PRIVATE MEMBERS' BUSINESS National Standard for Fertiliser Products

Mr HUSIC (Chifley—Government Whip) (11:10): I welcome the opportunity to discuss this motion. I also welcome it on the basis that it presents a diversity of issues that need to be considered by us all. I think it is timely, particularly given that there is a lot of interest in these issues within households. You only need to turn on a TV to see the different lifestyle programs that talk about what people can do in their homes and about installing and maintaining gardens. Also people's interest in sustainability issues is something that is continuing to grow. People are wanting to grow their own vegetables and herbs—and, as the member for Sturt indicated, between 67 and 52 per cent of people, depending on what demographic you pick, are doing so.

As much as I was supportive of the member for Sturt raising this matter today, I could not help a wry smile when he managed to insert political points in a debate that I think is worthy of having in this place. He gave me cause for reflection on some of the issues he sought to have a go at on the way through his speech. Nonetheless the matter is worthy of consideration. The member for Sturt referred to his constituent, Des Kerr, who has serious concerns about what he perceived to be a misrepresentation about pH levels in the fertiliser that he had purchased and was using on his property, that the PH levels were much higher than stated on the product packaging.

It is worth reminding all consumers to make inquiries of merchants about whether a product is fit for purpose, and that certainly includes fertiliser products. If consumers are not sure about a product, obviously the golden rule is to ask and to test the representations that are made. Fortunately, consumers have protections under Australian Consumer Law—ACL. This government has taken steps to strengthen the ACL and those took effect in January this year. Consumer guarantees under the ACL cover any type of goods or services costing up to $40,000 sold in trade or commerce. The big message here is that for people concerned about representations made about what is in fertilisers or composted products—though more often than not it is fertilisers; a lot of people are taking up the opportunity to compost on their own property using waste products—the ACL provides a range of protections for any product under $40,000. People should definitely avail themselves of those protections. Consumer guarantees also allow consumers to seek redress if the goods they buy are not fit for the purpose specified by the people selling the product.

It is worth noting that the ACL consolidates up to 20 Commonwealth, state and territory laws into one single harmonised law. The member for Sturt said that we need to take a national approach on this issue and the government are seeking to do just that in terms of Consumer Law. For consumers seeking to purchase fertilisers for home or business use there is some sort of protection regardless of where they live. Consumers will also be interested to know, especially businesses that operate in more than one state or territory, that the benefit of having a single consumer law generates commercial and consumer benefit. The Productivity Commission believe that about $4.5 billion of benefit to the Australian economy flows as a result of having a unified Consumer Law. As I mentioned earlier, there are about nine guarantees for products. These include suppliers and manufacturers guaranteeing that goods are of acceptable quality; secondly suppliers and manufacturers guaranteeing that the goods will be reasonably fit for any purpose the consumer or supplier specifies, especially in terms of the matters that are brought here before the Main Committee; suppliers and manufacturers guaranteeing that the description of goods is accurate; suppliers guaranteeing that goods will match any sample or demonstration model; suppliers and manufacturers guaranteeing that goods will satisfy any extra promises made about them in the form of express warranties; suppliers guaranteeing that they have the right to sell the goods being supplied or that no-one will try to repossess or take back those goods; suppliers guaranteeing that the goods being supplied are free from hidden securities or charges; and, finally, manufacturers or importers guaranteeing that they will take reasonable steps to provide spare parts or repair facilities for a reasonable time after purchase. Not all of those guarantees, obviously, relate to the matters at hand, but the guarantee regarding the accuracy of the description of the goods and the guarantee that the goods themselves be reasonably fit are certainly important protections, particularly in reference to the matter that the member for Sturt raised about whether or not pH levels were matching the representations made to the consumer on the packaging.

As the member for Sturt referred to, there has also been a voluntary product safety standard in place since 2003, AS 4454, covering compost, soil conditioners and mulches, which includes guidance on required pH levels. Any products that purport to meet the voluntary standard but which are found not to, in fact, meet that standard, risk breaching the misleading representation provisions of ACL, some of which I mentioned earlier, and they could face significant penalties. While we would acknowledge that individual members of the public have, from time to time, expressed concern about labelling requirements for fertiliser products, the government is not aware of a wider community concern about excessive pH levels in these products.

Coming back to the point I made at the start of my contribution today, the raising, particularly within parliament, of these types of issues gives us an opportunity to take note of the fact that there is a concern out there. While the member for Sturt has raised this issue on behalf of his constituent, it is obviously incumbent upon us all to take steps to monitor whether there is a wider concern—and to act accordingly if there is. However, at this point calls for a mandatory standard would definitely increase the regulatory burden and on-costs for business, and any additional cost would ultimately be passed on to consumers. We have to be certain that there is widespread concern to justify consumers paying more.

We have undertaken significant regulatory reform to lift those burdens on businesses. One critical step we have taken has been the bringing in of harmonised consumer laws, but we have also brought in reforms in a range of other important areas, such as standard business reporting, trade licensing, consumer credit and national construction codes. While not related to this matter, these reforms demonstrate that we are trying to take steps on a number of fronts to reduce those burdens on businesses, especially small businesses.

While there are concerns, as have been expressed so far in the debate, we need to be balanced in deciding at what point we take action and whether or not that action would be disproportionate to the issue raised. If there is evidence of a widespread problem, the government will certainly consult further with states and territories. I would certainly encourage them to do that and I think that is part of the call being made here today.

One of the other points raised by the member for Sturt was the fact that, while at the moment 5.8 million tonnes of compost are being recycled, by extracting out of landfill there is the potential for another 13 million. At that point, depending on whether or not the concerns are as widespread as may be suggested, then, given the size of that potential, we need to look at what the standards need to be. But at this point, while the issue is definitely one that needs to be taken on board, there is a matter of whether or not the response needs to be as widespread or as definite as what has been outlined so far. But I certainly welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate and to learn more about an issue that has obviously sparked some concern in the member for Sturt's electorate.

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Ed Husic MP
Federal Labor Member for Chifley


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