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Thursday, 22 November 2012
Page: 9478

Senator BACK (Western AustraliaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (10:59): I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to this debate and to congratulate those who are involved. Certainly, as I look around the chamber, the contribution over a long period of time by Senator Siewert must be recognised, as must that of Senator Scullion and also Senator Crossin.

Mr Acting Deputy President Bernardi, you would have thought that this would have been a fine opportunity to demonstrate the very best elements of the combined roles of federal, state, territory and local governments and the private sector in trying to resolve this horrific issue. But, as we know in the case of the Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012, should it actually be passed, it is only ever facilitation legislation anyhow and will not achieve its goals. I, too, recognise Senator Siewert's passion over time for this particular area. But initially, if I may, I acknowledge the work of the then Minister for Health in the Howard government back in 2005, Minister Tony Abbott, who first introduced the concept of this low-aromatic fuel. The package, along with negotiations with the BP company on this occasion, also included activities to support communities and to engage in youth diversion programs, rehabilitation, policing, communication and education strategies. It remains today, as we know, critically important that we do have that broad approach in trying to solve this issue.

From a straight epidemiological point of view, the fact that there has been a 70 per cent average reduction in the incidence of petrol sniffing and the fact that in areas where there is no provision of regular unleaded petrol that it is even more effective—up to 94 per cent—are wonderful stories and must be supported. But what this shows is the need for the engagement of different sectors at different levels.

Let me give you an instance: at a local Aboriginal community level back in 2004-05, what would the capacity of that community have been to go to the fuel majors and say, 'We need the introduction of a low-aromatic fuel'? Their capacity would have been zero, and the capacity of local government in those areas equally zero. Even a state or a territory would not have had that capacity. So here was an example, quite correctly at federal level, where the then Minister for Health was able to go to the senior management of the fuel industry—the fuel majors; on this occasion, the BP company—and convince them of the need for what would have been an incredible cost to change a regular unleaded product into a low-aromatic fuel.

That is a prime example of where we did need the intervention of the federal government at a level senior enough and persuasive enough to be able to get an international fuel major to change the composition of its fuel. And so there is a prime example of where federal government intervention is needed. But, equally, in this particular instance it is patently obvious that the most effective roles will be those of the states of Western Australia, possibly Queensland and South Australia, and especially the Northern Territory to enact legislation to give effect to a solution that will work.

It was only in July of this year that the minister for Indigenous health, Minister Snowdon, was urging the states and, presumably, the Territory to tackle petrol sniffing by matching the Territory's legislation that relies on community involvement and tougher policing powers to tackle volatile substance abuse. That is the appropriate role for the federal minister; it was in July, it was yesterday and why it is not today seems unusual to me, and I think it deserves explanation.

At that time in July, Mr Snowdon was favouring the approach driven by local communities. He told ministers that it was difficult to see how a Commonwealth ban on unleaded fuel, which he had previously described as a legal minefield, would have a greater impact on addressing petrol sniffing than state and territory legislation. I have heard nothing in the debate this morning to cause me to understand why Minister Snowdon would have a different view today, 22 November, to that which he had at the time these comments were made, and I will come back to some of his other comments.

The Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee report itself recommended that the bill not proceed—not proceed!—for several reasons. One is not relying on the corporations power, and my colleague Senator Smith eloquently made the point that so many fuel retailers would not fall under corporations law. Maybe sole traders and maybe partnerships would not fall under the jurisdiction of corporations law. We know, as the committee itself said, that there are different definitions of fuels to which legislation applies. The committee said that there is a need—and I agree—for ongoing coordination with state and territory governments to prevent supply issues. And I wish to come back to supply issues; having in fact been a fuel distributor and retailer in one of Australia's states, it is an area of which I do have some understanding. A further recommendation of the committee was that there should be a review of Opal, the low-aromatic fuel, production and distribution subsidies, to which I will also refer.

