Quarantine nightmares continue

New Zealand is right to com­plain to WTO about Aus­tralian quar­an­tine pro­ce­dures that have kept the hum­ble Kiwi apple out of Aus­tralian shops for almost a cen­tu­ry. The Aus­tralian government‚Äîunder press­sure from yet anoth­er high­ly pro­tect­ed grow­ers’ group‚Äîhas repeat­ed­ly delayed a final deci­sion on “its own assessment”:http://www.affa.gov.au/content/output.cfm?ObjectID=D51B9649-36924F76-919200A78D716CA2 in late 2000 that a ban on imports should be dropped and that the risks from pests and dis­ease could be read­i­ly han­dled by a process of ‚Äòre­gion­al­iza­tion’ and pest con­trol. bq. “The apples are banned because it is feared they would spread fire­b­light, a bac­te­r­i­al dis­ease com­mon in New Zealand but not found in Aus­tralia. The Aus­tralian apple and pear indus­try says the dis­ease could cost it up to A$1bn. New Zealand says research has shown that mature apples do not car­ry the dis­ease. Its case has been strength­ened by a WTO rul­ing in 2003 that over­turned a ban on US apple exports to Japan for sim­i­lar reasons.”(“Financial Times(link to this excerpt)”:http://news.ft.com/cms/s/ee62a280-dd28-11d9-b590-00000e2511c8, in the risk assess­ment process has been caused, as is typ­i­cal in these cas­es, by a “campaign”:http://www.affa.gov.au/content/output.cfm?ObjectID=D2C48F86-BA1A-11A1-A2200060B0A03943 of legal and admin­is­tra­tive harass­ment led by the pro­tect­ed domes­tic indus­try. The cur­rent leg­is­la­tion allows them to con­tin­ue these delays and even injunc­tive action in the courts almost indef­i­nite­ly. A recent “decision”:http://www.affa.gov.au/content/output.cfm?ObjectID=22DD9ED3-43E8-4D6C-A55FD79C8D7FF026 by the Fed­er­al Court has strength­ened the hand of the pro­tect­ed indus­tries by over­turn­ing the long-delayed deci­sion to allow imports of unprocessed pork meat. The Judge called the rea­son­ing of the Gov­ern­ment in the pork deci­sion ‘bizarre’: bq. 245 It is clear that PMWS [ _a dis­ease of swine ] has had dev­as­tat­ing effects on pig herds in many coun­tries. PMWS cur­rent­ly costs the Euro­pean Union about 600 mil­lion Euros per year. It is com­mon ground that, so far, Aus­tralia is free of the dis­ease. Yet the undis­put­ed evi­dence of Pro­fes­sor Mor­ris is that, if per­mits are grant­ed in accor­dance with the pol­i­cy embod­ied in the IRAR (and with full appli­ca­tion of the Panel’s rec­om­mend­ed con­di­tions), there is a ‘high’ risk — that is, an over 70% chance — at the 75th and 95th per­centiles (‘mod­er­ate’ at the 50th per­centile) that, with­in five years, PMWS will have spread to the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion of Aus­tralian domes­tic pigs, includ­ing medi­um-large pig­geries … In oth­er words, under the pol­i­cy that has now been adopt­ed by the Direc­tor, an out­break of PMWS with­in ten years is a vir­tu­al cer­tain­ty. bq. 246 An assess­ment that such a risk is ‘accept­ably low’ seems to me bizarre, espe­cial­ly hav­ing regard to con­cern expressed by suc­ces­sive Aus­tralian gov­ern­ments about main­te­nance of high quar­an­tine stan­dards. Intu­itive­ly, one feels, there must be some­thing wrong with the Panel’s assess­ment of risk. The claim that the Judge allowed and that formed the basis for over­turn­ing the Government’s deci­sion to allow imports was: bq. ‘No rea­son­able per­son whose pow­er to make the deci­sion is qual­i­fied by an oblig­a­tion to lim­it the lev­el of quar­an­tine risk to one that is “accept­ably low” could make a deci­sion which has such a risk of the intro­duc­tion, spread and estab­lish­ment of a new dis­ease in Aus­tralia.’ The Judge deter­mined that the deci­sion made by the Gov­ern­ment was not one a rea­son­able per­son would make. He agreed with the Pork indus­try that there was no evi­dence what­ev­er for the asser­tion by the Gov­ern­ment that its pro­posed risk abate­ment strat­e­gy would reduce the dis­ease risk from ‘low’ to ‘very low’—the self-pro­claimed stan­dard that Biose­cu­ri­ty Aus­tralia says is the “appro­pri­ate lev­el of pro­tec­tion” in the case of every agri­cul­tur­al indus­try.  With­out com­ment­ing on the Judge’s rea­sons for over­turn­ing the deci­sion, I con­sid­er the Government’s will­ing­ness to accept a low risk of infec­tion in the case of fresh pork meat is entire­ly pro­por­tion­ate (‘rea­son­able’ in the ordi­nary sense) and not ‘bizarre’ at all for two rea­sons: # The exporters whose indus­tries labor under the bur­den of this dis­ease are the world’s most suc­cess­ful pork pro­duc­ers: USA, Den­mark and Cana­da.
# Pro­tec­tion against the risk of infec­tion in the form of a ban on imports is like­ly to be very cost­ly to the Aus­tralian econ­o­my both because it increas­es con­sumer costs and reduces con­sumer choice and because it robs our econ­o­my of the gains from spe­cial­iza­tion in agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion It is impos­si­ble to believe that those dis­ease-rid­den for­eign­ers find even the ‘endem­ic’ preva­lence of PMWS dis­ease tru­ly ‘dev­as­tat­ing.’ They have been suc­cess­ful in com­pet­i­tive glob­al mar­kets for decades—while the Aus­tralian pork indus­try sur­vives in its cocooned domes­tic mar­ket only because of a com­plete ban on import com­pe­ti­tion in the most lucra­tive seg­ment of the mar­ket (fresh pork). Quar­an­tine must take into account—as the Act requires—not only the degree of risk but also the “prob­a­ble extent of any harm”. The prin­ci­pal fault in Biose­cu­ri­ty Australia’s elab­o­rate risk assess­ments, in my view, is that they do not assess that ‘harm’ except in a very nar­row sense—to the affect­ed industry—and even then on an very inad­e­quate basis (a view the Court seemed to share). The Judge might have tak­en a dif­fer­ent view of the risk assess­ment on pork if the gov­ern­ment had tak­en the trou­ble to inves­ti­gate and to spell-out the prob­a­ble lev­el of harm that would arise from infec­tion by PWMS in the con­text of an import com­pet­ing indus­try. Biose­cu­ri­ty Aus­tralia might have shown by exam­ples drawn from Europe and North Amer­i­ca that com­mer­cial pro­duc­ers take ade­quate mea­sures, of course, to pro­tect their pro­duc­tion from the dis­ease, thus reduc­ing the harm to low lev­els with­out rely­ing on the dead-hand of pro­tec­tion at the bor­der. In assess­ing ‘prob­a­ble harm’ the gov­ern­ment should have shown, too, the harm­ful effects of the import ban on con­sumers on eco­nom­ic wel­fare in gen­er­al. But, despite elab­o­rate sci­ence, the risk assess­ments pro­duced by Biose­cu­ri­ty Aus­tralia are eco­nom­i­cal­ly shal­low. Now, hav­ing exposed itself to this rever­sal by the Fed­er­al Court the gov­ern­ment will prob­a­bly deal even more tim­o­rous­ly with the Apple and Pear Grow­ers at the cost of # Being hauled before a WTO pan­el by our old­est and clos­est trad­ing part­ner
# Anoth­er humil­i­at­ing loss in any­thing to New Zealand

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