GREENS BILL: Reaffirming a GM-free SA

Today Mark introduced a Greens Bill to reaffirm the decision of the SA Parliament in 2017 to extend the moratorium on the cultivation of genetically modified crops across the whole of the South Australia until 1 September 2025.


Genetically Modified Crops Management (Designation of Areas) Amendment Bill 2019

In 2017, I introduced a bill to extend the moratorium on the cultivation of genetically modified crops in the whole of the state until 1 September 2025. Without this bill, the moratorium would have expired automatically on 1 September this year, thanks to an obscure legislative provision that means that regulations automatically expire after 10 years unless they are remade before expiry.

The Greens' bill passed both houses with the support of the then Labor government and the Hon. John Darley, who was supportive of the principle that the decision to retain or lift the moratorium should rest with the parliament. This is what I understood my bill would do: secure the extension of the moratorium by putting it into legislation so that any decision to lift the moratorium could only be done with the support of both houses of parliament, again by legislation. This is what the parliament understood it was doing when it supported my bill back in 2017, so it came as a surprise to hear last month that the government was proposing to lift the moratorium.

The surprise was not that that was their policy—because they have backflipped on their longstanding policy of supporting the moratorium—the surprise was that they were going to lift the moratorium by passing new regulations, not by bringing a bill to parliament. Perhaps they knew that they might not have the numbers in parliament to get a bill passed through both houses, so instead they found a loophole in the drafting of the 2017 amendment act that they could exploit. Rather than testing the will of the parliament by presenting an amendment bill, they have gone down a sneaky path of changing the scope of the regulations whilst leaving in place the moratorium expiry date agreed by parliament.

The government has announced its intention to change the designated area that the moratorium covers by deleting references to 'the whole of the state' and replacing them with the words 'Kangaroo Island'. My first reaction was that this cannot be legal. The parliament has decided that the moratorium on growing GM crops should apply across South Australia and not expire until the year 2025, unless and until the parliament decides otherwise. Personally, I would be surprised if the government's proposed regulations are not challenged in court. I think there is an arguable case that the proposed government regulations would be ultra vires (beyond power).

Regardless of the legal technicalities, the government's move is sneaky and cynical and it treats the parliament with contempt. What added insult to this injury is that the government did not even have the decency to wait for the Legislative Council's select committee on the genetically modified crops moratorium to finish its work and report on its findings before announcing their decision. Members will recall that this select committee was agreed to by the council on the motion of the Hon. John Darley. The committee has finished taking evidence and is now considering its report and recommendations, and I expect that it will report very soon.

However, the government's contempt for this parliament knows no bounds as it thumbs its nose at parliamentary inquiries and cannot even wait for a few weeks for the committee to report. It is not just contemptuous of parliament, it is also contemptuous of all those organisations, individuals and community groups who take the trouble to write submissions and come into parliament to tell their elected representatives what they think. The government's clear message to the community is, 'Don't waste your time talking to your elected representatives. Don't bother putting hours of work into comprehensive submissions. We don't give a stuff about what you think because we are the government and it's our way or the highway.'

To make matters worse, the government has said that its draft regulations will have a start date of 1 December 2019. I believe they have chosen that date very carefully because, under the Subordinate Legislation Act, regulations must be tabled in parliament and are subject to disallowance by either house. The deadline for tabling regulations in parliament is within six sitting days of their being made. What that means is that if the government introduces regulations on 1 December it will not need to table them in parliament until the first or second sitting week in February 2020. In that case, disallowance would not be considered until perhaps March, which is just a month or so before the canola planting season.

Even if the government tabled the regulations immediately upon being made, if they are made on 1 December, at the very first opportunity, there will still be no time for the Legislative Council to consider a disallowance motion unless they were tabled on 3 December, with notice of disallowance being given a few minutes later and the parliament sitting for the whole of the optional sitting week. That is a very unlikely scenario.

Of course, the government could choose to gazette the regulations next month or in November, with the scheduled commencement date of 1 December. That would give the parliament time to consider disallowance before the end of the year, but it does not remedy the primary flaw in this whole process, which is that the government is seeking to undermine, by executive action, the clear will of the parliament. If the government believes the moratorium should be lifted, it should bring a bill to parliament so that all 69 members of parliament can debate it.

