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Tuesday, 27 November 2012
Page: 9908

Senator NASH (New South WalesDeputy Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) (19:30): I rise to make some comments on the Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012. There is absolutely no doubt that the issues that we see in our Indigenous community have been for a very long time now at the forefront of the thinking of those of us here in parliament—and I accept the comments that my very good colleague Senator Scullion said the other day, that it is often in a bipartisan way. I think it has been a credit to all sides of this parliament that, in the main, there has been a very bipartisan approach to this.

I have to say that, quite some time ago now, I was—I am not sure if 'fortunate' or 'unfortunate' is the right word, but I think both are correct in the context of what I am about to say—fortunate enough to spend some time with Senator Scullion in the Northern Territory for several days, traversing communities and traversing the Northern Territory visiting Indigenous communities. In that very short space of time, in the company of Senator Scullion, I think I came to more of an understanding of the issues that are facing Indigenous Australians than I had in my previous 46 years. I do not think there is anybody in this parliament—granted, there are probably a couple who come close—who understands the issues that are facing our Indigenous Australians better than Senator Scullion does. We are very fortunate in this parliament to have Senator Scullion to contribute to the policy debate, to contribute to the policy-making, to try to reach some solutions for Indigenous communities and to assist Indigenous communities right across the nation.

As part of that trip up north I spent about an hour and a half in a charter plane with Senator Scullion, flying back from the middle of somewhere to Darwin. All I can say, Mr Acting Deputy President, is I wish there had been a tape recorder running, or I wish that every single Australian had been sitting there listening to Senator Scullion's account of life in the Territory and the history of the Territory for Indigenous Australians—because the Australian people would have a much better understanding of what has actually happened and what is continuing to happen in the Northern Territory.

The damage that petrol sniffing does to families and communities is extensive—I cannot even think of the right word. And those of us who spend very little time in these communities do not really understand the impact that it has on these communities. We can say we do, but I suspect that those of us who do not live, eat and breathe those communities do not understand them completely—do not really know—but we can certainly try to understand the impact and what needs to be done.

I commend Tony Abbott, the then Minister for Health and Ageing, many years ago now, for the effort that he put into getting the low-aromatic fuel Opal out into the communities. It was way back on 18 February 2005 that the Leader of the Opposition, the health minister at the time, said:

The Commonwealth government today welcomed the availability of a new fuel to help reduce the harm caused by petrol sniffing in remote Indigenous communities. Known generically as Opal, BP has developed a fuel that contains neither lead and only has very low fuels of the aromatic hydrocarbons which give the high sought by petrol sniffers. This fuel will replace avgas under the government's Comgas scheme.

He went on to talk about the communities that participated in the scheme. The work that was done at the time by Tony Abbott should be acknowledged. He recognised the importance of trying to find a solution to what was, and still remains, a devastating problem in the Northern Territory.

Having seen some improvement in these communities from the rollout of Opal and the benefit that that brought, as Senator Scullion said yesterday, we are seeing some leakage in the system. There is more petrol sniffing starting to occur, and that is something that we simply have to address. One reason, of course, that we have come to understand is the recalcitrance of a number of petrol stations from actually being involved in this and rolling out the Opal. We cannot just sit by and accept that we have seen this diminution, if you like, of the effectiveness of the Opal rollout; we have to do something about it.

It is interesting that the Labor minister said the way forward was for the states and territories to legislate and that he believed it would be more effective to have the rollout as part of a national framework. On this side of the chamber, we agree with that—absolutely, it does make a lot of sense to roll it out through a national framework. What was extraordinary was to see the backflip from the government. Having had the minister say that the way forward was for the states and territories to legislate—to, as I understand it, be very clear that the national framework was the way to go—we then see the backflip. Only just the other day—Senator Scullion might correct me if I am wrong—at literally two minutes to midnight Senator Scullion was informed that the government had changed their position on the bill and were actually going to support the Greens bill. It is quite an extraordinary state of affairs.

On this side of the chamber, we do not support this legislation. The legislation will not work because it relies on the corporations power. That effectively means that it is not going to be robust. Organisations, as I understand it, will be able to change their status to escape the process that we are trying to put in place to ensure the rollout of Opal across these stations. Why on earth would we support a piece of legislation that simply was not going to work? The fact that it relies on the corporations power is a huge concern. We have a better option in front of us, which involves the move to a national system with the states and territories being part of an overall framework of legislation. I simply do not understand why the Labor government would roll over and do a big backflip to support the Greens when there is a better solution that their minister has already acknowledged. It makes no sense whatsoever.

