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Thursday, 28 March 1985
Page: 1125

Mrs SULLIVAN(8.33) —Mr Speaker, you are, of course, perfectly correct; four Bills-the Australian Meat and Live-Stock Legislation (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill, the Australian Meat and Live-stock Research and Development Corporation Bill, the Live-stock Slaughter Levy Amendment Bill and the Live-stock Export Charge Amendment Bill-are involved in this package. However, the critical Bill is the Australian Meat and Live-stock Research and Development Corporation Bill, the function of which is to abolish the Australian Meat Research Committee and replace it with the Australian Meat and Live-stock Research and Development Corporation. I commenced speaking on this Bill last night and I was speaking when the motion was moved for the adjournment of the House. Last night I said that there were some positives and some negatives in this Bill and I covered then what I considered to be the positive aspects of the changes and the proposed structure of the new Corporation. Tonight I will cover what I consider are some of the potential negatives. I do this not just for the sake of criticising the Bill, but because I think that the meat and livestock producers, who expect quite a bit from the changes that are contained in this package of Bills, may be expecting a little too much. I also think that it is important that they be vigilant in their own cause in examining some aspects of the Bill that they apparently have not considered in detail and to which they might pay detailed attention.

One of the criticisms that producers have made of the Bills is in the change of membership of the Australian Meat and Live-stock Research and Development Corporation compared with the Australian Meat Research Committee. Section 9 of the Meat Research Act sets out the membership of the AMRC. It contrasts with clause 12 of this Bill. Of the AMRC 12 members, seven had to represent Australian meat producers. Those people were appointed by the Minister on the nomination of the Australian Meat Board. That provision meant that a clear majority of the AMRC were people who represented meat producers, the people who are providing the money, the wherewithal. The total amount is something in excess of $10m per annum-half provided by the meat producers and half by the Government.

Under the Bill the Corporation has 11 members, a chairperson, a government member, the Executive Director and eight other members. Meat and livestock producers did ask that of the eight other members there be a majority who were meat producers. That would have been close to the composition of the AMRC which, I believe, actually did a very good job. However, that provision is not in this Bill as it was in the Meat Research Act. Some producers feel strongly that it should be in the Bill. Others say that they do not insist on its being in the Bill but they would like an assurance from the Minister that a majority of those eight other members, to be appointed on the recommendations of the Australian Meat and Live-stock Industry Selection Committee, be producers.

I have consulted the second reading speech made by the Minister for Primary Industry when he brought this Bill into this House and I found that, whilst he refers to the composition of the new Corporation, he gives no such assurance. It is my impression that many producers believe that they have been given some prior tacit assurance of this. I request the Minister, when replying to the second reading debate, to clarify whether it is his intention to aim for at least half of those eight other members mentioned in clause 12 (d) to be meat producers. At this stage there is nothing on the record to give meat and livestock producers that sort of assurance.

The second aspect of the Bill that I would like to highlight is the quite extraordinary powers of the Minister under the provisions of this Bill. This is essentially a research Bill, the composition will be responsible, as I have said, for more than $10m per annum, rising according to the Minister's estimates to a possible $14m per annum in three years' time. The Minister will have, under the provisions of this Bill, what are really quite extraordinary powers in that context.

The Meat Research Act very much circumscribed the Minister's powers and gave to the Committee a great deal of independence in determining which research programs actually received funding. The Act set the framework for what type, fields of research, were envisaged. Nevertheless the Committee had a great deal of independence in deciding which research programs would be followed and which research projects, when submitted to it, would be funded. Under the Bill that independence is no longer guaranteed. It will be a matter for the Minister's discretion whether independence exists. This matter has to be of concern to the many people who are involved in meat and livestock research in Australia, be they in tertiary institutions such as universities, be they part of the various State departments of agriculture, or, indeed, be they in any of the Commonwealth bodies associated with agricultural research, such as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

The Bill proposes that the Corporation will draw up research and development plans. These research and development plans that the Corporation devises will be put into operation under an annual operational plan. Requirements for research and development plans are contained in clauses 30, 31, 32 and 33. Operational plans are outlined in clauses 35 and 36. These clauses give the Minister a great deal of power. We find that that Corporation has to draw up research and development plans and submit them to the Minister, who has the absolute right of approval of the plans. He also has a right to reject a plan-to send it back to the Corporation. He has a right to amend a plan or to request the Corporation to put forward a revised plan. He may actually initiate requests for matters he wants included in the research and development plan. He has similar rights in relation to the annual operational plans.

