Speech - House of Representatives - Imported Food Control Amendment Bill - Wednesday 7 February

Imported Food Control Amendment Bill 2017 - Second Reading

Mr Deputy Speaker, on indulgence: I wasn't able to participate in the debate reflecting on the loss of the former member for Robertson, Barry Cohen. Happily, though, I was able to attend his memorial service on Monday. I just want to place on the record my great admiration for him and his work both here and elsewhere. It was very extensive on both counts. He was a great representative of his community and he will be sadly missed.

The Imported Food Control Amendment Bill 2017 makes changes to strengthen Australia's current risk-based management approach of imported food to better protect the health of consumers. Labor supports the bill, because it recognises that, while Australia has a robust imported food safety system, it can always be improved and strengthened, especially as Australia imports greater amounts of food from other countries through our bilateral trade deals.

While we support and welcome the bill, we do lament that it hasn't arrived in this place at an earlier date, because it's a critical issue. Foodborne illnesses are serious and have major consequences when outbreaks occur. In 2010, for example, it was estimated that there were 4.1 million episodes of gastrointestinal foodborne illnesses and some 86 deaths in Australia. The economic costs of foodborne illnesses in Australia are also substantial. Doctor visits, treatments and days off work lost are reported to cost around $1.2 billion per year. The public does expect that, when foodborne illnesses occur, there are systems in place to deal with the suspected source as soon as possible and, of course, that responses can be put in place very quickly.

The outbreak of hepatitis A in 2015, which was linked to imported frozen berries at the time, expose limitations with the current imported food regulatory system. Unfortunately, at the time, the then Minister for Agriculture, the member for New England, took aim at the importing country and indeed the importing company, and, having done that, then turned to his attention to food labelling. Food labelling is a separate issue and, I thought at the time, was somewhat of a distraction to the issue at hand. Mr Joyce said, on 18 February 2015, that he believed there should be clear country-of-origin labelling on all imported foods so consumers knew exactly where the product was coming from. He said that there was a review currently underway and he would be pushing for proper labelling to be implemented as quickly as possible and, as reported: 'We should have proper country of origin labelling,' Mr Joyce said. 'Maybe other countries are not as concerned about food safety as we are.' Mr Joyce urged Australians to seek out locally made products. He said, 'Buy Australian and save yourself a pain in the guts.'

The member for New England should have checked his facts, because the packages relating to the suspected contamination of frozen berries were clearly labelled 'Product of China', or words to that effect. Clearly, they showed the origin of those berries. He went further, claiming: … labels were needed 'that clearly identifies unambiguously, as soon as you pick up a package, whether it is from our country with our strong ... sanitary requirements'. 'That is making sure that faecal contamination, which is a very polite word for poo, is not anywhere near your food, not going to be put in your mouth,' he added. These were really childish comments from a minister seeking to distract from the failings of his own government—a government which had been in power for a considerable time then; it must have been at least two years. 

The centre of these changes, of course, relate to beyond-the-border considerations. We can't expect to meet our aspirations on food safety at our border. The real work is done in the nation from which the imports come, so the relationships with these nations are very important. You can't expect to have the architecture and the rules in place without those strong relations—and those comments don't help in any way, shape or form—not to mention how important those relationships are strategically and in export terms. Those berries came from a country which was a critical export market for Australia. Childish comments like that, made on an issue where there had not been a conclusion in any way, don't help at all. So, sadly, rather than immediately leap to strengthen our importing rules, the then minister decided to play politics.

Here we are in 2018, three years on from the event, and we're finally debating new measures—again, measures that the opposition supports—to deal with these issues. Of course, it is a natural progression from the major biosecurity reforms—biosecurity previously having been known better as quarantine. Labor began those around 2013 or earlier, and these are natural progressions—the next step. It should not have taken until 2018 to be debating this bill in this House.

The thing that is most notable about Labor's reforms is a greater focus on beyond-border work, or beyond-ourcountry work, recognising that by the time we get to the border the risk-based system can't assure us or meet our aspirations. While supporting the bill, we do lament the slowness in these matters being dealt with. I certainly regret the then minister's comments, his distraction and, of course, the fact that we're still not having a conversation about the labelling laws that came into place as a result of those events. There was great fanfare about them at the time. For a number of weeks, it seemed there that country-of-origin labelling was the most important thing this parliament was doing. I haven't heard a minister of the government talk about them for some time. I would suggest there has been negative fallout. I would challenge any member of this place to talk to their constituents and ask them what they think about the new country-of-origin labelling. I don't think they'd get much of a response. I don't think too many people have noticed them much, let alone have a view about how effective they have been.

