House debates

Wednesday, 15 November 2023


Primary Industries (Excise) Levies Bill 2023, Primary Industries (Customs) Charges Bill 2023, Primary Industries (Services) Levies Bill 2023, Primary Industries Levies and Charges Collection Bill 2023, Primary Industries Levies and Charges Disbursement Bill 2023, Primary Industries (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2023; Second Reading

10:00 am

Photo of Meryl SwansonMeryl Swanson (Paterson, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The agricultural levy system is a longstanding partnership between industry and government to invest in industry priorities that could not be funded by primary producers on their own. This is the ultimate in collaboration for agriculture, and I am so pleased to say that it was established by the Hawke Labor government in the eighties. People like John Kerin and others who had a very proud record in agriculture were part of this, and the levy system has allowed our agricultural, fisheries and forestries industries to collectively invest in research and development, marketing, biosecurity and residue-testing since the 1980s. You can only pause to reflect on some of the wonderful technological advancements that have been made in agriculture.

I was talking to a colleague about this last week, and he said, 'You know, Meryl, my grandfather used a horse-drawn plough.' I went so far as to say, 'My father used a hay scythe.' Think about those things, and how much development has been made in agriculture in one quick generation or so. Now we think about friends of mine who are on properties who are harvesting in enormous pieces of machinery. My own daughter is out driving chaser bins and doing things that her grandfather would not have dreamt she would do, and it's all because government and industry have worked together to progress the industry, to increase production like we have never seen before, to increase the science behind agriculture.

You can think about a Constable painting with wheat about this tall, golden and swaying in the breeze, but thanks to modern agricultural research and science, the wheat doesn't grow that tall these days. It's green, but that's a good thing because it means we can harvest more of it, we can export more of it, we can feed more of the world and our farmers have benefited enormously. That is the key to what this bill really is about.

Before I go into more detail about the bill, people often quote Darwin and the theory of evolution to me. I'm a great fan of Charles Darwin. I think his theories were fabulous, but in his latter years there was something that Charles Darwin wrote a lot about: he said it wasn't just about competition and survival of the fittest—the big thing was about cooperation and collaboration between the cells. We have learnt more about that as we have learnt more about biology, epigenetics and how cells interact and cooperate with each other. I think that's the key here. This is all about cooperation. I want to extend that hand to our agricultural industry and our farmers and say, 'Thank you for walking on this journey with us.' We can point fingers and we can say, 'What's the government ever done for me?' or, 'What did the Romans ever do for us?', but I've got to say that a lot has been achieved since the eighties. I know the opposition will be saying that we're raising levies and we're making it harder for farmers. Whilst I'm a good friend and a solid colleague to the member for Riverina, who joins us here in the chamber today, I think if he was absolutely being square and honest with us about this, he would say that this levy system did need to be modernised. We did need to catch up over the past 10 years.

I don't want to be one of these people who harks on about the last decade of delay and denial and yadda yadda yadda. That's all great, but, if we're going to look solidly at this issue, it did need to change. If we want to keep our farmers competitive, if we want to keep them absolutely at that cutting edge of being able to work cooperatively and be the best in the world, then this levy system did need some cleaning up.

Levies and charges from farmers, producers, processors and exporters are very important, and they are collected from those groups. New levies or amendments to the existing levies are often established at the industry's request. That's a very important point to add as well. They require a majority of levy payers to agree to the levy.

Each year, 15 research and development corporations—RDCs as they're commonly known—like Plant Health Australia, Animal Health Australia and the National Residue Survey, receive around $600 million in levy funds. That's really important for the work that they do. Plant Health Australia are doing some fantastic work. That contributes more than $300 million to ongoing development. That's so important. The Australian government contributes more than $300 million to the RDCs for industry research and development through matching payments for eligible expenditure up to specified limits.

This is really the nub of this. Yes, industry pays its way, and the government shares that, and the sum of their parts is greater. Industry knows it couldn't go it alone. The government knows it can't go it alone. We've got to do this together, and this legislative package will streamline and modernise the agricultural levies and charges. The package is going to make it easier to understand and administer agricultural levies That's one of the things a lot of farmers say to me: We want less red tape. We want less green tape. We want less brown tape. We want to be less bound. We don't want to be tied up doing paperwork. We want to be out there farming. We want to be able to research the new technologies. We want to be seeing what's at the cutting edge. That's what these levies fund.

