Monday, 26 May 2014
Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Removing Re-approval and Re-registration) Bill 2014; Second Reading
The bill before the House is a very important one. It will impact on Australia's $48-billion agricultural sector; it will affect Australia's multibillion-dollar plant sites and crop protection industry; it will have implications for our natural environment; and, most importantly, it is about the protection of human health. These are all very important points but for the opposition the last point—that is, human health—is paramount. Ideally, we want a low-cost regulatory regime—one which permits the use of chemicals in a safe way and in a manner which maximises productivity and farm-gate profits.
According to the minister, the main aim of this bill is to lower the regulatory burden of the regime. That is an objective which Labor supports. Indeed, the former government's bill that gave effect to the regime which was about to come into effect on July 1 if this bill were not successful, promoted red tape reduction as a key objective. The question is: does this bill before the House tonight strike the right balance between that aspiration and human health objectives—human health, as it relates to those who use the sprays involved and those who will consume the products sprayed further down the track? Again, this is a primary question for Labor.
As political parties we must always strive to ensure the burdens of our regulations are as low as is possible, but regulatory regimes do and always will impose regulatory burden. People listening to this debate tonight will be surprised to learn that currently there are some 11,700 separate agricultural chemicals and veterinary medicines—or agvet products, as they are generally known—listed with the regulator, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, the APVMA. They are not just used in agriculture. Indeed, believe it or not, members, I was using one such spray in my garden on the weekend—under the direction, of course, of my wife! So it is not just about agriculture as we generally see it.
Those listening to the debate can see that the APVMA has a big job. First, testing the safety and effectiveness of chemicals; then registering them for safe use; and then, in turn, reassessing them as new information and data emerges about their safety. The controversial part of this bill is that which repeals the 2013 bill's mandatory re-registration scheme. I will come back to that point a little later. It is now almost 20 years since the Labor government established the successful regime we now have in place and, indeed, established a national regulator. Last year the former Labor government sought to further modernise and strengthen the regime in response to both community concern about the impact on human health and its efficiency on the regulatory burden front.
It is pleasing that this bill does not seek to unravel Labor's reforms entirely. The reforms in Labor's bill were substantial and extensive. They were primarily about improving the predictability and transparency of the APVMA's decision-making processes and providing greater reassurances to the community that agricultural chemicals and veterinary medicines used in Australia are safe.
Apart from reregistration, the 2013 reforms encouraged the development of more modern and safer chemicals, and the cost reductions to industry of keeping existing chemicals in the market by: one, improving the consistency, predictability and transparency of agvet chemical assessments, and aligning the regulatory effort with chemical risk; two, reducing red tape by reforming assessment processes for agvet chemical applications for approval/registration and variation for better efficiency and effectiveness and improving the timeliness of agvet chemical approvals, registrations and chemical reviews; and, three, removing disincentives and providing greater incentives for companies to invest through improved intellectual property protection.
The reforms improve community confidence also in the regulatory regime by: (1) reducing the backlog of chemicals requiring review; (2) providing the regulator with contemporary compliance powers to improve its ability to protect humans, animals and the environment; and (3) by improving the ability of the APBVA to enforce compliance with its regulatory decisions, for example, by introducing civil penalties and infringement notices.
The current bill before the House is divided into two schedules. Schedule 1 removes the need for mandatory reregistration, as I have indicated, of active constituents. That means approvals will remain in force until such time as the approval is revoked by the APBVA. This is the most controversial initiative in this bill. Once registered, chemicals need to be renewed on an annual basis. Schedule 1 also allows less frequent renewals for particular products including, in some cases, up to five years rather than on an annual basis.
Schedule 2 of the bill deals with variations to approvals and, according to the government, seeks to streamline simple variations to approval registration for labelling. In his second reading speech, the minister argued this 2014 bill further builds on the reforms of Labor's 2013 bill. It does so, he says, by (1) the introduction of a new process for the notification of the simplest changes to a chemical registration and a very simple application process for less complex variations; (2) by reducing the frequency of renewal, removing annual returns about active constituents and improving information access provisions; and (3) rewriting provisions will allow the APVMA to collect information from suppliers of chemicals to make sure products being supplied are the same as those the APBVA registered. I am not sure these are exhaustive so I do not mean to suggest they are.
The curious thing about these changes and in particular the revocation of the mandatory registration is that they are being sought before the 2013 act actually comes into effect. As I indicated, that date is 1 July 2014. In other words, the government has passed judgement on Labor's reforms, most of which it appears to support, before they have even been given a chance to work. The key point of difference between the 2013 bill and the 2014 bill is the mandatory reregistration regime. And no doubt this will be an ongoing key point of debate both in this chamber and in the other place.
The opposition, I can announce, will not oppose or seek to amend the 2014 bill in this chamber. In other words, we do not claim that the 2013 regime is necessarily the only way of protecting human health and the natural environment while also providing farmers and other consumers with affordable and appropriately easy-to-access crop protection. Rather, we will allow the bill passage through the House but we have referred the bill to a Senate inquiry for further review. I note that the inquiry is already underway and that already the committee has received some 22 submissions, 20 of which support the removal of reregistration.
It is an important guide for me, as Labor's agricultural spokesman, that amongst the 20 organisations supporting the change is the National Farmers' Federation, other peak industry groups and, indeed, the Queensland government.
The change has been opposed by the WWF and by CHOICE. I should say I truly believe their voices are also important. On important issues such as this I am always determined not to form a political view or worse play politics with the issue. Rather, I am determined and my party is determined to do what is best for public health and for the environment and what is best for the agriculture sector. It is this approach which will determine our final position on this bill. The test for the Senate committee will be the extent to which it satisfies us for the changes being proposed in this bill do not reduce protections to human health. That is very important for the opposition.
I do accept that subjecting every chemical to a re-registration process every seven to 14 or 15 years does not necessarily guarantee the best outcome. I am more than happy to have that debate and have the Senate committee test that proposition. I also accept that there was an argument that it may be more effective to ensure that the APVMA's limited resources—very limited resources—are free to be directed to a robust risk management review regime and to properly respond to new information and data which may trigger a review in a more timely way.
Just to reinforce that point, if a red flag goes up on a particular chemical we want the APVMA to have the resources to immediately properly and thoroughly investigate the concern that has been raised by that new information. I do understand as a result of number of briefings I have received including from the department that there is nothing in the 2013 bill which dictates that re-registration also triggers a review. In other words the 2013 bill might make mandatory re-registration every seven to 15 years but re-registration will not necessarily mean an in-depth review of the chemical concerned. This should not necessarily be seen as a deficiency in the 2013 bill, I am not conceding that because it would have the potential if it were otherwise to trigger expensive time-consuming and potentially unnecessary reviews at great cost to the companies who produce the chemicals in particular.
It is now over to the Senate committee. A committee inquiry which I will be watching with great interest as I am sure many other members will. When it has completed its inquiry, and made its recommendations Labor will be better placed to perform a better position on the bill before the House this evening.