But, in the rush to put in place the distraction from the government's own inadequacies on food importation, they got a few things wrong, obviously, because there are a whole range of articles complaining about the adverse impact on small Australian agrifood businesses like Brookfarm muesli in Byron Bay. They estimate that redesigning their 70 different packages would cost them around half a million dollars. Further, health experts from Monash University are claiming that the new labels are not giving consumers the information they want and that it doesn't actually tell us where our food comes from, which is the key point. This was supposed to be a response to the flaws in our food importation system, but it's still not even telling people accurately where the food comes from. What it does tell us is that food is from Australia, and then it leaves you to guess where the rest of the ingredients are from—unless the product is totally from another country, and then it must be labelled as coming from that country. This was the case with the suspected contaminated berries, but, as I said, that was clearly labelled already.

My criticism is qualified, because I know these aren't easy issues. Country-of-origin labelling has been a conversation in thecommunity for a long, long time, and the reason governments haven't fixed it well is that it's very, very difficult. But the additional point to that is that on the day the government made it sound simple and declared, in response to the berries contamination issue, that it was going to do it and do it properly this time, and it clearly hasn't been the case. Again, I lament the fact that that distraction was put in place, the policy was rushed and poorly done, the outcomes have been poor and they have had a significantly adverse impact on the business community.

I formally move the second reading amendment that has been circulated in my name. It's been seconded by the member for Fenner, and I thank him for that. I move: That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:
"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that the Turnbull Government has failed to implement effective policies in a timely manner to ensure that Australian agriculture is achieving its full potential". The amendment seeks to make this a broader debate about the future of agricultural policy and invites us to offer some reflections on the performance of the government in this area over the course of almost the last five years now. It's not been a happy period for agriculture, in my view. I've had the great privilege of being in the portfolio since about July 2013, first as the minister, for just a short few months, and for the last four years also as the opposition spokesperson on agriculture.

I recall very vividly extending a hand of bipartisanship, both publicly and privately, to the minister of the day, the member for New England, because I could see so much opportunity but also so much challenge. I took the  view that surely, if there's an area where we can establish some bipartisanship, it's in the production of our food and fibre, because the things that separate us in this area are not great, and conversation and dialogue and cooperation are the best way to close that gap. Obviously it won't happen in every aspect of public policy, but I thought there were great opportunities.

Unfortunately, that offer was never accepted by the member for New England. Rather, he decided that he'd make the best of the portfolio politically; he'd seek to divide rather than unite—in fact, try to perpetuate issues of disagreement in an attempt to, if you like, continue the war and try to paint a starker picture of the division between the opposition and the government on these issues—which was just a very, very disappointing approach, in my view. If he'd taken my extended hand of bipartisanship, I think we could have done a lot better in Australian agriculture over the last five years.

Sure, we've had some achievements in agriculture. The sector's creeping to around $60 billion in gross farm value. That's a pretty good outcome, although, if you have a look at the rate of our economic growth and measure it against other indices, it's just what you'd expect. It's what you'd expect or hope for, given the rising global demand for quality food, and of course we are a great producer of quality food. I regret, though, that Minister Joyce spent most of his time in this portfolio talking about commodity prices and taking credit for them—and beef and sheepmeat. He was always talking about the commodities that were going up, and he never mentioned the commodities that were going down. I could never quite understand that.

I think everyone in this place knows that, while government has a role, it's pretty dangerous for a minister to start taking credit for commodity price rises, because they tend to go up and down. The areas which he talked about most were, of course, going up because of drought-induced lack of supply. Demand was outstripping supply and of course, when that happens, the price rises. The problem with that, of course, is that the price rise is not sustainable, nor would you want it to be sustainable, because it's happened just by a failure in the market. So I found that somewhat lamentable.

The minister started his term as the minister for agriculture by announcing that he was going to do a white paper. In fact, he might have announced that before the election; I don't recall. We waited a long time for that white paper. I remember that at one point I was putting out a media response every week, expressing concern that another week had passed and we still hadn't seen an agriculture white paper. Of course, expectations built, as they do. The longer you wait, the better you might hope that the production of the paper might be. But, sadly, that wasn't the case.

