LIBERAL Democratic Party Senator David Leyonhjelm has softened his stance on wanting a broad-ranging review into all agricultural R&D and marketing levies.
Last week Senator Leyonhjelm urged the federal government to conduct a “serious review” to investigate how each of the levies operated and whether they delivered genuine value to growers.
The new NSW Senator is one of eight crossbenchers holding the balance of power in the federal Senate.
But he has come under fire for moving a disallowance motion to scrap regulations that have doubled the mushroom and onion levy and increased the mango levy.
Today, the Australian mushroom, onion and mango industries joined forces to fight against Senator Leyhonjelm’s disallowance motion - scheduled to be voted on in the Senate next month - saying it had the potential to bring down Australia’s world-leading agriculture levy system.
“The levy system underpins Australia’s agricultural R&D, marketing, plant and animal health systems that have made our nation one of the great agricultural producers of the world,” a joint statement from Onions Australia, the Australian Mango Industry Association and the Australian Mushroom Growers Association said.
The three groups also said the disallowance motion was tabled despite a rigorous five year consultation process, the investment of over $1 million of grower funds and AEC independent ballots, “meaning the will of growers may still be defeated”.
“Onion, mango and mushroom leaders are concerned that these disallowance motions send the signal that due process with regards to every agriculture levy can be ignored under the weight of external political pressure,” the statement said.
But as the industry groups ramped up their campaign to retain their levy increases, Senator Leyonhjelm said he was open to a three year plebiscite of all levy payers for various commodities, similar to the one conducted by Australian Wool Innovation (AWI).
The Australian Beef Association (ABA) has also pushed for a similar plebiscite of the $5 per head beef cattle levy that underpins Meat and Livestock Australia’s R&D and marketing activities, given the current federal Senate inquiry into that levy.
Senator Leyonhjelm said he met with Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce and the National Farmers Federation last week to raise his concerns about how agricultural levies are being collected and spent.
He said his push for an all-encompassing levy inquiry may be impractical and is likely to meet “lots of resistance, if I propose anything that’s deemed to be too radical”.
Senator Leyonhjelm said he would consider holding back on introducing future disallowance motions to block levy increases, if three year plebiscites were adopted by the various Research and Development Corporations.
He believes levies are taxes on growers but the plebiscites would achieve the key aim of increasing scrutiny on how the money is spent, through a more democratic process.
“The people (RDC’s) who are spending the tax would need to account for themselves to the people who pay the tax,” he said.
In 2012-13, the Grains Research and Development Corporation generated about $200 million in revenue including $118.2m in grower levies and $62.8m in matching government funds, while the MLA collected $93.8m from sheep and cattle producers and $40m in federal funds.
Other groups like AWI, Horticulture Australia, Dairy Australia and the Cotton RDC operate under a similar funding structure.
Senator Leyonhjelm said Minister Joyce may be open to the introduction of three year plebiscites for the different levies, if the NFF and other farm groups supported the move.
“Getting a full review of all levies would be a huge job but convincing people to adopt three year plebiscites of levy payers, like AWI does, would be a much easier task,” he said.
Senator Leyonhjelm said the AWI plebiscite offered wool growers a range of options on paying the levy, including a zero payment option, and is conducted by the AEC.
But he said he’d prefer if the vote was based on the volume of production for each particular commodity like grains, rather than a one-vote one-value system which was “a formulae for fleecing the big guys”.
“I don’t think Barnaby Joyce is opposed to the idea but he may need a bit of a nudge and if the farm groups think there’s a good reason to do it, and it’s more democratic, that would make life simpler for the minister,” he said.
“The people most in favour of retaining the levies are the ones who receive and spend the money.”
Australian Mushroom Growers Association CEO Greg Seymour said there was an established process for grower initiated levy increases which followed rigorous and well defined Government guidelines.
But he said this system was “now under threat from undue political influence”.
Onions Australia Levy Champion Brian Bonde said the levies had been requested by growers to invest for the benefit of all levy payers and had been approved by a majority of growers in these three industries.
“Each levy has been subject to the rigorous and transparent government guidelines for consultation with levy payers,” he said.
“The opportunity for opponents to argue against the proposed changes is a part of the consultation process which then culminates with an independent ballot conducted by the AEC.”
Australian Mango Industry Association CEO Robert Gray said the three levies were a perfect example of industries investing in their own future.
He said it wouldn’t be right for the Senate to interfere with a democratic process where the majority of growers have voted to invest their own funds in programs that benefit their industry and all Australians.
“The Senate could potentially destroy the levy system that has brought great benefits to Australian agriculture and will diminish the opportunities for these industries to grow and deliver benefits to all Australians,” he said.
“Our industries will be active to ensure the Senate does not vote on August 26 to allow the destruction of Australia’s world leading levy system.”
Senator Leyonhjelm said he had questions about the validity of the plebiscites conducted on onion and mushroom growers and if his disallowance motion was to proceed, he’d argue that point.