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Monday, 29 February 2016
Page: 1269

Senator CAMERON (New South Wales) (13:05): I rise to support Dairy Produce Amendment (Dairy Service Levy Poll) Bill 2016. The dairy industry has asked the government to remove the statutory requirement to hold a levy related poll of producers each five years. The Dairy Produce Amendment (Dairy Service Levy Poll) Bill 2016 gives the sector what it has asked for. The opposition supports the bill.

The purpose of the poll is to secure the views of levy payers in the industry about the adequacy of the levy from time to time. The new arrangement will require a poll only when the industry is proposing a levy increase. There is a safeguard: if 15 per cent of producers get together, they can request a poll in the event that they disagree with the decision not to conduct one.

The key objective is obvious: polls are very cumbersome and quite expensive. The dairy sector estimates that the poll cost them around $750,000 every five years. That is $750,000 that could be going back to research and development rather than on the conduct of a poll which has no real purpose in the event that the industry is not looking for a variation in the levy. The key players in this equation are the industry representative body, Australian Dairy Farmers, and the industry research and development corporation, known as Dairy Australia. Industry R&D and marketing are the reasons levy monies are raised, in the case of the industry owned corporations. R&D plays an important role in enhancing the productivity and competitiveness of Australia's agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors. It can provide various other benefits including better and lower priced food for consumers and improved environmental and animal welfare outcomes.

Australia's spend on agricultural R&D is a round $1.5 billion annually. Three-quarters of that money comes from the Commonwealth and state governments. The public funding is delivered through an array of general and sector-specific programs, with the research in turn conducted by a mix of government and private research providers. A sizeable part of the Australian government's R&D efforts is provided to the rural research and development corporations, the so-called RDCs, and they have been the subject of some public debate in recent months. These corporations commission rural research on behalf of primary producers, some processors and the government. Producers typically contribute to the cost of this research primarily through statutory and voluntary levies, with most of the government's contribution provided on a matching dollar-for-dollar basis up to a value of industry input.

This is a bill which is very important to the dairy sector. I am advised that the dairy sector has consulted very broadly with levy payers and levy payers are comfortable with this new arrangement. On that basis, the opposition also is comfortable with the arrangement. We want to ensure that the sector is able to work as efficiently and as profitably as possible. Research is a very important component of that, particularly on the productivity front, and we are happy to do what we can, from opposition, to allow them to do so. Levies are never without controversy. Levy payers, producers, growers and farmers generally are often key to ensuring that their levy money is well spent. While things are not always perfect, our RDCs do a good job of making sure that the money is well targeted, spent efficiently, and leads primarily to enhanced productivity in the sector. There is no shortage of literature making the direct link between investment in research and development and, indeed, extension and productivity in the agricultural sector. That is why it is important that we continue not only to invest heavily and wisely but also to invest as efficiently as possible.

While this bill is welcome, I have to say that the performance of Minister Joyce in the rest of his portfolio has been utterly woeful. Nowhere is this more evident than his crazy decision to relocate the agricultural research and development corporations away from Canberra. His pork-barrelling and his waste of taxpayers' money by establishing a ministerial office in Tamworth, beggars belief.

First, I draw the Senate's attention to Minister Joyce's bullying of research and development corporations. He is bullying them into moving from Canberra to locations that they do not want to be in. Not only do they not want to be there, but also they have provided arguments as to why it is not in the national interest—not in the interest of employees, not in the interest of the RDCs—to move. One of the key ingredients in a successful research and development corporation is quality staff. At the moment, the staff of the Grains RDC, the Fisheries RDC and the others that Minister Joyce is forcing to move are based in Canberra. The majority will continue to live in Canberra as their home and to send their children to Canberra's schools. Why on earth the minister thinks highly efficient RDC staff, who have deep roots in Canberra, will uproot their families and move from Canberra to Armidale, Wagga or Ballarat on a ministerial whim is beyond any reasonable comprehension. Now, I have no problem with Armidale, Wagga and Ballarat. These are lovely places to live, but they are certainly not the most effective and most efficient places for these RDCs to be operating from. This is clearly another example of National Party pork-barrelling which is about trying to achieve an advantage over the opposition. It is about trying to build employment in regional areas when there are much more efficient and effective ways of dealing with increasing employment in regional areas, other than destroying the RDC infrastructure that is in place.

Research and development corporations collect research funds through the levies that we are talking about this morning and they then contract out the research to various organisations. They might be universities, they might be governments and they might be CRCs or other suitably qualified organisations. But they do not do research themselves. For Minister Joyce to say that it is important that we put these RDCs close to the growers or producers because that is who they need to talk to is just rubbish. It is utter rubbish.

There is another very important point. It is important that if we are going to spend R&D money the most efficiently and effectively, we need to have competitive tension in the market. So when an RDC takes levy payers' money and engages a researcher it is basically putting something out to tender. Various universities might be interested in doing the research required and so might a private sector organisation. A government instrumentality may also be interested in doing the research. This competitive tension amongst researchers gives the RDC the opportunity to secure the best deal on behalf of the levy payer.

Minister Joyce says the RDCs should be up next to the University of New England in his electorate. It is not that they have to be close to the University of New England; it really is that Minister Joyce wants them up in his electorate. That is the bottom line here. 'They do great work in agriculture,' he said. And they do. UNE do good work in agriculture. But co-locating RDCs with universities will not create the necessary diversity of interests in carrying out research. This is not the way to conduct public policy. This is Minister Joyce again putting his own political ambition ahead of good public policy. This 'decentralisation program', as the minister misleadingly calls it, is about pork-barrelling for him and the National Party, not about good R&D for agriculture.

