13 Apr 2010

Australian apple growers vow to fight NZ imports

3:16 pm on 13 April 2010

The Australian pip fruit industry says it will keep fighting New Zealand apple imports because of the fire blight threat, despite a reported defeat over the case in the World Trade Organisation.

Radio New Zealand understands an interim decision by the TWO has taken New Zealand's side in the long-running trade dispute.

The trade dispute has been running since the 1920s when New Zealand apples were first banned from Australia due to the discovery of the tree disease fire blight in the country in 1919.

In 2007, biosecurity Australia agreed to end the 86-year ban, but imposed strict quarantine restrictions.

Apple and Pear Australia general manager Tony Russell says questions remain unanswered about how fire blight is spread, and an outbreak would be devastating to the Australian industry.

Australian growers would only be happy to let New Zealand apples let in if the were treated like nursery stock which spends up to three years in quarantine, he says.

Long process

Pipfruit New Zealand chief executive Peter Beaven says it is likely to be June or July before the TWO panel makes its report public.

After that, he says, there is an appeal process that could take another eight or nine months.

Even if that the ruling in favour of New Zealand was then confirmed, a plan for access would still have to be negotiated with biosecurity Australia, which could take six months or longer.

In all, Mr Beaven says, it could be two years before access was finalised.

Charles Finny, a former trade negotiator and now the chief executive of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce, says he expects it to take about two years for access to be allowed even if the process goes smoothly.

TWO case

The New Zealand Government took a case to the TWO, saying the restrictions amounted to a trade barrier. In July last year, the disputes panel considered submissions from New Zealand and Australia.

The Government confirmed on Monday that it has received the WTO's interim report on the multimillion-dollar trade block, but will not say what is in it.

However, the Government says it is satisfied that the panel understood New Zealand's arguments and is looking forward to the full report, expected to be issued later this year.

The Australian government said on Monday it cannot comment on whether it has received the interim report.

Labour leader Phil Goff, who was was Trade Minister when the TWO complaint was was lodged, says Australia's position has been based on protectionism, not science.

He says New Zealand has made progress after a long battle, but predicts Australia will continue fighting to keep out New Zealand apples.

Mr Goff says New Zealand will eventually win and it will be a victory for both growers and the Australian consumer.