The objective of this audit was to assess the effectiveness of the actions taken by AQIS and BA to strengthen the administration of quarantine. The audit focussed on progress in implementing the recommendations from the previous ANAO audit, and recommendations made in the JCPAA's inquiry. (The audit did not address four JCPAA recommendations that were either not supported by the Government, or were policy matters for the Government to consider. See Appendix 1.)
The primary role of quarantine is to keep unwanted pests and diseases out of Australia, while facilitating the flow of goods and people, wherever possible, across the border.
Quarantine is delivered through the Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry portfolio, as follows:
- Biosecurity Australia (BA) is responsible for developing policy to determine which items are permitted to enter Australia, and under what conditions. New quarantine policies are developed through a process called an Import Risk Analysis (IRA). This process involves a science-based assessment of quarantine risks. Prior to December 2004, BA was part of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF). In December 2004, the Government made BA a prescribed agency under the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997. This was to increase the independence of its operations and to ensure appropriate financial autonomy. The Government also considered this would further reassure stakeholders of BA's capacity to ensure that quarantine policy is always based on sound science.1
- The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS), which is part of DAFF, has operational responsibility for managing quarantine risks. Its key role is to seize prohibited items arriving at the major border entry points—airports, mail centres, cargo ports or on shipping vessels. Quarantine risks are also managed through off-shore and post-border activities.
For simplicity, this audit refers to BA when discussing both current and former arrangements. In addition, although AQIS is part of DAFF, this audit refers to AQIS when discussing operational matters.
In June 2001, the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) tabled Audit Report No.47 2000–01, Managing for Quarantine Effectiveness. The audit assessed the management of quarantine services, and the implementation and impact of the Government's response to the Quarantine Review Committee report. 2
The audit concluded, inter alia, that there were weaknesses in the management of the quarantine function that needed to be addressed to improve both operational effectiveness and quarantine outcomes. Areas which warranted management attention included: extending risk management practices to ensure that risk treatments appropriately address quarantine risks across different modes of entry; appropriately assessing and monitoring performance; and reducing the extent to which aspects of the Import Risk Analysis process result in avoidable controversy and uncertainty.
The audit made eight recommendations, all agreed to by DAFF.
In the May 2001 Budget, following the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Europe, the Government announced additional funding of some $281.4 million for AQIS. This funding was to be used, inter alia, to substantially increase intervention and effectiveness levels at the major border entry points. The Government initiative was referred to as Increased Quarantine Intervention (IQI).
Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit inquiry
The Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit (JCPAA) conducted a full inquiry into the quarantine function in 2002, tabling its report, Review of Australia's Quarantine Function, in February 2003.
The JCPAA concluded that, in general, ‘…Australia's quarantine function is in good shape and the additional funding is being appropriately used'.3 However, the Committee made 14 recommendations to further improve aspects of the quarantine function, and requested that the ANAO conduct a follow-up audit.
The objective of this audit was to assess the effectiveness of the actions taken by AQIS and BA to strengthen the administration of quarantine.
The audit focussed on progress in implementing the recommendations from the previous ANAO audit, and recommendations made in the JCPAA's inquiry. (The audit did not address four JCPAA recommendations that were either not supported by the Government, or were policy matters for the Government to consider.)
Key findings and conclusion
The ANAO's key findings are summarised below.
Quarantine policy development
The introduction of a new Import Risk Analysis (IRA) process in August 2003 has addressed several of the weaknesses with IRA processes identified during the previous audit. The new process provides additional opportunities for stakeholders to provide input into an IRA, and at an earlier stage in the process.
The ANAO found that BA's consultation processes have generally facilitated stakeholder input. However, the ANAO found that BA could improve its procedural documentation by incorporating recent enhancements to procedures for facilitating stakeholder input.
There is also scope to improve communication where some stakeholder suggestions are not supported by BA. For example, where agreement has not been reached with stakeholders on the efficacy of particular treatments, BA could better communicate the range of risk management strategies, including emergency measures, it proposes to use (or has available) to prevent the entry of a particular pest or disease into Australia. This may provide greater assurance to stakeholders on the rigour of BA's risk mitigation strategies.
The Government has established an Eminent Scientists Group to provide independent advice to the Director of Animal and Plant Quarantine on whether the draft Final IRA has adequately considered all technical submissions received from stakeholders. The ANAO considers that an earlier role for the Eminent Scientists Group for some IRAs would enable the more timely resolution of contentious issues and reduce subsequent redrafting of the Final IRA.
BA has introduced additional measures to assist stakeholders to better understand the application of Australia's Appropriate Level of Protection. This has improved stakeholder understanding. However, the need for stakeholders to understand the final risk assessment remains a continuing challenge for BA, as it is a complex technical area. Nevertheless, it is at the heart of BA's role, and warrants further endeavours to improve transparency.
The ANAO found that the administrative arrangements to manage potential conflicts of interest for officers involved in an IRA and quarantine policy making process were generally sound.
The Government has provided BA with additional funding for conducting IRAs. At July 2005, 35 IRAs were in progress. A further 182 market access requests were still to be assessed by BA to determine whether they will be addressed through an IRA or by a review or extension of existing policy.
