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Monday, 29 February 2016
Page: 1278


Senator URQUHART (TasmaniaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (13:51): I rise to speak on the Dairy Produce Amendment (Dairy Service Levy Poll) Bill 2016. I would like to tell Senator Bullock that apparently a milk bath is wonderful for your complexion. It is certainly something worth thinking about.

Senator Fierravanti-Wells: Are you trying to give him a hint?

Senator URQUHART: You never know, Senator Fierravanti-Wells! This bill has largely been driven by the industry itself after undertaking consultation amongst its members, which is a really important thing to think about. This bill has been the subject of consultation amongst the industry's members—it is not something that has been opposed; it has been considered within the industry. The consultation was prompted by the dairy levy payers, who raised concerns about the cost of conducting a levy poll every five years. We have heard a lot about this from previous speakers. That poll was held regardless of whether there was any proposal for changes on the table. Every five years, the dairy farmers would have to pay up for consultation and pay up for a levy even if there was going to be no change, which seems quite ludicrous to me. Clearly, this is not the best use of scarce and precious levy funds.

I understand that the industry-led consultation was both extensive and inclusive, and it should be congratulated for undertaking such a comprehensive process. Australia's dairy industry has approximately 6,000 levy payers. They are all hardworking dairy farmers and they are all looking for value from their money and from their levy investments. They cannot afford to throw money around. They want to look at what is the best value that they can get for their money. They are looking for the most efficient use of their money to identify opportunities to boost growth and productivity, and they are looking to make savings and avoid unnecessary spending wherever possible. I am comfortable that that is what this bill actually delivers for all those dairy farmers.

Every single Australian dairy levy payer was contacted at least once and given the chance to have input on the proposed changes. It does not happen very often that all players within a sphere of responsibility or interest are given the opportunity to take part, but they were. The input included a formal vote. This process identified that savings of $1 million could be made by changing the requirements around dairy levies. Again, the industry should be congratulated for a consultative approach that resulted in better outcomes that have widespread support.

The outcome of the consultation led the industry to advocate for the changes in the bill that are before us today. This bill amends the Dairy Produce Act 1986, to remove the requirement for a dairy levy poll to be held every five years. Additional subordinate legislation will also offer strong safeguards and protections for levy payers. This legislation will require the industry services body to establish a levy poll advisory committee, which will consider the levy rate every five years. This legislation will also require the industry services body to hold a levy poll if a variation to the rate is recommended by the advisory committee, and it will include a mechanism for group A members, or dairy farmers who pay the dairy levy, to request Dairy Australia Limited, DAL, to conduct a levy poll if they disagree with the levy poll advisory committee's decision not to convene a levy poll.

As I mentioned earlier, these measures will allow industry to save up to $1 million every five years. The industry has estimated that changes could also deliver more than $750,000 that can be directed straight back into industry programs.

Labor has spoken to industry leaders about this bill and we recognise that it is industry-led reform that has broad support. We also recognise that the consultation process has been excellent and congratulate the dairy industry leadership for developing and advocating for a measure that will encourage more effective and efficient use of levy dollars. It will enable more money to be spent on research and development, a really important area in dairy's operations.

R&D has a proud history of having dramatic impacts on growth and productivity. Because of this, the industry broadly welcomed the Liberals' pre-election promise that they would spend an additional $100 million in this area over four years. But this hope quickly turned to dismay when the Abbott-Turnbull government cut more than $100 million from agricultural research and development across the budget. There were cuts to the CSIRO, cuts to forestry, cuts to cooperative research centres and, appallingly, a serious cut to the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. What about the $100 million promise? Today, we are quite possibly only three months away from an election. So how much of this pre-election commitment has been delivered by the Abbott-Turnbull government?

The government is 2½ in power and only $26 million has been spent. Three-quarters of the promise is yet to be delivered and, given it seems the government now has a plan to cut and run to the next election, it is very unlikely that our agriculture sector will see another cent. Any reasonable person would concur that this amounts to a serious broken promise. In the face of these broken promises and debilitating cuts at the hands of the Liberal government, I again congratulate the industry for its proactive, consultative approach and effective outcomes, such as the bill before us today. But in order to facilitate an ordered transition to the new system, time is of the essence. The last date that a new levy recommendation could be made is in April 2017, meaning Dairy Australia would need to start work early on convening the industry based advisory committee and giving it enough time to commission the necessary research and analysis that will be needed to inform the options that will be included on the levy ballot paper.

If a 2017 poll is to proceed, these steps will need to be well advanced by the second quarter of 2016, so the industry is looking to have this bill passed in both houses as soon as possible. Labor will not stand in the way. We are very comfortable that this has been an effective consultation, led by industry, that has resulted in sensible savings that can be returned back to the industry. By any measure, the dairy industry is enormously valuable and very important to the economy and jobs in my home state of Tasmania. There can be no doubt that Tasmania's dairy industry continues to be one of the brightest spots in our state's economy. In 2011, Tasmania's dairy sector had a gross value of $802 million. Around $166 million worth of produce is exported internationally and $619 million worth goes interstate. In 2011, the industry employed more than 2,000 Tasmanians—

Debate interrupted.