Senate debates

Wednesday, 13 February 2019


Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Operational Efficiency) Bill 2017; Second Reading

11:09 am

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Disability and Carers) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Operational Efficiency) Bill 2017. The bill before the Senate was first introduced in the other place on 25 October 2017 and passed on 12 February 2018. This week is the anniversary of the passing of this legislation from the other place. It should have been, but that is not the case. Labor supported the original bill in the other place and sought to progress this piece of legislation as non-controversial, as the bill had bipartisan support. The bill has been listed in the Senate on a number of occasions since February 2018, and, if it had come to a vote prior to May 2018, would have passed without this ill-thought-through amendment that seeks to implement a governance board. No coherent rationale has been provided by the government as to why the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, the APVMA, needs a governance board.

Given that this bill was first introduced in October 2017 and passed the other place in February 2018 and that we are a year on, it is very important to look at the original intent of this bill as it was before this very ill thought out amendment before the Senate. The bill sought to make minor and technical amendments to a number of acts: the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals (Administration) Act 1992, the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Code Act 1994 and the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemical Products (Collection of Levy) Act 1994. The explanatory memorandum stated that the amendments would:

… realise operational efficiencies, reduce unnecessary regulation, clarify ambiguities and remove redundant provisions.

There are a number of other things that this bill sought to do. The bill has finally come to the Senate, but we have an amendment that seeks to implement a governance board on the APVMA. Initially, the reason was that the government would be replacing the advisory board with a governance board, which would position the APVMA to become a modern and sustainable regulator. Only someone kidding themselves would believe that statement. The idea that a governance board would achieve it is an absolute joke. If the government is serious about resetting the APVMA, it needs to have a serious look at the challenges that are currently facing the organisation due, as everyone in the Senate would know—it's been well discussed inside and outside parliament—to the forced relocation from Canberra to Armidale.

The government must consult properly with industry and stakeholders who deal directly with the APVMA with regard to the establishment of the governance board. We know that the government has a poor record on properly consulting with industry and stakeholders. They themselves have amended their own amendment. During a public hearing by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee into the independence of regulatory decisions made by the APVMA departmental officers were found out to be either misleading the committee or unaware of the outcomes of consultations. They stated:

Industry have indicated to us that they're satisfied now and that they no longer have any objections to the board.

Yet the industry body for crop protection, when it was asked to confirm the department's position, made clear, at this stage:

No. We don't yet support the actual concept. We think that it needs to actually prove that it's going to deliver value as part of the broader structural changes in the regulatory system.

By anyone's reckoning, that is not support for this move to introduce a governance board. I'm not sure how the department evidence came to be so wrong. Perhaps they were unaware of the outcomes of the consultations? But it is clear by that statement that they were very wrong in the information that they gave the committee.

Given that, I feel that it is very important that I read the following into the Hansard transcript so that the chamber understands there is not widespread industry support for the governance board. This is from a Hansard transcript from 20 November 2018. The chair asked:

Can you tell us what process the department undertook to determine that the establishment of the governance board of the APVMA should be implemented via an amendment to an existing bill in the Senate?Ms Gaglia said:

As we've stated, that was a decision by the minister.

The chair then asked:

Just the minister. Is the department aware of any concerns from stakeholders relating to the implementation of the governance board, particularly with regard to perceived or actual interference in the independence of the APVMA?

Ms Gaglia said:

Certainly, up until the time we submitted the revised amendments, that was the case. Industry had made it quite clear to us that they had concerns that the way we had drafted the original amendments didn't make it clear enough that the board wouldn't be involved in the day-to-day regulatory decisions of the APVMA, hence why we've altered and revised the amendments. Industry have indicated to us that they're satisfied now and that they no longer have any objections to the board.

Yet, later that day, the industry representative body for crop protection clearly stated that they do not support the creation of the board at 'this point in time'. Further on in the same committee, the chair then asked—

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

Fantastic chairing!

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Disability and Carers) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm sure it was, Senator Sterle! The chair then asked:

… then each subsequent year it goes to cost recovery. Are you opposed to that model?

Mr Cossey said:

We're happy to look at all measures that will seek to improve the operational efficiency of the regulator. There are two issues here, and in the context of this inquiry it's why I make the point of separating them. One is about their scientific technical competency and the other is about their efficiency.

Mr Cossey went on to say:

We have never been on the record criticising or questioning their scientific or technical competency, because they've never given us a basis to do so. We are on the record, in any criticisms of the APVMA that we have made, specifically as to efficiency and timeliness. My view is that the original bill, that is now being amended in the Senate, was an important bill. I understand it was supported by all sides of politics.

And that's correct. I mentioned that in the earlier part of my contribution here. Of course, it is important to again note that this bill has been hanging around since October 2017. Mr Cossey was quite right when he said that it was supported by all sides of politics. Then we have this extraordinary intervention by the government with this very ill-thought-out amendment that we're looking at today. Mr Cossey goes on to say:

That should have proceeded as is and the issue of a governance board been dealt with as part of the second part of streamlining, with a broader look at all the measures that could be undertaken to improve the operational efficiency of the APVMA.

We are obviously concerned about any extra costs being put into the system, because they either act as inhibitors to bringing products to market—and on that point I already note that a third of the full costs of research and development for a new product are directly related to costs of regulation. If we are proposing measures that are bringing more costs into the system, that are being borne by registrants and, hence, then on farm, we need to be assured that they will deliver real efficiencies.

The chair then asks:

Just to clarify, I don't think I've heard anyone speak ill of the APVMA's technical work, not at all. It's just been the time of—wanting to get clearance, so we've got that clear. Did you say you were consulted by the government or you weren't?

Mr Cossey says:

We were. We don't support, necessarily, that initiative at this point.

The chair again clarifies:

Is it the governance board?

And Mr Cossey responds:

The governance board. We believe it should be part of a broader efficiency package, that we look at how the whole agency works. I think it's important to note that the APVMA is not without a range of corporate governance oversight at the moment. There is the audit committee which is externally appointed and works with the CEO. There is a range of government committees in there. It is more that we would like to work through the issue as part of a range of other reforms.

It couldn't be clearer, really. It couldn't be more clear. Senator O'Sullivan then asks Mr Cossey:

… you said earlier that you are not opposed to the governance board—in fact, you supported the concept. Yours is an issue around timing only and cost recovery?

And Mr Cossey is quite clear; he says:

No. We don't yet support the actual concept. We think that it needs to actually prove that it's going to deliver value as part of the broader structural changes in the regulatory system.

Advice from the minister's office claims: 'The APVMA has not been performing at its optimum for a number of years and there are long-standing issues with its operation and management. Its current financial position is unsustainable. Its ICT operating environment is at the point of critical failure. Its performance is poor, having never met its legislative timeframes, and it has struggled to implement major reforms.'

