Senator BIRMINGHAM: (South Australia) (10:28): It is a pleasure to speak on the Product Stewardship Bill 2011. This bill establishes a national framework to support voluntary co-regulatory and regulatory product stewardship and extended producer responsibility schemes to provide for the impacts of a product being responsibly managed both during and at the end of its life cycle. Through these measure it is hoped, including on this side of the chamber, that the environmental, health and safety impacts of products, particularly those impacts associated with the disposal of products, will be more effectively managed.
The commitment to establish this national framework, underpinned by the legislation before us today, was made by the government in its November 2009 National Waste Policy: Less Waste, More Resources statement. This National Waste Policy has been endorsed by all Australian governments at state and territory level, through both the Environmental Protection and Heritage Council at the time, in November 2009, and COAG in August 2010.
The coalition fully supports the principle of product stewardship being, as it is outlined in the National Waste Policy:
… the shared responsibility for reducing the environmental, health and safety footprint of manufactured goods and materials across the life cycle of a product.
The bill itself offers a subtly different definition from the National Waste Policy, namely that it is:
… an approach to reducing the environmental and other impacts of products by encouraging or requiring manufacturers, importers, distributors and other persons to take responsibility for those products.
I know this has been a long work in progress and work that has involved certain sectors of industry along the way. I am well aware that some sectors of industry are particularly enthusiastic to see this legislation passed. I especially note the national TV and computer sectors, who have a proposed national TV and computer product stewardship program that we would expect, from the advice that both industry and government gave us during the negotiation phase, to be one of the first out of the starting blocks. This program already has members representing 70 per cent of total imports of computer brands into Australia and 80 per cent of sales in Australia. The TV and computer scheme obviously is of particular importance as we move through the phases of the switch over from analog to digital signals and because of the increased volume of the already significant supply of electronic waste that those industries will generate.
Importantly, the coalition is particularly supportive of the bill providing for voluntary product stewardship schemes, as set out in part 2 of the bill. These sit alongside the requirements and opportunities for co-regulatory and mandatory product stewardship schemes outlined in the bill. Part 2 of the bill establishes a mechanism to encourage and recognise product stewardship without the need to regulate and also to provide assurance to the community that any voluntary product stewardship scheme is operating to achieve its stated outcomes, and it authorises the use of product stewardship logos in connection with these arrangements.
The Global Product Stewardship Council, an independent, non-profit organisation dedicated to understanding and advancing the principles of product stewardship, says that in its experience, as reinforced by overseas participants in the International Product Stewardship Summit, Australia has had greater success with voluntary programs than many overseas jurisdictions have. It also says:
Stakeholders are more likely to collaborate on and effectively implement voluntary and/or regulatory approaches than where approaches are in unilaterally mandated.
Approaches requiring greater levels of regulation should be pursued only after market-based, voluntary and co-regulatory approaches have been clearly shown to be relatively ineffective in achieving desired outcomes.
These are principles that the coalition would support and would urge and expect the government to keep in mind during its application of the powers that this legislation provides for. We do expect that where industries are able to deliver effective voluntary schemes then that is exactly what all sides of politics in this country would like to see.
The peak body for Australia’s lighting industry, Lighting Council Australia, have several months experience in administering their own voluntary product stewardship scheme. They say:
The industry ownership bestowed by a voluntary or co-regulatory approach should lead to better outcomes among industries prepared to assume such responsibility. To reduce costs on both industry and government, all efforts should be made to encourage voluntary rather than regulatory approaches.
However, this bill does provide for all three-voluntary, co-regulatory and mandatory-schemes. There is a place for all three, particularly in terms of the capacity to bring in recalcitrant parts of industries to ensure that the bill has a universal effect. Under the bill, accreditation of voluntary schemes will be on a cost-recovery basis through a fee for service.
I will spend a moment addressing some of the concerns that have been highlighted during consideration of this legislation. A Senate inquiry was held, as is customary, and I thank those who participated in that inquiry: the witnesses; the committee staff, as always, for their detailed report; and my colleague Senator Fisher, who engaged particularly effectively in this inquiry to examine some of the issues and concerns that industry and other groups had. We heard a range of concerns, some of them relating to the consultation approach, some of them relating to the expected effectiveness of the scheme and some of them relating to the potential for industry to be roped in or surprised by its inclusion in the scheme.
