IN July I moved a motion in the Senate to disallow regulations that would increase compulsory levies on onions, mangoes and mushrooms. My aim is to bring about long overdue reform of all agricultural levies.
Because they are compulsory, levies are a kind of taxation. Hundreds of millions of dollars are collected from primary producers with many careers relying on them. It is important for levy payers to receive value for money.
Despite assertions to the contrary, I have never sought the abolition of agricultural levies. I am sceptical about how well some are used, but my view is that if primary producers vote to impose taxes on themselves, that is their right. The problem is, most levy payers rarely get to vote.
The two reforms for which I seek the Agriculture Minister’s agreement are, firstly, for levy payers to be given a regular vote as to the level of levies they agree to pay, including the option of paying none, and secondly, in industry sectors where there are wide disparities in the size of producers, that there is proportional voting in line with the size of their compulsory levy contribution.
This need not be expensive. A voluntary postal vote supervised by an independent organisation like the AEC, based on a register of growers, is all it would take.
Establishing the register, if none exists already, can itself be based on voluntary enrolment.
Having spent more than thirty years in agriculture, I have lost count of the number of times producers have complained to me about the obligation to pay levies and their inability to discover or influence how they are used.
As the system now operates, the only producers who have a regular vote on whether to continue paying levies are wool growers and dairy farmers. The WoolPoll, conducted every three years, and the dairy industry poll every five years, both give producers multiple levy choices starting at zero.
Although WoolPoll makes no allowance for production size, it is regular and democratic, unlike the dozens of other levies currently in operation. Some have not been voted on for over a decade, denying producers any say in whether they should be adjusted or continued.
Since I began my efforts to bring some democracy to the levy collection system, it has become apparent that there are industry groups very resistant to the idea of allowing their members a regular democratic voice. That begs the question of why this is so.
If industry organisations are confident their marketing campaigns using producer funds will produce good outcomes for their members, they have nothing to fear from seeking their support. The same goes for R&D expenditure; all they need to do is convince levy payers.
Indeed, such a system would focus the minds of those whose livelihood relies on the continuation of levies to produce tangible results. A focus on performance, or value of money, threatens nobody.