Second Reading – Food Amendment Bill 2020

I rise to speak on the Food Amendment Bill 2020. I stand here as the lead speaker and as the responsible shadow minister for health in the lower house. The member for Lowan is on maternity leave, so I just thought I would make mention that she will be returning and so this is my last time representing her as lead speaker. Obviously with my health background I have enjoyed the opportunity.

I just thought I would take a moment to talk about the fact, before I begin if you do not find, that we have some young mums coming into the Parliament in the next couple of weeks, the member for Lowan and the member for Euroa. I just thought I would mention that we have had a lot of challenges in the last few weeks with sitting dates being moved around, and we often do not get notice of sitting dates for the next year until very shortly before we actually start to sit. It is not unusual, although perhaps it has not really happened much before, that we are going to have two members in the house who will have young babies, and hopefully they will be having them come into the house with them so they can really have that experience not taken away from them. I just thought I would mention that it is important for the government to remember that the member for Lowan will be travelling for over 4 hours to get to the house, and she will be arranging babysitters or bringing carers with her. Something I think we should all remember is that this place is a workplace. The government says that they support women, and it is certainly difficult when you do not get any notice of meeting dates if you are a mum or a dad and you are trying to organise care for your children. So given that these two members will be returning with young children and live quite a distance away, I just thought I would bring that to the attention of the government to perhaps consider.

But now I will move onto the bill at hand, and this is a bill that amends the Food Act 1984 and the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 to support the introduction and implementation of an online platform for compliance management of food and catering businesses across Victoria’s local government areas. So just a bit of background, following the handing down of the 2018 business regulation review the Department of Health and Human Services recommended reforming food safety regulations and regulatory burden costs for businesses and for local councils to implement that by moving to a single online platform for regulatory compliance ease. Currently councils have the responsibility, but this is basically an online portal that will make it easier hopefully for the councils to cut red tape. It will not actually reduce regulation; it will hopefully reduce the red tape or the regulatory burden that sometimes the Food Act is interpreted as requiring—it is not the actual Food Act that is the challenge, it is the interpretation.

With 79 councils across the state there can sometimes be 79 interpretations, and when you have got food businesses that have premises in several councils it can be quite a challenging for them to have different interpretations. Such an example is where one council might interpret the Food Act 1984 to say that you need to have stainless steel around the back of your stove and oven areas, whereas with a pizza oven that might be completely ridiculous and one might interpret that it is necessary.

It is that sort of complication and frustration that the small business regulation review identified after consulting with these businesses. I am sure all the members in here would often have constituents who own these food businesses coming to them, frustrated, and saying, ‘We just don’t know how to work with this because it’s just too onerous’. So I welcome the fact that the government are looking at making this easier, because particularly during COVID the hospitality industry has suffered greatly—probably one of the most affected. There are quite a few groups that have been most affected, but they are up there as one of them, so anything we can do to make the regulatory burden easier is a good thing.

On that note, it is interesting. People say that in opposition all you do is attack and whinge, but the reality is, in the 58th Parliament—that was my first Parliament that I was elected to—80 per cent of the bills that went through the Parliament were actually unopposed, as will be the case with this one. When something is a good idea, you work toward making it happen and I think this is a very good idea. Obviously that does not take away your responsibility as an opposition to ensure that you consult and that you look for any challenges back in your electorate, or across the portfolio if you are the shadow, to make sure that any unintended consequences are identified and addressed. That is what we are here to do; it is to debate that situation. There are some concerns, which I will talk about, but overarchingly I think it is a very good idea that we get a way forward for businesses to have their permits issued and that the complications and confusions that have occurred to warrant this change get sorted.

The Food Safety Act is an act that should protect us from all sorts of things. One of those is disease from food being prepared in a way that ends up with people getting sick. An example of that is salmonella. So with this portal, it will also mean that real-time action can take place if there is an outbreak of something like salmonella, and that is a really good outcome that we would want to see.

At this point in time there are already five companies that the 79 councils across the state are working through that provide this service. So for this to actually work, for the government to take this on—it is actually an opt-in system, it is not a mandatory system—there will have to be at least 70 per cent of the councils that want to come on to this for it to be cost-effective. I will get into costs and the concerns around a bit later.

If you look at the history of food safety—because obviously coming from the dairy industry and producing a food on farm and exporting that product, as we did, to about 49 countries around the world, our clean, green image; people’s health and wellbeing; and food safety hazard has been important to me. At the risk of sounding like the member for Essendon, I just thought it might be interesting to note that the first food safety law in England was in the 1200s. That is how far back these sorts of laws go. That was around bread and the ingredients. More interestingly, Germany’s was around beer and making sure people did not get sick—and that was in the 1400s—from the consumption of beer. So that is very fascinating. I always found that a really interesting piece of trivia that I thought I would share with the Parliament.

So what are some other things about this bill that I should identify so you can understand why I think it is a good idea? You probably should note that the bill also has some miscellaneous amendments to enhance the administration of primary food production and processing standards for eggs and egg products and seed sprouts, hence my thoughts around salmonella, because the egg industry do a fantastic job in Australia with food safety, and the processes we have in all our agricultural sectors are very impressive. That is why we have earned, as a nation and as a state, our reputation of being so good at food production.

