'actively considered' was a week later or a day after estimates where they followed up with they were not going to build these roads and then they were going to build them. With this legislation, is it on its way to hitting the House of Reps and then the Senate or the government are still thinking about what they are going to do?

Dr Grimes : The government is reviewing the legislation as we speak. The timing of introduction will be a matter for the government to consider. That matter was covered this morning.

ACTING CHAIR: I will take it that it is not a gimme, that you do not know what you are doing yet.

Senator Colbeck: Anything can happen.

Dr Grimes : As I said this morning, part of that review is to consider the evidence that was presented to this committee during its incomplete Senate inquiry that also lapsed with the election.

ACTING CHAIR: You will have to remind me of which one. I was having that much fun last year.

Dr Grimes : It was the biosecurity legislation.

ACTING CHAIR: Which we left open.

Dr Grimes : Correct.

ACTING CHAIR: We are going to continue to keep going for a couple of years or whatever it takes, because the words of the agreement between your good self and me at the time, Minister, was 'This is far too important for Australia that we rush it.'

Senator Colbeck: Correct.

ACTING CHAIR: Do not get a loan, Dr Bond, just yet.

Senator FARRELL: The parliamentary secretary is here so he must have been involved in the discussions. Can you tell us precisely where the legislation is to establish this position?

Senator Colbeck: As we discussed this morning, the government is reconsidering the bill. There were some criticisms of the bill as part of the committee process that this committee undertook prior to the election. We are taking that on board. We are reconsidering that. Then we will bring the bill back as part of our legislative program, which is exactly what I said this morning.

Senator FARRELL: Is it your intention to come forward with legislation in this area? Is that your intention?

Senator Colbeck: We are reconsidering the biosecurity bill at the moment and we are taking into account evidence that was given to this committee in its incomplete inquiry before the election. I cannot give you a time frame on it because I do not have one. That is an active consideration by the government at the moment. As Senator Sterle has just indicated—and I am happy to agree with him—it is an important piece of legislation.

Senator FARRELL: So it is the intention of the government to come forward with a piece of legislation covering this area? Am I clear on that?

Senator Colbeck: Biosecurity, yes.

Senator FARRELL: And the creation of an inspector general position?

Senator Colbeck: The detail of that question I cannot answer yet. I will have to take that on notice.

Senator FARRELL: Dr Bond, you have been in the position since July of last year, although you took up your position in August. What was the reason for the month's delay?

Dr Bond : I was previously Chief Executive of Animal Health Australia and it was just to accommodate the transition arrangements for that organisation. It was something that was agreed mutually with AHA and the department, so it was a very happy transition.

Senator FARRELL: Part of your job, of course, is preparing an annual work program. Have you done that?

Dr Bond : Yes. I am currently looking at six major areas of activity. I am happy to enlarge on any of those.

Senator FARRELL: Just run through what they are, if you would not mind.

Dr Bond : I have just completed a report on the importation of bovine hides from South America. There is a major piece of work that is about 75 per cent finished that is looking at the imports of animal breeding material; that is, semen and embryos—another audit. The third one is covering online purchases. A lot of material comes in through the mail and cargo systems. There are things like seeds, for example, that come in so we are looking at that. I am about halfway through an audit on cut flowers and fresh foliage. Another is plant based stock feeds and, finally, I am continuing to monitor horse imports, which is how the position originally started, looking at pre-export quarantine arrangements for horses coming into the country.

Senator FARRELL: Short term or long term?

Dr Bond : Both.

Senator FARRELL: Did you say six?

Dr Bond : Yes. They are the current ones. I am in consultation with the minister, so I will review that and of course, because I report directly to the minister, the minister has the prerogative at any time to ask me to investigate any particular incident or aspect of national biosecurity arrangements.

Senator FARRELL: What has he told you about the six work projects that you have been involved in?

Dr Bond : Thus far he is comfortable with what I am doing.

Senator FARRELL: You have explained to him just as you have explained to us today?