The Northern Territory has had in place since 2005 some legislation, the Volatile Substance Abuse Prevention Act, which works effectively in addressing this issue. It works far more effectively than any proposed legislation involving the corporations power. I understand South Australia is looking to this legislation as a model for something it could do in that state. It makes a lot of sense to have some kind of national framework around this.

I simply do not understand why the government has done a backflip on this. I have here the recommendations of the Senate committee report. Senator Scullion and I plan to commend Senator Moore not only for the work she has done on this inquiry and in producing this report but for the consistent work she does on the Senate Community Affairs Committee. She has a very genuine ongoing commitment to improving the lives of Indigenous Australians in those communities. The report of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry into the Greens' Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012 made a list of recommendations. Recommendation 2 was:

The committee recommends that a legislative scheme for low aromatic fuel not be confined to reliance upon the corporations power.

I have a great deal of respect for this committee. If this committee, having done the work and thoroughly looked at this legislation, comes up with that recommendation, then in the collegiate way that this Senate works I am very prepared to accept that recommendation in this circumstance. Recommendation 5 was:

The committee recommends that the Australian Government continue to consult with the relevant state and territory governments on the possibility of national legislation to mandate the supply of low aromatic fuel to ensure that there is agreed and coordinated action to address petrol supply.

Again, this seems to be a very sensible recommendation. I know how thorough this Senate committee is. I know the work that is put in not just by Senator Moore but by others on the committee. Having been involved in a number of inquiries, I understand the work and very genuine commitment that goes into ensuring the recommendations are appropriate and reflect the evidence that is brought forward to the committee.

Recommendation 6 was:

In light of the preceding matters—

and there were a number of them—

the committee recommends that the current bill not be proceeded with.

When you put that together with the fact that the minister had previously said that a national framework was the appropriate way to address this issue, why do we see, at two minutes to midnight, the Labor government doing a backflip to support the Greens' legislation, the Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012? It simply makes absolutely no sense. The minister said a national framework was the way to go; a highly respected Senate committee put forward recommendations reflecting the evidence that was given to it through the inquiry process; and the government has simply chosen to ignore the previous position of the minister as well as the committee recommendations and rolled over at two minutes to midnight to support the Greens. That makes absolutely no sense to me. In the absence of anything else that is conclusive—in the absence of any other reasoning with any kind of substance—one can only imagine that there was some kind of deal done between the government and the Greens such that the government rolled over at two minutes to midnight to support this bill. I cannot think of anything else. Perhaps Senator Siewert or one of the other Greens will stand up during the committee stage of the bill and give a good explanation of the two minutes to 12 rollover by the Labor government. Given the minister's previous position, and the very good recommendations from the Senate committee, I do not know. Until somebody can give me a better reason I can only surmise that there was a deal done.

We know how it works in this place. Occasionally there are deals done. Occasionally things are traded off in back rooms. It is not to the best reflection of the Senate, I have to say, but occasionally it happens. But, when it happens in such a way that Australians in Indigenous communities get a substandard piece of legislation to deal with what is a distressing and prevalent issue, that is simply wrong. That is not on and that should not happen. As I say, there might be another reason. I do not think, Senator Scullion, that a good one has been given, so we must surmise that a deal took place.

This government has form when it comes to backflips, doesn't it? On this issue, at two minutes to midnight, we see yet another backflip. Before the last election the Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, said, 'There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.' What have we seen? A carbon tax was introduced. Under Julia Gillard, Labor's immigration policy was going to solve our asylum-seeker problems. We have now seen backflip after backflip when it comes to the immigration policy. Just recently there was the issue of the supertrawler. It was Senator Ludwig, I think, sitting on the other side of the chamber saying, 'We're basing it on science. It's all going ahead.' It seemed like the very next day I was appearing on Q&A with Minister Burke when he said, 'No, we've changed our mind about that.'

It is just extraordinary that we see this from this government. This side of the chamber will not support this legislation. It simply will not work, it is not the appropriate way forward and there is a better way to deal with this issue for Indigenous Australians.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Mark Bishop ): The time allotted for consideration of this bill has expired. The question is that this bill be read a second time.

Question agreed to.