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Thursday, 22 November 2012
Page: 9482

Senator McKENZIE (Victoria) (11:19): It is with a heavy heart that I rise to speak on the bill before us today, the Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012. The intent of this bill is to change the Corporations Act to mandate the use of the low-aromatic fuel known as Opal in some areas, to prevent petrol sniffing—a terrible problem in our Indigenous communities. Other senators have spoken eloquently today and at other times on the problem that petrol sniffing is for our First Australians. The bill aims to ensure that communities with serious petrol-sniffing problems can contain and hopefully turn their situation around—and I do not think anybody in this chamber disagrees with the intent of this legislation as stated.

There are 123 sites in remote Australia selling Opal fuel, and a substantial increase in this number is foreshadowed. That is a positive step. Opal fuel is produced by BP and it has very low levels of aromatic hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons are the chemicals which give sniffers their high. They are also the same type of molecules as those used in spray cans, which is what some young people use in other areas.

There are often tragic consequences for the sniffers, for their communities and for those who love them, and it is a particular tragedy when young people are petrol sniffers. However, some petrol stations within this area refuse to sell the low-aromatic fuel, and that goes to the crux of this bill. The Greens are attempting to go it alone on solving the issue of dealing with the remaining retailers in remote Australia who are selling regular unleaded petrol rather than Opal fuel. Senator Scullion made very clear his desire to work collaboratively with the Greens on coming up with a legislative solution to this scourge of our society.

I come from Victoria, where we do not have a large Indigenous population, and I had only heard about petrol sniffing; I had not experienced it. I was not part of the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee when they went to remote Australia and heard directly from the communities, but I did go and see the movie Samson and Delilah and was very challenged by what I saw. It follows the lives of two Indigenous teenagers, one of whom becomes a petrol sniffer, with tragic consequences. In the last scenes, the young woman, in order to save the man she loved, drove the car out into the bush and drained the petrol onto the ground so that there was no way of getting back, in order to get him away from the substance that was changing him so significantly and as a way of recovery and rehabilitation. I think that film took the issue out into the wider community.

The community affairs committee conducted the inquiry into the bill. They travelled to Alice Springs to see and hear firsthand from some of the stakeholders with intimate knowledge of this issue, and it was not the first time the committee had done that. I would like to place on the record my thanks to all those who contributed to the inquiry, who submitted, appeared and participated in any way, and the secretariat staff who worked so hard to put it all together under the leadership of Senator Moore and Senator Siewert, who are great advocates in the community affairs committee space for our First Australians.

The committee made a number of recommendations which included that this bill not proceed, and the Greens submitted a minority report. There were specific details around why the bill should not proceed, and one of them was that the legislation should not rely on the corporations power. Another was that different definitions of fuels to which the legislation applies should be addressed, and I note that through an amendment that has been addressed. Ongoing coordination with state and territory governments was also recommended to prevent supply issues with Opal. That goes to the crux of some comments I will go to later and the modus operandi, I guess, of the Greens in continuing to ignore and be frustrated by the fact that state governments exist in our Federation. The committee also recommended a review of the Opal production and distribution subsidies. I understand where the Greens are coming from when you look at the excellent results from the rollout of the Opal fuel. I appreciate the interest of Senator Moore, Senator Siewert and many others in this issue and I acknowledge that there is bipartisan support for ensuring a positive solution for affected communities. A solution that works around this issue is always going to be cross-jurisdictional.

The original rollout of Opal fuel and the development of the Petrol Sniffing Strategy was the initiative of the Howard government under the leadership of Tony Abbott as the then minister for health. The initiative was implemented through collaboration with industry and with some incentives to ensure that industry took up the opportunity to sell a product that would have such a positive benefit out there in Indigenous communities. The package also included activities to support communities—youth diversion, rehabilitation, policing, communication and education strategies. I am pleased to say that, as a result of that and of ongoing initiatives by the current government, Opal fuel is now available in 106 sites across Australia. This is a great step forward and one that not just the coalition but all Australians can be pleased with.

