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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 323

Senator BIRMINGHAM (5:06 PM) —I too rise to speak on the Horse Disease Response Levy Bill 2008 and associated bills before the chamber today. It is a pleasure to speak following the contribution of Senator Fielding, who has accurately canvassed many of the issues and concerns that I also have with this legislation. These bills, as previous speakers have outlined, relate to the government’s response to the equine influenza outbreak that crippled Australia’s horse industry and horse sector over a long period of time. It is of grave concern to us that the government’s response, as they are attempting to implement it through this legislation, has so clearly been botched. Responding to the risk of disease in the equine sector is quite important. Getting it right is quite important. It is a big industry. There are big dollars at stake. There are many jobs at stake. There are many factors at stake in this sector.

The horse industry is more than just an industry. I try to avoid calling it ‘just the horse industry’ because, for so many people, it is not just an industry. It is a hobby; it is a lifestyle; it is a part of the family. That is what owning a horse is about for so many Australians. This is a very different sector to some of those that Senator Farrell mentioned in his contribution and that others have focused on. It is not like all of the other commercial animal sectors, because so much of it is in the hobbyist area. This is a fundamentally different area. It is not like cattle, sheep, goats or honey bees, as we heard before from Senator Farrell. This is a sector which is in fact overwhelmingly dominated by people who have horses as pets, who have them for their children and who have them as part of their day-to-day lifestyle. It is these people who will be most affected and most impacted by this legislation proposed by the government.

I have received, as have other senators, strong community opposition to this proposal. I have been in touch with many of the equine associations in my home state. I have been in touch with many of the grassroots organisations, like the Pony Club, scattered throughout South Australia, with many of the other bodies representing various breed groups and with others involved in the not-for-profit horse sector. They have continuously expressed to me concerns that this is unfair on their members, on the people who own the horses and, indeed, on those associations and bodies who will potentially be caught up in the whole levy collection process.

At the end of last year, I had the pleasure of attending the National Mounted Games held in Adelaide’s parklands and hosted by the Pony Club Association of Australia. It is an annual gathering of Pony Club riders from around the country where, it is noteworthy, they ride borrowed horses. We are not talking about the transportation of horses across the country. These are people who cannot necessarily afford to transport their horses across the country, because it is such a small volunteer sector. These are people who turn up to compete on their own time at their own expense in a not-for-profit environment. Of course, they are also young people. They are young people and families who are involved in a healthy outdoor pastime, one that is so integral to Australia’s history and culture. We can all reflect with pride on the opening of the Sydney Olympics when we saw the horses storm into the Olympic stadium. It shows just how integral the horse industry has been to Australia’s culture and should continue to be, not just as an industry but also as a sector that all Australians can and should be able to afford to embrace.

As I indicated, there is strong opposition to this piece of legislation and to the proposed introduction of these levies on the equine sector. I have met with and spoken to the Pony Club Association on numerous occasions. They provided to the inquiry that was undertaken by the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs a very detailed submission, which I have referred to and which I am sure other senators will also refer to in their contributions to this debate. There is opposition not just from the Pony Club Association but also from other organisations, including HorseSA, the peak horse industry body in South Australia, which made it quite clear that they believed that the bill could not be supported. I have also heard opposition from the Equestrian Federation of South Australia, which also made a submission to the Senate inquiry into these bills. Their submission made it equally clear that they believe that the levy as currently proposed would be unfair to the majority of horse owners who are not responsible for, have no control over and have no accountability for those who import horses. In doing so, it is these people who pose in many ways the greatest risk to the security and safety of the equine sector in Australia.

There are an estimated 1.2 million horses around Australia. Many of these are retired in paddocks, not actually used by anybody but still loved and cared for by their owners. There are many more that are used on a recreational basis. There are some that are still used on a pastoral basis. A very small number out of that 1.2 million are actually used as part of the horse industry, particularly the racing sector and the profitable horse sector, where we see the money and the jobs generated in the main. The government’s proposal, it is understood, will capture some 50-odd thousand registered horses. It captures just a very small proportion of the total number of horses in Australia. But, still, that small number of registered horses in Australia that is captured will overwhelmingly be dominated by those of the not-for-profit sector. In its submission, Pony Club Australia says that it represents in excess of 55,000 horse owners. It states that this legislation is ‘fundamentally flawed and grossly unfair to horse owners in the Performance, Recreation and Hobby sector’ and goes on to say that, if passed into law, it would:

... inflict great hardship on our Association and our members resulting in a huge reduction of the numbers of young people participating and have an equally dramatic impact on the number of clubs, facilities available and opportunities to take part in horse sport and recreation.

