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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 317

Senator COLBECK (4:28 PM) —I rise to speak on the Horse Disease Response Levy Bill 2008, the Horse Disease Response Levy Collection Bill 2008 and the Horse Disease Response Levy (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008. Broadly, the intention of these bills is to create a mechanism for the imposition of a levy on Australia's horse industry. The funds collected would ensure the industry is able to reimburse the Commonwealth for any expense associated with future outbreaks of horse diseases.

The horse industry will become a signatory to the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement, EADRA, which began in 2002 and has since gone on to devise other levy arrangements with other sectors of primary industries. The progression of the EADRA to include the horse industry is certainly welcomed by the coalition, but we are very much aware of some differences between the method of operation of the other primary industries, such as cattle, sheep or pigs, and that of the horse industry, which could also very easily be described as a community as well as an industry.

Through the bills before us today, the proposed levy would be imposed at the first registration of a horse with a horse registration body only. It would not be imposed on any subsequent registrations during a horse’s lifespan. It would not be imposed retrospectively on horses that had been registered prior to the commencement of the act.

I would like to speak briefly on our recent experience with equine influenza, the event which was the precursor to these bills. There is no doubt that the outbreak of equine influenza in Australia in August 2007 was a devastating, costly and crippling event for horse businesses, horse clubs and horse owners. More than 8,000 properties in Queensland and New South Wales were infected and the rest of the country was forced to take fast and extreme action in order to halt the geographic spread. According to the report of the Hon. Ian Callinan, ABARE estimated that the costs of the EI outbreak during the initial containment and eradication response reached $560,000 a day for disease control and $3.35 million a day in forgone income in equine business, including racing, farming and recreational enterprises. The Callinan report noted also the Commonwealth’s allocation of $227.9 million through various assistance packages for those whose primary source of income was affected by the EI outbreak and the subsequent horse movement restrictions.

As I have said, the coalition is no stranger to the nightmare that became reality when EI hit our shores. We fully appreciate the costs involved and the need to set up a mechanism for cost recovery in the event of future outbreaks. But, in their current form, these bills will not ensure that equal contributions are made from all sectors of Australia’s horse industry. While the experience and expense of responding to and mopping up after an exotic horse disease is still very much fresh in the coalition’s mind, it will be no surprise for you to hear today that the coalition will not be supporting these bills. We did not support the legislation when it was debated in the other place in September 2008. We did not support the recommendation of the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, following a Senate inquiry, that the legislation pass without amendment. And, as I have just said, we will not vote in favour of this legislation in its current form now.

The reason for this is that these three bills represent some of the poorest legislation I have ever been required to assess. This legislation, if passed, will do the exact opposite of what it says it intends to do. Quite simply, the legislation professes to levy equally when in reality it most unfairly levies a small minority of Australia’s horse industry, being those who complete the initial registration of a horse. If this legislation were to become law, in some instances horse owners who are exposing Australia to the greatest risk of exotic horse disease will make no levy payment at all. That, quite frankly, is simply outrageous. I am referring, of course, to the owners of the highly valuable commodities, thoroughbred shuttle stallions. These are the horses who move back and forth between Australia and the United States, Europe, Asia and the United Kingdom to take the financial advantage of dual-hemisphere breeding programs. The shuttled stallions currently engaged in this practice are the very horses that brought EI to our shores, yet the owners of these horses will never pay an EI levy despite the high disease risk these practices create.

Should this legislation be passed, future shuttle stallions will make a contribution to the levy when they are first registered, which is usually completed by the breeders. If ownership changes—a very common occurrence in the thoroughbred racing industry—the new owners will not make a levy contribution, even if they decide later to shuttle their horse in and out of Australia. How is it fair that one person is paying while another is creating the potential for infection?

Despite being the sector which felt most severely in 2007 the effects of EI, a significant majority of the thoroughbred racing industry will make no contribution to the levy. It should also be noted that this sector also received the greater share of income assistance, due to the number of associated businesses and individuals dependent on income from horse racing. It is obvious to many who oppose this bill that this sector would again require a great deal of assistance in the event of a future outbreak, yet the legislation before us facilitates a very minimal input from this sector. The burden of this levy will be borne by the horse breeders—professional and amateur alike. In the case of the amateur, the narrow collection base will be a strong disincentive to continue registering foals. Why should they pay when the great majority of the horse industry will not?

Under this legislation, the backyard hobby breeder will be chipping in more than their fair share while the great proportion of people who own horses, either for pleasure or business, will make no contribution at all. Under this legislation, those engaged in the horse industry through business or employment would not pay the levy, even though these groups would no doubt be calling for assistance in the event of a disease outbreak, as we saw with EI in 2007. It is little wonder that the majority of submissions to the Senate inquiry into these bills came from the hobby and pleasure horse community. It is these groups who are the obvious losers here, to the gain of the commercial sector, and as a result they are vehemently opposed to the levy’s introduction.

The government claims that all of the three peak national horse representative bodies support these bills. This is not totally correct. The President of the Thoroughbred Breeders Association, in a letter to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Minister Burke, on 13 August 2008, said:

The TBA supports passage of the Bills through the Parliament in the spring session on the understanding that the Government will consult with industry to establish a fair and equitable registration scheme to ensure the burden of the levy does not fall on too few horse sectors.

This is a conditional support and relies on the government to review the collection method for fairness and equity. The Australian Horse Industry Council has written in support of these bills, even though many of their member organisations strongly oppose the bills. An AHIC survey of their member organisations reported in July 2008 that, while the majority of respondents support the industry becoming a signatory to the EADRA, the proposed collection method based on horse registrations was not supported.

Individual Australian Horse Industry Council member groups have also expressed staunch opposition to these bills. At its general meeting on 15 July 2008, the Queensland Horse Council passed the following motion:

That the members of the Qld Horse Council Inc are not in favour of signing the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement or committing to any associated levy at this time.

The National Campdraft Council of Australia also opposed the signing of the EADRA due to the financial impost that would be placed upon its members.

In her submission to the inquiry, Ms Kelly Gannon—a representative of CBG Consultants and author of an online petition that gathered the opinions of 6,743 people opposed to the implementation of the bills before us—very adequately and very succinctly summed up the predominant concerns of recreational horse owners when she wrote:

The current legislation continues to place the majority of the financial burden of any future disease response on the non commercial and recreational sectors of the equine community when they are likely to not be the recipients of any financial assistance in the light of past outbreaks.

Ms Gannon and the 6,743 people she spoke for see the weakness of what is before us, but the government does not. The coalition cannot support these bills.