The results speak for themselves. Research indicates that where Opal fuel has been introduced it has been effective in reducing sniffing by, on average, 70 per cent. The result has been even better in areas where there are no retailers selling regular unleaded petrol, with a 94 per cent average reduction. So we know it works, leading to some fantastic results out there in communities. Although Opal fuel is subsidised, the savings to communities and individuals, in health care and otherwise, from Opal fuel are significant.

The community affairs committee heard from Mr Andrew Stojanovski, who spent 11 years in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory working on petrol-sniffing issues and was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for his work. He told the committee in his submission:

Up until Opal was introduced in Central Australia I expected that I would spend my career working on petrol sniffing, community by community … Over my career the best I could hope for using this approach would be to eradicate sniffing in four communities over a period of forty years.

It would have been a long and slow process. He also said that, following all of his hard work, the introduction of Opal had not only changed the reality for Indigenous communities and petrol sniffers and those who love and care for them but also changed his life and how he saw his contribution to this problem.

The South Australian Centre for Economic Studies has found that there would be a $780 million benefit in shifting from regular unleaded petrol to Opal fuel in the area of their analysis. You will have heard from my colleagues here today about the Central Australian Youth Link Up Service. The service told the community affairs committee:

We consider the low aromatic fuel rollout to have been a great success to date. It has completely changed the focus of our work.

Fantastic! So we know the strategy works. It is a very impressive story from a Canberra policy sense and from a community sense out there on the ground.

No-one is arguing that we do not need to solve the problem and no-one is arguing with the fact that decreasing access to regular unleaded fuel assists with the problem. However, the bill before us today relies on the corporations powers under section 51 of the Australian Constitution. As such, it will have no effect on unincorporated traders. This means that any sole trader, partnership or other trading entity will not actually be covered, and there are a few petrol stations around our nation that are so constructed in the way they have set up their businesses.

We know from the current situation that one point of leakage or availability of regular unleaded petrol is enough to allow sniffing outbreaks in a large surrounding area; there is a black market in unleaded petrol in these areas. So it is a serious flaw that only certain traders and petrol stations are actually going to be covered. There are some traders who will stock and sell regular unleaded petrol—and we have seen that growing. That indicates that, if they see a commercial advantage in restructuring their businesses to continue to do so, they are going to do it. So the bill will end up being ineffectual as a result. The committee heard that there are even a number of traders who falsely believe that Opal fuel results in performance impacts and has a negative effect on engines. So there is a real issue around education. The belief in performance impacts has been proven to be untrue, but it is still up to traders to make their own decision on whether they choose to sell Opal. So the bill, which does not cover every trader in the area, will be all but ineffective. As this bill will apply only to incorporated traders, as I have said, there will still be regular unleaded petrol available from any petrol station trading as a sole trader or partnership or under another business model. In addition, a service station that has so far refused to stock Opal for whatever reason would only need to change its corporate structure to continue to sell regular unleaded fuel. The committee came to that same conclusion, recommending:

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

Yet here we are today.

Perhaps the Greens could consider looking to the state governments, who have jurisdiction over these sorts of issues, to help find some constructive solutions. But I note Senator Milne's comments during this debate around the black hole of COAG and the disrespect that is continually shown to state governments and any collaboration that COAG or the state governments seem to do in developing national cooperative approaches that take into account the fact that they are separate entities. I look to Senator Waters's issues around the EPBC Act and state governments coming together with a framework on how we are going to go forward on dealing with environmental issues. I think the disrespect for the COAG process and the states as a consequence is the modus operandi for the Greens and does not always deliver the best policy solutions, as Senator Back outlined in his contribution with respect to localism. Similarly, Senator Scullion commented on the Northern Territory legislation that could be used as a framework for going forward. A further recommendation of the committee was, in fact, just this:

… 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.

I am really looking forward to the committee stage of this bill to ensure that we have actually consulted with state and territory jurisdictions and to establish what form that consultation has taken. It is inappropriate to use Commonwealth law in an area which should be governed by state and territory law. Commonwealth legislation will be open to challenge and will apply only to incorporated traders, as I have already gone over.

