I represent an electorate that’s home to a productive, dynamic and diverse agricultural community, from large dairy, beef and grain producers to world-class vineyards and smaller farms growing berries, cherries, apples and nuts. Agriculture in Indi doesn’t just contribute to feeding the nation; it’s also a major employer. More than 5,000 people in Indi work in agriculture, forestry and fishing, so it’s with these farming businesses and workers in mind that I approach these bills, the Agriculture (Biosecurity Protection) Levies Bill 2024, the Agriculture (Biosecurity Protection) Charges Bill 2024 and the Agriculture (Biosecurity Protection) Levies and Charges Collection Bill 2024.

As a regional Independent member of parliament, I consider each bill before me on its individual merits, and these bills are no different. I ask myself: Are they good for the nation? Are they good for regional Australia? Are they good for Indi? I also ask: Are the bills ethical? Do they reflect the principles of good governance, the principles that governments of all stripes must uphold? I hold concerns that these bills are not good for regional Australia and they’re not good enough for the farmers in my electorate. I’m concerned about the consultation process that the government undertook in designing these bills, a process that does not demonstrate to me truly good governance. I will be voting against the bills at this time, until I can see that the government have listened to the farmers and primary producers that are so vital to feeding and clothing all of us.

These bills implement a 2023-24 budget measure of $47.5 million per year for a strengthened and sustainably funded biosecurity system. They do so by imposing levy rates on primary producers that are based on each industry sector’s proportional share of total gross value of production, or GVP. So a large sector like beef will pay a higher rate than a small sector like potatoes. The government says that this levy will mean primary producers contribute to only six per cent of biosecurity costs, with the bulk of biosecurity funding being paid by the taxpayer and by importers.

With this legislation, the government intends to build a secure and sustainable biosecurity system, and I agree that we desperately need such a system. For a long time, we’ve benefited from our status as an island nation, where we can closely monitor and control biosecurity risks to our food and fibre production. But, with increased travel to and from Australia, added complexity in running farming businesses, a rise in the cost of delivering biosecurity measures and a flat line in revenue to fund these services, our biosecurity system has been faltering for some time. It has never been clearer to me than when fears of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak arose in 2022. After the disease was detected in Indonesia, the fear in regional communities that it would come to Australia was palpable.

I was raised on a dairy farm, and today I raise beef cattle. I’m well aware of the potential damage that foot-and-mouth disease could cause. For full declaration, I am a fifth-generation member of a farming family. My family still farm in south-west Victoria. So I share the fears of farmers, across my electorate and more broadly, who were anxious that an outbreak would decimate their livelihoods and community and the broader Australian food system and economy. Like these farmers, I reviewed my farm’s biosecurity plan in 2022 to be as prepared as possible in the event of an outbreak. I had locals writing to me asking me whether they should shut down the accommodation side of their business. Others were asking whether they should minimise visits with family and friends outside the property. These people were prepared to take measures into their own hands because they didn’t have faith in the Commonwealth biosecurity system. I had constituent after constituent write to me concerned about the government’s commitment to a strong biosecurity system. Others were upset about lax enforcement of mitigation measures while travelling through airports. This shows that the government must do more to build trust with agricultural communities and to reassure farmers and producers that their contribution to biosecurity is truly being put to good use.

But it’s critically important that we get the design of any new biosecurity system right. Before I talk to the design of the new biosecurity levy on primary producers, I want to talk about the consultation the government undertook on the new levy. You can’t get good policy without good consultation and, when in government, you must gain the trust of the people that will be impacted by your policy or your levy. Between August and October last year, the government undertook consultation with key stakeholders on a levy that would collect an amount equivalent to 10 per cent over past levy rates. After the significant blowback they received from farmers in the consultation period, they responded in two major ways. First, in response to concerns the levy was inequitable, they changed its design. Instead of a 10 per cent increase, the government moved to impose a rate based on the industry sector’s proportional share of GDP. Second, in response to concerns that the levy would be going to general revenue and not directed to biosecurity, the government announced a Sustainable Biosecurity Funding Advisory Panel. This panel would allow the government to meet regularly with those who have a stake in strong biosecurity protections and give them a say on biosecurity priorities. These stakeholders will also get to see where the biosecurity levy is going. That’s an important transparency measure.

At face value, these two responses are fine and perhaps they are the right way forward, but they were not the ideas taken to the consultation period with stakeholders. Indeed, the advisory panel was announced on the same day that these bills were introduced. As I said earlier, good policy is the product of good consultation. So I really urge the government to send these bills to the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport so that they may be properly scrutinised by stakeholders and there’s a real, genuine opportunity for concerns to be addressed. I implore the government to give a decent amount of time for submissions to be made and scrutiny to be undertaken. It needs to be very genuine and it needs to have sufficient time.