The package will enable levies to apply to some agricultural services, which is important because we know that the service industry across the ag sector is growing rapidly. It's going to standardise and simplify the disbursement of levy funds to the RDCs. It's going to reduce complexity and inconsistency of matching funding arrangements for the RDCs. Again, that's very important. It will reduce the number of acts and regulations people need to read—if you've got insomnia, some of these regs will put you to sleep in no time—to understand their levies and their obligations. It's also going to provide greater flexibility in addressing compliance matters and allow for more proportionate responses to noncompliance. That's very important. Farmers don't want to do the wrong thing. They don't want to be non-compliant. But, firstly, we've got to help them understand what compliance means, which this act is going to do, and then we've got to have a sensible response if they are found to be non-compliant.

The key features of the levy framework are unchanged in many respects, and industry will continue to determine what levies are needed. That's the important part. We are working with industry. Please do not let anyone try and hoodwink you into thinking that we're not. Matching payments from government for research and development expenditure up to specified limits will continue as per current arrangements. We're not cutting any funding. We're actually keeping the current arrangements going and we're making it easier.

The draft legislation has been informed by consultation, and there's been plenty of it. I know that Minister Watt has consulted widely. Let's not have this idea of consultation being some sort of tick-and-flick exercise. The minister has consulted deeply and widely, and he wanted people to understand what was before them. That's one of the really important things. There are—dare I say it—a few departments that could look and learn from this process. Consultation should not be a tick-and-flick exercise: 'We've done what's required by the legislation.' No. We need to reverse the onus and we need to have communities feeling as though they have been consulted. That's something that I feel quite passionate about actually. The proposed legislative framework will enable levy payers to better understand their levies. We're happy to pay our way—it's the same for everyone. We just want to know how much we have to pay, why we have to pay it and what the money's going to do. I think that's the standard human response. We're all happy to pay our bills; we just want to make sure that the money's not being spent erratically or without industry.

Industry bodies need to be able to pursue new levies and amendments when issues arise. That's very important, and we've seen that through a raft of biosecurity things that have popped up, particularly in the last 18 months. The research and development corporations have an increased investment certainty. I think this is really important. This goes back to talking to scientists about their work and what they're doing. I know there's sometimes a healthy amount of scepticism about research and development—how it all pans out and how scientists bid for money—but if an RDC is regularly funded and researchers know where that money's coming from then they're able to really focus on the research and development, rather than spending the majority of their time panicking about where the funds are going to come from for the next tranche of work they want to do. I think that certainty is really critical, and I'm pleased that we're looking at that.

We're going to reduce the regulatory burden for levy payers and RDCs, and the Office of Impact Analysis has assessed the final impact analysis on the proposed legislative framework as good practice. We've had a fair office look at it, and they say that it is good practice. I'm pleased that the opposition has informally advised that it's going to support the legislative package. I really welcome that. Again I say to those opposite: we can do so much good in ag. We have to increase production. We also know that we want to feed our country and that we're playing a role in feeding the world. We've got to work together, and I think farmers want that to happen.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 10:12 to 10:24

I think the nub of these changes, in terms of levies for agriculture, is that we are going to be condensing over 50 pieces of legislation—50!—down to five bills and subordinate legislation to create this new structure. These bills are going to provide a solid foundation for the ag levy system to grow and respond to opportunities and challenges in the future. Let's face it: nothing sums up our country and our ag system like opportunity and challenge. Our farmers face it every day. Through these levies and this bill, we are making it simpler and we are standing shoulder to shoulder with them. We are here for the challenges and we want to make sure they get every opportunity.

10:24 am

Photo of Michael McCormackMichael McCormack (Riverina, National Party, Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific) Share this | | Hansard source

At the outset, I want to thank the member for Paterson for much of the content within her speech. When she talks about protecting Australia and Australian farmers' ability to grow food and fibre, she is right. When she talks about the ultimate collaboration, she is correct. When she talks about the importance of forestry, agriculture and fisheries, I am right behind her.

Photo of Meryl SwansonMeryl Swanson (Paterson, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Hear, hear!

