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Thursday, 11 March 2010
Page: 1675

Senator O’BRIEN (4:10 PM) —It is interesting that this Food Importation (Bovine Meat Standards) Bill 2010 that hit the deck—if I can put it in the vernacular—earlier this week has not been to a committee, has not been the subject of any scrutiny and has been subject to such a scant address by the coalition. I note that, on other important legislation that the government put up recently, we had speaker after speaker speaking for 20 minutes and taking days to deal with legislation that everyone knew the coalition was going to vote against. But on this bill the first speaker, Senator Williams, gave us about five minutes of his time and addressed none of its specifics.

From the government’s point of view, this is unnecessary legislation. It does not add any additional protection for Australians or Australian cattle. It is ambiguous and it is unworkable. For example, in proposed section 4 of the bill the definition of meat and meat products as ‘bovine meat and food ingredients’ is very broad and could be interpreted to include milk and milk products. Biosecurity Australia’s formal regulated import risk analysis process, which Minister Burke announced, is limited to fresh, chilled or frozen bovine meat or meat products and does not include retorted—that is, canned—beef products.

Proposed section 9 of the bill refers to the 2009 assessment processes. Clearly, we cannot be certain which assessment processes this bill refers to. For example, does it refer to the food safety process, the animal quarantine process, the chemical residue process or other processes? If, indeed, it purports to be an omnibus bill that refers to matters that are dealt with in other legislation, what sort of nightmare is that going to give to the regulators in terms of observance and enforcement?

The National Livestock Identification System, which is referred to in proposed section 6(b) of the legislation, does not require animals to be tagged at birth. They are required to be tagged before they leave the property of birth, which could be years after they are born. I will interpose here that we have strongly resisted pressure from the European Union and Japan over the years to introduce the date of birth. There are many cattle in Australia that do not have traceability under NLIS—for example, cattle born before the relevant state or territory mandated the NLIS. The receiver of animals does not record cattle sale or movement, which is a legal requirement. And proposed section 6(b) requires traceability of animals but does not specify which species of animal.

This is a hasty piece of legislation which I understand the government is concerned about but which the opposition is keen to simply rubber-stamp through this chamber. Indeed, there was discussion earlier that somehow there would be a move to guillotine debate on the bill to require it to be voted on by 5.50 this evening. So far that has not happened. I do not know whether it is intended at some stage to attempt to do that, but that would be most unfortunate, I think, in the circumstances.

The bill itself has been through the Selection of Bills Committee, and the report, which has just been presented, indicates that the question of whether the bill should be referred to a committee has been deferred—in other words, the committee has not decided that the bill should not be referred to a committee. In addition, the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee report on beef imports including BSE matters, which have been dealt with by government decision and which are objected to by those opposite, has been deferred. We have yet to see that final report and the comments of the senators who participated. One would have thought that at least we would have that final report on the record before there was an attempt to pre-empt its findings by bringing this bill before the chamber.

Given that we have had very limited time to look at this bill and very limited time to explore its consequences, why is it so urgent that the bill be dealt with today? Why would the coalition be so concerned about the passage of this legislation that they would float the idea of a guillotine motion to ensure a vote on it before six tonight, when the time for general business will conclude? The bill cannot have any effect, because, given Minister Burke’s decision to refer the issue of bovine imports et cetera to an import risk assessment, there cannot be any imports until that is concluded, which is expected to be in around two years. So one wonders what the urgency is about the passage of this bill. I can only conclude that the coalition are looking to use this as a political campaigning tool, not as a real issue. They want to campaign not on the basis of the science of this matter but, again, on the basis of fear—the fear campaign that has been run in relation to BSE by some of those opposite and by others in the community, some of whom have been witnesses before the rural and regional affairs committee inquiry.

In terms of labelling, the fact is that this government has already made an announcement. It is our intention that FSANZ, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, be tasked with the proposal to label fresh beef in the way that pork and seafood are now labelled, as one sees in the supermarket cabinets. This bill would present a problem for the food regulatory system. This is because the FSANZ Act in and of itself has no effect on state or territory food law due to constitutional constraints. The adoption, monitoring and enforcement of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code is dependent on states and territories putting the standards into their laws, meeting the conditions of the agreement with the Commonwealth. Therefore, a standard developed in accordance with proposed section 12 of the Food Importation (Bovine Meat Standards) Bill 2010 is not likely to become law, as states and territories are not bound to adopt something that is developed outside of the food regulatory framework. The FSANZ Act, the food regulation agreement and our treaty with New Zealand do not contemplate a process whereby the Commonwealth can unilaterally impose a law on the states, let alone New Zealand. To do so would require a significant referral of powers. So this is a rather hasty drafting of legislation which creates more problems than it solves.

