Competition and Consumer Amendment (Country of Origin) Bill 2016 - Second Reading

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (12:15): I might start where Senator Lambie finished—and Senator Xenophon made mention of this too. That is, some years ago when I was the minister for fisheries—I did not do it all by myself—but the department in conjunction with other regulatory authorities implemented the arrangement that all fish sold in supermarkets had to be labelled, whether it was Australian or from another country. I think I am like many Australians these days, who go into a supermarket and can see where the seafood comes from. I can say, 'Do I want to buy Australian king prawns, which look lovely but it $36 a kilo? Am I conscious of my pocket and so I will take the imported poorer-looking prawns from Vietnam at about $28 a kilo?' That is my choice as a consumer. That is the way it should be. I agree with Senator Lambie and Senator Xenophon on that.

Senator Xenophon quite rightly mentioned the arrangement in the Northern Territory—states and territories can make their own rules on labelling—where the government, to its credit, did do that in restaurants, and it worked. It has been difficult to get agreement from all the authorities in Australia. I would like to pay tribute to the current minister for fisheries, Senator Ruston, who I know is very keen to ensure that Australians know what they are buying when they go to a fish and chip shop or, more importantly, to a restaurant or to a club or pub. With those last two, the issue sometimes becomes a little more difficult for reasons which might be obvious.

Clearly, pubs and clubs sell meals as an adjunct to their main purpose of selling booze or poker machines—they supply food, good food, but it is mass produced and it often comes from the cheapest source. People do not go to a pub or a club to buy the very best food. If they want to do that, they go to a restaurant but they come to the pub for a beer, a bit of mateship and perhaps a go at the pokies. I accept it is difficult for pubs and clubs and other institutions to do that, but in this day and age with blackboards and computers it is easy to print off a new menu for every meal. It is not the issue that some people might think it might be—the cost that some of these businesses think it might be. I think pubs, clubs and restaurants, particularly restaurants, would benefit from this.

If I go into a restaurant and I see Australian fish there, I know it will be quite expensive, but I can go down the menu and say, 'Oh, there is nice Vietnam barramundi which is a little less expensive.' It is up to me. I am not wealthy, but I know what I would do: I would always, for taste and quality, go for the Australian one and pay five or 10 dollars more at a restaurant. Restaurant owners may well find that a lot of Australians would do that. A lot of people—people particularly who go to restaurants—would say: 'Look, now that I know it is Australian, I am going to pick that piece.' I know Senator Ruston is working on this—and it is not easy. Even for the clubs and pubs it would be so easy for them to put on their blackboards that you can have imported basa and chips at $10 a meal or you can have Australian barramundi at $15 a meal. I do not think that it will stop people going to pubs and clubs or choosing a meal. They might say, 'Well, I'd rather have another beer and the meal that is $10 cheaper, and so I'll have the imported basa with my beer and it'll allow me to have another beer.' That is their choice. The pubs and clubs might find that the reverse actually happens: people might go in and say, 'Would I rather have a bit of Australian fish—better, nicer and it is also helping Australian fishermen—or will I have another beer?'

I think that is an argument that Senator Ruston is yet to win—it is not for me to speak for her, but I have spoken to her quite a lot. Like Senator Lambie, not in Tasmania but up in my neck of the woods of Queensland, I often speak to fishermen and all they want is a fair go. They simply want Australians to be able to recognise their food and, if they choose to pay a little bit more, to be able to buy it. Often you go to fish and chip shops and it is difficult to work out what sort of fish it is because it is usually covered in very thick—unfortunately for me—too tasty batter which hides the fish a bit. It would be good if we could at least have the choice. I would be happy; I think every Australian consumer and the Australian fishing industry would be happy. Retailers might just find that they are taking more across the counter because Australians would go for Australian fish even at a greater cost. So I urge support for that issue, as I do privately with Senator Ruston and the government. As I say, I have confidence in Senator Ruston continuing to support that issue.

As this is a debate, can I just mention to Senator Lambie that I certainly agree with her—it is an awful day when we are agreeing with each other so much, Senator Lambie—that this parliament should be prioritising its agendas better. Quite frankly, I am sick of hearing about same-sex marriage. I am sick of hearing about Donald Trump, who I did not elect and who has got nothing to do with me. I am absolutely sick of it. I am sick of hearing the lies about the Barrier Reef—the absolute lies. I am sick of that. Can't we prioritise and get onto the issues that the majority of Australians actually believe in? Senator Lambie—and, again, it is for the minister to explain it better than I—there is a reason why we do not have these plebiscites at elections—and I appreciate the 'cost' argument. If you do it at an election, it becomes part of the political process and people might say, for example: 'Oh, yes, I believe in same-sex marriage so I am going to vote for it But, hang on, that is the one the Labor Party and the Greens are supporting. I don't like the Labor Party and the Greens so I am going to vote no, because I don't want to do anything to support the Labor Party and the Greens.' It gets tied up in the regular election cycle. So I think the vote you would get at a plebiscite held at the same time as an election would be skewed. It would be flawed because it would become part of the process.