The fact is the APVMA has been devastated by the former agricultural minister's ill-thought-out pork barrel. It has devastated this organisation, the APVMA. Labor urges the government to remove the amendment to establish the governance board and to properly consider the benefit of establishing the governance board, because it's quite clear it hasn't been properly considered. We've already heard Mr Cossey's evidence that they do not support the concept, so I'm not sure why the government is continuing to push this amendment and is not going back and doing proper consultations.

Labor urges the government to remove the amendment to establish the governance board and to properly consider the benefits of establishing such a board. The questions have to be asked as to what evidence does the government have that a governance board will help reset the organisation, improve its operation and management, and position it to become a modern and sustainable regulator in regional Australia?

Mr Barnaby Joyce has devastated the capability, the capacity and the functionality of the APVMA because of the pork barrel relocating the APVMA to his own electorate. The industry, farmers and the Australian community should not continue to pay for the member for New England's poor and ill-thought-out pork barrel.

What evidence does the government have to support the claim that the skills and experiences provided by highly experienced board members will support the APVMA as it implements its new business operating model in Armidale to deliver a more efficient and effective regulator based in regional Australia? What other regulator has a governance board? If there is another cost recovered regulator which has a governance board, who pays for the governance board? How will the governance board ensure that the APVMA's ICT operating environment recovers from the point of critical failure? Why has the government chosen not to pass the Agriculture and Water Resources Legislation Amendment Bill 2016, as it was this bill which sought originally to abolish the APVMA's advisory board?

The government should reconsider its amendment, and I've set out clearly why the government should reconsider this amendment to this bill that we have before us and put forward the establishment of the APVMA's governance board in a standalone bill—one that is properly consulted on with stakeholders. I believe it's very important to give confidence to the organisations that are stakeholders within the APVMA—to give confidence to them that the government will go back and introduce a standalone piece of legislation around the establishment of an APVMA governance board. This will allow the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Operational Efficiency) Bill 2017 to pass the Senate ASAP.

We already know that, originally, that piece of legislation had bipartisan support. What we have now is an amendment—I think it's actually an amendment to an amendment—that the government has put in, in my view, without proper consultation and without a clear understanding of what stakeholders are saying out there. We've just heard, and I've just read into the Hansard, their views on it. Mr Cossey was very clear—he said it on a number of occasions—that they did not support the concept of a governance board at this point in time.

It's an easy fix for the government: all they have to do is to come in here with a separate bill, one where they have actually taken the time to have considered and consulted with organisations. It's clear that this hasn't been the case. They've had this bill, the original bill, hanging around since October 2017. It was passed in the House on 12 February 2018, so we're a year on. Now they've managed to really—I was going to say 'cock it up', but I'm not going to say that! So I urge the government to reconsider their position.

11:29 am

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise to speak on the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Operational Efficiency) Bill 2017. Overall, the Greens are in support of this bill, although with a few important caveats that I'll come to later on.

Although the Greens don't always agree with the Productivity Commission, its final report Regulation of Australian agriculture, which was published in March 2017, noted that despite numerous reviews and subsequent reforms there are concerns remaining about unnecessarily lengthy, complex and duplicative registration procedures. This, of course, has been exacerbated by the turmoil and the changes at the APVMA, which we have all known about for the last couple of years, but some of the problems go to things that can be fixed with minor changes to this legislation.

This bill would improve the ability of the APVMA to go back to proponents when it finds errors in an application at the preliminary assessment stage without requiring the process to be reset entirely. It would enable the APVMA to grant only part of a variation application, instead of requiring the complete rejection of an entire application if parts of it require rejection. It would clarify the definition of 'expiry date' in the Agvet Code to mean the date after which a chemical product 'must not' be used, instead of 'should not', which is a much better indication of the safety for use of most of our agvet chemicals and of critical importance. And it makes a number of other minor technical reforms, which we have confidence will not in themselves compromise human or environmental safety.

The Greens fundamentally support the concept of an efficient and effective pesticide and veterinary medicine regulator. It's in the interests of all parties, whether they be Australia's farmers, chemical companies, public health advocates and experts or environmentalists, that our chemical regulator works well. But it's interesting that, on the one hand, the government is making these minor reforms while, on the other hand, the APVMA is in crisis. It's a crisis of capacity and a crisis of public confidence. The adequacy of these reforms must be compared and must be shown in a harsh light compared to the scale of the problem.

The fact that the APVMA has lost capacity is uncontroversial at this point—everybody knows it's the case. The decline in approval time lines, the loss of scientists and other staff, the need at the last budget to inject a large amount of money into the agency to prop up the relocation to Armidale—these are all signs of an agency that has become a political plaything for the Nationals' decentralisation agenda. Then there's the fact that the APVMA, after being so certain that they were going to shift all of their operations to Armidale, decided no, actually they were going to have to keep operations in Canberra as well. It shows that the whole management of the APVMA under this government has been a complete shambles.

The smoking gun in the shambles we've got at the APVMA at the moment is that in the other place this week is the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Streamlining Regulation) Bill 2018. We'll have a lot more to say about this bill when it comes through to the Senate, but it is really just astounding that this government is considering the privatisation of our chemical assessment process. What could be a bigger admission of failure—an admission that they have lost control of their workflow, that they can't cope, that they haven't got the capacity to deal with the amount of work that's required—than accrediting third-party bodies to assess the public health and environmental safety of our agvet chemicals? And it's astounding that they're doing it in the current environment; that they're not seeing the risks in allowing proponents to choose their own assessor. What kind of culture does this create? Has this government learned nothing from the banking royal commission, from the vocational education disaster, from the piles of examples of poorly regulated or unregulated conflicts of interest that are allowed to grow when the government decides to leave things entirely to the private sector? I hope that Labor and the crossbench will join the Greens in ruling out such a dangerous proposition when the bill comes to the Senate.

Even more dangerous, though, than the collapse of the capacity of the APVMA is the collapse in public confidence. In our Senate inquiry into the performance of the independence of the APVMA we heard witness after witness tell us that there was little to no faith that the APVMA was operating in the interests of the broader community. Its approach to glyphosate was a case in point. Despite multiple senior executives at the APVMA admitting that the finding by IARC, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic was correct, there was no formal reconsideration, no robust review, which is astounding. The situation with glyphosate is appalling. Here you've got a chemical that's probably carcinogenic, but there's been no formal review by the APVMA. It really seems to be the case once again that the APVMA is singing to the tune of the big agricultural chemical industry rather than doing the thorough and independent investigation and regulation that is required for the safety of our farmers and our environment.

There are chemicals that have been on the books since the APVMA came into place in the early 1990s and that haven't been assessed for over 25 years. Some of them have been banned in many overseas constituencies, such as the European Union. There was legislation in 2013 that the Greens were very supportive of. It would have ensured we re-evaluated and reviewed this cohort of chemicals and we'd have a robust and straightforward way of keeping our chemical regulations up to date with the most recent science. But—guess what?—when this government came into power in 2013 it decided to scrap that legislation, and, appallingly, the Labor Party supported them in doing that. Labor and the coalition came together to tear up that process of reassessment—of looking again and re-evaluating this cohort of chemicals that haven't been assessed for over 25 years. They tore up that process before it even began.