Photo of Michael McCormackMichael McCormack (Riverina, National Party, Shadow Minister for International Development and the Pacific) Share this | | Hansard source

'Hear, hear!' the member for Paterson says as she leaves the chamber. I know she's busy and has a meeting with the member for Nicholls. I admire her passion, because it is difficult when you are on the Labor side, let's face it, to always be spouting what Labor is doing to help and protect our farmers.

One of the most difficult roles in a Labor government is to be the agriculture minister. I know Senator Murray Watt is doing the best he can do under sometimes difficult circumstances. I appreciated the fact that he called me very early the other morning to let me know about additional assistance, $50 million of Commonwealth money, for flood affected shires—Cabonne, Parkes, Forbes and, particularly, Eugowra. That is so important. Lachlan, of course, is also in those local government areas mentioned. That is alongside his role as agriculture minister—he's also the emergency services minister—but it does tie in because when areas such as those regions I mentioned get flood affected it affects farm production.

The Primary Industries (Excise) Levies Bill 2023 and the customs and services bills that we're debating in cognate are important. I listened very closely to the member for Paterson, and she talked about deep and wide consultation. Credit to her that she did mention—or concede, perhaps—that that doesn't always take place. We've seen so many areas that Labor now oversees where the consultation hasn't been deep and hasn't been wide. More is the pity. Last night I went to the Pharmacy Guild annual dinner, and they were complaining about the fact that consultation about 60-day dispensing was not there. I know I digress, but we have to have, as the member for Paterson quite correctly pointed out, increased production for our farms.

Whilst Labor will take the credit for streamlining and modernising the primary industries excises and levies, the streamlining and modernisation of these levies in this legislative framework began, started, under the former coalition government back in 2017-18. It's not a new thing. Labor can't come to the table and say: 'This is all due to us. This is all our work. All credit goes to the now government.' This began under the coalition government in 2017-18. The legislation was reviewed. It included targeted consultation with 70 stakeholder groups. That's important because consultation is imperative. If this is going to ultimately help our farmers, I applaud it. If this is going to mean that they have to do less paperwork, I'm all for it—and so are the opposition.

We need to ensure that we do take the onerous burden of more volumes of paperwork off and from our farmers. They're great at what they do, they're the best in the world at what they do—and that's growing food and fibre—but they shouldn't have to get off their scarifiers, off their seeders, off their sowers, off their harvesters, off their tractors or out of their truck cabins and go home at night, get volumes of paperwork and read, sift, through them. That is not how it should be.

I know that consultation has continued, with the release of the draft bills for public consultation. The government hasn't made all the submissions public at this time. I know the coalition committed $7.2 million in 2020-21 over four years to modernise the framework into a business-friendly, fit-for-purpose and easy-to-use legislative framework as part of the deregulation agenda. I also thank our accountants, who worked so closely with farmers to make sure that they do all the paperwork and to make sure that they get all the necessary bureaucracy correct. The member for Paterson mentioned that it is a user pay system of sorts, and again she is correct. She is absolutely right in that. There are six bills related to modernising the levy system. They include three imposition bills, a collection bill, a disbursement bill and a consequential amendments bill. They are important. They don't bring into existence the biosecurity protection levy announced in the 2023-24 budget. There are no substantial changes as to how the levy system will operate. However, a number of current functions will be devolved to subordinate legislation, such as setting the levy rates.

Our farmers are under pressure like never before. I know how important it is to take the burden of paperwork from them. But put yourself in one of these farmers' boots. They've got perhaps another drought on the way. Our long-range weather forecasters are predicting just that. Farmers have had to endure an infrastructure pause of 90 days, which has now stretched out to nearly 200 days. Some might say, 'What has that got to do with this bill?' It's another burden on our farmers because the money that the Commonwealth spends through states and certainly through LGAs filters down to those ungraded roads that farmers use to get their grain to silos, to get their grain to rail bulkheads and to get their grain to port. Those first miles—and last miles—count a lot. When roads go ungraded because the funding isn't there for the councils to spend, it has an effect on our farmers. Then, of course, you've got seasonal changes. Let's face it, our farmers have endured much in recent times: floods, fires and droughts. Of course the last drought wasn't so long ago that it's gone from our memories. These are tough times for farmers. It is difficult enough for our farmers without them having to do more paperwork.

