Wednesday, 13 May 2020
Export Control Legislation Amendment (Certification of Narcotic Exports) Bill 2020; Second Reading
That this bill be now read a second time.
Agricultural exports are an economic powerhouse for Australia and are expected to be worth around $43 billion in 2019-20.
We are one of the top 10 agricultural exporting countries in the world, exporting around two-thirds of our agricultural production each year.
Strengthening the competitiveness and productivity of Australia's agriculture sector is a key commitment of this government.
We want our agricultural industries to be able to capitalise on the opportunities that flow from growth in our region and globally, and we want to support the National Farmers Federation goal to grow Australian agriculture to $100 billion by 2030.
To help us achieve this, we need to ensure we have appropriate regulatory settings to enable exports to grow and in turn to help drive productivity and increase returns at the farm gate.
This bill will facilitate agricultural exports for the emerging medicinal cannabis and hemp industries. It will remove unnecessary regulatory barriers and ensure legitimate exporters of narcotic goods are supported to access emerging export markets.
This bill will allow certification of legitimate exports of narcotic goods. It is critical that our trading partners continue to have confidence in the safety and integrity of Australian produce.
This bill will enable the growth of export markets for hemp and medicinal cannabis industries. The bill will support the initiatives of the government to reduce red tape, bust congestion in regulation and enable agricultural industries to come out firing, after the threat of COVID-19 has passed.
For Australian farmers, reliable access to overseas markets means increased profitability and certainty for further investment in their properties and people.
For the Australian economy, it means more jobs, more exports, and higher incomes in a competitive and profitable agricultural sector.
For Australians, it means stronger regional communities and a more prosperous and productive Australia.
The bill is just one of the initiatives that the government is progressing to modernise the systems that underpin our very valuable agricultural exports. This is a crucial step that removes unnecessary regulatory barriers and supports the Australian agricultural sector as it continues to grow.
I commend the bill to the House.
The government have put that proposition to the Labor Party, to the opposition. We have not agreed to it. We have agreed to it on other bills where the government have made the case as to why they are urgent. They have not made that case on this bill, therefore the opposition's view is that this should be dealt with in the normal way, which would allow for it to be listed tomorrow.
I do respect what the Manager of Opposition Business has put, but you did ask and you did put it to the House, and there were two voices that said yes to the motion that was put. Effectively, it was voted on, and there were no dissenting voices.
I'll just make a couple of points before I call the Manager of Opposition Business. I'm obviously not party to any discussions between the government and the opposition. As I said, I'm only guided, and I understood it was the wish of the House. The minister is right: he then moved the motion, and I put the motion, but in the situation we're in I'd just say to all members that a degree of cooperation is important. If there is going to be a disagreement, you should be clear on that. Before we take the next step, I will say: the minister is right, but clearly, had the Manager of Opposition Business been here—and it's not his fault he's not here all the time—a different course would have occurred. Yes, you're right: I've seen it happen in the reverse. I think it's a bit hard on the two members who aren't privy to the negotiations to imply that they were in agreement when I read out, 'I understand it's the wish of the House'. I'm not quite sure which step you want to take now, but I'm going to call the Manager of Opposition Business.
Sure. The minister moved that leave be granted for the debate to be resumed at a later hour this day.
Mr Burke interjecting—
He sought leave. He moved that the resumption of the debate be made an order of the day for a later hour this day. That was the motion.
I did move quickly. These weeks are functioning entirely on cooperation. The government, for different suspensions, including the one that was moved yesterday, does not have an absolute majority. And, if the parliament were to sit, the government would be incapable of having an absolute majority. With that in mind, that's why there is a high degree of cooperation being sought from the opposition and being granted by the opposition.
