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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 331


Senator XENOPHON (5:40 PM) —I indicate my support for the second reading of the Horse Disease Response Levy Bill 2008 and associated bills. I also express my gratitude for the information that has been provided by the minister’s office, as recently as this afternoon, which I will refer to shortly. I will not outline what the purposes of these bills are. I think fellow senators have adequately done that and I will not waste the Senate’s time by reiterating that other than to say that, to me, the nub of this issue is not that something ought to be done to protect Australians and to protect the industry from equine influenza. We know, from the report of the inquiry conducted by a former High Court Justice, the Hon. Mr Callinan QC, that there were some serious flaws that needed to be addressed as a result of what happened in the EI outbreak that was the subject of his inquiry. But it seems to me that the key issue here is whether it is appropriate to give the executive arm of government what some may see as a blank cheque in being able to raise this levy without sufficient guidelines or safeguards. That is why I would like to formally request that there be a committee stage in relation to these bills so that further questions can be asked in addition to any response the minister makes with respect to the second reading contributions.

I am mindful of the comments made by Senator Birmingham that recreational horseriding is a very significant activity in my home state of South Australia. Indeed, I think that would apply to all states.

If I may I will refer to an email I received from the minister’s office this afternoon. I am grateful for that information. A number of matters were raised and I think it would be appropriate for me to put on the record my concerns—or rather, questions—arising out of those communications. I note that the drafting instructions and principles underlying the intended operation of the proposed regulations have been provided to the Senate committee that inquired into this legislation and, further, that these drafting instructions for the regulations specify that those horse groups which do not hold regular competitions and do not meet the description of a performance organisation or breeding society will be exempt from paying any future levy. My question to the minister is: what does the government consider to be ‘a regular competition’? What is the definition of that? What are the guidelines to provide some comfort for those who do have horse clubs for recreational horse users as to what the parameters of that will be both in terms of what ‘regular’ means and the definition of ‘competition’? Does a few people getting together around a paddock occasionally, where there is a barbecue after the event and a couple of bottles of wine, constitute a ‘competition’? I think it is important that we define, in the context of this debate, in the context of the committee stage, what a ‘competition’ is and what is meant by ‘regular’.

I note that the minister’s office says that if horse owners do not hold competitions then they will not have to pay a levy. I also note that the government’s position, however, is that, in accordance with the legislation and the government’s principles for levies, they must consult with industry on these finer details and that this is the government’s intention. The whole concept around the regulations is that it is intended that there will be consultation—I accept that. If the minister can provide details as to the time frame for the consultation, the extent of the consultation, the nature of that consultation and, in broad terms, the organisations that will be consulted, that would be quite useful.

There is also the issue, in the context of this consultation, of the regulations that will arise. Is it intended that the regulations will be provided to the Senate and that the Senate will have the opportunity to disallow those regulations before they come into force? I refer to the debate late last year on Minister Albanese’s Road Charges Legislation Repeal and Amendment Bill 2008, which dealt with levies and road user charges. I may be wrong on this, but my recollection is that there was an opportunity to disallow the regulations associated with the legislation before they came into force—so there was that additional safeguard.

The information provided by the minister’s office indicates that it is also intended to exclude small groups from paying a levy where it would not be efficient to do so. If the minister could provide details as to what defines a small group and what is meant by efficiency, that would be appreciated. The information goes on to say: ‘In other words, if they are so small then it is not worth the administrative cost to actually collect this levy. We are intending these to be organisations with less than 10 registrations in a period of three months.’ That means that an organisation that has fewer than 40 new members in the year will be most likely not to pay a levy, but the advice says further: ‘We are obliged to consult with industry about this before making a final decision.’ To what extent will the government stray from that consultation in the context of formulating the regulations?

I note that the minister has committed himself to detailed consultation with industry on the regulations, and I accept that. Can I take it from that that industry includes the various recreational horse groups? There is a well-articulated argument in the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport inquiry report, particularly the dissenting reports—there were three dissenting reports—in relation to equity issues and the fairest collection mechanism and whether some groups of horse owners are in a better position to pay, as I believe there would be in the case of racehorse owners as compared to recreational users.

They are my concerns. It is my intention to support the bill in its second reading. I do have concerns about the lack of precision around how the legislation will actually operate. It has been left to the regulations, but, in the absence of it being spelt out explicitly, if the government undertakes to outline how the matters raised by the minister’s office will be specifically dealt with, that degree of particularity would assist me in determining my position at the end of the committee stage.