Senate debates

Wednesday, 25 June 2014


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

11:32 am

Photo of Don FarrellDon Farrell (SA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC) Share this | | Hansard source

The opposition will be supporting the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Removing Re-approval and Re-registration) Bill 2014. However, we do have one amendment that we will move at the appropriate time.

There could be no greater responsibility for government than to ensure the health and safety of its citizens. The regulation of toxic chemicals is part of that process and we must accept nothing less than world's best practice in this area. That is why the former Labor government developed and delivered landmark reforms which markedly improved the effectiveness and efficiency of our regulatory system. We had three terrific agriculture ministers in that six-year period—Minister Burke, Minister Ludwig and, most recently, Minister Fitzgibbon.

While in government, our initiatives included providing the regulator with greater enforcement and compliance powers and resources; removing impediments to engagement and data sharing with the regulators of other countries; improving the consistency, predictability and transparency of agvet chemicals assessments and better aligning regulatory efforts with chemical risk; reducing red tape by reforming assessment processes for agvet chemical applications for approval, registration and variation; improving the timeliness of agvet chemical approvals, registrations and chemical reviews by, amongst other things, preventing 'gaming'; removing disincentives and providing greater incentives for companies to invest through improved intellectual property protection; and, finally, establishing a mandatory review of the legislation every five years.

The one contentious matter in the bill is the removal of the yet-to-be-implemented mandatory re-registration scheme. The Labor Party will not be opposing the revocation of this initiative. We will not, from opposition, try to argue that re-registration is the only way to ensure the system is as robust and effective as it can be. Many have argued that, in the absence of significant additional funding, the re-registration scheme will divert limited resources away from the main game—the risk based review processes. It needs to be remembered that the APVMA has more than 11,000 products registered under its regime and receives some 3,000 new registrations each year. Because of his, reviews take place in order, and on the basis of assessed risk. The APVMA is a world-class organisation and home to some of the world's best scientists in this field. The opposition has confidence in their work and we know they welcome the additional powers Labor's 2013 bill delivered to them.

I have seen emails suggesting that there are chemicals on the market that have never been assessed. This is patently untrue. These so-called 'grandfathered products'—those that were brought across from the old state regulatory regime—have been assessed by state regulatory bodies, and the APVMA is working its way through re-assessments in order of priority. Under the regulatory system, suggestions that any of these products are particularly harmful—whether the suggestion comes from a regulator in another country, the supplier, an NGO or, indeed, a citizen—can be brought to the attention to the APVMA, and if it is found to be of high risk the product will be pushed up the priory list. I have also seen suggestions that the number of grandfathered chemicals totals 5,000. This is also not true. There may be 5,000 products, but the active chemicals common to so many of them number around 300, 180 of which have been identified as high priority, and of those approximately 80 have been reassessed.

I believe both Labor and the coalition want the same thing—the best regulatory system for ag-vet chemicals we can deliver. This is important both for the people who use the chemical and for those who consume the foods on which they are sprayed. It is also important to the agriculture and veterinarian sectors. To do their work successfully they need chemicals, and they will have the ongoing opportunity to use them only if we have public confidence in the regulatory system that guarantees their safety.

One suggestion the opposition has today is for the government to explore the establishment of an Inventory Multi-tiered Assessment and Prioritisation (IMAP) framework that the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) has established. IMAP identifies and rapidly assesses existing chemicals of concern. Stage one of IMAP is assessing chemicals based on characteristics agreed by stakeholders including: chemicals for which NICNAS already holds exposure information; chemicals identified as a concern, or for which regulatory action has been taken overseas; and chemicals detected in international studies analysing chemicals present in the blood in babies' umbilical cords.

It is important that there is continual discussion looking at the work of the APVMA to ensure the Australian population can retain confidence in the safety of the ag-vet inventory in Australia. Furthermore, it is important for the government to appropriately resource the APVMA to apply this framework and any possible reviews that follow.

Except for one amendment, which I will move now, the opposition will be supporting this legislation. I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

but the Senate calls on the government to:

(a) explore the establishment of a systematic process of assessment within the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) for existing agriculture and veterinary chemicals similar to the Inventory Multi-tiered Assessment and Prioritisation process established under National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme; and

(b) appropriately resource the APVMA to apply the framework and conduct reviews.