The government put forward two other pieces of legislation where they sought our cooperation and they made a case for why they were urgent. The first of those was the legislation that went through yesterday with respect to the privacy protections for the COVIDSafe app. The case was made as to why it was urgent, and the opposition accepted that case and facilitated debate. We made sure yesterday that by the time it got to past 7 o'clock the member for Kennedy was the only speaker remaining. When he concluded his remarks there was no need for a gag; there was no need for that sort of obstruction to happen in the House. We simply withdrew the additional speakers we had on the list, the minister was able to provide his comments-in-reply and it was done. Similarly, later today we will deal with an aged-care bill where the government have explained the reasons why that is urgent. The urgency of the aged-care bill doesn't go to issues necessarily related to COVID-19. It's urgent for a different reason, but the government has made the case as to why it's urgent, and we've heard that and we've cooperated.
With respect to the Export Control Legislation Amendment (Certification of Narcotic Exports) Bill 2020, this is a bill that has been hanging around for a very long time, has been spoken about for a very long time—the shadow minister for agriculture has mentioned in dispatches how long this issue has been around—and has never been considered urgent and was never even introduced into the parliament until now. Why there is a sudden urgency for this to get through the House of Representatives in one day when the government have had the issue in front of them for something like a year or more and have never bothered to introduce it before is a case that needs to be made. The government haven't made that case. They've simply said: 'Yes, we want it through. Let's make it urgent'. It's not whether the bill has merit or not; there are lots of bills that have merit that the opposition supports, and I suspect this will be one of them. But the issue of something passing through the parliament in a single day requires the issue to be of a different gravity. There is a reason why the standing orders say that after a bill is introduced you don't go straight into the debate on it. To move that we debate it immediately is a big call. It's a big call that when the government makes the case, we cooperate. We have proof of that yesterday and proof of that again today. But, on this one, they haven't made the case or sought to make the case as to why it's urgent. It is not unreasonable, at all, for this parliament to expect that when a piece of legislation is introduced it will lay on the table for at least a day before we then discuss it and we then debate it. To have a situation where this is put urgently to us without that case being made—it's simply not reasonable and it's not in the spirit of how the parliament has been operating in weeks like this.
In different weeks I may express different levels of outrage over this sort of behaviour, but, can I tell you, in the context of us all being nice and calm to each other, this is high outrage. It really is unreasonable. I don't blame the minister at the table, but my office had been advised that any attempt by the government to bring it on today would happen after all the introductions had been dealt with. That was the advice that had come through to me. So to then find not only it being introduced without making the case but that the minister introducing the bill, had, I presume, been advised by someone else to move that motion immediately, is contrary to what we'd been told and is contrary to any reasonable case that had been made.
I don't know if this has something to do with negotiations on other issues in the Senate. I don't know if there's some other reason why the government might have a political objective to push this through so quickly, but if there's a policy case for this being urgent you would have thought that sometime in the last 12 months they would have introduced the legislation. You would have thought, in the whole period that we've had where the issue has been alive, that they would have bothered to draft the legislation. I can't see what's happened in the last few weeks that means that an issue, that, for a long time, has been, 'Yes, we'll get around to it,' is suddenly, 'We're doing this today and it must be completed today.' Unless the government wants to start playing games with the level of cooperation that has been shown in this parliament, I would advise the government very strongly: when you make the case for something being urgent we have proven that we will be cooperative and we will be responsible; when the case is not made, it is unreasonable of the government to use its numbers on a contingency motion, and to use its numbers in various resolutions in this way, in a parliament that is only meeting at the moment because of cooperation. Don't take the goodwill when you want it and then trash it the moment the sittings are underway.
An honourable member interjecting—
If nothing else, I've proven I spend more time with music than I do with health! I've clarified that! But the case has to be made, and this does matter. It goes to the whole operation of the parliament. I can't stress that enough. On the policy issue itself, the shadow minister for agriculture will be able to make the case more strongly than me. But, in terms of the processes of the House, don't take the cooperation when it's offered and then refuse a simple opposition request that you need to make the case for urgency.
