The Outbreak We Had to Have

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Australians reeled in shock last month as an outbreak of equine influenza spread to over 119 properties in NSW and more in Queensland, leading to cancellation of Sydney’s Spring Racing Carnival, the loss of hundreds of jobs, and even calling into question the running of the Melbourne Cup. The idea that this disease outbreak may have come from a Government quarantine station seems even more shocking for many.

In reality however, this shouldn’t shock Australians at all. The weakening of quarantine standards has been the hallmark of the Howard Government. This, it seems, is the outbreak we had to have.

Thanks to Emo

The first report that horse flu which recently devastated Japan’s racing community, costing more than $40 million may have reached Australian shores was on 23 August, when a stallion at Eastern Creek Quarantine Station near Sydney began to show symptoms. Federal Agricultural Minister Peter McGauran dismissed these early claims, blaming the symptoms on some kind of travel sickness.

But these claims fooled no one. The Quarantine Station went into lockdown. Within two days, not only had the virus been confirmed at Eastern Creek, but horses in Sydney’s Centennial Park had started to show symptoms too. The movement of all horses across the nation was immediately suspended, with heavy fines and even jail terms facing violators of the order. Australia’s multi-billion dollar horse racing industry ground to a halt.

The horse flu epidemic is a classic study in economics, showing how a crisis in one sector can rapidly spread to another and revealing the interconnectedness of the economy. Job losses have already spread far beyond the immediate industry from casual bar workers, to milliners and the transport industry. Estimates of costs to the industry, while far too early to finalise, are likely to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

But this is also the outbreak we had to have in order to finally put on the public record the significance of high quarantine standards to our nation’s economic health. The epidemic underscores the importance of quarantine for Australia, an island nation that depends on strict standards to maintain the clean, green status that underpins the competitiveness of our agricultural industries. Horse racing is just the latest victim of the Howard Government’s appalling track record of undermining our quarantine standards.

Since the signing of the Free Trade Agreement with the USA (AUSFTA) in May 2004, the Government has shifted from a ‘risk prevention’ to ‘risk management’ approach to quarantine weakening standards in a host of industries, including apples, bananas, pork and beef. In all of these areas, the Government has enraged local industries by recommending risk-assessment standards that will not be sufficient to protect us from some of the world’s most devastating diseases, from fireblight in apples to wasting syndrome in pigs. It is our rural industries which are feeling the effects of these decisions taken, apparently, for no better reason than to do favours for the Government’s American friends.

Perhaps the most startling case in point is the Government’s stance on mad cow disease or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Australia has not recorded any cases of BSE, making our beef highly competitive in markets like Japan and South Korea which have traditionally only imported beef from ‘BSE Free’ countries. But in the AUSFTA, the Australian Government actually pledged to work with the US to ‘revise’ (read ‘weaken’) international rules on the spreading of mad cow disease.

These new rules enable countries exposed to mad cow disease to insist that countries previously enjoying a ‘BSE free’ designation now accept their beef so Australian, for instance, would have to accept US beef. The agreement was intended to help the US re-enter the Japanese and Korean beef markets, which had rejected US meat since detection of America’s first mad cow in 2003. That’s right. The Australian government pledged to work with the US to weaken BSE standards internationally to help US firms recapture Australia’s top export markets! How could this be in Australia’s economic or health interests?

A similarly bizarre story is that of pork, where Biosecurity Australia, under Government direction, proposed new quarantine standards in 2004 that would lead to a 95-99 per cent chance of an outbreak of the piglet disease ‘postweaning multisystemic wasting syndrome’ (PMWS). This was so alarming that it was referred to a Senate committee for examination, and the industry challenged the Government’s decision in the Federal Court, where in June 2005 Justice Murray Wilcox found the standards warranted being overturned.

Incredibly, the Government was so keen to push through these new standards that it appealed the decision to the full bench of the Federal Court, which overturned the lower court’s decision by a slim margin. An appeal by the industry body, Pork Australia Ltd, to the High Court, was dismissed in 2006 on a technicality, namely that the court didn’t deem itself to have the right to rule on a policy issue. (So we have the unacceptable outcome whereby not even Australian courts can hold the government to account for ‘irresponsible policy.’)

We know that the racing industry is currently considering litigation if it can be proved that the outbreak did, in fact, come from Eastern Creek Quarantine Station. They should take no comfort from the pork case. Only the fact that racing is such an influential industry in this country might stand it in better stead.

There is no love lost between John Howard and the racing industry. He is known to hate racing and always ensures that Federal Parliament sits on Melbourne Cup Day. But the industry has popular pull and the power of numbers may work in its favour.

Even if this outbreak of horse flu turns out not to be the Government’s fault, it is a timely reminder to Australia of the importance of quarantine to all Australians.

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