House of Representatives

17 June 2015

Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (13:02):  I apologise to the House. I got a little bit excited and jumped the gun, but I was concerned that I was going to lose Minister Joyce as my audience. I was worried that his duty might come to an end at one o'clock and I might lose him. I am very pleased he has obviously decided to stick around for my contribution. It never ceases to amaze me how he just makes it up as he goes along. He is claiming credit for Labor's irrigation system in Tasmania. He is claiming credit for every commodity price which has gone north, without any attempt to explain what role he played or how he achieved this magnificent outcome. But he does not talk about the commodity prices that have gone south. It seems that, whenever prices go up, the minister—

Mr Husic:  He's an innovator!

Mr FITZGIBBON:  The minister is an innovator, and we know that the member for Chifley knows a lot about innovation. So when commodity prices go up the minister takes credit but, when they go down, it is someone else's fault—or he just does not mention it at all.

Dr Stone interjecting—

Mr FITZGIBBON:  What a wonderful thing it is to have the member for Murray in the chamber. She was so outstanding in her defence and support for SPC in her electorate—an issue that the minister, of course, had no interest in, by self-declaration. In fact, he wiped his hands of it, and I think he said it was a problem for the Liberal Party.

Mr Husic:  He was saying the Liberal Party is a problem.

Mr FITZGIBBON:  It may have been. It is disappointing that, despite my best efforts to take a bipartisan approach to agriculture and to take it out of that short three-year political cycle, the minister does not make a greater effort on that front.

Where is the white paper, Minister? I mean, really. We have now been two years without an agriculture policy in this country. Two years without an agriculture policy: that is an outstanding achievement. All those out there, in those commodity sectors the minister was talking about, just want to know when they will get a policy. I have said in this place many times, Minister: if you produce a high-level strategic document which provides leadership for the sector and gives them the support they need in a range of areas, I will be the first to jump to my feet and welcome it and congratulate you on it. I make that commitment. But I fear, Minister, I will not have that opportunity.

Mr Joyce interjecting—

Mr FITZGIBBON:  The minister is about to tell us all the wonderful things he has done. He will mention the free trade agreements—Mr Robb's portfolio. The minister knows that those agreements, again, were Labor initiatives, begun by a Labor government. Yes, they were not complete by the time we left office. You were very quick, Minister, to finish them off. The Labor Party was being very careful about the free trade agreements because they are not all one-way. The minister forgets to remind people that free trade agreements imply benefits for both countries—reciprocal agreements. But they do come with their warts and there are issues to be properly considered, such as investor-state dispute mechanisms. I thought the minister might have an interest in investor-state, given his attitude to Chinese investment in this country. Labour market agreements I thought might be an area in which the minister might have an interest. I have had the great fortune to travel the world and see the Chinese build all sorts of facilities in the Pacific and Africa. I was in Ghana where they built the defence department. It is an outstanding building. But of course they brought all their own labour and materials. I do not know that we want that here in Australia. I think that when we attract foreign investment to Australia we like to think it creates local jobs at the standard labour rates that we expect as a wealthy nation. I would have thought those would be things the minister would be concerned about. But anyway, his minister rushed in and signed it, and that is fine. We welcome the free trade agreements, but I think that the minister's enthusiasm for all their aspects might wane just a little as we get down the track. We shall see. Labor could have signed them as they are, but we were concerned about some of the outstanding issues.

The minister talks about Labor's food plan. I happen to have it with me. I carry it with me; it is a high-quality document. It is an assessment of the sector and its future. It identifies both the opportunities and the challenges. More importantly, it sets goals, Minister. It sets in place a five-year rolling program so that those goals can be updated as circumstances change. The minister judges it on the basis of $30 million: 'It's only $30 million.'

White papers or strategic plans, Minister, are not about money. The money comes in separate line items out of the minister for infrastructure's budget, for example. You have to understand that white papers and agriculture should not be a wish list of spending promises. That is not what it is about.