Interestingly, this will affect the mobile food vans that produce food, and you have all been to festivals. Unfortunately many of them have been cancelled because of the pandemic. We have seen our folk festival in Port Fairy cancelled and many of our activities. Let us hope very soon we can get back to supporting those festivals. Those food vans that would be at these festivals, there are 30 000 of them across the state that operate. It is very important that we make sure we make things easier for them, because they often go through many councils, so it would be really quite onerous for them as small business operators to be getting permits. Particularly of note was the fact that they talked about this portal that New South Wales is looking at it as well, which would be great because the festivals that these businesses go to are not just in Victoria. In electorates like mine South Australia is not far away and crossing the border is something we usually do quite regularly, not so much at the moment.

I thought I would also talk about the fact that one of the worrying concerns when we did the consulting for this bill was the fact that the government told us during the bill briefing that they had consulted twice with each council, so they had consulted extensively. But I have received emails, when we have done our consultation as an opposition, from many councils, both city and country, and they are very concerned that the consultation process did not talk to them about the cost of this. They certainly talked about the design of the portal, but they were not made aware that there would be a cost. That is a very big concern. I think we all know, particularly in the rural councils, the way they are struggling to get enough rates in at some councils. The income is not there, and for them to have to manage all the assets like ovals and provide the services like aged care, HACC services—home and community care services—they are just really struggling. Another cost on that council would be absolutely abhorrent.

In one of the emails one of the local councils said:

It seems unreasonable to expect local government to pay to use a system which is required by the state, especially without consultation.

So they say there that they have not had consultation about that. And they note that:

We have not budgeted for this or been informed of the level of cost involved.

The last thing we want to see is more cost on local government. I could not get at the bill briefing confirmation of how much the government have budgeted to build this portal. The last thing we need is for costs to blow out and for those costs to be passed on to businesses, because after you have had a pandemic where hospitality has been absolutely smashed, we need to do everything we can to support businesses. I know Moyne shire, for example, have actual waived a lot of the charges that they would normally charge because they are so acutely aware of the businesses’ viability at the moment.

I looked at some of the premises that at the moment are struggling under the COVID rules of 10 per room up to 40 indoors. Some of these premises are huge, especially out in the regions where we have a lot of space. You know, there are a lot of bowls clubs, some of these are sporting clubs that are run by committees and they are really struggling to get through this pandemic. When you have got masses of square metres available and you have only got 10 people in the room I wonder, as a previous business owner, how they would manage the costs of turning on the lights and the heating and employing the chef to be able to even put on a meal for 10 people. Wouldn’t it be smart to say, ‘Look, it’s one person per 4 square metres’, and then that is sort of one standard rule? Obviously we need restrictions during this period. We need to make sure we do not compromise what we have achieved, but it just seems a bit unfair when there is all the space that cannot be used more effectively.

The other thing I sort of worry about with this bill is that whilst the costs have not been shared, when we look at the history of the Labor government’s ability to manage IT systems, there is a long, long history of stuff-ups. We only have to think of what happened with Fines Victoria very recently. Births, Deaths and Marriages Victoria is another one where the government just does not seem to be able to oversee a systems management situation and has major, major stuff-ups. And that is very embedded in the Labor government, if you go back to the development of Myki. And what about HealthSMART? What a waste of money that turned out to be.

Was it $323 million that was set aside? And then after several years of spending that money they needed another two hundred and some ridiculous amount of millions. So it was $320 million initially, they wanted another $230 million, I think it was, and then the whole thing was just an appalling mess. So that is my concern—that we give this job to the government. The idea is great, but their history with managing IT systems is appalling. I do not know what it is about them—they have just got to do it themselves and not learn from anyone.

At the moment we are all going out in our electorates. Now I am here in Melbourne I am trying to support the businesses in Melbourne, going out and eating at night. The government has seen New South Wales do a really, really good job of contact tracing. We are nine months into the pandemic, and yet the government still has not managed to get a system in place, like QR codes, for example, which is what New South Wales are using. Yes, businesses have been open for a very short period of time—as in hospitality and restaurant businesses—but I go into them and they have got their QR codes up and running. Why wouldn’t we be doing that as a state through a coordinated approach? Why are we leaving businesses to have to try and do their best?

Even a few weeks ago when we opened up the restaurants and cafes in the regions, these young kids were grateful to be back at work, but they were being asked to take contact details, ask people where they were from and get evidence of whether they were from a postcode that was allowed out of the ring of steel or not, and it was just so difficult for the businesses. It was all the onus placed on them and massive fines if they did not comply. People were terrified, and I think we should not forget that, particularly when we look at New South Wales and we see how well they have done. They have got a system in place; can we just copy it? It is nine months later. Whilst I am very supportive of making it easier for businesses to not have to have heaps of red tape, I am very concerned about the ability of the government to actually deliver this—to actually roll it out and deliver it.