If these bills, brought together, absolutely take the burden of paperwork from our wonderful landowners who produce the food and fibre, then that has got to be seen as a good thing. I know the Australian government matches the industry investment in research and development up to legislated limits by providing payments to the levy recipient bodies; they're known as the research and development corporations, RDCs. I know what an impact they can have and what a good role they can play with farm production, with farm bodies and with agriculture. Let's face it, when the Treasurer talks about the things we sell overseas, he doesn't narrow it down to exactly what those things are. One of the most important things is agriculture, whether it's in Asia-Pacific or it's in Europe. Whatever the case might be, we know that our produce that is sold overseas—one of the things that we sell overseas—is the best, freshest and greenest it can be.

When the former coalition government came to office, about 24 to 25 per cent of trade arrangements were covered by free trade agreements. When we left office, it was up to 80 per cent. Trade is important. We are a trading nation. One in four Australian jobs relies on trade. Let's ensure that these bills are what they need to be. Let's ensure that those bodies which are engaged and are key stakeholders in this bill, whether it's Plant Health Australia or Animal Health Australia, can be the best that they can be. Let's make sure that our biosecurity is what it needs to be because our farmers rely on it and our farmers are looking to the government to ensure that every pathway to their success is met.

10:35 am

Photo of Shayne NeumannShayne Neumann (Blair, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the streamlining and modernising agricultural levies legislation—the Primary Industries (Excise) Levies Bill 2023 and related bills. This deals with primary industries, excise levies, customs charges, services levies, the collection of these things, the disbursement and some transitional legislation as well.

The agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors are major contributors to our Australian economy. The combined gross production is expected to reach $86 billion in 2023-24. It's an extraordinary contribution to the economic, social and environmental fabric of our nation. These sectors contribute 12.1 per cent of our exported goods and services and employ 2.2 per cent of the total Australian workforce. More than 300,000 Australians have jobs in agriculture, fisheries and forestry, and a further 229,000 are employed in the food and beverage manufacturing sector. This government recognises the importance of these sectors and the contribution they make to our rural and regional communities and the overall national interest. In my own electorate, Blair, in South-East Queensland, which is an agricultural region, I know that there are a broad range of agribusinesses which employ thousands of locals.

According to Regional Development Australia, in 2020-21, the total agricultural output in the Ipswich and West Moreton region was $819 million. The largest commodity produced were vegetables, which account for 34 per cent of the region's agricultural output. Not far behind was livestock slaughtering, which represents 30 per cent. In fact, I have two of the largest meat processing plants in the country, JBS at Dinmore and Kilcoy Global Foods. Meat processor JBS is the single biggest non-government employer in the city of Ipswich. Recently I visited its Dinmore processing facility, when they announced that they would implement a second shift starting from next year, creating 500 new local jobs and taking the total number of onsite workers up to 1,800.

Just last month, in conjunction with JBS, I invited local high school principals and staff to visit the Dinmore facility to learn about the exciting opportunities available to their students as part of the jobs announcement, including school based traineeships and pathways to employment for school leavers in the agricultural sector and the manufacturing of food. There's a lot happening in the agricultural food processing sector, and this government, the Albanese Labor government, is right behind it.

We're focusing on the critical areas of climate biodiversity, workforce and trade to benefit the sector in rural communities. This will help strengthen the competitiveness and productivity of agriculture, fisheries and forestry to keep them on a path towards the goal of $100 billion by 2030. Having an effective agricultural levy system is critical to the goal. The system is a longstanding successful partnership between industry and the Australian government to facilitate industry investment in strategic activities that could not be funded by primary producers on their own.

The levy system was created by the Hawke Labor government in the 1980s, under the late, great primary industries minister John Kerin, our longest serving agricultural minister and arguably our best ever, who sadly passed away earlier this year. The system allows primary industries to collectively invest in research and development, marketing, biosecurity activities, residue testing and biosecurity responses. These investments are managed by 15 rural research and development corporations, RDCs, along with Plant Health Australia, Animal Health Australia and the National Residue Survey, which sits in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 10:39 to 10:51

I was talking about the RDCs. Each year, these bodies receive about $600 million in levies from farmers, producers, processors and exporters. In addition, more than $300 million is provided on average each year by the Australian government to the RDCs in matching funding for research and development. These bodies are the cornerstone of the agricultural innovation system, and their investments are helping to capitalise on significant opportunities which exist within the sector: new products, new markets and more sustainable emissions practices. ABARES advises that, for every dollar invested in agricultural R&D, there is close to an eightfold benefit to farmers. I'm sure many businesses would like to get that kind of return. Continuing to invest in R&D will be even more important in the coming years, as we ramp up our efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to a changing climate.

