Labor tells car makers not to import pest-ridden cars amid biosecurity backlog

Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt has urged car makers to start ensuring vehicles are cleaned before they are put on ships bound for Australia, amid a backlog that is forcing Australians to wait up to a year for new cars.

More than 8000 new vehicles are stuck at two ports in NSW and Victoria after being flagged for contamination, with the movement of dirty cars into Australia creating an explosion in risks for the nation’s biosecurity system.

Agriculture Minister Murray Watt says Australia’s biosecurity system is under significant pressure.

Rhett Wyman

Watt warned the movement of cars, people and packages was posing new risks for the nation’s biosecurity system.

It presents a major challenge for Watt’s department, which is already facing severe financial woes because of the soaring costs of delivering services.

Watt said an “explosion in the number of contaminated cars” towards the end of last year had created a significant backlog.

“We obviously can’t let contaminated cars in; it’s a biosecurity risk,” Watt said in an interview laying out the biosecurity threats facing the nation.

He said his department was working with car makers to get additional cleaning facilities up and running, and he hoped they would get on top of the backlog this year.

“Frankly, this problem could stop tomorrow if car makers do their job and make sure that they’re presenting clean items at the borders,” Watt said.

“But in the real world, I’d certainly hope that over this calendar year, we can make some real improvements.”

The number of new cars referred for decontamination soared by 88 per cent over a year, from 17,700 in 2021 to 33,300 in 2022, despite the number of vehicles imported into the country growing by just 17 per cent.

About 5700 new vehicles are sitting at the Port of Melbourne on hold for cleaning due to contamination, while there are 2733 vehicles at Port Kembla in NSW.

Pests found on cars in the past eight months have included exotic snails, the Siam weed and the brown marmorated stink bug, which authorities fear could cripple the nation’s agricultural industry.

There were already supply chain bottlenecks caused by a surge in imported cars and a shortage of parts out of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the fact that tens of thousands of cars are arriving dirty has made the problem worse.

Because of the supply chain issues, Watt said the vehicles were sitting in paddocks and other outdoor areas overseas “picking up all sorts of things”.

Cars coming from China caused the most issues in 2022, with 10,900 of the 148,200 vehicles imported from that country referred for cleaning for contamination, followed by Thailand, Spain and Japan.

Argentina had the greatest percentage of contaminated vehicles, with 2900 of the 4500 cars imported being flagged for cleaning.

The average wait time for a new car was 131 days in February, compared with 30 days in 2019, according to vehicle sale comparison website Price My Car.

Australians are waiting an average of 307 days for a Toyota C-HR, 266 days for a Toyota HiAce and 249 days for a LandCruiser.

Asked whether his department had been caught unprepared, Watt said: “I think all of us have been a little surprised by the sheer number of contaminated vehicles that have started arriving, but I wouldn’t say unprepared.”

Watt said Australia’s biosecurity system was under pressure because of the “explosion in the number of risks that we’re seeing” including climate change-induced factors and the increase in package and parcel movements.

“There’s just so much more material coming through the postal system and parcel system from overseas and that needs to be checked,” he said.

“Governments have a responsibility but risk creators, such as importers, also have a responsibility to do the right thing.”

Victorian Transport Association chief executive Peter Anderson said about 300 cars a day on average were being quarantined at the Port of Melbourne.

He said the biosecurity system worked well under normal circumstances but was now under immense pressure due to manufacturers overseas clearing bottlenecks to catch up with their orders.

Imported cars at the Melbourne International RoRo and Auto Terminal in Port Melbourne.

Joe Armao

“When you get pressure on the system, it starts to break down,” he said.

Anderson said the detection of risky biosecurity material on a single car, including foreign seeds and insects, meant entire batches had to be cleaned and thoroughly checked, adding to the delays.

The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries said an increase in demand for new vehicles coupled with issues in the supply chain and shipping schedules coming out of the pandemic had placed additional stress on deliveries of cars.

“Car makers are aware customers are impacted, which is why all participants – government, port authorities, terminal operators, and car makers – are continuing to work together to move vehicles as quickly as possible while ensuring Australia’s biosecurity borders remain protected,” the peak group for the car industry said.

‘Very serious financial difficulties’

The federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has this year embarked on a raft of cost-cutting measures – including banning staff travel and training and sacking contractors – to avoid falling into the red.

Nationals leader and former agriculture minister David Littleproud said he was “totally surprised” to hear the department was facing hundreds of millions of dollars in cost blowouts, blaming the decision on Labor for de-merging it with the environment department.

But Watt said the department’s financial difficulties had been caused by the former government failing in recent years to pass on the significant increase in the costs of providing services to industries, such as farmers.

Unlike other government departments, the agriculture department depends heavily on the revenue it gets from the services it provides to industry rather than just relying on funding through taxpayers.

While hinting that the May budget may provide some relief to his department, Watt said the government had “some pretty hard conversations to have with industry ahead of us about who should be paying”.

“Getting the department’s very serious financial difficulties under control is obviously a huge priority,” he said.

“The problem we’ve had is that the cost of providing services – biosecurity, export services, a range of others – has kept going up. And the former government wasn’t prepared to pass on some of the costs to industry in the way that has always happened.”

New laws needed to stop building houses in flood zones

Floods in rural Victoria, Melbourne and northern NSW last year had led the states and the Commonwealth to look at new ways of discouraging people from rebuilding houses in floodplains.

A home buyback scheme for up to 2000 home owners was jointly funded by the NSW and federal governments last year for victims of the Northern Rivers floods.

National cabinet has also begun a process to consider new laws to stop houses being built in high-risk floodplains or bushfire zones, which is being led by the NSW government.

Watt said planning and development laws needed to factor in climate and disaster risks.

“It really doesn’t make any sense financially, environmentally, emotionally, for us to keep having developments happen on floodplains,” he said.

“It’s doing taxpayers a disservice. It’s doing home owners a disservice because it’s putting them in harm’s way. So this is one of those issues that’s been in the too-hard basket for a long, long time. And I think it’s a really positive thing that national cabinet captured it.”

Watt said property buybacks were part of the solution, but they were “very expensive”.

“So we want to really focus them [property buybacks] on the highest risk areas,” he said.

“There are other cheaper ways of reducing risk that would work in some areas, such as house raising, retrofitting materials, things like moving expensive kitchen equipment upstairs.”

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