Tuesday 20 June 2017
Hansard of the Legislative Council

Biosecurity Tasmania



(Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment)

Output group 6Biosecurity Tasmania -

Mr FINCH - This area causes me a fair bit of concern, which is shared by the member for Windermere.  As we approached the budget Estimates I started to get across this issue of blueberry rust.  During budget Estimates I said, 'I have a list of questions that have come in'.  I did not want to rattle off question after question on a subject I was not really acquainted with, because of the information or concerns coming in at the last minute.  The member for Windermere, who had carriage of that section, also expressed much concern about elements happening in this area.

Mr CHAIRMAN - You had good advice, then.

Mr FINCH - He received the advice but they left me out, so I am floundering about trying to find my way through.  I have a list of dot point notes about things I really want to explore.  This is probably not the place to explore those things if satisfactory answers unfold in the near future.

Since the budget Estimates, the blueberry growers and Fruit Growers Tasmania have met with the minister in attendance, and there was grave concern from the floor.  Another meeting is scheduled for this Thursday.  Obviously something is amiss and there are concerns.  The minister shared that with us at the budget Estimates; he was very concerned about the way people had been treated and was concerned about what was unfolding.

I know the member for Windermere also wants to express his opinion.  My question is:  does Biosecurity Tasmania have the resources it needs to properly manage the blueberry rust situation or is it having to do the best it can on a shoestring?  That is probably a question pertaining to budget allocation and the money that goes to the department.  Does Biosecurity Tasmania have the funds it needs to properly do the job?

Mrs HISCUTT - Biosecurity Tasmania allocates its resources according to risk.  The blueberry rust situation is seen as a high risk and hence resources have been allocated accordingly.

Mr FINCH - Yes, okay.  I know some members of Biosecurity Tasmania are being applauded by blueberry growers, so I am not critical of the staff and the job they are doing, because some good reports are coming in.  The information coming to the growers has been not as informative as they would like it to be.  Some information has been described as cagey.

Mrs Hiscutt - What was that word?

Mr FINCH - Cagey.  Do you know what I mean?  Not informative and not as transparent as people would like it to be.  They seem to be backwards in coming forward.  That was a comment I heard.  I am using words passed on to me. 

These are not words I have created.  I am trying to express my concern at this time.  My concern is so strong I need to keep in touch with the minister to see how things develop from our meeting and the meeting that is going to be held.  If I am not satisfied, we might have a discussion about an inquiry into the situation that has unfolded.

It is very murky.  That is not my word; it is a word that has come to me from others - the situation is very murky.  While I am assured Biosecurity Tasmania has the money and is allocating it according to risk, I suggest that the work it is doing is not as effective as it probably could be.

My next question probably goes to market access.  It comes back to Biosecurity Tasmania.  I am sure your assistants at the table will be able to give us some idea.  We heard in the budget Estimates that they have market access, but others say they do not have market access.  There is a conflict about whether markets are available for this next season.  I would like to know about the future view of the markets for blueberry farmers.

Mrs HISCUTT - I will just seek some advice.  The department has acknowledged its communication to growers was not good enough and this is being rectified.  Biosecurity Tasmania has established a blueberry growers consultative group, which consists of departmental representatives, members of the Australian Blueberry Growers' Association, the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association - TFGA - and other blueberry growers.

The group met last week and is due to meet again in two weeks' time.  One of the outputs of this group will be a blueberry growers' workshop to discuss and develop farm hygiene plans for all blueberry farms.  Regular emails are being sent directly to Lloyd Klumpp, General Manager of Biosecurity Tasmania, and to growers.  Website updates also form part of the improved communication strategy for the rust.

Blueberry rust already exists in Queensland and New South Wales.  We are in negotiations with other states to enable blueberry sales, and there is no reason to believe that these negotiations will change what we are doing with other states.

Ms RATTRAY - Mr Chairman, I am very encouraged by what the Acting Leader just read out in relation to the communication around this very important issue, so thank you.  If there are additional resources for biosecurity for the blueberry rust issue, does that mean that other areas of biosecurity that are important for other crops are being compromised or left wanting in any way?  That would also be of concern, given we rely so heavily on Biosecurity Tasmania and the work that it does.

