May 26, 2008

What will the outbreak of equine influenza in Australia ultimately cost the Australian taxpayer?

Documents released with the recent Australian Budget have not seen federal officials put any figure on possible compensation claims, but they acknowledge any compo could have some impact on the balancing of the Commonwealth's books this year.

The possibility of flu compensation to industry players affected by the outbreak, which began last August, is listed under a Statement of Risks attached to the Budget. The size of any possible compensation through equine flu claims is listed as "unquantifiable".

"The Australian Government may become liable for compensation actions should the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry be found negligent in relation to the recent outbreak of Equine Influenza (EI).

"At this stage any potential liability resulting from the EI outbreak cannot be quantified," the document said.

Budget documents also pointed to a $97.2 million spend in the last financial year in combating the outbreak, with Australia now declared provisionally free of the highly contagious disease.

On top of that, the government has spent about $250m on assistance programmes for those whose livelihoods were affected by the outbreak.

The horse industry is Australia is eagerly awaiting the release of the report into the equine flu inquiry conducted by former judge Ian Callinan.

The completed report was handed to the government on April 23 but it has yet to be publicly released.

The report is understood to containing recommendations for wide-reaching changes in the area of quarantine and biosecurity, and the government is understood to be preparing its response to the report for simultaneous release.

Many industry followers had expected the report to be released by now.

Few believe Australia's federal quarantine service will escape harsh criticism in the report, with the degree of blame attached to the service likely to have a strong bearing on the size of compensation claims.

Counsel assisting the inquiry, Tony Meagher, in his final submissions to the inquiry, urged Mr Callinan to find that the virus escaped from Eastern Creek quarantine centre due to inadequate attention to disinfection by someone who had contact with the quarantined animals.

Meagher pointed to what he considered a number of shortcomings in quarantine procedures and processes in his wide-ranging 191-page submission.

If there had been in place "even the most rudimentary biosecurity measure" at the Eastern Creek quarantine station in August last year, it was most unlikely there would have been any escape of equine influenza from quarantine, he argued.

Such measures would have included, at a minimum, people having contact with the horses in the equine enclosure being required to shower and change their clothes before exiting the area, and to leave contaminated clothing and equipment in the quarantine station.