Cuts spawn biosecurity fears

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian

Farmers and unions have warned that WA is at risk of a biosecurity disaster because of cuts at the Department of Agriculture and Food.

The groups fear WA could not cope with a major biosecurity incident such as an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, putting the State's $5.5-billion-a-year agricultural industry at risk.

They said State Government budget cuts and complacency could open the door for the introduction of biting insects and plant and animal diseases that would change the way of life West Australians took for granted.

In a rare show of unity, WAFarmers, the Pastoralists and Graziers Association and the Community and Public Sector Union said the Government had dropped its guard on biosecurity and agriculture in general.

There have been big staff cuts at the department in recent years with the number of full-time animal biosecurity staff down from 209 in 1989 to the current level of 84.

The number of entomologists employed by the department has fallen from 15 in 2008 to nine and one of the positions is funded by Chevron and based on Barrow Island.

Most of the remaining biosecurity staff are based at the DAFWA's outdated South Perth headquarters, where there are concerns about the ageing laboratories, deteriorating asbestos buildings and residual chemical contamination of the 20ha site.

DAFWA has been promised new headquarters for almost two decades but the Barnett Government continues to defer spending on the project more than two years after dumping plans to move the headquarters to Murdoch.

Key industry figures are convinced the Government is preparing to delay the redevelopment of the South Perth site yet again despite allocating funds for preliminary work on the $234 million project in forward estimates.

Treasurer Troy Buswell refused to commit to the project, saying the Government was "working through the budget process".

Agriculture Minister Ken Baston said building the new headquarters, including a $130 million science laboratory, was a priority.

"It's extremely important to have modern facilities in this day and age . . . the building is a priority of mine," he said.

Mr Baston admitted DAFWA could not cope with a major disease outbreak without the allocation of emergency State and Commonwealth funds.

Many fear there will be no new headquarters in this term of Government despite promises it would be completed by 2015-16.

The department is bracing for the loss of another 250 jobs over the next four years. It has shed about 600 jobs in just over a decade.

WAFarmers president Dale Park said the department was under-resourced and incapable of dealing with a major biosecurity breach.

"If we have a foot and mouth outbreak and it wipes out agriculture in WA, my question to Government is who pays for it," Mr Park said.

"Because that is the danger if we keep whittling away the department. These threats are very real."

This year the department has been stretched by a cattle wasting disease that prompted movement bans on several of the biggest stations in the Kimberley.

Another cattle disease - bovine anaemia - was detected in WA for the first time this month. And in March almost 100 ducks and chickens on two farms outside Perth were slaughtered as a precaution after the department discovered a case of avian influenza.

CPSU assistant secretary Rikki Hendon said union members at the department were deeply concerned about their ability to cope with major biosecurity breaches.

"We are aware that particularly in quarantine and biosecurity there have been huge cutbacks over the years," she said.

"Our members are of the opinion that quarantine measures are now compromised because they are so poorly resourced and so wound back. There will be significant implications for the State.

"They are worried that they won't be prepared to respond effectively and that we will be responding to something that has come in rather that preventing diseases and pests coming into WA."

Ms Hendon said staff were fed up with broken promises about a new headquarters.

The site contained a lot of asbestos and had been used for chemical testing but Ms Hendon said she was not aware of any official health and safety complaints.

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