I was not as informed as the Manager of Opposition Business may be, when he wasn't here. If it was of such importance, I would have thought that he would be here to make sure of the protocols. In essence, I was surprised when no-one was here, and that's why I simply thought that it was going to continue.
Let me say why it's very important that this legislation does need to go through. This is an emerging industry, and, at the moment, under the current legislation, the department of agriculture can't issue certificates. What we have seen in this heightened environment since COVID-19 is that trading partners want certainty and, if you are unable to tick off and give that certainty around the protocols and certification of our products as we send them out, then we put at risk and at jeopardy the livelihoods of Australian farmers. This is an emerging industry, and we did not want to see what we've seen in other agricultural industries, particularly barley and the red meat sector, at the moment. We did not want to see that the protocols were not being adhered to. We were simply working in good faith, in essence, with our department of agricultural giving assurances to our trading partners, rather than being able to support it through legislation—a structured process.
This is about us understanding the global community that we're in at the moment and the heightened concern about the provenance of what's being exported. This is a sensible action for a government to take to protect the agricultural sector. We're doing that quickly to make sure we're protecting the livelihoods of Australian farmers, and we should be proud of the fact that they're diversifying into narcotic goods that can be exported safely. This is an opportunity for Australia to lead the world, and that is why there is the urgency of us putting this bill in today to this parliament: for this parliament to demonstrate to Australian farmers and to the world that we will lead them and we will lead them out of COVID-19.
I'm sorry, I can't give the call to the member for Hunter, because the minister's moved the motion and he's now closed the debate. It's the equivalent of the end of a second reading debate. I would have been able to give the call earlier, but I can't now the minister has closed the debate. I'm sorry. The member for Hunter?
I suspected that the minister would. I respect the minister. We have a very good working relationship, and the opposition certainly wants to work with him on this issue. But we understand that procedural issues like this go well beyond the remit of the minister responsible for the bill, and it is obvious to me that there is a broader tactical issue at hand here, particularly given—and I correct the minister—that we were given other information about when this debate would take place this morning. It was wrong of the minister—and I do understand that he probably didn't understand the situation—to be critical of the Manager of Opposition Business for not being in here. We were clearly told—and we checked this only 10 minutes ago—that this debate would not take place until much later this morning. So, it was wrong for the minister to be critical of the Manager of Opposition Business. And I thank the member for Watson for his contribution in my absence, because he encapsulated the issue very, very well.
I only rise to speak as the agricultural spokesperson to reinforce our determination on every occasion to facilitate the interests of the agriculture sector and in particular the export sector. It is very topical at the moment, with the threat of tariffs on our barley producers and of course the suspension, or cancellation—or however it might be described—of the licences for our meat processors and their export markets into China, our largest trading partner. So, let me make it clear that we support the bill that's being debated in this House today. We will support every measure that further facilitates export opportunities for Australia's growers and producers, and indeed manufacturers. It's often said, and it is true, that our growers and producers are the most efficient in the world, and they earn for us much of the foreign exchange that we rely upon in this country to build national wealth and to maintain our living standards.
I am a great supporter, as are many, many of my colleagues on this side, of medicinal hemp and hemp products generally. Hemp is an outstanding and environmentally friendly crop, and medicinal hemp is so important to so many Australians and people around the world. We understand that these measures are important to ensure that the trade with the United States continues. But this issue has been going on for a number of years now. Up until now it has been dealt with by way of side letters—in other words, up until now the United States has been satisfied to accept a letter guaranteeing that the phytosanitary certificates are valid, notwithstanding the fact that the Export Control Act in its definition of goods prohibited the export of narcotic goods. They've been accepting those side letters for a long time now, as I understand it and as I am advised by both the minister and the department. But for some reason, I expect legitimately, there is growing concern that there's not sufficient security around the side letter as a guarantor of the phytosanitary standards of the product. They want that fixed, and the only way to fix that is of course to amend the Export Control Act to remove the ban on narcotics in the definition of goods under that act.
