Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (19:57): The Primary Industries Levies and Charges Collection Amendment Bill 2016 is a much needed reform that is fortuitously before the parliament now, and I congratulate the minister for his work in bringing this bill before the parliament.
The issue particularly arose—what is now some years ago—when the minister arranged for the Senate Standing Committee of Rural and Regional Affairs, I think it was, to look into the question of levies, particularly in relation to the grass-fed cattle industry. That inquiry by the committee revealed some very interesting issues and some very interesting facts. It also quite clearly established that there was need for change. This bill brings forward some of that change.
The Australian rural industries, as senators will know, are amongst the most innovative and productive in the world. It is important that we continue investment and rural research and development, and it is vital to ensure that the ongoing growth and improvement in profitability and competitiveness in Australia's broadly described agriculture sectors does continue. It is important that the government works with industry to co-invest in research through our world-leading rural research and development systems.
The inquiry to which I referred, which took quite a substantial amount of the committee's time when the inquiry was in the course of its operations, heard particularly from grass-fed beef cattle producers right across the nation, and it was clear that reform was needed. I am trying to find these passages as I speak but, as I recall, there were some real problems with the constitution of the R&D corporations in whatever form they were, and there were some real anomalies in how those R&D corporations were governed—what their rules of operation were and, most importantly, who was appointed to the board that decided what matters should be researched and what matters should be given priority and predominance by the R&D corporation.
There were some real anomalies in relation to the grass-fed beef cattle people, as I recall. I am going from memory here, because I have not quite been able to pick that up in the time I had to have a look at it. There was an instance, as I understand, where you got a vote for the board at the R&D corporation in accordance with the number of cattle transactions that you were involved in over a particular period of time, but there was no auditing, no careful consideration of how many votes you were entitled to. I recall one person giving evidence to say that they made up a number; they said they had 50,000 transactions with cattle at one particular time. They did not, though—they were quite open about it—but they put that number in, because the only way that they got a vote was by simply advising the authority that there had been this many transactions. Therefore they got that many votes even though they may well not have, in effect, had any cattle transactions at all. So it was quite clear that there needed to be reform, and the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee did look into that at some length.
This bill before the parliament makes it possible for the establishment of levy payer registers by the particular RDCs. I am talking about the grass-fed beef cattle industry, but it applies to a number of other levy payer registers where there is a research and development corporation. The bill remedies some of the problems by allowing the government to provide levy payer information for the purposes of the levy payer register to 13 other regional development corporations and, consistent with the application of the broader R&D levy system, the establishment of levy payer registers will occur only when the RDC actually requests it.
As I say, these RDCs go beyond just the beef cattle area—they include the Australian Egg Corporation Limited, Australian Grape and Wine Authority, Australian Meat Processor Corporation, Australian Pork Limited, Australian Wool Innovation, Cotton Research and Development Corporation, Dairy Australia, Forest and Wood Products Australia Limited, Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, Grains Research and Development Corporation, the Horticulture Innovation Australia, LiveCorp, Meat & Livestock Australia, the RIRDC and Sugar Research Australia.
This bill allows the distribution of levy payer information to the various regional development corporations for the development of levy payer registers, and the register will allow the RDCs to identify and consult directly with the levy payers who fund the R&D system and ensure accuracy in the allocation of voting entitlements. That was the issue that the Senate committee identified and looked into very, very carefully at the time because, as I mentioned and gave the example of, there were a lot of anomalies in that area. This required addressing in the grass-fed beef cattle area, and clearly in these other rural R&D corporations as well.
Through greater levy payer engagement, the RDCs will be better able to align research investments to industry priorities. That was one of the problems that came up in this inquiry. The grass-fed beef cattle industry players—those who actually grew the cattle—did not believe that the R&D corporation was investing the research and development moneys into the area which they thought was a priority. This new system will align research investments to industry priorities, which in turn will hopefully improve returns to farmers, fishermen and foresters, and will contribute to a more profitable, competitive and more sustainable agricultural sector.
It was clear in the Senate inquiry and it is clear when you discuss this matter and consult across rural industries that the one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate because within Australian agricultural industries there is a great deal of diversity. This bill allows for the distribution of levy-payer information to an RDC to occur only where the RDC in consultation with industry asks for it and that that request is approved by the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources. The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources would then work with the RDCs to administer the design and development of a register.
What this bill does is try to regularise the levy-payer information—what can be distributed, what can go to the Australian Bureau of Statistics for their purposes. It is also consistent with the government's public data policy statement, which commits to securely shared data between government agencies to improve efficiencies and inform policy development and decision making. Secondary disclosure of levy-payer information by an RDC and the Australian Bureau of Statistics will be limited. The departmental secretary can approve its disclosure in some circumstances, including for example disclosure by an RDC to an industry representative body for the purposes of consulting on research and development activities that are to be conducted by the corporation.
In coming to this bill, the minister did consult widely and, to a fairly high degree, the minister's decision in relation to amending this bill came from the inquiry by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee into the industry structures and systems governing levies on grass fed cattle and industry structures.
This is an important bill. It has been a fair while in the making and I am pleased to see that it is here before the parliament at the moment. I suspect there are a few other things that need to be done and these were identified in that committee inquiry, but this is a very good start and I congratulate the minister for doing this and bringing this bill before the parliament. It will make things 'better'—a silly word—but it will make things better and more efficient for the industries that are able to access the innovations in this bill. Hopefully, that will lead to better research and development in our primary industries, our agricultural industries, which in turn will lead to better wealth for the farmers involved, and better export potential for those agricultural export products. All of that, of course, means a better Australia, a healthier and, hopefully, wealthier rural and regional Australia and continuing success for our agricultural industries. I support the bill and urge the Senate to do likewise.