Senator says levy transparency needed

27 Feb, 2015 03:00 AM
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WA growers want transparency and accountability when it comes to the groups benefiting from their agricultural levy contributions.

This is the message WA Senator Linda Reynolds said she received loud and clear from submissions across a range of agricultural industries at a public hearing held in Perth last Friday.

"We've opened a Pandora's Box when it comes to research and development levies and we're seeing consistent evidence across the country," Ms Reynolds said.

"Nobody is saying we shouldn't pay the levies.

"What they are asking for is accountability of the groups using the levies back to the growers, transparency of operation and value for money."

Ms Reynolds co-sponsored the inquiry into the industry structures and systems governing the imposition of and disbursement of marketing and research and development (R&D) levies in the agriculture sector late last year with New South Wales senator David Leyonhjelm.

"Today's evidence is entirely consistent with the other hearings we've had," Ms Reynolds said.

"It's clear that the intent for the levies when they were set was relevant at the time but most of the commodity industries have changed dramatically, but these levies haven't changed."

Testimony was received from representatives of many agricultural industries last week, including the Marine Fishfarmers Association, the Fishing Industry Council, WA Grain Group and CBH.

Rural Financial Counselling Services State chairman Julian Krieg presented and Ms Reynolds said his conclusions gave insight into how the levy system affected individual growers.

"Some growers get their bill from CBH for example and pay it, they don't realise the impact of it," she said.

"They may have loans that have been created just to pay these levies, not realising the level of contributions they're being forced to make."

The Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) was among the R&D groups in the firing line throughout the entire hearings process.

Ms Reynolds said GRDC and similar groups had been able to avoid being audited for performance because of their statutory authority classification and this was of concern.

"Even though taxpayer money and grower money is put into levies which are used by these groups the Australian National Audit Office can't audit them and they aren't held accountable," she said.

"Growers are saying they want a voice on who goes on the board of these groups and to be listened to about priorities for research in their industry.

"I think there are some other layers of accountability and transparency needed, they were talking about getting the scientists back out in the paddock and reconnecting with the needs of the industry."

Meanwhile, the fisheries R&D levies and authorities administering the research shone as positives for the hearing.

"Fisheries industries are happy because they are consulted, they're listened to and their priorities are taken into account," Ms Reynolds said.

"We've heard from growers who are very happy because they feel they know where their money goes and they have a say.

"They might not always agree with the decisions but they understand why the decisions have been made and this is important."

Ms Reynolds said the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee would complete the hearings process by inviting groups such as the GRDC and Horticulture Australia to participate.

The expected reporting date of the committee has been extended to June 30.

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