BARNABY Joyce’s support for dairy industry levy reforms contradict central recommendations of the Senate inquiry into agricultural levies handed down in mid-2015, says NSW Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm.
News of the Agriculture and Water Minister backing the dairy levy-changes last week has forced Senator Leyonhjelm to warn his support for the government, as a key cross-bench Senator, wasn’t guaranteed.
He has previously warned the eight-member crossbench would be at “war” with the federal government if they went ahead with pushing voting reforms, targeting minor parties.
But this week Senator Leyonhjelm said the Senate levies inquiry recommended increasing democracy for agricultural levy-payers on how their levy-money is spent and in a letter sent to him last month Minister Joyce stated he was sympathetic to that idea.
He said his interpretation of that statement was that the Minister was also “sympathetic” to the idea of whether farm-levies should be paid or not and to poll levy-payers on how they’d like their levy spent, a list was needed.
“The absolutely central recommendation of that Senate inquiry was to create a data base of levy-payers and the Minister’s letter suggests I will be pleased with his response to the inquiry,” he said.
“But the problem is wool and dairy are the only two industries that have any semblance of democracy among levy payers currently and the dairy industry is now proposing to abandon its five-yearly dairy poll.
“Barnaby Joyce has indicated he supports that change which is heading in exactly the opposite direction of the committee’s recommendations.”
Senator Leyonhjelm said the argument used by the dairy industry to support its stance was that it costs them $750,000 to run the dairy-poll.
But he said the actual pool cost was about $5000 and then $745,000 was spent on campaigning to convince dairy farmers to “vote for the right outcome”.
“My argument is; that’s the equivalent of saying the cost of running a federal election includes the amount of money that Labor, the Liberals and the Greens spend on their election campaigns but that‘s nonsense,” he said.
“I’d like to see the dairy industry continue asking its members if they wish to continue paying the levy but go further than that and ask how they’d like the levy money spent.”
To address his concerns about the dairy levy-poll changes Senator Leyonhjelm said “In the short term there’s nothing I can do”.
But he said he would be a federal Senator for another four and a half years and “there’s a high likelihood Barnaby Joyce will have legislation that requires my support in the Senate”.
“And therefore, because I have a good memory for this sort of thing, I’m sure we’ll have a more productive discussion at that time,” he said.
“I’m not making any threats but this parliament is all about negotiations and sometimes you have to give a bit to get a bit.
“There may be a time when Mr Joyce requires my support and in which case I’ll be seeking his support to pursue the recommendations of the levies inquiry.”
This week, Mr Joyce said the government’s response to the Senate inquiry into agricultural levies was currently being finalised and would be released soon.
Senator Leyonhjelm said he would prefer to see the right outcome rather than hit any particular deadline, for the report’s release; a view supported by farm stakeholders.
“Levy-payer democracy would be good for all of the industries but it would also be good politics,” he said.
“I’ve not met anyone who doesn’t think they need a say in how their levy-money should be spent.
“Farmers are entitled to make bad judgments about what happens with their money and it’s their money when all’s said and done.
“You’d hope you’d get better results if farmers are involved but either way they deserve to have a say on how their money is used.”
Last week Mr Joyce said the government backed the dairy industry’s proposed changes and was proposing to introduce legislation to facilitate the reforms in the autumn 2016 parliamentary session.
He said levy-payers wanted to “simplify and streamline” the dairy levy process by removing the requirement for a dairy levy poll to be held every five years.
“Instead, every five years an industry advisory committee will consider the need for a levy poll, and there will also be a mechanism to allow levy payers to request a poll with the support of at least 15 per cent of levy votes,” he said.
“These changes are expected to generate savings of up to $1 million every five years—these are farmers’ levies which can be re-directed towards research and development activities, supporting industry innovation, productivity and profitability.”
It’s understood the government’s draft response to the Senate inquiry has been provided to stakeholders and outlines plans to amend the Primary Industries Levies and Charges Collection Act to create levy-payer registers, to increase transparency.
The Senate report from the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee’s inquiry said legislative changes should be enacted within two years of the legislative amendment, to invoke the levy-registers.
The inquiry was instigated by the Abbott government in September 2014 to fulfil an election commitment and due to persistent pressure from Senator Leyonhjelm including moving a disallowance motion to remove regulations that increased compulsory levies on onions, mangoes and mushrooms.