Senator Rice on destruction by quarantine of 230 year-old herbarium


Senator RICE:  I want to ask about the destruction by our quarantine service of an irreplaceable  treasure  trove, the 230-year-old plant specimens that were sent to the Queensland Herbarium by the French national museum of natural history. I want to table the article about it that was in the French newspaper Le Figaro. It includes a photo, which I think gives you a real understanding of the significance of this collection that was destroyed. It was 105 plant species and it was 230 years old. It included six type specimens, which means the very sample of the plant that the description of the plant is based on. How on earth did this occur? Is it usual practice to incinerate high-value heritage plant specimens?

Ms O'Connell : No, Senator, it is not usual practice. I might ask Mr Padovan to talk to the circumstances in this particular case.

ACTING CHAIR: Have you seen the document? Do you know the document?

Mr Padovan : Yes, I am familiar with the document.

ACTING CHAIR: You do know?

Ms O'Connell : I am familiar with it.

Senator RICE:  There have been two articles in the Australian media, but I thought the department may not have had the French article.

ACTING CHAIR: We will let you answer and, when you are finished, we will go to a break.

Mr Padovan : To perhaps recap on the event, the consignment arrived on 4 January in Australia in an unmarked parcel with a declared value of $2. Keep in mind that we have around 138 million items per year through the mail channel, of which we look at about 24,000. When that item came through and it was identified as containing organic material, we immediately notified the herbarium, the receiving party, that the material had been provided, was missing the required documentation and that the department had the right, under section 628 of the Biosecurity Act, to forfeit those goods at 30 days if the required information was not provided. That was on 4 January. So it arrived on 4 January and we immediately sent out the notification. We did not receive a reply within 30 days and, whilst there had been some interaction with Queensland Herbarium, we did not receive the required information. What generally happens when items are seized or forfeited is they are put in a facility that we have pending formal biosecurity disposal. Those items, along with a number of other items, were disposed of as part of a routine clearing of that facility, and I think that destruction took place some 76 days after the goods had arrived. That said, it is deeply regrettable.

Senator RICE:  It is massively damaging to our Australian science.

ACTING CHAIR: I am sorry, we will go to the smoko break now.

Proceedings suspended from  15:17 to 15:30 

ACTING CHAIR: Senator Rice in continuation.

Senator RICE : Thank you, Acting Chair. I understand that there is a protocol of not destroying specimens while communication is in process—is that the case?

Mr Padovan : There is certainly no formal protocol that I am aware of around the handling of specimens while communication is in train. What I can say is that, as a result of this incident, we have changed our practices around the destruction of all material that we forfeit. Where we forfeit an item that is of low value—and these were declared as a $2 item—

Senator RICE:  But surely anyone looking at them would not think they were of low value?

Mr Padovan : We confiscate a range of material from a range of sources, so the officer is reliant on the declared value to make that judgement.

Ms O'Connell : On the systemic side, you talked about the treatment of herbarium samples, and we have been working with those organisations to come up with a better way of managing the transmission of those samples for the future. So I might ask Dr Healy to speak to what we have been doing there, if you would like us to do that.

Senator RICE:  Yes, because I understand that this was not the first instance; that there were samples from New Zealand that had also been destroyed—lichen samples—and that now both New Zealand and France have banned sending any further samples to Australia.

Ms O'Connell : The New Zealand one we can take and tell you about, but I think there were mistakes on all fronts here: mistakes by the sending organisation and the recipient organisation and mistakes by us. Ours was the most unrecoverable one, but mistakes by all three have led to this awful eventuality, and we want to make sure it does not happen again. That is the work that Dr Healy has been dealing with.

Dr Healy : Our part in this process is to issue import permits for particular products, and in this particular case we have also been having discussions with the representatives from the various herbaria around the country. As Ms O'Connell said, there are clearly some misunderstandings and some various matters where the system can be improved both on the behalf of the herbaria as well as on the behalf of the department, so we have been talking with the representatives from the herbaria about communications, about the clarity of the import conditions in our online system, BICON—mechanisms of communicating with the department so that the department is well aware of valuable samples as they come into the country. This will be an ongoing process over the next little while.

Senator RICE:  Can you guarantee that this type of instance is never going to happen again?

Dr Healy : There are, of course, a large number of items that come through the system—I think in the order of 138 million mail items—so it is really important that the various herbaria around the world, as well as our local authorities, understand what the process is, and it is equally important that the department is well aware of the valuable nature of these specimens.

Senator RICE:  Is there going to be any action taken to recompense, or make up for, the irreplaceable loss of these specimens?

Ms O'Connell : We agree it is an irreplaceable loss; we do.

Senator RICE:  So is there any recompense, or is it just, 'Oh dear! How unfortunate that it happened'? That, I think, is appalling.

Senator Ruston:  Senator Rice, am I detecting from the tone of your responses that you are suggesting it is entirely the fault of Australia or should the responsibility be shared between those who sent the sample and the manner in which it was sent?

Senator RICE:  There was clearly fault on all sides but, as Ms O'Connell said, it was irreplaceable. It was the fact that the samples were actually destroyed by our quarantine service that ends up being the most significant fault. You can say that, yes, the French senders of it should not have said it was only worth $2 and you can say that the Queensland Herbarium should have been more vigilant in tracking down their samples, but it was not as irretrievable as the action that the quarantine service took.

Senator Ruston:  Hindsight is a wonderful thing, Senator Rice.

Mr Quinlivan : I think the important thing is to make sure that it does not happen again. As you have correctly said, this was an irreplaceable thing, so there is nothing to be done to retrieve the situation. But it is very important that it never happens again.

