Senate debates

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Bills

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

12:01 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I would also like to contribute to this debate on the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Removing Re-approval and Re-registration) Bill 2014 and say at the outset that we will be opposing this legislation and standing up for the amendments that were passed last year, which we strongly believe make a much better and safer process for this country. I am extremely disturbed by this legislation, in particular by the reasons put forward by the government and, I must say, by the opposition's backflip.

The Greens continue to stand behind the long-overdue reforms to the APVMA made just nine months ago, which commence full implementation on 1 July. Re-registration is the heart of those reforms, which significantly overhaul the reassessment process for a range of highly toxic chemicals and pesticides. We need to remember the context we are talking about here. This will specifically enable a process in this country to much better deal with toxic chemicals and pesticides. As I said in my contribution to the second reading debate on the previous agricultural and veterinary chemicals legislation, as the science evolves we understand a lot more about chemicals and pesticides. It is important that the APVMA is able to use that information in the reassessment process.

The other reforms to the APVMA that we passed last year, and that remain untouched, are also important. They reduce the extent to which chemical companies can game the system and they increase the ability of the APVMA to obtain the data it needs. They were long-overdue reforms. But they were minor reforms that will help the APVMA deal with difficult industry players, rather than provide a framework for the APVMA to do a proper and cost-effective reassessment that will take the nastiest chemicals off the market rather than expose another generation to their potentially devastating effects. While they were important reforms, the government is gutting the heart of those reforms by getting rid of the re-registration process, which is being ably abetted by the opposition.

As a result of work done in the last parliament, the APVMA was given the power to review and quickly remove highly dangerous and unmanageable pesticides from the market if they failed to meet today's scientific and regulatory standards. The government is now working to undo these important reforms under the guise—I repeat under the guise—of 'red tape reduction'.

The improvements to this legislation are one of the legacies of the ALP—and, frankly, I reckon that they should be embarrassed that, just nine months later, they are backflipping on this issue. It is inexplicable that they are doing that and that they backed the majority committee report recommendation that the re-registration process they put in place just nine months ago be scrapped. Again, the opposition should be embarrassed about the weak excuses they put forward today. They put forward the excuse that there is not enough money to implement it, rather than actually standing behind their legislation. They should proudly own their legislation, because they did a good thing. To try and bat away the fact that these grandfathered toxic chemicals were not assessed is quite frankly just not true. Some of these chemicals were tested by the states prior to the APVMA, but only a small number, and most information has actually been lost. That is why the Productivity Commission said that the majority were grandfathered without assessment and need to be looked at. The Productivity Commission report in 2008 stated:

The effectiveness of the industrial chemicals and agvet schemes is limited given that all existing chemicals were grandfathered, without modern assessment—

Remember that—'modern assessment'—

at the inception of the schemes. … 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.

So the ALP will grasp at any excuse to move away from these important reforms. It is a disgrace. They should stand up for them. If they stood with us, we could still knock this legislation off. So I urge the ALP, right now, to have a rethink about what they are doing on toxic chemicals in this country by being weak-kneed and backflipping on their important reforms made just nine months ago.

There is still an opportunity to defeat this legislation and enable the APVMA to begin its important work on 1 July on reregistering chemicals. There is still an opportunity to demonstrate that we understand how important this process is. As I said, this depends on whether the opposition decides to stand up, grow a backbone and support the legislation that is so important to this process.

The reason these changes are so important is that the improved regime allows us to systematically and effectively reassess chemicals that may have unmanageable risks. It takes into account the new developments in toxicology and regulatory best practice since the APVMA was put in place in 1996. Reverting to the old, slow, ad hoc system will continue to put at risk public health, the environment and trade from pesticides that have never been adequately assessed.

A number of chemicals in Australia today have been removed from use in other countries—despite what Senator Back tried to put forward. The risks are simply impossible to manage, or it is not possible to prove that the chemicals are safe. The old system saw thousands of chemical products grandfathered into the National Registration Scheme for Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals without ever being properly assessed—as I have just articulated and contrary to what Senator Farrell just said. Reassessments by the APVMA are ad hoc and have been taking upwards of a decade to complete.

The government wants us to return to an ad hoc system. It is vital that our regulator responds quickly to new information, including benchmarks set internationally. Sadly, this is not currently the case. Ad hoc reassessment regimes are hit and miss, create uncertainty for industry, stigmatise some chemicals while missing others and put our community, environment and farmers at risk. Stronger, systematic, reassessment standards provide transparency for industries that rely on pesticides, while also ensuring that market signals favour safe pesticides rather than those that have a high level of risk. Four years of extensive consultations and hundreds of thousands of tax payers' dollars went into developing the re-registration process as an effective approach for the APVMA to address the problem of inadequately assessed pesticides from the past.

Despite what the other side would have you believe, re-registration is a sensible approach to the problems associated with chemicals in Australia. The Queensland government—and it is very rare that I quote the Queensland government in support of something—gave evidence to the committee inquiry in which they noted that:

In Australia, there are a large number of uses of AGVET chemical products that were approved by the registration systems of the States and Territories, prior to the formation of the APVMA that have not been reassessed by modern risk assessment principles.

One of the great promises of national registration was that the 'grandfathered' products would be reassessed. There has been limited progress in reassessing the uses of these products under the APVMA Chemical Review Program.

I would also suggest that that highlights the fallacy of Senator Farrell's claims that these products have been reassessed by the states, because here is the Queensland government saying they have not been.