Mrs HISCUTT - The funds are apportioned against risk.  There are operational allocations so if there is a risk, resources will be allocated and then moved somewhere else if there is another emergency.  There are also additional resources in the Budget for frontline services.  We are 'growing the pie' with biosecurity.

Ms RATTRAY - Thank you.  Again, I appreciate the response.  As I was travelling one day ‑ I travel most days somewhere - I heard on the radio that there seemed to be a lack of biosecurity measures on the Spirits.  Someone was giving some feedback that they had been on one of the Spirits and that they had virtually no check at all.  I am interested in your answer.  Does that cover those aspects of biosecurity as well - checking those travelling on the Spirit of Tasmania into Tasmania?

Mrs HISCUTT - There are a few points on how TT-Line works.  There is potential for biosecurity risk material to be transported on the Spirit of Tasmania ferries by passengers, vehicles and goods.  An industry partnership between Biosecurity Tasmania and TT-Line, via a memorandum of understanding, has introduced a contemporary biosecurity management strategy with a focus on prevention.  The new offshore strategy was fully implemented in 2015.  The new system reduces discharge times of passengers at Devonport and strengthens Tasmania's biosecurity front line by keeping biosecurity risks offshore.  Biosecurity inspectors remain in place at Devonport to perform targeted and random inspections and undertake compliance investigations. 

Since the introduction of the new process on the TT-Line, from 1 December 2014 to 30 May 2017, 251 000 vehicles have been inspected at Port Melbourne, 46 000 kilograms of biosecurity risk material have been seized, 10 000 items have been referred to Biosecurity Tasmania for further assessment, and 1411 items have been detected through random inspections, with most of these resulting from passengers declaring items.

Mr DEAN - A lot of feedback has come to me since I raised these issues during Estimates.  A lot of it is around Costa and the current issue there.  The suggestion has been made that there has been preferential treatment.  That has been coming out fairly clearly.

The member for Rosevears raised the issue that the work was not as good as it could have been in this area.  Perhaps there was an answer to that. 

During the Estimates I asked a number of questions about the blueberry rust issue.  I was building up to a question on the revocation of the current List A declaration and status of blueberry rust when Madam Chair jumped in and beat me to the crunch and asked the question, 'Who made the decision then for fruit to be deregulated?' 

Dr Whittington answered -
There has been no decision to deregulate.  There was erroneous material put on our website that implied that.  What we have done -

Madam Chair then interjected and said, 'That must be what I have then?'  Dr Whittington then answered -

Maybe it is worth my going through the decision-making process I use.  It is really a hard decision and it is worth understanding the framework I operate within.

That night I received an email and I will quote some of that.  It seems the email came from within the department.  It reads -

Mr Dean
In Budget Estimates today you were given a number of untruthful answers by Dr John Whittington in response to questions related to Tasmania's biosecurity. 

Dr Whittington is [noted] … for rewriting history to suit the government of the day and I will give you one example from today's exchange. 

When questioned about blueberry rust and public information released by the Department about the intent to change the disease listing, Dr Whittington replied that the public information had been in error. 

That is not the case. 

The public information was accurate and reflected the position of the Department.  However, this position … was then reversed under 'influence' from the Minister's Office because it did not fit the political narrative of the government, that being Tasmania's biosecurity is 'stronger than ever'. 

I refer you to the attached Key Activities Report for the Primary Industries and Water portfolio dated 8 February 2017, specifically, the 'Blueberry Rust Update' on p3. 

You may also be interested by the 'Myrtle Rust Update' on same page that indicated that the status of this disease was also intended to be revoked. 

The revocation of listing for both diseases is a reflection that Biosecurity Tasmania has not had the resources to eradicate them and has lost control of the disease in the Tasmanian environment.

