DISSATISFACTION is building over the Coalition’s failure to respond to recommendations stemming from the federal Senate inquiry into agricultural marketing and research levies, handed down more than four months ago.
However, NSW Liberal Democratic Party Senator David Leyonhjelm says the government still has time to respond appropriately and implement positive reforms that can improve the levy system’s accountability and transparency.
The Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee inquiry was instigated in September last year and made seven recommendations in the report tabled in June.
One leading recommendation was to make legislative changes to enable agricultural levy-payer information to be collected and distributed, to help generate databases on all agricultural levies, within two years of the legislative amendment.
The Committee also recommended that the data held by the Department of Agriculture’s levy collection unit should be “limited to information sufficient to enable organisations responsible for spending or allocating levy funds to communicate with levy payers and enable votes to be allocated on a production basis”.
“Data should include location, contact details, crop or enterprise type and production volume and/or value,” it said.
However, stakeholder faith in the government’s ability to respond effectively to the broad levy inquiry was severely dented by Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce’s lack of action on the grassfed beef levy inquiry and rejection of calls to strengthen funding for the ailing Cattle Council of Australia.
Senator Leyonhjelm helped instigate the agricultural levies inquiry and told Fairfax Agricultural Media this week he was now waiting and hoping for the government’s response.
“I’m not at the stage of declaring that this is unsatisfactory but I’d like to think we’d get some progress on it soon,” he said.
“If I don’t get anything soon I will take action but at this stage still hoping something will turn up.”
But Senator Leyonhjelm said he also understood there would be an “automatic level of action” from Mr Joyce and his Department, regardless of the report’s tabling.
He said when the Department was first called before the Senate inquiry representatives said ‘we don’t think there’s a problem here and there’s nothing to see’.
But when they were recalled to give evidence at the last public hearing they agreed problems existed that needed to be addressed, he said.
“I asked if legislation was required in order to collect names of levy-payers and the Department said ‘yes we think so and we’re looking at that’,” he said.
“There were generally cooperative noises coming from the Department and my impression was we’d hear a more positive response coming sooner.
“Basically I’ve been giving Barnaby Joyce time to respond and the Department time to advise him, accordingly.”
However, Senator Leyonhjelm said he was concerned Australian dairy industry members had been lobbying for changes, to move away from paying levies, and had been “schmoozing around trying to get people to agree to that”.
He said that indicated to him those officials hadn’t been consulted by the government about the proposed levy system changes which opposed the dairy industry’s lobbying motives.
But Senator Leyonhjelm said Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon redirected and informed the dairy representatives, that they needed to convince him about their plans.
“My interpretation so far is that this issue doesn’t have the priority I expected it to have, so now I’m looking at ways to bring it up the priority list,” he said.
Senator Leyonhjelm said legislation that required his vote could be put on the table by the government and he may demand agreement on reforms stemming from the levy inquiry, as a condition for his support on the proposed legislation.
“I can’t nominate anything at the moment because the government, with the change of leadership, is still working out what its priorities are,” he said.
“The Liberal Democrats are highly principled and some Bills I’d have to support no matter how much I’d like to twist the government’s arm - but what I need is a Bill where I could go either way.”
Senator Leyonhjelm said the Turnbull government’s honeymoon period was not relevant or applicable to the government’s slow response to the levy inquiry report because Mr Joyce had continued as the responsible minister and his Department.
He said the key to the inquiry’s tabled recommendations was to implement a functional and current data base of levy payers in all agricultural sectors.
“I wanted the Committee to go further and recommend a plebiscite or a vote on levies, a regular plebiscite, like wool and dairy,” he said.
“I wanted the options to include a zero levy, and the vote to be held on how the money is spent, in broad terms at least, but for various reasons I could not get Labor’s agreement on that.
“But in the end what we all agreed on was data bases on levy-payers, including how much they paid in relative terms.
“It would not take much once the data base of levy payers was constructed to use it for something constructive like seeking opinions.
“In order to establish a data base of levy payers, every sector is different, and the names are collected at different points along the supply chain in each sector, so some thought needs to be given as to how we might establish that.”
It’s understood the government is still considering its response to the Senate inquiry and some members are in favour of adopting a voluntary levy system for growers.
The report said that in 2013–14 there were 99 statutory levies, representing 74 commodities paid to 19 levy recipient bodies - reduced to 18 from July 1, 2014.
“In that year, 50,531 returns were processed resulting in $467 million contributed by Australian primary producers,” it said.
“These funds, along with Australian Government matching eligible R&D funds amounting to $238 million, were provided to the levy recipient bodies.”