11:42 am

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support very strongly the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Removing Re-approval and Re-registration) Bill 2014. There are a couple of points I need to make. Firstly, nearly the entire costs of the APVMA are borne by industry, not just the costs associated with the regulation and approval of licences et cetera, but pretty well all of the costs associated with the agency are allocated to industry—better than 90 per cent. So anything at all that reduces costs to industry, while at the same time preserving the integrity of the APVMA and the role they undertake, must surely be in the interests of all parties, including those of us here in the Senate. This is what the bill is aiming to do.

The other point that is important to make is that during the Senate's inquiry into this matter there was evidence to the effect that there are chemicals still in use here in Australia that have long been banned in other countries—European countries, the United States of America, South Africa, New Zealand et cetera. I want very clearly to put the record straight. That is not the case. Many of these chemicals are in fact not banned and they are not unsafe. The circumstance simply is that there are veterinary and agricultural chemicals used for pesticides, disease control et cetera that actually do not need to have a use for several years. In the case of animal or plant diseases, there might be seasonal conditions, for example, that remove the need for the use of that chemical over a number of years. But the chemical sits there and is still useful and still needs to be available to agriculture—to farmers, producers and pastoralists—in the event that climatic, seasonal or whatever other conditions pertain that require their use.

This legislation was going to call for regulator reapproval and re-registration of a lot of these chemicals, placing the manufacturers and the distributors of those chemicals into a circumstance of having to ask if it was in their commercial interest to go through the process of having to apply for reapproval and re-registration, when indeed the chemical may not be needed. That is the circumstance that has happened in Europe and in other places. Those manufacturers and those who distribute these chemicals have just simply taken a commercial decision of saying, 'We cannot justify on commercial grounds the continued registration and re-registration, therefore they have been allowed to lapse.' That is a huge difference from a chemical being unsafe.

In the interests of time, I will not go through other points that are entirely relevant, except to say that industry generally wants to see an APVMA which is credible, ethical, devoted towards the interests of industry and devoted towards the interests of human, animal and related health and environmental safety and security issues. We want to see all of those, but we do not want to see an APVMA tied up in red tape, unnecessary regulation and unnecessary costs.

I come back, again, to the fact that the industry pays pretty well all of the costs of APVMA. For that reason, I urge my colleagues here in the Senate to endorse, approve and pass these amendments so that, once again, we can have a circumstance in which all players are engaged happily, ethically, professionally and safely in the interests of Australian industry, environment and community.

11:46 am

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

I cannot support the measures in this bill for the reasons I will outline. Over far too many committee inquiries and estimate sessions, I have heard time and time again that Australia's chemical assessment regime has let us down. I cannot support any proposal that may weaken our system even further. One longstanding example is the issue of the pesticide carbendazim. While it is banned for use in Australia, a minimum residue limit is allowed for imported citrus, including fruit juices.

As growers in South Australia's Riverland, the Riverina in New South Wales and Sunraysia in Victoria have pointed out, if the pesticide is banned in Australia—presumably for health and safety reasons—why are supposedly safe levels of it allowed in imported fruit juice concentrate? If there is a supposed safe level—as there appears to be, according to the APVMA—then why can't growers here use it? I am not suggesting that they should, but there does appear to be a double standard that is doing our citrus growers in the eye in respect of this. I think that is wrong.

There are many, many examples of these inconsistencies, which highlight the gaps in our regulatory system. Most recently, as part of an inquiry into honey bee health in Australia, the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee received evidence from the APVMA regarding the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, or neonics—not to be confused with neocons! There are significant concerns developing overseas about the impact of these types of pesticides on bee health. In particular, the European Commission has suspended their use on flowering crops that are attractive to bees.

This issue of colony collapse disorder is absolutely fundamental, because if we are seeing the collapse of bee colonies because of the use of pesticides, that goes beyond the impact on the honey industry, which is significant in itself. It goes to the issue of pollination. It goes to the issue of something like 75 per cent of our agricultural produce, because of the impact on pollination. These are big issues. The Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee is looking at these issues right now and will be handing down a report shortly. These are fundamental issues about the future of agriculture in this country.