There is further information in that email that I do not wish to quote.  I now refer to the document referred to in that email.  This is a document headed 'Key activities report for the fortnight ending 8 February 2017, Primary Industries and Water'.  That document is an update of what had happened within Biosecurity for that time.  If we go across to blueberry rust, which is identified in the report, it says -

  • A three-year (2014-17) stock take of plant biosecurity surveillance operations will provide a starting point for development of a Plant Biosecurity Surveillance Strategy for BT. 
  • Biosecurity Tasmania's focus has been on managing the infected site, completing State wide surveillance to establish property freedom elsewhere, and negotiating with other States to enable market access.  Surveillance of 63 properties was undertaken by BOB staff (895 hours).  Exports have been occurring under special arrangements.  Processes are underway to revoke the current List A declaration status (biosecurity threat, not present in Tasmania) to List B (present in Tasmania but limited and under official control).  Next major steps will be negotiations with trading states with respect to long term future of market access for Tasmanian blueberry fruit.  Only one infected property has been found in the State with a relatively low level of infection, but the disease is expected to spread in coming years.

I will now go to the next section, which is referred to in that email I received relating to a myrtle rust update.  It says there -

  • Management of the response to myrtle rust has been reviewed and the management response adapted to new knowledge.  These arrangements include:  communications, and assessment/amending of regulatory status of this disease which will likely be revoked from the declared diseases lists in Tasmania.  Survey work will still be undertaken for myrtle rust as a target under the National Plant Health Surveillance Program and advice will be provided to affected property owners with respect to removal of diseased plants.

I think that is the document Dr Whittington was referring to, the one with the incorrect information.  I suspect but do not know that; maybe we can be given an answer about that.  I would like to know who put that document together and whether it was signed off by Lloyd Klumpp or the secretary.  I suspect it probably goes to the minister's office, but I do not know.  Perhaps I could be given some explanation about this document.  Was the department's position to revoke the status of blueberry rust and myrtle rust?  If it was the position, why and what changed for this not to be right?  What is going on?  I find it difficult to understand what is happening.  There is probably an explanation.  If the department's position was one to revoke the position in relation to blueberry rust and myrtle rust, that probably is why there was no satisfactory engagement with what has been occurring.  I do not know. 

Mrs HISCUTT - The document you have there is called a key activity report and is at a particular point in time.  It was given to the department executive and the minister's office.  Basically the decision was undertaken not to deregulate myrtle rust.

Mr DEAN - Not according to this.  I do not want to read through what I have just read, but I will quote one part of that.  I do not know who put this document together; the honourable Acting Leader might be able to tell us.  This document was for the period ending 8 February 2017, before the latest blueberry rust outbreak.  It says clearly, 'Processes are underway to revoke the current List A declaration status' - which I guess is a high status, I do not know - '(biosecurity threat not present in Tasmania) to List B (present in Tasmania but limited and under official control).'  It is moving from one category into this category where it is under control.

Ms Forrest - Are you talking about the same sort of rust?

Mr DEAN - I think we are.

Mrs Hiscutt - I think you are talking about myrtle rust, you said.

Mr DEAN - No, I am talking about the blueberry rust update.  That is the heading, and underneath it appears 'Myrtle Rust Update.'  There a myrtle rust update as well. 

Mrs Hiscutt - Which one are you referring to?

Mr DEAN - Two different things.  The blueberry rust I have indicated.  On the myrtle rust it says this -

These arrangements include communications and assessment, amending of regulatory status of this disease, which will likely be revoked from the declared diseases list in Tasmania.

From the way this reads, I take it myrtle rust was going to be revoked from a list declaring it as a disease.  I am trying to get an explanation about it.

Mrs Hiscutt - While the member is on his feet, with regard to blueberry rust, the advice was at a particular point in time; it was then decided not to deregulate.

Mr DEAN - A decision was taken at one stage to deregulate it, is that right?

Mrs Hiscutt - No, it was investigated, but the decision in the end was not to do it.

Mr DEAN - Why would it be investigated if it was seen as such a damaging disease?  Why was there a need to investigate it in the first place to see whether it should be removed as a disease? 

Mrs Hiscutt - The secretary looked at all the advice provided; he weighed the pros and cons of the situation and decided not to proceed with deregulation.