The work of Plant Health Australia, Animal Health Australia and the national residue survey is critical to our biosecurity system and our access to international markets. The levy system, in its current form, has been in place for decades and is really accepted around the world as one of the world's best. It allows the government to collect levies at industry's request that can be invested in priorities that could not be funded by many primary producers on their own. However, the complexity of the framework that supports the system has grown inconsistent and is making it difficult to understand and administer it. There are than 50 pieces of legislation covering 110 levies across 75 commodities and 18 levy recipient bodies. A 2018 review of the whole sector, and the legislation that covers it, found that the framework is necessary for a successful industry-government arrangement but the current situation is ineffective in meeting industry's needs now and in the future. The previous government was in power at the time.

The package of the agriculture levies bill will replace the existing framework with a more contemporary, flexible and efficient system which will better support the agricultural sector. The new framework, once enacted, will condense over 50 pieces of legislation down to five acts and associated subordinate legislation. It will provide the RDCs with more certainty in terms of matching the funding as well. It will provide more flexibility in proportionate compliance measures supporting levy collection. By allocating all levies detailed in subordinate legislation, the new framework will make it easier for industries to seek and establish a new levy or to adjust the settings of their existing levies. The legislation also operates separately from the new biosecurity protection levy, and the new framework will also provide a solid foundation on which to base any future reform.

But the key features of the framework will remain the same so industry has certainty. The new framework will not change existing levies or charge rates and will continued support the fundamental principles of industry led system. This is critical in terms of the sector. The new bills are critical in terms of consultation with the sector as well. There are many imposition bills and there are two accompanying bills to this particular legislation. The separate bill, the consequential amendments and transitional bill, is being introduced to manage the consequential changes and arrangements. This package of bills is the result of extensive consultation over several years to ensure a new framework meets the demands of those who benefit from the system. We're about reducing regulatory burdens for levy payers and the RDCs, and I note the Office of Impact Analysis has assessed the proposed legislative framework as good practice.

I welcome the opposition's broad support for the package of bills and I welcome the comments from the Leader of the Nationals and member for Maranoa in his contribution about how our nation's agricultural levy system is something we should be proud of. Growers, producers and industry stakeholders all agree it has been a resounding success over the many decades since it was introduced by the Hawke government.

In relation to the amendments proposed by the member, the reasons for not explicitly referring to Animal Health Australia, Plant Health Australia or animal and plant disease deeds is to ensure legislation remains flexible, adaptable and fit for purpose in the future. Subordinate legislation can deal with a lot of those issues. That is the whole intent of the modernised agricultural levy package. The explanatory memorandum makes it clear on page 13 that the relevant clauses that the member seeks to amend are covered by a levy funded by the operations of AHA and PHA. If the amendments were to be accepted, for spending to be permissible, AHA and PHA would need to undertake biosecurity activities using levy funds. In practice, only some of the activities described will be undertaken by AHA and PHA, and in many cases these bodies may contract third parties to undertake activities. Where appropriate, R&D activities will be undertaken through an RDC. The proposed amendments could unnecessarily limit spending of biosecurity activities and biosecurity response levies and charges. The current proposed provisions in the bills provide an appropriate level of flexibility in relation to the scheme, and the AHA and PHA can, in consultation with industry measures, decide how biosecurity activities and biosecurity response charges and levies will be spent.

Together, these bills establish a new legislative framework, providing a more effective and efficient system, and I commend the legislation to the chamber.

10:56 am

Photo of Sam BirrellSam Birrell (Nicholls, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Primary Industries (Excise) Levies Bill 2023 and cognate bills. These bills are the culmination of a lengthy process started by the coalition to streamline and simplify the levy system that underpins primary industry in Australia, including in the electorate of Nicholls that I represent.

