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Govt’s biosecurity levy likely to flounder in Senate

Emma Alsop, May 17, 2024

Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt at Beef 2024 in Rockhampton last week.

THE FUTURE of the controversial Biosecurity Protection Levy legislation appears grim as Senate crossbenchers have affirmed their intention to vote against the two relevant bills.

The legislation passed the House of Representatives on March 27 without support from Liberal National Party and 17 voting members of the crossbench.

The Agriculture (Biosecurity Protection) Charges Bill 2024 and Agriculture (Biosecurity Protection) Levies and Charges Collection Bill 2024 were due to be debated in the Senate on Tuesday, and remained on the business list for the Senate, which is not due to sit again until May 28.

In order to pass the Senate, the Federal Government would require support from either the Coalition, or the Greens and two minor party members.

The Coalition have long been vocal opponents of the legislation, they dub the “fresh food tax”.

In a statement, the National Farmers Federation confirmed that alongside the Coalition, The Greens, One Nation, and Senators David Pocock, Jacqui Lambie, Tammy Tyrrell and Ralph Babet have indicated that they would oppose the levy legislation.

Greens spokesperson for agriculture Senator Peter Whish-Wilson on Wednesday confirmed the Greens would not support the legislation when it comes before the Senate.

“The fact this new proposed levy has zero buy-in from the agricultural sector speaks for itself – consultation on it was rushed and inadequate,” Mr Whish-Wilson said.

“The Greens have consulted with stakeholders including the Minister’s office, listened to farmers (and) attended Senate hearings into this legislation, and feel strongly a different approach is needed, and we will work constructively with the government and farmers to achieve this.

“If the government needs an extra $50 million to boost biosecurity border security, it should look elsewhere.”

Mr Whish-Wilson said the government could not articulate why farmers should pay a levy when other members of the supply chain, including “the profiteering supermarket duopoly”, also benefited from a strong biosecurity system.

Independent Senator David Pocock has also come out against the legislation.

Mr Pocock said he had significant concerns about the equity, implementation, and transparency of the proposed levy.

“I stand firm on the need for increased funding to protect our borders from biosecurity threats,” Mr Pocock said.

“But it is crucial that we achieve this in a way that is fair, transparent, and effective.

“The Biosecurity Protection Levy bills as drafted do not meet this standard and I cannot support them in their present form.

“I welcome the opportunity to work with the government and colleagues from across the Parliament to develop a better way to address the critical funding needs of our biosecurity system.”

Nationals leader David Littleproud called for the government to consult with industry and formulate an alternative policy.

“The fact Minister Watt refused to listen to concerns and instead doubled down, carrying out a rushed and confusing policy which lacked detail, is either lazy or arrogant,” Mr Littleproud said.

“It was senseless when better alternatives were offered by The Nationals, such as an importer container levy, which would charge importers, not our own farmers, to pay for biosecurity risks being created as produce comes into the country.”

Industry reacts

The NFF thanked the Coalition and crossbench members for “seeing commonsense” in their response to the legislation.

However, NFF chief executive Tony Mahar acknowledged that the legislation was still on the table in the Senate.

“We’ve fiercely fought to #ScraptheTax and now we hope the government can finally hit delete and find a better way to ensure Australia’s biosecurity system is the best in the world,” Mr Mahar stated.

“It’s time now for government to walk away from this policy and work with the agriculture industry to protect Australia from pests and diseases for farmers and for all Australians.”

As the commodity with the largest gross value of production of the 84 featured in the proposed legislation, the grains industry will contribute the most towards the $51.8 million BPL pool at $12.5M.

Both national industry bodies, Grain Producers Australia and GrainGrowers have been vocal critics of the legislation.

Grain Producers Australia chair Barry Large thanked the Greens, Mr Pocock and the Coalition for backing the views of the agricultural industry.

“We’d like to thank and acknowledge the Australian Greens and agriculture spokesperson Peter Whish-Wilson for their leadership and support in listening to Australian farmers and the concerns we’ve raised to ultimately opposing the biosecurity tax and scrapping it.

“Along with other senators, including David Pocock and the Coalition members, we’re thankful that they’ve taken time to understand the details on why this proposal is fundamentally flawed and needed to be voted against.”

Crossbencher opposition to the policy comes a week after the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee released a report recommending the Senate pass the legislation.

Committee members included ALP Senators Glenn Sterle, Raff Ciccone and Jess Walsh, National Party Senator Matthew Canavan LNP Senator Gerard Rennick and Mr Whish-Wilson.

Mr Pocock was not an official committee member but also participated in the inquiry.

In the report, Committee members found that “on balance” the BPL would “support the government’s commitment to provide sustainable, predictable, and permanent biosecurity funding”.

Coalition members compiled a dissenting report which recommended that the policy be scrapped and replaced with another funding model.

Mr Whish-Wilson and Mr Pocock did not join Coalition members in backing the dissenting report.

 

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