In addition, the government, whilst it has its proposed regulations out for public consultation, has no intention of taking into account any submissions that are made that do not agree with the government. In the online version of The Advertiser—it will be in tomorrow's paper, but it is in the online version now—there is a section which refers to minister Whetstone:

"He said while the government's six-week statutory consultation period was still ongoing, it was the government's intention to lift the moratorium in time for the next cropping season."

If that is in fact what the minister has said, it shows that they do not care about their own consultation, let alone the work of the parliamentary committee that is still ongoing.

It will come as no surprise to members that the Greens will be moving to disallow these regulations, if necessary, whether that be before the end of this year or more likely at the start of next year.

In the meantime, I have introduced this bill today to effectively reinstate the status quo as agreed by parliament back in 2017; that is, the moratoriums stays over the whole of South Australia until the whole of the state parliament decides otherwise. The whole parliament put the moratorium in place until 2025 and it should be a decision of the whole parliament if that is to change.

The Greens' view on this is well-known. We think the moratorium should remain because there is clear evidence that it is the best result for South Australia, and we are not alone in this view. I have already had 800 South Australians sign my online petition to retain the moratorium in just the last few days. To be crystal clear, if the government proceeds with the regulations set, as they say they will, we will move to disallow them, whenever that might be, but what we are not prepared to do is to allow this issue to create more uncertainty in the community. That is the government's agenda, not ours.

Farmers need certainty about what they are allowed or not allowed to grow next year. To lift the moratorium for mainland South Australia via regulations with a pending vote of disallowance potentially months away provides no certainty for anyone. On the back of these government regulations, some farmers may be lulled into a false sense of security that, after 1 December this year, they can start legally planning to plant genetically modified canola.

Some farmers may even sign contracts with the multinational agrichemical giants who control GM technology. Farmers might start buying GM seeds ready for next season. Imagine their shock if they discover that the parliament has subsequently disallowed the regulations and now they cannot sow those seeds. They would rightly be angry, and their anger should be directed at the state Liberal government that set up this uncertainty and made farmers the pawns in a political game.

We need to give the farmers certainty about whether or not the moratorium will be lifted and the best way to do that is by putting the status quo into legislation. So this bill today does what my 2017 bill was intended to do, to secure in legislation the extension of the current moratorium to 1 December 2025 throughout the whole of South Australia. Let's have that debate now, have it this year, rather than in several months' time. This is the best way to provide security for farmers.

Most people do not understand legislative process, and that is not usually a problem because they do not need to in most cases, but the problem for farmers here is that government regulations can be disallowed, then they can be reintroduced, then they can be disallowed again, then they can be reintroduced and then they can be disallowed again, and that process can go on for years. The effect on farmers who rely on the government regulations will be that their crops will potentially be legal for part of the year and illegal for other parts of the year. It is a legal nightmare and something we should avoid at all costs.

The Greens have always maintained our strong support for the continuation of the moratorium on GM crops for the entire state of South Australia. I will not set out all the reasons now because I have done that many times before, but they do include the legislated criteria of marketing advantage and economic benefit. We know that the world is demanding cleaner, greener and more natural food, and, statewide, the South Australian moratorium positions us well for the future.

We also know that in those states, where both GM and non-GM canola is grown, the GM crops attract a lower price at the silo. This is positive proof that the market favours non-GM. The market will pay you more per tonne for non-GM canola than it will pay you for genetically modified varieties.

As a member of the select committee into GM crops, I intend to speak in detail about these issues when that report is ultimately tabled. I will go through the evidence that has been heard and the reasons why maintaining the moratorium is the right outcome for South Australia. Today, what I am asking members to do, especially those who supported my 2017 bill, is to again support this 2019 bill.

Of course not everyone was here in 2017, so I would call on our colleagues and I would especially invite our colleagues in SA-Best to continue the legacy of the former leader, Nick Xenophon, who was a great supporter of keeping South Australia GM free. Nick Xenophon, along with the Australian Democrats' the Hon. Sandra Kanck and myself worked together. We introduced a number of bills and motions over the years and I would hope that SA-Best will keep that tradition going.

Finally, I would make a plea to all members, regardless of your position on the moratorium, to at least support this bill because it is the only way we can be sure the parliament will have the final say. In fact, even if you do not support the moratorium, you can still support this bill because that will help create certainty for the farming community by insisting that the matter be determined by parliament, not by disallowable regulations. If you vote for this bill, it will avoid the legal dilemma that otherwise faces farmers over the summer period: what seed should they buy and will they be legally allowed to plant it next year? Farmers deserve certainty and this bill is the way to give them that certainty.