Mr DEAN - Was there any Government involvement in that or any influence on the secretary at the time?

Mrs Hiscutt - No.

Mr DEAN - When blueberry rust was discovered at the Costa site at Sulphur Creek from infected plant material brought in by Costa, did Costa lean on or influence the department so that they were not forced to pull out and destroy the plants?  We are talking about a lot of plants - their position was not to destroy those plants, rather just cut them back.  That was their preferred option.

Is it not the case that other growers are suffering as a consequence of this action by Costa and the department's compliance?  In the circumstances, those smaller businesses were impacted 18 months to two years ago and totally cleaned out.  All of their plants were destroyed.  There are issues around that.  I would appreciate an answer because there is a lot of discussion about this.  It is a big issue.

Mrs HISCUTT - We will start with the myrtle rust.  The department recently reviewed the response to the incursion of myrtle rust in Tasmania first identified in 2015.  The review found the strain of the disease present in Tasmania, due to marginal climatic conditions, currently poses a very low risk to Tasmanian bushland and forestry.  Based on that analysis, the response has been adapted to ensure appropriate management of the biosecurity risk the disease presents to Tasmania.

Myrtle rust extent will continue to be monitored and reports from the public continue to be important sources of information.  The restrictions on importation of the ornamental plant Lophomyrtus species, which is most susceptible to the disease, will be modified and normal border controls will be maintained to prevent the entry of other strains of myrtle rust.

With regard to the other, an estimated 15 000 plants were found to have infected berries at the Costa property out of an orchard of over 100 000 plants.  This is in contrast to the total number of plants - about 1200 - found to be infected on two properties in 2014.

At Costa in 2016 one option was to remove the 15 000 infected plants and attempt to buffer the remaining non‑deciduous plants to minimise plant loss at the Costa farm ahead of the deciduous opening.  However, removing the plants or heavily pruning them to the ground were not viable options until the department could establish how far the rust had already spread across that particular property, and also across the state, to manage the potential for reinfection.

With the chance of reinfection, the decision to attempt eradication through removal or heavy pruning needed to consider also the practical logistics of that action, as well as the broader social and economic impacts on the industry, compared to containment or any other option.  The department's secretary explained the decision-making process in budget Estimates.

The secretary's decision resulted in Costa's moving to containment, which included implementing stringent hygiene conditions and using chemical treatments.  This strategy enabled continued access of product to interstate markets.  Compliance with the hygiene conditions was regularly audited by Biosecurity Tasmania.

Mr FINCH - It was interesting to listen to the member for Windermere quoting from a report.  As I mentioned in budget Estimates, I did not proceed because I did not fully understand the background of the questions put to me by blueberry growers.  Now mentioning this report, I have some concerns about the threat to the Tasmanian blueberry industry and about the fact that blueberry growers contributed to an economic impact report for DPIPWE.

Was that what the member for Windermere was reading from or is it another report?  Who has received this report?  How many growers were surveyed?  How many other growers were not consulted?

When proposed at a Fruit Growers Tasmania - FGT - meeting, a list of growers present was created for use with the survey.  Some of the growers on the list were never contacted.  Others had to collect more detail, but were never called back.  How many growers were missed entirely?  If the report was submitted, how representative was it really?  Why was an incomplete report submitted?

A raft of questions about this DPIPWE report are causing concerns among blueberry growers.  I am on the third call, so I state again:  during the budget Estimates I was very impressed with the concern the minister showed towards blueberry growers.  His comments were quite telling - he understood the impact it had on growers and their viability, and that they had invested heavily in their operations.  Of course a lot of growers had their operations discombobulated.

I am also impressed that at a meeting last week growers had the chance to put a lot of things to the minister, and he was very concerned.  Another meeting will be held this Thursday.  While I am expressing a lot of the angst out there amongst blueberry growers, I am cognisant the minister is taking action and is very strongly across this issue.

I will be interested to hear about this DPIPWE report, but I am cognisant the minister is not shying away; he is not shirking from getting himself involved in the issue of blueberry rust.  I will await the answer, Acting Leader.  Thank you.