LIBERAL Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm says he’s postponed a vote on his controversial disallowance motion that aims to reverse increases to the mushroom, onion and mango levies, until late September.
Senator Leyonhjelm has also confirmed he intends splitting the three bills, rather than having them voted on simultaneously, as per current arrangements.
The disallowance motion was due to be voted on today in the federal Senate and was set to be defeated with the Greens and Coalition both opposing it.
The Coalition’s 33 Senators voting with the Green’s 10 Senators would nullify the eight crossbenchers’ votes, even if they gained Labor’s support.
But speaking to media in Canberra, Senator Leyonhjelm said he was postponing the vote until late September to allow grower and farmer groups more time to ‘get their heads around’ what he’s proposing “which is democracy for levy payers”.
“A vote on levies every three years is what I’m seeking,” he said.
“A lot of growers and farmers haven’t heard that message yet but that’s what I’m after so I’m giving them more time to find out and express their support.”
Senator Leyonhjelm said he intended splitting the disallowance motion into three bills to focus on the mushroom levy.
Doubling the mushroom levy has imposed an increase from $800,000 to $1.6 million per year for the nation’s biggest grower, Costa, which has undergone intense lobbying in Canberra in recent months.
Senator Leyonhjelm said he had more support for disallowing the mushroom levy increase but “don’t want them all to go down”.
“I’ve got strong support on mushrooms and I’m still building support on the other ones,” he said.
“There’s quite a lot of support for what I’m aiming to achieve - democracy for levy payers - especially on the conservative Coalition side, and some on Labor as well.”
Australian Greens agriculture spokesperson and WA Senator Rachel Siewert said after consultation with growers and industry groups, “I am confident that growers want these levy changes to remain and that their decision on this increase was the result of a robust and democratic process”.
“The Greens will oppose the disallowance motions when they come before the Senate next week,” she said.
“The decisions to increase these levies were made by growers and it would be unwise to unravel them.”
Representatives from the mango, onion and mushroom industries descended on Canberra this week to lobby against the proposed disallowance motion and retain the increases.
Those groups say they’ve spent several years consulting growers about the changes to their levies which should be retained.
Australian Mushroom Growers Association (AMGA) general manager Greg Seymour said the Greens’ position on the vote was “rock solid” but it wasn’t possible to be “absolutely certain” of the outcome, until the final vote took place.
The AMGA held meetings yesterday with Federal Senators, including Senator Leyonhjelm, to push their position.
“People who want to see the disallowance motion get up are working hard and equally we, who don’t want to see the disallowance motion get up, are working hard right to the end,” he said.
“It would be very nice if Senator Leyonhjelm withdrew the motion and found another way to achieve his goals but at this stage that’s not what we’re hearing.”
Mr Seymour said Senator Leyonhjelm’s actions had contravened the process used to determine the levy increases.
He said all three levies had all jumped “enormous administrative hurdles” including government.
The levy has been critiqued by “every referee and umpire in the system and they’ve all given it a big tick”, he said.
The increases were also budgeted by the federal government and that legislation arrived in the Senate as a final formality but was objected to by Senator Leyonhjelm.
“Senator Leyonhjelm openly states he doesn’t really have a problem really with the levies per se but we’re being used as pawns,” Mr Seymour said.
“Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon accurately described it - that we’re being held to ransom by the Senator for a philosophical view.
“The livelihood of AMGA members and the mushroom industry as a whole have been held to ransom by a politician and that’s really not appropriate.”
Mr Seymour said while Costa was the mushroom industry’s biggest grower, the next 29 biggest growers had supported the levy increase and its immediate introduction, which represented 60 per cent of the $2.5 million annual levy.
He said Costa contributed 40 per cent of the annual mushroom production in Australia but contributed 30 per cent of the levy.
A ballot on the levy increase was held in late 2011 and was due to be implemented by July 1, 2012.
The levy increase went into the political system almost three years ago and wasn’t dealt with by the previous government, which has seen industry frustration escalate.
“We thought it was an open and shut case,” he said.
“It’s very clear there’s a vast majority of support for the industry’s levy with 29 of the 30 largest growers supporting the increase and only the largest grower opposed.
“That indicates to me a very strong democratic desire to support the increase but to have a politician to stand in the way of that democracy is not appropriate and it also sets a dangerous precedent for other agricultural levies.
“This levy system has been a bipartisan agreement for a long time and delivered fantastic results for Australian agriculture.
“Certainly for mushrooms it’s the envy of the world but to have that put at risk by a dangerous precedent being put in place here, to deter people investing in their own industry, I think is out of order.”