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Monday, 29 February 2016
Page: 1275


Senator BULLOCK (Western Australia) (13:33): I remember that when I first got here a lot of senators asked me, 'Which committees are you interested in?' My good friend Senator Sterle did not say that. He said, 'You're coming on the rural and regional affairs committee with me,' and I am so glad that he took that decision out of my hands, because it has enabled me to become more familiar with the issues confronting our agricultural industries and our hardworking farmers, who preside over the world's most efficient agriculture sector and in do so having always stood on their own two feet, having not had the benefit of the sorts of subsidies and protections that are so often offered by other countries in support of their farming sectors. Our agricultural industries are truly competitive on the world stage.

The shadow minister for agriculture often talks about the dining boom, about Australia being tied in the future, as it has been in the past, to the success or failure of our agricultural industries. Our industries are indeed very efficient and well placed to take advantage of the new opportunities that are opening up through our free trade agreements. There is an extent to which I would commend the government for the work that has been done on free trade agreements—notwithstanding the genuine and legitimate concerns raised with them with respect to investor-state dispute settlement procedures and with respect to protecting Australian workers and Australian labour standards in the context of those agreements. But there is no doubt that new opportunities are opening up for our agricultural sector in trade, and many of our agricultural industries are to be commended for the manner in which they take up those opportunities.

We heard from the Tasmanian cherry industry not only that they keep up with developing opportunities for trade but that they get ahead of the curve. The Australian cherry industry is not currently putting all its focus on developing the opportunities in China and South Korea; the Australian cherry industry is in India, opening the doors initially to get product recognition and understanding in that new market so that, in the event that we develop further trade arrangements with India, the industry is already there and established and is in a position where it can take full advantage of those opportunities that arise.

Of course, we are not alone in that regard. Other countries are looking to maximise their trading opportunities. In the event that the TPP comes to fruition, we will have to not only look to how we can best take advantage of those new opportunities but also compete with the other signatories to that partnership in relation to their efforts to expand their trade. So a number of countries around the world will be keenly waiting for the starter's gun to be fired on what will be another round of fierce competition in trade. The New Zealanders are not behind the door, particularly in the dairy industry, which is the subject of this bill. The New Zealand dairy industry has done extraordinarily well in opening new markets in North Asia, and we will have to be on our mettle to catch up with them and the work they have already done in securing those markets.

If we are going to be successful, Australia cannot afford to rest on its laurels. We cannot afford to say, 'We have always been a highly-efficient agricultural producer and that advantage will see us through into the future.' We need to understand that in the world market our competitors are also continually working on improving their productivity and efficiency, and we need to be in that game with them, working to ensure our quality, our presentation, our marketing, our production and our costs are kept world competitive so that we can make the most of the trading opportunities are delivered to us. That requires a commitment both by the industry itself and by the Commonwealth to continuing investment in research and development and in marketing. That responsibility has been recognised by Australian governments of both persuasions and by industry through our system of agricultural levies. There is a wide range of agricultural levies—far wider than I had originally thought—which apply in almost every sector of the agricultural industry to ensure that money is directed to improving productivity through research and development and in marketing our goods overseas so that Australia does not miss the opportunities that are before it.

In supporting research and development and marketing, industries and government work together. The levies are collected from industry—some are dedicated to marketing, some to R&D. In most cases the government matches the R&D expenditure so that there is a pool of money supported by the government to be invested in the research that will see our agricultural industries into the future. The fact that it is a co-payment between industry and the government means that the industry has skin in the game and has a financial interest in ensuring that the levy moneys are expended appropriately and to the greatest good of the agricultural sector.

That engagement by industry raises some legitimate concerns for them. They would naturally be concerned about what proportion of their levy money goes into research and development and what proportion goes into marketing. That might change over time. There might be pressing problems demanding R&D today and new marketing opportunities opening up tomorrow, and the money that is available needs to be directed to where it can be most effectively used. The split between research and development and marketing is an issue about which those who pay the levy have a direct interest. Then there is the level of the levy—some levies are set in dollar terms or, more commonly, a percentage. It may be that in a bumper year a percentage delivers a great deal of money; it may be that levy-taking organisations develop surpluses on which they can rely. Perhaps from time to time levy payers might say, 'Well, we don't really need to pay as much in levy payments because our organisation has a surplus.' The answer to that may well be that the industry is cyclical and goes through boom times and lean times; They need to develop a surplus during the boom times so that they have adequate money to deploy on R&D and marketing during the poor times. But the level of the levy is certainly something of concern to levy payers and something about which they might want to have a say. Similarly, levy payers might be quite interested in exactly where their research dollar is being spent. I know, for example, there are some crops that are common to Queensland and Western Australia, and yet the growing conditions, the pests and the problems confronted by the industry in Queensland are quite different to those in Western Australia. I can well imagine a Western Australian levy payer being quite concerned if year after year all the research and development money was spent on solving the problems in Queensland.

