Wednesday, 6 February 2013
Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012; Second Reading
I present the explanatory memorandum to this bill and I move:
That this bill be now read a second time.
It is my great pleasure today to introduce the Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012 on behalf of my party, the Greens, particularly because of all the other important issues relating to the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people which were on the agenda earlier today.
Closing the Gap is an important initiative. It is fitting that this bill be introduced to the lower house today because this bill will contribute directly to efforts to close the gap by giving government the powers to help communities remove the final hurdles that are preventing them from eradicating petrol sniffing.
Petrol sniffing has devastating effects on individuals, families and communities. Over the long term, petrol sniffing can kill. It damages internal organs, the brain and the nervous system. Petrol sniffing does not just damage the health of the individual; it can lead to family breakdowns, domestic violence, community breakdown, increased violence and vandalism. However, the reason we need this legislation is not that the other antisniffing programs have failed but that they have been so successful and we are very close to breaking the petrol-sniffing cycle in many remote communities in Central Australia. According to the Central Australian Youth Link-Up Service:
The rollout of low-aromatic Opal Fuel has been an unprecedented Indigenous health success. Across all sites the use of the fuel has been associated with an average 70% reduction in prevalence of sniffing and in Central Australia where the rollout has been more comprehensive this reduction is thought to be 94%.
Programs like Mount Theo, which removed young people from the source of petrol by sending them to detox on country and supported that detox with connection to culture and community, have been wildly successful, but those who started those programs acknowledge that it was incredibly hard work. There is a cycle around petrol-sniffing outbreaks. They start as something one or two kids do but then it becomes a culture, drawing in more kids and ultimately impacting a whole community, causing lasting damage to the wellbeing of those communities.
The development of Opal fuel has offered a way for communities to limit access to the very source of sniffing, and to circumvent the physical and social trauma of sniffing. The development of Opal fuel has been important to shifting how communities approach petrol sniffing, but Opal itself is merely one of the tools in a broader strategy that addresses the underlying causes of petrol sniffing and includes community management plans, youth services; effective and culturally sensitive policing, treatment and rehab services, and information services. But low aromatic fuel is a key part of breaking the cycle.
One of the most important features of the rollout of the anti-petrol-sniffing strategy has been that it has allowed the community greater control over whichever substances are available in their communities. It has required consistent political commitment that ensured that Opal is available, and the continued evolution of the voluntary rollout strategy is a testament to the work my colleague Rachel Siewert has undertaken over the past seven years to ensure that this issue has a place on the national political agenda. Petrol sniffing has always been a significant issue to which she has dedicated her time since she entered federal politics. As a result, we have seen slow but consistent improvements.
If you looked at interviews with people 15 years ago, you would see that then there was little hope that it would be possible to break the cycle of sniffing in Central Australia. Greens in parliament have provided the ongoing pressure both to put the aspirations of Aboriginal communities on the agenda and to ensure that the policy response has been comprehensive and ongoing. The broadly successful voluntary strategy has seen fuel providers in the designated 'antisniffing' zone sign on to supply Opal in response to community pressure for change. But there are still pockets of resistance and, as a result, this progress has stalled for some communities. In fact it has been stalled since 2009 for three or four communities; so long as one or two petrol station owners hold out against stocking Opal fuel, sniffing will continue to be difficult to completely prevent.
The 2009 committee inquiry, which the Greens initiated, recommended that the antisniffing strategy could be strengthened by giving the minister the powers that are contained within this bill to mandate the use of Opal fuel in certain areas. This would give the government the power to ensure that the aspirations and the sheer hard work of communities are backed up by a process that ultimately prevents a selfish few from consistently undermining the efforts of the community as a whole.
It is clear to the Greens that there are still those selfish few, and so this bill will give the minister the power to ensure that Opal fuel is mandatory in those places where the community has taken significant steps to address sniffing and has turned to the government to support their efforts.
It is most regrettable that the government, almost three years after the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee's report on Opal and six years after their first investigation into this issue, have not moved to fix this problem, despite the hugely damaging impact of petrol sniffing on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities, the unreasonable intransigence of a few suppliers and the fact it is well within the power of government to quickly address this issue.
