I rise to again contribute to the debate on the Low Aromatic Fuel Bill 2012, a private member’s bill introduced by Senator Siewert. I will probably be somewhat critical of the government and of the Greens today, for a number of reasons that will become evident during my contribution, but I would like to start by saying that I would commend all sides of this place for their motivation.
There is no question that the government is well motivated — I do not really understand the backflip of this morning — and I know that Senator Siewert is very well motivated in regard to the introduction of this legislation. I know that Senator Crossin, Senator Moore, Senator Siewert, I and others have been part of committees in the past that looked at this issue, before the committee that looked into this legislation, and we have all been very frustrated. We have had committee discussions. We made a recommendation after a committee inquiry in 2009 that someone act to introduce some legislation.
I suspect that Senator Siewert’s introduction of this legislation was a function of all of that frustration, but I think I should put on the record that I admire the motivation of all in this matter.
Of course, we are motivated by a very, very damaging substance. I can remember, as a very young bloke, hearing only a couple of times about people sniffing petrol, but it is really not a part of life for those who live conventionally in mainstream Australia. But it is just so damaging. I have been very fortunate, like Senator Crossin, to have spent some of my past living in remote parts of the Northern Territory and have viewed the damage that is caused by this otherwise innocuous substance that helps a car go. It is very damaging to communities and families, because the nature of the substance is that there are quite a spectrum of reactions when people are under the influence of petrol; it affects different people in different ways. Unlike with things like alcohol and other substances of abuse, where there is a general body weight indicator, for some reason—it is unknown, and not a lot of work has been done on it—some people hit this sort of psychotic state and you cannot
speak to them or communicate with them. These are otherwise quite ordinary people.
Yes, they have had some challenges and they are self medicating; but, notwithstanding that, quite ordinary people behave in the most unexplainable ways, and it is just so destructive.
It covers a spectrum. At one end, they simply need petrol to sniff, so they will humbug, they will break things, they will hurt people or they will hurt themselves until you give them some more petrol or access to more petrol. That is extremely damaging to a community and to a family. The tragedy at the other end of the spectrum — I almost hesitate to remind the chamber—is shown by the circumstances where an 18-year-old petrol sniffer followed a group of young boys and girls, between the ages of six and nine, down to a billabong. He was in such a psychotic state that he waded into the billabong, grabbed an eight-year-old girl, and sodomised her and drowned her simultaneously. Imagine the psychotic state where that would happen. You can imagine the community’s sense of grief and lack of understanding of how this could possibly happen in the community.
These are the sorts of events that we have, I think, managed to ameliorate substantially. It did not come because of some miracle in this place or legislation; it came through the miracle of technology —the miracle of Opal. I would have to commend the previous government and commend Tony Abbott for his leadership in saying to BP, ‘We wish to develop a fuel that doesn’t have the nasty bits that make you high — a non-aromatic or low-aromatic fuel.’ That was done by BP, and I have to say that in my time in this area I have never seen such a change literally overnight.
There were people whom I did not recognise. I knew they were sniffers; I would have vague conversations with them, but they were never going to make much sense. They changed into people whom I met for the first time — really wonderful people who had come out of the smog. I think it had a fantastic influence. It was expanded by the Howard government. I would also like to commend the current government, who have taken up that strategy and pursued that with the same vigour. I would also commend Warren Snowdon. He has certainly been very passionate about the continued rollout, and I know he shares the frustration of this place and the commitment to ensuring that we get it right.
The Central Australian Youth Link Up Service has been mentioned often in here, as it should be. If I could build on the other compliments that Tristan Ray and Blair McFarland have had, for me as a very practical person — and I know Tristan and Blair would understand — they provide minute feedback about what works and what does not. I know they run a great linkup service.
They are able to tell me forensically what is actually happening out there in the communities. They can say that to a person. They can say, ‘There are eight people now, but four of them actually went last time in the football round that went over hundreds of kilometres.
We now know as a consequence that there are another seven more. Four live here and three live here.’ Such is the nature of their intelligence network on the ground that it gives us the capacity to be able to deal quite forensically with this issue which is so very important.
Despite the fantastic work of the previous government, this government, the innovation of BP and the rollout of Opal at a cost of between $23 million and $28 million over forward estimates over years, we are now, tragically, seeing substantial leaks in the system. We have reports now from CAYLUS on the spectrum of people engaging in petrol sniffing and the horror that comes with it.
In an incident in the last couple of weeks, an 18-year-old petrol sniffer stabbed an eight-year-old boy in the head. It was not good. It was not just a poke. I do not want to go into the details, but this never would have happened otherwise. We have seen these communities rise up with people free of that stuff and it has now just started to come back. I share the frustration. We have to get this right.