And then you've got the money swirling around our politics. Corporate donation laws and election funding rules are absolutely broken. We recently saw the AEC returns for the 2017-18 financial year. The agvet chemical industry and its lobbying bodies gave over $130,000 to the major parties in that year alone. Bayer, the company that holds the patent for glyphosate and that is desperate, of course, for glyphosate not to be independently re-evaluated, contributed over $80,000, split almost evenly between Labor and the coalition. Is it any wonder that trust in our agencies, our departments and, most importantly, our ministers and parliament is eroding? The rot goes very deep.

What have we got in response to this? The government has circulated amendments that would create a new board structure for the APVMA, with the idea that this would magically improve its governance, would magically make APVMA a trustworthy institution that everybody could have trust in. But the details are light, the costs are unclear and the government is actually yet to make a case as to why a board would be better than the current situation. We've got a lot of sympathy for improving the governance of the APVMA—don't worry about that. In general, the idea of having an independent board that would have independent oversight is something we'd support, but it needs much more than that, and it needs much more detail than what we are being given in this amendment. One of the recommendations from our inquiry was that there needed to be much more robust community involvement and representation and engagement with the decision-making, but that is not being considered. We've got the possibility that the board may set up some subcommittees but no certainty, no mandatory community engagement, in the processes of the APVMA. Yet the community are huge stakeholders: it's our safety. It's the safety of the people who are using these chemicals and the people who are affected by these chemicals as they are being used in our environment. The Greens know that a board by itself is not going to be enough to restore both competence to the APVMA and confidence in it. Given that the addition of a board isn't necessary for the passage of this bill, we agree that the government should not proceed with including it.

If we're going to change the governance of the APVMA—and I repeat, it's something that the Greens absolutely and fundamentally support—we must not make the mistakes of the past and do it in a piecemeal fashion. There is a lot more work that needs to be done. We need to re-look at the structure of the APVMA and make sure that it's a body that can really have the support and the confidence of the community. Let's do that reform comprehensively and do it at once with really good consultation with the community and the industry and with broad agreement about the path forward. But we need to do it separately to the, frankly, very minor reforms that are contained in the original bill before this place today.

11:39 am

Photo of Anne RustonAnne Ruston (SA, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for International Development and the Pacific) Share this | | Hansard source

I, too, stand to make a contribution on the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Operational Efficiency) Bill 2017—and I note the '2017'. In fact, it was actually 25 October 2017 when this particular bill was first introduced into the other place. The bill was introduced for some pretty sound reasons. The APVMA is the body, or the regulator, which is absolutely essential to the quality of life of Australians, because we need chemicals to protect our crops from pests and diseases and we need them to protect our animals from pests and diseases. It actually underlines and underpins the competitiveness and the productivity of Australia's farmers.

However, agvet has a huge range of other uses as well. It controls pests and vermin in food premises and it kills flies and mosquitos around your house. We use it to preserve timber, control the fouling of boat hulls and keep our swimming pools safe. We also use these chemicals to keep our pets safe and make sure that they're in a healthy environment. Agvet protects our environment from invasive pests and weeds. So the regulation and the safe and effective control of our agvet chemicals is absolutely in the interests of every single Australian. Don't be fooled that this is just about one sector of our economy; agvet touches just about every person in some way, shape or form.

The role of the APVMA is absolutely fundamental to that outcome. The APVMA is there to ensure that these chemicals, as they come into our country and are used, are safe for people, plants, animals and our environment. The legislation that we have before us today, that has been a matter of debate now for some 18 months, amends the agvet chemicals legislation so that we can end up with greater streamlining and better reporting and operational efficiencies within the APVMA. It also deals with—as is always the case with legislation that has been around for a while—the ambiguities, redundancies and unnecessary provisions that exist in legislation as it changes over time. In particular, it seeks to reduce unnecessary regulatory burden on industry by simplifying reporting on these products, and it seeks to make sure that we are always on top of the kind of information that the industry needs to provide to the regulator and that that information is always timely and up to date. Then we can have maximum efficiency and effectiveness in the regulation of this industry, but, at the same time, not place unnecessary time and resource burdens onto industry, so that we don't slow down the productivity of industry and also make sure that we have timely accessibility to the effective chemicals that we need in our everyday lives to keep ourselves, our environment and our pets and animals safe.

The coalition government's $4 billion 2015 Agricultural competitiveness white paperwas an absolute blueprint for taking Australia's agricultural sector from where it was a number of years ago to the powerhouse that it is today. We've seen massive increases in the efficiency, effectiveness, profitability and productivity of our agricultural sector on the back of a number of initiatives that were put forward as part of that competitiveness white paper. Not the least of those initiatives was the increased level of access that we made available to our agricultural sector through the negotiation of a number of free trade agreements. This has seen huge competitive tension return to the Australian marketplace, so we're seeing better prices for our farmers, better prices at the farm gate and more of our products able to be exported overseas. This allows the agricultural sector to play the extraordinarily important role that it does in Australia's balance of payments figures. In fact, in the 12 months to the end of June 2018, agriculture was the sector that was the single largest contributor to our export profitability.

So, as part of this process, following the announcement in the agricultural competitiveness white paper that the government was going to commit $17.1 million to measures to make sure that we improve access and efficiency to agvet chemicals whilst retaining the necessary safety provisions for humans, animals, plants and the environment, we committed to undertake a very extensive consultation process. During 2015 and 2016, we undertook widespread consultation, and stakeholder feedback indicated that there was widespread interest in reform and support for a more efficient and effective regulator. Arising from this consultation, the government then prepared this particular bill, which is the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Operational Efficiency) Bill, and a second bill, which was referred to earlier in somebody's contribution, the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Streamlining Regulation) Bill 2018, which was introduced into the House of Representatives on 18 October 2018.

The measures in this bill seek to establish an APVMA board and, as part of that, to reduce the annual reporting burden on industry and to provide for civil penalties if false or misleading information is provided to the APVMA. Currently it's only a criminal offence and administrative actions are available. The measures also seek to make minor changes to improve the operation of agvet chemical legislation. So this bill, if we're putting it into simple terms and in relation to the benefit that it will actually give to the industry—and it's absolutely essential that the industry gets access to these particular chemicals—first and foremost will reduce the regulatory burden by simplifying reporting requirements for annual returns. It will enable applicants to address minor errors or missing information identified during the assessment process of an application instead of the application just being automatically refused and the applicant having to pay more money in application fees and spending more time on a whole new application. It's just common sense. It also will enable part of a variation in the application process to be granted. Instead of having it refused and the applicant having to pay more application fees, it will actually enable that variation to occur during the application process. And it will improve the APVMA's governance by establishing a governance board to support a more efficient and effective regulator.

