Senate debates

Monday, 29 February 2016


Dairy Produce Amendment (Dairy Service Levy Poll) Bill 2016; Second Reading

1:05 pm

Photo of Doug CameronDoug Cameron (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support Dairy Produce Amendment (Dairy Service Levy Poll) Bill 2016. The dairy industry has asked the government to remove the statutory requirement to hold a levy related poll of producers each five years. The Dairy Produce Amendment (Dairy Service Levy Poll) Bill 2016 gives the sector what it has asked for. The opposition supports the bill.

The purpose of the poll is to secure the views of levy payers in the industry about the adequacy of the levy from time to time. The new arrangement will require a poll only when the industry is proposing a levy increase. There is a safeguard: if 15 per cent of producers get together, they can request a poll in the event that they disagree with the decision not to conduct one.

The key objective is obvious: polls are very cumbersome and quite expensive. The dairy sector estimates that the poll cost them around $750,000 every five years. That is $750,000 that could be going back to research and development rather than on the conduct of a poll which has no real purpose in the event that the industry is not looking for a variation in the levy. The key players in this equation are the industry representative body, Australian Dairy Farmers, and the industry research and development corporation, known as Dairy Australia. Industry R&D and marketing are the reasons levy monies are raised, in the case of the industry owned corporations. R&D plays an important role in enhancing the productivity and competitiveness of Australia's agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors. It can provide various other benefits including better and lower priced food for consumers and improved environmental and animal welfare outcomes.

Australia's spend on agricultural R&D is a round $1.5 billion annually. Three-quarters of that money comes from the Commonwealth and state governments. The public funding is delivered through an array of general and sector-specific programs, with the research in turn conducted by a mix of government and private research providers. A sizeable part of the Australian government's R&D efforts is provided to the rural research and development corporations, the so-called RDCs, and they have been the subject of some public debate in recent months. These corporations commission rural research on behalf of primary producers, some processors and the government. Producers typically contribute to the cost of this research primarily through statutory and voluntary levies, with most of the government's contribution provided on a matching dollar-for-dollar basis up to a value of industry input.

This is a bill which is very important to the dairy sector. I am advised that the dairy sector has consulted very broadly with levy payers and levy payers are comfortable with this new arrangement. On that basis, the opposition also is comfortable with the arrangement. We want to ensure that the sector is able to work as efficiently and as profitably as possible. Research is a very important component of that, particularly on the productivity front, and we are happy to do what we can, from opposition, to allow them to do so. Levies are never without controversy. Levy payers, producers, growers and farmers generally are often key to ensuring that their levy money is well spent. While things are not always perfect, our RDCs do a good job of making sure that the money is well targeted, spent efficiently, and leads primarily to enhanced productivity in the sector. There is no shortage of literature making the direct link between investment in research and development and, indeed, extension and productivity in the agricultural sector. That is why it is important that we continue not only to invest heavily and wisely but also to invest as efficiently as possible.

While this bill is welcome, I have to say that the performance of Minister Joyce in the rest of his portfolio has been utterly woeful. Nowhere is this more evident than his crazy decision to relocate the agricultural research and development corporations away from Canberra. His pork-barrelling and his waste of taxpayers' money by establishing a ministerial office in Tamworth, beggars belief.

First, I draw the Senate's attention to Minister Joyce's bullying of research and development corporations. He is bullying them into moving from Canberra to locations that they do not want to be in. Not only do they not want to be there, but also they have provided arguments as to why it is not in the national interest—not in the interest of employees, not in the interest of the RDCs—to move. One of the key ingredients in a successful research and development corporation is quality staff. At the moment, the staff of the Grains RDC, the Fisheries RDC and the others that Minister Joyce is forcing to move are based in Canberra. The majority will continue to live in Canberra as their home and to send their children to Canberra's schools. Why on earth the minister thinks highly-efficient RDC staff, who have deep roots in Canberra, will uproot their families and move from Canberra to Armadale, Wagga or Ballarat on a ministerial whim is beyond any reasonable comprehension. Now, I have no problem with Armadale, Wagga and Ballarat. These are lovely places to live, but they are certainly not the most effective and most efficient places for these RDCs to be operating from. This is clearly another example of National Party pork-barrelling which is about trying to achieve an advantage over the opposition. It is about trying to build employment in regional areas when there are much more efficient and effective ways of dealing with increasing employment in regional areas, other than destroying the RDC infrastructure that is in place.