We were waiting for a big-picture approach, a document that delivered some strategic vision and strategic guidance for the sector, some clear signals to investors about where the government was most keen to see investment flow, where it believed that our natural resources could produce the greatest possible return for both our farmers and our nation, and some big ideas about the challenges of climate, the drying continent, the allocation of our water resources and what we'd be able to do about emerging international competition as developing nations become more aggressive in our own export markets—many countries, of course, against which we find it difficult to compete. We were waiting for a document that recognises that our key competitive advantage is our reputation as a provider of clean green safe food and that if we were to lose that reputation our key competitive advantage would be gone. That would be a very difficult situation for our Australian exporters.

As the global population goes to nine billion, what implications will that have for Australia? What will be the opportunities and the challenges? How might that impact on the decisions of consumers and those who set rules around consumer law around the world? We must reflect on the implications of our own population rising dramatically in the next 30 years or so, and changing consumer attitudes. There's obviously an increase in consumer choice around red meats, for example. This is a transformation that will continue exponentially in the out years. There are rising concerns about animal welfare. We have to think about what that means and how we make sure that our farm leaders are embracing that, understanding that and adapting to it.

Minister Joyce's response is to attack anyone who expresses a concern about animal welfare. You know what happens then. It's tit-for-tat and the issue becomes larger and larger and larger and more difficult to manage. Strong governments listen to people, acknowledge the concerns, recognise the concerns, identify and agree where the concerns are very valid. That is very important. You can't have a cooperative and, therefore, productive conversation if you're not recognising both sides of the debate. And then you must adjust policy in the hope of making sure that you can meet the expectations of concerned consumers without having an adverse impact on farm businesses. Of course that can be done.

When we put out our six-point plan for animal welfare before the last election, Minister Joyce attacked it—it was going to be the end of farming in this country as we know it! Unfortunately, the National Farmers' Federation rejected it too. Our farming leaders need to play a role here too. They need to look forward and see where the opportunities and challenges are. They need to recognise and observe changing consumer attitudes and work with us to adjust our practices and policies where we can to ensure that those issues are being accommodated. We thought we might have seen much more about our natural resources in the white paper—about how we allocate them to ensure we get the best possible return. Over time, it's going to become more challenging. You can have the debate about what's causing the climate to change, but it is changing. We need to mitigate climate change but
also adapt to it. We need to help incentivise the embracing of and take-up of smarter land use practices. How do we use our soils and our water resources in a way that's more sustainable?

These things barely rated a mention in the white paper. Climate change, from memory, had two paragraphs— on what is possibly the biggest challenge facing our farm community! That takes me to drought. Drought got a fair mention in the white paper. It didn't say much about its causes or what's making it worse over time. But there were no big picture responses. When the pressure came on thereafter, what did we get? We got concessional loans. At a time when global interest rates are the lowest in living memory, Minister Joyce's only response was basically to give people more debt or the opportunity to transfer their debt. There's nothing wrong with concessional loans. Labor first introduced them in 2013 to deal with a serious debt problem in the farm sector. There is nothing wrong with them in isolation; but, as a total solution to such a protracted and worsening problem, they're not much of a solution at all. Of course, those farm concessional loans have been of limited success, which, of course, is what led us to the debate that we had in this place last night about the pork-barrel-boondoggle exercise with the Regional Investment Corporation. There is nothing much on those big-picture issues.

There is a little bit research and development—one of the most important challenges we face. It's not just about spending more money. It doesn't always have to be about spending more money. Spending more money is always nice, but just as important is making sure that we spend smarter and making sure that we're getting the maximum possible return and benefit not only from the public sector investment but also from the private sector investment. When I look at our research and development system, it may still be the best in the world. We like to think it is, because Labor put it in place back in the early nineties. It is respected around the globe. Just because it is still considered a good system doesn't mean it can't be improved; it can always be improved. The 2010 Productivity Commission inquiry recommended some changes—changes which weren't in place before Labor lost office and haven't been put in place by this government. I think they're worthy of a revisit. We don't have to reinvent the whole inquiry. It was in 2010; things have changed but not that much. I think those recommendations could be revisited.

I see a lot of siloing in our R&D system—in other words, not enough cross-sectoral work on issues. I don't see enough on biosecurity. Labor went to the last election promising to spend a significant amount of money on a biosecurity institute to give long-term sustainable planning in biosecurity. I see too many RDCs spending to their cap—that is, they spend until the public matching funds run out and then they stop spending, which is not an indicator of an optimal system. There is nothing in the white paper to address that. There is a little bit of extra money. I didn't mind the way it was spent, because the minister produced a sort of competitive arrangement. But we haven't heard much of it since, and I don't know that it's made any substantial change. There is nothing much about our innovation rate. We're pretty good at R&D in this country in agriculture, but in innovation we're lagging. There is nothing really to address the freefall, really, of extension—in other words, getting the outcome of research and Development down onto the farm. The states have largely withdrawn from that process, and nothing has been brought in to fill the vacuum.