So we have the committee saying that the legislation at federal level is not appropriate. We have the minister saying that it is appropriately a state and territory issue. Until yesterday, the Labor government were of the view that it was properly a state and territory issue. I do not know why there has been this change of heart, and it needs to be explained to this chamber— again, because this legislation is only facilitating legislation and of itself will not have the desired effect. I emphasise again, as others have in this chamber—and it would be no different for any reasonable-minded, thinking Australian—that we should be able to grasp and complete the study of this exercise and remove regular unleaded petrol from sale.

The position of the coalition is simply this: first of all, the bill itself will not stop sniffing, for the reasons that I mentioned. You have only got to have a sole operator or a partnership and the legislation does not apply to them. In the light of the preceding matters, the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee recommended that the current bill not be proceeded with. As a consequence, we would say that this is the wrong instrument, that it is inappropriate to use a Commonwealth arm of the law. In fact, I repeat what Minister Snowdon said in February this year—that the Commonwealth legislation creates 'a potential legal minefield'. Let us avoid the potential legal minefield and let us come up with a solution that will actually work. There is a better, more effective way.

I know that, only in the last few days, Senator Scullion, who has responsibility in this area from the coalition's point of view, has been in contact with the ministers or their senior executives in each of the states of South Australia and Western Australia, and of course with the Chief Minister in the Northern Territory and the Minister for Health and Alcohol Policy, to move all of this forward. So we are all working in concert. There is nobody working at variance with our end objective. We simply plead for a circumstance where we can bring this home, where we can give effect to this particular legislation and make sure that we eliminate petrol sniffing.

The bill does not address the Opal fuel supply and subsidy issues cited in the committee report. The committee itself recommended—and this is recommendation 4:

… that there be further examination of the wording of the explanatory memorandum, consultation and exemption clauses, to ensure that fuel manufacturers are properly included, and the bill does not have unintended consequences—

Senator Siewert: Read the amendments!

Senator BACK: Thank you, I will pay particular attention to the amendments, Senator Siewert. Recommendation 4 continues:

in the event of supply bottlenecks or disruption—

of supply. Recommendation 5 says:

The committee recommends that the Australian government conclude as soon as practical a subsidy review that covers production of up to 100 million litres per annum of low aromatic fuel.

Where does the funding come from for this particular exercise? As most people would be aware in Australia, about one-third of the cost of all retail fuel is fuel excise tax and GST. So, in a typical $1.50 per litre price that somebody might pay here in Canberra, about 38c of that will be fuel excise tax and 13.6c is GST—totalling 51.74 per cent. So more than a third of the actual retail price does go to government in some form or another. So there certainly is adequate funding to be able to give effect to this, and that should not be, and has not been, presented as a barrier.

I now come to a well-understood point in most areas for people associated with the emergency services—and I would see addressing the issue of petrol sniffing as being in that category of emergency—and that is that problems are best solved closest to where the affected people are. Unfortunately—much as we think the federal government and everything it does is important and that Canberra is the seat of power as it relates to this area—the simple fact of the matter is that we are a Federation of states and territories, and it has been my experience, especially in the emergency services area, that the more remote you are from where decisions are made the less effective the outcomes of those decisions will be.

This provides us with a tremendous opportunity in my view for locals to own the issue. That is why I plead for a continuation of the process, where the matter is dealt with at state and territory level, so that they have ownership of the problem and can then drive it through to local communities. We know of course that the areas that are the subject of the proposed legislation at the moment are those in which the highest concentration of petrol sniffing occurs. But then, as has been recorded this morning again by Senator Smith, we had the regrettable circumstance only recently in Port Hedland in Western Australia—which of course is well outside the area of this proposed jurisdiction—where a young person suffered burns to 40 per cent of his body because he was apparently trying to obtain fuel for this sniffing. So we have got to come up with a wider solution, one which will actually expand beyond the high-concentration areas to pick them all up. I plead again for a situation in which we drive this to the local level, where there is the greatest demand and the greatest impetus for this to happen.

