A Senate inquiry has found widespread support exists across Australian agriculture for levy funded research and development and marketing systems.
However, it has also identified many issues with existing levy arrangements in many industries including a lack of accurate identification of levy payers and how much they pay, and concerns about the level of say producers have over how their levies are invested and utilised, and how the value on that expenditure is measured.
The Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee on Tuesday afternoon handed down seven recommendations (listed below) stemming from its recent inquiry into the structures and systems that govern R&D and marketing levies across Australian agriculture.
The chief recommendation calls for the creation of levy payer databases for all industries that pay agricultural levies within two years.
The data collected on each levy payer would be limited to information required to enable levy-funded organisations to communicate with each levy payer and to allocate accurate voting entitlements on a production basis.
The data would be held by the Department of Agriculture and the appropriate levy-payer owned body. It would also be made available to appropriate authorities under circumstances of biosecurity emergencies.
Tied in with this would be the establishment of an automated agricultural levy system in each industry that accurately identifies levy payers and levies paid and allocates voting entitlements to levy payers where relevant.
The system would also provide for immediate settlement of levy fees paid.
Committee chair, WA Labor Senator Glenn Sterle, said most of the challenges the committee identified with agricultural levies surrounded governance and management arrangements within Research and Development Corporations, rather than R&D and marketing investment issues.
“The key issue of commonality across all industries was the need to know who the producer levy payers are,” Senator Sterle wrote in the committee’s final report.
The committee said the recommendations they had arrived at are aimed at providing greater flexibility and responsiveness within the levy system, “in order that industry aspirations can be realised in a timely, cost-effective manner”.
“The underpinning principle of the levy system should be that producer levy payers can trace their levies from payment to investment and return,” Senator Sterle said.
“They should also have a say on the investment and utilisation of their own levy.”
“Levy payers must have a clear say about R&D decisions and where relevant, marketing investment decisions. They must have oversight of how their levies are invested and the process undertaken to make that determination.”
Senator Sterle said a levy payer register was ‘fundamental’ to the levy system.
“The committee holds the view that the premise of a transparent and accountable levy system is that of knowing who the levy payers are.
“Without a levy payer database, the basis on which RDCs and industry bodies communicate with levy payers will remain ad hoc.
“In this regard, the committee recognises as a fundamental flaw, the fact that there is no mechanism to directly advise levy payers about the ways in which their levy funds are being invested.
“For this reason, the committee strongly encourages agricultural industries, in cooperation with the department, to consult on the most appropriate and cost-effective way to develop an electronic levy payer database.”
The recommendation for a database of levy payers mirrors a similar recommendation made following the grassfed cattle industry inquiry last year.
The committee believes the introduction of an automated levy collection system would:
- provide for transparency in terms of levy collection;
- provide an accurate mechanism to record levy payers’ details;
- enable the rapid settlement of levy payment and timely transfer of levy revenue to the department; • provide a mechanism to determine voting entitlements;
- be subject to regular independent auditing and verification; and provide an accurate audit trail.
“The committee recognises that an electronic system may also positively impact levy collection costs and the administrative charges that industries are subject to. It has the potential to alleviate the reporting burden currently placed on agents as levy collectors. It may also address other challenges in relation to agents, including that of payment for services and liquidation.”
The report also includes additional recommendations proposed by Liberal Democratic Party Senator David Leyonhjelm which calls for every industry to conduct regular polls on the quantum of levy paid, which includes an option to vote for a zero percent levy, which is already in practice in dairy and wool industries.
The recommendations appear in full below – to view the full Senate Committee report click here
The committee recommends that the Primary Industries Levies and Charges Collection Act 1991 be amended, consistent with subsections 27(3) and 27(3A), to enable the collection and distribution of levy payer information which will allow the creation of levy payer databases for all agricultural industries that pay agricultural levies. The committee further recommends that levy payer databases be established within two years of the legislative amendment.
The committee recommends that data collected for the purposes of levy databases and held by the Department of Agriculture should be limited to information sufficient to enable organisations responsible for spending or allocating levy funds to communicate with levy payers and enable votes to be allocated on a production basis. Data should include location, contact details, crop or enterprise type and production volume and/or value. Databases should be held by the appropriate levy-payer owned body, and be available to appropriate authorities under circumstances of biosecurity emergencies.
The committee recommends the establishment of a cost-effective, automated agricultural levy system. The system should identify levy payers against levies paid. The automated system should provide for more immediate settlement of levy fees paid and the allocation of voting entitlements where relevant. It should be subject to regular independent auditing and verification.
The committee recommends that where industry sectors are subject to levies by both states and territories and the Commonwealth, the merging of record keeping and levy collection should be investigated to avoid duplication and reduce costs to producers.
The committee recommends that the Department of Agriculture provide agricultural industries with a timeframe for levy application and amendment decisions.
The committee recommends that the Department of Agriculture, in cooperation with relevant agricultural industries, conduct a review of the process to establish and amend agricultural levies including modifications to levy components. The review should identify methods to provide for a more cost-effective and responsive process while maintaining an appropriate level of accountability.
The committee recommends that the Department of Agriculture review and if necessary, redraft the criteria for Prescribed Industry Bodies (PIBs) with a view to developing a transparent, uniform and contestable process, including published criteria and thresholds as applicable, for the recognition of PIBs for the purposes of collecting levies. The committee further recommends that PIBs already recognised under legislation should be required by the Department of Agriculture to conclusively demonstrate, within a period of no more than five years, that they meet the criteria referred to in Recommendation 7 in order to remain the recognised PIB for their relevant industry sector.