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Monday, 15 September 2003
Page: 20086

Mr JOHN COBB (7:39 PM) —One thing that is certain is that Australia is very much a transport driven nation. Electorates like mine—or that of the member from the Top End over here—are even more transport driven than most, especially when you are an export driven electorate, as most electorates in country Australia are. Nobody has more reason to be worried about transport and its standards than these people do. Sheer distance and the necessity to own and use a car in the bush means that we are all going to be using them at a young age and we will be dependent lifelong on using automobiles or internal-combustion engines of some sort.

It is no surprise that passenger vehicles in Australia do produce 40 million tonnes of greenhouse gases and, while that is not a huge problem for those of us who live in the country, it could certainly create some problems in the cities. Obviously we are not about to even try to stop people using motor vehicles, but we do have to provide some sort of a regulatory framework and tighten standards to get better operational outcomes and some better emission controls to try and keep things on an even keel in the cities.

The Fuel Quality Standards Act 2000 set the wheels in motion to do just that, and the amendments set out in the Fuel Quality Standards Amendment Bill 2003 give the Commonwealth the ability to bring about some changes. The Fuel Quality Standards Act 2000 was an innovative piece of legislation that, for the first time, introduced a national regulatory framework to control fuel quality. The aim of the act is to regulate fuel quality for the adoption of better engine and emission control technologies, for more efficient engines and, to an extent, to control emissions.

The National Party has been on about the fuel quality agenda for a long time. While most of us represent large fuel-consuming electorates because of—as I have said previously—the very nature of our electorates and the way they have to transport so much, there do have to be fuel standards. Even though we do not always like them, I think we have got to recognise that they have to exist. It does not matter whether you are a farmer or a transport operator, we all must concede that we have a part to play. With all the changes to emission controls that have happened in the last 20 years, the technology has certainly meant a far greater ability to get mileage out of a litre of fuel. We have moved towards better production, better technologies and cleaner fuels at the same time and, by and large, we are getting industry wide cooperation.

The one thing I will never claim to be—and I am not—is a mad greenie, but we do have to have a commonsense approach to this, and it has to involve the whole of the community in one form or another. The amendments in this bill will provide benefits for the fuel consumer, or motorist, and for the community as well—it is a fact of life. Item 1 of the explanatory memorandum states:

This item amends the objects of the Act (section 3) to include a specific objective related to the new fuel labelling provisions.

The amendments are necessary to give the Commonwealth the ability to have an effective and enforceable national labelling regime for fuels. Motorists will have the opportunity to be informed about the fuel they are purchasing before they buy it, and I do not think we can argue about the fact that they should have the right to that. Labelling requirements have got to be consistent, and that is why the Commonwealth has taken these steps. Some of the states, especially New South Wales, have had the ability to do it for 100 years but they have not done it.

Consistent national labelling at petrol service stations will benefit all Australian motorists and, as we move towards a 10 per cent limit on ethanol, consistent labelling is something we have to do. There has been enormous scaremongering—to say the least—by certain parties about ethanol fuel and labelling requirements. I think the members opposite, along with the fuel companies, are probably as guilty as anyone of running one of the biggest scare campaigns, with very little truth involved, if any at all, and absolutely no concern about an Australian industry that has an enormous amount to offer to Australia as a whole.

I agree with what the honourable member for Kennedy said earlier—that environmentally this is good news, not bad news. I am no scientist but I do not believe that a scientist can add two and two and make five—but perhaps in this case they have. We have moved an amendment to counter the unease and scaremongering that has been going on. How often do you see an opposition combine with the fuel companies, especially an opposition that purports to represent the ordinary people? I do not know how often it has happened; this is certainly the first time I have seen it happen to this extent. The particular system they were trying to destroy involved totally Australian companies and Australian employees, Australian farmers and Australian technology. Why anyone would want to ruin that, I do not know, but the attempt to do so will go down in shame. We have to do our best to try to resurrect the opportunities presented by that technology and those industries. The people who work in those industries build homes and feed their families. It is all very well for the opposition to smile about it, but I do not think the people who have put their money up and the people who have got the jobs are smiling about it.

Not surprisingly, most of the state Labor governments have failed in their duty to regulate the industry. As has been mentioned, it is not just New South Wales; most of the states have the opportunity to regulate the industry and to have labelling standards, but they have failed to do so. Instead, they preferred to be part of the scare campaign to try and stop people using the produce at all. Because the states have refused to institute labelling, the Commonwealth will legislate to give itself the power to require labelling so that consumers will have the opportunity to know exactly what they are buying, instead of driving up to service stations where there are signs with `no ethanol' written on them—as was intimated by those who have been trying to run a scare campaign for political reasons. The fuel companies have tried to run a scare campaign for a far more insidious reason—to try to ruin a competitor.

The New South Wales government has had the capacity for 100 years to regulate the sale of petrol and to require petrol retailers to inform consumers of content through proper labelling, and it has failed to do that. Blends containing 20 per cent ethanol have been available on the Sydney market since 1994. I point out that reports that were in the paper last week about what ethanol does to cars were not accurate. Most car companies concede that a 10 per cent level of ethanol will never hurt their products, but they will not put their name to it in case somebody calls them to account in the future. That is a disgrace on the part of the car companies, the opposition and the petrol companies. Research suggests that an ethanol level of 20 per cent may cause some problems in some cars. It is not suitable for two-stroke engines, where there may be a problem. But we are not talking about two-stroke engines; we are talking about the vast bulk of cars that have been made since 1984—certainly almost every car that is being produced today.

While the Commonwealth was undertaking scientific testing to set an appropriate and sound ethanol limit for fuel, state governments still had an opportunity to cooperate by insisting on labelling standards so that the public could look at what they were buying, and we would not have had to have that `no ethanol' campaign that was run so effectively and nearly—I stress `nearly'—brought an industry to its knees. It is no wonder the motoring public became anxious about ethanol fuel while all of that was going on. That 20 per cent ethanol level was being thrown about everywhere, whether it was being used or not, and most of the time it was not. Certainly at that level there would be durability concerns with some vehicles.

With this amendment, we are about allaying the concerns of motorists and are about giving an industry—and those who put in the money, the technology and the work—an opportunity, whether it be in cane production or feed grain production. We want to allay the concerns of the public and the concerns of people in the industry. After all, it is a wholly Australian industry and not—as with a lot of the engines and fuel companies we are talking about—total foreign investment. Each fuel quality information standard will set out the type and supply of fuel to which it applies, the information that must be provided with regard to the fuel and the manner in which it must be provided. The standards will be enforced through Environment Australia's existing national fuel monitoring program. The bill states that fuel quality information standards, and variations to these standards, cannot be made without first consulting the Fuel Standards Consultative Committee. This gives a voice to the many stakeholders who are affected by fuel regulation—and I have already mentioned those.

Finally, key offences of supplying off-specification fuel, altering fuel so that it does not meet the standards and supplying or importing prohibited additives are to be made strict liability offences. The new offences relating to the supply of fuel which does not meet the fuel quality information standards will be strict liability offences. Claims by offenders that they were not aware of the standards will be rendered null and void, and suppliers will be made accountable to the consuming public. I support this amendment. I abhor what has gone on in the past 12 months or so in trying to ruin an industry before it even got on its feet. I should add that there is an enormous amount of investment ready to be put into the ethanol industry and the biofuel industry today. It does not need scare campaigns by those who have no purpose other than foreign greed or local political outcomes and who are trying to drag it down.