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Monday, 29 February 2016
Page: 1273

Senator LEYONHJELM (New South Wales) (13:26): The agricultural industry collects more than $500 million a year in levies from primary producers. That money is spent on, mostly, R&D; some of it is spent on marketing, purportedly for the benefit of those industries that pay it. It is only reasonable, to my mind and I think to the minds of most levy payers, that those collecting and spending the levy funds are held to account on a regular basis by those who pay the levies. In other words, that there is representation as well as taxation.

Last year the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee conducted an inquiry into the levy payment system. It heard evidence from dozens of levy payers to the effect that they were dissatisfied with the current system, to the effect that they did not know what was being done with the money and to the effect that they were not sure that they should continue to pay that money. It heard that if levy payers were able to have some say over whether they continued to pay that money and some say over how that money was spent they would consider it only fair and reasonable.

This bill essentially says to those people: 'No, you are wrong. You do not need to have any say about how your money is spent. You do not need to have any say about whether or not you even pay that money. You are just going to keep paying it.' It is against the spirit of the recommendations of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee as well. The committee recommended the establishment of levy payer databases in all sectors so that levy payers could be consulted. But what would they be consulted about? Whether to keep paying their levies and how to spend that money.

The Dairy Produce Amendment (Dairy Service Levy Poll) Bill 2016 is essentially removing from dairy farmers their right to vote on their levies every five years. There are only two industries in which there is a right by levy payers to vote on whether or not to continue paying levies: the dairy industry and the wool industry. The wool poll is held every three years, the dairy poll every five years. The intention, and certainly the spirit, of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee recommendations is that such democracy should be extended, not reduced. This bill will remove from dairy farmers the right to have a say on whether or not to continue paying levies unless there is a proposal for those levies to change. It is directly contrary to the evidence that we heard from so many levy payers and it is also directly contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of the recommendations of the committee.

The bill proposes that, once a levy is set, there is no opportunity for levy payers to have any further say on levies unless a change is proposed. It attempts to provide dissenting levy payers with an opportunity to petition for a poll. This is disingenuous, because it says that you will need 15 per cent of registered levy payers to demand a poll. Even in a corporation, you only need five per cent of shareholders to petition for action in a public company. This is taking the industry in exactly the wrong direction. It also sends a signal to all the other sectors that democracy is not something that is welcome. You are really wasting your time if you think you are ever going to get any say over how your levies are used or whether or not your levies are collected.

To validate that point, you just have to look at how this decision was arrived at. Dairy Australia says it conducted some kind of poll of its members in order to determine whether or not they were in favour of it. Fewer than 1,400 dairy farmers out of 6,288 levy-paying dairy farmers voted in favour of the proposals contained in the bill—that is just 22 per cent. It is hardly a ringing endorsement.

Dairy Australia says that the changes are proposed because it is too costly and time consuming to undertake a poll every five years. The fact is that neither the minister nor Dairy Australia made any attempt to put alternative proposals to levy payers that would have made voting easier and cheaper. Hasn't anybody ever heard of SurveyMonkey? How expensive does it have to be?

The fact is that the cost that Dairy Australia complains about, the $750,000, is attributable to campaign costs. Those are the costs incurred by those who will benefit from maintaining the status quo—including, coincidentally, the directors of Dairy Australia, who want a particular outcome. This cost is equivalent to allocating the election campaign costs of the major parties to the Australian Electoral Commission and calling it the costs of running an election. It is a joke.

I am just a crossbench senator. I only have one vote. This issue is not going to go away though. One day, sooner or later, the minister will want my vote. The issue will still be here. I think now is the appropriate time to move my second reading amendment, which has been circulated in the chamber and, I understand, will be considered at the conclusion of the debate. I move:

At the end of the motion, add:

and the bill be referred to the Rural and Regional Affairs Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 12 May 2016.