The APVMA first began reviewing the impact of neonics in 2012. A report was finally released in February this year, although it seems the APVMA still has not taken action and wants to conduct further research into insecticides in general before implementing any protection measures. I am not criticising the officers of that authority, but I am concerned that they do not have the resources to be able to do their job properly or with the urgency that is required on occasions. While this thoroughness is to be congratulated, the amount of time it has taken the APVMA to conduct this research—which is still not complete—is simply not good enough.

This goes to the future of agriculture in this country. It goes to fundamental issues about the sustainability of agriculture. I do not want us to be in a situation where the level of colony collapse disorder is so great—and biosecurity is another issue that needs to be considered in the context of this—that because of pesticide use, arguably, as in China's Sichuan province, pear growers are pollinating by using a sharpened bamboo stick with a feather on the end of it in lieu of bees. We need some sharpened bamboo sticks here to metaphorically prod both government and government agencies to deal with this.

In a BBC News Science & Environment report headed 'Widespread impacts of neonicotinoids impossible to deny', Matt McGrath—the environment correspondent for BBC News—says that:

Neonicotinoid pesticides are causing significant damage to a wide range of beneficial species and are a key factor in the decline of bees, say scientists.

Researchers, who have carried out a four-year review of the literature, say the evidence of damage is now "conclusive".

The scientists say the threat to nature is the same as that once posed by the notorious chemical DDT.

That appears to be the scientific consensus. We know it is a serious problem and that it can cause a serious issue with our agricultural production, yet we are still waiting for action on this.

This is particularly true given that no safeguard measures were put in place when these concerns were first raised. Measures including limiting the use of neonics and other pesticides or putting strict spray-drift boundaries in place would have provided a safety net while the review took place and could then have been removed or strengthened as required.

What raises the bigger question in the article published on BBC News yesterday was the report on a new scientific study that had shown the significant impacts of neonics on bee and environmental health. It shows conclusive damage in relation to the use of these pesticides. But how will the APVMA react to this information? How will it be considered or taken into account under the measures proposed in this bill, if there is no requirement for chemicals or pesticides to be reviewed?

Some submitters to the bee inquiry also raised concerns about the independence of the information the APVMA uses to assess chemical risks, which tends to come directly from the manufacturers. I am not saying that the manufacturers of these pesticides are bad people; on the contrary, they have a business to run and they have a role to play. But they also have a vested interest—they want to sell more of this stuff. I am not saying that they are doing so irresponsibly, but I am suggesting that it would be foolish for us to simply rely on the manufacturers. We ought to have some independent, robust assessment. For the APVMA to be pushed into a position of relying so heavily on manufacturers is itself very risky.

I note that the Australian Greens have proposed some amendments in respect of this bill. I will be supporting those amendments, as I believe they at least provide a safety net for some of the more hazardous chemicals assessed by the APVMA. I hope that both the government and the opposition will recognise that, at the very least, we need these safeguards in place. I am looking forward to Senator Siewert's contribution in relation to this. It is your contribution, Senator Siewert?

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


Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, it is. I just didn't want to get the wrong senator from the Australian Greens. I understand that the ALP have previously supported these measures but are now backing away from them. It would be good to get an explanation from the Australian Labor Party as to why they are backing away from measures which appear to be quite sensible and measured and which deal with these risks.

I do have concerns about the opposition second reading amendment, however. A call for the establishment of a 'systematic process of assessment within the APVMA for existing agriculture and veterinary chemicals' that is similar to the NICNAS scheme is worrying, because it prompts the question: why don't we have one already? If all the ALP is trying to do is do a feel-good second reading amendment that actually does not do any good because it does not require any really changes in relation to that, then why bother? It is a bit of a con on farmers, on the electorate and on the broader community that is concerned about this issue. Perhaps this might have been more useful if it had been establish during the former government's overhaul of the APVMA in 2010.

