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Ms SWANSON (Paterson) (10:00): The agricultural levy system is a longstanding partnership between industry and government to invest in industry priorities that could not be funded by primary producers on their own. This is the ultimate in collaboration for agriculture, and I am so pleased to say that it was established by the Hawke Labor government in the eighties. People like John Kerin and others who had a very proud record in agriculture were part of this, and the levy system has allowed our agricultural, fisheries and forestries industries to collectively invest in research and development, marketing, biosecurity and residue-testing since the 1980s. You can only pause to reflect on some of the wonderful technological advancements that have been made in agriculture.

I was talking to a colleague about this last week, and he said, 'You know, Meryl, my grandfather used a horse-drawn plough.' I went so far as to say, 'My father used a hay scythe.' Think about those things, and how much development has been made in agriculture in one quick generation or so. Now we think about friends of mine who are on properties who are harvesting in enormous pieces of machinery. My own daughter is out driving chaser bins and doing things that her grandfather would not have dreamt she would do, and it's all because government and industry have worked together to progress the industry, to increase production like we have never seen before, to increase the science behind agriculture.

You can think about a Constable painting with wheat about this tall, golden and swaying in the breeze, but thanks to modern agricultural research and science, the wheat doesn't grow that tall these days. It's green, but that's a good thing because it means we can harvest more of it, we can export more of it, we can feed more of the world and our farmers have benefited enormously. That is the key to what this bill really is about.

Before I go into more detail about the bill, people often quote Darwin and the theory of evolution to me. I'm a great fan of Charles Darwin. I think his theories were fabulous, but in his latter years there was something that Charles Darwin wrote a lot about: he said it wasn't just about competition and survival of the fittest—the big thing was about cooperation and collaboration between the cells. We have learnt more about that as we have learnt more about biology, epigenetics and how cells interact and cooperate with each other. I think that's the key here. This is all about cooperation. I want to extend that hand to our agricultural industry and our farmers and say, 'Thank you for walking on this journey with us.' We can point fingers and we can say, 'What's the government ever done for me?' or, 'What did the Romans ever do for us?', but I've got to say that a lot has been achieved since the eighties. I know the opposition will be saying that we're raising levies and we're making it harder for farmers. Whilst I'm a good friend and a solid colleague to the member for Riverina, who joins us here in the chamber today, I think if he was absolutely being square and honest with us about this, he would say that this levy system did need to be modernised. We did need to catch up over the past 10 years. I don't want to be one of these people who harks on about the last decade of delay and denial and yadda yadda yadda. That's all great, but, if we're going to look solidly at this issue, it did need to change. If we want to keep our farmers competitive, if we want to keep them absolutely at that cutting edge of being able to work cooperatively and be the best in the world, then this levy system did need some cleaning up.

Levies and charges from farmers, producers, processors and exporters are very important, and they are collected from those groups. New levies or amendments to the existing levies are often established at the industry's request. That's a very important point to add as well. They require a majority of levy payers to agree to the levy.

Each year, 15 research and development corporations—RDCs as they're commonly known—like Plant Health Australia, Animal Health Australia and the National Residue Survey, receive around $600 million in levy funds. That's really important for the work that they do. Plant Health Australia are doing some fantastic work. That contributes more than $300 million to ongoing development. That's so important. The Australian government contributes more than $300 million to the RDCs for industry research and development through matching payments for eligible expenditure up to specified limits.

This is really the nub of this. Yes, industry pays its way, and the government shares that, and the sum of their parts is greater. Industry knows it couldn't go it alone. The government knows it can't go it alone. We've got to do this together, and this legislative package will streamline and modernise the agricultural levies and charges. The package is going to make it easier to understand and administer agricultural levies That's one of the things a lot of farmers say to me: We want less red tape. We want less green tape. We want less brown tape. We want to be less bound. We don't want to be tied up doing paperwork. We want to be out there farming. We want to be able to research the new technologies. We want to be seeing what's at the cutting edge. That's what these levies fund.

The package will enable levies to apply to some agricultural services, which is important because we know that the service industry across the ag sector is growing rapidly. It's going to standardise and simplify the disbursement of levy funds to the RDCs. It's going to reduce complexity and inconsistency of matching funding arrangements for the RDCs. Again, that's very important. It will reduce the number of acts and regulations people need to read—if you've got insomnia, some of these regs will put you to sleep in no time—to understand their levies and their obligations. It's also going to provide greater flexibility in addressing compliance matters and allow for more proportionate responses to noncompliance. That's very important. Farmers don't want to do the wrong thing. They don't want to be non-compliant. But, firstly, we've got to help them understand what compliance means, which this act is going to do, and then we've got to have a sensible response if they are found to be non-compliant.

The key features of the levy framework are unchanged in many respects, and industry will continue to determine what levies are needed. That's the important part. We are working with industry. Please do not let anyone try and hoodwink you into thinking that we're not. Matching payments from government for research and development expenditure up to specified limits will continue as per current arrangements. We're not cutting any funding. We're actually keeping the current arrangements going and we're making it easier.

The draft legislation has been informed by consultation, and there's been plenty of it. I know that Minister Watt has consulted widely. Let's not have this idea of consultation being some sort of tick-and-flick exercise. The minister has consulted deeply and widely, and he wanted people to understand what was before them. That's one of the really important things. There are—dare I say it—a few departments that could look and learn from this process. Consultation should not be a tick-and-flick exercise: 'We've done what's required by the legislation.' No. We need to reverse the onus and we need to have communities feeling as though they have been consulted. That's something that I feel quite passionate about actually. The proposed legislative framework will enable levy payers to better understand their levies. We're happy to pay our way—it's the same for everyone. We just want to know how much we have to pay, why we have to pay it and what the money's going to do. I think that's the standard human response. We're all happy to pay our bills; we just want to make sure that the money's not being spent erratically or without industry.

Industry bodies need to be able to pursue new levies and amendments when issues arise. That's very important, and we've seen that through a raft of biosecurity things that have popped up, particularly in the last 18 months. The research and development corporations have an increased investment certainty. I think this is really important. This goes back to talking to scientists about their work and what they're doing. I know there's sometimes a healthy amount of scepticism about research and development—how it all pans out and how scientists bid for money—but if an RDC is regularly funded and researchers know where that money's coming from then they're able to really focus on the research and development, rather than spending the majority of their time panicking about where the funds are going to come from for the next tranche of work they want to do. I think that certainty is really critical, and I'm pleased that we're looking at that.

We're going to reduce the regulatory burden for levy payers and RDCs, and the Office of Impact Analysis has assessed the final impact analysis on the proposed legislative framework as good practice. We've had a fair office look at it, and they say that it is good practice. I'm pleased that the opposition has informally advised that it's going to support the legislative package. I really welcome that. Again I say to those opposite: we can do so much good in ag. We have to increase production. We also know that we want to feed our country and that we're playing a role in feeding the world. We've got to work together, and I think farmers want that to happen.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 10:12 to 10:24

Ms SWANSON: I think the nub of these changes, in terms of levies for agriculture, is that we are going to be condensing over 50 pieces of legislation—50!—down to five bills and subordinate legislation to create this new structure. These bills are going to provide a solid foundation for the ag levy system to grow and respond to opportunities and challenges in the future. Let's face it: nothing sums up our country and our ag system like opportunity and challenge. Our farmers face it every day. Through these levies and this bill, we are making it simpler and we are standing shoulder to shoulder with them. We are here for the challenges and we want to make sure they get every opportunity.