I noted in the contribution that Senator Brown made before that she was particularly critical of the establishment of the board for the APVMA. First of all, it needs to be put on the public record that the board will be the accountable authority. Under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013, it must, and will, ensure the proper, efficient and effective performance of the APVMA's functions. It will be tasked with determining the policies, objectives and strategies that must be followed by the APVMA, and the board will help set the APVMA's strategic direction, drive operational performance and set up an appropriate risk framework that will ensure greater accountability.

During Senator Brown's contribution, she made it sound like this was some anomaly within the system, that this board was being set up in some way that was completely counter to the way we operate within the public sector when it comes to how we manage, control or operate our regulators, of which we have many. First of all, we as a government reviewed over 70 corporate and non-corporate Commonwealth entities in deciding what the most appropriate structure for the board of the APVMA should be. It was done in a way that met with all of the guidelines, including the Australian Government Charging Framework, such that any of the cost-recovery arrangements were entirely consistent with that framework.

Off the top of my head, I can only think of a couple of regulators that would fit in a similar mould to this particular regulator. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority operates with a board under a cost recovery mechanism. Airservices Australia also operates with a board and is also a regulator with a cost recovery model. So, just off the top of my head, there are a couple that I can think of, but I'm sure, given that we reviewed more than 70 Commonwealth entities in the process of making the decision about what the most appropriate structure for this particular board was, there are many, many more that will be able to fit into a similar structure as the one that's being proposed by this bill here today.

The other comment that I would make in relation to this is that Senator Rice also made comments about this particular board. Without being overly critical of the contribution that was made by Senator Rice, there seems to be a lack of consistency here in the debate. You can't just conveniently say that you want more regulation—I can assure you that the only thing I ever hear from the other end of the chamber, from the Greens, is that they want more regulation—but then say, when we are providing another level of protection, of assurance, of accountability, of transparency and of governance within a structure that is so tremendously important to the entire Australian community, that you think it's a bad idea that we put that corporate board in place, just as Senator Rice did. You need to be consistent; you can't be convenient in your response.

I suppose the other part of it is that there obviously seems to be an allergic reaction from the other end of the chamber whenever we talk about deregulation or privatisation, as if there is some sort of perfect solution that everything should happen in Canberra and that nothing should happen in regional Australia at all. Everything needs to be controlled from Canberra—central control, central command—and it's almost like it is a crime for us to consider that privatisation is a mechanism that's available to government for the efficient and effective operation of many of the activities that government sees as very important to Australia. I mean, we retain the regulatory control over it through legislative and regulatory instruments. The word 'privatisation' is not a swear word. I think we just need to put aside some of these entrenched negativities towards some of the things that the conservative side of politics believe are a valuable way of preserving taxpayers' money, making sure we get things done efficiently and effectively, and doesn't turn government into the great behemoth bureaucracy that some others would like it to be.

The other thing is that we need to be really careful when we're debating these particular types of legislation. When we are talking about chemicals that, if handled incorrectly, can be tremendously dangerous to human health, to animal health and to our environment, we don't want to actually start rabbits running on conspiracy theories. Once again we've heard some conspiracy theories being thrown around in the debate about this particular piece of legislation, and I think it's very important that we warn against that sort of behaviour. The effective operation of our agvet sector, the role that the APVMA must continue to play, is absolutely essential in the confidence that the Australian public can have and the message that we send to the rest of the world about how good we are at how we regulate in an efficient, an effective and a streamlined way the things that we take so terribly seriously in Australia.

Nobody could doubt that when we came into government in 2013 the performance of the APVMA was something that we considered to be a significant issue to government. We'd heard from industry across the board that the performance of the APVMA was something that was held as a significant inhibitor to the development of our agricultural sector. It was considered to be extremely important that we dealt with a number of the issues that were before us, and that's exactly what this bill seeks to do. The fact that we've been standing here now for 18 months talking about this bill is a sad indictment that we are happy to play politics with something as important as this, instead of actually just getting the bill put through the parliament and getting the benefits that are able to accrue from these changes on the ground so that we can get on with the job that is before us.

But back to the board and why we believe this board will add great value and benefit to the industry. We've heard from Senator Brown that CropLife don't particularly want the board. One of the things that you will be pleased to see demonstrated is that the application, introduction and establishment of this board under the conditions and the structure that we're proposing here will actually end up providing net benefit to industry, because the purpose of the board is to make the APVMA more effective and efficient. That necessarily translates out quite directly. It will mean the costs to the APVMA will be reduced, and the beneficiary of reduced costs of application, reduced costs for the registration of chemicals and streamlining of the regulation of chemicals will be the industry sector. The fact that we are changing the processes to make them easier, more effective, less cumbersome, not so burdensome—all of these things—will add up to making the cost of regulation and registration of chemicals cheaper, and the beneficiary of cheaper regulation and registration will be the industry sector. So we believe that the establishment of a skills based, experience based board will assist the APVMA in implementing its new business model. It is a business model that we are absolutely determined will be the most efficient and effective regulator based in regional Australia—there we go, regionalisation—that will be able to deliver maximum efficiency and benefit to our industry sectors.

We've also worked closely with industry in developing the model for this board. The board, as it is proposed in this legislation, is also consistent with the findings of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Water Resources inquiry into the APVMA regulatory reforms, which supports the government's plan to establish an APVMA board. This is but one area where we believe that we can make a substantial difference to the efficiency and effectiveness of the operation of the APVMA and, in doing so, provide broad benefits across our whole community for people who require access to the regulatory activities of the APVMA.

It's worth noting that we are investing significant money in information and communications technology within APVMA to make sure that it has the ICT capacity to be able to respond quickly and effectively as an authority and as a regulator. It's tremendously important in this day and age that we are able to collect, collate, evaluate, use and implement the massive amount of information that is delivered to bodies such as this regulator to make sure that we are getting the best possible outcome. As we rightly know, there is much change in this area: new chemicals come onto the market, more information becomes available about old chemicals, or they become obsolete because chemical companies are no longer manufacturing them. This is a very dynamic environment in which the APVMA is required to operate. The consequences of us not having an effective and efficient organisation which is able to respond quickly to changes in the marketplace can have massive detrimental impacts, particularly on our agricultural sector. So the investment of over $10 million to modernise the APVMA's ICT systems will deliver huge benefits to the regulatory services available to the Australian industry sectors that rely on these services.

Prior to the election, I have to say that, under Labor, the proportion of applications finalised on time was but 33 per cent. I pointed to that because it does demonstrate that there was definitely a need for us to undertake the kind of reforms that are proposed in this bill. We have done it in a systematic and strategic way. We've undertaken wide consultation. We have listened to the interests and the concerns of the people who are impacted and the various stakeholders in this industry.