Research and development corporations collect research funds through the levies that we are talking about this morning and they then contract out the research to various organisations. They might be universities, they might be governments and they might be CRCs or other suitably qualified organisations. But they do not do research themselves. For Minister Joyce to say that it is important that we put these RDCs close to the growers or producers because that is who they need to talk to is just rubbish. It is utter rubbish.

There is another very important point. It is important that if we are going to spend R&D money the most efficiently and effectively, we need to have competitive tension in the market. So when an RDC takes levy payers' money and engages a researcher it is basically putting something out to tender. Various universities might be interested in doing the research required and so might a private sector organisation. A government instrumentality may also be interested in doing the research. This competitive tension amongst researchers gives the RDC the opportunity to secure the best deal on behalf of the levy payer.

Minister Joyce says the RDCs should be up next to the University of New England in his electorate. It is not that they have to be close to the University of New England; it really is that Minister Joyce wants them up in his electorate. That is the bottom line here. 'They do great work in agriculture,' he said. And they do. UNE do good work in agriculture. But co-locating RDCs with universities will not create the necessary diversity of interests in carrying out research. This is not the way to conduct public policy. This is Minister Joyce again putting his own political ambition ahead of good public policy. This 'decentralisation program', as the minister misleadingly calls it, is about pork-barrelling for him and the National Party, not about good R&D for agriculture.

There are two categories of research and development corporations. Some are statutory bodies over which the minister has substantial control, and some are industry owned bodies over which he does not have such control. Minister Joyce is forcing the statutory RDCs out of Canberra for no good public policy purpose. It is revealing that he has not had any consultation with the industry owned corporations. He does not have the power to force the industry owned corporations out of Canberra. If he is so sure that pushing RDCs into National Party electorates is going to provide a better outcome for the agriculture sector, why has he not been talking to the industry owned corporations? It makes no sense. There is no rational policy here.

Still on pork-barrelling, the government also promised in its now utterly discredited agriculture white paper that it would provide $13.8 million to somehow encourage and help farmers, producers and growers to form cooperatives. At a time when CBH, the most successful cooperative in the country, is talking about demutualising and forming itself into a corporate entity, Minister Joyce is spending $13.8 million of taxpayers' money to tell farmers what sort of corporate structure they should have. Farmers, growers and producers will make their own decisions about this structure—sole trader, partnership, company, cooperative or whatever they like. They will look at the various tax advantages, possibly, and what suits them best. They do not need Minister Joyce to provide $13 million of taxpayers' money to help them work that out.

But it gets worse than that, because Minister Joyce took $200,000 of that $13.8 million and he gave it to the Rural Industries RDC and said, 'Give us the scoping work. Tell us how we might spend that $13.8 million.' Perhaps that is a good thing, because nobody, including this incompetent minister, has any idea how he is going to spend $13.8 million instructing farmers how to become cooperatives. I at least welcome the fact that he decided to spend $200,000 of it asking RIRDC to tell him how he might spend it. RIRDC did the work, they did their scoping study and they delivered that to the minister.

But the minister was not satisfied with that. He decided he would appoint a task force. He would ask the member for Page to go out and find out how he might spend $13.8 million. The member for Page went out and consulted with the sectors, allegedly. Probably most of the consultation took place in Page, which of course is a razor-edge marginal seat for the government. What we want to know now is what Mr Hogan, the member for Page, learned and what he delivered as a result of his consultation. We asked this question in estimates. We asked the secretary of the department, 'Can we have Mr Hogan's work, because this $13.8 million is sitting there and we want to know how it's going to be spent.' The department secretary, with the greatest respect, said: 'Well, we couldn't release that because we'd have to ask Mr Hogan. You know, it's his work. It might be considered a private document.' That $200,000 of public money was used to produce a private document, apparently—what a load of nonsense!

So we let that matter pass and moved on to the next subject. At least five hours later, we were advised by the officials that they had been unable to find Mr Hogan in this building. He was missing in action. Mr Hogan had disappeared. The man who was charged with providing advice to the agricultural community and rural community about establishing cooperatives could not even cooperate such that anyone knew where he was. He could not even cooperate to tell people where he was. For five hours or more, nobody could find the member for Page. He was missing in action and his plan on how to spend $13.8 million of taxpayer's money was missing. I do not know why they could not have just rung him. The government did not want to hand over Mr Hogan's report.

