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Thursday, 12 August 2004
Page: 26336

Senator WEBBER (2:31 PM) —My question is to Senator Ian Campbell, the Minister for the Environment and Heritage. Does the minister agree with the comments of the Minister for Science when he launched the 48-hour Plastic Bag Famine yesterday that plastic bags are `like nuclear waste—it goes on and on, a life beyond many, many continents' own lifetimes'? Is the minister aware that the Australian Conservation Foundation estimates that the large supermarkets have only reduced their plastic bag consumption by a mere seven per cent and that, under the government's national voluntary code arrangement, a massive 6.7 billion plastic bags continue to be used by Australians every year? If plastic bags are as detrimental to the environment as nuclear waste, why won't the minister now agree to Labor's policy to legislate to ban plastic bags by 2007?

Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) —I thank Senator Webber for the first question on the environment from the Australian Labor Party. It is good to see that at least someone in the Labor Party cares about the environment. I do agree with the comments of the Minister for Science. That is why, after 13 years of inaction on plastic bags under Labor when we saw plastic bag use rising year after year—more plastic bags flowing into the stormwater, into the rivers and down into the oceans, getting sucked into tortoises' gullets and wrapping themselves around dolphins' noses and ibis' beaks—we see some action from this government. It is to the great credit of former environment ministers David Kemp and Senator Robert Hill that this government has provided leadership to ensure that plastic bags are phased out, and phased out as quickly as possible.

Only this morning I met with Jon Dee from Planet Ark and discussed further strategies to build on the tremendous success of this government in getting people to say no to plastic bags, to use reusable bags. I commend the major supermarket operators, Coles and Woolworths, and the Independent Grocers, the SupaValus and the Farmer Jacks across Australia who are saying to their customers: `There is a better way to go. You can get your groceries home safely and securely without putting plastic into the environment.' Only two weeks ago I was able to present the first audited reports by KPMG on the reduction of plastic bag use in Australia—a 29 per cent achievement anticipated for the first year, on track to outdo the first goal.

But Senator Webber is right, and so are Planet Ark and Ian Kiernan from Clean Up Australia—we do need to go a lot further. A lot of shoppers go to smaller retailers—to delicatessens and a range of other shops—and to fast food outlets. Unfortunately a number of the fast food outlets in Australia have not followed the lead of companies like McDonald's by going to recyclable materials to package fast food. We will be working, through a roundtable which I am establishing with smaller retailers and people outside the retail grocery sector, to ensure that the leadership provided by major retailers in Australia to encourage people to say no to plastic bags and move to recyclable and reusable bags for packaging becomes pervasive and that we can phase out plastic bag use in Australia.

The Labor Party have the policy approach of: `Let's just legislate it. Let's wipe it out through legislation.' We want to do it in a way that ensures that shoppers, particularly people on low incomes, are not whacked by Labor's `nanny state knows best' approach to all of these things. Senator Webber and Mr Latham would have us impose enormous costs on shoppers in Australia. What we are trying to do is change the culture of Australia, keep the costs down and phase plastic bags out. What they want to do is use the old centralist `nanny state knows best' way of doing things and legislate them away. We know that the practice around the world shows that that does not work. They would say to all of the Australians who have made the decision to say no to plastic and move to reusable and recyclable bags that they know best. They will not even applaud the millions of Australians who have said no to plastic over the last few months and moved to recyclable and reusable bags. They are saying: `That's not good enough. You're all mugs. We know better than you.' What they will do is put the price of groceries up and hurt people on low incomes. (Time expired)

Senator WEBBER —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Given the minister's keenness for reusable bags, I refer to the minister's interview last month on the Insiders program when he indicated his plan to introduce blue recycled bags so consumers could `have a choice of colours'. Can the minister also confirm, when asked in that same interview what message a blue bag would send, that he said:

The blue bag will be the same as a green bag, Barrie, but it's going to be blue.

Isn't it time for the minister to stop focusing on the colour of the bag and start focusing on real strategies to eradicate the current 6.7 billion plastic bags used by Australians every year?

Opposition senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT —Order! When senators on my left cease interjecting I will call the minister.

Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) —This morning Jon Dee delivered to my office about 100 blue Planet Ark bags. What I will do right now is ask my staff to deliver one to Senator Webber's office immediately. Planet Ark endorsed my strategy today. What you have got to do is reinvigorate people about reusing reusable bags. We want people to understand that, if they use plastic and it goes into the ocean and kills a dolphin or a turtle, that is bad. So we do want blue bags to represent the importance of our oceans. We are going to have white bags to represent the importance of Antarctica. We are going to have calico bags. We are going to allow freedom of choice. What we want to do is encourage all Australians to make that choice to say no to plastic bags, because we think they are smart enough to make that choice for themselves and not be told by a nanny, state-knows-best, Latham government what is good for them. (Time expired)

Opposition senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senators on my left! The din and noise coming from that side of the chamber today is disgraceful.