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Thursday, 16 May 1985
Page: 2111


Senator BUTTON (Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce)(6.17) —Senator Jack Evans, in supporting his amendment, canvassed a fairly wide range of issues which go to the question of consumer protection generally. On many of these issues I regard the problems in Australia as enormous and the legislative and other mechanisms to deal with them as totally inadequate. I give one example from my recent experience. Australia does not have uniform food laws. Frequently quite different standards in respect of health and safety provisions exist in each State, often involving two or three different prescriptions in different States. Because we are a federation and each State wants to prescribe its own conditions on food and health matters, the Customs Service is unable to apply any standard to food imported into Australia with any degree of rigour and efficiency. That is a disastrous and silly situation. The Federal Government is pursuing the question as much as it can with the State governments, as did the previous Government, to try to achieve uniform health standards. I am hopeful that a meeting of State Health Ministers with the Federal Health Minister, Dr Blewett, which is to take place later this month, will go a little further towards resolving that issue.

The illustration I have employed can be multiplied across a whole range of products and in some circumstances it creates difficult, potentially dangerous and quite silly situations. The Government accepts the spirit of the amendment in that it attempts to deal with the situation at the Customs barrier in respect of hazardous goods. Having said that, I would indicate that the Government does not propose to accept the amendment proposed by the Australian Democrats. First, the amendment traverses a number of ministerial portfolios and covers not just my portfolio. For example, it involves the Minister for Health, in respect of the illustration I gave, and also a wide range of other Ministers. I personally would like to take the opportunity to draw to the various Ministries' attention what Senator Jack Evans is suggesting and to discuss the question across that range of ministerial responsibility.

I just want to make the point that the ability to declare goods as prohibited imports or exports where the sale of those goods is prohibited in a certain jurisdiction because the goods are hazardous, can already be accomplished under the Customs Act general power relating to the prohibition of the importation of goods, which is covered by section 50, and under the Customs Act power relating to the prohibition of the exportation of goods, which is covered by section 112 of the existing legislation. The difficulties arise in the sorts of situations which I described earlier, where there is no standard which is applicable for Customs to apply-where there are a lot of different standards. That is the difficulty.

Both those sections are very broad. They give a power to prohibit. But they are very difficult to administer because of the reasons which flow from some of the more ludicrous consequences of the Federal System. I have said that both the sections to which I refer are very broad and give a power to prohibit by regulation the importation or exportation from Australia of goods absolutely or goods to or from a specified place, and so on. But there are those great administrative difficulties because of the standard situation in Australia.

I make it quite clear to Senator Evans that we do not support this amendment at this stage largely on technical grounds. For example, we would like the opportunity to consider an appropriate definition of 'hazardous goods'. As I have said, the amendment is not being rejected out of hand. I give an undertaking that I will arrange for serious consideration to be given to the proposals contained in the Australian Democrats' amendment. As soon as possible I will advise the Australian Democrats of the Government's attitude, particularly on the technical difficulties we foresee and how we might work towards some solution in dealing with them. In turn, I seek any wisdom the Democrats or the Opposition might have on this matter on questions such as the definition of hazardous goods. I think there is a sort of sense of common purpose about all this, but we have to work towards the best solution. I am not sure that it is provided in the amendment as presently drafted and for those reasons the amendment is not acceptable.