As outlined in our member notice from 27 November 2020, Freight & Trade Alliance (FTA) representatives met with Andrew Tongue, Deputy Secretary, Biosecurity & Compliance Group, and Lee Cale, Acting First Assistant Secretary Biosecurity Operations from the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (the department) to discuss the performance levels in a number of services.
As a result of this engagement, the department yesterday (22 December 2020) hosted selected industry bodies in a roundtable discussion led by Colin Hunter, the department’s First Assistant Secretary of Biosecurity Operations Division.
This is the first in what will become a regular series of industry engagements Mr Hunter committed to chairing.
Current operational environment
The complexity of the current operational environment was discussed at length with the department keen to gain an understanding of current and evolving trade patterns, recognising that international container trade changes induced by COVID-19 are having a compounding impact on pest and disease arrivals.
The combination of waterfront industrial action causing vessel arrival delays, COVID-19, vessel bunching, vessel port omissions, high volumes of low value imports and the need to respond to incursions of Brown marmorated stink bug (BMSB) and Khapra Beetle was described by the department as the “perfect storm” with acknowledgement that their existing resources are stretched and have struggled to meet prescribed service levels over recent months.
With a cap on Average Staffing Levels (ASL) to be retained, the department acknowledged a need and a desire to work with industry to progress a series of reforms including improved technology and an increased scope / utilisation of Approved Arrangements. The department noted that a need exists to support such arrangements with assurance and verification measures to reward industry with incentives to maintain high levels of compliance for safeguarding against import biosecurity risks. The department committed to partner with industry through co-designed approaches to better manage biosecurity risks.
Reference was made to other initiatives underway (booking tool, document assessment automation, ‘smart glasses’ for inspections, etc) with a commitment made by Mr Hunter to present detail on these and other proposed reforms in the new year in a structured and interactive format.
While noting that most of the above listed operational issues are outside the direct control or making of the department, they will continue to divert essential resources to service the import trade sector that would otherwise be deployed to airports and are committed to several lodgement and assessment systems changes for early in 2021.
Whilst we acknowledge the efforts of the department to work with industry, it is evident that the lack of funding that is hampering their ability to adequately resource its various activities and is having dire consequences across not only the customs broker / forwarding industry but also heavily impacting on commercial business to meet their obligated contracts with their customers.
As a result, importers can expect a continuation of commercially unacceptable document assessment, treatment result advice and inspection service levels for the foreseeable future with a forecast of sustained high trade volume.
FTA representatives will be escalating concerns with government including scheduled engagements in Canberra during the first Parliamentary sitting week of the year in February 2021.
FTA will continue to keep members informed on developments.