We all know, and those of us who are associated with local and small communities do know, that when those communities own the issue they also own the solution and they commit to its implementation. Where they see that issues are related to remote decision-making, they will turn off and they will not have that sense of ownership, which I think all of us would agree is required in such circumstances.

We have had recently some wonderful contributions, in my view, from Aboriginal women especially who are providing leadership in this country. I wish to reflect on them for a moment because it comes back to the point I was just making about local ownership, local responsibility and local determination to solve problems. Initially I go to the text of a letter from a Kimberley Aboriginal elder, Rita Augustine, which was sent to then Senator Bob Brown. She makes some wonderful points which I would like to repeat. She said:

We are proud of our history of caring for this country over thousands of years. The country tells us who We are. It gives us strength and determination. But now we face great challenges; not only about our country and our culture, but about our survival as Indigenous people.

Whilst not all the comments made were in relation to the question of petrol sniffing, so many of her comments are relevant to this debate. She speaks of the need 'to face up to our own challenges, and to build a better future for our children, our people, our culture, and our country'. Whilst I was not going to refer specifically to Dr Bob Brown, to whom she had written this open letter, as a result of Senator Milne's comments a few moments earlier I think it is reasonable that I do so. She said:

Dr Brown, it is hard for us to understand why you think it is necessary for you to speak on our behalf, about our country, our culture, and our futures.

The only thing We need saving from, is people who disrespect our decisions and want to see our people locked up in a wilderness and treated as museum pieces.

We are a living people and a living culture. We have faced severe change over the last 200 years, and most of it has been far beyond our control.

All of us in this chamber would agree that the issue that is before us now, that of the impact of petrol sniffing on young people, certainly has been beyond the control of that community of people. She went on to say:

I am an old woman now and I have witnessed and lived the despair and hopelessness of many Kimberley Aboriginal people.

She reflects on watching 'children grow up in despair, die before they are 50, or even worse, take their own lives before they get to their 20s', a very, very passionate statement. She also speaks of the need for her own community in that particular case to be the ones to actually make their decisions.

In the same theme, I would like to go very briefly to the farewell speech last week, on 14 November, in the assembly in Western Australia by the member for the Kimberley, Mrs Carol Martin—I think, the first Aboriginal lady in the Western Australian parliament. Whilst her speech was very comprehensive and wide ranging, she made a plea, in the same context of what I am saying. She said:

The Department of Indigenous Affairs is my bugbear forever. It is a colonial structure that is still in place in this day, in this age and in this country where Aboriginal people are given second-class service.

Get rid of it, please. … Give Aboriginal people the rights of citizens like any other citizens.

She made that plea. I do not think it is any coincidence that it is Aboriginal women who are the ones who speak so eloquently for the Aboriginal community.

My final comment in relation to this are the comments and the quotations of Northern Territory minister Alison Anderson, who is one of the nation's most senior Indigenous politicians. Rebuking her own people earlier this month—which was widely publicised—for relying on welfare, she said that they need to grow up and stop resorting to the 'dangerous conversation of endless complaint' and that she 'despaired at the reluctance' of some of her community to take available jobs. She was talking of people in Yirrkala not being prepared to drive the 20 kilometres to Nhulunbuy 'to earn excellent money in the mine and the processing plant there'. She went on to reflect the loss of adults. She said that there were 'less than half as many adults per child as for the non-Indigenous population,' and she asked: 'Where are the missing adults? There is no way to put this gently: they are dead.'

In conclusion, I say that there is unanimity in this chamber on the solution of this problem. I plead that we come up with a solution that works, that we drive ownership of the issue to where it can actually be addressed—and in this case, legislatively, that is correctly the states and the territories—so that they own that problem, they own that responsibility and they get financial support from the federal government. If there is a further need for communication between the federal government and, for example, fuel majors, that is appropriately the role of federal government instrumentalities. The issue is state. The issue is territory. The issue is local. Please can we have a solution that reflects the locality of the issue?