Having engaged with the agricultural sector through the requirement on the industry to fund levies, there are issues arising from their engagement over which levy payers might reasonably be expected to show concern and over which from time to time there may be disputes—people saying that the levy is too high or inadequate or that more should go into marketing and forego the co-payment from the government. It is to be expected that those who pay the piper—the levy payers—would want some say in determining the sorts of problems that may arise either in allocating the priorities for R&D expenditure or the level of the levy or, as I said, the split.

Remarkably, in some of our industries consultation by means of a vote is simply not possible, because, notwithstanding the fact that we have been collecting levies from all of the participants in the industry for years, we do not have accurate, reliable and available lists of levy payers. I must say I was astonished when I found this out. Money is being collected from all of the participants in the various industries, but we do not have a list so that we can go back to those people and say, 'Do you think these priorities are appropriate? Do you think the level of levy payment is appropriate? Do you think we are spending the right amount on marketing or R&D?' We do not ask them, because we do not have, in most industries, a list of levy payers. I must admit I find that absolutely staggering. Often that is because of privacy issues: 'We could not possibly give you a list of the people who pay the levy because that information might be private.' I think in the hierarchy of priorities—and this is only my personal view; I am not speaking on behalf of anyone else here—to which we assign things we may have gone a little overboard in the area of privacy. In another connection, we do not have accurate, comprehensive data on severe injuries sustained through motor vehicle accidents. We do not have the data because people say, 'These people who go to hospital with severe injuries, we cannot possibly give you that information—it is private.' Privacy prevents us from having access to the data that could guide the future of Australian motor vehicle design rules, that could highlight whether the very pleasing downward trend overall in fatalities that we are seeing on our roads is matched by an upward trend in people spending their lives in wheelchairs. This information is absolutely necessary for the government in order to make appropriate rules around road safety, and yet we do not have it because people are so concerned about privacy.

Thirty years ago, if I wanted to check and see that a shop assistant was getting the appropriate wages and conditions I would just go in and do a time and wages check. But these days if shop assistants have a roster problem and I say I would like to see the roster, they say they are sorry but they cannot show me the roster because it might impinge upon somebody's privacy. As for seeing their payment records—you cannot see them, they are private. Those people—and there are one or two—who are ripping off their employees blind keep the records which would incriminate them from public view on the basis that they are private, when the public good is served in ensuring people receive their appropriate award wages and conditions. So privacy is used as an excuse to stop access to important information. I think it is nonsense, and it is largely privacy that prevents us from having a comprehensive list of levy payers so that we can ask them their view about how their money—that is raised for their benefit—is expended.

I know that Senator Leyonhjelm, who has just spoken, is very keen on having votes for everybody. I think the Wagin Woolorama is on shortly, and Senator Leyonhjelm is a champion of the wool poll. He is a great enthusiast for everybody being required to vote. People might think that Senator Leyonhjelm is in favour of less regulation, but that is not the case. Senator Leyonhjelm loves regulation—he wants to ensure that every agriculture levy payer regularly votes on how their levies are disposed of. So Senator Leyonhjelm stands for more regulation. The view of the different industries is not the same on this matter. In some industries everybody appears to be perfectly happy with the status quo—happy with the amount of the levy raised, happy with the way moneys are expended, not seeking to make any change at all. There are some agricultural industries where the levy payers are crying out for a greater say in how much levy they pay and how moneys are expended but they are denied that opportunity either because there is no available list, as a result of privacy considerations, or because those who currently control the decision making pursue their vested interests and ensure that the capacity to make a decision with regard to the expenditure of considerable sums of money is not taken out of their hands—they guard that power and do not forgo it.

With the ballots, in practice there are industries where the barriers for entry are very low and people move in and out of the industry on a seasonal basis. For example, Senator Urquhart might decide to grow vegetables in Tasmania this year but next year decide to get out of the vegetable growing industry, and it is impractical to keep an accurate list of participants in some agricultural sectors because of the ebb and flow of those participants. Those sectors of the industry would be denied the opportunity of having a say over the level of their levies or how they are expended. Finally, there are those who have the infrastructure in place but who do not want to exercise it. That is where I believe we are at with the dairy industry. The dairy industry is in the fortunate position of having an accurate list of participants such that a poll could be conducted on any number of questions pertaining to their levies, but they appear to have genuinely decided that they only wish to exercise that opportunity to vote on levies in extraordinary circumstances. I am prepared to accept the industry's word that they are fair dinkum in saying it is only when 15 per cent of industry participants petition for a poll that they need to have a poll. If that is what they want, I am more than happy to accede to that request.

The industry says this measure will save them $1 million every five years, in terms of the cost of conducting a poll, and $1 million will buy a lot of research and development. If that is their wish, I am more than pleased to go along with it and support this bill, which will remove the requirement for them to have a poll. An extra million dollars can be directed towards R&D, it can be directed towards developing new markets. I am advised today by the whip that there is ancient precedent for milk baths in Egypt, and perhaps the Australian dairy industry could milk that marketing opportunity. I am also told by the whip that if I can mention in my speech Cleopatra having a milk bath, there is a prize—I do not know what the prize is but I am shortly to claim it!