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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 336

Senator SHERRY (Minister for Superannuation and Corporate Law) (6:05 PM) —In summing up the Horse Disease Response Levy Bill 2008 and the Horse Disease Response Levy (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008 on behalf of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Mr Burke, from the other place, I want to thank all those who have spoken. I did listen to part of the debate. I want to commend certainly Senator O’Brien and Senator Sterle, whose contributions I did listen to, and the work, as outlined by Senator Sterle, of the Senate committee and his observation that all members of the committee on both sides of the parliament—Liberal, National Party, Labor and Greens—who participated in those hearings did a very thorough job. I know that Senator O’Brien—and he has obviously mentioned this—has a very long-term and deep knowledge and participation in this sector. I suspect that knowledge is unsurpassed in this parliament.

The purpose of the bills is to give the horse industry the certainty that other livestock industries have when responding with government to emergency horse disease outbreaks. The proposed levy arrangements for the horse industry are similar to those applying to the chicken meat, honey, cattle, dairy, laying chickens, sheep meat, lamb, goat and pig industries. We are not dealing with a new principle here. The principle of a levy applying to a wide range of primary industries in this country has been long established. In fact, I know from when we were in government previously, and I was a parliamentary secretary from 1993 to 1996, that it was not infrequently that the Senate dealt with levies of this nature. I point that out because the principle of levies and their application in particular sectors has been of very long standing—at least 20 years to my knowledge—and, I think importantly, supported by both sides of politics.

Regrettably, we have a situation where the now Liberal-National Party opposition have abandoned that approach in principle. I point out in passing that the Labor Party, when in opposition from 1996 to 2007, maintained the consistent principle to support levies and their necessary increase from time to time. I find it somewhat odd that the now Liberal-National Party are opposing a long-held principle that both sides of politics have consistently supported for so long. I do find this somewhat odd. When he was primary industries minister in the Liberal-National Party, Mr Peter McGauran—who is no longer in the parliament—supported that principle. As I understand it—and he has left politics and is now involved in the horse industry—he supports this levy. He supports these arrangements. I find it somewhat strange that the Liberal-National Party, as soon as they moved into opposition, abandoned the long-held principles and approaches of both sides of politics, whether in government or opposition.

I do know and I do acknowledge that the application and development of levies is not an easy job because there are diverse arrangements in particular sectors. It is not an easy job. Briefly, on reflection, I can recall attempts to introduce a levy into the vegetable industry in that period between 1993 and 1996. I have to say, having been involved in a meeting with an incredible range of diverse organisations and trying to find a cost-effective way of applying the levy, it was no easy task. I acknowledge that. It is not an easy job to bring together a sometimes diverse group within a particular industry to apply a levy.

It was in 2006 that the horse industry requested the former Liberal-National Party government to introduce a statutory levy on the registration of horses as the best means of protecting the industry against the impacts of emergency horse disease outbreaks. A large number of alternative levies were evaluated by the industry but considered less equitable than the mechanisms selected. So it is not as though this is a rush job. This goes back to 2006. Unfortunately, at the time of the equine influenza outbreak in August 2007 the industry was still not a signatory to the Emergency Animal Disease Response Agreement, which would have assisted with the industry’s emergency disease preparedness. The intention at the time was that the horse industry and the government would share the costs. I do want to say that I think all the levies that I am aware of involve cost sharing. It is reasonable to expect individuals and participants in a particular industry to share part of the cost with government, with the broader taxpayer. But it is unreasonable to expect the taxpayer to pay all the costs. So there is cost sharing. Again, this is a long-held principle—of the last couple of decades—in the approach to levies in this country.

Since their introduction to parliament these bills have been the subject of an inquiry by the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport. The committee recommended the passage of these bills. Whilst the Liberal-National opposition and the Australian Greens submitted dissenting reports, the government is confident the regulations under the bills will provide an equitable, effective and efficient levy mechanism to substantially address these concerns. The process of framing these regulations will involve close consultation. They will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny, an important safeguard for all stakeholders. Nevertheless, drafting instructions for the regulations have been provided to the Senate committee and they provide clarity on many of the questions raised during debate. I intend to add in response to a request by Senator Xenophon—and his contribution was, as always, very incisive and informed—some additional information at the conclusion of my remarks on the second reading debate, in an attempt to ensure that the committee stage of the discussions is kept within reason.