In 30 years of operation, the levy system has allowed farmers to collectively pay for research and development, marketing, biosecurity activities, national residue-testing, and responses to exotic pest or disease incursion. The system had become complex and unwieldy—more than 50 pieces of legislation existed governing more than 110 levies over 75 commodities and 18 levy recipient bodies—and this seeks to streamline and simplify the process. The coalition recognised the need for reform, and the streamlining and modernisation of the agricultural levies legislative framework commenced under the former coalition government back in 2017-18. The legislation was reviewed and included targeted consultation with 70 stakeholder groups. The review found that the legislative framework serves the objectives of the agricultural levy system but that the current legislation was ineffective in meeting industry needs now and into the future. It is also overly complex, there is a lot of duplication and it is inconsistent. So the coalition committed $7.2 million in 2020-21 over four years to modernise the framework into a business-friendly, fit-for-purpose and easy-to-use legislation framework as part of the deregulation agenda.

Why is the levy system so important? The agricultural levy system is a longstanding partnership between industry and the Australian government to facilitate industry investment in strategic activities, research and development, marketing, biosecurity activities, and residue-testing, and the government collects and disperses the levies on the industry's behalf. I have had personal experience of agricultural research in my profession before I came to this place, and some of the research and development that's done by Australian agriculture is truly impressive and fascinating, and keeps our farmers at the forefront of being competitive globally, maintaining our reputation as a clean and green place to grow healthy food.

I'll give a couple of examples about the sort of research and development that these levies fund that I have been personally involved in. One is mating disruption in fruit crops. Mating disruption is basically using a nontoxic, chemical way of controlling pests in horticultural crops. The research I was involved in was around the oriental fruit moth and the codling moth in apple crops. I don't think that moths having sex has ever been spoken about in this place before, but I'd like to bring it up. What we were able to do was use research and development funds to put pheromones into trees, which confused the moths into fertilising what they thought were eggs but weren't. This brings the moth population numbers down and reduces the need for us to spray what were then some toxic chemicals onto our fruit crops. It's a great innovation and the sort of stuff that this levy work does. Also, I've been involved in the efficient use of water drip irrigation, with some great technology from Israel that I was talking to the member for Berowra about earlier. It's great Israeli technology that uses water much more efficiently, where it is delivered subsurface and via drips with the fertiliser actually in the water. These are great advances and are examples of some of the things that these levies contribute to.

The Australian government matches the industry investment in research and development, with a target investment in R&D equivalent to one per cent of the gross value of production. In 2021 and 2022, the department disbursed around $600 million raised from levies and charges imposed on industry. Over the forward estimates, in 2026-27 similar amounts of levy and charge funds are expected to be disbursed each financial year. However, this is farming, so there will be year-to-year variation because production, the commodity market and some technological advancements vary. We're supportive of the changes these bills will make to the levy system, and we want increased transparency for levy payers. They deserve to know where their money goes and how it's spent. It's very hard for farmers in some industries to earn money. They deserve to know, and for it to be very transparent, where that money goes. Easier adjustment of levies can be made through a consultative process with levy payers, capturing agricultural services, such as bee pollination, and allowing for the coverage of horse disease without the need for additional specific legislation. The process is being supported by industry as the current levies legislation is too convoluted and too complex, as was identified by the previous coalition government—and I give credit to the member of Maranoa, who is in the chamber, for his proactive work on that. The increased ability to collect levies will increase compliance and make sure that there is more money for us to spend on these critical research and development projects.

This tranche of legislation does not include the biosecurity protection levy announced by the government in the May budget. This biosecurity protection levy will impose a compulsory levy on all levy payers, at a rate of 10 per cent of their 2020-21 rate, and that varies between industries. Ninety-two per cent of those agricultural industries have a levy, and those industries that do not will have a similar levy put in place as part of the biosecurity protection levy. The interaction between this biosecurity protection levy legislation and these bills is not clear yet. Logically, the new levy will be collected in the same way as industry imposed levies, although the collection agents who currently collect the industry imposed levy will do that with no funding. I can inform the House that across my electorate, and in the agricultural sectors that I talk to, jaws drop at the concept of producers being asked to pay a biosecurity levy to protect themselves from imports that compete against their products on our supermarket shelves. If you think about it, you're out there working really hard to grow clean, healthy Australian fruit for Australian consumers, and you've got to pay someone who wants to import some fruit from another country to compete with you on supermarket shelves. That's not the way that our levy system should work at all. Those who create the risk, the importers, are the ones who should be funding the biosecurity compliance, to eliminate that risk to Australian producers. The producers shouldn't have to pay for it themselves. They're paying too much as it is. They're going to be paying more for water, too, if the current restoring our rivers bill goes through. They shouldn't be paying a biosecurity levy to their competitors to help their competitors compete against them. Heads are shaking in the agricultural sector and amongst the producers in my electorate at the concept of that. It's unbelievable.