It's very pleasing to say that as of November 2018, the latest performance statistics of the APVMA show that it has significantly improved. There is obviously still room for further improvement, but it has significantly improved its performance for the fifth consecutive quarter, with 86 per cent of applications finalised within the legislative frameworks. So I would ask the chamber today to put politics aside, because this is a very, very important piece of legislation that affects every one of us and our everyday lives. I think support for this bill is absolutely essential for all of us.

12:00 pm

Photo of Chris KetterChris Ketter (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to make a contribution on the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Operational Efficiency) Bill 2017. I support initiatives to reduce the regulatory burden for our primary producers, providing they're taking into account the primary purpose of the APVMA, which, as we know, is to protect the health and safety of people, animals and the environment by ensuring chemical products are safe. So, yes, this is a very important regulator. It has very important functions. That's all the more reason why the government of the day should be respectful of its operations.

I'll talk later in my contribution about the way in which this government has been utterly dismissive of the importance of this authority. Labor is supporting this bill, but I note that this legislation should have been implemented three years ago. The coalition government has dragged its feet on agriculture reform just like it's dragged its feet on banking reform, on payday lending, on consumer protections and in relation to superannuation.

What this bill seeks to do is to make minor and technical amendments to the following acts: the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals (Administration) Act 1992, the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Code Act 1994 and the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemical Products (Collection of Levy) Act 1994. The explanatory memorandum states that the amendments will 'realise operational efficiencies, reduce unnecessary regulation, clarify ambiguities and remove redundant provisions'.

In enacting these changes, the bill reduces the regulatory burden on industry by simplifying reporting requirements for annual returns; reduces the administrative burden on the APVMA and industry by increasing the flexibility of the APVMA to manage errors in an application at the preliminary assessment stage; reduces the regulatory burden by enabling the APVMA to grant part of a variation application under section 27 of the schedule to the code act, which is the Agvet Code; enables a person to apply to vary the relevant particulars or conditions of a label approval that is suspended, to the extent that the variation relates to the grounds for suspension; establishes civil pecuniary penalties for contraventions of provisions relating to providing false or misleading information in the Agvet Code and the administration act; amends the notification requirements in section 8E of the Agvet Code so that the APVMA and the FSANZ will have the flexibility to agree on appropriate time frames for notifications; amends the definition of 'expiry date' in the Agvet Code to mean 'the date after which a chemical product must not be used'; and makes minor and technical amendments to the administration act and the Agvet Code, including the repeal of redundant provisions.

As I said in my opening comments, the government has been too slow to implement the necessary reforms in this space—reforms which were expected from industry stakeholders following the introduction of these significant legislative reforms by the Labor government in 2013 to improve the efficiency of the APVMA. Despite the National Party selling themselves as the champions of farmers, it's often Labor who achieves the results. Labor's reforms saw promising signs of increased performance at the APVMA emerge in 2016. The performance against the statutory time frame for assessing pesticide applications reached 83 per cent in the 2016 September quarter. However, with the ongoing negative impact on the APVMA due to the forced relocation by the then Turnbull government, as currently supported by the Morrison government, these promising signs have been devastated. I noted Senator Ruston's comments earlier about the importance of the work of the APVMA not only for Australians but also in terms of our international reputation, and that just throws into stark relief the irresponsibility in relation to the relocation of the APVMA. The APVMA only achieved 30 per cent of its work within statutory time frames for crop protection in the 2017 March quarter, 24 per cent in the June quarter and 36 per cent in the September quarter. The recent performance figures have improved but are still not at the height of the time frames reached in the 2016 September quarter.

We know that industry stakeholders are seeking to have this bill passed as soon as possible, but I note that this bill could have been put forward much earlier than 25 October 2017. It's interesting that Senator Ruston made the comment that these reforms are extremely urgent. You wouldn't know it by the time frames that they've been following in respect of these reforms. Further, since the election of the coalition government, it's failed to identify or deliver any legislative reform options that would result in any quantifiable ongoing efficiency dividend for the regulator. The former Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, Mr Joyce, has been all talk and no action on ensuring that further legislative operational efficacies are implemented. An example of the all talk and no action is the failed 2015 agriculture white paper, which indicated that the government would further streamline the approval of agricultural and veterinary chemicals by reducing industry and user costs by around $68 million to improve timely access to productivity-enhancing chemicals while still ensuring appropriate safeguards.

Once again, we see that this is proof of a government that's big on media releases and discussion papers and incredibly slow to act. It brings to mind the continuous policy failures of the National Party in relation to the constituency which they claim to represent. We've seen failures on the part of the National Party in respect of climate policy, in respect of the rollout of the NBN, particularly for rural areas, when it comes to irrigation policy, when it comes to the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility and northern Australia development, and when it comes to rural health. We know that people in rural Australia suffer some of the worst outcomes when it comes to health and yet we see this government not lifting a finger to assist. Another recent policy failure has been in respect of the creation of the Regional Investment Corporation, a $28 million organisation for which there is no policy rationale. In fact, it duplicates many of the functions of the state rural adjustment authorities. It's going to be located in Orange—which is a state seat that the National Party lost, coincidently. We know from evidence received at the last estimates that it's currently administering around four loans. This is a massive waste of taxpayer funding and another example of the failure of the National Party to properly represent people in rural Australia.

Returning to this bill, it does consist of the necessary minor technical amendments to assist with streamlining the APVMA operations. Such amendments are to be expected following the significant legislative reforms introduced by Labor in 2013 to improve the efficiency of the APVMA.

The amendments presented in the bill by the current government are three years later than what was required. Taking three years to implement necessary amendments is unacceptable, and this unnecessary delay highlights the lack of urgency and the focus of the then Deputy Prime Minister and his previous department, which had been distracted by the forced relocation to the member for New England's own electorate. However, criticism of the department is not warranted, because they have had to manage a difficult minister with very different priorities. Since deciding to relocate the regulator to Armidale, in his own electorate, the former agriculture minister and Deputy Prime Minister has failed to identify or deliver any legislative reform options that would result in any quantifiable, ongoing efficiency dividend for the regulator. Agricultural chemicals are a cost effective, efficient, essential and sustainable option for farmers to use to control pests, weeds and diseases and, as such, represent a core input for modern farming systems. A streamlined, effective regulator capable of delivering more timely risk assessments, approvals and registrations is essential.

If we go back to the beginning, to when the then Deputy Prime Minister announced his forced relocation of the APVMA to his own electorate, he did so without any understanding of what the impact would be on the authority. Or, if he did understand it, it was with callous disregard for the impact. It also appears, on the face of it, that he seemed not to understand what the APVMA actually does. On 10 February, 2016, Minister Joyce actually said:

Moving the APVMA would allow it to have a closer interaction with the people who actually use agricultural and veterinary chemicals, as well as build a centre of excellence in the research of agricultural issues.

