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Equine flu court action will pose crucial questions

August 19, 2009

By Neil Clarkson

Official inquiries into Australia's equine influenza outbreak have been completed and the quarantine service has been given a shakeup. The nation can justifiably stand proud at having overcome this major disease incursion.

Now, the attention turns to the courts. An action has been filed in Queensland's Supreme Court for compensation arising from the 2007 outbreak.

The fight to contain equine flu came at a massive cost. Published estimates range from $A500 million to $A1 billion.

It touched every corner of the equine industry. Imports and exports came to a halt. Movement bans were in place for months. Racing was hammered. Jobs were lost; breeding and sales opportunities disappeared as authorities enforced buffer zones.

Some businesses will have lost millions. For others, it may have come down to an aggrieved daughter unable to attend pony club or compete at local showjumping competitions.

There are tens of thousands of losers and the test case filed in Queensland will determine the liability of Australia's federal government, which is responsible for quarantine services.


Any compensation would be paid by all of Australia's taxpayers - the same ones who paid the many millions for the containment operation. These are the same taxpayers who may be far less willing to come to the industry's aid next time, given its failure, to date, to sign up to the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement, which would allow authorities to levy horse owners for the cost of future responses to disease incursions.
The claim has been brought by the Gold Coast legal firm Attwood Marshall Lawyers on behalf of Wattle Brae Stud at Nobby, on Queensland's Darling Downs.

Wattle Brae argues it has lost more than $A3 million in revenue as a result of flu's introduction to Australia.

There are hundreds of other claims waiting in the wings. There is little doubt that, if the Wattle Brae claim is ultimately successful, thousands more will follow.

And why not? Even the government would admit that the losses suffered by horse owners and businesses are very real.

Any compensation, of course, would be paid by all of Australia's taxpayers - the same ones who paid the many millions for the containment operation.

These are the same taxpayers who may be far less willing to come to the industry's aid next time, given its failure, to date, to sign up to the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement (EADRA), which would allow authorities to levy horse owners for the cost of future responses to disease incursions.

The equine industry is diverse and elements of fairness have been raised over EADRA, but the industry currently operates in a dangerous space until formal agreement is reached with the government.

But there is an uncomfortable element to the whole issue of compensation.

Evidence given to Ian Callinan's inquiry clearly indicates shortcomings in quarantine procedures, which have since been rectified.

But where exactly should the buck stop with this? The federal government, if it ends up paying hundreds of millions in compensation, might well feel it is on a potential hiding to nothing over running a quarantine operation.

Any national quarantine operation would have to come close to being an uninsurable risk.

Even if some mountain-sized premium was payable, who would be crazy enough to take on that risk, knowing that a moment's inattention to the rules by a $12-an-hour stable hand could unleash another infection?

It could be argued that good quarantine is not exactly rocket science. However, the human factor will always mean there will be a risk, however small.

A loss in court may well see federal authorities review the "true cost" of a quarantine service and its worth. Australian taxpayers are likely to ask exactly the same questions.

Horses are moved internationally for mostly commercial reasons. A business owner moves a horse because it is commercially sensible - and presumably profitable - to do so.

Taxpayers may well feel aggrieved at carrying the massive potential cost attached to that quarantine risk.

There is, of course, one great irony arising from the escape of equine flu from the Eastern Creek quarantine station, near Sydney.

Evidence suggests a thoroughbred stallion may have arrived with the virus. The outbreak saw recently arrived northern hemisphere shuttle stallions forced into lockdown at the station.

The very need to move these horses relates to the business model of the thoroughbred industry, which requires live cover of mares.

In days past, the presence of the stallion at the property gave a mare owner some "insurance" that they were getting what they were paying for in terms of his service fee.

In these days of DNA testing and artificial insemination, it's not that hard to argue that the stallion could have stayed at home.

 

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