HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES - HANSARD - 12 SEPTEMBER 2016

Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (11:42):  The Primary Industries Levies and Charges Collection Amendment Bill 2016 was debated in this place during the course of the 44th Parliament and lapsed as a result of the now-infamous double dissolution, which produced some interesting results.

We are back here debating it once again. I say at the outset that the opposition will again be supporting the bill before the House, but throughout the course of my comments I will be expressing the same concerns that I expressed the first time the bill was debated here—concerns that the minister still has not adequately dealt with. I have invited him to give some additional reassurances about some of the measures in the bill. Indeed, I have written to him today, hoping to secure some of those assurances in writing. Given the public nature of the document, it does not contain anything that might relate to a private matter, so I will seek leave to table that correspondence to save the time of the House.
Basically, this bill seeks to overcome impediments in the current legislation which prevent the research and development corporations from developing and maintaining industry levy registers. To put it in simpler terms—and I believe it will come as a shock to members in this place—the research and development corporations which are recipients or beneficiaries on behalf of the sector of levies paid by producers and growers do not have a database of the people who make those contributions. Indeed, in most sectors they do not even know who those people are. In other words, the levies are paid to what are generally described as agents. In most circumstances, those agents might be, for example, processors.
So the department of agriculture receives the levy on behalf of the research and development corporations and then passes it on to the research and development corporations, less an administrative charge for the work involved in collecting the levies et cetera, but the research and development corporations do not know who is paying those levies. Obviously, the extent to which they have knowledge varies across sectors. Some research and development corporations have many more contributors than others. Obviously, the more contributors and the more collection points and transactions along the way, the less likely it is that the research and development corporation will have visibility of who it is that is paying those levies.
It makes absolute sense. Labor supports in principle the idea that the RDCs, who are the bodies making decisions about how levy payers' money is spent, have the capacity to interact with levy payers. In other words, sensibly, they will have the capacity to go back and consult levy payers about how they believe their money should be spent, how well and how efficiently they think their money is being spent and whether they are happy with their compulsory investment in research and development. That absolutely makes sense. This legislation will overcome an enormous shortfall in the arrangements we have. Again, the opposition supports that.
Our ongoing concern is around who will have access to this information. The collection and retention of data is of course becoming a big issue in society generally at this time of digital disruption and at this time in our history when data is, if you like, gold. We are very keen to assure ourselves that the data and information will not go to others and will not be misused. The best example of that—and it is a concern of mine—is what we generally describe as representative organisations like, for example, the Cattle Council. I am not singling out the Cattle Council; I am just using it as an example because it is one of the bigger sectors and one of the bigger representative bodies. We are concerned that an organisation like that could potentially use the information for political purposes. These are elected bodies. They are sometimes in very good shape, but they sometimes find themselves struggling, including in financial terms. They also, therefore, face difficult situations with their membership. I think we would all agree—in fact, I do know that we all agree and I believe the minister agrees—that it would not be appropriate for the information gathered as a consequence of this bill to go into the hands of representative organisations who might then in turn use it for political purposes.
I raised these matters the last time this bill was debated here. Again, I am not satisfied that my concerns have been addressed. Indeed, when referring to the purposes for which the database might be shared and while also giving assurance about the need for ministerial approval in certain circumstances and departmental secretary approval in other circumstances, in his second reading speech the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources said:
Where an eligible recipient is permitted to disclose levy payer information to a third party, that person or body may only use the information for restricted purposes relating to R&D, marketing, biosecurity or the National Residue Survey, or in connection with any activity carried out by the RDC for the benefit of producers in the industry it serves.
I did study some law, but I am not a lawyer. I would have thought that a lawyer looking for a tight arrangement about whether or not this information is going to be shared with people for whom it was not intended would not be very happy with 'the benefit of producers in the industry it serves'. That could mean so many things. Obviously, that could mean that someone may conclude that providing the money to the representative organisation is in the interest of the producers. That may well be the fact. It could possibly be the case that sharing the information with the representative organisation is in the interest of the producer or grower. The representative organisation may have something in mind that undoubtedly would be in the interest of the producer or grower. But of course that is not the point here. We as the opposition want assurances that that is the case. That line in the minister's second reading speech causes me great concern.
Typically, the government says, 'This will all be dealt with in the regulations and the guidelines.' In other words, the government is saying on this very important matter: 'Don't worry. Trust us. It'll be okay.' I have learned not to do that, particularly with respect to this government. I opened by making the point that this bill is here for a second time. The now minister travelled extensively around the country in the lead-up to the 2013 election, making lots of promises to producers and growers about levies, in particular with respect to the grass-fed cattle levy. He was not the shadow minister for agriculture at the time, I remind people, so I do not know what the shadow minister for agriculture thought about his musings in the lead-up to the 2013 election. The minister made lots of promises, most of which he has not delivered on. The grass-fed cattle levy is the perfect example. It is a matter that Minister Joyce promised to send to a Senate committee. He belatedly and reluctantly eventually did that, but since that very extensive inquiry, which travelled very extensively, consulted widely and made, I think, seven recommendations, the minister has not embraced or properly responded to those recommendations.
On this matter, it is similar. He made promises in the lead-up to the 2013 election. And why was he making promises? Because axiomatically, understandably and predictably, very few growers and producers believe they receive value for the levy. This is a compulsory levy that primary producers have to pay and, of course, reaching out and touching the benefits of R&D is a very hard thing to do so, understandably, the growers and producers are sceptical about the value they receive from their levy. Therefore it is understandable that Minister Joyce would be making comments pre-election. The fact that we are only finally debating this bill and, hopefully, sending it through its final stages in 2016 is best explained by the incompetence of this government. We are not prepared to take as a lick and a promise their guarantees on information-sharing, and I do look forward to a proper response from the minister on the issues I have raised.


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