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Monday, 14 September 2009
Page: 6434

Senator COLBECK (5:10 PM) —I would like to make my contribution on the tabling of this report by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee on the AQIS fee rebate. As other members of the committee have said, it is with no real joy that we make the recommendation that we do on this particular issue. I said in this place last week, when debating the withdrawal of the submission from Austrade, that if this reform process ran into trouble or if the withdrawal of the 40 per cent AQIS rebate went ahead it would be the fault only of the minister. It is quite clear that the process the minister has put in place to deal with this is flawed. In fact I said to his office two months ago, when we first moved the disallowance motion that will come up tomorrow, that this process was not sufficiently resourced, that it was at least $25 million or $30 million short of the mark. Industry have quite clearly said to us, and this has already been expressed by other speakers, that they want to see the reforms go ahead, as do members of the committee. I do not think it could be any clearer: we all would like to see this process reformed, but it needs to be properly resourced.

You cannot just come along and put a gun to industry’s head and say, ‘Here is your option: reform or rebate.’ That is what the government has done here. It said in the budget that it would remove the 40 per cent rebate on AQIS export fees and charges. Then, after it got into a bit of strife and got some criticism from industry, it came up with $40 million to fund the reform process. It is now saying to industry: ‘It’s the reform or it’s the rebate.’ That should not be the option, and the opposition said that to the government two months ago. We gave them the time to deal with this. We actually took what I think is the responsible way of dealing with this. We moved the disallowance motion for the new fees and charges. We then postponed it. We started getting mixed messages from industry, so we thought the best way to sort this out was to allow industry the opportunity to put their views on the public record. That is what we did last Thursday and Friday, and they were unequivocal: they want the reform, as the committee does, but they do not want to have to effectively pay for the reform. They do not want to have to pay for government to reform itself; the government should be doing that process. The government should put enough money on the table to reform the way that AQIS charges, and then properly fund a continual reform process.

The only thing that has come out of this whole debacle is that it has focused industry’s attention on the reform process. That is about the only positive that I think you could take out of this debacle: that industry are fully and firmly focused on what is going on. Two of the sectors have reform plans drafted; the other four are working on it. But there were even flaws in that process. What I do say is that the opposition gave the government a fair go on this. We gave them a real opportunity to get this right, but they have basically sat back and said, ‘Well, it’s our way or the highway: reform or rebate—they’re the two options.’

What really disappoints me is that the government have put billions and billions of dollars of stimulus into the economy—$42 billion has been put into stimulating the economy—and yet about $30 million would have effectively funded this. It just seems crazy to me that the one sector—agriculture—that provided the stimulus in the economy in that one quarter when we could have slipped into recession is getting nothing out of this. Of the $42 billion in stimulus, the agriculture sector gets absolutely nothing. It cannot even get $30 million to reform the way that it exports. I take Senator Milne’s comment: we are in a recession and the government have said they need to spend money on stimulus. I made a comment in my contribution to that debate that it was poorly focused—and here is yet another example. They could have put $30 million or $40 million into funding the reform of the way AQIS operates and yet what have they done? They have stripped an enormous amount of money from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, but they have not officially funded the process of reforming the AQIS fees and charges.

I repeat, as have others, that I support the reform process. Industry came and told us that they support the reform process, but what they do not want is a cost shift. They do not want AQIS to be able to give the appearance that they are charging lower fees, but then to have to do the work themselves. They know that they will do it more efficiently and they might pick up something from that, but, quite frankly, this needs to be a genuine process with all parties being brought along. One of the real issues that was brought to the table by industry as part of the discussions last week was the time frame. AQIS told us with great confidence on Thursday night that they thought they could meet the 12-month deadline that they had set. They said with great confidence that all of the six programs could be completed within 12 months. We found out on Friday that two of them had stopped because there was still concern about whether or not this disallowance motion would go through. So they have basically pulled up stumps and stopped the process. But they are still taking the hard line: reform or rebate. We have heard that there are still four plans to be developed.

People in the beef industry told us that it would take a minimum of two years, out to five years, to conduct the reform process that needs to take place. The grains industry said the same thing—at least two years. We heard from the horticulture sector that sometimes it takes 18 years to get into a market! And they are expecting industry to turn around not only their own processes within the country but also international acceptance of our processes within 12 months. There is very little confidence that this will be done inside the 12-month time frame that the government have set. I do not mind setting time frames. I think it is reasonable to set time frames. They set up consultative groups to discuss the options with industry, but then they did not take notice of what industry was telling them. They came back at the end of the day and said, ‘We still think we’ll meet the time frames,’ even though all those industry sectors had been before us during the day. Grain, the first cab off the rank, said it would take at least two years to sort this out. The meat industry representatives were quite unequivocal. They know their business. They said it is going to take a minimum of two years for the majority of it, but some of it will take up to five years.

It is really disappointing that we have had to come to the point where we recommend that the new AQIS fees and charges be disallowed. It is a great disappointment to the committee, and the committee members have discussed it at length. This is a situation where a political time frame has been set that is not achievable—and we have seen that with many of the government’s measures. It is a situation where they have put a gun to the head of industry and said, ‘It’s this way or that way.’ Industry came out with letters of support when the initial disallowance motion was moved, but we found out during the hearing on Friday that they were not freely given by industry; they were solicited. A strategy was set up in the minister’s office and in the department to look at how to get a demonstration of industry support. They set up a strategy group to do that. They went out to industry and said, ‘We need you to give us a letter of support for this.’ Industry came to the committee and said, ‘This is how it is.’ It is a really disappointing outcome. After we have given the government every single chance on this, we recommend that we move the disallowance motion—but we do stress that industry reform should go ahead.