Biosecurity services whittled down

Brad Thompson and Rueben HaleThe West Australian

Department of Agriculture and Food WA executives say they are committed to biosecurity, despite recent revelations of funding cuts to the sector.

Biosecurity services to protect WA from devastating pests and diseases are facing big cuts, despite a warning from department director-general Rob Delane that they are already at minimum levels.

Mr Delane made the alarming admission last week at a Budget estimates hearing just days after it emerged the State Government had largely gutted its budget to fight marine pests.

DAFWA is facing a $30 million cut in funding for its biosecurity section and more job losses over the next few years, despite the State's farmers relying heavily on their reputation for producing clean and green food.

Mr Delane said DAFWA had tried to shield its biosecurity division from the brunt of job losses and funding cuts up until now.

It has already shed hundreds of jobs under the Barnett Government and Mr Delane said it was set to go from 950 staff to 700 in the next two years.

"I hope we can protect our biosecurity operations," Mr Delane told the estimates hearing.

"I think we are down to about the minimum level we can maintain there."

However, Mr Delane confirmed that none of the executive staff would be facing salary cuts.

He said industry could no longer expect government to take responsibility for many of the services it had offered in the past.

He said the totality of the biosecurity system his department was responsible for was large and complex and it was not practical to continue to protect all areas.

"If we had more resources, could we do more? Of course we could do more," he said.

"The more we have to fulfil the responsibilities of landholders, the less we can fulfil core responsibilities like diagnostics, surveillance and maybe some improved market access.

"But I don't shy away from the responsibility (for biosecurity) and we have a $20 million biosecurity project."

Mr Delane said DAFWA in the future would be a department focused on biosecurity and natural land use functions with other programs sponsored by Royalties for Regions and partnerships with the private sector.

"Everyone needs to remember that as of today, we are still the biggest employer in the agricultural sector," Mr Delane said.

"But we are a small part of the sector. I did remind people at our total expenditure for the year of just over $200 million, we are trying to catalyse success in a sector that hopefully has a farm gate value this year of $8 billion.

"At $8 billion, that $200 million has to be particularly catalytic or play a particular role in that.

"I think working with industry can help make the necessary changes, create a potential value at the farm gate of a $15 billon sector.

"How exciting would that be?"

Mr Delane said a decision on a home for the new-look department was yet to be made.

"We've recommended a range of options to the Government and, as yet, we don't have new buildings," he said.

"But going to be part of a university has to be a realistic option.

"A couple of universities have already made representations to the Government for us to locate with them or, in fact, house them."

Mr Delane said these were all the options on the table and that process had only just started.

"I can tell you with 100 per cent confidence that we will not be building on this (current) site," he said.

"We have recommended that the whole site be sold and that decision has been accepted.

"To my knowledge, the entire South Perth site is already in the land sale or redevelopment process, which is handled through Department of Lands portfolio."

Asked about the message to industry, Mr Delane said: "Between us we need to work out how we do this. If some of the stuff that we used to be able to fund we can't fund any more, then you need to work out whether there is an alternate funding for it, or whether in fact it is sufficiently important to try to fund."

Meanwhile, the State Government will appoint a panel of experts to review DAFWA to determine how it should function in the wake of the job losses.

Agriculture Minister Ken Baston has asked Mr Delane to convene the panel to provide advice on core functions and minimum staff levels.

The review panel is expected to be named in August.

It will investigate the base level for the department to perform its statutory responsibilities and compliance role in biosecurity.

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