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Thursday, 11 March 1999
Page: 2747

Senator SCHACHT (1:37 PM) —They say things are often slow in politics. This bill came out of the recommendations of the Kean review, a review I established and commissioned in 1994-95 when I was the minister responsible for the National Standards Commission and metrology policy for the Australian government.

While I was minister it became clear to me, after advice from a lot of industry groups, that Australian industry was being penalised by the lack of a national measurement or metrology policy. We have discovered that, despite the Constitution giving the federal government power over weights and measures, it being clearly a federal responsibility, most issues dealing with weights and measures, or measurement and standards issues, were left to be dealt with by the states. As a result, Australia has penalised itself consistently throughout this century by not adopting national legislation on measurement, standards or the use of metrology—an obscure word which often some people think means meteorology. Metrology is the word to describe the whole policy in this area.

I congratulate Bruce Kean, a former chief executive of the Boral company, for the enthusiastic way he and his committee, over a period of nearly 18 months, conducted the inquiry and made extensive recommendations. I am pleased to say that, after the change of government, the new government basically accepted the thrust of the major recommendations. This legislation is a result of one of those recommendations in the Kean report:

The National Measurement Act be amended to provide for mandatory requirements for specified utility meters and legal measuring instruments and that these requirements be based on those adopted by the International Organisation of Legal Metrology.

This is one of the recommendations and I hope that the minister responsible, Senator Minchin, is able to implement the rest of the recommendations of the Kean report in a speedy and timely manner.

We do need to have a national metrology policy run by the Australian government. We should not leave it to the states, either by accident or design, because we will not get the benefits of having the efficiency for manufacturers, industry and consumers of national standards for measurement in this country in all their variations.

The Kean report found that metrology impacts on the Australian economy in respect of goods and services traded and measured by instruments to the tune of around $140 billion every year. That just shows you the size of the problem and shows that, if you do not have an efficient metrology policy, you will not end up having efficient industry. You will make yourself less competitive internationally.

I note that there was some controversy. Some states dislike giving up weights and measures and handing them over to the federal government because state ministers for consumer affairs believe that they ought to be running those arrangements. In the long term all of those issues should be transferred to the federal government, as the Constitution requires. Weights and measures are in the federal Constitution as a federal responsibility. There can be no argument, and not even the most fervent states righter I ever came across disagreed with the view that, if the federal government chose to take full control of weights and measures, those powers and activities would be transferred to the federal government.

This is a matter of economic efficiency for the country, for industry, so that you do not end up with six states and two territories having different standards on measurements and so that when an industry is trying to find a measuring instrument it does not have to design it eight different ways to account for state and territory differences. We found that every year in Australia literally tens of thousands of utility meters have to be produced, and each state had a different standard. This meant that even the manufacturers—and I think Email was one of them—complained that, if they could have one standard for utility meters for the whole of Australia, they would then be able to make them competitively and actually export them.

It seemed to me the case was incontrovertible; there could be no argument. But you could not imagine the stupidity of some people who argued state rights on this, to the detriment of our Australian industry. The second reading speech and those of other speakers, including that of my colleague Martyn Evans, the shadow science minister, made that point.

Now that we are moving into privatised electricity and water services and there is competition and you have different companies competing to provide the service, it is absolutely essential that everybody has trust that the meter which measures the electricity or the water being provided is absolutely accurate. Evidence was given to the Kean review that some of these utility meters were up to 40 per cent out in their accuracy in measuring the amount of water or the amount of electricity, particularly water. As Senator Stott Despoja said, this is a consumer issue. It is also an industry issue. I am delighted that, although it has been 4½ years since the Kean report came down, the government has put this legislation through the parliament.

I conclude by saying that the opposition has great pleasure in supporting the legislation. It came from an initiative we started in government. All I can say is that I hope that the minister responsible for metrology policy, who I believe is Senator Minchin, gets on with checking that all the rest of the recommendations of the Kean review are being implemented, to the benefit of Australian industry and Australian consumers.