House debates

Monday, 26 May 2014

Bills

Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Removing Re-approval and Re-registration) Bill 2014; Second Reading

6:15 pm

Photo of Julie OwensJulie Owens (Parramatta, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Small Business) Share this | Hansard source

I am pleased to stand to speak on the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Removing Re-approval and Re-registration) Bill 2014. Since the government was elected in September last year we have heard a lot of rhetoric from the government, particularly about regulation. We have seen almost a demonising of regulation. But it is actually heartening to see that, in the case of regulation regarding the safety of chemicals, the government has taken a slightly more modest approach and left much of the work that the Labor government did over the last six years in place. We on this side of the House still have some doubt about the efficacy of the amendments as they are, but, as the shadow minister has said, we are prepared to wait and see the outcome of the Senate inquiry into this bill to see whether it will be effective.

This is an incredibly important piece of legislation. This is regulation that affects the use of chemicals that are used in agriculture and veterinary medicines which are registered under the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, the APVMA. There are about 11,700 of them currently in use around Australia. They are the chemicals that protect crops and animals from all sorts of pests and diseases and, in doing so, help improve the productivity and competitiveness of Australia's rural industries. But, of course, chemicals have pluses and minuses, as we all know. The regulatory process ensures that the agricultural and veterinary chemicals that we use are safe for humans—there are a whole range of issues relating to that—and also that they do not damage the environment.

A whole range of stakeholders in this area have had a lot to say about this over a long time, including some environmental groups; consumer groups, quite often with people who live in cities, as I do; farmers; and people who work on farms. There are many stakeholders, and at times the arguments are quite aggressive. I am a city girl, as I quite often say. I would prefer, like many city people, that the fruit and vegetables I eat are as natural as possible. At home I buy insect larvae, costing about $40 to keep four small trees free of pests, so I would not suggest that any farmer try and do that, as effective as it is. Two friends of mine own a mango farm and they leave the ants on the mangoes because that keeps the bats at bay. As long as the ants are there, the bats do not like the taste of the mangoes. But it means that the market for those mangoes is quite small, because they have the speckles from the ants on them. Those mangoes can be sold to an organic group. But you would not assume for a minute that we could have the kind of strong agricultural sector that we have on a large scale without some incredibly important chemicals.

Back in 2008 the federal government tasked the Productivity Commission with studying the existing arrangements for the regulation of chemicals and plastics in Australia. The purpose was to assess the impact of current regulation on the productivity and competitiveness of the chemicals and plastics industry, the Australian industry and the economy as a whole, together with the effectiveness of the regulations in addressing public health, environmental and occupational health and safety issues and substances of national security interest. The Productivity Commission did its job, as it always does. It concluded that the effectiveness and efficiency of APVMA assessments could be improved. It stated:

The effectiveness of the industrial chemicals and agvet schemes is limited given that all existing chemicals were grandfathered, without modern assessment, at the inception of the schemes. These constitute the vast majority of chemicals ‘approved’ for use in Australia. NICNAS and APVMA have programs for assessing existing chemicals, with review priorities determined on the basis of perceived health and environmental risks. So far only a tiny fraction of existing chemicals have been assessed. Initiatives to greatly accelerate the pace of review under both programs are warranted. In particular, NICNAS should improve its engagement with international existing chemical review programs, and make greater use of modelling tools.

As a result of that Productivity Commission review, COAG became involved. It tasked the Primary Industries Ministerial Council to bring forward to COAG for consideration in the first half of 2010 a proposal for a single national framework to improve efficiency and effectiveness of the regulation of agricultural and veterinary chemicals. You have to remember that various chemicals and substances have approvals processes in the states as well. This brought the regulation of agricultural and veterinary chemicals under a national scheme.

Flowing from that, the parliament passed the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment Bill 2012 and there was an amendment in 2013. Now we have a new government. Before these new arrangements come into place, the government has decided to wind back some of the new mechanisms. In particular, this amendment bill removes the need for mandatory re-registration of active ingredients; removes end dates for approvals and last renewal dates for registrations so that approvals will no longer end after a particular period, which was seven years for high-risk and 15 years for low-risk chemicals; allows registrations to be renewed perpetually; and removes a number of redundant provisions. That is quite a significant winding-back of a range of measures which went through a very lengthy process, dating back to a Productivity Commission review in 2008 and an extensive COAG cooperative process over a couple of years.

As the shadow minister said, we are not opposing this bill in the House. However, we are waiting on the outcome and findings of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee inquiry, just so that we can satisfy ourselves that the health of Australians and the environment are still protected. It is also incredibly important that transparency and certainty are provided under the new scheme, and that is something that I will be looking out for in the committee's report. It is incredibly important, particularly for farmers and for workers, that there is a level of certainty and predictability so that they know that the chemicals they are using will be usable in the foreseeable future.

That is really all I have to say on this. There was an extensive process, which I think was a good process, which led to some significant improvements in the registration of chemicals and the approval process. This bill winds those back to some extent, and we are now waiting on the Senate committee's report. Thank you.

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