Successive governments have failed to close the loopholes in Australia's agvet chemicals regulatory system. I acknowledge the government's aim in terms of reducing red tape and, in general, I support that aim if the red tape is there for no good purpose. But if we are talking about a regulatory framework in respect of pesticides and chemicals that is about protecting our farmers, that will prevent colony collapse disorder and that will prevent the sorts of international concerns as outlined by the BBC just yesterday on the widespread impact of neonicotinoids, then we should do something about it because, if I can say colloquially: if we stuff up our bee population then Australian agriculture is stuffed because of the impact of pollination. We need to be very careful about this. We cannot forget that sometimes red tape is not just red tape; sometimes it is the steel barrier at the top of a cliff.

11:55 am

Photo of John WilliamsJohn Williams (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I would like to make a brief contribution to this debate on the Agriculture and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Removing Re-approval and Re-registration) Bill 2014. AUSVEG represents 9,000 vegetable and potato growers, and early last year AUSVEG public affairs manager, William Churchill had this to say after Labor, the Greens and Independents combined to increase the regulation of agriculture and veterinary chemicals in Australia:

AUSVEG has slammed Independent Member for New England Tony Windsor for voting in favour of a bill seeking to increase the regulation of Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals in Australia, a move which has infuriated Australian vegetable and potato growers. In an exemplary display of putting personal politics before good policy, Mr Windsor has succeeded in punching every farmer in the country below the belt …

The legislation before the chamber will right the wrongs. It implements the coalition's 2013 election commitment to remove re-registration and includes additional reforms to improve the efficiency of agvet chemicals regulation. It will remove red tape for farmers and other businesses. It will stop unnecessary costs and burden that should only occur when an unsafe product warrants the regulatory oversight. The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Association already uses the activities, assessments and decisions of overseas regulators and reviews peer-reviewed science.

On Monday, 23 June the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee lodged its report in the Senate. The report said that the Department of Agriculture noted that without changes to the Agvet Code, the re-registration requirements due to come into force on the 1 July would lead to significant costs to both industry and the APVMA. It would increase APVMA's costs by $2.2 million per year once the initial rollout is complete.

I am very wary of chemicals on the farm. My wife, Nancy, has done the course that we have to do, and I follow her advice when it comes to chemicals. I am very aware of digoxin, so when I had to spray a paddock just two weeks ago I got a contractor to do it. It is a dangerous chemical and it must treated with respect.

In summary, these agvet chemicals legislation amendments will save the agvet chemical industry $1.3 million in time and fees annually by removing duplication and unnecessary red tape. I just find it amazing that they want to change the size of a chemical container. Imagine if I go to buy a 10-litre drum of a particular sheep drench and they want to put it out in a 20-litre container. The red tape and associated costs to do that will amount to just another cost which we will pay for. The cost is always passed on to the consumer—while we are trying to remain internationally competitive. Here is the problem.

APVMA estimate that re-registration would cost them an extra $2 million per year, as I have mentioned. Industry has calculated that removing the re-approval and re-registration scheme will save them up to $9 million annually in red tape and associated costs. I commend my colleague the Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce, for introducing legislation to stop another layer of Labor-Greens red tape that burdens users of agriculture and veterinary chemicals. Farmers want to get on with the job.

We do respect chemicals. We know they are basically essential in the production of food. You cannot grow a crop of wheat with weeds; you grow either one or the other. Many chemicals that simply have not been a problem have been used for many years. Roundup is a classic example, which I use often myself. We know that we have a strict oversight of registering chemicals, and that is exactly how it should be. To deregister chemicals that in time prove to be very dangerous and harmful to human health would be wrong. But we have strict scrutiny of how these chemicals are tested, researched and finally registered. To come back to reregistration every few years is just another cost, and, as I said, who pays for it?

In winding up, I commend former Senator Barnaby Joyce, now Barnaby Joyce MP, Minister for Agriculture, for removing this cost burden. We want to see more profit at the farm gate—that is our goal. We have already seen decades of cost increases after cost increases. It is time to remove costs but keep those strict regulations in place so that farmers, vegetable growers et cetera deal with safe chemicals that are most importantly safe for the consumer. No-one has an agenda or a goal to harm the consumer. The consumer must be protected from any sort of dangerous chemical, and that system is already in place. That is why I commend this legislation, and hopefully we will see the passage of it very soon.