As I said earlier, on 9 March, the Parliamentary Secretary for Health, the Hon. Mark Butler, announced his response to consumer concern about the labelling of beef products:

I am asking FSANZ to review the Country of Origin Labelling standard to ensure that consumers are fully informed of the origin of the fresh beef they are buying.

The state and territory governments, as I said, are responsible for enforcing food laws, including country-of-origin labelling, so that is going to have to be worked through there, and that is the proper process.

In terms of the underlying intent of this bill, I can only interpret it as an attempt to impose, upon a process which is taking place in accordance with Australian law, conditions which I have no doubt our trading partners will find objection with. The last thing that beef producers want is a dispute with our trading partners that might lead to a finding against this country by the World Trade Organisation. Some people are wont to make what I would describe as—if you will excuse the term, which in the context of some of the recent photographs of the opposition leader might be taken more humorously than I initially expected—hairy-chested statements about our right to control what comes into this country, and say that we should take no risk.

Senator Nash —There is no need to explain—we understand!

Senator O’BRIEN —I will be interested to hear what Senator Nash says when she has the call but at the moment, as I have the call, she might listen to what I have to say. In terms of our quarantine arrangements, over the last decade of coalition government the coalition repeatedly lectured those who talked about implementing measures which might be seen as protectionist that there was a requirement for us to operate a quarantine regime based on science and on the appropriate level of protection determined by their government, and indeed previous governments and, I suspect, the current government. The appropriate level of protection is one which cannot of necessity involve no risk. In reality there is always some risk and we need to be consistent as to how we apply the laws of this country in relation to our obligations. Just as we require other countries not to exclude goods that come from Australia to their country on quarantine grounds that are not scientifically based, we are entreated by our international commitments to observe the same standards as to goods which are imported to this country.

The basis of this bill, if I understand it—and we have had a limited time to understand it—is that somehow whatever happens with future assessments, the provisions which occurred on 1 July—that is, before this government responded in a responsible way to requirements to reassess the treatment of beef in relation to BSE—should apply and the bill should come to this house on the basis of a disallowable instrument for both houses.

Senator Back —There isn’t a disallowable instrument.

Senator O’BRIEN —This legislation in clause 9 talks about varying the processes that were in effect on 1 July 2009 by a legislative instrument, and the intent of that is to create a disallowable instrument. So, irrespective of findings, the intention is to bring it back to the political process so that it can be disallowable.

The law we are operating under at the moment is effectively coalition made law, and the problem with that is that we are seeking to put in place arrangements which would override the basis of a scientific assessment and return it to the political process. I can assure you that in my time in this place, whenever we have been seeking to examine the processes which have been used in determining import risk analysis, we have been looking at the process and the science and there have been plenty of complaints, for example, from New Zealand in relation to apples, from Canada in relation to pork and to salmon and from the European Union in relation to a whole lot of other things, suggesting that we in fact were not proceeding on the basis of science but were proceeding on the basis of a political assessment of the matter.

This particular bill will lend a lot of weight to the arguments that those countries will make in the future if it is passed by the Australian parliament. It will be saying that we have got all these processes but we are going to implement a process where, ultimately, everything is disallowable by the Australian parliament—so science has gone out of the window and it becomes a political football and we will run the extreme risk of assessments being taken to the World Trade Organisation and findings being made against this country, a situation which must be resisted. A finding against this country in relation to trade allows a finding as to what is an equivalent retaliation. That country can then take that retaliation in any area it chooses, against any commodity that we are exporting to that country.

I say this on the basis of a limited assessment of this bill. This bill is recently created. Private members’ bills are often created in a hurry and they are often created for political rather than legislative purposes. One could well have been excused for thinking that that was the purpose of this bill, and indeed I believe it still is.

In relation to the urgency of dealing with this matter, why is this more urgent than dealing with the fairer private health insurance legislation or the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme pieces of legislation which took us days and days and have been through this place twice? I think there were 29 coalition speakers the second time the CPRS went through this chamber, and we knew that all but two of the coalition were voting against the bills. Yet they were prepared to take up the time of this chamber with those bills, which I suggest were much more timely than this piece of legislation, given that, with an import risk assessment running for two years, if this legislation is passed by both houses of parliament it would sit there with nothing to act on for that period of time. If it were to do anything else it would be retrospective, and this chamber has resisted the concept of retrospective legislation for decades.

What we have is a rushed piece of legislation. There is apparently a proposal—perhaps it is not going to be put now—that this bill be rushed through this chamber in time for it to be talked about as early as tomorrow as legislation that the government must pass in the House of Representatives. We have seen the commencement of another scare campaign about beef when, in reality, the minister’s responsible decision has made sure that there will be an assessment responding to concerns in the community. There will be a proper assessment. The rural and regional affairs committee intends to look at other matters, and that will continue. (Time expired)