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Thursday, 1 June 2006
Page: 2

Mr TUCKEY (9:07 AM) —The Plant Health Australia (Plant Industries) Funding Amendment Bill 2006 is very important legislation, as it seeks to organise the means by which governments and plant industries can respond to a pestilence or virus situation arising in perhaps just a single property to ensure a prompt and properly funded response. That may include the destruction of an entire crop or orchard—or anything of that nature—if a situation arises, as recently happened with canker disease in Queensland’s orange industry. There have been responses—as I understand it, state governments had the prime responsibility. When confronted by a threat the nature of which existed in Queensland, people take a variety of views, principally based on who is going to pay, and the threat can get out of hand in the intervening period. So I congratulate the government for bringing forward this legislation and identifying the means by which it will be managed.

There are already some 14 plant industry signatories to the deed which this legislation creates, and some principles have been laid down as to how the cost of such a response would be made. Plant Health Australia will virtually be the managing agent. The explanatory memorandum states:

Clause 10C discusses the priority rules that PHA must follow for applying the funds.

These are:

(a)   firstly, meeting the Commonwealth and PHA’s costs in managing the funds, including the costs of receiving and applying the funds;

(b)   secondly, meeting any outstanding obligations under the EPPR Deed on behalf of the relevant plant industry member, in relation to the plant product on which the EPPR levy or charge is raised;

(c)   thirdly, at a plant industry member’s request, meeting any outstanding obligations under the EPPR Deed on behalf of the member, in relation to another EPPR plant product for which it is the relevant plant industry member;

(d)   fourthly, at a plant industry member’s request, apply the funds for other purposes related to emergency plant pests that may affect an EPPR plant product for which it is the relevant plant industry member.

What we are authorising here is the raising of levies against producers to create these funds, and that is appropriate. The time to raise this sort of money is not in a disaster period. The time to raise it is in periods of prosperity, having a fund available to address the issue by way of compensation, destruction or whatever other response may be considered appropriate.

I am, nevertheless, concerned about one comment made by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry in his second reading speech—and I note his presence at the table. That comment, which we discussed, is:

If at any time a plant industry has no obligations under the deed—

and we certainly hope that is nearly all the time—

it may request Plant Health Australia to apply the funds for other emergency plant pest related purposes. However, it is not proposed that funds directed to an industry’s research and development corporation be matchable by the government.

I do not think it should be matched by the government. But, as the minister is well aware, a number of members of the backbench committee are becoming increasingly concerned about industry levies for research, development and marketing, which are always proposed by the executive of particular industries and not necessarily with the knowledge or approval of the broader constituency that is out there growing things. A circumstance has just arisen in which there was considerable complaint from turf growers in this regard. It was decided by the government, quite correctly, to re-conduct a ballot. The fact that there were about eight or nine more yes than no votes shows how closely the matter was contested. Presumably it was approved by the positive vote, but it was very close.

There needs to be a close look at the rules about levies in this research, development and marketing proposal. A new set of guidelines needs to be created to ensure that all members who might be liable for the levy are aware of its consequences. Also, where a ballot is conducted, there needs to be adequate opportunity for a yes case and a no case to be posted out by, hopefully, the Australian Electoral Commission, which should be the one and only body to conduct such ballots. I, therefore, ask the minister whether he will have an opportunity to give approval for the transfer of such funds. I have no opposition to them being relocated to another emergency fund—that could be very helpful—but when it comes to research and development, which in my mind is an entirely different situation, I think the minister ought to have some right of veto over such applications.

There will be an emergency in the end, and I believe a substantial amount of unused money should stay there. The purpose of this legislation is to have adequate funds to respond to emergencies with due haste and positive action to ensure that the disease or pest species that has been identified is destroyed. I know that the problems resided primarily with the Queensland government, but there was a pretty slow response to the orange canker issue. I am aware from briefings we got from our minister at the time that that was no fault of the Commonwealth, which was terribly anxious to have the matter resolved.

These are the issues covered by the legislation. It is good legislation, as it formalises a situation that previously was not formalised. It legalises levies to make sure adequate funds are there to respond to a potential disaster. For the information of the opposition member at the table, the member for Cowan, I will not be speaking for much longer and he might need to tell somebody to that effect. We do not need a repeat of yesterday. We will be sporting about it today.

In conclusion—and I will keep speaking for a moment, consequent to my previous comments—the reality is that we need to proceed with this legislation. I believe it is important, and I am sure it will allow for a much better response approach in the future. But I repeat my remarks—and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry might like to make some comments in that regard—that we should be revisiting levies, particularly in the research and marketing areas, and have an updated set of guidelines that will give people more confidence in the process.

We also need to have a quick look at the level of influence that certain government agencies or scientific agencies that typically spend this money are exerting on the process. I hope there will not be an occasion where funds raised to respond to the sorts of emergencies that this bill is primarily designed to address find their way into industry research or marketing funds. I do not think that is appropriate. They should be funded by approved levies created in a different situation. However, if the research is to better know how to defeat a particular pest in the future, I could see some sense in that.