The APVMA does not actually deal directly with farmers and it does not test the products. The talk of the centre of excellence was just hollow words, and there is no actual plan as to what an agricultural centre of excellence would actually look like.

Minister Joyce said that the proposal to relocate the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to Armidale would go through the process of an independent cost-benefit risk analysis, which would then be looked at further by the government. A cost-benefit was undertaken, and it gave a damning assessment of the relocation, stating that, firstly:

The estimated economic cost of $23.19 million excludes any potential cost to industry arising from the risks to the agricultural sector, the chemical industry or Australia’s trading reputation. Whilst these risks are real, their impacts and consequences are based on a probability of an event occurring and as such in adopting the principle of conservatism they have been excluded.

Secondly, it said:

To effectively undertake the move of the APVMA and adopt relevant risk mitigation strategies, the cash cost to the government could be significantly higher than the estimated economic cost of $23.19 million.

The report continued:

The most significant risk identified through the analysis relates to the ability of the APVMA to relocate, or to recruit and replace, key APVMA executive, management and technical assessment staff within the first two years of relocation. Critically, the loss of technical assessment staff (regulatory scientists) has the potential to seriously disrupt the ability of the APVMA to successfully fulfill its purpose and achieve its objectives in the short and medium term.

Further, a key concern for stakeholders in relation to the relocation of the APVMA to Armidale is the impact that the relocation may have on the approval of new chemicals for use. Stakeholders are concerned that delays to the approval of new chemicals will arise as a result of the loss of staff, the disruption to business and/or the impact to the APVMA’s current reform agenda. The analysis found that if poorly executed, the economic costs of moving the APVMA could therefore be considerably higher than identified in the cost benefit analysis. Based on conservative estimates of a one year delay in the approval of new products, the potential impact on the agriculture sector for crops alone could be between $64 million and $193 million per annum. The risks to the agvet chemical industry associated with moving the APVMA are also significant with a one year delay in the approval of new chemicals potentially impacting industry to the value of between $0.8 million and $2.7 million per annum in terms of lost revenues.

Sadly, the cost benefit was totally ignored by the then Deputy Prime Minister, and now the risks identified are actual realities. But it wasn't only the cost benefit analysis that warned the then Deputy Prime Minister of his ill-considered pork barrel, the former CEO Kareena Arthy stressed the negative impact the relocation would have on the authority, in a letter to Minister Joyce on 31 July 2015, stating: 'Potential loss of regulatory scientists—the most significant challenge highlighted by the outcomes of the staff survey is that around three-quarters of regulatory scientists would probably not move if the APVMA is relocated. Only seven regulatory scientists have indicated a willingness to move. Even if all the scientists who have indicated that they may consider moving agree to move, there would be only 19 regulatory scientists with knowledge of how to assess registration applications or undertake the underlying scientific assessments.' The letter from Ms Arthy goes on to talk about the fact that regulatory scientists have highly specialises skills that are in short supply in Australia and even under the current situation, back in 2015, the APVMA found it hard to recruit appropriate regulatory scientists.

Again, this is now a reality. The APVMA has recently indicated in its business model:

The construction of the new business models for Armidale should be regarded as a high priority and delivered by a full-time team headed by a senior executive with a direct reporting line to the CEO. In order to insulate the team from the day-to-day and operational pressures of a busy regulator, the team should be separated from the ongoing business and include staff located in Armidale. Arrangements could also be made to facilitate the transfer of staff who wish to relocate to Armidale into this team so they have opportunities to contribute to the construction of the new model and the training of new staff.

The maintenance of a sufficient internal scientific capability will require vigorous efforts to retain and recruit appropriately skilled regulatory scientists.

This will require active management of staff relocations including incentives for staff to relocate and an accelerated recruitment program. The APVMA should also consider targeting staff from overseas pesticide and veterinary chemical regulators, either on permanent appointment or on secondment. Remote working may provide a means of retaining some more experienced staff. However, only some of the functions currently performed are suitable for remote working, and it is highly unlikely that this would be a long-term viable arrangement for the bulk of the staff involved in the function.

So the APVMA is, of course, consumed with the issues associated with this forced relocation. I also note that there's been a recent report of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee this month in relation to the independence of regulatory decisions made by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. This committee report has expressed the concern 'about the manner in which the APVMA was relocated', 'its impact on the availability of staff expertise', 'the flow-on effects for farmers across Australia who require timely and certain access to pesticides and veterinary medicines', and the committee pointed to the fact that despite the best efforts of the authority they 'had no other option than to retain the satellite office in Canberra'. This is an indictment of the whole move.

In conclusion, Labor will support this bill today. We will support it because, while those opposite drag their feet in standing up for the rural and regional communities they purport to represent, Labor will stand up. Labor is listening and delivering for regional and rural communities through Senate inquiries into the dairy industry, the Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund and insurance policy prices; through investment in renewable energy; through a review of free trade agreement protocols to expedite opportunities for our produce growers; and, in Queensland, through state Labor initiatives such as Building our Regions and wild dog cluster fencing. Labor will continue to listen to regional and rural communities. (Time expired)

(Quorum formed)

12:23 pm

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

I just want to say one thing before I make my contribution to the debate on the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Operational Efficiency) Bill 2017. That was a magnificent speech from Senator Ketter. I tilt my hat to you, Senator Ketter, because you have said everything that needs to be said. This bill does have Labor's support. We've supported it all the way. It came to the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee, which I chair ably backed up by Senator O'Sullivan, Senator McCarthy, Senator Chisholm and Senator Brockman.

Some things in this building are unbelievable. It's like Groundhog Day. You get that horrible feeling, 'Here we go again!' Hollywood couldn't even make this rubbish up. The light has to be shone on this shemozzle that has been the forced relocation of the APVMA. Before senators opposite get all excited—you might have the odd senator who makes things up; not you, Senator Colbeck—I'll make this very, very clear. Labor has absolutely no opposition to relocating government agencies to the regions. Why not, if there's a perfect fit? It creates employment, it creates opportunity. Absolutely. I know that's been done with fisheries, and we don't hear a boo out of the RDFC and not a drama from us. But this one here is one of the worst examples of stupidity from a minister who is so far out of his depth that he can't even hide his pork barrelling efforts.

I'm referring to former Senator Joyce, Mr Joyce, when he was the Minister for Agriculture. I have said to Mr Joyce on a number of occasions that there are a lot of good things he could be doing—not that he is—but this is one of the dumbest ones. The APVMA's work ethic is unquestionable. It's not doubted. It does a magnificent job. We've always said that. We've always supported the APVMA for the role that it plays. The APVMA consists of nearly 200 employees all up, I think. I'm just trying to remember. There's been that much going on lately. Of that, there are some 60-odd—I think it was 65; that's the number that comes to my head—scientists that work for the APVMA. Senator Ketter mentioned that under Ms Arthy's time in leadership a survey was put out through the APVMA asking who would be prepared to leave Canberra and relocate to Armidale. I've never been to Armidale. From what I've heard, it's a magnificent, wonderful, friendly place—and that's great. But you can understand that, for whatever reason, a lot of people do not like to be uprooted, let alone go from state to state or out to the regions. That is their business, whether it's that they have kids in school, elderly parents they want to look after, family, friends or everything in a certain area. They were employed in that area and that's why they went there. So for the minister to pork-barrel the movement of the APVMA was, as Senator Ketter said quite rightfully, a 'forced relocation'. I think there were about seven scientists who said, 'I will move,' or, 'I will think about moving.' As to the good folk of Armidale, I don't know if there are another 60-odd scientists waiting in Armidale to be employed. I have no idea.

