Writings: Biosecurity Queensland: incapable now and in the future

In September 2015, an independent panel found that Biosecurity Queensland, a division of the Department of Agriculture and Forestry (DAFF), is incapable of protecting Queensland’s economy, environment and way of life from the threats of invasive pests and diseases: both now and in the foreseeable future. Biosecurity Queensland was created in 2007, by pooling government experts in biosecurity into one agency to protect Queensland and to form the front line of Australia’s biosecurity defence. Queensland fights more incursions than any other State or Territory. ‘The (review) panel formed the view that Biosecurity Queensland does not have the capacity to implement the changes required to meet the needs of the future and address current needs.’ This is a damming indictment!

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The panel assessed Biosecurity Queensland’s ability against international standards for an effective biosecurity agency: ie that


It has capacity. While Biosecurity Queensland staff are well regarded, the panel found that ever declining staff numbers, especially in regional areas and the loss of technical expertise is the cause of Biosecurity Queensland’s lack of capacity.


It has a risk-based framework for prioritising investment. National funding arrangements do not support good financial decision making and government funds are always limited, so Biosecurity Queensland does struggle to ensure on-going funding.  However, Biosecurity Queensland creates its own problems because it is unable to mount credible business cases for on-going funding because it does not collect performance data and analyse it to show how it has and will use funds and staffing to best effect. Instead, Biosecurity Queensland prioritises high-cost emergency responses, which have variable rates of return, over lower cost activities like surveillance for early detection which are likely to have higher rate of return. Biosecurity Queensland’s investment decisions are made historically and funding cuts are pro-rata rather than based on a risk analysis.


It’s biosecurity strategy is based on shared responsibility and shared decision making with its key stakeholders.  The Biosecurity Act 2014, which comes into effect in July 2016, requires all Queenslanders to bear some level of responsible for preventing the spread of exotic pests and diseases and to bear some share of the costs for managing those pests and diseases. But Biosecurity Queensland will not be able to achieve shared responsibility and cost sharing with Queensland industries, environmental groups and the community if it cannot enter into genuine decision making partnerships with its stakeholders. To date, Biosecurity Queensland main way of relating to industry and the community to regulate them, rather than work with them.


The review found that Biosecurity Queensland lacks capacity and capability, in part, because it is poorly organised.


Biosecurity Queensland’s leadership team cannot plan strategically to set directions and struggles to work effectively within a political system. Current leaders have come into their positions through incremental changes to their previous positions rather than though any considered workforce planning process. Consequently, Biosecurity Queensland plans and policies are mostly operational; made on the basis of the technical knowledge of individuals rather than any quantitative risk analysis.


Biosecurity Queensland does not collect high-quality performance data to inform operational and financial decisions. The lack of performance data was one of the review panel’s greatest concerns about Biosecurity Queensland because it results in the leadership team making decisions that are often conflicted and inconsistent.


Biosecurity Queensland lacks the ability to build partnerships with key stakeholder, including researchers in universities and research centres, other State and local government agencies, industry bodies, environmental groups and the broader Queensland community. Biosecurity Queensland’s communication with stakeholders is predominantly to seek resources or technical advice or input into polices and legislation relevant to specific programs.


Given Biosecurity Queensland’s dismal performance, maybe it is time to start again.


Transfer all responsibilities for biosecurity to the Commonwealth. This is the recommendation of Synergies Economic Consulting who were sub-contacted by the review panel to undertake an economic assessment of Queensland’s Biosecurity capability.


Establish Biosecurity Queensland as an independent statutory authority. A number of submissions to the review, including the Queensland Farmers’ Federation, recommended removing Biosecurity Queensland from DAFF where it is vulnerable to reductions in government allocations and establishing it as an independent statutory authority to make it more accountable.