Recent events in Western Australia should have all of us gardeners quaking in our boots. Since the first of July this year a $56 inspection fee will be imposed on home gardeners each and every time they purchase small numbers of certified plants or seeds through mail order suppliers from interstate.
Not only is this situation monumentally unfair and short-sighted but it could also be the face of the future for all of us if we fail to heed the warning signs. Up until now most of us have taken it for granted that we have the right to make reasonable choices about how and with what we can garden as long we don’t stray outside the quarantine laws. We also believe that those from biosecurity viewed this right as legitimate and therefore subject to fair treatment.
In an act of sheer arrogance (and a fair dose of ignorance) the West Australian Department of Food and Agriculture have thrown all that out the window, failing to consult the garden public on its intentions and failing to come up with a cogent answer as why they need to price gouge this group of amateur enthusiasts. Justifications so far range from the plain silly: they want to create a level playing field where both amateurs and businesses are treated equally .. huh?, to those of the motherhood variety: these fees are necessary in order to continue to protect WA’s biosecurity … this is a statement rather than an argument and WA is already a net benefactor with most of the costs already borne by the exporting states with WA adding nothing extra to the importation process. So far criticisms from garden groups, the nursery industry, permaculture practitioners and all manner of complainants have fallen on deaf ears with the only action from the department being to desperately try to find ways to cost shift these fees onto the exporters and the exporting states thereby blunting the local anger over their decision.
This fee slug directly affects more than the gardeners. Its negative effects will be felt throughout the market, pushing prices higher, narrowing the range of plants available, causing the departure of independent specialist nurseries and generally impoverishing the entire trade, which will be increasingly dominated by a few very large players. Not that the department is in the least bit concerned about that. They would appear to want home gardeners completely out of the importation process because having to deal with them distracts effort away from their core business of looking after the agricultural industry and keeping onside with the environmental lobby. So for the Department it’s a simple win-win situation: they will get gardeners to pay or price them out.
If this move succeeds in Western Australia, mark my words the other state biosecurity agencies will look at this with great interest. Our right to garden the way we want to will be under threat and I fear we gardeners just aren’t switched on enough to these issues to mount a defence. So here is a plea to all of you to think beyond your patch, become informed, and be ready to organize if and when the time comes to act. Don’t leave it to others and don’t think it won’t happen because when we hit the fence it will be too late.
If you want to do something about what’s currently happening in Western Australia here are some suggestions for action:
1. Understand the process (read this article, read the material on the public record)
2. Get in touch with like minded-people (Is there a Garden Clubs Association? Or their local garden club, or people or groups who have spoken out on the public record)
3. Write to the Minister and your local member and the shadow minister (their parliamentary addresses can be found on the WA Parliamentary website)
4. When writing letters to politicians stay on message (simply state your reasons, assert your rights and what you would like to see happen and what you intend to do if it doesn’t, i.e. consider voting for the others)
5. Sign any relevant partition or create your own and ask people to sign it. (You can do this at change.org)
For those who are interested in the detailed reasons why the West Australian fees are bad and should be reversed I have set them out below:
Western Australian Fees are Bad for Gardeners and for the State
Massive Price Hike on Gardeners
This fee charge leaps from zero to $56 with immediate effect, with no warning and no gradual introduction. This is massive slug (a 500% increase) on those who have no choice but to use the system. By point of comparison NO other state imposes a similar inspection fee on home gardeners. Even the Federal agency (DAFF),which has the central and far more complex task of defending Australia’s national borders, charges less for the same block of inspection time.
Fails to discriminate between amateur gardeners and professional horticulturists.
This fee applies equally to both amateur gardeners pursuing a hobby and professional horticulturists who are businessman. This is a grossly unfair situation. Professional horticulturists can achieve economies of scale by importing large volumes thus reducing the impact of the fee and they can also claim such costs as a tax deduction. The home gardener (whose purchases in most cases would not even exceed $56) can do neither and is left facing a very disproportionate impact.
Unreasonable Fees Will Undermine Biosecurity
An ‘onside’ gardening public is a powerful force for good in maintaining strong biosecurity. However when fees are perceived as unfair and unreasonable civil disobedience will inevitably follow resulting in increased illegal importations. Such activities will undermine the State’s biosecurity not improve it. This is a perverse and counterproductive outcome for a fee increase that, to quote the department, “is essential to protect Western Australia’s borders”
Most of the hard work has been done already
All plants imported into WA arise either from quality assurance schemes or have passed through quarantine protocols that the State proscribes. These processes were established to achieve efficiencies and high standard biosecurity outcomes. They are paid for by the exporters and the biosecurity agencies in those exporting states. It is therefore staggering that the WA’s Department of Agriculture and Food, which it already greatly benefits from this arrangement, seeks to extract a further massive fee from a system to which it contributes no additional services.
Tax on Gardening is an Attack on Positive Community Values
Gardening is widely regarded as a social good. It is strongly correlated with positive health outcomes, community engagement and pro-environmental behavior. This recent price slug on gardeners is in effect a tax on positive community values and diminishes a powerful force for social good.
Unjustifiable Interference in the Free Market
Massive fee increases inevitably lead to price rises and a reduction in the range of products on offer to the market. Smaller specialists are forced out, consumers are compelled to purchase from a limited range of suppliers and oligopolistic behavior is favoured. In this scenario gardeners and the gardening market in WA are unjustifiably worse off when compared with any other Australian state and this raises the question of undue interference on free trade.
Narrow Focus leads to Poor Outcomes
This recent fee increase is at best, either a fund-raising exercise, or at worst, a “backdoor” deterrent. Whatever it is it appears have little to do with simple cost recovery. Perhaps if the department was more adequately funded then it would be less focused on itself and be more proactive in producing good policy outcomes for all of the stakeholders and not just the chosen few? Perhaps if it actively sought more internal efficiencies it would not have to gouge its clients? For example, what about abandoning the WA approved list, which is extraordinarily inefficient, and opt for the ready-made federally funded system with a locally determined prohibited list (as all the other states do)?
Biosecurity benefits EVERYONE and Gardeners should not be asked to pay a Disproportionate Price
Biosecurity benefits EVERYONE and the gardening community should not be made pay a disproportionate price to continue to pursue their interests. Their activities are miniscule in comparison to other stakeholders, like agribusiness and large-scale horticulture. I have heard that the department is entering into special arrangements with exporters in other states to reduce the impact. This is just another dreadful example of cost shifting onto a group who already pay most of the present costs associated with export to your state. These are bad decisions because they are highly unfair and inequitable. West Australian gardeners and the garden community should not be treated as cash cows. Nor should their right to fair treatment be completely ignored and as such be delegitimized.