Over the past year, the department has worked towards its goals of improving the productivity, competitiveness and sustainability of our agriculture, fisheries and forestry industries and enabling trade in goods. A major part of our work is helping people and goods to move into and out of Australia, while managing biosecurity risks to the environment and animal, plant and human health.
It was a challenging year for many primary producers, with drought conditions experienced across regions of eastern Australia. Despite this, our portfolio industries contributed around $51 billion to the nation’s economy, including export earnings of more than $39 billion.
During 2013–14, we worked to deliver our core priorities for continuing reforms and deregulation across agriculture industries. There was a strong focus on designing modernised, streamlined and more efficient, cost-effective services for our clients, and reducing red tape and regulatory burdens for industry and the community. The department also supported a new minister and parliamentary secretary following the election in September 2013.
We participated in key Government policy development processes that aim to improve the productivity, competitiveness and sustainability of Australian agriculture industries. The department provided policy input to the development of the white papers on agricultural competiveness and the development of northern Australia and seconded senior staff to the white paper taskforces in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
ABARES continued to provide economic and scientific analysis and advice to underpin the policy development process. The department also contributed to the work of the National Commission of Audit.
Considerable work was done across the department to deliver the National Drought Program Reform package and drought support including the new Farm Household Allowance and drought concessional loans. Legislation supporting the allowance was passed by the Parliament in March 2014. We also implemented the Farm Finance package aimed at assisting farm businesses to recover from drought and other circumstances. Measures introduced under the package include concessional loans for drought-affected farmers and additional rural financial counselling services.
Regulatory reform has been an on-going focus for the agriculture portfolio for many years. This year saw an increased emphasis on the burden that inefficient and excessive regulation places on business and the community. Supporting the implementation of the Government’s deregulation agenda is an important driver of the department’s work. We established a deregulation unit in November 2013 to spearhead this work across the portfolio, including the portfolio agencies with regulatory responsibilities.
The department contributed to all aspects of the deregulation agenda, including identifying 41 obsolete and redundant Acts as part of the first parliamentary repeal day in March 2014. The identification of reform opportunities continues, including our comprehensive audit of portfolio regulation, which will be completed towards the end of 2014.
Work continued on long-term reforms to strengthen and improve Australia’s biosecurity system. New quarantine charging legislation, which will underpin more modern and efficient cost-recovery arrangements for biosecurity services, was passed by the Parliament in March 2014. Making cost-recovery sustainable for Australia’s biosecurity system will continue to be a priority in 2014–15.
In 2014, after more than two years of planning, stakeholder consultations and negotiations, construction commenced on the new state-of-the-art post-entry quarantine facility in Mickleham, Victoria. It will replace the four existing plant and animal quarantine facilities around Australia.
The modern facility will provide operating efficiencies through advanced technology and practices to manage high-risk plant and animal imports. The first stage is expected to be operational by late 2015. The department is working closely with the Department of Finance, which is responsible for delivering the building of the new facility.
During 2013–14, we commenced the Service Delivery Modernisation programme to implement improvements to the way we deliver our services. This work builds on the findings of the capability review of the department undertaken by the Australian Public Service Commission in 2012–13. The programme is focussed on modernising the way the department does its work to improve both client experience and productivity.
We rolled out an upgraded telecommunications system that supports more efficient and streamlined telephony operations and videoconferencing. This will enable the department to be more responsive in dealing with clients who seek assistance over the phone, and has already proved itself in managing calls relating to cargo, travellers and post-entry quarantine in Victoria. The approach will be rolled out further in 2014–15.
Work commenced on a pilot to enable mobile biosecurity officers to complete work in the field using new tools. This approach is expected to improve service to clients, the quality of data and the working environment for staff.
An important part of our day-to-day business is providing essential services onshore, offshore and at the border to manage Australia’s biosecurity system. During the year, dedicated staff working at international airports, seaports and mail centres all around the country assessed and cleared more than 17 million international passengers, 180 million international mail articles and 17 000 international sea vessels. Our biosecurity services ranged from inspecting tall ships and naval vessels for the International Fleet Review to managing quarantine arrangements for Otana, Melbourne Zoo’s new gorilla.
Maintaining and increasing access to global markets for Australian agriculture, food, fisheries and forestry products is an important part of the department’s work. With an increasing focus on trade with the Asian region, the department regained access to the Thai market for Australian cherries and summerfruits and for exports of lamb, pork and goat meat to India. We secured access for Australian table grapes to the Japanese and Republic of Korea markets. We also implemented arrangements to allow the livestock trade to Egypt and Iran to reopen under the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System.
The department acted decisively to keep access to existing markets open as some importing country requirements changed through the year. Australia’s trade relationship with Indonesia was strengthened with the inaugural meeting of the Indonesia–Australia Partnership on Food Security in the Red Meat and Cattle Sector held in Jakarta.
We continued work on reforms to underpin the productivity, competitiveness and sustainability of agriculture, fisheries and forestry industries. A package of rural research and development (R&D) legislation was passed by the Parliament in December 2013. The amendments aim to strengthen the efficiency and governance of the R&D corporations, allowing them to deliver improved services to levy payers.
Work continued on implementing the regulatory framework to combat the international trade in illegal logging. This included developing capacity-building projects in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea to focus on governance and timber tracking and verification systems.
In fisheries, both the Harvest Strategy and the Bycatch policies were reviewed. This included scientific analysis of the settings of both policies and extensive consultation with key industry, non-government organisations and recreational fishing representatives.
Work commenced on the design and implementation of the new National Landcare Programme, which is the Government’s flagship natural resource management commitment. This programme will be delivered jointly with the Department of the Environment, and our two organisations continued a strong working relationship to ensure the programme meets both portfolios’ desired outcomes.
We strengthened and tested pest and disease emergency preparedness and response arrangements. During 2014, the department is coordinating Exercise Odysseus which is designed to prepare for implementing a national livestock standstill in the event of a foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak. Exercise Odysseus involves hundreds of people from government and industry organisations across Australia who have roles in disease response.
The Australian and New Zealand governments agreed to work together to prepare for an FMD outbreak in either country. The department also worked with states and territories to respond to pest and disease outbreaks including cocoa pod borer, red imported fire ants and banana freckle.
Work continued in the department to build a positive and sustainable working environment. This was achieved while reducing staff numbers to meet budget targets. Staff numbers reduced on a full-time equivalent basis by 500 over the year to 30 June 2014, with further reductions planned for the early part of 2014–15. Following large deficits in the previous two years, the department’s work has placed its finances on a more sustainable longer term footing.
I would like to acknowledge the high degree of professionalism and commitment displayed by staff across the department, from officers working at the frontline to people in essential support roles such as ICT, human resources and finance.
Paul Grimes PSM