Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Legislation Amendment (Operational Efficiency) Bill 2017
Posted on Monday, 12 February, 2018
Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Government Whip) (16:43): I will come to the amendment later on. I note that the last two-thirds of the member for Hunter's speech was about the amendment rather than the legislation before us. In the first place, I will address the legislation before us, and I note that the member for Hunter and his team support that legislation.
I want to use this as an opportunity to speak to the public about their perceptions, in our modern society, about chemicals in farming and the tools that we use to produce food and protect ourselves. They have a bad rap. A friend of mine, who was a secondary high school teacher, once said to me, 'Name me something that's not made out of chemicals.' Of course, everything's made out of chemicals, but somehow they seem to carry a nasty connotation as if somehow they are inherently dangerous. And some are, and many of those occur naturally. Take the oleander plant, deadly nightshade or the beautiful black bean—or, as it is otherwise known, the Moreton Bay chestnut. There is an almost endless list, yet somehow, in the eyes of some of the public, they are not seen as chemicals. In fact, the only things they generally seem to think are chemicals are those which are produced by multinational companies and sold on a commercial basis and which benefit our health, protect us from vermin, keep our swimming pools safe, and benefit our farmers and, ultimately, the communities in which the farmers live.
The Australian economy is large and diverse, but it still relies on a very profitable ag sector, and we are exporters. That's what agriculture does in Australia. We feed this nation, but predominantly we are exporters. Australia's farmers provide export income, which, to the economy, is the most important form of income, because export income is fresh money which is coming into the system and is being recycled. Ultimately, it is our export income that pays for our imports. It is in everyone's interests that Australian farmers have access to the right tools.
We—and, by 'we', I mean farmers—have stayed in business by sitting at the cutting edge of agricultural technology, and it must continue. There are myriad advances in farming technologies: mechanical technology, intellectual technology, artificial intelligence, satellite guidance systems, new and more efficient cultivars, and new tillage practice, which has largely been leveraged through new and efficient chemicals. In fact, the biggest revolution has been the no-till, or zero tillage, change to agriculture, built on the basis of new and efficient chemicals. It has all but stopped soil erosion and has lifted production levels dramatically, increased quality and improved our economic outlook.
However, in world terms, Australia is a small market for chemical producers and those who manufacture chemicals—and the member for Hunter touched on this. It's not always worth the while of the developers and owners of that intellectual property to go through the expensive procedure of registering new chemicals on the Australian market. If our registration procedure costs millions of dollars per item to prove science which has already been proven in other jurisdictions and the market for a new specialist chemical is only in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, it is pretty obvious that Australian farmers will miss out; the manufacturers of those chemicals will choose not to register them in Australia. That is why we must keep the APVMA incredibly efficient. We must improve its efficiency, we must improve its time lines, but, in particular, we must keep the costs down for those who wish to register new chemicals in our market.
I will give an example from my industry—and, before anyone gets too excited about a great new breakthrough in chemicals, this is a hypothetical example. Let's say there is a highly selective new insecticide available for Australian plague locusts. We have quite a few good ones on the market right now, but let's say there is a new chemical that is more specific, in that it harms no other organisms. Of course, one of the problems with insecticides is that, when you spray them, generally there is collateral damage. For instance, we, as farmers, are warned to keep the insecticides we use for plague locusts out of the waterways because they are lethal to things like frogs. So we do that, but I make the case that, should there be a new chemical that would alleviate this issue, we would absolutely want and need that chemical in Australia. But one of the things about the nature of plague locusts is that we have a plague every five to seven years, so that market is unlikely ever to be of sufficient size for a manufacturer to jump through expensive regulatory hoops to participate in the market. In that case, the only parties to suffer would be the environment, because it will continue to suffer collateral damage, and the land users, because the land users need access to the best technologies to best protect their crops so they can market them into the international market and provide export income for Australia.
This legislation is a step in the right direction, reducing some of the unnecessary regulatory burdens. It will reduce the effort of those wanting to register a new product and reduce at least some of the cost. But, importantly, it will not water down the standards, because we never should. It also simplifies and aligns reporting procedures for quantity sales for levy purposes and on active constituent quantities. Anything that protects the integrity of the process but offers reduced regulatory burden is a good thing.
In the longer term, I strongly believe that we need to make our system even more flexible and, for instance, accept more of the proven science from major markets in the world, those being predominantly the US and the EU, which are already seen as world leaders in this space. Quite frankly, if you've passed through their regulatory process and have approval to use a chemical, it seems highly likely that it would be quite safe to use in Australia. But to hasten doesn't mean that we automatically add products to our list just because they've been approved overseas. We simply accept the underlying science and make our own decisions based on that science. So we need to keep alert. We need to be ready to make changes to legislation. As I said, this legislation is good, but we should never be satisfied in this area with a set-and-forget mode. We must be agile and ready for change at any time.
I come now to the amendment proposed by the member for Hunter. He launched a fairly wide attack on the relocation of the APVMA to Armidale and confidently predicted that the exercise will fail. Maybe he will be proved right—maybe he will. But maybe he won't. Maybe it's worth considering that in, I think, 1992, the New South Wales government relocated the Department of Agriculture to Orange. I was recently in Orange as part of the Select Committee on Regional Development and Decentralisation, and we had a look at the New South Wales Department of Agriculture in Orange. It is an integral part of that community. It has led to an enormous amount of investment in the Orange area and a large number of spin-offs for the communities surrounding it. It was probably the highlight of what we, on that special select committee, saw as we toured around Australia looking for examples of how decentralisation can work.
I wasn't paying such close attention in 1992 when the agency was relocated, but I'll lay London to a brick that there were plenty of complaints about it and plenty of predictions that it would fail and plenty of employees who said that they wouldn't go there—which almost certainly would have led to short-term issues as those things were sorted out. But, as with the APVMA, when people come to work for the APVMA from now on they'll know where they're going, whereas, when you're trying to relocate a population, it doesn't matter whether they're working in the ag-vet industry, or working as car makers or as nurses—it doesn't matter what they do—people have family connections wherever they live. And so relocating workforces is always difficult and leads to a certain amount of recruitment. But that doesn't mean to say that we shouldn't have the initiative and the intestinal fortitude to have a go. As I said, I don't know whether this will be an outstanding success in the long term, but I point to that previous exercise of the New South Wales parliament when they decided to relocate Agriculture to Orange, and it looks, to me, like an outstanding success. So I think we should bear that in mind as we consider this move of the APVMA.