I had the opportunity this morning to meet with some Aboriginal people from Titjikala, who are once again here in parliament to seek support for their goal of eradicating petrol sniffing. This legislation is also important to Closing the Gap because it originated not in a department or a minister's office but from serious and sustained efforts by Aboriginal people to take ownership of the solutions and to develop locally controlled and culturally appropriate solutions. The people from Titjikala made it crystal clear this morning that you really do need to be able to designate whole areas as sniffable-fuel free and Opal-fuel only, because otherwise community driven solutions will not work. They told me in particular that not less than one kilometre from their community, where you can only buy Opal fuel, you are able to buy regular fuel. As a result, people from that community or people from other communities will go to the neighbouring community, buy the fuel and then travel a kilometre down the road into their own community and start sniffing. The result, as they were explaining to me, is that someone who is sniffing petrol and walking down the main street becomes a walking advertisement and attraction. As a result, the efforts that they had taken themselves in their own community were being thwarted because someone a kilometre or so away was not prepared to assist them.
This legislation would address that problem by giving the minister the power to designate whole areas as Opal fuel areas only. These are people who have made it clear to me that petrol sniffing continues to hurt their community and that, after many years of working on strategies to resolve these issues, they expect the government to take that final step and do everything in its power to fulfil its promise to back their own considerable efforts to eradicate sniffing.
The Greens have taken that step, and I am pleased that the government has supported it. The Greens bill is aimed at preventing petrol sniffing in communities by making it an offence to supply sniffable petrol in designated areas. This bill will give the minister the power to declare areas where it will be an offence to supply non-sniffable fuel. This will mean that there is some power to tackle the recalcitrant petrol stations who, even after sustained consultation with the affected communities, refuse to stock non-sniffable fuel. This bill gives the minister the power to act on calls from specific communities that are being devastated by sniffing.
The bill contains significant requirements for consultation with affected communities as well as suppliers and state and territory governments. However, it ultimately gives the minister the power to act when all other efforts have been made. This is the support that the communities who have almost resolved petrol sniffing have asked for. With Greens in parliament, we are able to deliver the final piece of the puzzle which will empower communities to continue to work together with government on programs that give communities control over petrol sniffing.
This bill is also an example of a strong consultative process. Throughout the committee process and development of the amendments there has been consultation with stakeholders in the Northern Territory. We feel confident that they are supportive of this legislation. I know that some of those people are watching this debate and I want to acknowledge their work to get us to this very significant point.
Initiatives to close the gap require a collaboration between government and community. They require the government to supply Aboriginal people with the tools they ask for to achieve the outcomes they aspire to rather than imposing solutions upon them. This bill is a way to recognise the work being done out there in the communities to eradicate sniffing and to ensure that the work is finished. It cements our goal of giving support to communities over corporations. It is our way to show communities that their efforts to end the cycle of sniffing and the harm that sniffing causes will be reinforced. I commend the bill to the House.
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.
Thank you for the contributions that have been made thus far, although I have to make some comments about the contribution of the member for Menzies—and I will, in short order. Whilst I had some affinity with some aspects of what he said, the majority of what he said was a misplaced understanding of what is happening, what has happened and what will happen. That, to me, is a bit of a worry, given that he is up here parading himself as some sort of expert in this place.
Secondly, I might just comment very briefly on his outrageous statements about the Labor Party's attitude towards the misplaced intervention by Mal Brough, when he was a minister in the previous Howard government, and the Howard government's approach to dealing with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, without any consultation. Just a moment ago we heard him refer to a bottom-up approach to how best to deal with issues and problems such as petrol sniffing in Aboriginal communities.
Let me tell you: there was no bottom-up approach with the intervention.
It was jackboot diplomacy from the then minister responsible, Brough, under the instructions and leadership of Prime Minister Howard and you as one of his cheerleaders. I make no apology at all for siding with the views of so many people in the Aboriginal community across the Northern Territory on their concern with the way the intervention took place and its outcome.
Neither do I make any apology for the way in which Labor has dealt with the intervention process, the emergency response after we came to government in 2007, the changes we have made, and now the Stronger Futures legislation which has been passed in this parliament—very, very different from the intervention. The intervention is dead, thank God! And I do not know one Aboriginal person in the Northern Territory who would say, 'Bring back the intervention', 'Bring back Mal Brough', or 'Bring back that attitude of dictatorial relationships with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory or elsewhere in Australia', because that is what it was.
As the member for Lingiari, which of course is the place this was focused on, I know what I said in this place and outside at the time, and my attitude has not changed. Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory know what happened last time they elected a coalition government, with the intervention, and they know what to expect next if the coalition should be elected to government later this year. They know what to expect, and they would be rightly concerned about the overbearing interference and dictatorial relationships which were developed previously and which would, no doubt, be developed in the future.