I suspect the reason the government does not want to hand over Mr Hogan's report is that it is now the government's intention to spend the $13.8 million in the electorate of Page. This is Mr Hogan's re-election fund. This is the National Party at its worst, using public money to try to advantage its political position. The government's intention to use the $13.8 million it allocated to tell farmers what structure they should embrace is being used to sandbag the electoral fortunes of the member for Page. No wonder they could not find Mr Hogan in the building on estimates night!

We look forward to Mr Hogan's report being tabled either in the Senate or in the other place—but I don't think we should our breath. I do not think the National Party or Mr Hogan are too keen to have this part of their election strategy laid bare, even though it is the public who are paying for this election strategy for the National Party. It is absolutely outrageous. We know that the National Party are experts at pork-barrelling. We know that the National Party use public money ruthlessly to support their own political agenda. And nothing could be clearer than what is happening with Mr Hogan in the seat of Page: the National Party have not changed their position. They are still out there with the pork-barrelling. They are still out there trying to advantage themselves by using public money. It is an absolutely outrageous proposition.

I, with those concerns about the behaviour of the minister and the behaviour of Mr Hogan, would support the bill. I would commend the bill to the Senate. But the questions I have raised here today about this report, about the behaviour of the missing member, Mr Hogan, and about why we would be funding $200,000 so that there can be an investment of $13.8 million in the seat of Page—all have to be answered. In the national interest they all have to be placed before parliament so that we know what is going on. I do not know what made Mr Hogan an expert in cooperatives. I do not know whether he has any capacity to do this. I do not think he has. I have had a look at his CV and did not see that he has worked in cooperatives or that he has been an expert in that area. I do not think he has ever advised on any of these business issues outside of parliament. So how he suddenly becomes an expert, because the National Party want to do another pork-barrel in the seat of Page, is an issue that has to be live before parliament and before the Australian public.

The National Party's disregard for the public purse, the National Party's contempt for accountability of the public purse and the National Party's history of using public money to advance their own interests is, again, clear to be seen. They have got form in this area and they should be stopped. But I do not expect that the current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to have any backbone or any courage to deal with this type of issue where there is a misuse of public money. It is clear that the current Prime Minister only looks after himself and that he only had one interest, which was getting to the Lodge and staying there. When you have the Deputy Prime Minister out ripping off the public purse and when you have the Deputy Prime Minister setting up his mates with hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money—and potentially $13.8 million worth of public money—there is a question to be asked.

If the Prime Minister had any authority within the coalition—which, by the looks of it, he has not—he would be ensuring that public scrutiny of the money that has gone to Mr Hogan is on the public record. He should simply say that the days of the National Party using public money to advance their political cause are over and that the National Party should not be allowed to have the disregard that they have for accountability and operating effectively in the public interest. This is a problem that needs to be fixed. I commend the bill, but the minister should be brought to book in relation to what is going to happen to this money.

1:26 pm

Photo of David LeyonhjelmDavid Leyonhjelm (NSW, Liberal Democratic Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The agricultural industry collects more than $500 million a year in levies from primary producers. That money is spent on, mostly, R? some of it is spent on marketing, purportedly for the benefit of those industries that pay it. It is only reasonable, to my mind and I think to the minds of most levy payers, that those collecting and spending the levy funds are held to account on a regular basis by those who pay the levies. In other words, that there is representation as well as taxation.

Last year the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee conducted an inquiry into the levy payment system. It heard evidence from dozens of levy payers to the effect that they were dissatisfied with the current system, to the effect that they did not know what was being done with the money and to the effect that they were not sure that they should continue to pay that money. It heard that if levy payers were able to have some say over whether they continued to pay that money and some say over how that money was spent they would consider it only fair and reasonable.

This bill essentially says to those people: 'No, you are wrong. You do not need to have any say about how your money is spent. You do not need to have any say about whether or not you even pay that money. You are just going to keep paying it.' It is against the spirit of the recommendations of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee as well. The committee recommended the establishment of levy payer databases in all sectors so that levy payers could be consulted. But what would they be consulted about? Whether to keep paying their levies and how to spend that money.

