Stage set for Senate inquiry into all agricultural levies

James Nason, 01/09/2014

THE stage appears to be set for a wide-ranging Senate Inquiry into all agricultural marketing and research and development levies in Australia.

notesThe platform for such a major inquiry to commence was quietly laid by NSW Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan in the Senate last Thursday night.

Senator Heffernan moved a motion calling for the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References committee to conduct an inquiry into the “industry structures and systems governing the disbursement of marketing and research and development (R&D) levies in the agricultural sector”.

It is understood the motion will go to a vote in the Senate at some point during this sitting week.

If it is passed, the Committee would be asked to complete the inquiry and report back to Government by November 24.

According to the motion moved by Senator Heffernan last Thursday night, the inquiry would make particular reference to:

(a) an audit of reports, inquiries and reviews relevant to the inquiry;

(b) the basis on which levies are collected and used;

(c) competing pressures for finite R&D funds;

(d) the opportunities levy payers have to influence the investment of the levies;

(e) the transformation of R&D and marketing into increased returns at the farm gate, including the effectiveness of extension systems;

(f) collaboration on research to benefit multiple industry and research sectors;

(g) industry governance arrangements, consultation and reporting frameworks; and

(h) any other related matter.

NSW Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm has been calling on the Federal Government to commit to a review of all agricultural levies for marketing and research and development since joining the Senate earlier this year.

He argues that many levies for industry marketing and R&D are not justifiable, and believes that in many cases the producers who pay the compulsory levies do not have enough say or control over the amount of levies they pay and how levies are distributed.

Senator Leyonhjelm has moved a disallowance motion to block a Senate vote to increase the levies in the mushroom, onion and mango industries. The  motion to increase the levies was introducted by the Government in response to recent secret producer ballots in each industry which supported the rises.

Senator Leyonhjelm’s disallowance motion against the levy increases triggered a strong response from industry, with an alliance of Australian agricultural organisations dependent on levy-based funding joining forces last week to speak out about the “threat of political intervention in the national R&D levy system”.

However Senator Leyonhjelm has also indicated that voting on his motion could be delayed if a compromise can be reached with the Government over his call for a review of all levies.

In an exchange with Senator Leyonhjelm in the Senate last Wednesday night, the Government’s Senate leader, Senator Eric Abtez, said the Government had indicated during the last election that it would have a review of the levy process.

“Can I say to the senator that—the issue of levies is something that he clearly has an interest in—the coalition indicated that it believed there should be a review in the way that the levies are conducted and operated, for the benefit of the various sectors,” Senator Abetz told the Senate.

‘If the Senate was so minded to have an inquiry, we as a coalition would be willing to join with Senator Leyonhjelm to co-sponsor such an inquiry’

“If the Senate was so minded to have an inquiry, we as a coalition would be willing to join with Senator Leyonhjelm to co-sponsor such an inquiry, to work on the terms of reference, and to see what we can do for the benefit of these sectors in our country.

The following night (last Thursday, August 28) Senator Bill Heffernan moved a motion laying the platform for a Senate vote on a broad-ranging inquiry into all agricultural levies. The Senate is expected to vote on whether to pass that motion at some point this week.

How the ongoing inquiry into grassfed beef industry levies and structural arrangements would interact with or be affected by a broader inquiry into all marketing and R&D levies in the agricultural sector remains a key question.


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