One of the reasons that it has started to come back is the recalcitrance of a number of petrol stations.
The government and the opposition have done all sorts of things. We have all worked together to support initiatives. One of the initiatives of the current government is to ensure that we provide a petrol station that only sells Opal across the road from one that does not. I wrote to the then Northern Territory Chief Minister and said, ‘Don’t let any Territory cars fuel up at this service station.’
The Commonwealth agreed. We have gone to every possible length within the law to lever people who are not playing the game into doing so, but because there are leaks in the process that is
always going to be the case. That is why it is absolutely essential that we get this right.
We have had a careful look at this legislation. I approached Senator Siewert and said we would support her in a bill that did pretty much what this bill is doing.
Sadly, for whatever reason, Senator Siewert decided pretty shortly afterwards that the Greens would move it on their own. I had a private meeting with Minister Snowdon. He was frustrated. He believed that the way forward was, in fact, for the states and territories to legislate because it was more effective legislation and we need it to be part of a national framework.
I was convinced that was probably the way to go. He had some frustrations. The flavour of government changes. We have the coalition in power in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland, while South Australia is Labor — but that might have been a bit of challenge. Certainly, in terms of this particular legislation, I think there has to be a better way.
This legislation came through a very comprehensive committee process, and once again I would like to commend the wonderful Senator Moore for traipsing around the countryside and taking evidence in all sorts of places from all sorts of people and for a wonderful report. A significant part of that report was recommendation 6, which, in light of the preceding five other recommendations, recommended that the current bill not proceed.
I know we will hear from the other side about it being all workable or whatever it is going to be. We will be listening carefully to that, but we certainly will not be supporting this legislation for
a couple of pretty significant reasons. We do not think it is going to work. It will not work because it effectively relies on corporation powers. I can tell you right now, without naming any players —and I know Senator Siewert indicated this in her report — that, whilst there was no evidence given that they were not all covered by the Corporations Act, there is in fact a place that is a partnership and not a corporation power that would not be caught under this. I also got some legal advice about how convoluted but easy it would be for an organisation to change status to escape those sorts of processes. Whether you become a sole trader or a partnership, you are simply not going to be caught under this legislation. So there will still be leakage.
There has to be a better way, and I think the better way is through framework legislation. There is legislation in the Northern Territory. It was put in by the previous Labor government, and I commend the government. A lot of work went into it. It not only deals with petrol but with all volatile substances. That is the Volatile Substance Abuse Prevention Act 2005. When the new Northern Territory government
came into power, I had better access so I said, ‘We have had this piece of legislation, but in the context of petrol it has not been used.’ I will not go into the intricacies of it — there is no mischief.
There are further amendments required.
I have spoken to the new minister. They have sought advice on a new amendment and I understand that new amendment is going to be introduced to enable these things.
This is an act that does not rely on the corporations powers. This is an act that enables us to forensically take a lease on a petrol station. I am not sure you can draw a moving line around one person, but this is the closest piece of legislation to doing that. It is ultimately as flexible as you can get it. We can actually effectively prohibit the sale of a particular product in a particular area for a particular amount of time. Nobody wants legislation smashed for a long time. I very much commend this legislation to this place.
There is another matter, and it is not my word you have to take on this. Sadly, as I have indicated, there have been a number of deaths associated with volatile substances.
The coroner at a West Australian coronial inquest said:
The Volatile Substance Abuse Prevention Act of 2005 (NT) has been an effective tool in the NT for ensuring that chronic solvent users who are at risk of severe harm undergo suitable treatment
at appropriate facilities. The coroner went on to recommend that.
In similar circumstances, a South Australian inquest recommendation was that the South Australian minister for health consider introducing legislation before the South Australian parliament similar to that encompassed with the Northern Territory Volatile Substance Abuse Prevention Act 2005.
For those who are concerned about moving forward on this, I can provide some hope to this place. I know we are in opposition but, because this is such a bipartisan issue, I spoke yesterday to the Labor minister in South Australia, and they are engaged in assisting me and others in having a look at this framework in the Northern Territory. If they have any amendments to it, we will seek to provide that information to the Northern Territory government, and they could include those in their amendments. I have spoken to the office in Queensland and they are also engaged in ensuring that they can provide some feedback on the framework.
Sadly, I missed a call from WA’s Peter Collier last night, but I spoke to his adviser on this matter and hopefully we will be speaking today. Substantially this is not just a matter for the Northern
Territory. I think it is a good framework that will work. The reason I was talking to them today was not because I needed to tell you all that today. I actually thought I would be coming in today
and saying: ‘Sorry, Rachel, but, as I have already indicated to you, we are not supporting this. We think there are some flaws in it. But we are not giving up. We’re off and working.
