CRITICAL biosecurity staff shortages at Northern Australian ports is putting the agricultural and cattle industries at unacceptable risk, a public sector union claims.
Community and Public Sector Union’s Amy Smith said ships were coming through ports in Townsville, Cairns and Darwin without having goods and passengers checked which posed a threat to vital industries.
The claims come after Australia’s Inspector-General of Biosecurity Dr Helen Scott-Orr last week released a damning report into biosecurity controls that allowed white sport disease to infect Australian prawns for the first time.
The outbreak was estimated to have cost South-East Queensland prawn industry up to $100 million and led to the suspension of imported uncooked prawn meat to Australia for the first half of 2017.
The report stated that frontline inspector numbers had fallen by 25 per cent in the last five years, while the volumes of imported goods, mail and passengers continued to steadily rise.
Dr Scott-Orr said decreasing staff numbers to reduce costs was compromising border biosecurity.
Among her recommendations was that adequate long-term Federal Government funding for staff and training was essential to prevent unwanted pest and disease entering Australia.
Ms Smith said biosecurity staff were being pushed to breaking point and only a fraction of ships that came into Townsville’s port were being inspected, which was a major threat to agricultural industries.
“Having proper biosecurity controls in place is vital to thousands of jobs in North Queensland, from sugarcane, mangoes, bananas, beef and tourism around the Great Barrier Reef,” Ms Smith said.
”With the white spot prawn outbreak we know staffing levels have been cut, and not every ship coming into Townsville or Cairns can be checked and that’s a huge threat to jobs and industries in the region.
”And it’s not just shipping containers and food, there’s entire shiploads coming into port, including tourism ships that aren’t being checked.
“In Townsville we’ve got 17 additional cruise ships coming in next year, with the potential to bring weeds and pests from other parts of the world.
”It is a pretty gutting situation for biosecurity staff, they are stretched to breaking point and feel they are being forced to cut corners under the cuts.”
Ms Smith said the number of inspectors should be increasing in line with import volumes.
“There is a lot of activity at Townsville Port, it is a real hub for the region, which is the same with Darwin and Cairns, so it affects the entire region of Northern Australia.
”Given the absolute reliance on jobs in the agricultural sector in this region, every single ship and every single tourist that gets off from the Asian Pacific region should be checked.
“It is time for the government to put Australian farmers, consumers and jobs first.”
Ms Smith said government must learn from the white spot outbreak and immediately train and deploy more inspectors.
“We can not overstate how important it is to mitigate that risk.
“What happened recently with white spot should be an indicator of how absolutely destructive this can be.”
“If sugar, mangoes, cattle, key industries in the region were similarly impacted, imagine what that would do to North Queensland.
”We need urgent priority staffing numbers increased to match capacity.”
A spokeswoman for recently appointed Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, David Littleproud said the Government had invested up to $200 million for strengthening biosecurity and had delivered the most comprehensive overhaul of national biosecurity in more than a century.
“This is an unprecedented investment in keeping pests and diseases out of the country, reaching $752.7 million in 2017-18, compared with $603.4 million under Labor in 2012-13,” she said.
“The Government operates a risk-based approach to biosecurity operations in which resources are focused on the risks of greatest biosecurity concern and with a focus on managing biosecurity risks offshore, long before they get to Australia.”
She did not respond to questions regarding bolstering biosecurity staff numbers at Northern Australia ports.