These fears are fairly reasonable given the history of the Labor government’s ability when we look at, as I said, Fines Victoria, with how many fines that did not go out and the mismanagement of that, and the Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. I had people coming into my office just needing to get a death certificate for their recently passed partner, and these elderly people were just so, so devastated. They could not get power turned on. All sorts of issues were resulting from it. So I think there is quite a reasonable concern there when you look at how embedded this problem has been in the past.

The other thing I thought I would mention is that the government this week have had a pretty rotten week. The bills that they have put forward have had problems, and we have had to have amendments come back. We saw the member for Forest Hill point out that the Working with Children Act 2005 had actually been repealed, so the government is really in a bit of a shambles. And something I thought I would bring to the attention of the health minister as well is that there are some spelling errors in the bill. So maybe he needs to think about a house amendment, because there was one word—I cannot remember what the word was, but it was meant to be ‘identify’—and I looked up the word; there was no such spelling in any Google search that I could find to suggest there was any word like it. This government has had I do not know how many more staff than ever before, so it is a bit of a shame that we are not taking responsibility. The legislation should not be coming to the house with errors like we have seen, and I think this is the third bill that has an error in it. I just respectfully suggest to the Minister for Health that he have a look at that spelling error. I will happily send it through to him and identify it. I think it was in section 19 of the act actually. So it is really concerning when we have got a minister who probably should not be accepting that sort of standard. I mean, spellcheck is not that hard, and this is a word that is not actually a word, so I am sure spellcheck would have identified it.

Look, overarchingly, I think the fact that we will have real-time ability for health inspectors in the 79 councils to go if there is an outbreak of something like salmonella and jump on that quickly means that that keeps our community more protected than we already are. I say that knowing we do a very good job at this point, but continuous improvement cycles are something I will always support.

The fact is that the health inspectors will have a tool, probably like an iPad is what they are suggesting, so they can go to businesses instead of there being this anomaly between businesses and that frustration.

This bill does apply to the beauty sector as well, who have really been compromised during the pandemic and still are in a situation where they have not been respected for the knowledge they have on cross-contamination of infection, which they are well trained in. That is why we do not see in the health industry outbreaks of blood-borne viruses going from one person to another, because they have been fully aware of their responsibility in that area for a long time. For them to be left so late in the restriction easing is actually disrespectful, and I think they are struggling and trying to put their case forward. This bill actually does affect them, because the health inspectors go to the beauty therapists as well and check on their premises. I remember a girl coming to me. She said, ‘You know, I’ve got a health inspector saying that I need to have a tap here. It makes no sense’. That sort of stuff will be able to be more clearly worked out for people, and the businesses will know with absolute surety that there is consistency between the 79 councils, and those 79 councils will not have 79 interpretations of the act.

As I said, I support the bill. I do have some concerns. I worry that because the government cannot seem to get systems management right, and that has been an embedded problem for a long time, we do as an opposition need to bring that to the attention of the house so that we can have that noted and watched carefully. I worry for the councils that there has been no consultation about the cost, and I particularly note that regional councils cannot afford extra costs; they cannot carry these costs. Businesses cannot have that cost, so it is so important that this management tool actually comes in at a price that is affordable. The government has mentioned a price of around $15 to $20 per business, so that needs to be delivered, not blown out.

Cost blow-outs—we saw the Grattan Institute talk about that this week and how the three Big Build projects on the government’s agenda have blown out collectively to a whopping great big figure of $11 billion, which is an absolute disgrace. Taxpayers really are in a situation where they are watching closely. They want their leaders to invest well in infrastructure projects, and I hope we see a lot of that in the regions as well as in the city in the upcoming budget, which is only two weeks away.

A member interjected.

Ms BRITNELL: We do, and in South-West Coast we need, not want, stage 2 of the hospital to be completed. How can you start something and six years later still not have completed it and have no—

Mr Angus interjected.

Ms BRITNELL: That is right. That is what they do. That is exactly right, member for Forest Hill, not the member for Ferntree Gully.

We do need some of those projects. I am more than comfortable to see investments so that our communities get the infrastructure they need, but I am very worried about waste. I know businesspeople are very focused on waste—you have to be in business—so anything that reduces waste and streamlines their costs is good. I think the bill will do this if the system designed by the government actually is able to come in at a reasonable cost. It is a big ‘if’ as I said. The member for Forest Hill was not here when I mentioned the fact that the government does not have a good history of that. Just recently there was the Fines Victoria disaster—

A member interjected.

Ms BRITNELL: Myki. That is what I said. This problem goes back a very long time, it is embedded in Labor governments’ behaviour of not being able to deliver. You might actually have more knowledge about the HealthSMART debacle of millions and millions of dollars—

Mr Angus interjected.

Ms BRITNELL: I cannot remember what it was called either, but there is an endless list.

I note with caution that the councils have been looking forward to businesses having this opportunity in their councils, but the cost is significant. The problem to them of the cost is wanting some knowledge that it will be the $15 to $20 that it costs at the moment and no more.

On that note I think I will conclude, with those concerns noted. We do not oppose the bill, and I sincerely hope this outcome of assisting businesses at this time would be something we would all want for business, particularly for the hospitality—who have struggled—and the beauty industries.

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