The Dairy Produce Amendment (Dairy Service Levy Poll) Bill 2016 is essentially removing from dairy farmers their right to vote on their levies every five years. There are only two industries in which there is a right by levy payers to vote on whether or not to continue paying levies: the dairy industry and the wool industry. The wool poll is held every three years, the dairy poll every five years. The intention, and certainly the spirit, of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee recommendations is that such democracy should be extended, not reduced. This bill will remove from dairy farmers the right to have a say on whether or not to continue paying levies unless there is a proposal for those levies to change. It is directly contrary to the evidence that we heard from so many levy payers and it is also directly contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of the recommendations of the committee.

The bill proposes that, once a levy is set, there is no opportunity for levy payers to have any further say on levies unless a change is proposed. It attempts to provide dissenting levy payers with an opportunity to petition for a poll. This is disingenuous, because it says that you will need 15 per cent of registered levy payers to demand a poll. Even in a corporation, you only need five per cent of shareholders to petition for action in a public company. This is taking the industry in exactly the wrong direction. It also sends a signal to all the other sectors that democracy is not something that is welcome. You are really wasting your time if you think you are ever going to get any say over how your levies are used or whether or not your levies are collected.

To validate that point, you just have to look at how this decision was arrived at. Dairy Australia says it conducted some kind of poll of its members in order to determine whether or not they were in favour of it. Fewer than 1,400 dairy farmers out of 6,288 levy-paying dairy farmers voted in favour of the proposals contained in the bill—that is just 22 per cent. It is hardly a ringing endorsement.

Dairy Australia says that the changes are proposed because it is too costly and time consuming to undertake a poll every five years. The fact is that neither the minister nor Dairy Australia made any attempt to put alternative proposals to levy payers that would have made voting easier and cheaper. Hasn't anybody ever heard of SurveyMonkey? How expensive does it have to be?

The fact is that the cost that Dairy Australia complains about, the $750,000, is attributable to campaign costs. Those are the costs incurred by those who will benefit from maintaining the status quo—including, coincidentally, the directors of Dairy Australia, who want a particular outcome. This cost is equivalent to allocating the election campaign costs of the major parties to the Australian Electoral Commission and calling it the costs of running an election. It is a joke.

I am just a crossbench senator. I only have one vote. This issue is not going to go away though. One day, sooner or later, the minister will want my vote. The issue will still be here. I think now is the appropriate time to move my second reading amendment, which has been circulated in the chamber and, I understand, will be considered at the conclusion of the debate. I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

and the bill be referred to the Rural and Regional Affairs Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 12 May 2016.

1:33 pm

Photo of Joe BullockJoe Bullock (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I remember that when I first got here a lot of senators asked me, 'Which committees are you interested in?' My good friend Senator Sterle did not say that. He said, 'You're coming on the rural and regional affairs committee with me,' and I am so glad that he took that decision out of my hands, because it has enabled me to become more familiar with the issues confronting our agricultural industries and our hardworking farmers, who preside over the world's most efficient agriculture sector and in do so having always stood on their own two feet, having not had the benefit of the sorts of subsidies and protections that are so often offered by other countries in support of their farming sectors. Our agricultural industries are truly competitive on the world stage.

The shadow minister for agriculture often talks about the dining boom, about Australia being tied in the future, as it has been in the past, to the success or failure of our agricultural industries. Our industries are indeed very efficient and well placed to take advantage of the new opportunities that are opening up through our free trade agreements. There is an extent to which I would commend the government for the work that has been done on free trade agreements—notwithstanding the genuine and legitimate concerns raised with them with respect to investor-state dispute settlement procedures and with respect to protecting Australian workers and Australian labour standards in the context of those agreements. But there is no doubt that new opportunities are opening up for our agricultural sector in trade, and many of our agricultural industries are to be commended for the manner in which they take up those opportunities.

We heard from the Tasmanian cherry industry not only that they keep up with developing opportunities for trade but that they get ahead of the curve. The Australian cherry industry is not currently putting all its focus on developing the opportunities in China and South Korea; the Australian cherry industry is in India, opening the doors initially to get product recognition and understanding in that new market so that, in the event that we develop further trade arrangements with India, the industry is already there and established and is in a position where it can take full advantage of those opportunities that arise.

Of course, we are not alone in that regard. Other countries are looking to maximise their trading opportunities. In the event that the TPP comes to fruition, we will have to not only look to how we can best take advantage of those new opportunities but also compete with the other signatories to that partnership in relation to their efforts to expand their trade. So a number of countries around the world will be keenly waiting for the starter's gun to be fired on what will be another round of fierce competition in trade. The New Zealanders are not behind the door, particularly in the dairy industry, which is the subject of this bill. The New Zealand dairy industry has done extraordinarily well in opening new markets in North Asia, and we will have to be on our mettle to catch up with them and the work they have already done in securing those markets.

