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Thursday, 19 September 2002
Page: 4495

Senator O'BRIEN (1:13 PM) —The Plant Health Australia (Plant Industries) Funding Bill 2002 will enable new levies and charges to be paid to Plant Health Australia Ltd through the normal appropriation from consolidated revenue. The bill also provides a mechanism for moneys collected in excess of a plant industry's liability to Plant Health Australia to be appropriated for research and development activities. Plant Health Australia was established in April 2000 as a Corporations Law company responsible for coordinating national plant health matters. The Commonwealth, all states and territories and a number of plant industries are members. In 1996 Professor Malcolm Nairn reported, following a review of quarantine in Australia. That review was commissioned by the last Labor government.

The concept of a national coordinating body to deal with plant health flowed from the Nairn review, and I am pleased that the incoming Howard government followed up on this Labor-initiated strategy. In early 1998 the industry and government, through a ministerial council senior officers group, began working on the concept of a national coordinating body to address plant health issues. That process eventually led to the registration of Plant Health Australia in April 2000. The role of this organisation has four key features. Firstly, it is an adviser to both industry and governments on plant health issues. Secondly, it is the promoter of international and domestic confidence in Australia's plant health status. Thirdly, it is charged with the responsibility to develop effective, consultative, transparent and auditable plant health management systems. Fourthly, it is charged with the responsibility to develop and manage plant health programs. It is an important organisation that has a key role to play in the future of some of our major export industries. Industry members of Plant Health Australia cover the grains, cotton, vegetable and potato, sugar, wine grape, nursery, apple and pear, rice, banana, fresh stone fruit, nut, honey and strawberry industries.

The purpose of the bill is to help plant industries fund their share of Plant Health Australia's costs. Plant Health Australia's running costs of approximately $1.5 million per annum are shared between its members. The plant industries' share of Plant Health Australia's costs is approximately $500,000 per annum. As the minister pointed out in his second reading speech, there has been an interim measure in place pending the development of these new arrangements. Industry members of Plant Health Australia have been funding their share of Plant Health Australia's costs either directly from industry association moneys or through their industry's research and development corporation. Under Plant Health Australia's constitution, these costs are shared between its plant industry members, based in part on the value of production of the various crops.

The minister has advised that the legislative mechanism was developed in consultation with Plant Health Australia's plant industry members. It is designed to limit the appropriation made to Plant Health Australia to exactly that of each plant industry member's share of Plant Health Australia's annual costs. Once an industry's share of its annual contributions to Plant Health Australia has been met, the bill provides for moneys collected in excess of this amount to be redirected to that industry's research and development corporation and deemed a research and development levy or charge. This research and development component will be matched by the Commonwealth, as is currently the case. The new Plant Health Australia levies and charges component will not be matched. Clearly, the benefit of returning any excess levy contributions to research activities is that the industries will benefit immediately from the government's matching research and development funding dollar for dollar.

The bill also contains measures that will enable a plant industry member to raise additional funds for special projects that the member wishes Plant Health Australia to undertake on its behalf. In accordance with Plant Health Australia's constitution, its members have to agree to these before the start of the year. While the plant industries have sought to pay for their yearly contribution to Plant Health Australia from a new Plant Health Australia levy and charge, there will be no increase in the overall levy and charge burden on industry members.

The minister advised in his second reading speech that this is because the proposed operative rate of a Plant Health Australia levy or charge for initial participants will be exactly offset by a corresponding decrease in that industry's existing research and development levy and charge rate. In addition, the impact on business will be minimised as existing levy and charge collection arrangements are to be used with no changes to the paperwork required of businesses and producers already paying levies and charges. The minister has also advised that this legislation has the full support of industry groups and producers. It establishes arrangements for the long-term funding of Plant Health Australia's plant health activities.

Mr Acting Deputy President, as you would be aware, Animal Health Australia now has in place a funding arrangement to meet the cost of managing an exotic disease outbreak. As I recall it, that process took some time to negotiate within the membership of that organisation, but there was a satisfactory outcome and that is to the credit of all concerned. Plant Health Australia is working through a similar process at the moment and I am confident that a similar satisfactory outcome will be achieved. It therefore seems to me that provision could have been made in this bill for the collection of funds from members to meet the cost of managing a disease or pest incursion.

The minister may recall the Australian Meat and Live-stock Industry Bill 1997. That bill contained what I would call a housekeeping provision, which allowed for the government to collect future levies under the act. With the backing of industry, the ability of the Commonwealth to collect levies was inserted into the legislation, but the amount was set at zero. This gives the government the ability to collect a levy, if and as needed, up to a predetermined maximum amount without the need to amend the act, with all the time and effort that that can involve. I would appreciate advice from the minister as to why a similar arrangement is not a feature of this bill, given the advanced stage of negotiations between members of Plant Health Australia on a funding formula to meet the cost of exotic or endemic pest incursions.

At any time, the health of Australia's production plants and animals is crucial to our ongoing international market access in a disease-worried world. I think this bill would be bettered by the inclusion of levy provisions not dissimilar to those in the Australian Meat and Live-stock Industry Bill 1997. This would enable the Commonwealth to rapidly provide funding to Australia's plant industries to cope with such a disease emergency, in the comfort that those funds could be reimbursed over time by the industry through a Commonwealth levy. However, it is not the intention of the opposition to delay this bill, although I would commend this approach again to the government when it is considering and drafting future bills of this type.

Finally, I recently had the pleasure of meeting Professor Reuben Rose, the Dean of the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney, and Professor Lonnie King of the United States. In our discussions, both of those gentlemen focused on agri-terrorism and reinforced my belief that home security in terms of livestock and plant health, as well as our ability to react quickly to emergency disease outbreaks, is fundamental to our future. I might say that Plant Health Australia is well placed to make an important contribution to securing a safe and productive future for our plant industries. Having said that, I indicate that the opposition will support this bill.