We understand that absolutely. That's why we will be supporting this bill. But I think it was only a week ago, or maybe a little bit more, that the Manager of Opposition Business contacted me to advise me that the Attorney-General and Leader of the House had asked that we consider facilitating this bill in all its stages through the House and indeed the parliament. As the Manager of Opposition Business has indicated, we are always up for that—somewhat reluctantly, because when the government of the day does this we have to circumvent many of our own internal processes. Those opposite should understand this, because many of them have been on the opposition benches in the past. Like those who sit opposite, we do have a shadow cabinet, and in their case a cabinet. We do have caucus committees. We do have the caucus itself, and processes to go through. When we're asked to facilitate bills like this then obviously we often have to circumvent those processes, and of course it denies us the same length of opportunity to further canvass, research and discuss the matters that are coming before the House.
So whenever we do this, we do it with reluctance, but we always do it, under the guise of cooperation and to take the opportunity to act in the national interest and in this case in the interests of our growers, and we don't hesitate. But on this occasion, in the week that has passed since the Manager of Opposition Business contacted me, despite asking on a number of occasions I have received no compelling case or no persuasive reason that this bill—given that this matter has been going on for a number of years—needs passage through this parliament this week.
The minister had an opportunity again today to provide those persuasive reasons. He's not done so. He could have been more specific about the business interests at hand here. He could have been more specific about volume of export, value of export and where the key export markets are within the United States. I've had some insight into that personally. But remember, this is the people's House, and others will be voting on these bills. Others will be voting for or against the facilitation of these bills, and members of this place—including those who sit on the government benches—are entitled to know more about what they are voting on. I had a briefing with the department. I always have the greatest respect for our departmental officers, and I always respect the confidential nature of those briefings, and I'm not going to share any of it here today. But it was clear to me that those departmental officers were a little reluctant to share information about this bill and the reason for the need for the parliament to facilitate it. Certainly, both the minister and the Leader of the House have not been very forthcoming in better explaining why it is that this is so necessary this week.
So let me be clear: we want to do everything we can to support our growers. We want to do everything we can to support this industry. If the government tells us very, very clearly and gives us an explanation as to why this bill needs to go through the parliament this week, we will support the facilitation of this bill through this parliament this week. But the government, despite all our requests has failed to do so. It has failed to do so on an issue that's been with us since—I just can't think which—2018 or 2019. I think it's 2018. It's been with us for all of that time. I'm told that the US authorities gave a warning when we first started exporting this product that, while they would accept the side letter as a guarantor of the phytosanitary strengths of the product, that the side letter can't be forever and that they would need further assurances and guarantees. That means, of course, that this legislation would need to be amended. So the government have had two or three years to do that but, mysteriously, suddenly, it now has to be done this week, at a time when the parliament's time is so precious and at a time when we're dealing with an international pandemic—the biggest economic challenge this country has ever faced. This is a time when we really need to be dealing with those issues very regularly. It's a time when our major trading partner is starting to cut off our exports to their market, and the government wants to take up our time and the parliament's time. They want us to circumvent our political processes in this place but they're not prepared to tell us why. It's not good enough to say, 'Well we need to do this because we need to provide the guarantees our international customers are looking for.' That's fine, we understand that. But why, after all this time, this week? Why do we have to go through this extraordinary process of suspending standing orders and facilitating all the stages of this bill through this House. We just don't understand why that is the case.
There is still an opportunity for the minister to jump to his feet and provide us with the answers to those questions. There is a precedent here: while we're always prepared to facilitate bills when there is a good reason to, we don't like it because it sets a precedent—it gets too easy for the government to start governing in that way on a regular basis. There has to be a good reason and we've not been given that reason. So there is an opportunity for the minister to provide those persuasive answers, and we stand ready to hear them and to facilitate this bill if he's capable of doing so.