If we are going to be successful, Australia cannot afford to rest on its laurels. We cannot afford to say, 'We have always been a highly-efficient agricultural producer and that advantage will see us through into the future.' We need to understand that in the world market our competitors are also continually working on improving their productivity and efficiency, and we need to be in that game with them, working to ensure our quality, our presentation, our marketing, our production and our costs are kept world competitive so that we can make the most of the trading opportunities are delivered to us. That requires a commitment both by the industry itself and by the Commonwealth to continuing investment in research and development and in marketing. That responsibility has been recognised by Australian governments of both persuasions and by industry through our system of agricultural levies. There is a wide range of agricultural levies—far wider than I had originally thought—which apply in almost every sector of the agricultural industry to ensure that money is directed to improving productivity through research and development and in marketing our goods overseas so that Australia does not miss the opportunities that are before it.

In supporting research and development and marketing, industries and government work together. The levies are collected from industry—some are dedicated to marketing, some to R&D. In most cases the government matches the R&D expenditure so that there is a pool of money supported by the government to be invested in the research that will see our agricultural industries into the future. The fact that it is a co-payment between industry and the government means that the industry has skin in the game and has a financial interest in ensuring that the levy moneys are expended appropriately and to the greatest good of the agricultural sector.

That engagement by industry raises some legitimate concerns for them. They would naturally be concerned about what proportion of their levy money goes into research and development and what proportion goes into marketing. That might change over time. There might be pressing problems demanding R&D today and new marketing opportunities opening up tomorrow, and the money that is available needs to be directed to where it can be most effectively used. The split between research and development and marketing is an issue about which those who pay the levy have a direct interest. Then there is the level of the levy—some levies are set in dollar terms or, more commonly, a percentage. It may be that in a bumper year a percentage delivers a great deal of money; it may be that levy-taking organisations develop surpluses on which they can rely. Perhaps from time to time levy payers might say, 'Well, we don't really need to pay as much in levy payments because our organisation has a surplus.' The answer to that may well be that the industry is cyclical and goes through boom times and lean times; They need to develop a surplus during the boom times so that they have adequate money to deploy on R&D and marketing during the poor times. But the level of the levy is certainly something of concern to levy payers and something about which they might want to have a say. Similarly, levy payers might be quite interested in exactly where their research dollar is being spent. I know, for example, there are some crops that are common to Queensland and Western Australia, and yet the growing conditions, the pests and the problems confronted by the industry in Queensland are quite different to those in Western Australia. I can well imagine a Western Australian levy payer being quite concerned if year after year all the research and development money was spent on solving the problems in Queensland.

Having engaged with the agricultural sector through the requirement on the industry to fund levies, there are issues arising from their engagement over which levy payers might reasonably be expected to show concern and over which from time to time there may be disputes—people saying that the levy is too high or inadequate or that more should go into marketing and forego the co-payment from the government. It is to be expected that those who pay the piper—the levy payers—would want some say in determining the sorts of problems that may arise either in allocating the priorities for R&D expenditure or the level of the levy or, as I said, the split.

Remarkably, in some of our industries consultation by means of a vote is simply not possible, because, notwithstanding the fact that we have been collecting levies from all of the participants in the industry for years, we do not have accurate, reliable and available lists of levy payers. I must say I was astonished when I found this out. Money is being collected from all of the participants in the various industries, but we do not have a list so that we can go back to those people and say, 'Do you think these priorities are appropriate? Do you think the level of levy payment is appropriate? Do you think we are spending the right amount on marketing or R&D?' We do not ask them, because we do not have, in most industries, a list of levy payers. I must admit I find that absolutely staggering. Often that is because of privacy issues: 'We could not possibly give you a list of the people who pay the levy because that information might be private.' I think in the hierarchy of priorities—and this is only my personal view; I am not speaking on behalf of anyone else here—to which we assign things we may have gone a little overboard in the area of privacy. In another connection, we do not have accurate, comprehensive data on severe injuries sustained through motor vehicle accidents. We do not have the data because people say, 'These people who go to hospital with severe injuries, we cannot possibly give you that information—it is private.' Privacy prevents us from having access to the data that could guide the future of Australian motor vehicle design rules, that could highlight whether the very pleasing downward trend overall in fatalities that we are seeing on our roads is matched by an upward trend in people spending their lives in wheelchairs. This information is absolutely necessary for the government in order to make appropriate rules around road safety, and yet we do not have it because people are so concerned about privacy.