I know your plan, Minister. You will produce a white paper which promises the world—dams here and there, bridges, ports, roads. I do not know what you are going to have in there. You know as well as me that you have no hope of even commencing those projects prior to the next election, let alone completing them and, therefore, funding them. I think I am onto you, Minister. You will produce this document, the one best described by one of your colleagues, anonymously, as 'a document full of every crackpot idea of the last 20 years'. You will produce the wish list, the spending list, but you will never spend it. You know that you will never spend it. I will give you the benefit of the doubt. If you produce a strategic paper, which sets out real goals and objectives and a pathway to achieving those objectives, I will be the first to acknowledge it. I just want to know when the date is though, Minister. Did you say 4 July? You did say that the Northern Australia white paper was imminent, but you were not prepared to say that of the agriculture white paper. I can only assume that the agriculture white paper is not imminent. I think that would be a fair conclusion to come to.

The only problem we have then is: what is the minister's definition of 'imminent'. If you look at the Oxford dictionary, I think you come to the conclusion that it is pretty soon, if not in the next minute or sometime soon after. It is for the minister to explain when he gets back to his feet. If he is not prepared to give me the date for the white paper release 20 months into government—it was supposed to be out before Christmas, of course—he might at least be able to give me the definition of 'imminent', then I will know when the Northern Australia white paper is coming and, therefore, how far behind that the agriculture white paper will be.

The four bills before the House are being taken together and, by the bills we discussed earlier, are about cost recovery. In the last case it was for exports and in this case it is for imports. In other words, for those who might be listening, we have processes within the Department of Agriculture which ensure that food coming into the country meets the standards our community justifiably and rightly demands. Obviously, those food inspection services, et cetera, come at a cost and we pass those costs onto the importer. This bill aligns some of those administrative charges with the more broad charges imposed by government elsewhere.

I can indicate, once again, that the opposition will be supporting the bills. They raise two issues that are very current and contemporary and I want to address them.

Mr Joyce interjecting—

Mr FITZGIBBON:  That is the greatest insult you can impose upon me, Minister. I am tempted to ask you to withdraw it. He suggested, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I am starting to sound like a gnat.

Mr Husic interjecting—

Mr FITZGIBBON:  The member Chifley rightly points out that that cannot be true because he can understand every word I am saying. There are two issues that I want to touch on. I am very concerned that, in his recent report, the Auditor-General has come to the conclusion that the Imported Food Inspection Scheme is flawed. 'Seriously flawed' is the way in which he described that scheme. He also said that the system for checking imported food is—and I quote—'incomplete and inconsistent'.

You will recall that some months ago we had a very concerning outbreak of hepatitis A in this country. It was suggested that the outbreak was linked to berries which had been imported from China. I want say at the outset that there is yet to be any evidence of that. It was an assumption based on who had been infected and what they had eaten in recent times. As I understand it, the testing still has not been able to come to any such conclusion. I do feel for the company involved because their reputation was trashed through that process. It might be that, in the end, it was well deserved, but, at this point, we cannot come to that conclusion. Terms from the minister like 'Australians shouldn't have to eat berries swimming in poo', or whatever it was he said, were rather inflammatory at a time when we were not in a position to come to any such conclusion. I will let that pass.

The question arises: what has the government done about it in the meantime? The government's first response was to switch the conversation straight onto country-of-origin labelling. It is a very important subject because we all know in this place that our country-of-origin labelling system fails consumers. It is too confusing, too vague, and too opaque. The 'made in Australia' term, for example, can mean many things to many different people. We do need to reform country-of-origin labelling in this country. It is a complex area, and I am on the House committee which held an inquiry into the matter. If it were easy to solve, it would have been done a long time ago. I wish the minister and Minister Macfarlane the best with that. Of course, the opposition will be ready to embrace the new scheme, if indeed it is a scheme which merits our embrace.

The China berries importation issue was not about country-of-origin labelling. Those berry packets were clearly marked 'product of China'. It was not written in tiny print either; it was very easy to read. Country-of-origin in this sense was a distraction from the key issue and that was, how was it that these berries, in their alleged infection, came through Australia's inspection system? Again, this is a complex area, and we cannot ever hope as a country—as is the case with any goods imported into this country or with people who come here—to inspect and check everyone and everything.
We have a risk based system and we have to accept that, but what has the minister done since that scare to improve the system? Not much, according to the Auditor-General.