In many ways, we heard extreme views-from those who feared that all industries may suddenly find themselves subject to a mandatory scheme, at one extreme, and those who believed that the legislation was ineffectual and would achieve absolutely nothing at the other extreme. Those two extremes perhaps suggest that there is a middle way, and the legislation maybe has found that middle way. Nonetheless there were specific concerns raised about a range of factors, in particular concerns about the criteria as well as industry concerns about an element of surprise that theoretically could exist for industries to be roped in under the scheme.
I am very pleased that we have been able to work through this legislation and issues such as the criteria. A range of amendments standing in the name of the government, the Greens and the opposition have been circulated in the chamber. These have been worked on in a collaborative manner. I thank Senator Ludlam and Senator Farrell for their work, as well as the officers of the department who have worked with Senator Farrell and all parties to ensure that we can come up with some sensible amendments that we hope go some way to appeasing some of the concerns. Importantly, the amendments that will be moved will provide for a new definition of the product stewardship criteria-a definition that is, I think, less open-ended than the definition provided for in the bill as it stands and that ensures that criteria, though I suspect still relatively easy to meet for industries that genuinely should be included in such a scheme, are at least a bit more of a hurdle to ensure that you could not come up with a scenario where almost any product of any industry could fit or meet the criteria as they were previously drafted.
We have also put in place some provisions that will ensure that there is a degree of forewarning about products that the government is looking at or considering. So the government will, under the amendments proposed, be publishing lists of products being considered for accreditation or regulation under the act. There will be a committee established-a review mechanism-to ensure that industry and key players in this sector all have some degree of input. These are important changes that we believe will provide at least for a greater level of involvement and consultation and hopefully a stronger outcome of industry confidence and participation in this scheme.
As the government confirms in the explanatory memorandum for this bill, the product stewardship criteria are only one factor in determining whether regulations, co-regulatory or mandatory, can be made with respect to a class of products. There are two other considerations in addition to the criteria. One is that the bill requires that the minister be satisfied that making the regulations will further the objects of the act, and again that is a factor that has been reinforced time and again during discussions and deliberations of the committee and behind closed doors about how this bill will function.
Second, and I think particularly important, is the requirement-of which the government assures us throughout the explanatory memorandum and in the parliamentary secretary’s second reading speech-that, as a matter of government policy, the usual regulatory impact assessment requirements would also apply. This is very important. This is not a factor that is detailed in the bill. It is, however, a factor that has been used time and again as reassurance. I would invite the parliamentary secretary, when he makes some remarks in this debate, again to provide that assurance from the government as to what will underpin that regulatory impact assessment process so that this debate has those issues clearly on the record, especially given that the website of the Office of Best Practice Regulation within the Department of Finance and Deregulation simply explains that a regulatory impact statement is required under the Australian government’s requirements. That is one of those nice circular statements. We, of course, would just like, for the sake of conclusion in this debate, to ensure that the government’s expectations and understanding of how that regulatory impact statement arrangement will work in this legislation are made clear so that all those who may be dealing with it in years to come have a clear record to refer back to in that regard.
Lastly, I just raise another matter that I invite the parliamentary secretary to respond to and that I have foreshadowed with him. Very late in the inquiry into this bill, the Senate committee received a late submission from the Law Council of Australia-the Intellectual Property Committee of its Business Law Section-concerning the creation of product stewardship logos under the voluntary product stewardship provisions. As the committee did not have an opportunity to consider in detail the issues raised but simply drew it to the government’s attention, I would invite the parliamentary secretary to provide advice on how the government has considered that issue and what advice he has received from the Attorney-General’s Department or others about its relevance.
In closing, I once again express my thanks to all parties for their cooperation on this and restate the coalition’s commitment to this scheme, to the principle of product stewardship and, importantly, to our belief that wherever possible these should be schemes driven and owned by industry to make sure that they have genuine stewardship of their products throughout the life cycle.