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Tuesday, 11 September 2018
Page: 6072

Senator RICE (Victoria) (17:21): I rise to speak on the Imported Food Control Amendment Bill 2017.

In February 2015, dozens of people contracted hepatitis A after eating frozen berries made by the Nanna's and Creative Gourmet brands. I'm sure we all remember that. I'm sure we remember the impact that had across the country, on both the people affected—distressingly affected with hepatitis A—and in the worry, concern and fear of people right across the country who were concerned that those frozen berries they had in the freezer were going to make them sick.

We went through that and, of course, there was a recall of those berries. The recall in response to that outbreak was a strong demonstration of our food recall mechanisms. But it also called into question Australia's food inspection regime, which is set out in the Imported Food Control Act. The process in looking at this has been quite long, and I'll come back to that later. But the community has been calling for confidence to be restored and for changes to be made to make sure that what happened in February 2015 doesn't happen again.

There are large numbers of high-risk foods that come through our borders every day: cheese, beef, fresh and frozen fruit and seafood of all kinds. But it's the right of every citizen to assume that our government, including our biosecurity and food safety bodies, are doing their best to protect them from sickness and injury. This is the very basis of good government.

So the Greens support the amendments made in this bill. We agree with the introduction of a requirement for importers to prove, with a certification scheme, that effective food safety controls are in place for instances where we know that the border-testing regime isn't sufficient. And we agree with the much more stringent and risk-based holding order options for the minister on types, classes and source destinations of different products. This will ensure, as the explanatory memorandum says, that:

… the Australian Government has the power to control the spread of foodborne illness and communicable diseases (such as hepatitis or listeriosis).

And we, as the Greens, cautiously support the use of foreign food regulatory schemes for approving products. However, we urge the minister to be particularly careful with their application. Often, parallel certification or regulatory approval is actually a cover for applying the weakest version of regulations across multiple jurisdictions, and we need to ensure that both our biosecurity and our food safety are second to none around the world so that we can continue to protect our clean, green reputation and so that people can continue to eat not just imported food but, even more significantly for our Australian economy, Australian food with confidence.

The Greens are supporting this bill, but we have got a question. The question that we want to ask tonight is: why has it taken us so long to arrive at the second reading debate for this bill here in the Senate? This bill was first introduced in June last year. So it has been sitting on the books for 15 months and counting. That was 15 months for something that is, as I said, the essence of good governance: people knowing that the food that they eat is safe. You've got to wonder: why has it taken so long? Maybe it's that the government has had other priorities. Maybe the government has been so focused on looking inwards and focusing on itself that it hasn't been able to do the work of getting bills through parliament! Maybe the government has been focused on internal power plays, on throwing out what seemed to be, in the eyes of the community, a perfectly good Prime Minister to replace him with another Prime Minister—and we still don't know why—rather than being focused on doing the basics of good governance and on the things that the people of Australia actually think are important: the things that affect their everyday life, like whether those frozen berries in their freezer are going to be safe for them to eat. We have to ask ourselves: why has it taken so long? What has the government been focused on?

It's not because of lack of time. Just three weeks ago we saw that everyone in the lower house decided to call it a day just on midday because they had some leadership tensions to sort out. And, at the tail end of last year, we had the cancellation of an entire week of the House of Representatives just so that we could ensure that the member for New England was there to support a confidence motion.

Speaking of the member for New England: in between the introduction of this bill some 15 months ago and now, he has moved from being the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, to being the minister for infrastructure and regional development, to the backbench, to being an ordinary citizen, Mr Joyce, to then being on the backbench. And now he's our drought envoy, whatever that means. I think most Australians are actually still very confused about what that means. That's how long it has taken to get this bill to being debated here tonight.

How can good governance work in a situation like this? Quite frankly, it can't. And the evidence today is that it doesn't. This bill should have been dealt with last year, and it's only by a stroke of luck that we haven't had another crisis like the hepatitis A crisis of February 2015. It's an absolute abrogation of good governance. That it has taken 3½ years to get us to this stage really shows where the priorities of this government are.

So, to summarise—because I don't want to spend too much time holding up the passage of this important bit of legislation, given how long it has taken to get here—we, the Greens, will be supporting this bill. It has some good measures, and it has gone through what appears to be a robust consultation process. I'm pleased to be able to commend it to the Senate.