The coalition has been seeking to address this issue. The Deputy Leader of the Nationals and coalition shadow minister for Indigenous affairs, Senator Scullion, has made very clear his intent to work collaboratively with the Greens and with the government on issues of improving the plight of our First Australians and to seek a bipartisan solution, because that is the only solution that is going to work going forward. Senator Scullion himself met with the Northern Territory Chief Minister, Terry Mills, as recently as 23 October to discuss petrol sniffing and associated issues. It was agreed that the Northern Territory's Volatile Substance Abuse Prevention Act could be used to stop the sale of regular unleaded petrol in certain areas, and the Chief Minister agreed that Senator Scullion could go on to discuss appropriate amendments.

So in the Northern Territory, where this problem plays out in communities most keenly, the wheels are already in motion to deploy the legislation against petrol sniffing—legislation, Senator Siewert, that will actually work. Under this approach, a group of 10 or more residents of a locality or a community council could seek to prevent supply of a particular substance, including petrol, in that location, which goes back to Senator Back's comments on communities taking control of their area. The Greens are right: in a previous contribution, Senator Milne, I think, said again that communities are screaming out for this issue to be addressed, but they are not screaming out for this bill and this approach.

Senator Siewert: Oh, yes, they are. That's where you're wrong.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order, please! Senator Siewert, could you not shout across the chamber.

Senator McKENZIE: I will continue to outline the Northern Territory approach. The Northern Territory Department of Health would then lead a process that would take account of interested parties' contributions to develop a management plan that could specify restrictions on the supply and use of regular unleaded petrol or other sniffable substances in that community. Senator Scullion has also written to the other states involved to propose that they consider adopting similar legislation. State and territory legislation based on the Northern Territory's can be more targeted and more flexible, will be more legally robust and will actually be a solution that provides confidence to those communities on the ground to take action when they experience a problem, instead of Commonwealth legislation being thrust upon them from Canberra.

The coalition has been proactive about developing a long-term, effective solution to this problem and has been attempting to work with both the government and the Greens—unfortunately, as of this morning, to no avail. Even the Greens themselves acknowledge that the bill would be ineffective. As they said in their minority report in the community affairs inquiry report:

The bill introduced by the Australian Greens does not in itself cause anything to take place. It is enabling legislation.

My concern, and the concern of the coalition, is that the Greens' decision to go it alone on the legislative approach to the scourge of petrol sniffing has meant the imperfect bill before us today. Petrol sniffing will not be stopped by this bill, not because of a lack of good intent in the bill but because it uses the wrong legislative mechanism to achieve the outcome. The Greens and Labor know this. I go back to my commentary on traders and how they will structure their businesses if there is a commercial advantage in doing so. We all know that they are capable of doing that.

Labor, as part of its opportunistic deals with the Greens, changed its mind. We do not know what the deals are; we just know that we are now debating this bill before us. Minister Snowdon changed his mind and now this bill is before us. It would be fantastic if the community and the Senate understood the price of getting this legislation onto the agenda this morning for debate with the government support. I guess we should not be surprised, because evidence based, effective policy for this government is shelved for political expediency, something we have seen time and again. We are here in the second-last week of our sitting year with another backflip as we have seen a political fix occur. I hope the details are going to be outlined somewhere. We have a couple more speakers. I hope that a little gold nugget will come forward. We saw it with the supertrawler, we saw it on live cattle exports, we saw it with the excising of the migration zone and we saw it with the carbon tax. With science and evidence based policy, a legislative approach that uses mechanisms that will work is shelved for short-term political gain.

My strong desire, in terms of addressing this problem, was that the Greens would choose to use being highly effective with this Labor government, rather than this strategy, to get the bill on the agenda and get the government's support. The Greens chose to mobilise their highly effective e-campaigners—the 76,000 that changed the minds of Minister Ludwig and Minister Burke. They could mobilise them to get consumers and industry to get behind them by running their businesses and purchasing the products that will lead to long-term and effective change in Indigenous communities as Opal becomes the only fuel sold. I am not sure what really happened in the past day or so to change the government's mind. Obviously, the bill is being done. I wish that the— (Time expired)