LEGISLATION has been initiated to establish agricultural levy-payer data-bases for rural research and development corporations (RDCs) that can also be accessed by peak industry bodies.
The move responds to the leading recommendation of the Coalition’s Senate inquiry into agricultural levies and has been welcomed and applauded by farmer representatives.
The Senate Rural and Regional Affairs Committee inquiry was prompted by demands for greater transparency and democracy for levy-payer, and influence on how producer R&D and marketing funds are spent, by NSW liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm.
The report tabled in June last year said legislative changes should be enacted to enable the collection and distribution of agricultural levy payer information to create databases within two years of the amendment.
In a speech to accompany the Bill tabled in the Lower House, Federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce said the grass-fed cattle levy inquiry had also identified that improved consultation with levy payers was “key to the ongoing strength of Australia's rural R&D system”.
“The government agrees that levy payers should have more of a say in how their levy funds are spent - RDCs should know who their levy payers are,” he said.
“Levy payers' registers would provide RDCs with the ability to identify and consult directly with levy payers on research priorities and levy expenditure and to accurately and efficiently allocate voting entitlements for polls, where this is relevant.”
Mr Joyce said the Bill allowed levy payer registers to be established by amending the Primary Industries Levies and Charges Collection Act 1991 which currently only permitted the distribution of levy payer information, to the wool and dairy RDCs.
But he said the new legislation remedied that situation by allowing the government to provide levy-payer information, for the purposes of a register, to the 13 other RDCs.
“However, recognising that a 'one size fits all' approach would not be appropriate given the diversity of Australian agricultural industries, the Bill allows for the distribution of levy payer information to an RDC to occur only where an RDC, in consultation with industry, requests it, and that request is approved by the minister,” he said.
“The Department would then work with the RDC on the administrative design and development of a register.”
Mr Joyce said under the changes, industry representative bodies - prescribed in legislation - would be allowed to obtain access to levy payer contact details for specific purposes, subject to approval by the Secretary of his Department.
“This change will support prescribed industry representative bodies’ efforts to engage with their constituency,” he said.
“It will help them to adequately consult on key industry issues; ensuring that they can appropriately advise on levy expenditure where they have a legislated role to do so.
“We’re doing our bit in pushing through these changes and now it’s over to each RDC to work with industry, agree on an approach and forge ahead.”
Mr Joyce said the Bill also empowered his Secretary to permit levy-payer information to be provided to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
He said it also maintained current practices for distribution of the name and address of the person or body that lodges levy returns with the Department to RDCs, industry representative bodies and others.
“The Bill does not permit secondary disclosure of information included in a levy payer register, except in limited circumstances and where expressly permitted by the secretary in writing,” he said.
“This aims to protect the integrity and security of levy and charge payers' personal information.
“Where an eligible recipient is permitted to disclose levy payer information to a secondary recipient, that person or body may only use the information for restricted purposes relating to R&D, marketing, biosecurity or the national residue survey.
“Where levy payer contact details are to be provided to an industry representative body, the administrative arrangements will enable levy payers to choose to opt out and not receive information.”
Cattle Council of Australia CEO Jed Matz saying accessing levy-payer databases would improve the transparency of industry voting systems and gave peak industry bodies an accurate profile of industry.
“This will have multiple benefits such as improved disease management and prevention, improved extension services, more targeted communication and policy,” he said.
“The biggest win here is that Cattle Council will now have access to a database of all levy payers so we can communicate directly with the people we are representing.
“This is a major step forward in Cattle Council being able to move towards a direct membership model and may possibly have positive implications for the council’s financial options.’’
Sheepmeat Council of Australia President Jeff Murray said under the current legislation, his group was “hamstrung” and unable to identify who the levy payers actually are, “the people we represent”.
But he said, once passed, the amendments would enable peak bodies like his to identify industry issues and levy payer priorities through better engagement “and therefore empower us to oversight levy expenditure more effectively”.
“We fully support the governments’ proposed safeguards,” he said.
“We understand that this information is sensitive and that carte blanche access would be inappropriate.
“However, we also note time is of the essence for this legislation to pass in an election year and we implore parliament’s support for these important amendments.”
Mr Joyce said the government’s commitment to R&D was demonstrated through the provision of more than $260 million this year in Commonwealth matching funds for rural R&D corporations - a $30m increase on matching funds provided in 2012–13.
He said for every dollar that the government invested in rural R&D, it was estimated farmers generated a $12 return over 10 years.