A senate committee has urged the Federal Government to delay its plans to remove a 40 percent rebate on the cost of Australian Quarantine Inspection Service certification charges.
The Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee has been conducting an inquiry into Australia’s biosecurity and quarantine arrangements since June 2010.
After three extensions to its reporting deadline, it handed down its final report this week.
Numerous industry groups made submissions to the inquiry, including the Australian Meat Industry Council which highlighted the impact of increased costs that will flow onto processing facilities, exporters, cold-stores and further processors if the AQIS rebate is removed.
In releasing its final report this week, the Senate Committee has recommended that the 40pc rebate remain in place, and increases not be passed on, until negotiations with all industry sectors have been finalised and consultations with individual businesses have taken place.
However, the Government has no compulsion to act on senate committee recommendations, and in this case, a dissenting report submitted by Government senators would suggest the Government does not support the committee’s recommendation.
The RRATR committee report was passed by a majority of coalition senators, and Government senators submitted a dissenting report disagreeing with several of the committee majority's recommendations.
Government senators accused their coalition counterparts of basing their conclusions on private discussions held with industry stakeholders rather than from evidence presented to the committee.
While the Government senators acknowledged that exporters were facing a range of pressures, they rejected the majority view that AQIS fees and charges would make Australian businesses uncompetitive.
“The Government is committed to continued consultations with the industry that will lead to a removal of red tape, support regional jobs and improve Australia’s competitiveness,” they said in their dissenting report.
The final report documented many of the concerns presented by industry stakeholders in relation to existing quarantine and biosecurity arrangements.
In 2009 the Government announced funding of $127.4m to help industry adjust to its AQIS reforms and the removal of the 40pc fee rebate for AQIS export certification functions.
The funding contained $85.3m in rebates to help exporters to transition to the new fees and charges, $16.1m for reform of the regulatory and export supply chain, and $26m for meat inspection reform.
However the National Herd Improvement Association of Australia told the committee that the funding did not appear to have filtered down to the coal face.
The report said the committee’s majority view was that a number of industry sectors remained dissatisfied with prevailing AQIS fees and charges, particularly smaller businesses which were facing increased registration fees that would need to be apportioned over small volumes of product.
“This effectively raises the piece rate to an uncompetitive and unviable level,” the committee noted.
Smaller operators also said there felt threatened by government’s ‘take it or leave it approach’, and were running out of the energy and financial resources required to remain in the negotiation process. “They are simply being worn down and worn out,” the senate committee said.
A lack of resourcing was also highlighted as a major issue.
Stakeholder submissions questioned whether there would be adequate meat inspection staff, after the reforms have taken place, to ensure that proper implementation and oversight of relevant legislation is taking place.
The National Herd Improvement Association of Australia said resourcing for staff at both Biosecurity Australia and AQIS appeared to remain inadequate.
“For example, the recent outcry that led to the establishment of an IRA for beef imported from countries with BSE has removed a significant number of staff from the genetics/animal health protocol section of
Biosecurity Australia which has left an enormous workload on the staff that remains behind,” it said in its submission.
“This has resulted in delays with the negotiation of animal health protocols which has had commercial consequences for the export of semen and embryos.”
The committee said it shared the concerns even with new cost recovery measures about whether DAFF will be sufficiently resourced, particularly given that there are a substantial number of reforms identified by the 2008 Beale Report that are still yet to be achieved.