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Tuesday, 25 November 2003
Page: 17949


Senator FORSHAW (9:05 PM) —I am indebted to the Minister for Finance and Administration, Senator Minchin, for moving the interruption to business tonight to bring on the Fuel Quality Standards Amendment Bill 2003, because I know how terribly interested he is in this legislation, and I am sure he is going to be sitting here and listening with great attention to the remarks I am about to make.


Senator Ian Macdonald —You've got the expert here to listen to.


Senator FORSHAW —I have just found out that I have Senator Ian Macdonald here, so I will probably get through this very quickly. I rise to speak on the Fuel Quality Standards Amendment Bill 2003 and I particularly want to address the report of the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Legislation Committee on this bill. I will, at the conclusion of my remarks, be moving a second reading amendment to this bill which I understand is now being circulated in my name.

Let me say at the outset that we support the introduction of a national mandatory labelling regime for blended fuels. Indeed, in September last year, Labor announced a policy on the introduction of capping ethanol blended fuel to 10 per cent and also a labelling system. Our position has not changed, and we have consistently called for consumer protection in this area. But, unlike their quick and extensive action to protect their mates when a shipload of Brazilian ethanol was steaming towards Australia, on consumer protection the Howard government have been slow to act. They were quick to act when it suited them with respect to that particular shipload of ethanol from Brazil, but with respect to the broader interest of consumer protection for the Australian community they have been very slow to act—it has been at a snail's pace. We have finally tonight got this legislation before us.

In December last year Dr Kemp, the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, called on state governments to introduce mandatory labelling and indicated that the federal government would take action if the states failed to shoulder what is really a Commonwealth responsibility. Three months later, in February 2003, Dr Kemp announced that the federal government would introduce a national mandatory labelling regime for blended fuels and that relevant legislation would be introduced at the resumption of parliament this year. Evidence provided at the committee inquiry by officers of the Department of the Environment and Heritage asserts that the department commenced preparation for the introduction of this policy in January 2003—11 months ago. In April 2003, five months after Labor, Dr Kemp finally announced the capping of ethanol blended fuel to 10 per cent and reannounced the introduction of a national mandatory labelling regime.

The Fuel Quality Standards Amendment Bill 2003, the bill we are debating here tonight, was introduced into the parliament on 26 June 2003. It was introduced on the last sitting day of the winter session. Dr Kemp and the Department of the Environment and Heritage have been developing the relevant material for this bill since January of this year. The department, however, advised the Senate committee that it was yet to prepare draft regulations or propose labels, because to date it had not been instructed to do so by the minister. Labor considers that without draft regulations and labels the committee—and, indeed, the parliament—has not been given significant information to fully understand the labelling regime that this legislation will put in place.

I understand that prior to the committee's public hearings the committee discussed the benefits to its deliberations of being able to consider the draft regulations and proposed labels at the inquiry. To this end it was resolved that the chair of the committee would request the minister to release such information. Despite the committee's request, the minister has consistently refused to make draft regulations or proposed labels available to the committee for consideration with this legislation. It is not unprecedented that draft regulations be released at the same time that legislation is being considered in the parliament. Indeed, I am sure all of us who are in the chamber tonight—and those of us who have been in this parliament even a short time, let alone for a number of years—agree with the proposition that, when legislation is being introduced into the parliament, if it is necessary to have draft regulations accompanying that legislation they will also be made available for scrutiny by senators and by the relevant Senate committee. As we know, it is often in the detail of the draft regulations that the real aspects of the enforceability and the application of that legislation are contained.

From time to time, even this government, the Howard government—who seem to believe only whilst they are in office—have made a show of caring about good public policy outcomes. They have, on occasions, released draft regulations to allow the parliament to determine more fully how legislation will actually work and how it will impact upon the Australian people. We consider that the release of such information is entirely reasonable. Indeed, we actually go further and say that it is absolutely necessary. It is only understandable that the parliament and the Senate should be frustrated at being required to consider legislation at this point in time without being provided sufficient information to fully assess any draft regulations as to how such legislation would be implemented. I also wish to highlight that the Department of the Environment and Heritage has been working on the implementation of a national mandatory labelling regime for most of this year. But I also have to point out that it has not yet been asked to prepare draft regulations or proposed labels. Officers of the department clearly indicated to the Senate committee that once the legislation has been passed by the parliament, then draft regulations and labels could be swiftly provided. That is not good enough.

The principal operation of this bill is to introduce consumer protection labelling for ethanol blended fuel. There has certainly been legitimate public concern over ethanol. On the one hand, the debate has focused on the way that the Prime Minister has entered into deals behind closed doors, and I believe misled the parliament and the Australian people. Ultimately, we have seen taxpayers' money used to help mates of this government. The debate has also focused on the safety of various ethanol blends used in petrol. In this case, the issue of consumer awareness has been of primary importance to Labor. It has not been so for the Howard government.

Minister Kemp called in December 2002 for action to be taken. He has repeatedly announced the government's intention to introduce mandatory labelling for ethanol blended fuel since February 2003. However, when it came to the committee hearings on this matter, the department was unable to explain to the committee why it was that the introduction of this bill was delayed until 26 June 2003. Given that the department advised that it can quickly produce draft regulations and labels once instructed, and that to date it has not been instructed by the minister to do so, we are compelled to conclude that for some reason the minister wishes to delay the introduction of a national mandatory labelling system. I will listen with interest to hear the reasons why that is the case when the minister responds at the conclusion of the second reading debate.

Labor are concerned to ensure that this legislation will provide consumers with information and protection, and it was for this reason that we referred the legislation to the Senate committee. The minister has repeatedly claimed that we delayed the implementation of a national mandatory labelling system by referring the bill to the committee. Clearly the evidence is to the contrary. The committee heard evidence detailing the inaction of the minister in providing instructions to his department and the late introduction of the relevant legislation. Clearly that inaction is the real reason for the delays in consumers being able to make informed choices about the fuel they buy and put into the tanks of their cars. We will continue to call on the minister to release those draft regulations and those proposed labels in order to expedite the passage of this bill and the introduction of mandatory labelling of blended fuels. I said at the outset that we were intending to move a second reading amendment, which has been circulated in my name. I now move:

At the end of the motion, add:

“But the Senate notes:

(a) the failure of the Federal Government to protect Australian consumers by delaying the implementation of a mandatory national labelling regime for ethanol blended fuel despite the repeated public assurances of the Minister for the Environment and Heritage;

(b) the decision by the Howard Government to continue to protect the interests of the ethanol industry by continuing to subsidise the industry while failing to provide adequate protection for consumers;

(c) the failure of the Federal Government to release the proposed regulations that will determine what labelling information consumers will be given;

(d) the Government's general conduct in developing its ethanol policy behind closed doors in a clandestine manner; and

(e) calls on the Government to release the regulations immediately to ensure public scrutiny of their proposals”.