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Thursday, 2 June 1994
Page: 1267

Senator CALVERT (7.09 p.m.) —Senators would no doubt be aware that this parliament has been involved in a long and protracted debate on the subject of agricultural and veterinary chemicals. This started with a Senate standing committee report back in 1992 and was followed by seven bills which were introduced in December 1993 and subsequently reported on by the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs, of which I am a member. I am pleased to see that the chairman of that committee is with us tonight and Senator Brownhill, who is also a member of that committee.

  It is fair to say that the parliament has given a thorough examination of this very important subject. I was very satisfied with the results which came from the hearings of the rural and regional affairs committee. I believe that report went a long way towards addressing the issues of the rural community and also concerned members of the public—and I would have thought Senator Bell as well.

  That package of bills ensured that there would be important safeguards, such as public access to information, the recognition of community service obligations, third party appeals and the control of use after sale. Importantly, the bill was to establish a national approach for the registration of agricultural and veterinary chemicals.

  The original package of bills was supported by the agricultural and veterinary chemicals industry, the NFF and Commonwealth agencies involved in agriculture. We thought that the agricultural and veterinary chemicals code which was set out in the schedule to the legislation would be adopted by the enactment of complementary legislation in each state and the Northern Territory. That would have ensured that the evaluation, approval, registration and supply of agricultural and veterinary chemicals would be administered uniformly across Australia by the National Registration Authority. The authority had played a key part in implementing the findings of our rural and regional affairs committee on the original legislation.

  The government has insisted on recovering 83 per cent of the cost of the registrations in the next financial year and 100 per cent the year after. The original legislation set up a three-year method of payment. This included an application fee, which was to be paid when applying to have a new chemical registered, a registration fee and a levy on products sold. The fact is that without complementary legislation the re-registration fee cannot be collected and it is therefore necessary to use a levy as an alternative revenue raiser.

  Unfortunately, it is fair to say that the states have been dragging their heels in terms of passing complementary legislation. I believe that this is extremely regrettable, as we should have had in place by now a uniform set of national procedures. That was the understanding of our committee. I understand that this is not as a result of changes in policy at the ministerial level and that there is still broad agreement on the need for a uniform scheme to evaluate the register and control the use of agricultural and veterinary chemicals in Australia.

  That said, there can hardly be too many legitimate reasons why the states are able to claim support for the legislation but not back up those claims in a more practical and convincing manner. As a result, we have been left with no option but to provide for interim cost recovery arrangements to allow for the operation of the national registration scheme for agricultural and veterinary chemicals.

  The intention is that the amendments will sunset in 12 months and that charging will then revert back to the three-tier system. I trust, as does everyone on the committee, that these interim arrangements will be just that and that we will not find ourselves in the same position at a future date.

  South Australia has worked to put the necessary legislation in place. It is therefore setting an example for the other state governments.

Senator Brownhill —Hear, hear!

Senator CALVERT —As I have mentioned previously—I believe that Senator Brownhill has also mentioned it—once the other states have their legislation in place, this levy can be dispensed with and we can return to the original intent of the first package of bills.

  I trust that the states will not see the levy as a short-term gain to be taken advantage of at the cost of the rural community. It is pleasing that Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland have already indicated that they will not be pursuing additional charges. However, I am concerned that a similar commitment has not been given by my state of Tasmania. I intend to pursue this matter with my colleague the state minister for primary industry, Robin Gray.

Senator Bell —Ha, ha!

Senator CALVERT —Senator Bell can laugh. One of his acolytes—Senator Abetz—is here today.

  There is no doubt that state governments should be acutely aware that the rural sector has been through an extremely difficult period. Therefore, any additional charges could have an adverse effect upon the recovery process which is starting to emerge.

  I spoke earlier of the National Registration Authority. I alluded to the important part played by the chairman of the NRA, Professor Ben Selinger, when the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs was considering the original package of legislation. I again stress that I believe the NRA has a very important role to play in terms of the control of agricultural and veterinary chemicals in this country. I am very much aware that, as spelt out by Professor Selinger, the NRA will be starting somewhat behind the eight ball because of the poor public perception which exists regarding the use of agricultural and veterinary chemicals.

  At this stage I might cite my own experience. As Senator Brownhill knows, in my earlier life I was an orchardist. In those days, orchardists were very much involved in the use of chemicals but had very little education in their use. Most of the sprays we used in those days for orchards were of pretty basic origin. If I remember correctly, the basic sprays we used were lime sulphur, a mixture of lime and sulphur—which was foul smelling and rather sharp on the eyes—bluestone and oil. With technology we got into DDT. I have sprayed a fair bit of DDT and I am still standing up, but I am sure I have got plenty in my bones.

  Later on the organophosphates came into vogue. The two people who worked for me are now deceased, I presume from old age—at least I hope so. I have always been rather sceptical about the long-term effects of some of those early organophosphates. I remember very well one day when we were thinning apples after having sprayed them with a chemical called Rogor. In those days, I have to admit that I used to roll my own cigarettes—as we all did.

Senator Collins —Speak for yourself.

Senator CALVERT —It was tobacco. We all felt rather dizzy, and it was not the cigarettes; we put it down to the fact that we had been handling apples with spray on them. I suppose that same effect was felt by many others. The concern in this area lies not only with sprays that were used in the fruit industry. Those of us who have used pour-on lice control would know that, in a confined area, the fumes are rather nasty. Sheep dip is likely to make people feel a bit ill if they are not using it in the correct way. In the past there was a terrible lack of education about all sorts of agricultural and veterinary chemicals.

  The opposition and the industry support the measures introduced by the government in this package of bills. Even though Senator Bell has been rather critical of some parts of this legislation, it all gets back to the NRA. I have the greatest faith in Professor Selinger. The committee will be very interested to assess the work of the NRA. Although the NRA's role is very important, we must remember that when these products come at a cost to the user which, by and large, is the rural sector, the NRA will have to prove to its stakeholders that it is doing the job on their behalf. If this proves to be the case, I am sure it will enjoy the continued support of the coalition and all those members of the rural and regional affairs committee who spent so much time assessing the evidence put before us at committee hearings.