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Thursday, 1 June 2006
Page: 4

Mr McGAURAN (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (9:18 AM) —in reply—At the outset, I thank those members on both sides of the House who have contributed in a constructive and useful way to the debate on the Plant Health Australia (Plant Industries) Funding Amendment Bill 2006. This very important legislation has been much anticipated, supported and influenced by industry.

Let me deal at the outset with the rightful point raised by the member for O’Connor, who has a genuine and deep interest in and understanding of these issues of research and development levies as they affect industries. They are not always the most popular instrument amongst all producers who are compelled in many circumstances to pay the levy, but I venture to suggest that, overall, most producers support a levy system because it is such an investment in the scientific base which underpins their future competitiveness in a very highly competitive world. Nonetheless, the member for O’Connor is right to sound a note of caution that governments should not rush into the issue of compulsory levies because, after all, they are a cost impost on producers, many of whom, especially during commodity price downturns, find them a heavy cost impost. That is why we have a voting system before an industry can seek the imposition of a compulsory levy.

I now turn to the specific issue raised by the honourable member for O’Connor. He is right to identify within the bill a capacity for an industry which chooses to activate an emergency plant pest response levy or charge to use existing levy collection arrangements. In the absence of an emergency, as the member for O’Connor has pointed out, the bill also provides industry with the opportunity to build up a contingency reserve or to undertake surveillance, research or risk mitigation measures.

The answer to the member’s question is that the bill allows industry flexibility in the use of the funds. They can be used, at the request of the plant industry member, to discharge liabilities for another plant product represented by the plant industry member. If there are no liabilities for any other plant products, the plant industry member can request that they be used for any other purpose relating to emergency plant pests that may affect plant products represented by the plant industry member and covered by the emergency plant pest response deed. This could include, as I said, surveillance, monitoring or, as the member for O’Connor pointed out, research.

So what controls are there to ensure that those funds are used appropriately? The bill specifies the payments that Plant Health Australia is permitted to make from the funds and provides an order of priority for these payments. If the minister is satisfied that Plant Health Australia has contravened a condition of payment, the minister can require Plant Health Australia to pay an appropriate amount to the Commonwealth or into the emergency plant pest response fund for the relevant plant product. In making this decision, the minister must have regard to any representation made by the relevant plant industry member. The member for O’Connor has put industry and government on notice that the minister’s discretionary powers will be carefully scrutinised in the future in the event unused funds are sought to be directed to research and development.

This is important legislation. It provides a transparent mechanism by which industry can discharge any obligations incurred as a result of a response to an emergency plant pest or disease. The legislation has the full support of industry groups and producers. It establishes arrangements for the long-term funding of emergency plant pest or disease outbreaks and so assists in providing certainty in responding to such outbreaks.

I make the point, as others have, that these arrangements are similar to those that have successfully been in operation in the livestock sector for several years. Needless to say, the competitiveness of our agricultural industries depends on Australia maintaining its outstanding animal and plant health status. Our status is a result of a concerted effort by all stakeholders to minimise the risk of jeopardising Australia’s excellent status in plant health. The bill is further demonstration of government and industry working together on plant health matters. It will further help maintain Australia’s competitiveness through an outstanding animal and plant health status. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.