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Speech by the Hon Wal Fife

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18 OCTOBER 1978


This is the first time that I have addressed a function organized by your newly formed Packaging Council of Australia.

I was happy to receive your invitation and I look forward to further opportunities for us to exchange views. It will be advantageous for all of us that the Packaging Industry can now speak with one voice and I hope that it will use that voice to further the aim contained in the title of today's seminar, "The Path To Uniformity". Many of you will have heard me speak about this need before.

You will know that the Government places a very high priority on the need for uniformity of Government regulation. Not only does the Government see a need­ ier uniform regulation, but it also believes that it is essential for the well-being of the private sector that there be a minimum of regulation. We all recognise the need for some regulation of our affairs: We are used to this in our private lives

(on the road for instance) and we are also used to it in our business dealings, (such as in the control of fraudulent practices). However, with our Federal system it is quite possible for the regulatory process to get a little out of hand and for the various Governments to tackle a problem in quite different ways.

We all know that this has happened in the past, to our detriment, and that unless everybody concerned with the regulatory process keeps the dangers in mind, it will happen in the future. I believe that in the reasonably near future there will be an improvement in this picture as all Governments involved, whether at Commonwealth,

State or Territory level, strive for uniformity and also to reduce the amount of unnecessary and non-uniform regulations to the minimum. We will not be doing this because we believe in uniformity for its own sake but because the existing situation is very costly and wasteful of resources and is one which we believe can be improved.

In this process which I will touch on later I trust that I shall have your active support. But first, I will address that particular aspect of the problem that concerns you directly, that is the non-uniformity of packaging and labelling regulations. .

I shall start by briefly outlining the recent history of the Government's concern with this problem.

In our policy for the 1975 elections we responded to the concerns expressed by both industry and consumers by saying that: "A sound consumer protection policy on packaging and labelling can lead to decreased prices for goods and assistance to the consumer in exercising his choice. We believe it to be in the interests of both manufacturers and consumers that laws dealing with packaging and labelling should

have uniform application." .

In Government, we acted quickly to implement, this policy and my predecessor John Howard referred this question to the Trade Practices Commission for its assess­ ment of the problem.

In June 1977» the Commission handed me its report which I tabled and distributed widely. The Commonwealth recognised the complexity of the problem and a dozen Ministers and their Departments were involved in the study of the document. The Commonwealth Government then made its decision which I announced about a month

ago. No doubt you are aware of the basic trust of the decision which I take this opportunity to detail as it is so relevant to your seminar topic. The Commonwealth's approach to achieving uniform packaging and labelling laws throughout Australia has two fundamental features. First of all it has directed each Commonwealth Minister with a responsibility in the packaging and labelling area to undertake a special

drive for uniformity within the relevant Mini? terial consultative forum.

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These forums such as the Australian Agricultural Council comprising Commonwealth and State Primary Industry Ministers and the National Health and Medical Research Council which includes Commonwealth and State Health Ministers facilitate legislative and regulatory uniformity in most common areas of

responsibility. In this way the Commonwealth is confident that the progress that has already been made will be used as the basis for further advances.

An important example of an initiative on which considerable progress has already been made is the work of the Minister for Health in developing a model Food Bill and regulations.

The special drive in each specialist area has the advantage that it allows each consultative forum to take into account the fact that packaging and labelling requirements are generally not isolated requirements - the other product requirements with which they are intimately bound need to be recognised when changes to achieve uniformity are being considered, while still concentrating on the objective of

achieving uniformity in lackaging and labelling regulations.

The second fundamental feature of the Commonwealth's approach is that there be discussions between Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments on the broader questions involved in achieving uniformity; for instance the types of issues which will benefit most specialist areas. .

One issue of major importance is the differences which occur when new regulations are enacted in the various jurisdictions after agreement has been reached on their content. Another is industry and consumer access to information on the laws that apply to a particular product.

. The Government has decided that there should be one Commonwealth Minister nominated for this task and I, as Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs, have been asked to initiate these discussions, following consultations with my ministerial colleagues. You will appreciate that these are significant decisions and that they offer a very real chance for us; Government, industry and consumers alike, to make

progress on this longstanding problem. The Food Industry Council of Australia has pointed out that the first moves for uniformity in the food area date back to 1907.

. So what are the next steps? I understand that most State Governments are currently involved in the sort of exercise that the Commonwealth has just completed. They have set up committees of officials drawn from the various areas concerned with packaging and labelling to look at the problems that were identified by the Trade Practices Commission. I hope that the relevant State Ministers will shortly be in a position to have discussions with me. .

