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Quarantine Service Estimates hearings: wheat rust, chocolate, fruit flies and more

STANDING COMMITTEE ON RURAL AND REGIONAL AFFAIRS AND TRANSPORTAustralian Quarantine Inspection Service Discussion Senator MILNE—I have a few questions. The first one relates to pandemic influenza preparedness. I notice in the budget statements that you say that funding for these measures will be met from within the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry’s existing resources. Can you explain to me what kind of in-house support this program will get and what will it mean in terms of a relative cut from previously? Mr S Hunter—At this time we are working through existing departmental resources to see how that activity might be supported. There are a couple of elements to the equation. One is the extent of funding that is necessary in order to maintain the appropriate level of readiness for those teams that have been trained under that program. The other part of the equation is, if funding is required to maintain that level of readiness, how much and from where. We have started that process but we have not completed that. Senator MILNE—What did you spend on that previously? Mr S Hunter—Principally for training of staff at airports to be able to detect symptoms on people coming into Australia using thermal scanning. Ms Gordon—We received $2.8 million to, as Mr Hunter said, train staff to effectively operate thermal scanners for passengers coming into the country and to talk to them or interview them if they thought they were exhibiting symptoms or reported symptoms, and then to refer them appropriately to Department of Health nurses and others for medical assessments and management. Our staff are there basically carrying out the role that they normally play in respect of human quarantine, which is to identify passengers and then refer them appropriately. The funding itself, as Mr Hunter has indicated, was largely to enable us to take people offline to train them so that we maintained a ready pool of people with the knowledge and experience to undertake this sort of work. For the moment, we have fully trained people available to do that work, and we would expect that we would be able to maintain our capacity for some time to come. We have fulfilled the training requirements of the people who are currently at the airport. Senator MILNE—That requires that you have a relatively stable staff, and maintaining people in the places they currently are with that level of preparedness. Presumably each year you would need to do some kind of refresher and/or emergency procedure. Will that cost money? Or are you suggesting that people will just be able to do it as part of their day-to-day activities? Ms Gordon—Yes, it is true that as staff move or as time passes, if there is no particular call on those skill sets, people lose their currency of those skills, and they will require upgrading training, as will new staff coming through. As Mr Hunter has indicated, we are still assessing which is going to be the best way to maintain those skill sets. We obviously train our airport officers in a whole range of skills and we are looking, among other options, at how we might integrate that into that sort of training as well. Senator MILNE—Perhaps you might report some time later in the year. Could you take this on notice? When you do an assessment of what it is going to cost, I would be interested to know what you estimate will come from somewhere else in the department. The other thing I want to ask you about is Ug99, wheat rust, which people are very concerned about coming out of Africa. Are we doing anything in terms of special surveillance in relation to that? Ms Gordon—We might have to take that one on notice, unless Mr Lehne can help you. Mr Lehne—I will take that on notice. The importation of wheat is highly restricted. We only allow wheat in from certain countries and under certain conditions. They normally go for processing in metropolitan areas. It is highly contained in that sense. We do import seed wheat for genetic purposes, but that has grown under quarantine conditions and it is the progeny of that which is released. In that period in quarantine it is tested for diseases such as rust, et cetera, to ensure that we do not bring in any material of that sort. Senator MILNE—Are you confident that we can keep Ug99 out of Australia? Mr Lehne—We have systems in place that are specifically designed to ensure that those sorts of diseases are not imported on seed that is brought into the country. Senator MILNE—Presumably Uganda is one of the places we do not import it from? Mr Lehne—I would need to take that on notice. Senator MILNE—The final question I have is in relation to the red fire ants and the progress in terms of eradication. I am interested in an update from anyone as to how we are going towards eradication, whether we are winning the battle and where we are up to. Mr Aldred—Yes, I would like to say we are winning the battle. The program has been highly successful. There have been a couple of reviews done of the program. It is moving forward. The Primary Industries Ministerial Council, at the end of April, agreed to continue funding the program for a further two years. There is an issue that, as with a number of the tramp ants, as you get down to the final nests it is difficult to be sure that you have got them all. Occasionally they pop up, and you need to keep people vigilant. But at the moment we are on track and we expect it to keep going for a couple of years. Senator MILNE—What are we down to in terms of a physical area? Mr Aldred—I would have to take the area on notice. Senator MILNE—Have you any sense of how many active nests you have still to deal with? Are we talking a few square kilometres now? Mr Aldred—I would not like to guess, frankly. In terms of