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Wednesday, 1 December 2021
Page: 6954

Senator WHISH-WILSON (Tasmania) (11:05): [by video link] I want to start by pointing out, for those who might be watching this debate today or reading the Hansard, that it is curious that this legislation, the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority Board and Other Improvements) Bill 2019, in one form or another has been kicking around this chamber and the House, and through a number of reviews, for nearly seven years. For background: the regulation of chemical products in Australia, or the regulatory framework for managing pesticides and veterinary medicines in Australia, is collectively referred to as the National Registration Scheme for Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals, or the NRS, and this is a partnership between the Commonwealth and the states and territories. The assessment and registration of agricultural and veterinary or agvet chemicals, as well as the control of supply activities up to the point of retail sale, is undertaken by the APVMA, and control of the use of agvet chemicals after sale is the responsibility of individual states and territories. The Agvet Code is contained in a schedule under the code act, and, under the NRS, the Agvet Code operates together with the code of each participating jurisdiction to constitute a single national code applying through Australia.

Now, going back to 2008, this regulatory framework has had a number of reviews and those reviews, which I haven't got time to go into in any detail, essentially led to legislation in 2013—eight years ago—and that was called the 2013 amendment act. I remember the debate, when that bill came before the parliament back in 2013. The act, it was said, would encourage the development of newer and safer chemicals by providing more flexible and streamlined regulatory processes with higher levels of transparency and predictability for business seeking approval for agvet chemicals to enter the market. It was claimed that the reforms should result in a more straightforward assessment process that would be easy to understand and more cost-effective to administer, and, particularly for products of low regulatory concern, the reform system as established by those amendments should be faster, deliver more predictable outcomes and result in improved health and environmental protection for the broader community. Now, despite the lengthy consultation which led to the 2013 amendment act, as it said in the Bills Digest, it was not without its critics as it was unclear whether the relevant amendments would lead to greater efficiencies, which they were intended to create. Of greatest concern were the following: the potential for increased cost for registrants and applicants; and increased complexity in the regulatory system, which might result in the loss of existing agricultural chemical products and discourage the introduction of newer modern chemistry and biological products and the potential loss from the Australian market of useful products that were safe and effective to use, due to the need to obtain reapproval or reregistration of these products.

This sounds like good, wholesome policy content, but you need to look at the politics of this. This bill, after a very long consultation process and nearly seven years of reviews, was dissented from by the coalition senators at the time that it went to committee. They also voted against this bill when it came to the Senate. That led to a 2013 federal election promise to review and overturn the 2013 amendment act. That gave birth to the coalition's 2014 amending act after that election promise.

The coalition government got elected in 2013, and clearly they were doing the bidding of the chemical industry, who wanted to make it even easier to register products. It's taken another seven years for this legislation to get before us today. I'm not sure what the basis is of the government's lethargy in relation to this bill. I also note that this legislation has been on the papers in the Senate now for many months and is continually put to the back of government bills. Nevertheless, in the final hours of the 2021 parliamentary year, we now have this bill before us. There are a lot of concerns that a number of stakeholders have with this bill, and the Greens have made it very clear in its earlier iteration—my colleague Senator Janet Rice had the agricultural portfolio for the Greens back in 2019—that we don't support making it easier for large chemical companies to register products. We believe this is counterproductive both for farmers and for community trust in the Agvet Code and legislative framework we have in this country.

Let's be honest: this bill serves two purposes but one master. The first purpose is supposedly to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of regulation. The second purpose re-establishes a board for the APVMA. Both purposes serve the need of the pesticide industry, and it's been raised by a number of stakeholders such as the National Toxics Network and Public Health Association of Australia, including in the Senate inquiry into this bill, that these dangers are a recipe for further deregulation, which we're seeing in this bill. This puts consumers at risk and undermines trust in the framework. We believe it puts at risk public health, smaller farms, biodiversity and the science of the process.

The bill seeks to introduce a streamlined process for approvals. The streamlined process, part of the codified doublespeak of privatisation and neoliberalism, removes a whole subset of chemicals from the regulatory scheme. Big industry need is prioritised at the expense of scientific and environmental safeguards. I would like to point out that I have used these chemicals myself as a vineyard owner and a small business operator. Over many years I tried to move my vineyard to biodynamic farming from the use of, in my early years, the use of things such as glycophosphate, Roundup and various pesticides and insecticides that are covered in this bill. I've done my training to get certified to use agricultural chemicals. I did many hours of training to try to understand these bills. My father was a farmer and often used agricultural chemicals. Many of my friends who I went to school with were farmers who have used these chemicals. Interestingly, at my 30-year school reunion, which I think shows my age, this issue was discussed—how many friends I went to school with who had lost their fathers to cancer, working on farms over many years. There was a real concern about what caused that high level of cancer and whether it was exposure to using crop chemicals, pesticides and herbicides. I think this is a real issue for farmers that have to use these chemicals every day. They have to have a system and a framework that they have trust in.

