FALLOUT over the controversial mushroom, mango and onion industry levy increases spilled over into Senate question time last week, with the government declaring its support for a review of the levy system.
NSW Liberal Democratic Party Senator David Leyonhjelm’s disallowance motion, which aimed to reverse the budgeted increases, was postponed on Tuesday as farm groups rallied in Canberra to oppose “political interference” in their industry.
But in Senate question time, Senator Leyonhjelm continued his campaign to heighten scrutiny on agricultural levies paid by growers.
He asked the government how many of the 793 mango growers eligible to vote in a “secret ballot” had agreed or disagreed with the levy, which increased from $1.75 to $1.893 per kilogram.
Tasmanian Senator and government Senate leader Eric Abetz said the mango levy ballot was undertaken by Boardroom Pty Ltd.
“As it happens, I have in my back pocket the numbers for this particular ballot and I am advised that 69 voted in favour and 66 voted against,” he said.
But Senator Abetz said there was a “twist” to the story.
“It seems as though the Greens must have had something to do with the way the vote was counted, because trees actually got a vote on this levy,” he said.
“The vote is weighted one vote for every 2000 mango trees to a maximum of 20 votes.
“In relation to the weighted vote, the 'yes' vote was 269 and 112 were against, out of a total potential vote of 793 that I understand Senator Leyonhjelm was referring to.”
Government not proposing increase
Senator Abetz said the levy issue had been “exercising the mind of the Coalition” which had said at the last election the process would be reviewed.
“I understand the honourable Senator is interested in a Senate review and that is something that we would be minded to join him in,” he said.
“So any change in the levy, as I understand it, is initiated by industry,” he said.
Senator Leyonhjelm also quizzed the government on how many of the 244 eligible onion growers voted on their levy, which went from $2 to $4 per tonne for hard onions.
Tongue-in-cheek, Senator Abetz said: “The sad thing is that onions do not get a vote in this one - only the actual growers”.
He said the Australian Electoral Commission conducted the ballot on the onion levy: 20 growers voted in favour and 15 against.
“I understand there were 45 votes cast, which means that there must have been 10 informal votes cast,” he said.
The levy controversy has been sparked by the nation’s biggest mushroom grower Costa strongly objecting to their industry levy doubling – from $2.16 to $4.32 per kilogram – imposing an $800,000 to $1.6 million per year increase on the company.
Concluding with his theme on “secret ballot” participants, Senator Leyonhjelm asked how many of the 68 eligible mushroom growers voted for the levy increase and how many opposed it.
Senator Abetz said there were 33 'yes' votes and 11 'no' votes and there were 46 votes in total, meaning that there were two informal votes on the mushroom levy.
“The Coalition indicated that it believed there should be a review in the way that the levies are conducted and operated, for the benefit of the various sectors,” he said.
“If the Senate was so minded to have an inquiry, we as a coalition would be willing to join with Senator Leyonhjelm to co-sponsor such an inquiry, to work on the terms of reference, and to see what we can do for the benefit of these sectors in our country.”
Senator Abetz also stressed the government itself does not propose any increase in levies.
He said the industry and the industry body make the suggestion and conduct a ballot, and then the government seeks to facilitate the implementation of whatever decision is determined.
Industry wants to 'maximise value'
Australian Mushroom Growers Association general manager Greg Seymour said now that the levy issue had “raised its head” in Canberra and amongst industry groups, further review was expected.
“I don’t think this issue is just going to die away and there will be a lot more dialogue to come,” he said.
“But it’s about making sure Australian farmers and levy payers are getting maximum value for the dollars invested, so I think it can only be a good thing.”
Mr Seymour said the Across Agriculture Group (AAG), which was reconvened to tackle the new levy issue, was a great forum to revisit the various issues raised, in particular by Senator Leyonhjelm.
“They’re certainly open to discussion about how to improve the levy system; it is the envy of the world but it can always get better,” he said.
The National Farmers' Federation and 17 other agricultural groups in the AAG have accused Senator Leyonhjelm of being driven by ideological opposition to levies.