House debates

Wednesday, 6 February 2013


Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012; Second Reading

5:27 pm

Photo of Kevin AndrewsKevin Andrews (Menzies, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Families, Housing and Human Services) Share this | Hansard source

The Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012 seeks to mandate the use of low-aromatic Opal fuel in some areas to prevent petrol sniffing in Aboriginal communities. The bill seeks to reduce the potential harm to the health of people living in Aboriginal communities from the social and health problems that come from the sniffing of petrol. The protection of the most vulnerable members of our society is a fundamental responsibility of any government. This is especially true where children in remote Aboriginal communities are severely affected by the scourge of petrol sniffing. Whenever there is a threat to children, government must be ready to intervene and to respond to those threats by stepping in, ready and willing to protect the most vulnerable and at risk in our society.

Petrol sniffing is a serious problem. When people inhale the fumes from fuel they may feel relaxed and euphoric, experiencing hallucinations, disorientation and aggression towards those around them. While the immediate effects may last a matter of hours, the long-term repercussions are much more severe. Significant damage is done to a person's vital organs—the brain, the heart, the lungs, the liver and the kidneys—and immune system. It leads to behavioural and social problems. Many who sniff fuel, unfortunately, end up on the wrong side of the law, committing acts of vandalism, violence, robbery and rape. In fact, there are no good outcomes from the sniffing of fuel.

The problem is not just limited to those people sniffing the fuel. Mothers who sniff fuel while pregnant often have children with birth defects that cause physical and intellectual disabilities. Children who have parents who sniff fuel often lead lives full of misery as their parents cannot provide financially or psychologically for their development. Children who sniff fuel will also face increased risks as their bodies develop.

The coalition believes that something has to be done to help these people, especially the children in these remote Aboriginal communities. The evidence is there. Research has shown that where Opal fuel has been introduced it has been effective in reducing the sniffing by 70 per cent on average, and, where there are no retailers selling regular unleaded petrol in an area, this has increased to an average reduction of 94 per cent.

Most Central Australian fuel retailers in areas prone to sniffing already sell Opal fuel, although there are certain retailers who have refused to stock it. Government must act in order to ensure that the considerable social cost of petrol sniffing is eradicated. But the coalition does not believe that the federal government should do this, where states and territories can be more effective in tackling the problem. The Northern Territory's Volatile Substance Abuse Prevention Act 2005, subject to a minor amendment, could be used to better tackle the problem of petrol sniffing. Under the Northern Territory act, a group of ten or more residents in a locality or community council could seek to prevent supply of a particular substance, including but not limited to petrol, in their locality. The Northern Territory Department of Health and Families would then lead a process that would consider contributions of interested parties and then develop a management plan through which it would be able to specify restrictions on supply and use of unleaded petrol, or other substances that are subject to abuse, at a particular locality.

If we were to see state and territory based legislation that was based on the Northern Territory's Volatile Substance Abuse Prevention Act 2005, we would have a more targeted, flexible and legally robust approach to the sniffing of fuel. We would also empower local communities to take action when they experience a problem, instead of having federal legislation being forced upon them from Canberra. Even the Community Affairs Legislation Committee recommended the bill not proceed, making the following recommendations: the legislation should not rely on the corporations power; the legislation should have defined fuel differently; the ongoing coordination efforts with state and territory governments should continue in order to prevent supply issues with Opal fuel; and Opal production and distribution subsidies should be reviewed.

The Community Affairs Legislation Committee recommended that it would be best to leave the regulation of the sale of regular unleaded petrol to state and territory governments, but this advice seems to have fallen on deaf ears within the government. Time and again we have found ourselves in this situation with the current government. In the years since 2007, after the change in government, residents in the Northern Territory have been faced with many challenges in finding solutions to problems faced by their communities. The tumultuous shift in the direction of the intervention has had a detrimental effect on Territorians, particularly Indigenous Australians. Labor decided to smash the coalition's commitment to doing what was right and what was needed in the Northern Territory: that is to say, the emergency response.

The ideologically motivated pursuit demonstrated by the Labor Party in its various incarnations, firstly with the Rudd government and now the Gillard government, through its opposition to the Northern Territory intervention, caused widespread collateral damage and unwound the good work of the former coalition government. Labor is opposed to promoting measures that will actually help the people concerned.

What we have seen with this bill is a government that does not know where it is going. The government actually opposed this bill up until late last year. At first the minister described these measures as 'a legal minefield,' and questioned how they would be more effective than state and territory based measures to address the sniffing of fuel. The minister even went so far as to say:

… the most effective way of dealing with petrol sniffing is working with communities from the ground up.

Unless the minister has somehow managed to redefine what he means by this, the bill will be a more top-down approach to the issue.

The coalition strongly agrees with the need to stop petrol sniffing. This is why the introduction of the Opal fuel initiative and the petrol sniffing strategy was initiated by the coalition, in 2005.

Unlike the current government, the coalition included other measures to include communities in Central Australia by creating youth diversion programs as well as rehabilitation, policing, communication and education strategies. It is as a direct result of this initiative that Opal fuel is now available at 106 sites across Australia. The coalition believes this particular bill will be ineffective in addressing the issue surrounding the sniffing of fuel. It will create more problems while failing to address the social harm that communities in Central Australia face on a daily basis.

When the Greens first proposed this bill it was based on the Commonwealth's corporations power. This would have meant that any unincorporated entity would not be subject to the legislation. So what does the government do? They amend the legislation to make it more crude, ineffective and unworkable and to enhance the minister's claim of it being a legal minefield. Labor saw that this bill is fundamentally flawed and made a crude attempt to patch it up by striking out references to corporations and replacing them with the term 'individuals'. In doing so they have given up the only constitutional head of power for the bill. Suddenly they were left with no constitutional basis to implement the legislation. So they had to dig hard and deep to find a means to this ineffective end. They invoked the race power to make this bill a special measure under section 8 of the Racial Discrimination Act.

So, Labor suddenly decided it supports this bill. It initially opposed it, strongly opposed it, and now—suddenly—supports it. And no doubt the deal has been done and the Greens are back in charge. The Greens are calling the shots—the caucus that is now clearly leaking and plotting against the Prime Minister. She has reverted to a standard operating procedure. It is all too hard to govern, so defer decision making to the Greens. The question that must now be answered is: what deal did Labor do with the Greens on this bill?

Petrol sniffing will not be stopped by this bill. Labor knows that, even if the Greens do not. That is why they have opposed it for so long, and that is what the Community Affairs Legislation Committee said in its report—a committee that, I note, is dominated by government members. The Greens even acknowledged this in their minority opinion:

This bill introduced by the Australian Greens does not in itself cause anything to take place. It is enabling legislation.

Petrol sniffing is a problem that causes much misery to individuals, families and communities. It has, sadly to this day, cost lives. We believe the best way to deal with this is at a state and territory level, as observed by many others time and again.

The Senate's Community Affairs Legislation Committee also said that this is the case and recommended that this legislation not proceed. The sniffing of fuel is a problem that should be getting top priority and a first-rate response—not this ill considered, second-rate bill, with no observable benefit, that we have before this House today. This is a bill that the coalition therefore opposes. The Community Affairs Legislation Committee recommended, as I said, that this bill not proceed. This is a bill that even the Labor Party and the minister once opposed. But of course, as happens so often now, Labor has simply followed the lead of its alliance partners, the Greens.


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