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Tuesday, 25 November 2003
Page: 17960

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) (9:55 PM) —I thank the senators who have made a contribution to this debate, and I appreciate the support being given to the Fuel Quality Standards Amendment Bill 2003 by the opposition. I am disappointed that the Democrats will not be supporting the bill. I can indicate now for the record that of course we will not be supporting the second reading amendment.

Senator Forshaw —Oh, Jeez!

Senator IAN MACDONALD —It was a nice attempt by Senator Forshaw to get a bit of political mileage against a government that has been so very successful. I appreciate his enthusiasm for his amendment but obviously we will not be supporting it. I can say that I appreciate the Democrats' decision not to support the second reading amendment. I am also a fraction disappointed that Senator McLucas, who was on the speakers list, will not be speaking tonight. She and I both come from an area where sugar cane is very important, and I would like to have heard Senator McLucas's views on sugar cane and ethanol. I wonder if she shares Senator O'Brien's views on that issue.

This is not a bill that relates particularly to sugar and ethanol but, in view of what Senator O'Brien has said, I think it is important for me to indicate that I am very conscious of a lot of very dedicated and learned farmers in the north who are doing a great deal of work on ethanol. By coincidence, tonight there was a dinner held in Townsville hosted by Mr John Honeycomb, who is the deputy chair of the industry guidance group set up by the government to assist the sugar industry in the face of the attack by the Queensland state government. Mr Honeycomb is hosting a dinner of some very learned people who have particular views about ethanol and about how sugar can be involved. I only mention that to say that there is a lot of work being done by the farmers themselves. It is not getting a lot of support from others but they are determined.

In the part of North Queensland where I live—the Lower Burdekin area—there are a lot of farmers who have a particular commitment to ethanol and who believe that ethanol can help the sugar industry. They do not accept the sorts of comments that Senator O'Brien was making. I would like to mention a lot of people: George Nielsen, the head of the Canegrowers executive, Mr Jeff Cox, who is playing a very significant role in his work on ethanol and sugar, and people like Ian Haigh, a sugar industry leader who over the years has done a lot of work to try to help his industry get through the difficulties that it currently finds itself in because of exceptionally low prices and because of the fact that, in most other countries around the world where sugar is produced, certain subsidy-like payments are made to support farmers. That does not happen in Australia and it will not happen in Australia. Australians understand that their industry, which is the most efficient, has to be even more efficient—even better—to maintain its place in the world.

I have confidence in the future of the sugar industry and I will be supporting the industry as best I can. Given support and confidence, the industry will continue on and get through this very difficult period. The opposition's continued focus on the timing of the introduction of this legislation is, I think, reasonably petty and very irrelevant to the debate. The states failed to act on the minister's call to act and the Australian government has had to respond by introducing this bill. Legislative timetables change all the time; there has been no particular undue delay with this bill. As I think all senators will understand, the path through this chamber is often tortuous, the drafting of amendments and additions to the bill by the minor parties does take time and we are not able to proceed with the committee stage tonight for that reason. Suggestions that there has been undue delay are simply wrong.

The minister has said that he will move to introduce ethanol labelling once the legislation is passed but it must be passed before he can undertake the statutory process the bill provides for. Senator Forshaw moved that the government should table the draft label and determination before the bill is passed. This approach is neither, with respect, sensible nor necessary. The Commonwealth does not yet have the power to require that fuels be labelled. This legislation gives the government that power and also sets out a statutory process to be followed in the setting of labelling standards. That includes formal consultation with the Fuel Standards Consultative Committee—a representative stakeholder body established under the act—before a draft label can be put forward for parliamentary consideration.

There would be little point in the government proposing a label for debate before the statutory process and the required consultations have occurred. It would also be a waste of the parliament's time. A label agreed on by the Senate in the context of this debate would have no legal status whatsoever under the act. The label could be changed substantially as a result of the required consultations with the Fuel Standards Consultative Committee. The bill is not just about ethanol labelling. This bill provides the Commonwealth government with the power to set uniform national labelling standards for fuel so that in future it will not have to rely on state governments exercising those powers. This power is important not only for labelling ethanol blends but also for labelling other alternative fuels that enter the market—for example, the government has recently set a fuel standard for biodiesel in order to encourage greater use of that particular fuel. Experience has shown us that it is important to establish consumer confidence in these fuels as soon as possible, and labelling will be very important in this regard.

The bill is also about strengthening other parts of the Fuel Quality Standards Act that are designed to protect consumers and the environment from the impacts of poor quality fuel. This is not the last chance that the parliament will have to scrutinise the proposed ethanol label, and holding up the bill on these grounds will hold up other important activities. As a disallowable instrument, the labelling determination will have to be tabled in both houses of parliament and honourable senators will know that, because it is a disallowable instrument, it can be debated and disallowed in this parliament. However I am confident—knowing the good work that the minister and his department do—that all senators will support those regulations when they come in.

Senator Allison stated that she would like to see a more comprehensive labelling scheme that provides a clean fuel rating for all fuels. Labelling fuels for environmental friendliness is desirable in theory but quite difficult in practice. This is because the environmental impact of each fuel varies significantly through factors that are not linked to the fuel itself—for example, fuel consumption and tailpipe emissions are related to many factors including driving style, vehicle load, engine conditions and vehicle technology. Without the amendments proposed in this bill, the government has no power to label any fuels. Once the government does have the power to label fuels, the minister will be able to consider the need for labelling particular fuels on the merits of the case. However, it must be clear that there is a need for such labelling and that labelling would have to be in the public interest.

I know Senator Forshaw is vitally interested in the points I am making but I will help his interest by briefly summing up the debate on the Fuel Quality Standards Amendment Bill 2003. I will go through the points very quickly. In summary, the states have existing powers under their fair trading acts to require labelling of fuels. It is disappointing that only Victoria responded to the minister's call for them to require labelling of ethanol blends. Why the others would not, one can only surmise. My summation would be that again they saw some political benefit in not doing that and—as the state Labor governments are so wont to do—as they could try to score a political point, that is what they did. In the absence of that action by the states, the amendments that are being proposed here 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 bill provides for advice, transparency and accountability in the setting of labelling standards by requiring that the Fuel Standards Consultative Committee be consulted prior to the making or varying of the fuel quality information standard. This committee was created under the Fuel Quality Standards Act 2000 and contains representatives from all jurisdictions, the fuels and vehicles industries, and consumer interest groups. As a further safeguard, fuel quality information standards will be disallowable instruments. Of equal importance are the strict liability amendments contained in the bill. These changes will strengthen the act and will ensure that 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 and improving engine operations. I thank the Senate for its support of the bill and I look forward to the matter proceeding quickly through the committee stage and becoming law before we rise in a couple of weeks time.