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Thursday, 17 October 2002
Page: 5445


Senator O'BRIEN (6:27 PM) —On Tuesday I made some comments about the National Residue Survey and the fact that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Mr Warren Truss, has significantly increased charges imposed on a number of intensive industries that participate in this important program. As I said when the National Residue Survey annual report was tabled, the program underpins the integrity of 16 animal commodities, 14 plant commodities, five representative seafood commodities and two representative aquaculture commodities. This program is essential for both our exports and industries that focus on the domestic market. It goes without saying that Australia must meet the residue and contaminant standards required by our export markets. The National Residue Survey program underpins the integrity of our rural exports with data on residue and contaminant levels.

The program also assists a number of domestic industries to maintain effective quality assurance programs. It therefore concerns me that some of these industries may be forced to reconsider their participation in the National Residue Survey program because of the deliberate misallocation of departmental costs to the program. As I advised the Senate on Tuesday, full cost recovery for survey activities was introduced under Labor on 1 July 1993. This program has operated on a cost recovery basis since that time. So the massive hikes being forced on these industries by Mr Truss, through his department, cannot be explained away as a move to full cost recovery. I assume the minister would not try to say that he has suddenly discovered a range of costs associated with the National Residue Survey program not previously identified after nine years of operation on a full cost recovery basis. I must add that these industries are happy to meet the costs that can be fairly attributed to the program, but that is not the issue. It is pretty clear that these cost increases have more to do with exploding departmental expenses than with any real cost increases associated with the National Residue Survey program. What the minister is therefore doing is using a backdoor method to raise revenue for departmental administration.

There has been a huge jump in professional support services imposed on the chicken industry by the government. For example, over the period 1998-99 to 1999-2000, professional support services increased by 740 per cent. I note that the fee for these services declined slightly last year, but the overall percentage increase in this impost is nevertheless massive. The National Residue Survey cost profile for the chicken industry saw property expenses jump by 150 per cent between 1999-2000 and 2000-01. I assume that this expense derives from the department's own calculation of a proportion of departmental property imputed to the chicken industry through its participation in the survey. Therefore, chicken growers are being asked to contribute to the department's rising rental costs.

The cost of professional services to the pork industry jumped from $5,000 in 2001-02 to over $61,000 in 2002-03. That is a projection. I understand that that increase included a provision to contribute to the costs of departmental audit and security, departmental executive expenses—including some costs incurred by the secretary of the department, Mr Michael Taylor—and even some costs associated with departmental support to the minister. However, I understand that the minister has now reduced some of these cost imposts on the pork industry, including those associated with the executive, the secretary of the department and ministerial services. The fact that these costs were originally asked of the industry suggests that this is little more than a try-on by the minister. I understand that the National Residue Survey administrative costs being forced on another key intensive industry— the lot feeding industry—are in the order of 300 per cent, with no reduction on the horizon.

As I stated earlier, this program underpins the integrity of a number of key rural industries. I strongly suspect that these cost increases reflect the minister's failed strategy of outsourcing services. They may reflect increasing leasing costs for the Edmond Barton building. There may even be other cost blow-outs in the minister's department that have not yet been subject to public scrutiny. Whatever the cause of these growing demands on our intensive industries, the minister can be assured that I will attempt to get to the bottom of it. The minister would, of course, be aware that I now have on the Notice Paper a number of questions relating to his departmental costs, and I look forward to the answers—as, I am sure, do all senators interested in good public administration. If this minister cannot properly administer his own department, that is a problem for him and he should deal with it without making extravagant demands on these industries. I fear that his inability to run his department, reflected in recent cost transfers to the National Residue Survey, puts this important national program at risk. That is simply not acceptable.

I wish to make one more point in relation to the minister's handling of this issue. It concerns the minister's consultation, or lack thereof. I understand that there was little or no consultation with these industries before the minister increased these charges. Some industry levy reserves were simply run down without any advice from the department to the industry about cost increases or the impact of these increases on levy reserves. I understand that some of the funds are now in deficit as a result of this mismanagement. Cost increases have been imposed over the past few years, with little or no consultation with industry or notice of dwindling levy reserves. In some cases, there has not been a single communication about these fee increases. The first time some industries became aware of the new charges was when they received the bill showing the retrospective impost. I assume that these cost imposts have been imposed at the direction of the minister but, either way, he is the responsible person. He either directed his department to collect these charges or he failed to maintain oversight on actions taken by the department in his name.

Mr Truss has a habit of trying to avoid public scrutiny by slipping out of the ministerial entrance as darkness falls to make significant announcements. Not surprisingly, many of these announcements have a significant impact on Australia's key rural industries. His decision on the US beef quota is one example of such behaviour, but probably the most celebrated example is his announcement of the government's grand sugar plan—completely lacking in detail and announced in fading light on the evening of 10 September this year. However, increased administrative costs on industries participating in the National Residue Survey did not even get the ministerial entrance treatment. They were proceeded with without any announcement at all. The imposition of these charges, without consultation and without announcement, represents a new low in Mr Truss's already low standard of administration. The National Residue Survey, and the intensive industries that rely on that survey, deserve better.

This is a very important program. This is a program which underpins important industries which serve rural and regional Australia well and which provide employment in, and the economic basis of, many communities. It is inappropriate that they become a milking horse for this government, this department and this minister. As I said, I will be pursuing this matter further so that equity can be returned to this area and the program is not threatened.