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Monday, 15 September 2003
Page: 20099

Dr KEMP (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) (8:43 PM) —The debate has now come to an end and I propose to make some summing up remarks. Let me make it clear right from the start that the government does not support the second reading amendment. The allegations contained in that amendment are baseless and the actions proposed in it are unnecessary. I will say something about the amendment in summing up the debate, but I would first like to correct some misinformation which has come before this parliament in the course of the debate.

Let me start these remarks with a general comment. Since last year, the Labor Party has been a major factor in the decline of consumer confidence in ethanol, because it has been prepared to make inaccurate claim after inaccurate claim without regard to the facts or the truth. This irresponsible campaign peaked last week when the Labor Party insisted on putting into the public arena preliminary information provided by automobile manufacturers to the ethanol confidence working group about the impact of the 10 per cent blend of ethanol in petrol on the operability of different makes of cars.

This information was not cleared by the manufacturers for publication and very possibly contained information that could be misleading. Nevertheless, Labor insisted on making it public and even tried to table it in the House. The consequence of this is inevitably that consumers would have been misled by some of this information. We can see the nature of how they were being misled through comments made by the member for McMillan in the course of the debate when he said that 10 per cent ethanol blends will damage some vehicles. On the basis of the information provided by the manufacturers, there is no justification for this claim—a claim which was, however, widely reported in the press.

As pointed out by the member for Dunkley, the general issue is not about vehicle damage from 10 per cent ethanol but about whether a vehicle will operate optimally on the E10 blend. This is no different an issue to the change in performance that may be experienced by using regular unleaded petrol in vehicles for which premium unleaded is recommended. On this point, the member for McMillan stated that, according to the list, ethanol is not recommended for use in many vehicles. I agree that it is disappointing that car manufacturers provided that equivocal advice on the suitability of ethanol for their cars to the working group. Amongst domestic manufacturers, only Holden has given clear advice. It is also disappointing given the wide use of 10 per cent ethanol internationally. But I understand that car makers and importers are working through the federal Chamber of Automotive Industries to tighten up that list and give clearer and more accurate advice to motorists. Nevertheless, Australian motorists are quite able to see through this issue. Once the legislation is passed and clear advice is available at the bowser, motorists will be able to determine if their car can use E10. I note that motorists now choose between premium unleaded, lead replacement and unleaded petrols without difficulty. Equally, car enthusiasts will be able to determine whether or not they want to use E10 once the government is given the power to impose labelling.

My second point of clarification concerns comments by the member for Bruce, who suggested that the label he has tabled is the government's proposed label—he also made a number of statements about what he thought were the inadequacies of that label. Let me make it quite clear to the House that that label is no such thing. There has been an orchestrated and hysterical overreaction to a draft label that has no legal status, and debate on that label is irrelevant. The content of the ethanol label has not been finalised. The ethanol confidence working group have been considering this issue and have come up with an option—that is all it is: an option. This is not the be all and end all of the process in designing a national ethanol label. The final content and form of the ethanol label and where and how it is to be displayed will be set out by me in a disallowable instrument. In deciding on the label, I will consider the advice of the ethanol working group but also any other matters that I consider relevant. After the bill is passed and before making this instrument, I will also be required to seek the advice of the Fuel Standards Consultative Committee—a statutory committee with members drawn from industry, consumer groups and all the jurisdictions. This is exactly the same mechanism used in setting the current petrol and diesel standards.

The member for Bruce and the member for Batman asked why the government has taken so long to introduce the labelling legislation. Unlike state governments who have had the power to introduce fuel labelling requirements within a matter of weeks throughout the whole development of this debate, the Commonwealth has no existing power to require the labelling of vehicle fuels. That is what this legislation is about. In the absence of action by the states—and I warned the states about the need for consumer information in October last year and repeated my call to them in December—the government at the federal level has moved quickly to introduce the necessary legislation. The amendments in this bill will ensure that the Commonwealth gains the power to act swiftly to require labelling of fuels where it is in the public interest to do so. These labelling requirements will be uniform across the country and will be backed up by a world-class monitoring and enforcement program.

The matter is now in the hands of this parliament and especially the Senate in terms of the time taken for passage. The real question is: why is the opposition determined to stand in the way of a national labelling regime? In the Senate the opposition has referred this bill to a Senate committee which will not be reporting until 28 October. That will make it impossible to meet the 31 October date that has been requested of the federal government for labelling by the state jurisdictions—who have of course, and have had throughout this debate, the opportunity and the power to create labelling on their own account.

The second reading amendment accused the government of protecting the interests of ethanol producers through subsidies—and I note the member for Wills has talked about the government bankrolling ethanol producers. The Keating government originated the policy of an ethanol bounty scheme and provided more than a decade of excise exemptions for ethanol. Support for a domestic ethanol industry has therefore come from both sides of this chamber. The member for Bruce has also asked why the government has not tabled the label with the legislation. This legislation not only gives the government the power to require fuel labelling but also sets out a statutory process to be followed in the setting of labelling standards. This includes the formal consultation with the Fuel Standards Consultative Committee that I mentioned earlier, which must occur before a draft label can be put forward for parliamentary consideration. The statutory processes have been designed to ensure transparency and accountability. It would be quite inappropriate for the government to propose a label for debate before those statutory processes and the required consultation have occurred. It would in fact be putting the cart before the horse. It would also be a waste of parliament's time, because the label could potentially change substantially as a result of the consultation with the Fuel Standards Consultative Committee.

I reiterate that the bill provides that the labelling determination will be a disallowable instrument, so this is neither the only nor the last opportunity for the parliament to scrutinise any proposed ethanol label should it so choose. The government shares the concerns of the member for McMillan about the potential effects of ethanol on marine engines, and a label would be needed to address this issue. I note that the results of the scientific tests on outboards that the government commissioned are posted on the web site of my department. These tests showed that 20 per cent ethanol was not suitable for outboards but that these engines ran satisfactorily on 10 per cent. Nevertheless, I agree that information on outboards is needed on labels as it appears on labels produced by BP, Bogas, Caltex and the Victorian government.

We could debate a range of issues around ethanol until the cows come home, but the fact is that such issues are irrelevant to today's debate. What we are seeking here is the passage of a bill that will allow nationally consistent labelling—that is the issue at hand—and it appears that there is no argument from either side of the House that such labelling is required. Of equal importance are the strict liability amendments contained in the bill. These changes will strengthen the act and ensure that the key offences in the act can be properly enforced. This will significantly improve the effectiveness of the act as an instrument to achieve the objectives of reducing vehicle emissions, improving engine operation and providing consumer information. The passage of this legislation is being delayed by the opposition. They are the speed hump between motorists and full information for consumers. I thank all those who contributed to the debate.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Bruce has moved as an amendment that all words after `That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

Question agreed to.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.