Dr Bond : Very briefly.

Senator FARRELL: What discussions have you had with the key departmental stakeholders? Do you discuss matters with them as well?

Dr Bond : Absolutely. I see my role—even though, as the secretary said, I am independent of the department, I am actually embedded. I have a small team of four people and we sit within the department physically. It is essential that I interact closely with the department. I have a very harmonious working relationship with them. I see my role as strengthening. It is looking for gaps and weaknesses, sure, but it is also taking on board suggestions that they may have, and they do have worthwhile suggestions, as to how the biosecurity system can be improved. That is a very simple agenda.

Senator FARRELL: Do you go out and solicit their ideas in this respect or do they come to you?

Dr Bond : It is dealt with on an issue-by-issue basis. If you take cut flowers, for example, that is an area where I obviously have to liaise with the border compliance people and particularly the people with plant expertise in understanding the biosecurity risks of viruses, pests and diseases that can come in with a particular product.

Senator FARRELL: You mentioned that the minister can give you directions as to which area to look at. Has that happened in that time?

Dr Bond : Not since I have been in the position.

Senator FARRELL: Thank you.

ACTING CHAIR: Senator Back.

Senator BACK: I do want to refer to the report which was made available to me today. Was it made public in the last couple of days?

Dr Bond : It only went to the minister on Friday afternoon, so it is very recent.

Senator BACK: This is your report on the importation of cattle hides from Colombia?

Dr Bond : Yes.

Senator BACK: I have had an opportunity briefly. I understand that the consignments which totalled some 85 tonnes of cattle hides came in to Australia between May 2012 and January 2013?

Dr Bond : Correct.

Senator BACK: They came from Colombia, which is just to the north of Ecuador, and both countries have had a history of foot-and-mouth disease. Ecuador more recently, and in fact early this year, had another confirmed case of foot-and-mouth disease; is that correct?

Dr Bond : That is my information.

Senator BACK: From my reading of your report am I right in asking that it seemed to be when a cold store owner alerted you or the department in May 2013 that he had been holding some consignments of these hides for some eight months since September 2012—

Dr Bond : That is correct.

Senator BACK: Who did he alert: the department or the inspectorate?

Dr Bond : He informed the regional office in Sydney.

Senator BACK: He informed the regional office of the department?

Dr Bond : Yes. He expressed concern that these hides might pose a biosecurity risk and, as a secondary issue, he was also concerned that they might pose a health and safety risk to his staff.

Senator BACK: In the time available—we will no doubt have an opportunity to study your report in greater detail—I am absolutely alarmed to learn that cattle hides from a country that we would have to say would be in the high foot-and-mouth disease risk category found their way into Australia, documentation surrounding them—which you have quite correctly alerted in your report seems questionable—but at no time did department officers feel it was appropriate to actually inspect any of these seven consignments.

Dr Bond : I think it is one of these situations where it is easy in retrospect to look back over a pattern. These came in seven consignments. There were nine refrigerated containers. The fact is that mistakes were made and I have come to the conclusion, and it is clearly stated in the report, that these consignments should not have been cleared on documentation alone. So I think there are some useful lessons to be learned.

It comes back to Senator Sterle's question about my relationship with the department. I have maintained a very close liaison with the relevant officers at various levels during this investigation and the department already has put in train a series of remedial actions. So, I have made 10 recommendations; the department has agreed with each of those recommendations, and so I think it is a good example of the value of the position where a fresh, independent pair of eyes can come in and assess the situation and hopefully make constructive suggestions as to how the system can be strengthened.

Senator BACK: You did make the observation that these seven consignments were the subject of inspection or examination by seven different front counter officers. You also went on to tell us that there was a discrepancy between the tariff description, which said 'untanned' and the manufacturers declaration, which consistently said was 'tanned'. You did mention that there was a period of tension, with a month's delay in repeated requests for documentation, and you have alerted to the fact that there was a breakdown in the consistency of documentation. In point 17 of your report, and I think I can quote here, you had concerns that the front counter officers 'were looking for at least one key document in order to clear and release the goods, and that document was the manufacturers declaration'. You then went on to say, 'No blame should be attributed to front counter officers.' I mean I am not telling stories out of school when I say without saying too much more that the hides were actually hiding something, they were not just hides. I do not think I can go there in this particular examination.