Thirty years ago, if I wanted to check and see that a shop assistant was getting the appropriate wages and conditions I would just go in and do a time and wages check. But these days if shop assistants have a roster problem and I say I would like to see the roster, they say they are sorry but they cannot show me the roster because it might impinge upon somebody's privacy. As for seeing their payment records—you cannot see them, they are private. Those people—and there are one or two—who are ripping off their employees blind keep the records which would incriminate them from public view on the basis that they are private, when the public good is served in ensuring people receive their appropriate award wages and conditions. So privacy is used as an excuse to stop access to important information. I think it is nonsense, and it is largely privacy that prevents us from having a comprehensive list of levy payers so that we can ask them their view about how their money—that is raised for their benefit—is expended.

I know that Senator Leyonhjelm, who has just spoken, is very keen on having votes for everybody. I think the Wagin Woolorama is on shortly, and Senator Leyonhjelm is a champion of the wool poll. He is a great enthusiast for everybody being required to vote. People might think that Senator Leyonhjelm is in favour of less regulation, but that is not the case. Senator Leyonhjelm loves regulation—he wants to ensure that every agriculture levy payer regularly votes on how their levies are disposed of. So Senator Leyonhjelm stands for more regulation. The view of the different industries is not the same on this matter. In some industries everybody appears to be perfectly happy with the status quo—happy with the amount of the levy raised, happy with the way moneys are expended, not seeking to make any change at all. There are some agricultural industries where the levy payers are crying out for a greater say in how much levy they pay and how moneys are expended but they are denied that opportunity either because there is no available list, as a result of privacy considerations, or because those who currently control the decision making pursue their vested interests and ensure that the capacity to make a decision with regard to the expenditure of considerable sums of money is not taken out of their hands—they guard that power and do not forgo it.

With the ballots, in practice there are industries where the barriers for entry are very low and people move in and out of the industry on a seasonal basis. For example, Senator Urquhart might decide to grow vegetables in Tasmania this year but next year decide to get out of the vegetable growing industry, and it is impractical to keep an accurate list of participants in some agricultural sectors because of the ebb and flow of those participants. Those sectors of the industry would be denied the opportunity of having a say over the level of their levies or how they are expended. Finally, there are those who have the infrastructure in place but who do not want to exercise it. That is where I believe we are at with the dairy industry. The dairy industry is in the fortunate position of having an accurate list of participants such that a poll could be conducted on any number of questions pertaining to their levies, but they appear to have genuinely decided that they only wish to exercise that opportunity to vote on levies in extraordinary circumstances. I am prepared to accept the industry's word that they are fair dinkum in saying it is only when 15 per cent of industry participants petition for a poll that they need to have a poll. If that is what they want, I am more than happy to accede to that request.

The industry says this measure will save them $1 million every five years, in terms of the cost of conducting a poll, and $1 million will buy a lot of research and development. If that is their wish, I am more than pleased to go along with it and support this bill, which will remove the requirement for them to have a poll. An extra million dollars can be directed towards R&D, it can be directed towards developing new markets. I am advised today by the whip that there is ancient precedent for milk baths in Egypt, and perhaps the Australian dairy industry could milk that marketing opportunity. I am also told by the whip that if I can mention in my speech Cleopatra having a milk bath, there is a prize—I do not know what the prize is but I am shortly to claim it!

1:51 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the Dairy Produce Amendment (Dairy Service Levy Poll) Bill 2016. I would like to tell Senator Bullock that apparently a milk bath is wonderful for your complexion. It is certainly something worth thinking about.

Photo of Concetta Fierravanti-WellsConcetta Fierravanti-Wells (NSW, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs) Share this | | Hansard source

Are you trying to give him a hint.

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

You never know, Senator Fierravanti-Wells! This bill has largely been driven by the industry itself after undertaking consultation amongst its members, which is a really important thing to think about. This bill has been the subject of consultation amongst the industry's members—it is not something that has been opposed; it has been considered within the industry. The consultation was prompted by the dairy levy payers, who raised concerns about the cost of conducting a levy poll every five years. We have heard a lot about this from previous speakers. That poll was held regardless of whether there was any proposal for changes on the table. Every five years, the dairy farmers would have to pay up for consultation and pay up for a levy even if there was going to be no change, which seems quite ludicrous to me. Clearly, this is not the best use of scarce and precious levy funds.

