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Thursday, 11 September 2003
Page: 19858

Mr BILLSON (12:23 PM) —It is my pleasure to speak on the Fuel Quality Standards Amendment Bill 2003 and it is particularly my pleasure to follow the member for Bruce, the shadow minister for consumer affairs. What you have heard today is more of what I would call the ethanol fuel fog that the Labor Party have maliciously sought to create, have perpetuated through untruths and misrepresentations and now seek to continue through what could only be described as the most duplicitous and deceitful campaign I have seen in relation to any fuel or transport issue for some time.

Let us look at the genesis of this subject. The reason for this bill coming before the parliament was hysterical claims in the media in 2002 that vehicles in Sydney had been damaged because there was ethanol in the fuel. The member for Fraser was coming in here every day saying, `There is a crisis. Vehicles are being damaged. Cars are having expensive repair work done to them because of the evil ethanol that happens to be in the fuel.' That was the concern; that was the claim. That was the scare campaign that started this ethanol fuel fog that has been perpetuated even further today.

What arose at that time was day after day of questioning from the Labor Party about what the federal government was going to do to intervene, to override the states and territories that have the lawful responsibility to require the labelling of products at the bowser. `What is the federal government going to do? It must act!' was the call from the Labor Party as this ethanol fuel fog started to build. They were looking for the federal government to do what their Labor state and territory governments had not done—that is, to intervene and to put labelling relating to fuel onto bowsers and to introduce a cap that would guard against this damage to vehicles that had been so hungrily embraced by the Labor Party with claims of expensive repair costs and so on to back up their claim.

But what was proven to be the case in the end? The particular cases of supposed vehicle damage because of ethanol were not because of ethanol at all. There was no ethanol in the fuel. The cause of the damage was other fuel additives. It was a claim that has been disproved and found to be a fraud that represented the basis of the Labor Party ethanol fuel fog. It has been exposed to have been a lie and to have been deceitful, and the campaign has caused unspeakable damage to the industry and to those fuel blenders who quite rightly want to offer the marketplace a fuel that has a component of renewable energy in it. That was it. It is something that has been going in this country probably for longer than I have been alive. Ethanol has been added to fuels in rural and regional Australia and other parts of the country as a fuel extender which has done no damage to vehicles. It has been quite widely accepted in the marketplace and understood to be quite an appropriate thing to do. That history has been wiped out.

The opportunity for the further embrace of ethanol has been damaged—irreparably, in some people's eyes—because of the ethanol fuel fog created by the Labor Party, based on a false claim. It was a deceitful campaign alleging that there were vehicles in Western Sydney requiring expensive repairs because of ethanol additives. It proved not to be that at all; it was not ethanol in the first place. It was some fuel additive, not ethanol, and the Labor Party have not come in here and apologised. They have not come in here and said to the industry and the working men and women that are part of producing ethanol in different parts of the country and in regional centres in New South Wales and Queensland, `We are sorry for compromising your industry. We are sorry for being deceitful and duplicitous in order to create this ethanol fuel fog that may have damaged the long-term viability of the industry.' The Labor Party have not done that. They have sought to extend the fog further.

The Labor Party have sought to extend the fog further by making allegations, as the member for Kingston would know well, about what the federal government should be doing while they have been ignoring the simple fact that the pure action and intervention that they are looking for requires a legislative power and that the existing legislative power with the states and territories has not been exercised in all but one case. The member for Bruce locks on like a doberman to this one example in Victoria, because that is the only state where something had happened. What happened in New South Wales with the call for labelling? Premier Carr and the New South Wales government said, `No, we won't do that. We'll leave it to the feds. What's the point in having separate regimes around the country when motorists move from one state to another coming through different fuel labelling regimes at the borders?'

What happened in Queensland? They had a voluntary code. They had only one supplier, Caltex, putting these trials out, which the member for Bruce was talking about. But that is it. That is all that the states and territories have done to address the calls, born out of the ethanol fuel fog created by the Labor Party, to do something in relation to fuel labelling—and the states and territories already had the power. In order for the Commonwealth to do something, it actually needed a legislative basis. We are criticised in this place today, as part of the ethanol fuel fog argument, that that has taken too long, yet here we are today debating the legislative framework to give the Commonwealth the power to do what the states and territories have not done—that is, to put in place a labelling regime.

The criticism, as part of this duplicitous and deceitful campaign by the Labor Party, extends even to the heart of their amendment to this bill. Let us have a look at it. They criticise the federal government for failing to act to implement a national labelling regime. Yet the very head of power existed with the states and territories—Labor governments—and they did nothing, other than in Victoria, after some considerable delay, and in Queensland, with its `suck it and see' road test, which is a voluntary scheme. So concerned were the Labor Party that their state and territory comrades did nothing. The Commonwealth has acted and the legislation is in the House today.

