Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment

IMG_1963.JPGMr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (18:37): It is a great pleasure to follow the member for Murray in her intelligent and mostly balanced contribution in this debate on the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Removing Re-approval and Re-registration) Bill 2014. I am a member who represents a regional electorate, and I can inform the member for Murray that there are many on this side of the House who know full well what life looks like beyond the rail tracks, as we call them in New South Wales.

I have found common cause with many of the observations she made, particularly where she was talking about the importance of the reputation that Australian agricultural produce enjoys, deservedly, in my submission, for being of the highest quality and free from infection and contamination by toxins. This, and this area of policy, is where economic policy intersects with public health concerns, because this is a reputation that we must maintain and it is also a reputation that must be supported by the facts. So the test of the legislation and public policy in this area is, quite simply: how do we ensure that we can have the highest level and the highest protection for consumers without damaging the important economic viability of the farms and other organisations who rely on these industrial chemicals?

Some background to the legislation: in 2008 the Productivity Commission undertook research into the arrangements for the regulation of chemicals and plastics in Australia. The Productivity Commission took a broad view around the whole industry and economy, encompassing regulations, productivity and competitiveness within the chemicals industry. Public health, environmental and workplace safety and health issues were all considered, as were impacts on our national security.

The Productivity Commission highlighted a number of issues with the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority—the APMVA—and suggested that it would benefit from tighter assessment processes. The Productivity Commission highlighted that many chemicals in use had never been subjected to modern testing. In fact, the majority of existing chemicals had been grandfathered onto its approval list, now managed by the APMVA and the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessments Schedule, fondly known as the NICNAS.

It is worth pausing to consider that, because previous speakers have made the point that most chemicals in Australia—the vast majority, in fact—have never been subjected to modern testing. What does that mean? The member for Hunter said in his contribution that there are about 11,000—in fact, the number is 11,700—agvet chemicals in active use in Australia. Of that number around 8,350 are agricultural chemicals, with 2,230 of those agricultural chemicals containing active constituents. The vast majority of these have not been subject to modern assessment. So whilst the relevant agencies have authority to test any chemical based on health or environmental fears, there has not been any systematic approach to this previously.

After the 2010 election, the Labor government undertook significant reform based on the report of the Productivity Commission. An ad hoc review process would remain in place, and any stakeholder could nominate a chemical for safety review: the industry itself, the regulator acting on its own accord or any individual only need raise concern with the regulator to trigger a review. Labor's reform provided a greater level of assurance that existing chemicals and products do not pose undue risk to human health or the environment.

Further to this, and because of the improved regulatory framework put in place under Labor, public confidence is boosted in the regulators. Indeed, confidence in government to fulfil its duty to protect and serve our people and environment is also strengthened. And it is worth observing that when something goes wrong—when a product is contaminated—public attention turns inevitably to government and says, 'Where was the regulator? They should have been on the job—where was the regulator?' It falls to government to ensure that the right standards are put in place; that it does not throttle industry but ensures appropriate safety standards are in place.

Let's talk about the new reforms. The government seeks to give us assurances that the bill on which I have risen to speak will not weaken the environmental or human health protections. But I do note that the government's bill is actually removing the provisions in Labor's reforms that would mandate chemicals being reapproved, thereby subjecting them to modern testing. Remember, Mr Deputy Speaker Broadbent, I have already said that well over 11,000 of these chemicals are in use and that the vast majority of them have never been tested before.

Some may say, and in fact they have argued, that there have been farmers who have been using these chemicals for over 40, 50 or 60 years, and there is some force in that argument. But they have been building houses out of asbestos in the area that I come from for 20, 30 or 40 years as well, and that was supposed to be—if you will pardon the pun, Mr Deputy Speaker—as 'safe as houses'. We now know that it was not, and that an appropriate regulation should have been put in place back then.

So we do have some reservations. The government's bill removes Labor's registration of chemicals requirement, which is based on a chemical's risk profile, that it would be mandated every seven to 15 years. The bill before as will mean that higher-risk chemicals would no longer be required to be retested every seven years and chemicals with a lower-risk profile every 15 years.

The purpose of the reform when it was introduced by Labor was to ensure that never again would we look at our register of chemicals and ask ourselves, 'Well, which of these have been subject to the relevant, up-to-date modern tests? Which are safe to use and which are not?' We would know; we would have confidence that every chemical in use in Australia has been assessed based on the most recent and relevant knowledge.

So I do have some reservations with the bill, that by removing these requirements we are in fact removing the guardrail, the protections that we expect a government to deliver. I am probably not alone in that because I read in some detail the explanatory memorandum which was prepared by the Hon. Barnaby Joyce, the responsible minister. Presumably he did author this explanatory memorandum and he says at page 2, under the heading 'Addressing concerns with chemical product quality':

Removing re-registration removes an opportunity for the APVMA to confirm that chemical products supplied to the market are the same as the product evaluated and registered by the APVMA. This can be addressed in part by improving the ability of the APVMA to require a person who supplies an agvet chemical product in Australia to provide information (for example, a chemical analysis) about the product they are supplying.

So you can see within the explanatory memorandum to this bill itself that it is hardly an ironclad guarantee. You may well argue that nobody can give an ironclad guarantee in these matters, but it is hardly the sort of statement that gives us absolute faith and confidence that the new regulations are going to put in place the sorts of protections that we require. You would expect in an explanatory memorandum prepared by the government itself that the government would be proposing, or have included, a form of words that gave us much more confidence about the system that it is recommending before the House. So we have reservations.

We will not take an obstructionist approach. I know members opposite have talked a lot about the importance of removing red tape, but I say to them that it is important, particularly when it comes to industrial health and safety and the regulation of chemicals, that you get the difference between red tape and a guardrail. And the provisions in legislation such as this take on more the character of a guardrail than of red tape. So we do have a well-founded reservations. We have said we will not oppose the legislation in this place, but there is a body within the parliament that has gained some expertise in these matters, having conducted inquiries into previous amendment bills to the same substantive legislation. We will look with interest as the matter is referred by the other place to the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee and we will look with great interest on the findings of that committee. I can foreshadow here that members in this place will take very, very seriously any of the recommendations that that committee makes because we are concerned that, far from just removing red tape, the passage of this legislation may, in the haste to remove red tape, have taken out the guardrail as well.