I point out that the Commonwealth does not have the constitutional authority to make national horse registration compulsory. However, the chief veterinary officers of the states and territories are examining options to collect data on horse ownership. The preferred method—similar to other systems in use for disease control purposes—is to identify properties that own horses and work with existing horse registration bodies. It has been suggested that the commercial horse sector presents a greater risk and should shoulder a heavier levy burden. The reality is that non-commercial horses pose similar risks of bringing exotic diseases into Australia. Of the 515 horses imported to Australia from countries other than New Zealand in 2007, some 47 per cent were not from the thoroughbred or standard bred sectors. Further, a number of diseases—which threaten all horse sectors—are either already present in Australia, such as hendra virus, or could be introduced by the movement of insects or birds. Having to manage these diseases once they became endemic would be a cost to all horse owners and the wider community.

All horses, whether they belong to the commercial or non-commercial sectors of the industry, benefit equally from the containment and eradication of diseases. As the President of the Australian Horse Industry Council representing many non-commercial horse owners, Mr Barry Smith, argues:

Every horse is susceptible and everyone benefits from and eradication program.

These bills provide for a mechanism to impose, collect and appropriate a new levy on the initial registration of horses and provide certainty for resourcing emergency responses to future horse disease outbreaks. I have indicated some two years of development and discussion—if we can do it for the pig industry or the sheep industry or the cattle industry and other examples I have given them, surely, we can do it for horses.

If it is passed the levy will be set at zero. If activated in response to a disease incursion the levy will be payable only once and appropriated through Animal Health Australia. The horse industry does not need to repay its share of the costs of the 2007 emergency response. The legislation is supported by three peak national representative industries: the Australian Horse Industry Council, Harness Racing Australia and the Australian Racing Board. In addition, the bills have the support of Thoroughbred Breeders Australia, Riding for the Disabled, the Equestrian Federation of Australia, and Australian horse riding centres and many other groups. The majority of the horse industry has argued that the legislation should be passed in the interests of the broader horse industry’s national interest. I urge all senators to support the bills to provide certainty and protection to all Australians who own horses.

Specifically in response to some questions Senator Xenophon raised around the definition of what is considered a ‘regular competition’, obviously there is consultation going on about this. Regular competition is a regular scheduled event which is advertised by an organisation. The example that Senator Xenophon raised concerned a couple of people getting together, going off horse riding, maybe having a race between themselves and having a barbie afterwards and a glass of wine. That would not be covered by the levy. It is not a regular scheduled event advertised and conducted by an organisation.

To the issue of regulations that he touched on concerning intention to consult: yes, I think that everyone would accept that Minister Burke has indicated that consultation on the details of the regs will occur. It will be thorough and it will be as widespread as possible. In fact anyone and everyone, I am told, that has a view will be consulted and listened to. The timetable, Senator Xenophon, is likely to be about six months, and I think that is a very reasonable period. As for the extent of the organisations, anyone and everyone that has got a view on this matter will be consulted. Thoroughbred Breeders Australia; Riding for the Disabled; Australian horse centres, representing some 80 horseriding schools and 40,000 riders across Australia; the Equestrian Federation of Australia; the Welsh Pony and Cob Society of Australia; the Western Australian Horse Council; the Southern Horse Council, representing a range of groups in WA; pony clubs; the Queensland Horse Council; and camp drafting. Anyone else on the face of Australia that wants to be involved in the consultation will be consulted and listened to over the coming months.

I have also sought clarification on another issue that Senator Xenophon raised concerning the regulations. The regulations are finalised after this consultation and the Senate and the House have the opportunity to disallow the regulations. Regarding the operative date for regulations, which could obviously be the date they are approved by the Executive Council, I was asked whether the Senate would have the opportunity to debate and disallow those before they come into effect. I can give you that assurance, Senator Xenophon. The minister will ensure that the operative date will provide for a period when the Reps or the Senate is sitting so they can disallow the regulations before they take effect to avoid that circumstance, and I know that difficulty can occur.

So that is where we are. We believe that it is important. It is in the national interest to provide certainty and protection if we have the sorts of disastrous events that occurred—and they could have been far worse of course—in respect of the equine disease outbreak of some 18 months or two years ago. I would urge the Senate to support the legislation. There is still a great deal more work to do obviously, but as I have indicated on behalf of my Minister Burke, and knowing him as I do, the intent to consult the timetable, the thoroughness, the extent of the organisations, the issues, the opportunity for the Senate to disallow prior to the regulations coming into effect--all of those assurances I have given on behalf of the government and on behalf of the minister. It will happen and I know that the minister is very serious indeed to ensure that all of this will happen, and I would urge the Senate to pass this legislation.

In conclusion, the principles and the approach that is being taken are no different from what has occurred over the last couple of decades. These sorts of circumstances and the need for this levy are very significant and very serious. Let us hope we do not face outbreaks of disease that we saw 18 months ago. I would urge the Senate to support the legislation and we will no doubt have an opportunity, if senators want it, to debate the regulations before they come into effect.

Question agreed to.

Bills read a second time.