The IQI funding provided by the Government has been used to increase and reallocate quarantine resources, and to improve infrastructure. Around 1 200 additional full-time staff have been employed since 2001; an extra 64 x-ray machines have been installed; and 46 additional detector dog teams have been trained. There have also been major upgrades to quarantine facilities at mail centres, airports and seaports.
Effectiveness indicators and targets have been established under IQI. The indicators are based upon a two-tiered classification system, which separates seizures into ‘higher risk' and ‘risk' groupings. Those items with gravest quarantine consequences are in the ‘higher risk' group, which has correspondingly higher effectiveness targets. Other material, of lower (but still significant) quarantine concern, is in the ‘risk' group.
This approach has improved AQIS' ability to understand and treat quarantine risk. However, AQIS does not assess risk consequences beyond the two risk categories used in the indicators. This limits AQIS' ability to systematically assess the variation in the consequences of quarantine risks that can occur from the range of prohibited items arriving in Australia, which in turn limits AQIS' ability to target resources effectively.
However, a risk assessment tool which aims to assess, in a more systematic manner, projected consequences associated with prohibited items is well developed and is expected to be completed before the end of 2005. At that time, AQIS will consider whether to implement the model.
Use of risk profiling has been strengthened, to predict where items of high quarantine concern are likely to be found. However, the adequacy of profiling arrangements for the contents of sea containers cannot be assessed because AQIS does not estimate the number of prohibited items in sea containers that have crossed the border undetected. In other words, AQIS has limited means of determining whether profiles have failed to target consignments of quarantine interest.
Surveys are now conducted widely to identify prohibited items that should have been seized at the border, but were not. The ANAO found that the methodologies for these surveys were robust.
These surveys indicate that the quantity of prohibited material undetected at airports and mail centres has decreased substantially since the previous audit. At that time, almost 90 per cent of prohibited items arriving at the mail centres and more than half of prohibited items arriving at the airports were undetected. In 2004–05, this had reduced to 31 per cent for mail, and 21 per cent for airports.
These improvements reflect progress by AQIS in response to effectiveness targets set by the Government. All targets were met for airport passengers in 2004–05. However, higher risk targets for three of the five classes of mail items have not been met.4 AQIS advised that major infrastructure improvements at the Sydney and Melbourne mail centres, once completed, are expected to improve the effectiveness of AQIS' interventions.
The effectiveness of the external inspections of sea containers has been improving over the last four years, but performance is still slightly below target. Prohibited material is undetected because the bases of containers dispatched on some flatbed trucks are not examined at the initial AQIS inspection, due to insufficient clearance between the flatbed trucks and the container.
AQIS does not measure the effectiveness of its inspections on the contents of sea containers. However, using limited testing in one State, it has estimated that the number of prohibited items in sea containers entering Australia may be of the order of six to seven per cent. Such a level represents the weakest performance in quarantine effectiveness, as such rates indicate that large volumes of prohibited material are entering Australia. AQIS is developing a system to collect and report on operational effectiveness for, inter alia, the contents of sea containers. This should assist AQIS to strengthen risk-based targeting.
In terms of managing quarantine risks off-shore (that is, prior to the cargo arriving at the border), AQIS has introduced new measures to further mitigate off-shore quarantine risks. In general, these measures provide greater assurance that quarantine risks are being managed effectively. However, with respect to a new scheme for accrediting Canadian timber, some enhancements in the area of procedural documentation and analysis of inconsistent detection rates across ports are warranted.
AQIS has also progressed initiatives related to the management of quarantine risk posed by ballast water and biofouling organisms.
Overall, since the last audit, AQIS and BA have made substantial improvements in the administration of quarantine. In addition, AQIS and BA have made significant progress in implementing previous recommendations.
All but two recommendations have been implemented or partially implemented. The two other recommendations are in progress. Those parts of recommendations yet to be fully implemented are, in many cases, well advanced.
Recommendations and responses
Notwithstanding the progress in addressing previous recommendations, the ANAO made five new recommendations aimed at strengthening the ongoing administration of the quarantine function. All recommendations were agreed to by DAFF and Biosecurity Australia.
DAFF and Biosecurity Australia's full response to this audit are provided below.
Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
The Department is supportive of the audit and agrees to the recommendations. The Department welcomes the ANAO's acknowledgement of the substantial improvements and enhancements to quarantine operations since the last audit report.
Biosecurity Australia is supportive of the audit report and agrees to the recommendations. Biosecurity Australia welcomes the ANAO's judgement that action on the recommendations from the original ANAO Report No.47, 2000–01 and JCPAA Report 394 is substantially complete.
1 See media release from the Hon. Warren Truss, then Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, DAFF04/335WT, Government commitment to independence of Biosecurity Australia delivered, dated 1 December 2004.
2 The Quarantine Review Committee, chaired by Professor Nairn, conducted an extensive review into Australia's quarantine function in 1996, making 109 recommendations for the Government to consider.
3 Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit Report No.394, Review of Australia's Quarantine Function, February 2003, Chairman's Foreword, page iii.
4 Effectiveness targets for higher risk items are 96 per cent, and 50 per cent for risk items.