There are two categories of research and development corporations. Some are statutory bodies over which the minister has substantial control, and some are industry owned bodies over which he does not have such control. Minister Joyce is forcing the statutory RDCs out of Canberra for no good public policy purpose. It is revealing that he has not had any consultation with the industry owned corporations. He does not have the power to force the industry owned corporations out of Canberra. If he is so sure that pushing RDCs into National Party electorates is going to provide a better outcome for the agriculture sector, why has he not been talking to the industry owned corporations? It makes no sense. There is no rational policy here.

Still on pork-barrelling, the government also promised in its now utterly discredited agriculture white paper that it would provide $13.8 million to somehow encourage and help farmers, producers and growers to form cooperatives. At a time when CBH, the most successful cooperative in the country, is talking about demutualising and forming itself into a corporate entity, Minister Joyce is spending $13.8 million of taxpayers' money to tell farmers what sort of corporate structure they should have. Farmers, growers and producers will make their own decisions about this structure—sole trader, partnership, company, cooperative or whatever they like. They will look at the various tax advantages, possibly, and what suits them best. They do not need Minister Joyce to provide $13 million of taxpayers' money to help them work that out.

But it gets worse than that, because Minister Joyce took $200,000 of that $13.8 million and he gave it to the Rural Industries RDC and said, 'Give us the scoping work. Tell us how we might spend that $13.8 million.' Perhaps that is a good thing, because nobody, including this incompetent minister, has any idea how he is going to spend $13.8 million instructing farmers how to become cooperatives. I at least welcome the fact that he decided to spend $200,000 of it asking RIRDC to tell him how he might spend it. RIRDC did the work, they did their scoping study and they delivered that to the minister.

But the minister was not satisfied with that. He decided he would appoint a task force. He would ask the member for Page to go out and find out how he might spend $13.8 million. The member for Page went out and consulted with the sectors, allegedly. Probably most of the consultation took place in Page, which of course is a razor-edge marginal seat for the government. What we want to know now is what Mr Hogan, the member for Page, learned and what he delivered as a result of his consultation. We asked this question in estimates. We asked the secretary of the department, 'Can we have Mr Hogan's work, because this $13.8 million is sitting there and we want to know how it's going to be spent.' The department secretary, with the greatest respect, said: 'Well, we couldn't release that because we'd have to ask Mr Hogan. You know, it's his work. It might be considered a private document.' That $200,000 of public money was used to produce a private document, apparently—what a load of nonsense!

So we let that matter pass and moved on to the next subject. At least five hours later, we were advised by the officials that they had been unable to find Mr Hogan in this building. He was missing in action. Mr Hogan had disappeared. The man who was charged with providing advice to the agricultural community and rural community about establishing cooperatives could not even cooperate such that anyone knew where he was. He could not even cooperate to tell people where he was. For five hours or more, nobody could find the member for Page. He was missing in action and his plan on how to spend $13.8 million of taxpayer's money was missing. I do not know why they could not have just rung him. The government did not want to hand over Mr Hogan's report.

I suspect the reason the government does not want to hand over Mr Hogan's report is that it is now the government's intention to spend the $13.8 million in the electorate of Page. This is Mr Hogan's re-election fund. This is the National Party at its worst, using public money to try to advantage its political position. The government's intention to use the $13.8 million it allocated to tell farmers what structure they should embrace is being used to sandbag the electoral fortunes of the member for Page. No wonder they could not find Mr Hogan in the building on estimates night!

We look forward to Mr Hogan's report being tabled either in the Senate or in the other place—but I don't think we should our breath. I do not think the National Party or Mr Hogan are too keen to have this part of their election strategy laid bare, even though it is the public who are paying for this election strategy for the National Party. It is absolutely outrageous. We know that the National Party are experts at pork-barrelling. We know that the National Party use public money ruthlessly to support their own political agenda. And nothing could be clearer than what is happening with Mr Hogan in the seat of Page: the National Party have not changed their position. They are still out there with the pork-barrelling. They are still out there trying to advantage themselves by using public money. It is an absolutely outrageous proposition.

I, with those concerns about the behaviour of the minister and the behaviour of Mr Hogan, would support the bill. I would commend the bill to the Senate. But the questions I have raised here today about this report, about the behaviour of the missing member, Mr Hogan, and about why we would be funding $200,000 so that there can be an investment of $13.8 million in the seat of Page—all have to be answered. In the national interest they all have to be placed before parliament so that we know what is going on. I do not know what made Mr Hogan an expert in cooperatives. I do not know whether he has any capacity to do this. I do not think he has. I have had a look at his CV and did not see that he has worked in cooperatives or that he has been an expert in that area. I do not think he has ever advised on any of these business issues outside of parliament. So how he suddenly becomes an expert, because the National Party want to do another pork-barrel in the seat of Page, is an issue that has to be live before parliament and before the Australian public.

The National Party's disregard for the public purse, the National Party's contempt for accountability of the public purse and the National Party's history of using public money to advance their own interests is, again, clear to be seen. They have got form in this area and they should be stopped. But I do not expect that the current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to have any backbone or any courage to deal with this type of issue where there is a misuse of public money. It is clear that the current Prime Minister only looks after himself and that he only had one interest, which was getting to the Lodge and staying there. When you have the Deputy Prime Minister out ripping off the public purse and when you have the Deputy Prime Minister setting up his mates with hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money—and potentially $13.8 million worth of public money—there is a question to be asked.

If the Prime Minister had any authority within the coalition—which, by the looks of it, he has not—he would be ensuring that public scrutiny of the money that has gone to Mr Hogan is on the public record. He should simply say that the days of the National Party using public money to advance their political cause are over and that the National Party should not be allowed to have the disregard that they have for accountability and operating effectively in the public interest. This is a problem that needs to be fixed. I commend the bill, but the minister should be brought to book in relation to what is going to happen to this money.