In the meantime, I shall be continuing my discussions with my colleagues at the Commonwealth level and we shall each be implementing the Government decision . to initiate a "special drive" for uniformity within our own specialist areas. For example, officers of my Department will be discussing with their opposite numbers in the States and Territories next week the problem of non-uniformities in consumer protection legislation.

I would like to take this opportunity to indicate my role in this process. I have already said that, like my colleagues, I shall be trying to negotiate more uniformity in packaging and labelling laws in my area of ministerial responsibility within the existing forums - in my case the regular six monthly meetings of Ministers

responsible for consumer affairs and their attendant officials meetings.

In addition, I shall be discussing with the relevant Ministers, whether Commonwealth, State or Territory, the broader issues of uniformity in the regulation of packaging and labelling. As I indicated earlier, the major problem regarding uniformity throughout Australia often arises after bodies like the National Health

and Medical Research Council and the Standing Committee on Packaging, have finished their consideration of a proposal and have recommended to the responsible Ministers that a certain law or regulation should be enacted.


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One of the things that I want to talk to the States about is how these recommendations might be handled. We all know that the present reliance on each State introducing separate pieces of legislation has resulted in many anomalies.

I still find the orange juice example extraordinary, even though I have now seen it many times. Just to refresh your memories - five States will accept a label that states "Prepared from natural concentrated fruit juice" while the sixth requires "Prepared from concentrated natural fruit juice". These are the

sorts of differences that creep into the law when, with the best will in the world, it is enacted by different Parliaments. These anomalies appear humorous when presented like this. However, they are more serious than that. We all know that they must be adding to the costs of production and increasing prices to consumers. We have found it hard to document this cost, but recently the Department of Productivity was given what is said to be a fairly typical example in the veterinary

drugs area where the extra costs were itemised.

After the necessary but not inconsiderable costs of the registration procedures were paid, the firm was still faced with the regular annual costs of meeting the different State requirements; $4000 for extra printing, $3,500 for extra artwork and plate production, and $15,000 for the maintenance of separate

inventories for each of the States.

I would like to believe that we can introduce a system of adoption of agreed recommendations that would remove the sorts of differences which arise because of varying State requirements and yet still take into account the.proper interests of all the Australian Governments. .

At the same time, we must recognise that sometimes there will be necessarily varying requirements, such as those resulting from differences in climate. The various specialised areas within governments have similar problems when it comes to introducing uniform regulations. By combining what we know about all these problems, . we must have a better chance of finding solutions. These may well turn out to be different in the different areas, but they will have benefited from exposure to the problems in the other areas.

One of the other general issues that needs to be considered in discussion with the States is the need for a better system of information dissemination. I have heard of cases of firms having to send out 40 letters to find out what laws would relate to a particular product. Not only are many letters required, but the

time involved in waiting for replies is often considerable.

Even after this sort of expenditure and delay, no one knows if all the relevant laws and authorities have been located. There must be a better way of . doing this, possibly by making better use of the very considerable expertise that resides in the secretariats of the expert advisory bodies. It seems to me that we are in a position to make real progress in this area. Probably for the first time we have many of the ingredients for success. We have a Government in Canberra with ‘

a genuine desire to succeed in- this task. Quite clearly, we are not going to try to . take over the States' responsibilities. Equally clearly, we really want an improvement.

, We recognise the need for Government regulation but also recognise that there are limits on the level of regulation that is acceptable, I believe that the . other governments in Australia are also aware of the dissatisfaction of the community - both industry and consumers - with the existing situation. And the final ingredient is input and degree of commitment from bodies, like your own, representing specialist groups within the community.

The Commonwealth's decision will, I hope, prove to be the catalyst that causes all these ingredients to work together, but we need a commitment to success . from all participants in the process.

You can rest assured that a political commitment exists - certainly at the Commonwealth level and I believe at the State 3 ;vel also.


In closing, I would like to return to the question I raised earlier about the importance of your industry continuing to make its views known to the government. I thank you for the submission the National Packaging Association gave me several months ago. Your views are still relevant and I appreciate being kept informed. The results of the seminar will be one example.

Our resources are, however, limited and we would like to put them into those areas where the problems are greatest. So, when you are aware of problems created by the lack of uniformity in packaging and labelling laws, you should let not only the Commonwealth Government know, but also each of the State and Territory Governments.

The path to uniformity is neither straight nor level, but it is certainly the path down which we must be, and are moving. We must, however, move much more quickly than we have in the past. .

Thank you for your attention and good luck with your new council.

I am sure that today will be a success, and I now have pleasure in formally declaring the seminar open.