We could be doing something about community concern about the various biotechnologies. Biotechnologies will be critical to us in meeting our aspirations in the agriculture sector. There is community concern around GM, in particular. We need to have that debate. Someone needs to show some leadership, acknowledge the concerns, bring people together so that people can have a conversation about them and have a better understanding of them. We need to have a debate based on the science, not the rhetoric and the ideology. But we see no leadership in that area whatsoever.

Market access is very, very important, but it's not everything in agriculture. As a government those on the other side always go back to access—the trade deals with Korea, Japan and China. They are important, of course, but we must also focus on domestic food production. We have enormous challenges in food production in this country. Focusing on trade access is important, but we need to keep our eye on what's happening here. While we export two-thirds of everything we grow, we can't take food security in the future for granted. We don't know what the world is going to look like in 40 years, strategically. We don't want to allow our food production systems to shut down in this country. We've seen the consequences of that. We've seen what has happened with gas when we get those policy settings wrong, and it can happen in food as well. If it happens in food, arguably, it would be even more important.

What we have seen from the government in the last five years is leadership grants to, for instance, the Cattle Council and the NFF. Taxpayers' money is being given to organisations. I don't deny them or necessarily regret the payment of these moneys, but I think there could be more transparency. We still don't know exactly who's been getting those leadership grants. We lost the secretary of the department—a highly qualified, respected public servant—because he challenged the minister when the minister doctored his Hansard. In forestry, we've only had report after report after report. We've had the boondoggle Regional Investment Corporation and the pork-barrel APVMA relocation, which has been a disaster for the agriculture sector and will continue to be a disaster. And remember the question time where the minister said he was going to destroy carp? I won't try to re-enact his performance here—and everyone will be happy about that. That was a program begun by Labor in government, and it will probably take another three decades to come to fruition. Minister Joyce had us believe it was going to happen the next day and that carp would be gone. I still don't know what that was all about.

There have been labour issues. Remember the backpacker tax? We never used to tax backpackers in this country. One of the reason we didn't is that we have significant labour shortages in the seasonal agricultural sectors in particular. In the end, the government wanted everyone to cheer them because they didn't introduce a backpacker tax as big as the one they were going to introduce in the first place. That was their big achievement. So we can notch that up as an achievement: the backpacker tax they put in place isn't as big as they proposed it would be. What have we seen on workforce issues since then? We've seen a tightening up of work visas, and we all cheer that, if there's a strategy to replace the labour. That should be our main focus: why aren't young
Australians taking up these opportunities? Why are we so dependent on imported labour? That's what we should be asking ourselves. But we should not be putting the cart before the horse—just choking off the labour supply and then not having the workforce our growers so desperately need.

One of the minister's first acts, along with announcing his white paper, was the abolition of the COAG committee. We don't have a drought policy in this country. We don't even have an organising committee. The bulk of land management responsibility in this country rests with the states. You can't do good work in drought without the cooperation of the states. The intergovernmental agreement on drought is about to come to an end. Yet farmers are coming off farm household allowance after their three years. We don't really have anything beyond concessional loans. This is just a disaster. We've got fruit fly incursions into Tasmania for the first time. We've got white spot in prawns in Queensland for the first time. You never hear these government ministers talk about

In my short time as agriculture minister I learnt that the biggest responsibility for the ag minister is biosecurity. In fact, if you were doing the portfolio title properly, 'biosecurity' would be in the title, because probably 60 per cent of the work of the minister is around biosecurity. We hear lots about commodity prices, but we never hear anything about biosecurity. We're nothing without a strong biosecurity system. In fact, one of the first acts of the former agriculture minister was to abolish the position of Inspector-General of Biosecurity. Think about that: he abolished the position of Inspector-General of Biosecurity. After a war with us over it, he finally reinstated it— although, if my memory serves me correctly, the new inspector didn't quite have all the powers he or she had under Labor's regime. I might be checked on that, but certainly there was a significant attempt to undermine that
position—something I will never understand.

So I regret the last four years or more. At a time when the challenges are so great with a changing climate and resource management issues, and the opportunities are so great with growing global food demand, agriculture should be facing golden times but, unfortunately— (Time expired)

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.