I also agree with you that had we had some assistance from this chamber in what would, I think, be one month's time when we would have had a plebiscite on same-sex marriage that the day after that plebiscite it would be over and finished—whatever way it went. I do not want to restart that argument, but I would vote against same-sex marriage. However, if the majority of Australians said yes then I would come into this chamber and vote yes. I made that very clear. In one month's time that issue could have been resolved—but it will not be.

Senator Rice: Madam Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. Would you bring the senator's attention to the bill that is under discussion at the moment, which is about country-of-origin food labelling. I do not think that waxing lyrically about his views on equal marriage is relevant to the bill under consideration.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator Rice. Senator Macdonald, there were a number of points of order this morning when another senator was speaking. I know that you have largely spent the time on the bill, but if you could get back to the bill that would be appreciated.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Thank you, Deputy President. If I can say to Senator Rice, who has just wandered into the chamber: this is a debate in which Senator Lambie in her very sensible contribution mentioned priorities and same-sex marriage. I do not think you took the point of order then, did you?

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Macdonald, I remind you to make your remarks through the chair.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Thank you, Deputy President—and a timely warning. But did the senator who has just made the point of order make the same point of order when Senator Lambie was talking about same-sex marriage? Senator Lambie has raised the matter in this debate, and because this is a debate in the parliament of Australia I was simply responding—

Senator Rice: A point of order, Madam Deputy President. This is a continuation of a discussion which is not about the bill at hand. Senator Lambie indeed did mention same-sex marriage, quite inappropriately, I thought.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Rice, you have quite correctly raised a point of order, which I have made a recommendation on. I remind all senators that we are here to speak about the bill before us and that that is what should largely occupy their discussion and their speech. Often they give background, so I am sure Senator Macdonald will get back to the bill in question.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: Thank you, Deputy President. Again, I repeat that this is a debate in the chamber. I am simply answering something another senator raised and agreeing with that senator that this chamber should prioritise its work; it should move onto important issues—issues that are really important to all Australians; and it should not be diverted by periphery issues such as same-sex marriage, which would have been over and done with in a month's a time had this chamber not denied Australians the opportunity of expressing their views.

Can I again congratulate the government on bringing forward this bill about country-of-origin labelling for Australian produced products. Under the current regime, the definition of what is made in Australia or the country of origin is somewhat confusing and some of the tests that were in place were even more confusing and less helpful. This bill addresses those issues. It provides businesses with increased certainty about what activities constitute and do not constitute substantial transformation, which is the test for what is made in Australia and what is not. It will make it clear that importing ingredients and undertaking minor processes that merely change the form or appearance of the imported good, such as dicing or canning, are not sufficient to justify the 'made in' wherever claim. The 50 per cent production cost test that currently applies is an unnecessary burden on business and it means little to consumers. The test is difficult to administer, given the complexities of sourcing components through the global supply chain and the variability due to currency fluctuations. These tests in the former bill will become redundant for food products, with the introduction of labels showing the percentage of Australian ingredient.

Senators will be aware that the Country of Origin Food Labelling Information Standard 2016, which was made under the previous bill, came into effect on 1 July and is being separately tabled in a disallowable instrument in this parliament. That standard, which is the one we have been waiting for for some years, requires mandatory country-of-origin labelling for food that is sold, offered or displayed for sale in Australia. Unfortunately, it does not, for various reasons, impose labelling requirements on food sold outside Australia. This new label will help Australians, almost at a glance, work out how much of the particular product is Australian made or sourced.

Through the information standard, most Australian foods will need to carry a label with a clearly defined box containing a kangaroo-in-the-triangle logo to indicate that the food is grown, produced or made in Australia. It will also have—and this is the bit I like—a bar chart that indicates the proportion of Australian ingredients in the food and the box will also have a statement summarising the visual information. That bar chart will show us at a glance, as we go to the supermarket, how much of a product really is Australian.

I do not see that as a protectionist policy, because many people—and I accept this—will buy their food on price. Many people who do not have big incomes or who are on welfare or who have big families will say, 'I choose that because it's cheaper,' but they will do it in the full knowledge of just how much of the particular product is really Australian and how much is not. I think that is a wonderful step forward. It has been, as one other senator in this debate commented, a long time coming.

I know in our party—and, I suspect, in the other parties as well—we have had debates over many years. I am sure the Labor Party would have been through this because they did nothing in the six years they were in government. But they would have come across the same complexities that we have confronted over the last 20 years that I have been here, and we have been talking about it all that time. It is a difficult situation to get right without pricing the product out of the reach of anyone through complexity of regulation. It has been difficult. I guess some will say, 'It's not perfect; we can do better.' I know the government is always keen to get any views on this. I think the place where we have landed is pretty good. I think you will find that most Australians will appreciate the ability to make an informed choice now on what food they buy.

I conclude by agreeing with the committee that Senator Xenophon said has looked at this and has recommended the bill be passed. I also agree, as I explained before, with Senator Xenophon and Senator Lambie that we have to do something about seafood not in supermarkets. Thanks to a very good minister several years ago, that is already in place in the supermarkets. But in fish and chip shops, hotels, clubs and restaurants, I think we can do it without placing an unrealistic burden on those retail institutions. I wish Senator Ruston all the best as she takes that argument forward. Clearly, I support the bill. I think it is a real step forward for Australia.

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