Will Watt’s biosecurity levy bill be red-anted by The Greens?

Terry Sim, March 22, 2024

Nationals leader David Littleproud led the charge against the biosecurity protection levy legislation.

THE Federal Government’s proposed biosecurity protection levy bill has passed through the House of Representatives despite meeting opposition from The Greens and some independent members this week, with a final vote expected in the Senate next week.

The Agriculture (Biosecurity Protection) Charges Bill 2024 has recently been remodelled by the Albanese Government, with the BPL rate set as a proportion of an industry’s average gross value of production over a three-year period.

However, the Coalition, The Greens and some independent MPs oppose the proposed biosecurity protection levy and instead favour a container levy, as also preferred by farmer groups.

The proposed levy was this week was also criticised by Greens and independent politicians in the House of Representatives, raising doubts about whether it would be successful in the Senate, with its higher number of Greens senators, dominating the crossbench.

Littleproud container levy amendment fails

An amendment by Nationals leader David Littleproud to deny the Bill a second reading failed before debate ensued among MPs. Mr Littleproud’s amendment criticised the government for attempting to impose “this new tax” on Australian farmers and the agriculture, fisheries and forestry sector during the cost-of living and workforce shortage crisis.

Mr Littleproud said the proposed biosecurity protection levy will push up the cost of fresh food for Australian families and he expressed concern that under the terms of the proposed BPL, Australian farmers will be forced to pay for the biosecurity risks of their international competitors to bring their products into this country. The amendment also called on the government to ensure a sustainable funding model for biosecurity by progressing and establishing an importer container levy, as recommended by the independent Craik review.

NFF calls on senators to ‘hit pause’ on biosecurity levy bill

Earlier this week National Farmers’ Federation president David Jochinke said despite the mounting evidence the levy was poor policy and should be scrapped, the government had the numbers to wave it through the lower house.

“We call on Senators to see commonsense and hit pause on this legislation so they can listen carefully to the criticism this flawed policy has drawn,” he said.

“It’s not just Australia’s 85,000 farmers who have raised alarm bells, it’s also the Productivity Commission, the Australian National University, the Office of Impact Analysis and even importers.

“While we never wanted this legislation to get this far, the best case scenario is for it to be sent to Senate Committee for appropriate scrutiny,” Mr Jochinke said.

“This will provide the time and analysis to properly consider farmers’ concerns.

“We remind senators, Australian farmers already spend millions of dollars each year in existing levies that already incorporate biosecurity spending as well as through managing the pests and diseases on-farm brought to our shores by importers and travellers,” he said.

“By paying another tax towards biosecurity services, they are effectively subsidising foreign competitors who import food products into Australia.

“Along with it being at odds with standard policy design and tax practice, this levy simply isn’t fair.”

Greens ultimate position to depend on talks with government

In parliament this week Greens MP, Elizabeth Watson-Brown, said The Greens will be voting against the bill in the House of Representatives and reserving their final position in the Senate, pending consultations with the government.

“The Greens have serious concerns about the lack of transparency and oversight applied within the bill itself in regard to the allocation and dispersal of the revenue collected from this levy.

“The direction of collected levy funds into consolidated revenue is a key concern with the bill in its current form,” she said.

“The current structure and application of this legislation needs work.

“My colleagues in the Senate will be doing their job to properly interrogate and scrutinise this bill and any sensible amendments that may be required.”

Ms Watson-Brown said The Greens also believe that risk creators, like importers, need to pay their fair share.

“The Greens will be pushing the government to commit to progressing a levy on risk creators in the form of a container levy, or similar, as a matter of priority.

“We acknowledge that risk importers are being asked to contribute more through other elements of the government’s biosecurity funding plans,” she said.

Ms Watson-Brown cited reports that imported red fire ants could cost Australian taxpayers $38 billion and Queensland’s failure to halt the pest’s spread after spending almost $1 billion of public money, as supporting the imperative for the Australian government to implement a sustainable funding model for biosecurity.