But that is not the reason we are here. We are here to discuss the Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012. I understand the shadow minister's attitude towards the community affairs report, but I do not think he understands me—which is a bit of a problem, because I am the minister responsible. He needs to understand that I have been making efforts, for some considerable time now, to get state and territory governments to deal together with the issue of petrol sniffing and how to have a uniform approach across jurisdictions, but to no avail. Whilst he talked about Northern Territory legislation—which, I agree, has some positive elements to it—it does not extend to those matters that cross borders, and I have to say that it has not been used previously in the Northern Territory in the way in which he suggested.
I want to just give you some background as to why I think this is important. I will come to the bill itself in a moment, but, just so you know, I come to this subject with some experience. I have a publication here of which I was a co-author. It is called A Certain Heritage. It was co-authored by HC Coombs, MM Brandl and me, and it refers to a petrol sniffing program which we were part of trying to set up in 1981 in South Australia, at a place called Angatja, and this petrol sniffing program, unique in its time, was about addressing the issues to do with juveniles sniffing petrol in a place called Amata in the Pitjantjatjara lands of South Australia. I am very conversant with the impact of petrol sniffing on communities. This program was designed: to establish the principles that the care of Pitjantjatjara juveniles should be primarily a Pitjantjatjara responsibility and that programs to rehabilitate juvenile offenders should be designed and controlled by Pitjantjatjara people; to avoid offenders being sent to non-Aboriginal institutions; to develop a rehabilitation program which was based on participation in and knowledge of their traditional culture and was therefore supportive and likely to reintegrate, in this case, the boys into their own society; and to assist participants to acquire personal skills which would help them deal successfully with their own and the majority culture.
Things have not changed.
In my experience, successful programs around petrol sniffing have the same sort of basis: local community control, local community support and local community ownership. I commend those people who have been advocating for this legislation from their communities, such as those people in the parliament today from Titjikala, which is just south of Alice Springs and in my electorate. I commend them for what they are doing.
Let me now put into focus what has been happening around low aromatic fuel. The government has subsidised low aromatic fuel since 1998, starting with the Comgas scheme, which was an initiative by the then health minister, now Leader of the Opposition, Mr Abbott. In 2004, BP began producing a low aromatic 91-octane unleaded fuel called Opal. In the next year, the government of the day introduced the petrol sniffing strategy, which covered the supply of low aromatic fuel as well as issues around justice, treatment and youth diversionary programs, which continue. In February of 2006, just 43 sites in the Northern Territory or Central Australia stocked low aromatic fuel. Today, there are 127 sites receiving low aromatic fuel across regional and remote Australia. The Labor government pledged to expand the supply and uptake of Opal fuel and we have committed $115.8 million to the rollout of low aromatic fuel over five years from 2011-12.
More than 20.8 million litres of low aromatic fuel was produced in the 2011-12 financial year. Under this government's planned expansion, that fuel will be sold at an additional 39 retail sites, including areas in Western Australia, the Top End of the Northern Territory and indeed Queensland. Importantly, it will also see the construction of bulk storage facilities to improve the continuity of supply, which will reassure retailers. Later this year Shell Australia will also begin producing its own low aromatic fuel, stocking it and transporting it to communities in the Top End, the East Kimberley, the Gulf region of Queensland and Cape York. Low aromatic fuel is a reliable and effective replacement for regular unleaded petrol. The addition of a new producer may also help to break down some of the myths around its use. These myths once abounded. They have largely been seen to be just that: myths.
We know that the rollout of low aromatic fuel to date has produced some great results that should stand alone as a reason Opal and fuels of its type are so vital in this country. I know that there has been interest shown by overseas communities in Opal fuel. I know that there have been discussions with people in Canada. In Central Australia, petrol sniffing dropped by more than 90 per cent following the introduction Opal fuel. The Menzies School of Health Research is now collecting data across 41 communities. That work will continue until 2014. After that, we will have a guide on the situation and accurate knowledge of the impact of low aromatic fuel on those communities.
We know that low aromatic fuel has a huge and positive impact on people's lives. It can mean the difference between health and sickness, education and no education, employment and unemployment and, ultimately, life and death. This bill, the Low Aromatic Fuel Bill, provides us with a good basis to build on the success of the petrol sniffing strategy initially developed by the coalition government. It will ensure the supply of low aromatic fuel to high risk locations to reduce the risk of harm when some retailers refuse to stock it. While I appreciate the advice from the shadow minister opposite, it has been my absolute intention to try to get people to voluntarily participate in this program, but unfortunately there remain some who are intransigent, and we need to deal with that.
