Chapter 4 Audit Report No.46 2011–12 Administration of the Northern
Australia Quarantine Strategy
Australia is presently free of many pests and diseases that have had major
economic and environmental consequences for other countries. This favourable
biosecurity status is particularly important to Australia’s $32 billion
agricultural export industry. However, Australia’s expansive northern coastline
and its proximity to neighbouring countries, such as Papua New Guinea
and Indonesia, make it vulnerable to exotic pests, weeds and diseases that
can be carried by migrating birds, human activities and wind currents to the
In 1989, the Northern Australia Quarantine Strategy (NAQS) program was
established within the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF)
to respond to the unique biosecurity risks that face Australia’s
northern region. NAQS aims to facilitate the early detection of pests,
weeds and diseases across northern Australia, covering approximately 10 000
kilometres of coastline from Broome, Western Australia to Cairns,
Queensland, including the islands of the Torres Strait.
Consistent with DAFF’s risk‐based
approach to managing the biosecurity continuum, the NAQS program is implemented
- scientific surveillance
activities designed to detect early signs of exotic pests, weeds and diseases;
- Torres Strait border
operations aimed at reducing the risk of quarantine risk material entering the
Torres Strait and mainland Australia from Papua New Guinea; and
- public awareness
activities aimed at encouraging the public to report sightings of exotic pests,
weeds and diseases and to comply with quarantine restrictions that apply to
Torres Strait border movements.
The ANAO Audit
Audit objective and scope
The objective of the audit was to assess the effectiveness of DAFF’s
administration of NAQS. The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) examined
whether the department had established effective:
- administrative and
governance arrangements to support NAQS;
- processes for
identifying biosecurity risks and conducting scientific activities to address
- arrangements for
managing the quarantine aspects of Torres Strait border movements; and
- public awareness
activities that reflect identified biosecurity risks and support the program’s
The audit did not examine DAFF’s arrangements for managing the response
to biosecurity emergencies when exotic pests, weeds and diseases are detected.
Overall audit conclusion
In 2011–12, NAQS was delivered by approximately 68 officers, located at
21 locations across the NAQS zone. Since mid‐2009,
NAQS has reported 33 detections, including 17 targeted exotic pests
and diseases, to state, territory and Australian Government biosecurity stakeholders.
NAQS is a mature program that is widely recognised as playing an
important role in Australia’s national biosecurity system by assisting to safeguard
Australia’s animal and plant health status.
In general, the audit found that DAFF has implemented effective
arrangements to administer the NAQS program in line with the
approach to biosecurity. These arrangements support the delivery of the program’s
diverse scientific and border operations activities. Systems and processes
have been established to identify and review biosecurity risks and to target
the delivery of animal and plant health scientific surveys. The department also
has arrangements in place to manage the quarantine aspects of Torres Strait
border movements, which focus on maintaining an ongoing presence in the Torres
Strait, informing stakeholders of their quarantine responsibilities and
undertaking inspections to limit the movement of quarantine risk material. In
recent years, the department has formalised and more clearly articulated the program’s
public awareness strategies to reflect biosecurity risks and strengthened its
relationships with key stakeholders, particularly Indigenous communities.
Underpinning these arrangements is a sound governance framework.
The ANAO found, however, that there were aspects of the program that
could be improved to better inform management decision‐making and to enable the department to demonstrate
the achievements of the NAQS program. These include: better managing scientific
data; improving the integrity of border operations data; and further
strengthening the department’s arrangements for measuring and reporting NAQS
The ANAO made three recommendations, each of which were agreed to by
Table 4.1 ANAO recommendations, Audit Report No.46 2011–12
To improve the
effectiveness of scientific surveillance activity, particularly in relation
to the plant science disciplines, the ANAO recommends that the Department of
Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry strengthen existing arrangements for
recording, monitoring and reporting survey and diagnostic data.
DAFF response: Agreed.
To provide meaningful data
to inform border management decisions and measure performance, the ANAO
recommends that the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry:
improve quality assurance processes to help ensure that border
operations data are accurate and complete; and
analyse border operations data to calculate inspection and
seizure rates to establish baselines for each Torres Strait island pathway.
DAFF response: Agreed.
To inform management
decisions and improve accountability, the ANAO recommends that the Department
of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry:
articulate a clear objective for NAQS;
build on current work to develop performance measures that
assess the extent to which NAQS is achieving this objective; and
collect and analyse relevant and accurate performance data.
DAFF response: Agreed.
The Committee’s review
The Committee held a public hearing on 10 October 2012 with representatives
from the following organisations:
- The Australian
National Audit Office
- The Department of
Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.
The Committee took evidence on the following issues:
- DAFF’s risk
- Data management and information
technology support for NAQS
- Seizure rates
- Community engagement
- Future challenges.
DAFF’s risk management framework
Identifying and evaluating biosecurity risks is a key priority of the
NAQS program. The program has established a risk framework that includes:
target lists of known exotic pests, weeds and diseases; and risk area ratings
of the NAQS zone. This framework is then used to guide the planning and
delivery of surveillance efforts.