“Recent revelations around taxpayer funding into the red imported fire ants eradication program have raised red flags over efficacy, over governance, over transparency and over accountability of funding of these types of biosecurity responses from consolidated revenue.

“The Greens want to ensure accountability around how the government undertakes its role on biosecurity,” she said.

“Too much money has been wasted.

“We want to see clear performance measures against contributions made by primary producers through any new levy.”

Levy funds into general revenue is a concern

Independent MP Helen Haines said 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,” she said.

Ms Haines said another major concern held by key stakeholders 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,” she said.

“The government must address these serious concerns if it’s to win the support, cooperation and backing of primary producers and farmers.”

Ms Haines also said analysis undertaken by tax experts, the Productivity Commission and the Australian National University does not support the proposed levy.

She said 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, and that a full import declaration charge be considered if a container levy is unacceptable.

“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,” Ms Haines said.

“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.”

Ms Haines said 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.”

Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie said noted the lack of government speakers on the bill and the movement of the debate to the Federation Chamber.

“This is a critical bill on biosecurity and when I look at the list of who is speaking on it, we have a long list when it comes to the opposition and also regional members on the crossbench.

“But, apart from one speaker that I can see, nobody from the government side, apart from the minister, has actually come into this place and prosecuted the argument for this tax on farmers. And that’s exactly what it is: a tax on farmers.”

Farmers have an interest in paying for biosecurity

Labor MP Graham Perrett said the cost of the biosecurity protection levy will be shared and generate around $50million per year in new revenue from primary producers.

“This equates to around six percent—yes, I said that right; not 60 but six percent—of the total $800 million cost of Australia’s biosecurity system in 2024-25—six percent.”

“Forty-four per cent of the cost will be contributed by everyday taxpayers.

“Importers will pay 48 per cent, but they’re doing the grunt work,” he said.

“Primary producers will carry six per cent of the load, and Australia Post will pay two per cent.”

He said the biosecurity protection levy rate will be reviewed by the department every three years along with the review of the operation of the new system to make sure it’s functioning effectively.

Mr Perrett said the Albanese government is committed to transparency regarding biosecurity systems.

“We recently announced the formation of the Sustainable Biosecurity Funding Advisory Panel.

“Members from the agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors, importers and research organisations will meet three times a year and provide feedback on biosecurity priorities,” he said.

“The measures contained in this suite of bills position Australia to adapt and maintain our enviable biosecurity systems in the complex and changing global biosecurity environment.”

Mr Perrett said the Nationals amendment seeks to criticise the government for changing its mind on how the biosecurity protection levy is calculated.

“However, this is the result of genuine consultation with industry.

“Labor governments listen to feedback,” he said.

“As a result, we have made our new levy more equitable, more proportionate and more transparent, and we will continue to listen through the Sustainable Biosecurity Funding Advisory Panel.

“As I said, I’m sure we will hear fear campaigns springing from those opposite, but I commend this bill to the House with pride.”

Minister for Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry Murray Watt told ABC Radio’s Victorian Country Hour today that he was fully aware that producers aren’t particularly thrilled about the idea of paying the biosecurity protection levy.

“But I guess my perspective is I was fully prepared to go into the Cabinet and fight for a big increase in taxpayer funding for biosecurity and have done and as I say, we’ve significantly increased the charges on importers who create a lot of the risk, again something the former government hadn’t done.

“But when you think about it, if we are going to be asking the shopkeeper, the teacher the nurse, the tractor driver in Shepparton or any other regional town to pay a bit more for biosecurity, I think farmers have got an interest in doing so as well.

“I think farmers, probably more than anyone, have got an interest in having really strong biosecurity in this country and that’s why we’ve sort of taken the view that there is a shared responsibility,” he said

“We’ve all got a role to play in keeping diseases out, we’ve all got a role to play in funding the biosecurity system and I want to make sure that our biosecurity system in Australia remains the envy of the world, which I think it currently is.”


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your comment will not appear until it has been moderated.
Contributions that contravene our Comments Policy will not be published.


Get Sheep Central's news headlines emailed to you -