Interview with Sky News

Food labelling and renewable energy targets

JOURNALIST: Minister Ian Macfarlane thanks for your time. We’re still a way off this becoming formal Government policy but where do you expect things to finish up once you’ve consulted the backbench and Cabinet?

IAN MACFARLANE: Look where I think this will finish up is that we will have a new set of labelling laws in Australia that Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce and I will take to Cabinet. It will be a proposal that has both a graduated symbol depending on the Australian content and a descriptor beside that symbol of words which say processed in Australia and containing 100 per cent Australian content, or over 50 per cent Australian content, or less than 50 per cent Australian content, and that those words will be at least 30 per cent larger than the surrounding script or words.

You know, when I go into a supermarket, the first thing I look for is Australian goods. Now if I can do that without putting on my glasses, which is what I have to do now, and see a symbol which I recognise, and then if I want to be sure, put on my glasses and read the descriptor, or if that symbol is not there, I will know immediately that the goods aren’t processed in Australia and I can go and find on the label where those goods have come from and then make a decision.

JOURNALIST: So when you talk about a graduated process and a symbol, that will show immediately, a sort of level of processing, within Australia?

IAN MACFARLANE: A level of Australian content. As in whether all the goods were grown here, whether half of them were grown here, etc. That’s what we’re trying to do with the symbol. We don’t want to make it too complicated, so it will be in bands. The symbol won’t say this can contains 67 and a quarter per cent Australian grown goods because that is just far too impossible to regulate. It will say processed in Australia from 100 per cent Australian, or 50 per cent Australian, or less than 50 per cent Australian.

JOURNALIST: So obviously that will be put and paid for by the companies themselves?

IAN MACFARLANE: Well look it will be paid for by the companies but of course in all of this, the cost of this will flow back to the consumer. This is only half the process. Getting the labelling right and having consumers able to get the information they want off the label is important, but the parallel process which involves Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce and Assistant Minister Fiona Nash is to get our biosecurity and border food inspection regime working.

At the moment, it’s obvious that these goods are slipping through and there are other claims about to be made about importation of food from countries where they have far in excess of the allowable lead and arsenic levels. We’re just not doing a good enough job on the borders so we’ll have to increase that too.

JOURNALIST: Do you reckon consumers will be happy to pay a little extra to get this information?

IAN MACFARLANE: Well that is the inevitable consequence of what consumers are asking for and I think they understand that. Now it’s not going to be a huge sum of money but nothing comes free in this world.

JOURNALIST: Tony Abbott just last week said ‘the last thing I want to do is put a whole lot of additional requirements on business that will make their life very, very difficult, nor raise unreasonably prices to consumers, because everything we do in this area has a cost.’

IAN MACFARLANE: Well let’s not get too carried away here, we’re talking about one or two cents per good but look I think it’s quite clear from me talking to my constituents and talking to people at airports and in the street, is that people have had enough. We have a labelling regime that is worthless, that tells people nothing. You know, buying something that says ‘Made in Australia from Australian and imported produce’ means nothing to anyone. We need to move on, we need to be specific.

JOURNALIST: Has this been expedited by the berries situation obviously?

IAN MACFARLANE: Absolutely but it was very much in train and as I say Member for Grey Rowan Ramsey’s Industry and Science House of Representatives committee had already presented me with a report and we were working through that but yes it has been expedited. We will take something to Cabinet, we will have something into the House of Representatives and Senate in the parliamentary winter sittings, and then after that it’s a case of implementation. So hopefully by the end of this year, we’ll have a set of consumer rules which manufacturers of food in Australia, as well as importers of food into Australia, will have to comply with.

JOURNALIST: How are your negotiations going with the Opposition and others when it comes to the Renewable Energy Target? Any progress?

IAN MACFARLANE: Well we have put a position to the industry. We are waiting for the industry to consider it. The reality is that we have a gross oversupply of electricity generation in Australia and the biggest obstacle to the renewable energy industry building new capacity at the moment is that they can’t get anyone to buy the electricity because there is so much electricity generation around.

Now I’ve offered them a process of certainty, I’ve offered them a number and I’ve offered them a guarantee that this will be the last review before 2020 so that we change the legislation that requires a review every two years. I’ve offered them a scheme where we will deal with the overhang of credits in the market, so the industry can get on and build, particularly those wind farms that have already been given an approval and have gone to final investment decision, so we can continue to see the amount of renewable energy generated in Australia grow.

That is still happening. I mean, we’re still seeing an exponential growth in rooftop solar in Australia and we are on track to very significantly exceed the rooftop solar target which was 4,000 gigawatt hours and we’re already at about 7,000 gigawatt hours. So it is happening. The industry will have to understand that we are not going to build way more generation capacity then we need. There has to be some rationality in this. The other problem they’ve got is that if the scheme stays as it is, and that’s the alternative - that we just walk away and leave it - the renewable energy industry will be the one that pays the cost of that.

JOURNALIST: Is that offer that you have extended to the industry, above 30,000 gigawatt hours?

IAN MACFARLANE: I’m not going to get involved in that discussion, but look, yes it is. The industry knows what it is, I’m sure the Labor Party knows what it is because they seem to work in lockstep with the Clean Energy Council. The offer that’s been made is based not only on sound policy, but on the reality of where renewable energy is in Australia and that is that we are seeing a significant growth in rooftop and small scale solar which has to be taken into consideration. We don’t want to do it in a way which impinges on the large scale renewable energy scheme.

So they’ve got an offer, they can think about it for as long as they like, because until they come to an agreement, the scheme will continue untouched. So the scheme that has been agreed to by Penny Wong and I back in 2009 will continue as it is. We’re not going to touch it.

JOURNALIST: It’s been a somewhat messy process hasn’t it, and it has delivered a whole lot of uncertainty for the industry?

IAN MACFARLANE: No well I don’t think it has. I mean the situation is we’ve got a scheme that everyone agrees is going to go into default, is not going to be sustainable, is going to basically do something that in the end is not good for the renewable energy industry. I’ve offered them a compromise, an alternative, a logical solution to the issue, or they can keep the scheme they’ve got. That’s their choice.

If they don’t want compromise, if they don’t want to come to a point where we can actually have a sustainable renewable energy scheme, one which I’ve been involved in since day one since 2001 when I was the Resources Minister, if they don’t want to do that, then I’ll give them what they’ve got. I’ll give them what they asked for. That is the current scheme.

But I know that is going to end in tears and I know the people that will lose out of that will actually be the renewable energy industry.

JOURNALIST: Industry and Science Minister Ian Macfarlane, thanks for your time.

IAN MACFARLANE: It’s a pleasure.