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Wednesday, 18 March 2015
Page: 2885


Mr RAMSEY (Grey) (10:58): by leave—I have spoken on this issue and this report before and I had received advice that I would be given an opportunity to contribute today. I was very keen to do so because quite a few things have changed since the delivery of the report to the parliament in late October. I will not repeat the things I said on that day, but I would draw attention to some of the things that are in play at the moment.

I am particularly proud of this report because it is a clear, concise and relatively narrow report, and that is its strength. We focus just on country of origin food labelling. The member for Throsby mentioned the number of reports that have been commissioned before. I think they have been very broad. If we look at perhaps the best known of those, the Blewett report, it covered a wide range of labelling issues and had a very small part on country of origin food labelling. I think this is the first report that has came up with a prescriptive method of describing the goods. Every other report, as far as I am aware, said 'This should be looked into', 'There should be a labelling system' or 'There should be some visual indicators'. We went much further than that.

At its core, the most important thing in the report is that it splits the point of manufacture or the point of processing and the contents. At the moment, that is one of the great failings of the current arrangements—and I have spoken about this before. For instance, we were told that 70 per cent of the ham and bacon bought at the retail level in Australia has made in Australia written on it, but the pork is actually sourced from overseas. That is clearly not enough information for consumers. All it does is tell them where the ham or bacon was manufactured. It does not tell them where the pork came from. That just shows how distorted our current system is and why consumers are so confused and why there is such a need for change.

My committee, of which of course you are a member, Madam Deputy Speaker Landry, approached this in a way so as not to do any harm to Australian processors or Australian food producers, and in a way that was very focused on coming up with a light touch method that will actually give consumers the information they need. I, along with most of my colleagues, are very much in favour of Australia being able to operate in a free trade environment. We have been writing free trade agreements certainly through the Asian market in the last 12 months, so it is important we comply with the WTO rules. It is important that we are able to trade with those nations. But it is equally important that Australian consumers can walk into a supermarket aisle and make a decision about whether to buy Australian food and make a separate decision about whether to support Australian manufacturing—and that might be because they want to support Australian jobs or it might be because they have an inherent trust in the way that we both produce food and manufacture in Australia.

Previous to this debate, the incident of the Chinese berries associated with hepatitis A and the 27 cases in Australia is what has probably brought this to a head. But I point out to the parliament that it is related issue, but, as previous speakers have said, it is not intimately related insomuch as a different labelling system would not have given a different result in that case. That one is a biosecurity issue and that will be addressed separately, and so it should be. We should concentrate on the labelling.

I have been in this parliament now for a little over seven years. I have sat on a number of standing committees and joint committees. The committee system works very well in this parliament. They are largely bipartisan and members leave their partisan baggage at the door and try to come up with the best recommendations they possibly can for the government of the day and the parliament of Australia to try to implement. It would be fair to say that some very good reports have been written in the past and have not always received the support they probably deserve from the government of the day. So I was eagerly looking forward to the response from Minister Macfarlane, as the lead minister on this issue, after we lodged our report in October. I had had a number of conversations with him and with the Minister for Agriculture and the Minister for Small Business, trying to progress the government's response to make sure we got an appropriate response to our report.

I was very pleased with the reception I was getting, and there was a general indication that the government would move in this area. Of course, the Chinese berries issue has given great urgency to it. We are in the position where the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, is committed to reform. I thank Minister Macfarlane very much, particularly for his approach to our committee, in that he has briefed us twice now on exactly where negotiations are up to on presenting a reform package to the cabinet. He has been very transparent with both sides of the parliament and with the Independent who sits on our committee as well. I thank the minister for that. It is very important that when these recommendations come from cabinet we are in a position where we can expect bipartisanship support—and I am very pleased with the comments by the member for Hunter and the member for Throsby that they are broadly supportive. If we get the recommendation package right, that will be good.

It has to be said there is very little that one can see that is good about the Chinese berries related hepatitis outbreak. But maybe there is a silver lining to every cloud, and this report may be the lining that propels the response of the government of the day to country-of origin food labelling over the line. If it is the catalyst for that, then at the end of the day it will be seen as the seminal event that got us moving as a parliament and made us respond to what has been a consumer issue for decades.

We did chance our arm in the report and put some descriptors up. I will not go through those, because I did that in my previous speech. Those descriptors are the subject of some negotiation in the working group at the moment. They will not be exactly the same as they are in the report, but broadly they will be very close. We also recommended there be a visual descriptor. We did not chance our arm on coming up with that. But there will be a visual descriptor, and it is highly likely to include the Made in Australia campaign. We have been having some conversations with them about this. As the member for Throsby said, putting a kangaroo on the packet will not make any difference to the product, but that particular logo, if that is where we finally land, does have worldwide respect. There is quite a bit of IP invested in it.

This will be a great result for our local industries. They may not understand how much of a difference it will make, but this last berry contamination will not be the only food issue that we have in the coming years. I must point out that we have had food issues with Australian suppliers too, so we are not perfect and we should be careful. It will put a premium on Australian food not just in Australia but worldwide, because there are other nations that are looking very closely now at their food chain supply lines—at their integrity.

I would like to thank the deputy chair, the member for Hotham; and my committee, the members for Durack, O'Connor, Makin, Hunter, Capricornia, Barker, Indi and Wannon, for their work on this report. It is well overdue. It comes after decades of vacillation. It is the right report at the right time. As I have said to some people, sometimes you are the little sparrow sitting on the fence and a shaft of sunlight comes out and shines on you. It is the case with this report, A clearer message for consumers, that we are the sparrows sitting on the fence. We have the right package at the right time, and I thank the government for its consideration of it.