The NAQS zone is divided into risk areas, which are each given a
relative risk rating for animal and plant health, and are surveyed at the
- ‘high’ risk rating areas
are surveyed at least annually;
- ‘medium’ risk rating areas
are surveyed every two to three years;
- ‘low’ risk rating
areas are surveyed every three to five years; and
- ‘very low’ risk
rating areas are surveyed once every five years.
At its appearance before the Committee, DAFF outlined the evolution from
‘mandatory intervention’ to the current risk based method that governs DAFF’s
approach to quarantine. DAFF noted that, in the early part of the 2000s, over
80 per cent of bags processed through airports were assessed, and that most of
the time, there was a low rate of detection of quarantine material.
The approach now taken by DAFF is based on using data to determine areas
of greatest risk, and targeting the higher risk areas. DAFF identified
improvements in data collection and data analysis as being key to improving
Data management and information technology support for NAQS
A significant component of NAQS scientific work is directed at the
identification and diagnosis of samples collected through field surveys.
The scientific data collected by NAQS officers are manually entered into
the NAQS Database using data entry templates for each sample collected. Survey
data is required to be entered into the NAQS Database within three months of
During the audit, DAFF advised the ANAO that the current database
presented constraints to improving data management and analytical capability.
These constraints included:
- the inability to set
up alerts for overdue tasks;
- slow network speeds;
- lack of capacity to
spatially map the coverage of survey work; and
- data corruption.
To address these information technology (IT) constraints, DAFF advised the
ANAO that work was underway to migrate to a new data sharing system known as
BioSIRT—a software package jointly designed by federal, state and territory
biosecurity agencies to manage biosecurity data. The ANAO reported that DAFF
was developing a data migration plan and a series of templates to log data, but
that there was no set date for the migration of NAQS data to BioSIRT.
At the public hearing, the Committee discussed the information
technology platform that supported NAQS, noting the importance of reliable,
up-to-date data to DAFF’s risk based approach to assessing biosecurity threats.
DAFF advised the Committee that the planned IT updates to support NAQS
were related to broader updates within the department, and that ‘the overall
full implementation will be some years away’.
The audit found that while DAFF collated data on arrivals in Australia,
the department did not use this information to calculate inspection and seizure
rates. The ANAO suggested that this additional analysis would enable DAFF to
establish baselines and monitor trends and border management performance over
At the hearing, the Committee expressed concern that DAFF was still not calculating
figures to determine what percentage of inspections resulted in the seizure of
quarantine material—data that would assist in assessing risk. DAFF explained that
no data on seizures was collected during the period of ‘mandatory intervention’
described above, as under that approach all movements were stopped and checked.
Accordingly, during that time there was no need to calculate seizure data to
Further, DAFF reported that there was an older ‘interceptions database’
that detailed interceptions of quarantine material, but that it was ‘clunky’
and not easily accessible for users. To keep it updated, officers would have to
double-enter data into the regular databases, and also into the interceptions
The Committee was advised that while there were quality assurance
systems in place to ensure that databases were reliable, these systems were still
dependent on data being appropriately handled:
… we do have various checks associated with inspection and
seizure data that is collected, but, because they are in the main reliant on
manual collection—use of spreadsheets, handing on data from our remote based
officers to our central offices where the data is collated—the ANAO have
rightly identified some areas where there are some improvements that can be
made in that transfer of data.
DAFF indicated that improvements to its IT systems would, when coupled
with the implementation of better quality assurance measures, provide more
information for the risk management framework and more easily enable the
calculation of statistics like seizure rates. However, the Committee was
advised that full implementation of the ANAO’s recommendations would take some
years, and was dependent on the
implementation of IT changes as part of the department’s broader strategy for
DAFF noted that while IT changes would take time, its business strategy
was already taking into account the recommendations of the ANAO, with a view to
ensuring the strategy would integrate with new IT systems when they were
… the investments that we are making in IT at the moment are
to get stability and access so that we can actually build the tools into that,
rather than build tools that no-one can use. The strategy for these guys at the
moment will be to enhance the manual work as we move towards more reliable and
One of the unique features of NAQS is the involvement of members of the
community in Northern Australia in assisting NAQS officers by reporting
unorthodox movements and potential plant threats. The Committee was advised
that DAFF used this information to prepare risk based surveillance operations.
NAQS has also engaged Indigenous ranger groups under contractual and
fee-for-service arrangements to assist in public awareness, plant host mapping,
bat colony mapping, and marine debris surveillance.
DAFF informed the Committee that the local land knowledge of community
groups was a valuable resource in identifying potential threats, and that the
provision of species and weed identification training enabled these groups to
provide even more useful assistance to NAQS officers.
DAFF also noted the assistance provided by contracted community groups,
and described the relationship between these groups and NAQS officers:
The people in the community groups that we contract with are
trained. They use PDAs [personal digital assistants] or other data input tools
in survey and management work to provide us with data. We have officers who go
out to the community groups on a regular basis with the activity plan for the
surveys and activities that need to be done. These officers also provide
training and sometimes work directly with the community groups where they are
doing the work.
