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Monday, 18 March 2013
Page: 2355


Dr STONE (Murray) (15:36): In continuation: this bill adds no new triggers; it is just a cumbersome and expensive re-check of the triggers already funded by industry. This legislation simply adds another layer of red tape through an automatic seven- to 15-year review for all chemicals, with the extra cost ultimately passed on to the farm or other chemical users. As I have already said in my remarks, our farmers in particular are price takers; they cannot pass these costs on.

The seven- to 15-year time frame for registration of chemicals will tie up staff and resources in the APVMA—and I will conclude my remarks in a minute by referring to some of the problems that can happen when we are distracted, tie up resources and turn a blind eye to some of the chemical contamination occurring in our food imports. This time frame will reduce the APVMA's resources available to deal with critical registrations and permits. It will cause an economic burden on registrants and parent companies of active constituents, given that there are 1,900 active constituents—of which 780 are unique—from the 9,900 currently registered agvet chemicals.

Currently there are only 17 APVMA evaluators to work on these 9,900 products that may be up for the re-registration process. Quite obviously, the APVMA will be significantly under-resourced—under this current government in particular—and retraining evaluators or putting more evaluators into the system will be very difficult to do quickly. Why would we want to put so many more evaluators into the system quickly? Because this bill claims that the commencement date of the new regime will be 1 July 2013—in just four months' time. This would mean that there would be no time for adjustment to the changes and no time for upskilling the additional evaluators—which would have to be put into place. This puts the APVMA under enormous strain and calls into question the efficacy of the new regime. This is not about reducing red tape for the industry or about improving outcomes. Since 2008, the Rudd and Gillard governments have introduced over 20,000 additional regulations while repealing fewer than 100 regulations. Quite clearly, this is just more red tape gone mad.

I have to say that the coalition will aim to amend this bill. I certainly do not support the bill in its current form. We will aim to delay the commencement by 12 months to allow for a proper consultation process and to give time to develop new protocols and processes for the APVMA, which will minimise the distraction to and cost to2 industry and, in fact, produce a better regime and a better outcome at the end of the day. Registrants have agreed to work with the APVMA to 'road-test' the risk framework to ensure that it operates as intended. In other words, we will have a better outcome if the government agrees to our amendments. This will be in line with the coalition's commitment to cut unnecessary red tape by at least one billion dollars. The government has failed to do any cost-benefit analysis of mandatory re-registration processes for low-risk agvet chemicals which are used by a wide range of groups; for example, glyphosate and iodine.

A major concern was expressed by the key stakeholders in their evidence to the senate inquiry into this bill: in particular, they identified the economic cost to re-register in a small market like Australia. This could lead to a net loss of chemical products, directly impacting on farm productivity. Industry supports the streamlining of the existing process for identifying and reviewing suspect chemicals but opposes a re-registration process which simply adds another layer of regulation and does not speed up the removal of unsafe chemicals. We have already seen innovative products being delayed in their introduction to Australia—for example, a sheep drench was developed by Australians for Australian conditions; while the product has been on the market and in use in New Zealand for two years, it still awaits approval for use in Australia.

The Victorian Farmers Federation 'supports reforms that deliver more effective and efficient agricultural and veterinary chemical regulations'. The VFF goes on to say:

However the Federal Government's draft Agricultural and Veterinary Chemical Regulation Bill falls well short of the mark on achieving these goals.

The draft bill will increase regulatory costs and potentially reduce the availability of chemicals crucial to Australia's food producers. The major flaw in the bill is its imposition of a mandatory re-registration process for all chemicals, every seven to 15 years (Schedule 2). The merits cited for this change are it will align Australia with similar US and EU standards, but this argument fails to recognise the high cost of re-registration on a much smaller Australian market.

The National Farmers' Federation, similarly, argues:

The NFF has confidence in the current system used by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) for the assessment and regulation of chemicals for agricultural and veterinary uses.

At the Senate committee hearing, the NFF said:

In the absence of the government undertaking a clear analysis of the cost and benefits of the proposed measures within the better regulation process, the NFF continues to hold concerns that the proposed changes will impact on the cost of chemicals and the availability of chemicals in the Australian market.

Surely this government hears what its major farmer advocates have to say, so you have to wonder whether it is turning a blind eye, has its hands over its ears or does not care—or perhaps it is just incompetent.

I want to draw the House's attention to some of the real problems with chemical detection and assessment that are occurring in Australia every day. I want to quote from the Age on 30 May 2012:

AUSTRALIAN medical experts have raised the alarm over a rising number of Asian fish imports containing banned antibiotics.

Five consignments of fish from Vietnam - including base fillets, catfish, tilapia and frozen fish cutlets - have been stopped by biosecurity officials this year because they contained enrofloxacin, an antibiotic banned in Australia. Last year three loads of Vietnamese fish failed tests for banned antibiotics.

An analysis by the Age of failed food results since 2010 showed:

…1,050 imported foods, or an average of one consignment a day, have not met Australian standards. Almost 400 foods were stopped at entry because of micro-organisms such as E. coli, 246 failed because they contained banned additives or substances, 228 contained contaminants and 138 failed chemical analysis.

Chinese food failed the most tests, 13 per cent, followed by food from India, Italy, Japan, South Korea and France. The failed food results included 66 instances of Listeria monocytogenes, which can cause pregnant women to miscarry, and eight consignments with Vibrio cholerae bacteria, strains of which can cause cholera.

I quote again from the article in the Age:

Professor Collignon has criticised the federal department for its low levels of testing for dangerous chemicals. The department's figures show that in the last six months of 2011, it conducted just 209 tests for fluoroquinolones (types of antibiotic) and two for chloramphenicol, which in rare cases can trigger fatal disease.

Professor Collignon said the department was not testing enough and the failure rate of the antibiotics tests—about 4 per cent—was too high.

'I think that sort of failure rate is atrocious,' he said. 'They are hardly doing any tests. How many tonnes of seafood do we import, for god's sake? When you look at the tonnes of stuff we import and the 4 per cent failure rate, there's a problem.'

He added that 24 tests in six months for E. coli in Chinese food was not enough.

I mention all this because it is about the chemical testing regime in Australia for imported foods. It is a burden on another area of departmental work, which is testing chemicals in Australia. Surely we must have a more balanced response to the whole issue of potential food contamination, or chemicals in the food chain. We have an extraordinary situation in Australia now whereby we test less and less for chemicals and other disease-causing substances—indeed, fatal-disease-causing substances in imports—while we stand here in this parliament debating whether to substantially add to the cost, regulation and red tape burden to the Australian ag and vet industry when they need best practice. We need to be doing a lot more to ensure that the high standards of safety of our domestic food can be matched by the safety of our imported products.

New importers of high-risk foods face testing for all consignments until they pass five tests. They are then tested at a rate of 25 per cent until they pass 20 consecutive tests. The rate then falls to just five per cent, matching all other imported foods. So clearly we have to do a lot more work in this area. The article in the Age also reported:

A spokesman for Victoria's Department of Health, Bram Alexander, said the federal department had not advised it of any negative assessments this year—

and here he is talking about 2012—

He said a handful of assessments were passed on last year, but the state took no action on the matters. It had been found that either the importer was still holding the failed food or that cooking would make it safe.

I suggest that this government has quite clearly lost the plot. It is distracted from the real issues in relation to chemical contamination in this country. We have to do more. We have to do better when it comes to safety from chemical contamination in Australia. This bill will not address the real problems in front of us. It will simply be another means of distraction—a smokescreen—while a whole range of other problems arise in containers on our shores each day. We certainly will not be supporting the bill in its current form.