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Tasmanian farmers want State Government explanation of Biosecurity Tasmania $1.9 million budget deficit revelations

Tasmania’s peak farming body says it wants an explanation from the State Government about reports of Biosecurity Tasmania’s $1.9 million budget deficit.

An internal Biosecurity Tasmania document leaked to ABC Rural reveals the budget shortfall and serious concerns about the division’s ability to service agricultural production growth.

Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association CEO, Peter Skillern, said he wanted a meeting with Biosecurity Tasmania and the government to discuss the revelations.

“The government have set a policy setting of Agrivision 2050, which is to increase (agricultural) production, in dollar value, to $10 billion,” Mr Skillern said.

“As the agricultural sector grows our biosecurity mechanisms [need to] grow with it, that is that they are adequately funded, adequately resourced.

“All it takes is an incursion of the wrong species and our export markets can be put under threat, there’s no question about that.”

Primary Industries Minister, Jeremy Rockliff, yesterday said he had not seen the document detailing the budget deficit.

But he insisted that protecting the state’s agriculture sector, currently worth over $1 billion at the farm-gate, from pests and disease is paramount.

“We invested a further $900,000 in frontline services in the budget preceding this year’s budget, and of course announced in May this year, a further $4 million investment into biosecurity services,” he said.

The issue dominated question time in State Parliament today, with the Labor Opposition questioning the Primary Industries Minister on why he did not know of the deficit.

Producers worry Biosecurity Tasmania cannot service growing agricultural sector

The Biosecurity Tasmania managers meeting minutes, leaked to ABC Rural, dated the 25th of August 2015, detailed the $1.9 million deficit, but explained that it could be reduced to $700,000 with some planned budget management strategies, that are yet to be confirmed.

The minutes went onto state that “the acting deputy secretary and the secretary (of the Primary Industries Department) expressed concerns as they expect BT to have a balanced budget by the end of 2015-16 FY. They emphasised that the agency will not be in a position to underwrite BT’s deficit.”

“Demands from program areas exceed the Biosecurity Operations Branch capacity so prioritisation and a reduction in level of program activity will need to be undertaken.

“A senior manager provided an outline of the current Program Plans provided to Bisecurity Operations Branch that significantly outstrip capacity…..the Myrtle Rust response isn’t included nor is the Blueberry Rust re-surveillance effort and that industry is indicating significant increases in production this year that will not be able to be serviced.

“The growth in agricultural production predicted raises serious concerns about the ability of BT to service that growth.”

The state’s cherry industry exports are worth $30 million a year and apple exports have grown from almost nothing to $1 million in the last 12 months or so.

Fruit Grower’s Tasmania’s Business Development Manager, Phil Pyke, said the industry is in a major growth phase and demand for biosecurity services will increase.

“What we’re concerned about it is that, moving forward, Biosecurity Tasmania will have to absorb the $1.9 million loss through cuts to programs,” he said.

“Our industry draws heavily on Biosecurity Tasmania officers over the harvest season for audits, for export fruit inspections.

“We need those resources at critical times to get our fruit into export protocol markets, if programs are cut it could have an impact on exports leaving this state.”

Former Principal Advisor in Biosecurity Tasmania’s Invasive Species Branch, Peter Cremasco, took a redundancy in May, he said under-resourcing can lead to biosecurity expectations not being met.

“Underfunding and staff shortages invariably lead to expectations not being met (by individuals, organisations and the public in general), in terms of doing a job properly,” he said.

“As job satisfaction wanes, so too does the goodwill that drives people to go the extra effort.

“The end result is likely to be a disengaged workforce that simply turns up to a job, and increased sick leave, resulting in less staff hours available to do the remaining work and further impacts on budgets.

“One of the responses I got from a dedicated biosecurity officer, at the time of my departure, was ‘I used to love my job. I used to get a lot of satisfaction from doing it well and knowing I had an impact. Now, it’s just a job; nothing more. I’ve never felt that way before’.”

Fruit fly detections in Tasmania ‘horrifying’: Fruit Growers Tasmania

Tasmania’s pest-free status underpins its clean green image and gives it special access to premium markets like China.

Tasmania’s fruit fly free status is important in giving local producers access to international markets that other Australian states do not enjoy.

The ABC has obtained Biosecurity Tasmania documents, through Right to Information Laws, that detail fruit fly larvae detections in Tasmania since early last year.

They include small numbers of live larvae in Thai eggplants intercepted at Australia Post, in trays of mangoes reported by the public to the Biosecurity Tasmania, and dead larvae in fumigated commercial shipments of apples from Victoria, in the first half of the year.

Mr Pyke said this shows Biosecurity Tasmania’s system is working, but reflects the need for proper resourcing of Biosecurity Tasmania, due to the increased pressure of pests and diseases on the state’s borders.

“My belief is that, based on the documents obtained under the Right to Information by the ABC, if I was to present these to our key export growers, they would be horrified,” he said.

“The one positive is that they have been detected and that is fantastic…but it is very concerning that these events are happening.

“The biggest risk that we found after the recent (fruit fly) incursion in New Zealand, from a briefing given to us by Horticulture New Zealand, was that incoming visitors remain the largest risk to biosecurity.

“They believe it was airline visitors and certainly with the increase of Asian visitors who are being targeted by the tourism industry into Tasmania and they are certainly welcome.

“We don’t have signage in Mandarin, or in other Asian languages, the announcements that are given on the airlines are all in English.”

Mr Pyke said he welcomed the State Government’s commitment in May to increase the amount of detector dogs and multi-lingual signage at Tasmania’s Hobart, Launceston, and Devonport airports.

But he said the resources were yet to hit the ground and the busy tourist season is rapidly approaching.