The Committee asked DAFF to identify the biggest challenges in relation
to biosecurity and quarantine issues in the Northern Territory.
In respect to operational challenges, DAFF indicated that:
… the challenges will remain the surveillance work, keeping
our eye on the new things that are emerging offshore that present a risk onshore
and continuing to respect the traditional movements in the Torres Strait and
making sure we do not try to regulate those in a way that is not respectful of
the traditional zones.
DAFF also highlighted the ongoing budgetary challenges of managing the
strategy in remote areas:
The CPI [Consumer Price Index] increases you normally get in
things are pretty tough to manage in the north when getting aviation fuel,
getting access to helicopters and getting access to barges to move fuel when
you are doing major surveillance activity. It is not just the price; it is the
availability of infrastructure. These are normal challenges for any department
but they are exacerbated when you are looking at the sort of zone we work in.
In terms of specific threats to Northern Australia, DAFF identified the
following high-priority disease risks which were regularly monitored for by the
- Avian influenza and ‘swine
- Plant diseases
Asked whether it had adequate resources to respond to problems that are
detected, DAFF noted that states and territories were responsible for
responding to threats onshore under cost-sharing arrangements. It added that
whether there were enough resources would ‘depend on the nature of the
incursion or the finding’, with some threats, such as myrtle rust, being
‘impossible technically to eradicate’.
DAFF further indicated that severe animal disease posed the biggest risk
in Northern Australia, and advised that ‘our ability as a country to resource
eradication will always be a difficult task, and it is not just the money; it
is the size.’
The Committee notes the ANAO’s findings that the governance arrangements
that support the NAQS program ‘provide a sound framework to guide the
implementation of the program.’ Given insufficient
governance arrangements are one of the most commonly identified areas for
improvement by the ANAO, the Committee is heartened by the audit’s positive
findings on DAFF’s management of NAQS.
Risk management and seizure rates
The Committee notes the change in approach to quarantine that has taken
place over the last decade from ‘mandatory intervention’ to a risk based
approach. Risk based approaches ensure that resources can be directed to areas
of most need, and this appears to be the best way to monitor movements of goods
and people across Northern Australia.
However, the Committee also considers the importance of accurate,
well-maintained data to properly guide a risk based approach, and encourages
DAFF to ensure its databases are as accurate as possible—given the
comparatively antiquated databases currently being utilised.
It was of some concern to the Committee that DAFF was not using the
existing interceptions database to calculate at least approximate seizure rates.
This statistic was not collected and used to establish baselines and monitor
trends and border management performance over time. Having access to these
figures and trends would help to inform DAFF officers when assessing risks, and
accordingly, the Committee recommends:
That, using information currently available, the Department
of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry calculate and maintain inspection and
seizure rates of quarantine material for areas covered by the Northern
Australia Quarantine Strategy zone, and use this information to inform
management decisions regarding border operations.
It is clear that information technology provides an extremely important
support to NAQS. It enables data logged by NAQS officers to be analysed by DAFF
officials to detect potential threats and identify trends, informing the
department’s risk-based approach to quarantine management.
Accordingly, the Committee welcomed the advice that funding was available
for enhancing DAFF’s IT capacity to provide more reliable systems for logging
NAQS data and allowing for analysis over time. Given the NAQS program is
supported by an older database, and in some cases spreadsheets, a new IT system
will be worthwhile development to further enhance the NAQS program.
The Committee was also pleased to hear that the new BioSIRT database has
been established in conjunction with state and territory biosecurity agencies. However,
the Committee notes the potential for a database for all federal, state and territory
biosecurity agencies to not meet some of the individual needs of each party,
and encourages the department to ensure that all of the requirements of staff
working on the NAQS program are met during the continuing development of the system.
The Committee would like to ensure that DAFF takes on board all of the
observations made by the ANAO concerning deficiencies in NAQS databases, and
That the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry
ensure that support for Northern Australia Quarantine Strategy activities is
a high priority during the continuing development of the BioSIRT database in
order to address the deficiencies identified by the Australian National Audit
Office and in the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit’s review.
The Committee was somewhat concerned to hear that IT support for the
NAQS program is dependent on a broader IT reform program in DAFF, which may
delay improvements, but understands the efficiencies that DAFF will achieve by this
The Committee was pleased to hear about the level of involvement of
members of local communities across the NAQS zone. The Committee welcomes the
ANAO finding that NAQS community engagement:
- was supported by a
- embraced public
- involved an ongoing
presence in Indigenous communities with twice-yearly visits; and
- was moving towards
targeting interactions with the community using a risk based approach.
The Committee acknowledges the future challenges faced in the management
of NAQS, and believes that with appropriate support from the department and
implementation of the ANAO and JCPAA recommendations, NAQS will continue to
appropriately manage threats to Australia’s biosecurity.