The industry imposed levies contribute funding to Plant Health Australia and Animal Health Australia. PHA and AHA facilitate a national approach to enhancing Australia's plant and animal health status through government and industry partnerships for pest and disease preparedness, prevention and emergency response and management. Plant Health Australia has 39 industry members, and Animal Health Australia has 14 industry members. The bill will remove references to the PHA levy and AHA levy, and it will be renamed the biosecurity activity levy.

The coalition started and funded a process to streamline and simplify the levy system, but this government is planning to add some complexity and confusion back into it. We're opposed to that. Once the biosecurity protection levy comes into force, there will be three types of biosecurity levies: a compulsory biosecurity protection levy, to be introduced by the Labor government to pay for departmental biosecurity functions; a voluntary biosecurity activity levy, for biosecurity projects identified by industry as priorities undertaken by Plant Health Australia and Animal Health Australia; and a biosecurity response levy, referred to as emergency animal disease response or emergency plant pest response levies.

While the coalition aim for greater transparency, this will become a bit more opaque. There's a lot of confusion in what I just said there, and the producers are seeing this as confusing as well. They're seeing the removal of references to Plant Health Australia and Animal Health Australia as confusing. They see that as removing the transparency of where the levy funds are going. The levy payer will likely become confused when paying a biosecurity activity levy, a biosecurity protection levy and a biosecurity response levy. It's important that levy payers understand exactly where their funds are going, and that's why we wanted the amendment relating to transparency. As I said earlier, it's very difficult to run these agricultural businesses with drought, flood and all sorts of challenges.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 11:07 to 11 : 15

Before the suspension I was able to give my own examples of drip irrigation, fertigation and moth-mating disruption, which was good to talk about here; I enjoyed that. But, in summary, these are necessary legislative changes, so that there is transparency and ease of use and so that we maximise the amount of levy money for this important research and development.

The streamlining of the levy process is supported by the National Farmers Federation. It is a result of lengthy consultation that the coalition commenced, and it reduces complexity and increases compliance. It can be improved. If we have all gone to the trouble of making this levy system simpler and more transparent, we shouldn't be inadvertently or deliberately masking the portion of the levy that goes to support Plant Health Australia and Animal Health Australia. As I said earlier, the amendment to increase transparency is really important. It's challenging enough for farmers at the moment. They're generally 'happy' for this levy money to go to these necessary research and development and protection areas, but they want where that money is going, who's spending it and how they're spending it to be absolutely transparent. That accountability is really important.

I commend the bill with the amendment to the House.

11:16 am

Photo of Kristy McBainKristy McBain (Eden-Monaro, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Regional Development, Local Government and Territories) Share this | | Hansard source

The Australian agriculture levy system is critical to supporting the agriculture sector's productivity, sustainability and competitiveness in global markets. Through the levy system our agriculture, fisheries and forestry industries can collectively invest in strategic activities such as research and development, marketing, biosecurity measures, biosecurity responses and residue testing.

There are over 110 levies, across over 75 commodities, which are spent by 18 separate bodies. This package of bills will modernise and streamline the legislative framework so that the levy system can continue to grow and help industry to respond to opportunities and challenges in the future. The bills will establish a new legislative framework that will make it easier for levy payers to understand their obligations and for industry bodies to pursue new levies or amendments to existing levies. Research and development corporations will also have increased funding certainty.