Ms O'Connell : That is the work that Dr Healy outlined, to make sure that everybody who has got a part to play in this—the sender, the intended recipient and us—make sure that this does not happen again. We cannot guarantee that things will not be sent incorrectly. We cannot guarantee all the other aspects that went wrong; they are outside our remit to manage. But we are taking the lead to try to make sure that everybody understands what needs to be done, how it can be done and how these things can be transmitted safely so that this does not happen again.

Senator RICE:  Are you undertaking further training? What work is being undertaken at quarantine's end?

Ms O'Connell : The first step is to work on how it is being sent—work with various herbarium managers. I will ask Dr Healy to speak to that first.

Dr Healy : Again, it is very important that the managers of the various herbaria seek an import permit and use the import permit. The reason for asking that an import permit process is utilised is so we can look at the species that are being sent, to determine whether there is likely to be any biosecurity risk, and, if there is, how that might be dealt with. The first step is that the assessment of the samples is undertaken and an appropriate import permit is issued. From the perspective of the department, it is very important that the import conditions are clear on our web based tool for setting out the import conditions. One of the issues that we have been talking to the representatives from the herbaria about is the clarity of those conditions. This is a relatively new tool and we do need all those involved in the biosecurity system to be using it. Another mechanism that we are talking to the herbaria about is having a dedicated contact within the department so that there is someone who is aware of the movement of the various specimens both in and out of Australia. There are a range of measures that are being discussed. 

The packaging is very important. At different times over the last decade there has been discussion around how to clearly identify valuable samples of this nature, and sometimes fluorescent stickers and so forth have been discussed and have been utilised. We are discussing issues of that nature and remedies of that nature with the representatives.

Senator RICE:  It sounds like they are all good things and probably, having put them into place, you will have a situation where 99 per cent of samples will be sent in a more identifiable manner, properly labelled et cetera. But what I hear is that, if you had another sample like this that came in, you could not guarantee that it would not be destroyed. 

Mr Padovan : There is the work at the front end in engaging with the herbarium community in how that process might work better. Since we put the revised procedures in place, if something were to arrive tomorrow that did not have the proper permit, was not properly labelled or was listed as having no value—as was the case with the New Zealand consignment—the processes we have now would seek to prevent the destruction of those without going through quite a number of checks and balances.

Senator RICE:  Can you talk me through those checks and balances?

Mr Padovan : The revised process that we have put in place means that when the forfeited goods are placed in the room where we hold forfeited goods pending destruction they will be clearly identified as awaiting further correspondence. There will be certain requirements placed around those that then need to be signed off at a senior level before anything is done to those goods.

Senator RICE:  So if something were awaiting further correspondence it would not be destroyed unless it were signed off at the senior level?

Mr Padovan : Under the new processes that is correct.

Senator RICE:  In the media coverage of this there was a comment made that most of the herbaria actually have quarantine status. How does that interplay with the processes that you undertake?

Dr Healy : It is possible for the herbaria themselves to be recognised as approved arrangements, which means that the herbarium enters into a formal arrangement with the department and undertakes to conduct certain biosecurity actions that have been agreed with the department. That presents another option for the various museums and the herbaria.

Senator RICE:  Has the department apologised to the French government?

Dr Healy : I understand there is a meeting in Paris on 28 May—

Ms Ransom : It is 29 May.

Dr Healy : On 29 May between the Australian Embassy and the French authorities.

Senator RICE:  And is there an intention to apologise for the destruction? At the end of the day it was our government that burnt these samples. Despite everything that went on, that was what happened and it has caused huge damage to the science here in Australia.

Ms O'Connell : We acknowledge our mistakes in this—we do. The mistakes, though, were on three different levels and there were gaps in all three areas. We acknowledge our error in the destruction of the samples. We also acknowledge that the samples should not have arrived in that manner, and so had to be dealt with in that way. I think that is important.

Senator McCARTHY:  The question the senator is asking is around the French relationship with Australia. We hear that you have acknowledged the apology, but have you apologised?

Ms O'Connell : There is a meeting with our embassy officials and the French—

Senator McCARTHY:  That was not question—

Ms O'Connell : that was going to be last week, I think. It was moved. I cannot say what is going to happen in the meeting that is happening next week.

Senator RICE:  So, no apology as yet? But you are hoping that once that meeting occurs there will be an apology? Is that what—

Ms O'Connell : That meeting and discussion need to occur. That is part of the process.

Senator RICE:  And is there any other action that you are planning on taking to repair the damage that has been done to the relationship between the French scientific community and the Australian scientific community?

Dr Healy : What the next steps might be will depend a little on the outcomes of the meeting that we hold in Paris on the 29th.

Ms O'Connell : I think, too, that the important thing here—which I think that everybody involved in this wants to happen—is that this circumstance does not happen again: that when samples of such importance are sent they are sent so they can be received safely and they are dealt with properly. That is fundamentally important—including for us. I am not excluding us.

Senator RICE:  Yes, and so they do not get destroyed when things have not been done according to the ways that they should be done.

Ms O'Connell : Yes.

Senator BACK:  One would assume there will be an apology on both sides, if there is going to be an apology. If an Australian entity sent a product of this nature to France, identified it as having a value of $2 and described it as it was described coming in here, given the fact that France does not have anywhere near the biosecurity risk status that Australia has I venture the opinion—having done some business with the French—that they would not be all that anxious to apologise to us.

Senator RICE:  The question is: would they have destroyed those samples? We do not know—it is hypothetical.

Senator BACK:  It is, and that is the point I am getting at. If there is no more on that I will get on to peanuts, if I can.