That is a very clear statement of belief from Pony Club Australia—that, if passed, this legislation would mean fewer families, fewer young people and fewer children would be able to afford to participate in a great recreational activity which is so iconic in Australia’s pastime. Why the government would want to proceed with something that would hurt so many families who are simply trying to do the right thing by their kids is beyond me. That is what the outcome will be. It will hurt everyday, hardworking Australians, the so-called ‘working families’ that the government liked to talk about so much before the election, about whom we do not hear terribly much now. I have not heard the phrase ‘working families’ for some time from the other side of the chamber.

Senator Johnston —Because they are probably not working.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —As Senator Johnston rightly points out, that is probably because they are not working as we see greater and greater unemployment forecast by this government. But I stray from the importance of this issue to everyday Australians and families right around Australia, important because to them this is about social activities and pastimes, healthy, outdoor activities which government should be encouraging more of, not putting greater burdens in the way of. That is the fundamental issue that really needs to be looked at here: why a government would want to make it harder for young people to engage in a healthy, outdoor recreation activity that is so iconic to Australia’s history.

As well as the inequalities in the spread and collection of the levy, Pony Club Australia and others making submissions to the Senate inquiry, and representations to me and to other senators, have indicated concerns about their capacity to collect these levies and the capacity of organisations to be the filtering point to collect the levies for registered horses. Why? Because most of them are volunteer organisations. Most of the pony clubs around Australia are so small that, indeed, they would not be registered for GST purposes. All of their office bearers would be volunteers. Their state organisations might employ a part-time staff member. These are not organisations that are funded or equipped to collect government taxes or levies—far from it. These are organisations run by either mums and dads who are giving up their time to make sure that they can help run the organisation for the benefit of their children or indeed people like my mother, who works as an instructor on a voluntary basis on weekends.

There are so many examples and instances of Australians volunteering in these organisations. In effect, we are going to ask volunteers working in pony clubs to become tax collectors if this legislation is passed. That is utter madness and shows the selfishness of the government in wanting to pursue this type of proposal. Pony clubs are not in a position to be able to collect it.

With such a high proportion of horses in this recreation sector to be captured by the levy, the government needs to reconsider this. It is unfair, as Senator Colbeck made clear in his earlier comments, to burden the not-for-profit sector with the same type of levy system as will be applied to the for-profit sector, to the horse industry where breeders, racing owners and others seek to derive an income and make money out of the industry. That is where a comparison can be made with other types of animals that are covered by similar levies. That is where you can make a valuable example and comparison—not with the overwhelming majority of people who are in the recreation sector.

On behalf of all of those who have made such an effort to lobby me and my fellow Liberal and National senators, who have acknowledged from the very introduction of this proposal that it would hurt too many Australians and would cause pain and angst, I urge the Senate to defeat these bills, not to take the government at trust that somehow or other the regulations will tighten things up and make it fairer, because that is not the way we should deal with legislation here. We should know the outcome of legislation passed in this place before we allow it to be passed. We should not pass it based on the trust that the government will get the regulations right because, given the lack of consideration for those in the recreational horse sector shown in these bills to date, I struggle to trust that the government would get the regulations right.

These bills should be defeated today. I note that the Australian Greens issued a minority report opposing the passage of these bills. I welcome that and trust that they will stick to their guns. I welcome the comments that Senator Fielding, who preceded me, made outlining his concerns in this area. I encourage Senator Xenophon, on behalf of the fellow South Australian constituents we share, to think long and hard before he gives a vote in favour of these bills, because these bills will hurt ordinary South Australians, whom I know regard Senator Xenophon very highly. They would hope that he would regard their concerns about a new levy and a new fee as something he should be listening to and I am sure and hope that he will be.

As I read through the submissions made by the various contributors to the Senate inquiry, I was taken, in the Pony Club Australia submission, by an extract of a poem by Banjo Paterson called In the Droving Days. It is a poem that I think highlights the iconic nature of the Australian equine sector. I think it highlights just why we need to recognise that this is a sector that holds a special place in Australians’ hearts. It holds a special place in the hearts of thousands upon thousands of Australians who voluntarily give their time to love their animals, to help their children love their animals and to participate in these healthy recreations in so many different equine sectors. The poem finishes with the words:

And now he’s wandering, fat and sleek,

On the lucerne flats by the Homestead Creek;

I dare not ride him for fear he’d fall,

But he does a journey to beat them all,

For though he scarcely a trot can raise,

He can take me back to the droving days.

Let us not forget the history of those droving days in this country. Let us not forget the mums, dads and children who get so much pleasure out of the equine sector and let us toss these unreasonable bills out.