We’re off doing some practical things, talking to people and getting some things done.’ But, sadly, we have come in here this morning and heard this. I heard about it at 20 past
eight when Minister Snowdon rang me. I am not saying he was tardy about that, as I understand that must have been pretty much when either he heard or he changed his mind.
It was hard to know from our conversation.
But, given the fact that the minister had told the Northern Territory government that they were not supporting the proposed act and asked me not to support the proposed act, I was very surprised to hear this morning from Minister Snowdon that the government was in fact supporting this proposed act and was not opposing it and moving in another direction. This backflip goes against the report recommendations, after the excellent work done by Senator Moore, Senator Crossin, Senator McKenzie and Senator Smith — who are in the chamber — and Senator Siewert.
To me it really beggars belief that, on this very important issue on which we have had such a bipartisan approach, we have suddenly had a backflip.
I am a bit cranky about it. I do not know the detail and I do not know what happened.
Senator Siewert may be able to throw some light on it when she makes her contribution in the committee stage. I know that our First Australians will be dying to hear what the issue was that they were traded off against. There is no other reason apart from such a deal that I would have got a phone call this morning — at’two minutes to midnight’—telling me: ‘Oh, by the way,
we’ve just changed our mind completely on this. Come and get a briefing from someone,’ someone who did not even know the Corporations Act seemed to appear in it.
It was all pretty pathetic. So it is obvious to me that you have done a deal, and I think the Greens need to come clean. They have to put their hands up and say,’This was part of the deal.’
We know—and I say this without mischief—that this is a second-class solution. We have a first-class solution, in the volatile substances act, and we should not offer a second-class solution to our First Australians because we have done some grubby deal about something.
I do not know about it. Perhaps the Greens would let us know. Perhaps it is not grubby — some deal on Malaysia or tax—but who would know? But these circumstances cannot be interpreted in any way other than: ‘We’re going to do a backflip.’ I have to say to those on the other side that you do have a bit of form on this. Perhaps that is the way of things. I have forgotten
how long ago it was that I was in government, and I am not really sure, but perhaps that is the way. Scrapping immigration policy because it would be popular — but not necessarily in our national interest — might have been one of the things. Just the other day, we had the supertrawler issue. There was a bit of a Twitter go, so it was ‘We’ll just change our mind on that.’ Poor old Joe over here, who just the day before had been saying, ‘Absolutely not; we’ve got to protect good science,’ had to roll up here and then say—
THE ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Cameron ):
Senator Scullion, you know that you should address —
Sorry, Senator Ludwig — it was a term of affection. Of course, we have been stuck since then. We saw it again with the carbon tax. I am sure that the Prime Minister said, ‘There will be no
carbon tax under the government I lead,’ because that was popular and that was what people wanted to hear.
But, with what they delivered, again, it is the Greens corner that seems to have this commonality. Every time the government stroll into the Greens corner, they suit their own purposes of staying in power but they lose sight of looking after Australians.
In this case, this place has been pretty good. I am very proud of how we have all dealt with this matter in a bipartisan way, given the challenges that face our First Australians.
I am very proud of the way we have gone about doing that. But, as has been shown historically, inevitably behaviour will out. Today we are faced with something upon which we could have
had a first-class solution that everybody agreed to. In fact, the committee made this recommendation:
The committee recommends that the Australian Government continue to consult with the relevant state and territory governments on the possibility of national legislation …
That recommendation is before us now. But this legislation is only enabling legislation. You may believe that this legislation will make some changes tomorrow. It will not. But the thing that saddens me
most, and it is a great sadness — and we have all been dragged into this reluctantly, I suspect, including the minister — is that for the first time we are definitely
using the interests of our First Australians as currency in some grubby trade-off. I think the Greens should come clean and tell us exactly what that trade-off is.
Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I object to the use of the term ‘grubby trade-off with our First Australians’. I think that is really an offensive way to discuss what is going on in the Senate.
THE ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT:
Senator Scullion, I think you are reflecting on the Greens and the senators in the Greens party. I think you should withdraw.
I want to speak to the point of order, if I may.
THE ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT:
I was actually reflecting on the outcome. As I said, I think it is a grubby deal, the deal that was done. I was not saying that the Greens did a grubby deal.
THE ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT:
Senator Scullion, I do not accept that. You should withdraw.
I believe the Greens should come forward and tell us what the deal was.
Was it that uncharitable word I used? They need to come forward on this. We will not be supporting this legislation for two reasons: firstly, it will not work and,
secondly, it is a part of a particularly unsavoury deal.
Download media release:
hansard second reading speech opal fuel .pdf