New legislation to be introduced to federal parliament today will lay the platform for more accurate identification of individual grassfed cattle industry levy payers in future, as well as the volume of levies they pay and in turn the corresponding number of votes they can individually cast for Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) annual general meetings.
It will also give the prescribed industry representative body, the Cattle Council of Australia, the unprecedented ability to communicate directly with all grassfed cattle levy payers.
Grassfed cattle producers are required by legislation to pay a mandatory $5 per head transaction levy on every head of cattle they sell. The collective funding, worth around $56 million a year, goes to MLA to invest in cattle and beef industry marketing and research and development, as directed by the peak industry council Cattle Council of Australia. Some of the revenue also goes toward funding the operations of Animal Health Australia and the National Residue Survey.
The amount of levies paid by each individual levy payer dictates the amount of votes they can cast at each MLA AGM.
Privacy laws have prevented industry and government authorities from being able to identify individual levy payers and the volume of levies they pay.
As a result individual levy payers wishing to vote at MLA AGMs apply for voting entitlements by telling MLA what they paid in cattle transaction levies for that particular year. Votes are then allocated accordingly. It is for all intents and purposes an honesty system.
Introducing an automated system that accurately identifies all individual levy payers, levies paid and subesequent voting entitlements was one of the seven recommendations of the 2014 Senate inquiry into grassfed cattle industry levies and structures.
Today the Coalition Government introduced legislative changes to the Primary Industries Levies and Charges Collection Act 1991 to enable the development of levy payer registers, which will lay the platform for this information to be collected and collated automatically.
“Levy payers have told me in no uncertain terms that they want to have more input into how their hard earned dollars are being spent—and rightly so,” Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, Barnaby Joyce, said.
“Australia’s agricultural levy and research and development system is a world-leading model, but producers deserve more transparency around how the funds are managed—as do taxpayers, whose tax dollars are also used as matched funds.
“These amendments will allow levy payer information to be provided to research and development corporations (RDCs), for very specific purposes—but only if a rural RDC, in consultation with industry, decides to establish a register. The RDCs are governed by the same privacy principles as the rest of the Australian Government.
“As well as enabling RDCs to request levy payer information, this amendment will also allow industry representative bodies—where they are prescribed in legislation—to obtain access to levy payer contact details for specific purposes, subject to approval by the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources.
“This change will support prescribed industry representative bodies’ efforts to engage with their constituency. 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.
“Levy payments have been, and continue to be, instrumental in boosting productivity in the agriculture sector, and are a substantial investment by producers.
“Direct feedback from levy payers will help RDCs ensure their research and development investments align with industry priorities, resulting in improved returns for primary producers.
“This will also help our RDCs to identify and communicate directly with levy payers, and allocate votes for polls efficiently and accurately, so producers can make their voices heard.
“Each RDC, and indeed each agricultural industry, is very different so it’s up to each industry to decide whether or not they’re interested in such a register, and I expect RDCs will be in contact with their industry over the coming months about their preferences.
“This is a sensible, positive change where there is a clear role for government in pushing through legislative change. Once the change is made, it’s up to the RDCs to work with their levy payers and my department on setting up any registers.
“The Coalition Government is here to serve producers first and foremost—and we’re always doing our best to boost profits and transparency for farmers, and we genuinely do listen to concerns.
“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.
“Once that happens, my department will work with any interested RDCs on making these registers a reality.”
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 $30 million increase on matching funds provided in 2012–13.
Cattle Council of Australia: “A really positive step forward”
As explained by Minister Joyce, the changes will also give prescribed peak industry councils access for the first time to a database of all levy payers.
Councils are also investigating whether that new level of access could create financial opportunities to improve their own funding base and revenue streams in future.
Cattle Council of Australia chief executive officer Jed Matz told Beef Central the legislation is a really positive step forward and a significant improvement for the beef industry for a number of reasons.
“Firstly we will be able to have more transparency with the MLA AGM, because we will be able to move way form an honour system where producers were saying ‘this is how many levies I have paid’,” he said.
“We will actually know exactly how many levies people have paid so there will be much more transparency around the validity of the vote.”
The creation of a database of all levy payers would also create an important profile of the industry which would be a useful tool for improved and more targeted communication and extension of R&D outcomes, tailored to producers in specific areas, and for future disease management, eradication and prevention.
Mr Matz said it was still unknown what rules would be put around the use of the database in future to ensure the information it contains is not used for the wrong purposes.
“Finally and most excitingly for Cattle Council is that prescribed industry representative bodies will also be able to obtain access to the levy payer contact details for specific purposes,” Mr Matz said.
“We are not sure what those purposes are yet.”
“But in some initial discussions we have had, that will mean that we will be able to communicate directly to the levy payer as a peak council now to ensure that they understand how their levy is being directed and then have input into Cattle Council which is responsible for directing the levy.
“They will be much more engaged with the peak council on our activities and how we are directing their levies.
“Whether access to that database extends to financial opportunities and so on remains to be seen.”
He said the move would take away one of the major barriers standing in the way of moving Cattle Council towards a direct membership model.