In my own recent discussions with stakeholders, I’ve heard concerned that the GDP model will be an administrative nightmare for producers. Many will not know this levy is coming because the new model will be imposed on some industries that don’t have these levies in place at all. They may only see a new line item on an invoice from a livestock agent, for example, with no idea that this is actually for biosecurity measures. Since these bills were introduced only a few weeks ago, I have attempted to consult with the hundreds of primary producers in my electorate, But I get the real sense that not many of them know anything about it at all. The government have a clear responsibility to tell people about laws that will impact them, to tell farmers about a new fee they will be charged, and they are currently failing to fulfil this responsibility.

The government justifies a levy on farmers by saying that everyone has a role to play in strengthening Australia’s biosecurity system, including contributing to cost—that is, farmers should pay a little bit to protect what underpins their livelihoods. They also say that the estimated cost for producers will be small and a lot smaller compared to the fluctuations in farmgate prices. But, in criticising this bill, farmers are not asking government to do all the work, because they already contribute to biosecurity measures via existing levies, on-farm activities and much, much more. So, while farmers are under increasing pressure to produce cheap food while supermarket giants and others rake in huge profits, this new tax, no matter how small, will only add further pressure to farmers.

The Office of Impact Analysis, run out of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, has also found that some of the levy cost applied to producers would be passed through the domestic supply chain to consumers. Again, while the government may say that the cost paid by consumers will be very, very small, we are in a cost-of-living crisis, so any changes that may impact on the price paid by consumers will be felt. Every cent counts when we go to the supermarket to buy our meat, fruit, vegetables and milk.

Another major concern held by key stakeholders like the National Farmers Federation, the grain producers and others is that this new levy will be going into general revenue. There’s no disbursement bill associated with this new charge and it won’t go to the Biosecurity, Imported Food and Export Certification Special Account, which is used to provide biosecurity services. So there is no guarantee that this new charge on farmers will actually go to biosecurity measures, and that is an area of key concern. The government must address these serious concerns if it’s to win the support, cooperation and backing of primary producers and farmers.

It’s not just the farmers that are critical of the levy raised under these bills. Analysis undertaken by tax experts, the Productivity Commission and the Australian National University does not support the levy. They found that the overall cost of funding these measures will be higher if it comes from primary producers than if it were to come from general revenue. They also found that the lack of industry support, as is currently the case, and the cost imposition on a sector that will ultimately deliver a broader public good are important considerations in opposing such a levy from moving forward. The Productivity Commission was clear that, where a public benefit exists, like biosecurity measures, funding should be drawn from general revenue streams.

What are the alternatives to the model proposed by the government? A 2017 independent review of the capacity of Australia’s biosecurity system, led by Wendy Craik, recommended that funding for the national biosecurity system should be increased by implementing a per-container levy on incoming shipping containers. The Craik review identified a container levy as an appropriate way to target the overseas risk creators and a justified measure to improve environmental biosecurity monitoring and surveillance. Many farmers and key stakeholders agree with this recommendation of the Craik review. The government have stated that the Craik review recommended a container levy or an increase in the full import declaration charge. They say they decided to increase the full importation declaration charge, which has resulted in full cost recovery for biosecurity measures at the border. With respect to the government, this is not entirely true. Recommendation 34 of the Craik review clearly recommends:

Funding for the national biosecurity system should be increased by implementing a per-container levy on incoming shipping containers.

The review said that such a levy, combined with other measures, is the best option. There is no such equivalent recommendation for a full import declaration charge. There are simply two small paragraphs suggesting it should be considered if a container levy is unacceptable. The Craik review did not recommend that the full import declaration charge be increased, and the government should not state that it did.

With this in mind, the government must address head-on why it will not support a container levy on importers. To date, they’ve indicated that it’s complex and that such a levy could risk Australia’s free trade obligations—seriously! This may be the case, but primary producers and farmers calling for this are yet to be given a wholly definitive answer, and they need one. I urge the government, via the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to communicate a clear and final answer on this point. Let’s get clarity. If it is the case, let’s put that to bed.

The government must not pass this bill until it goes back to the drawing board to consider the concerns of farmers. I urge them to refer this bill to committee and to do so with care, not rush the bill through parliament. To make biosecurity work in this country, it’s critical to have the full support of farmers. With that, I have no more remarks to make at this stage. I wait to see that committee being stood up and this bill going there.

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