The way Labor's amendment goes on it could be called irony, if this were not such a serious issue. It is irony that the Labor Party seek to criticise the Howard government for not protecting the interests of the ethanol industry when the ethanol assassins in this place are the Labor Party. They created the bogus campaign. They created the ethanol fuel fog. And they have the gall to call upon the House to move a motion condemning the Howard government, when it is the Howard government with the industry plan that has acted to restore public confidence. It is the government that has acted to put labelling and consumer information in the hands of motorists when the states and territories, with the consumer affairs head of power, did nothing about it.

You can see a pattern emerging here: amongst the ethanol fuel fog, the Labor Party will say anything. They have been exposed as deceitful, duplicitous and damaging to all interests relating to ethanol. The Labor Party go on to complain about the inadequacy of the proposed labelling regime. They say that sufficient choice has not been provided to consumers. Yet at a time when the regulations that bring in the working nuts and bolts behind this legislation are being developed in consultation with all the stakeholders—including the state and territory governments, the petroleum and fuel blending industry, the motorists association and the vehicle manufacturers—there is criticism that the consultation is being done in secrecy—in some clandestine manner. Yet they parade around here with snips of information that are being discussed by the very consultative forum that the government has put in place. Can you imagine why motorists are confused when you hear this doublespeak from the Labor Party? I am surprised that people still consider the Labor Party credible on any policy issue. Here is more evidence of why people must take with a grain of salt some of the things that the Labor Party say.

The consultative process is moving forward. The discussion is about what level of information is useful to the consumer. The government has conducted scientific trials that conclude that E10—10 per cent of ethanol—is okay for the Australian vehicle fleet. Why were those scientific trials needed? It was because the Labor Party went around and created the perception in the minds of consumers that any kind of ethanol would damage your car and cost money to repair. We know that is false. We know that is a lie. We know that that has been deceiving motorists. The science was called upon to put the facts into this debate and to find some facts to get through this ethanol fuel fog that the Labor Party has created. There is a reason why that science was required.

If you look through the history of blended fuels involving ethanol, you will see a vast variety in the blends that are being used. You will see 10 per cent blends in North America. You will see 2½ to three times the amount of ethanol in Brazil. You will see examples of different standards in Europe as well. You will see in Australia practices where the actual amount being used is far more than 10 per cent and it has been used that way for decades. But the argument was: let us have some science. Let us have some science to work through and conduct scientifically verifiable trials to make sure that a nationally consistent framework actually works for the whole vehicle fleet.

You still have some manufacturers of vehicles, whether or not they are high-performance cars, that do not even like you using standard unleaded petrol—the 91 octane version. They say, `No, we want the grunt of the high-performance stuff for our cars.' They recommend a 98 per cent octane. You can see that even in the regular unleaded fuel area that some manufacturers have different specifications on how to optimise the performance of your car and how to get the most grunt out of your performance vehicle. That is the advice that goes to motorists. The advice the science gave us was that that might be true, but a 10 per cent blend of ethanol will not damage the car. That is the message that is going out through the E10 policy of the government.

You can see that is a classic example of how, even in unleaded petrol, manufacturers might say, `Unleaded petrol is required for this car, but if you want to get the maximum performance out of it, if you want to optimise the response of the vehicle to engine technology, go for the high-performance fuel, go for the 98 octane.' It does not mean that if you use the unleaded petrol, the 91 octane, that the world is going to come to an end. It means that that fuel might be preferred for performance. It is the case, and it has been identified through the consultation process backing up the legislation that is before the House, that some manufacturers have made that same point: it is not that the E10 is bad—although they might prefer that you use other fuels for your car—but that the E10 will not void your warranty and it will not damage your car.

What we need to get through in this ethanol fuel fog are the various competing interests that exist here. It has suited some of the major oil companies to allow the concerns about ethanol blended fuels—unplaced, unjustified, undeserved concerns—to run. They felt that they did not have to source the product and that that might have suited their market positioning. I have seen pamphlets from major oil companies operating in this country that have been, shall we say, less than enthusiastic about their support for E10. They have produced glossy pamphlets in North America for their North American market where they say that E10 is the best thing since sliced bread. The slogan `put some vitamins in your car' appears on some of those pamphlets. They think it is the bee's knees in North America. Why is the position different in Australia? It is because of the ethanol fuel fog and the deceitful, damaging campaign of the Labor Party. The oil companies are not responding to the science. They are not responding to decades of history. They are not even responding to practice within their own corporations overseas. They are responding to consumer sentiment created by the undeserved concern that the Labor Party created. That is why you see some of those confusing and conflicting messages out there.