Half of this money, of course, comes from the meat and livestock producers and half comes from the public purse. It is right that Ministers should have a responsibility for scrutiny of and input into the operation of the Corporation. But the Bill contains absolutely no requirement that there be a public revelation about any such toings and froings. The matter of approval of a research and development plan is covered in clause 31, which states that a research and development plan has to be submitted to the Minister for approval and cannot come into force until the day on which it is approved by the Minister or the day of commencement of the period to which it relates, whichever is the later.

There are certain requirements in relation to procedures to be followed, but the producers who are providing the other half of the money-the other half of that something more than $10m at present-may not even know any of the Minister's interventions. It is important that this be highlighted because one of the features of the Bill as presented by the Government is a matter of a reporting system and accountability to the producers who provide that half of the $10m to $11m. This accountability is to be achieved by means of the Corporation's annual report, about which I shall say a few words in a moment. If it happened that the Minister for some reason-perhaps political, or perhaps misguided ideas about the industry-wanted to say to the Corporation 'I do not like your research and development plan; I do not think that an aspect of it is one that ought to be proceeded with', there is absolutely no requirement that anybody ever be told that. It is quite likely that these Ministerial inventions or possibly very significant decisions on production, processing or marketing research for our meat and livestock industry would never be known. The Minister is, after all, a political person, not a producer or necessarily an agricultural expert.

This brings me to the subject of accountability. Last night when I was speaking I said that I thought the industry had been sold a bit of a pup on this Bill. I have been a member of the other place for some years. Annual reports are matters in which members of the Senate take a fairly close interest. When I hear a member of the Government saying to producers 'Look, you are going to get the annual report, then you are going to have an annual general meeting, and this annual report is going to be the basic document for that meeting; this is how we will be accountable to you', I think there really is something the producers are not being told, and I want to tell them. I want to tell them that it is highly likely that by the time that annual general meeting is held, with them arriving at it with the Corporation's latest annual report in their hands, that report is likely to be 12 months out of date.

The procedure for annual reports is as specified in the Audit Act, and there is reference to that in this Bill. But all that the Audit Act requires is that, as soon as possible after 30 June, the Corporation must present its annual report to the Minister who, within 15 sitting days of Parliament after receiving the report, must table it in Parliament. In the normal course of events, that is usually about eight months after the end of the financial year accounted for in the report. I will not bore the House tonight with all the reasons why that happens but I will give some quick examples because they are particularly relevant to this Bill. The Department of Primary Industry 1983-84 report-the financial year that finished on 30 June 1984-was tabled in the House of Representatives on 22 February 1985. The Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation 1983-84 report-it is this Corporation that the Research and Development Corporation will come under-was tabled in the House of Representatives on 25 February 1985. That is about standard performance.

This Bill provides that approximately three months after the tabling of the Corporation's report in Parliament there will be an annual general meeting. It is very easy to see that we are really running into about a 12-month time frame following 30 June of the previous year. The report is going to be quite out of date in terms of its reporting of the activities of the Corporation. The meat and livestock producers are going to attend this annual general meeting-I believe at a cost of about $200,000 out of the Corporation's budget, and they will also have paid for the report they have in their hands. It is not going to be a gift; its cost will also be paid out of the funds available to the Corporation. I say to the meat and livestock producers that they are not getting very much accountability. When we add to that the fact that there is no requirement that that report contain the details of the toing and froing on research plans that I referred to just a few minutes ago. There is no requirement that any of that interaction between the Corporation, which is supposed to be independent, and the Minister be reported. We could end up with a rather weak document and therefore very limited accountability. Other corporations have requirements that they include in their reports similar material. They must include in their annual report details of communications that have flowed between the statutory authorities and the Minister. This Bill does not have that requirement. Finally, I say to producers: Be vigilant, insist on that information and make it work.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Rocher) —Order! The honourable member's time has expired.