Why was it that if you were of the view that the front counter officers were actually looking for a key document in order to clear and release the goods that you do not think any blame should be apportioned to front counter officers?

Dr Bond : Yes, I can explain my conclusion there. I believe that when a front counter, relatively junior staff member is faced with a pile of complex documents across the counter, there is some pressure on them. I think they can be forgiven for not picking up discrepancies. It is easy for me to come along with the luxury of hindsight and be able to identify where there have been fabricated documents, for example, and there are, in my view, here. Clearly, the manufacturer's declarations and even government certificates were forged, and unsatisfactory in that regard. I think—and again, I have made the point in the report—that in my view the fault lies with the training and the processes that the department has in place. Now, having said that, I repeat the point I made earlier that the department is already taking what I consider to be appropriate remedial action to ensure that there is not a repetition of this.

Senator BACK: Sure, but would you share my concern, or even cynicism, that an officer in a government agency, where biosecurity is so critically important in an island continent, where the integrity of our product depends very much on our disease-free or minimal disease status, that these officers would not have been alert to a scenario in which a product has come in from a high-risk country with its background and its reputation with a product that anybody should have some indication that was potentially a risk product, and have, in your words, 'Looked for at least one key document in order to clear and release the goods,' that being the manufacturers declaration.

I can understand the need for retraining. I can understand all of those situations. I would not have thought there was a person in your department that could not reel off what the cost to the Australian economy would be of us getting foot-and-mouth disease in this country. I just find it to be incredible that they would need that sort of training. I would have thought that was a red flag that would have been waved so long and strong and loudly that the junior staff member who just started in the department would have been aware of those reasons.

Dr Grimes : We may have an opportunity to talk about these in a little bit more detail under the border compliance section later on. The Inspector General is obviously reporting on his behalf, but clearly we take the report very seriously. As the Inspector General has indicated, the department is acting, and has indeed already commenced action in strengthening some of our systems and processes as a result of the lessons learned through this incident.

Senator BACK: Thank you. In case there are others who wish to ask questions I will just ask my final question. What was the fate of the hides, having been established that most were not properly tanned or whatever? Have they gone into commercial production? Were they put on a waste site somewhere? What was the fate of them?

Dr Bond : Just in very round figures, the majority of the hides were incinerated at an approved premises in Sydney. There was one bag of hides, from memory, that was sent to a tannery at Ballarat for commercial assessment. By the way, that assessment was that they were of no commercial value because they had been limed. This is a key point. In fact, I formed the conclusion that the hides were of negligible biosecurity risk because they had been held at such a high PH for such a long period and so even FMD or other significant pathogens would have been destroyed in that time. Those hides that went to Ballarat ended up in land-fill. So, that is the way all of the hides were disposed of.

Senator BACK: If it had hit the fan it would have been a very interesting epidemiological study in arrears. Thank you.

ACTING CHAIR: What I might ask, Dr Bond, is could you provide the committee with exactly the details of how many hides were incinerated and everything you just told us?

Dr Bond : Yes.

ACTING CHAIR: Because when Senator Heffernan gets back he will not let you get off the hook that easily. So you had better prepare yourself. I am just letting you know for the next round of budget estimates. So, can you get that to the committee?

Dr Bond : The report is now published on the website and it contains all of those details.

ACTING CHAIR: I cannot speak for Senator Heffernan, but if he has not got questions for you at the next round of senate estimates I will walk backwards to Perth. You have all witnessed that. If we could call the APVMA. We have snuck over time again colleagues, so I am keen to pull it back into some form of discipline. Senator Lines, have you got questions?

Senator LINES: Yes, I have for APVMA, thank you.