I understand that the industry-led consultation was both extensive and inclusive, and it should be congratulated for undertaking such a comprehensive process. Australia's dairy industry has approximately 6,000 levy payers. They are all hardworking dairy farmers and they are all looking for value from their money and from their levy investments. They cannot afford to throw money around. They want to look at what is the best value that they can get for their money. They are looking for the most efficient use of their money to identify opportunities to boost growth and productivity, and they are looking to make savings and avoid unnecessary spending wherever possible. I am comfortable that that is what this bill actually delivers for all those dairy farmers.

Every single Australian dairy levy payer was contacted at least once and given the chance to have input on the proposed changes. It does not happen very often that all players within a sphere of responsibility or interest are given the opportunity to take part, but they were. The input included a formal vote. This process identified that savings of $1 million could be made by changing the requirements around dairy levies. Again, the industry should be congratulated for a consultative approach that resulted in better outcomes that have widespread support.

The outcome of the consultation led the industry to advocate for the changes in the bill that are before us today. This bill amends the Dairy Produce Act 1986, to remove the requirement for a dairy levy poll to be held every five years. Additional subordinate legislation will also offer strong safeguards and protections for levy payers. This legislation will require the industry services body to establish a levy poll advisory committee, which will consider the levy rate every five years. This legislation will also require the industry services body to hold a levy poll if a variation to the rate is recommended by the advisory committee, and it will include a mechanism for group A members, or dairy farmers who pay the dairy levy, to request Dairy Australia Limited, DAL, to conduct a levy poll if they disagree with the levy poll advisory committee's decision not to convene a levy poll.

As I mentioned earlier, these measures will allow industry to save up to $1 million every five years. The industry has estimated that changes could also deliver more than $750,000 that can be directed straight back into industry programs.

Labor has spoken to industry leaders about this bill and we recognise that it is industry-led reform that has broad support. We also recognise that the consultation process has been excellent and congratulate the dairy industry leadership for developing and advocating for a measure that will encourage more effective and efficient use of levy dollars. It will enable more money to be spent on research and development, a really important area in dairy's operations.

R&D has a proud history of having dramatic impacts on growth and productivity. Because of this, the industry broadly welcomed the Liberals' pre-election promise that they would spend an additional $100 million in this area over four years. But this hope quickly turned to dismay when the Abbott-Turnbull government cut more than $100 million from agricultural research and development across the budget. There were cuts to the CSIRO, cuts to forestry, cuts to cooperative research centres and, appallingly, a serious cut to the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. What about the $100 million promise? Today, we are quite possibly only three months away from an election. So how much of this pre-election commitment has been delivered by the Abbott-Turnbull government?

The government is 2½ in power and only $26 million has been spent. Three-quarters of the promise is yet to be delivered and, given it seems the government now has a plan to cut and run to the next election, it is very unlikely that our agriculture sector will see another cent. Any reasonable person would concur that this amounts to a serious broken promise. In the face of these broken promises and debilitating cuts at the hands of the Liberal government, I again congratulate the industry for its proactive, consultative approach and effective outcomes, such as the bill before us today. But in order to facilitate an ordered transition to the new system, time is of the essence. The last date that a new levy recommendation could be made is in April 2017, meaning Dairy Australia would need to start work early on convening the industry based advisory committee and giving it enough time to commission the necessary research and analysis that will be needed to inform the options that will be included on the levy ballot paper.

If a 2017 poll is to proceed, these steps will need to be well advanced by the second quarter of 2016, so the industry is looking to have this bill passed in both houses as soon as possible. Labor will not stand in the way. We are very comfortable that this has been an effective consultation, led by industry, that has resulted in sensible savings that can be returned back to the industry. By any measure, the dairy industry is enormously valuable and very important to the economy and jobs in my home state of Tasmania. There can be no doubt that Tasmania's dairy industry continues to be one of the brightest spots in our state's economy. In 2011, Tasmania's dairy sector had a gross value of $802 million. Around $166 million worth of produce is exported internationally and $619 million worth goes interstate. In 2011, the industry employed more than 2,000 Tasmanians—

Debate interrupted.