Technical issues in the original legislation introduced in the Senate have been addressed by this government and amendments passed by the Senate in November 2012. The government amendments passed by the Senate will require me as the minister to give consideration to whether there are adequate facilities and arrangements for the supply of low aromatic fuel to an area prior to designating a fuel control here.
It will also mean that I may grant exemptions from certain offences, if necessary, because of the unavailability of low aromatic fuel in that area.
The bill's objectives reduce the harms caused by petrol sniffing and must be strengthened. It should come as no surprise when I say that responsibility falls to the states and territories in the first instance, and we have already heard the shadow minister opposite say that that is very important. They have to accept the responsibility, and to date they have not. Their designation of a fuel control area will only occur—and I stress this—where I am satisfied that the states or territories have been derelict in their duty to their people and have failed to enact their own legislation consistent with the Low Aromatic Fuel Act.
I would have thought that that is not a bad exercise: that we give the states and territories the opportunity to act, and if they do not—if they are derelict in their duty—we will act, and I make no apology for it. We have had consultations. I have spoken to health ministers over a long period of time, but it cannot go on forever. We require collective action. Work is underway through the Standing Council on Health.
We want to see coordinated action across jurisdictions to ensure a consistent approach to controlling the use of volatile substances like petrol. The Low Aromatic Fuel Bill lets this government rule a line under this. It gives us a power and a responsibility to step in and protect the health and lives of people affected by petrol sniffing if local retailers refuse to come on board and if the state and territory governments will not act.
Lest people believe that this is something that should not attract our attention—and I know there is a lot of debate in Central Australia—let me tell you that there are areas of the Northern Territory where it is becoming endemic and indeed is prolific. There will be a meeting next week, I think, at Barunga or Beswick, south of Katherine, to discuss petrol sniffing. I had a discussion with traditional owners from Beswick only last week. They expressed their concern about the issues to do with petrol sniffing in their community. There have been large numbers of youths, particularly young boys in the first instance, who have been petrol sniffing at Yirrkala in north-east Arnhem Land.
These are issues that we must address. And if this bill helps us address them, then we need to use this bill to make sure we do so. I make no apology for having this legislation in the parliament. It is my primary desire for people to voluntarily adopt Opal when they are retailing fuel. But, in circumstances in which they continue to resist and oppose, and where we know that the sale of petrol from those retail outlets has a detrimental and potentially devastating effect on communities, then we must act. And if the Northern Territory or state governments are not prepared to act in those particular cases then at some point we may need to make a decision, and I am committing myself to making those decisions where they are necessary.
I believe that the opposition should rethink what it is doing here, because we know what the outcome has been. We know that the state and territories need to do a lot more work in this area, and I would ask the opposition to rethink their attitude and to support this legislation.
I thank the minister and shadow minister for their contribution to the debate. To summarise just very briefly, there was some talk during the debate about whether a top-down or a bottom-up approach is needed. I will say that this piece of legislation is one of the most bottom-up, community-driven pieces of legislation that has come before this House.
It is said that the state and territory laws should be sufficient. Well, we are here because, although they have been successful in part, they have not solved the whole problem. And yes, it is right that communities should be the ultimate determiners of their own fate. But, as was expressed to me very, very clearly by people from Titjikala this morning, you can have a community that amongst itself has taken some very strong steps to eradicate sniffing, and you can have, a kilometre away from that, a petrol station that will sell sniffable fuel, and that will attract people from all around—from other communities as well—to come in, get the petrol, and then potentially infect the community that has done so much good work to get the problem under control.
Communities sometimes need the assistance of this place to give effect to what they want to do, and it has been the communities that have said: we are doing everything we can to get this under control and we need a bit of help. Lest it be thought that this automatically means something for state laws. There is, as the minister said, going to be a period of time in which the states and territories can now take those final steps if they want to and fix up their laws to do what the communities have been asking for for some time. But if they do not then now there is a stick that can be applied by the minister and the minister can say: well, if you are not going to fix it yourself then we will step in and do what the community wants.
This piece of legislation has already passed the Senate because it is good legislation. I hope that it will pass this House and become law because it is good legislation. It will make a difference. It will be an instance of this place giving communities the tools and the power that they need to control their own destiny. That is why, on today of all days, we have been discussing matters vital to the future and to the health of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in this country. We can pass this legislation and empower communities to give them the power that they have been asking for. I commend the bill to the House.