National's border patrol lottery: biosecurity at risk

Biosecurity New Zealand is cutting the number of staff who protect us from pests and drug smugglers. It makes a lie out of National's 'money to the frontline' promises and is creating some unusual political bedfellows

Just last month an observant container repairer and biosecurity officers Jeff O'Neil and Owen Aspden rescued New Zealand from potential disaster. You won't know their names; theirs is a workaday heroism. But they did more for our economy that August day than many self-proclaimed business titans do in a year.

A container loaded in Singapore arrived on the vessel Maersk Dunafaire, one of around 1100 that enter our ports every day. The repairman reported some buzzing and O'Neil and Aspden investigated, only to find a 750gm hive, some honey and a gang of Apis florae, the red dwarf honey bee, a native of Thailand. The bees were contained and fumigated, and thanks goodness for our economy and our environment. Pests like this can have a devastating effect on this country.

As the August edition of the newsletter, Port News, says:

"This would be one of the most important interceptions we have had to date with the countries [sic] reliance on the bee industry for honey production and pollination and the potential for live bees and honey to introduce bee diseases and parasites, a job well done by the MAF biosecurity officers involved."

Well done indeed. Those officers are our frontline against pests, drugs and anything else that might contaminate the economy and way of life in our island nation. And contrary to National's election promises to focus funding on "frontline staff", cost-cutting pressure from the government means that Biosecurity New Zealand is about to reduce its staff numbers by 54. That's nearly 10 percent of its 600 quarantine staff in what even Biosecurity New Zealand calls its "frontline quarantine inspectorate". Perhaps that means O'Neil and Aspden losing their jobs, perhaps one of their mates being laid off. And perhaps next time no-one's there to notice the bees.

While the organisation last week stepped back from its initial decision to cut staff from regional centres such as Whangarei and Timaru, it's decision to go ahead with lay-offs is hardly a move designed to make us feel safer. And it must raise the question whether it's in line with the country's Biosecurity strategy and it commitment to keep us safe from "damaging pests and diseases".

Funny really that just last week the Prime Minister was announcing the referendum on MMP, saying New Zealanders wanted to kick the tyres on the electoral system. "I think it's important that I honour that election pledge," he said.

Important that he honour that pledge, but not so much the ones to cap and not cut the public sector and to not cut frontline services? Why keep that promise, but ignore others?

As it is, just nine percent of the loaded containers entering New Zealand each day are checked. The remaining 91 percent? Like the bearded figure on the government's 'intersection' road safety ads, we're spinning the wheel and taking our chances.

Federated Farmers is hopping mad. According to its estimates, 250 containers a day enter the country with "the potential to bring an unwanted exotic pest or disease into New Zealand. This places agriculture, horticulture and forestry under severe threat, with the potential to destroy the country's economy". Remember the Thai bees. And, for that matter, the painted apple moth, the red imported fire ants, the southern salt marsh mosquito, varroa, the flour beetle... all have got into New Zealand in recent years. But heck, she'll be right, won't she, Mr English? Cut a million now even if it costs us $100 million later.

It's not just pests sneaking in past our withering border patrols. Drug smuggling is also on the rise. As Brian Rudman wrote recently in the New Zealand Herald, customs estimates that crime syndicates smuggle up to 15 million pseudoephedrine pills – the precursor to P – into the country each year. Rudman wrote:

The Pharmacy Guild says Customs will intercept at least 1000 kilograms of a precursor known as Contact NT this year - 10-20 per cent of that being imported.

That's where the Government should be channelling its resources. Show the shipping companies and the importers and the Chinese authorities we mean business by opening every container from a suspect port.

Nice idea, Brian. Only the government isn't channelling its resources towards tighter security, it's cutting resources. If we can only inspect nine percent of loaded containers now, with fewer staff the smugglers are only going to be encouraged.

The politics of this are interesting. The Maori Party's relationship with National – at least while it remains cosy-ish – seems to be inspiring smart political players to realise that decades of association with one major party doesn't tie you to that party forever. (It is, after all, one of the many positive outcomes of MMP and another reason that a move to FPP or SMP would be disastrous).

So Federated Farmers pulled on its gumboots and ambled along to the Labour party conference for the first time this week. As Fed. Farmers board member Lachlan McKenzie told delegates, "I hope this is the start of an engagement with Labour as Federated Farmers starts to work with all political parties."

National isn't about to lose the farmer vote in a hurry. Lord knows, if a rural revolution began to boil Federated Farmers president Conor English would simply call up his brother Bill and get National back on track.

But Labour could go a long way by building some bridges with the rural community, eating into National's grip just as the blues have eaten into Labour's vote in south Auckland. Labour, after all, had the $700m Fast Forward Fund all set to go before National pulled the plug. It has built a little good will. It's now starting to talk Fed. Farmers' talk on biosecurity, with Phil Goff warning about the dangers of lax biosecurity just this weekend.

Here's hoping the government heeds the warnings and, for all our sakes, keeps the O'Neils and Aspdens guarding our biosecurity frontlines.