What this legislation seeks to do—not only in highlighting and seeking to address the scare campaign that the Labor Party has perpetuated but also in order to restore public confidence in ethanol—is to put in place consumer information at the bowser. As I mentioned earlier, to do so you need a legislative head of power. The Constitution gives consumer affairs power to states and territories. One of them has played with it, others are taking a `suck it and see' approach, and New South Wales has said, `We'll leave it to the feds.' There is not a lot of ethanol in South Australia. I do not think they have even turned their minds to the subject. In Western Australia they are probably more interested in what is happening at Gorgon field.

Even within our own country there are different levels of engagement with this subject. Most of that depends on being close to the central and north-eastern seaboard sources of ethanol production. We are looking for a nationally consistent scheme. The bill seeks to do that by amending the Fuel Quality Standards Act 2000. This amending bill will establish the legal framework that does not exist now for fuel labelling in Australia. It will still permit state and territory laws to be overridden by the Commonwealth where the states and territories have actually done something but, as I have evidenced—I am not just saying it—the states and territories have failed to act. It will also create a strict liability offence for breaching the act. What does that mean? That means that if you put a sticker on your bowser saying that there is E10 but there is not, you have a problem. And shouldn't that be the case in order to provide motorists with the confidence that it is there?

The legislation does not introduce point-of-sale labelling but it does set in place the framework to require the labelling of fuels, and there is work going on there at the moment. The member for Bruce asks, `What does the label look like?' How many cars are there in the Australian car fleet? There are hundreds, probably thousands. To have a label that is meaningful to all motorists, whilst recognising that some of the technical specifications of different vehicles may be different, you need a label that not only has the utility of informing motorists but also draws motorists' attention to the fact that their owners manual might have some more information—that is the conversation. But that has been criticised by the member for Bruce as all the key stakeholders work through that complicated issue.

You do not want to end up with one of those big stickers you see on the back of a hotel door that basically says, `If you lose your stuff in here, too bad; how sad.' And it takes 25 small, tightly typed paragraphs to achieve that. Can you imagine going to fill up your car and having to sit there and think, `Can I have a chair to sit down and read all this before I fill up my car?' Of what value would that be? That would just add to the ethanol fuel fog. You want something that cuts to the car chase and says, `E10 will not damage your car, but have a look at the rest of the detail in your owners manual, because at the end of the day it is your car and you should know something about it.' If you have a Tickford Ford and they want you to put 98 octane fuel in it so it goes like the clappers, you do not want that little bit of information on every label at every bowser around the country.

It does not seem very complicated. But what is difficult is finding a consensus within the industry and amongst the various players about what is useful consumer information without spooking people, given that they have already been spooked by the ethanol fuel fog and the deceitful campaign that the Labor Party perpetuated and accelerated in late 2002 to give ethanol additives a bad name. The legislation provides the infrastructure for the form and content of the label, to be introduced after consultation with the ethanol industry and other stakeholders, and it puts in place the consultative framework to achieve that. It also provides that the labelling provisions will be used and will allow the minister, when it is in the public interest, to provide additional information to ensure that consumers are well informed of what is going into their vehicles.

Let me wrap up. The blending of ethanol for petrol attracted a lot of unhelpful, damaging and needless media attention and public comment late in 2002 because some motorists in Western Sydney—in my view, abused and taken advantage of by the Labor Party—were seen to be claiming that their cars required expensive repairs because of ethanol. What was actually wrong with their cars was caused by a fuel additive, not by ethanol. That has never been apologised for by the Labor Party. An apology would be a step forward for them in building some credibility on this matter. Engine manufacturers have said that ethanol levels of more than 10 per cent at that time may pose some warranty problems. That is why E10 has been set as the benchmark.

Ethanol's octane-enhancing properties and benefits to the sugar industry have been recognised, and the government has put in place an industry support package that is timely and appropriate—another area of this policy debate that the Labor Party should get behind. At the end of the day, this bill seeks to clear the ethanol fuel fog. It seeks to work cooperatively to put useful and meaningful information in the hands of motorists so they know what is going into their vehicles when they buy fuel at a service station.

The best thing the Labor Party could do, given their tawdry and appalling history with this whole question of ethanol blending for transport fuels, is simply to get out of the road. They have added nothing so far. They have confused the debate. For their own political purposes they have come into this place and run completely contradictory arguments over the last 12 months because it suited them politically, but they have achieved nothing in public policy terms, they have done nothing to assist motorists and they have done a terrible disservice to anybody with an interest and involvement in the ethanol industry and fuel blending industry. I encourage the parliament to support this bill and reject the Labor Party's amendment outright. (Time expired)