active nests, we had a situation where a while ago a number of additional nests—I think a couple of hundred—were found in a quarry or something of that nature. Essentially, when you find the active nests they get dealt with pretty swiftly. It is very much a matter of surveillance and knocking them on the head one at a time. Senator MILNE—Given our experience and how much it has cost to actually manage this and try and eradicate it, what actions are we taking with our Pacific island neighbours and around the Pacific to raise awareness of the problems and so on to attempt to sort out these issues before we get them again? Mr Aldred—I would have to take that on notice. We have a number of programs around on a whole range of pests and diseases, but I do not know the specific answer in terms of red imported fire ant. Senator MILNE—Which department does the educative work in the region? Mr Aldred—It would be us. We would work with the department of the environment because a number of these pests are not strictly what you would call production pests; they are pests of the environment or social amenity. With a number of the educative activities that we look after, we work with AusAID. Senator MILNE—I am trying to get a handle on where I get a picture of the work Australia does on alien invasive species, both marine and terrestrial, in the region. Is it through AusAID? Is that mainly the delivery source? Mr Aldred—I will take that on notice and provide you with a collation of information. Senator MILNE—It seems to me that would be a productive use of our time and money. Mr S Hunter—We do some work through the Northern Australia Quarantine Strategy in countries such as Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste, working with the quarantine administrations in those countries to lift their capacity and preparedness to deal with quarantine diseases in those places. While I am speaking, can I advise you that Ms Gordon wants to clarify some figures she gave you about the rapid deployment teams. Senator MILNE—Just before we go off the regional involvement, does the Australian government contribute to GISP, the Global Invasive Species Program? Mr S Hunter—I do not know the answer to that. I think that is probably something that would occur through the environment department, if it did. Mr Aldred—Again, I will take that on notice. Ms Gordon—I would like to clarify the figure of $2.8 million I gave you for the rapid deployment teams. It was the funding that we had available in this financial year. Overall, the budget measure was $10.8 million over four years. Senator MILNE—And is that now nothing? Ms Gordon—That funding has been withdrawn and we will incorporate the activities into our ongoing funding for our airport staff. Senator MILNE—That was basically training and now we are into maintenance? Ms Gordon—Yes. Senator MILNE—Thank you. CHAIR—Thank you, Senator Milne. Senator MILNE—I just wanted to ask a follow-up from Senator McGauran on this issue of consistency and people understanding what they have to declare. There seems to be real inconsistency in airports about chocolate. People line up for ages because they have ticked a box saying they are bringing in a food item when they are bringing in a box of chocolates that is packaged and is not a raw food as such. Frequently I have ticked that as well because I have packaged chocolate, but I know they are going to say to me, ‘Oh, that is not what we mean. We mean salamis and da, da, da’, which I know. But it is not clear on the forms what you are doing about chocolate, and yet half the people in the queue are wasting people’s time essentially by ticking chocolate as a food. Is there anything specific you can do to say which chocolates are quarantined, which ones you have to declare—if they are not packaged or they are from certain countries or something—or do you just want everybody to declare chocolates and fill up the queues? Ms Gordon—You raise a very good point. I think there are two issues sitting behind that. The form, as you know, is quite small and so we have to be very sparing with the language that we use. In regard to chocolates, largely what we would be concerned about there is some of the milk product. To try to distinguish different categories of chocolate or where it was produced, et cetera, on a form of that size is probably not going to be very easy, so it is our preference that people declare anything that they have got any doubts about so that we can at least talk to them. And, yes, it does mean that for many people who have just got Lindt chocolate from Switzerland we can say, ‘Sorry. That is fine. You can go through.’ But it does give us the opportunity to assure ourselves that people do not have something that would be of greater concern to us. Senator MILNE—It is quite inconsistent. Sometimes they just say, ‘Keep going.’ And other times you are sent through the other queue. I just wanted to get some consistency on that. Senator HEFFERNAN—Do these people from the department moonlight on this show? Do they get paid for their appearance or, if they do appear, do they get paid? CHAIR—It is all right. You can say ‘no’ in one word; that is easy. Thank you, Ms Gordon. Senator Milne, there are five minutes to go. Senator Siewert has not had a go yet, so do you want your colleague to go? You can sort it out between yourselves. Senator MILNE—On notice, when you come back on the national fruit fly strategy, I am interested to know whether the increased minimum temperatures in parts of Australia where fruit fly was never a risk before are now being identified—whether you are cross-checking with the climate data on changed minimum temperatures. Mr Aldred—Some of the work that is being done or envisaged over the next 12 months or so is essentially setting baselines for us to do just that work.

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