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Wednesday, 18 March 2015
Page: 2887

Mr PASIN (Barker) (11:09): I rise to take note of A clearer message for consumers: report on the inquiry into country of origin labelling for food. Before I do—and not just because he is here in the chamber—I acknowledge the hard work the committee chair, the member for Grey, put into this report. I think it is fair to say that he attacked this work with all the industry of a cereal farmer from the west coast of South Australia. Quite frankly, it was a privilege to be a member of the committee working on this report.

When I came to this place, I was determined to be involved in reform. We give the best of us when we are undertaking reform. The committee processes, as has been observed by the member for Grey, can sometimes be cumbersome. They can sometimes be disconnected from formal outcomes. But in this case—coincidently, for me, the first report that I have had the pleasure of working on—we are seeing real change being implemented at what, I think it is fair to say, is breakneck speed.

Some of that is appropriately acknowledged as a response to the issues that have arisen as a result of what others have referred to as the 'berries case'. But, equally, some of this reform and the need to take this reform is a product of the situation that consumers find themselves in. Sitting and listening to the evidence that was provided from consumer groups, from consumers themselves and from departmental officials, I had an immediate flashback to episodes of Yes, Minister. I remember saying to some of those giving evidence, 'I hear what you're saying. Thankfully, five years of legal training and a career in the law enables me to understand what you're saying; but what you don't understand, with respect, is the consumer doesn't understand what you are saying, nor the architecture that sits around the current country-of-origin labelling laws that we have in this country.'

If you were to distill the work we did in this report to one fundamental tenet, it is this: the average consumer of average intelligence entering the average supermarket on an average day needs to be able to quickly determine the country of origin from which the product they seek to purchase hails. It is a fairly basic principle. In my view, the importance of it is significant and it can be measured in this way. I believe the Australian consumer is motivated to support Australian industry. Given that I represent a rural constituency, I believe they are motivated to support Australian producers. But they can only do that if they do it in an informed setting, in an informed matrix. In my view, they are prepared to pay a premium—in some cases it might be a modest premium; in others it might be a significant premium—for that decision to support Australian processors and growers.

But what we have currently—and it should be noted that this is report No. 13 over the course of 12 years on this very same subject—is an architecture which does anything but inform the average consumer of average intelligence. Indeed, I consistently made the point during the hearings that in my view the system is currently being gamed—not to inform consumers, but quite frankly, to hoodwink them. We see that in some of the visual presentations you see on goods that are for sale. Having determined that the fundamental driver of the work we were doing was to ensure a more informed consumer, then the question became: are the current safe harbours appropriate? The committee came to a fairly quick view that they are not; and they are not in the sense that they do not purvey to the consumer an accurate assessment.

I thought, although it did not win the day, that we needed to move away from labels that differentiated between 'product of' and 'made in', because I think that creates its own confusion. In any event, we needed to be more prescriptive about country-of-origin labelling, and that is in recommendation 1, which has been taken up, as you have heard, Madam Deputy Speaker Landry, by the minister for industry.

The member for Throsby indicated that this will not solve problems with food safety. No-one is proposing that it will. If there were a silver bullet for this issue, we would have fired it a long time ago—and, when I say 'we', I mean this parliament and I do not mean it in any partisan sense. Either side of politics, if they had found that silver bullet, would have fired it a long time ago. But there is no such silver bullet. To be fair, this was a report about country-of-origin labelling and a clearer message, so it needs to be understood in that context. I appreciate that this debate has been carried forward by the berries issue, but, to be fair to the work of the committee, the scope of our investigation was narrowed to that question of giving a clearer message to consumers. To that extent, I agree with the member for Throsby that we need to do all we can to ensure that the food we consume in Australia is safe. I think it was the member for Mallee who indicated to me recently that it is not a question of ensuring all food is safe but, rather, that it is as safe as practicable. I may well be verballing him, but that was effectively the content of our discussion.

In the time I have remaining in this debate, I want to address the other recommendations briefly. On this question of an informed consumer I think it is critical that, in line with recommendation 3, we increase the scrutiny of products that use 'misleading Australian symbols, icons and imagery'. This is the gaming I talked about previously. It is of little benefit, in my view—indeed, it is counterproductive—for products that are grown in or made in other countries and imported to this country to be accompanied by very large iconic Australian images, such as koalas, gums and those sorts of things.

The introduction of a visual descriptor is very important, and that is recommendation 4. I think increasing the consumer's ability to grab a packet of food, identify a common visual descriptor and make a quick assessment is the best, easiest and most efficient way to allow that decision to be made, as it needs to be—and it is certainly the case in my household—when you are juggling the responsibilities of having children and incredibly time poor, as we all are.

The other recommendation that I wanted to deal with is recommendation 7, on the Northern Territory's country-of-origin labelling of seafood. It came as a shock to me, as it did to many members of the committee, that 70 per cent of the seafood we consume in restaurant settings in this country is imported. I think the confusion is because we ordinarily think protein, such as lamb and beef, will be Australian, because for economic reasons it generally is. That is not the case with seafood, particularly not with the seafood we consume in restaurants. So it was very important that the committee recommended that the Northern Territory's regime, which requires restauranteurs to include details of where the fish were sourced from, be considered by COAG. I do think it needs to be considered. It was certainly a bridge too far for the committee, in the work we did, to implement that. As someone who has world-leading aquaculture and fishing in his electorate I can see the benefits, and as an Australian consumer, quite frankly, I would like to know. Thank you.