There are currently more than 50 pieces of legislation supporting the levy system. These have been condensed to five bills, each with associated subordinate legislation. The bills will simplify the administration of the levy system by reducing complexity and inconsistencies. The three imposition bills—the Primary Industries (Excise) Levies Bill, the Primary Industries (Customs) Charges Bill and the Primary Industries (Services) Levies Bill—will provide a consistent framework for excise levies, customs charges and service levies by including equivalent provisions for common matters such as definitions. The imposition bills will increase the levy system's responsiveness to industry by locating all operational levy details in subordinate legislation. This will make it easier for an industry to locate and understand their levy settings and to request that government adjust the settings of an existing levy or introduce a new levy. The imposition bills will also allow new levies for agriculture services such as the long-called-for levy on pollination services.

The government does not support the opposition's proposed amendments to the imposition bills. The amendments would reduce the flexibility and responsiveness of the levy system. In his speech to the House yesterday, the member for Maranoa noted the importance of the agriculture levy system and the need to ensure that these bills do not adversely affect this important system. As previous speakers have noted, the bills already provide an appropriate level of flexibility to Animal Health Australia and Plant Health Australia, in consultation with their industry members, to decide how biosecurity activity and biosecurity response levies and charges will be spent.

This is the whole intent of the modernising agriculture levies package. If the amendments were to be accepted, for spending to be permissible AHA and PHA would need to undertake all biosecurity activities using levy funds. In practice, only some of the activities described would be undertaken by AHA and PHA. In many cases, AHA and PHA may contract third parties to undertake activities. Where appropriate, R&D activities may be undertaken through an RDC. The proposed amendment could unnecessarily limit spending of biosecurity activity and biosecurity response levies and charges.

Given the breadth and diversity of Australia's agricultural fisheries and forestry industries, it is crucial that the imposition bills can adapt to deliver the levies requested by industry members into the future. The proposed amendments would risk limiting industries flexibility to request biosecurity activity and response levies that meet their needs, especially in new and emerging parts of the industry.

The Primary Industries Levies and Charges Collection Bill 2023 will replace the Primary Industry Levies and Charges Collection Act 1991 with a framework that will be easier for participants to understand and to comply with. It will introduce infringement notices and civil penalties, reserving criminal penalties for only the most serious of offences. The bill will also provide for the appropriate use and disclosure of information while ensuring effective safeguards for sensitive information. The Primary Industries Levies and Charges Disbursement Bill 2023 allows rural research and development corporations to operate with greater funding certainty by streamlining the calculation of matching payments by government for research and development. Importantly, the Primary Industries (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2023 will ensure continuity for levy and charge payers, collection agents and bodies that receive levy amounts from the repeal of the existing acts and commencement of the new legislation.

I'll conclude by addressing some of the member for Maranoa's remarks about the government's approach to biosecurity. The government's historic $1 billion investment in a sustainable biosecurity funding model, something the industry has wanted for years, demonstrates Labor's commitment to protect and to grow our vibrant agricultural, fisheries and forestry sectors. We've achieved this where the previous government comprehensively failed. They thought it was a good idea to provide short-term terminating funding for our essential biosecurity services. They thought they could do biosecurity on the cheap, locking in biosecurity funding cuts of over $1 million a year. It was the Albanese Labor government that put a stop to that by locking in permanent long-term funding at a sustainable level to ensure our pest and disease protection remain strong.

The member for Maranoa continues to talk a big game about making so-called risk creators—that is, importers paying more towards the cost of biosecurity—but it has taken a Labor government to deliver it. The member had over 1,300 days as agriculture minister, but in that time he did nothing to make importers pay their fair share. Nothing changed between 2015 and 2022. He had 1,300 days to deliver the container levy that he holds up as a silver bullet. It was supposed to raise more than $100 million a year but did not raise a single cent.

In contrast, this government has done the first comprehensive review of importer fees and charges since 2015. As a result, importers are now paying their fair share after the first full review of their fees and charges since 2015. So far this year importers have paid over $132 million, well over the amount that the failed container levy was supposed to raise. That's money that goes directly to biosecurity, protecting our agricultural industries, protecting our rural communities and protecting tens of thousands of jobs from the threat of pest and disease outbreaks.

The Australian agricultural levy system is widely supported. The key features of the levy system that make it so successful will remain the same under the new legislative framework. Levy settings will generally continue to be industry initiated and led. Key settings for existing levies such as levy rates will not change as part of bringing in this new legislation. Passage of these bills without amendment will ensure the continuation of a successful industry-government partnership under a more effective and fit-for-purpose legal framework.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.