I want to keep shining the light on the stupidity of this, because it's been a series of cluster muck-ups which we have argued about in Senate estimates. I'm sure there are other senators here who sit in rural, regional affairs and transport estimates with me. We have been asking questions about and debating this topic of the forced relocation of the APVMA to Armidale for three years, I suppose. It's not a secret that we have estimates three times a year. So there have been at least nine occasions in Senate estimates where we have been trying to work out how the heck the APVMA can function as it's meant to function when it's 50-odd scientists short.

Rain, hail or snow, the APVMA was going to Armidale because it was Mr Joyce's pet project. It got to the stage, which Senator Ketter also mentioned, where everyone realised it was just not sustainable. So they put the building up for sale and moved everyone out. What's the next thing they did? They found, I believe, that some of the staff from APVMA in Armidale at the time were working out of McDonald's. You might say, 'Well, that's pretty normal for government departments,' but I haven't heard of it. But, anyway, they were relocated to McDonald's in Armidale for a little while. I'm not blaming the department. They've got this bucket of mess they're trying to sort out. Then they find out: 'Now we are going to have a satellite office left in Canberra, so why the hell did we move? What was that all about?' I will tell you what it's all about. The APVMA, in the best interests of serving their master—I think their master should be the farmers who rely on them, but anyway—desperately tried to defend it and tried to paint it up, putting hundreds and thousands on this certain sandwich. But the truth of the matter is that the jobs have not been filled. So, if anyone knows where we can find 58 or 60 scientists around Australia, can you put out a sign saying, 'Dear so and so, ring this number.' I say this clearly: I cannot see how the heck this is going to operate. I have no idea. The answers have not been coming back. I understand the department are desperately trying, like I said, to protect their minister's stupid decision. It is absolutely ridiculous.

Let's dig a bit deeper. I could go on all day. I will again try to get answers in Senate estimates. There's been cloudiness around this decision. One thing I want to bring to the Senate's attention—and it has everything to do with the bill—is that, when the government put out its Senate amendments, it clearly said in the sheet that the government amendments 'will have no financial impact on the Australian government budget'. To me 'no impact' means not one single cent shall be spent on it. They go on to say that the costs to establish and maintain the board will be met through the APVMA's cost recovery arrangements. At the last Senate estimates—was it the last Senate estimates or the time before?—we tried to drill down to get some answers out of the mob and found out that that's not the case. They clearly said that the government will have to fund the first year to run this board—sorry, I should have said this governance board that they've invented.

Sorry, I'll take a step back. Here we are: non-contro, all in agreement to do the best we can and assist our farming communities, who rely on the APVMA. And then, all of a sudden, after we've finished the inquiry, up came the government with the brainwave that they're going to introduce a board of governance—sorry; I should have said that earlier in the piece—to which the Labor senators are quite clearly asking, 'Why do we need a board of governance?' There are a lot of questions around that that we'll be asking later through Senate estimates.

If something's operating extraordinarily well under the circumstances—and I listened to Senator Ruston's contribution, when she went out of her way to make sure that we on this side and everyone else listening knew that the number of approvals by the APVMA has significantly improved. They're doing a great job. She actually mentioned five of the last quarters and how it's improving all the time. Don't forget that there's a satellite office down here in Canberra where most of them are working out of. So, if it's improving significantly, why the heck do we have to have a board of governance when we've never had a board of governance at the APVMA? To me—and I'm not standing on the outside looking in but sitting on the committee that handles all this stuff—no-one's ever criticised the APVMA's ability to do its work and do its job properly. That says to me that obviously the brainiacs in the government—and I'm using that term really loosely. In fact, I shouldn't even mislead the Senate by using the word brainiac about Mr Joyce and that mob over there. Tell us, Mr Joyce or Mr Littleproud or someone else, for crying out loud: if they're doing so well and are markedly improving, why do they need a board of governance?

Now I'll come back to this: I want to know who's on it, when it's going to meet and what it's going to do. When someone doesn't need a board of governance but someone else wants to give them a board of governance, it just sounds to me like another red wine club. Is this just another job for the boys? Are there are couple of mates—I don't know. I've got no proof. No-one answers the questions. But it sounds to me like someone's being lined up for a cushy little job and might get paid a few bob to go to Armidale twice a year and have a meeting to talk about I don't know what. This is where the $600,000 charge comes in. At the last round of Senate estimates the officials clearly said that the APVMA will not be funding it. The federal government will be funding the first year of operation to the tune of $600,000. I've never been on a board, so I don't know how much it costs to fly board members to Armidale—board members who we don't even know. I don't know the price of accommodation in Armidale, but I wouldn't think it's as outrageous as Sydney. What the hell is the $600,000 for? Can someone tell me? I bet they can't. I'll tell you what I'll do, Mr Deputy Acting President Brockman. I'll bet you a $5 scratchie that we don't get the answers. I know you sit there and think, 'Now, Senator Sterle, that's a bit unfair—

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It's probably a little unparliamentary.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

I would never ever say that you know, Deputy Acting President, because you've been just as frustrated as me on the committee at times through Senate estimates. I'm dying to hear the answer. I'm really looking forward to it. What will $600,000 buy? What will be the job of the board of governance apart from going to Armidale—are they going to go to Armidale to meet? Is that what they're going to do? Or is the $600,000 to fly the relocated staff or leaders from APVMA—who we haven't found yet or we may have found—to the Gold Coast or something? I don't have a clue. I'm really looking forward to finding out what that is all about.

It just keeps falling into place. I've been around this committee for 13½ years. We've had some magnificent inquiries. We've had some magnificent outcomes and some good policy. I'm blessed to be the chair of the reference committee and, previously, when in government, the legislation committee. I'm blessed to have dead-set, fair-dinkum senators, who park the political bulldust aside. As you know, Mr Acting Deputy President, on every inquiry the first thing we do is look at what is in the best interest of Australia's farming community, what is in the best interest of Australia's food producers and what is in the best interest of our nation, whether it be biosecurity, access to trade and markets or whatever.