We are spending a lot of time talking about country-of-origin labelling—and hooray for that—but what about imported food inspection? The problem is we have a system in this country where local producers of food face a more stringent system and, if something goes wrong, they are more likely to be sanctioned and more harshly sanctioned than the importers. This gives the importers a competitive advantage on top of the competitive advantage they often enjoy because of cheaper costs in developing nations, particularly labour costs.

When talking about this important legislation, which talks about recovering the cost of inspection, I think it is incumbent upon the minister to respond to the Auditor-General's report and tell the House why the Australian community would not be concerned about the independent Auditor-General describing our imported food inspection system as 'seriously flawed'—and they were the words he used. This is the very bill on which the minister should be addressing that issue, and I invite him to do so. I do not want any distractions or diversions about country-of-origin labelling; I want to hear what he is doing about food inspection services as goods come into our country.

The other issue is seafood labelling. Seafood labelling has been visited upon by both the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee and the House of Representatives Agriculture and Industry Committee. Both committees have recommended that this issue be pursued. The House committee rightly recommended that the matter be taken to COAG, because at the end of the day it is a matter for the states and territories, and even for New Zealand. I have not seen the minister or any of his ministerial colleagues express any real enthusiasm for that. 'We will send it off to COAG' sounds to me like a bit of a tick and a flick. We need to hear from the minister a statement to this effect: 'I think this is a good idea and as a government we would really like to pursue this. When it gets to COAG we will certainly be asking the ministers responsible to pursue it with some enthusiasm.'

What we are talking about here is the FSANZ regulations that exempt fish on a plate in a restaurant, for example, from needing to be labelled. We import about 70 per cent of the fish we consume in this country. We are an exporter of high-value fish, but most of the fish we eat at a local restaurant in Manuka will more than likely come from Vietnam or a like country. Australians are in increasing numbers starting to demand that they be better informed about what they are eating when they go to a club, a pub or one of Canberra's fine restaurants, which the member for Chifley is so fond of, as am I, where they often sell good Hunter wine. I was pleased that the minister enjoyed some time in the Hunter last weekend and enjoyed some fine Hunter wine as well.

It is understandable that consumers are keen to be able to identify whether the fish they are about to consume was produced in Australia or in Vietnam, for example. But they cannot do that now because there is no labelling for fish on a plate, for example. This is another issue that is not easy to resolve. No-one is pretending for a moment that this issue is absent any complexity. That is certainly far from the truth. You have the regulatory burden and the red tape involved. You cannot put fish on a printed menu that might change not just the next day but even the same day. You have enforcement issues. It is not a great idea to put laws in place that are not easily enforced. I am particularly concerned about the regulatory issues for the restauranteurs. In my own state the biggest restauranteurs would be the clubs and the pubs. These are not always for-profit organisations and are not what you might describe as fine dining. They are providing relatively cheap food to working-class people. I am very conscious of all of those things.

I think the best way to do this is not by having government preaching from above. The government should bring in all the stakeholders—the growers, the producers, the restauranteurs et cetera—and start a conversation about how this might be achieved with little pain for retailers. For example, the enforcement might take place at the wholesale level. This is happening in Darwin in the Northern Territory as we speak. I am told that, while the restaurateurs were initially reluctant and opposed to the idea, they are now embracing the new system because they understand that they now have a product that consumers are looking for—that is, a product grown in Australia.

I do not think it is good enough for the minister to flick it to COAG. It is as if he is not particularly interested. I urge him to have a roundtable with all of the stakeholders—not just the retailers but the wholesalers, the fishermen and all those involved in the industry—to see how we as smart people in this 21st century can provide consumers with the opportunity to be more fully aware of the source of the fish they are consuming.

In closing, I ask the minister once more to answer when he gets back on his feet: after 20 months in office, when will the farmers of this nation have an agriculture policy? If you cannot give me the day, just give me the month. A definition of 'imminent' would help. That might give me some guidance. Just the month will do. Minister, if you cannot give me the month, please give me the year. Please assure me that your white paper will come out before the next federal election and that the farmers and producers of this country will not go three full years without an agriculture policy.

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