Re-registration has been embraced in a number of comparable countries, such as the UK, Canada and the USA. Chemicals are part of our farm industry. I know that. I appreciate the points made by others that there is an enormous number of farmers who are reliant on chemicals right now. I know that. I am from an agricultural background and I know very well that farming today relies on chemicals. However, there is more reason to make sure that farmers have access to chemicals that are appropriate and as safe as possible rather than exposing them, the environment and their produce to unmanageable risk from some of these chemicals. This does not happen with industry incumbents—those big agrichemical companies who are driving this repeal instead of farmers—who are not pushed to innovate new chemicals. In other words, we do not get new chemicals if big business, who have vested interests, and big chemical companies want to keep producing and pushing the chemicals that are much more risky. We need to make sure that we have safe chemicals that farmers can use.

The cost of these chemicals is more than the sales price at the register. They have long-lasting impacts on farmers, the land, the people who eat the produce, the rivers, our water and our lakes that the chemicals end up in. We have begun to realise that chemicals like diuron are bad for the reef. It is running off farmland and travelling a long way without breaking down. It is a cost to the environment; that is the cost of that chemical.

We have begun to realise that prolonged exposure to chemicals like paraquat is very likely to be the source of a large number of cotton farmers who have developed Parkinson's disease. These are long-term costs. Why are we allowing individuals or our precious environment to pay this price while big chemical companies continue to make large profits and avoid making further innovations for the Australian marketplace?

The Greens are not calling for these reforms because we want to see every farm in Australia denied access to pesticides tomorrow; we are calling for these reforms because, in a strong, smart country like Australia, we can do better than slowly poisoning ourselves and our land. Unless we have a proper process, that is what will continue to happen, and we will have to fight chemical by chemical and take decades to deal with it.

We have just been dealing with the issue of fenthion in this Senate and we have heard growers from around the country talk about the extensive process and uncertainty for the industry. That is what is going to happen and continue happening for each of these chemicals—renewed, prolonged uncertainty about a chemical. The growers are in doubt. The chemical producers are in doubt. We are going back to the old way of doing business—just when we are on the cusp of getting a proper systematic approach to deal with unmanageable risk.

Some people seem to think that just because we have this chemical regulator that the choices it makes and the timelines that it follows must be the best that we can expect. That is just not right and it is not true. There is something crossed between incredulity and naivety that allows people to believe that the government and its agencies would not let anything truly bad happen. That is just not true. But the evidence is clear: the APVMA has not removed the nastiest chemicals from the market, despite growing evidence that they are unmanageable. In other words, if you revert to the old system, you will not get miracles; rather you will get prolonged debate and drawn-out processes for some of the nastiest chemicals on the planet. These chemicals have not been removed because the APVMA lacks the processes and the clear direction from government to do so. Whenever it puts a chemical on its review list, it is constantly hounded by those who stand to lose profits, it is denied access to the information it needs and it bears the burden of proving the chemical is unsafe—rather than the chemical companies having to prove that the chemical is safe.

It takes years and years for these chemicals to be assessed and even then we know that the assessments lead to a stalemate due to a lack of information. Consider the farce of the Fenthion review. We have been debating this issue last year, where MP after MP got to their feet and talked about the need to get a better way of doing this. All of a sudden we seem to not want a better way of doing things. The proposed re-registration scheme is an improvement on the status quo. We need a systematic process because otherwise we go back to fighting chemical by chemical.

There is a list of active pesticide ingredients of at least 100 items that meet the criteria for highly-hazardous pesticides—the FAO and World Health Organisation criteria. We are not talking about radical criteria; these are among the most conservative in the world and we are failing to take them into account. If we lose re-registration, we lose the ability to put criteria around the APVMA's re-assessment process. There are at least four vital criteria that the legislation and associated regulations need to address. The first one is: the toxicity to humans and wild life—that is, dangerous poisons with a high potential for causing harm at low exposure. Then there are the chemicals that bio-accumulate in fatty tissue and chemicals that remain intact for exceptionally long periods of time and do not degrade. The fourth concerns chemicals that do not rapidly degrade and are measured at levels of concern in locations at a long distance from release.

When I corresponded with the then agricultural minister last year, I was told that DAFF's initial assessment is that there are around 42 substances that would meet these criteria. That correspondence was tabled during the Senate debate, but it appears that its good intent has been lost. For these reasons, I am determined to move amendments which will give the APVMA some additional criteria by which to judge the items that it needs to re-assess. The Australian Greens are introducing an amendment into section 31 of the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Code, 1994, which will put these criteria firmly into legislation and provide guidance to the APVMA about where to focus its re-assessment efforts.

We are going backwards with this legislation. The steps that were taken last year were essential, in our opinion, to help put a proper process in place to re-assess those 42 substances that are considered to have unmanageable risk. We are going back to the bad old days of a slow battle for each chemical. Some of those chemicals have been banned or restricted overseas. They are some of the most dangerous chemicals that we are potentially exposing humans and the environment to. The re-assessment process that is being repealed here allowed for a more systematic approach. The Greens will be supporting the ALP's second reading amendment, because it is better than nothing, but I will also be moving my amendments, because they at least put some process around what the government is trying to do. This is bad legislation and it takes us backwards, a move from this government that should not surprise anyone. I am surprised that the ALP has so quickly stepped away from the important reforms they introduced last year. They should be ashamed and explain to the community why it is acceptable that there will be no systematic approach to unmanageable chemicals that are still being used in this country.

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