Nearly all the senators that I have sat on that committee with—there's been the odd one who thinks they're going to reinvent the wheel—actually agree with me. Some of the members of the committee have gone off and become parliamentary secretaries, shadow ministers, ministers and all sorts of stuff. No-one could ever say that we will run a political argument and use agriculture as our football. We don't do that. We absolutely make sure that, when we come out and have the reports, the majority of the time they are agreed to by the committee. We all tick off. Whether it's under my chairmanship, Senator O'Sullivan's chairmanship or former Senator Bill Heffernan's chairmanship, we've always said, 'If there are some differences, how can we come to an arrangement where we can all agree,' because we just think it's in the best interests of the committee and the communities that we serve. And most of the time we do that. There are some times when there are things that we just cannot agree on, but what we do is we say, 'Let's have some additional comments.' For those who aren't quite sure, additional comments are: 'We agree with the basis of the report, but we want to add something in that we think is important, even though you might have a different view.' And we do that. Now and again we'll have a dissenting report, which is very rarely, but they do happen.

This brings me back to the complexity of this shameless pork-barrelling by the minister. To make things even murkier, last year it came across our radar—I'm just trying to remember, because there's been a lot of excitement in the rural, regional affairs and transport committee—that the government was trying to find a site in Armidale. I'm happy to be corrected if my memory is a bit hazy, but I remember there was this site found and I realised that it wasn't quite big enough and that it needed to be a bit bigger. Then there was another site. They were both on different streets, but I think their back doors bumped into each other—something like that. In the middle was a little obstacle—I think it was a tavern. Was it a tavern? What was it? There was something in the middle, anyway—a building—and the government went out and said, 'We need a building'—

Photo of Carol BrownCarol Brown (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Disability and Carers) Share this | | Hansard source

It was a club.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

It was a club—thank you very much. Anyway, a day after it was announced that the government was looking at that club, it burnt down. Things happen like that. What's it called? What's that combustion thing where fires pop out from nowhere? What do you call that?

Photo of Arthur SinodinosArthur Sinodinos (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Spontaneous combustion.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Cities and Regional Development (Senate)) Share this | | Hansard source

Spontaneous! Senator Sinodinos, it's great to see you back, mate—thank you. Spontaneous combustion happened at this club. I wouldn't dare think that that was convenient—I would not even suggest that there's anything inappropriate there. I believe there was a coronial inquiry and they couldn't find enough evidence. I think they said that there was a homeless person who might have started the fire. Well, after questioning from Labor senators—and all the senators were listening around the room—all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the authorities have opened up the investigation again. Hollywood can't make this stuff up, you know? Everything about this forced relocation of the APVMA by the then Minister Joyce has got a stench about it. When all is said and done, if we cannot, what's the word, provide the staff—the man and woman power—and we can't find the 58 or whatever scientists short we are, which is not having a go at the rest of the people who have been told, 'You either move or you get a redundancy and go,' where's the logic in this?

While we're supportive of the bill, we'll just continue asking about that relocation, but we're having real, serious dramas about why there has to be the governance board. And I come back to that, Mr Acting Deputy President Brockman, because you and I both know, as all senators here do, that, crikey, they're all over us like a cheap suit! They're checking out our travel—and so they should; it's taxpayers' dollars—and every senator in this place is aware of that, as are the members on the other side. Some have slip-ups, and thankfully they get caught and get a smack across the ear, and that's fine. But how does a government come out on a bipartisan inquiry and a bipartisan bill, then at the last minute whack in their governance board?

Someone could come to me and say: 'Do you know what? These are the reasons why, and put a compelling case,' and then say: 'We have to do it because we don't trust the APVMA'—and I'm not saying this; this is what could be—'they're not capable of doing their job properly, even though they're scientists and experts in their field. We just want to give a couple of mates a job.' Well, I've got no idea! So when we get into the committee stage, I'll be really interested to hear what's going on, bearing in mind that there are Senate estimates next week. We know how it all works: one thing that the department is very good at is getting back to us rapidly with questions taken on notice. They do; the agriculture department is very, very good, and I've said that many times. It's just a shame that there's a dark hole in the minister's office which they fall into and we can't find the answers for about three months. But, anyway, that's nothing new.

So, in saying that, in the best interests of our farming communities and our food producers Labor will always continue to act in their best interests. We consult widely. But we also have to understand here—and this is another one that gets up my nostrils—that the industry itself is not supportive of this governance board. So how can a government go out there and tell us a fib that it's not going to cost in any way? They've been ratted out; it is going to cost. And how can they say they've consulted, when industry itself has told us that it's not supportive of it? This is really like just saying: 'I'll have a brainwave; I'll go and pork barrel. I'll pretend that I'm consulting and I'll pretend that it's not going to cost us anything. I've got to do it'—for whatever reason I don't know; a club burns down in the middle of the night for some reason that we don't have an answer for but the police are looking into it—and we're supposed to sit here and just say: 'Look, help yourself! Just knock yourself out!'

No-one supports it, it costs and you didn't tell us the truth. What was the rush? On that: I know that at the end of the day we will support it. But I can guarantee one thing: I, myself, am not convinced for one second that this is a move that should be applauded. It should not be applauded. For want of repeating myself, if there are cases put forward where we can relocate—where we can put agencies out into the regions, boost the economy in the region and it's in the best interests of the food producers—then I give full support; not a problem. But this is a shambles created by a shambolic minister, and I don't think anyone can jump up to former Minister Joyce's defence and say: 'Geez, you got it wrong, Sterle! You got it wrong; you're mistaken! He's one of the most efficient ministers around and, crikey, he is one of the best things that ever happened to the agriculture industry and rural Australia.' I'm not: I just hope, for crying out loud, that we get the answers that we seek.

12:42 pm

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Operational Efficiency) Bill 2017—a bill that's finally before the Senate more than a year after it was passed through the House.

This bill was meant to deal with the important issue of the effectiveness and efficiency of the national system for regulating agvet chemicals. But the government's handling of this bill shows how it cannot be trusted to handle even the most basic legislative changes. The proposed legislative changes, as set out in this bill, would streamline industry reporting, support the operational efficiency of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, clarify ambiguities in the legislation and remove unnecessary and redundant provisions.

The APVMA is, of course, the independent Australian government regulator of agricultural and veterinary chemicals. Specifically, the changes propose to reduce the regulatory burden on industry by: simplifying reporting requirements for annual returns; reducing the administrative burden on the APVMA and industry by increasing the flexibility of the APVMA to manage errors in an application of the preliminary assessment-rating stage; enabling it to grant part of a variation application under section 27 of the schedule to the code act—the Agvet Code; enabling a person to apply to vary the relevant particulars or conditions of a label approval that is suspended to the extent that the variation relates to the grounds for suspension; establishing civil pecuniary penalties for contraventions of provisions relating to providing false or misleading information in the Agvet Code and the Administration Act; amending the notification requirements in section 8E of the Agvet Code so that the APVMA—

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator McCarthy, it being 12.45, we will need to move on. Do you wish to be in continuation?

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I certainly do.

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you.

Debate interrupted.