This bill would permit the APVMA applying a disqualifying criteria to any application for new chemicals. This criteria in this bill is poorly explained and opens up decision-making to arbitrary judgement rather than defined scientific and public health analysis. Furthermore, even if disqualified through this mechanism, an applicant could still apply for approval and registration under other provisions of the Agvet Code.

The bill proposes extending the rejection period for protected information. This is essentially copyright for chemicals. Extending the protection period means that large corporations can monopolise chemicals, preventing farmers from accessing generic cheaper goods. Given the financial pressures many farmers face, this also risks the prospect of more imported counterfeit products entering the market. These concerns are all in the bill's digest and have been raised by very respected stakeholders in this debate.

Part 4 of the bill makes changes that restrict mandatory reporting for total chemical product quantities. In effect, this means data on active constituents is lost. There are already limits on available data on chemicals in Australia, particularly on the relationship between cause and effect on public health and on their effectiveness. Further restrictions of data mean more risk of chemicals entering the market that are lacking in detailed information. The bill establishes a new board of the APVMA, and this has been one of the most controversial aspects of this legislation, ostensibly to support the chief executive in governance of the APVMA. What the government are glossing over, however, is the fact that an advisory board already exists under the administration act but they've failed to appoint positions on this board for a number of years. In fact, the last appointments expired in 2015. Why is this the case? This is a very good question for the minister to answer.

The current advisory board gives plenty of scope for appointments to be made on the basis of experience in the regulation of chemical products, toxicology, consumer interests, public health and work health and safety. It beggars belief that the government has consistently, and one can only assume deliberately, failed to fulfil a board designed to support all functions of the regulatory framework run by the APVMA. I believe the board is a transparent attempt to stock the APVMA with industry figures. I understand Labor, in their contribution yesterday, speaking to this bill said that they've expressed concerns, as they have in their response to the latest piece of legislation.

The bills digest, quoting the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee report, said:

The majority view of the Committee was that the Bill should be passed.[45] However, Australian Labor Party (ALP) Senators expressed their 'deep concerns about the policy rationale for the implementation of a Governance Board' because, amongst other things:

The APVMA Governance Board will not have the power to independently set the APVMA's strategic direction, drive its operational performance, set an appropriate risk management framework and ensure greater accountability. Under the proposed legislation the Minister will continue to have the power to direct the APVMA and will be provided with the power to direct the board in the performance of its functions. Therefore, it appears the Governance Board will just be another layer of regulation which will add additional cost to Australian farmers.

My concern goes beyond the fact that this will just be another additional cost to farmers. It will be over whether the board is actually truly independent of the chemicals industry and figures within this industry or advocacy groups lobbying for lower regulation and increased or more rapid approvals of their products.

I would like to point out, as a kind of backdrop or frame to this debate, that groups of experts, such as the National Toxics Network, have made it clear that Australia already has a very lax system of control of agricultural chemicals. This would put us further out of step with the EU, the US and Canada, which are increasingly looking at new research and information into key chemicals that we use on our farms and chemicals I openly admitted that I used when I first started my vineyard, such as Roundup or glyphosate. I have here before me new reports out of the EU in recent weeks around the validity of the science, especially around human safety, that has gone into the registration of these products. There have been concerns raised in recent months about a product called fipronil, which I also used to control European wasps on my vineyard, that can have negative effects, especially on bee populations. These chemicals are being reviewed all around the world yet, in this bill before us today, we are going to be passing legislation that makes it even easier for chemicals such as these, especially if they're considered to be consumer chemicals, to be registered, which, I believe, is totally unacceptable. In fact, I believe that many farmers, especially small farmers—and my state is absolutely full of smaller farmers who are trying to grow high-value niche products that rely on a clean, green and clever brand—think that any deregulation of agricultural chemicals is going to put their industry and its reputation further at risk.

I think we need to be very clear here that this bill is not what's needed for the Australian agricultural industry, and the Greens will oppose it. After neglecting the APVMA and its authoritative scientific advice for so many years, the government is instead seeking to elevate industry voices to progress their own agenda. I would ask that people do read the submissions that were made to the rural and regional affairs committee most recently on this bill, and note the concerns of experts in relation to protecting health, safety and the environment.

I will just finish by saying that the Greens will oppose this bill, as we did in 2019.