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.

12:20 pm

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture) Share this | | Hansard source

The Greens' contribution would lead you to think that we are going back almost to the days before regulation existed. I must say that the Greens pretend to be the friend of the farmer; they trot around the countryside suggesting they are the farmer's friend. But my experience is that they put in place red tape and green tape that cost farmers time—and time is money—and that has a negative impact on the industry. They would be more than happy if we went back to horses and carts and farmers' markets, but we do live in the modern age and we do have an issue in producing food and fibre to feed Australia and the increasing demand in export markets. We need to have a sensible process in place to deal with necessary agricultural and veterinary chemicals.

Under this measure and some of the measures introduced in the last parliament which we supported there are strong and established systems to review agricultural and veterinary chemicals. Those systems look at the risks to safety and at the performance of the chemical. The mechanisms were actually strengthened by the previous government, and we supported those changes. Senator Siewert talked about the time taken—well, the previous government's 2003 act strengthened chemical review arrangements by improving time limits, flexibility and transparency; reviews need to be completed within time frames. In opposition, we have participated in discussions with industry players around a number of agricultural chemicals. I can recall discussions around Dimethoate and the concerns around access to that chemical. It was being reviewed because there were concerns about its safety. That review has been completed, and access to the chemical is now restricted. Senator Siewert talks about Fenthion: we have also participated very closely in the process of the review around that chemical—a review implemented because there were concerns about its safety. So to suggest that we are going back to the Dark Ages is, I think, a bit of a stretch.

With regard to the discussion around chemicals being banned in Europe: you need to be very careful of the Greens' language when you are listening to these claims. The Greens will claim that chemicals have been delisted or banned, when what has happened in fact is that their registration has lapsed. And why has it lapsed? Because the re-registration process is so costly—there is no return for anybody who goes through the re-registration process. This is actually a backdoor way of taking some chemicals off the market. These are chemicals that have been utilised safely for a long period of time. There have been no concerns raised about their efficacy or safety. So we need to be very careful of the language we use; the Greens talk about banning or delisting when, in a lot of cases, it has been a lapsing of the registration which has effectively taken the active ingredient off the market.

There needs to be a sound and solid framework around the management of agricultural and veterinary chemicals. The government is looking to strike a proper balance. We do have systems in place. We do have adverse reporting systems in place so that if there is an activity or an event that requires attention, it can be managed; it can trigger a review of the chemical. We do take into account—despite what Senator Siewert has said—what is happening in other jurisdictions around the world. We do take notice of new science. That can be put into the process, and can trigger a review of a chemical. But we do not need a mandatory process where every chemical has to come up for re-registration every five or seven years—that is unnecessary red and green tape. I would like to congratulate the opposition on coming around to supporting our view, because it provides a sensible balance: between the strengthened provisions which they put in when they were in government—and that we supported; and reasonable access to the necessary agricultural and veterinary chemicals that are available to industry here in Australia, so that we can meet our obligations. The government is concerned to ensure that we have an effective mechanism for the approval and registration of ag and vet chemicals in Australia.

We made a commitment at the election that we would remove the re-registration provision. We did not support it in opposition; we saw it as unnecessary duplication and as red and green tape. We know that environment groups have been trotting around the countryside over a long period of time, trying to align the government with these sorts of provisions and, unfortunately, the previous government—with its close relationship with the Greens at the time—fell for it. They fell for the trap. So I congratulate them on taking this one small step away from the alignment with the Greens. It is timely and it is worthwhile. The government is committed to reform in this area—further reform—so that we continue to have a strong system for the registration of agricultural and veterinary chemicals—one that is efficient and one that is cost-effective for our industry, but one that maintains efficacy and ensures that agricultural and veterinary chemicals are fit for purpose, and safe—for people and for the environment. So we will continue to drive reforms. We need to ensure that new, safe and softer agricultural and veterinary chemicals are available to the Australian agricultural sector, and we will continue to do what we can to ensure that that comes to pass. I congratulate the government on their stance on this piece of legislation and I look forward to their support. I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Photo of Sue BoyceSue Boyce (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question now is that the motion moved by Senator Scullion, as amended, be agreed to.