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Transparency, accountability and responsibilities of our rural research and development corporations

Speeches in Parliament
Janet Rice 13 Sep 2016

I rise today to speak to the Primary Industries Levies and Charges Collection Amendment Bill 2016. I am pleased to say that this is the first agriculture bill that I am speaking to in my new position as the Greens' spokesperson for agriculture and rural affairs. But I firstly want to thank my predecessor, Senator Rachel Siewert, the previous Greens' spokesperson, for the work that she has done on agriculture over her years in the Senate, not only in general, as a member of the regional and rural affairs and transport committee, but in particular as an advocate for a fairer and more sustainable agricultural sector in Australia.

The bill before us today deals with the transparency, accountability and responsibilities of our rural research and development corporations. The roles of the RDCs are only going to become more important over the coming years and, as the rural and regional affairs and transport committee investigation found last year, research and development investment from state and commonwealth bodies is contracting, right at the time when the agriculture sector is facing a whole new set of constraints. This leaves the rural research and development corporations to bear the majority of the responsibility in leading the Australian agriculture sector into the 21st century.

We are now seeing the impact that volatile globally connected markets are having on several of our agricultural industries, as the stories of our dairy and now our wheat farmers hit the front pages of the press. Critically, we are also seeing an increased realisation of the reality of our changing climate, and the consequences of these changes on our farming communities, as we need to both mitigate and adapt to these changes.

Both of these challenges coincide with what has been an extended slump in the sector's productivity growth, which, by world standards, is pretty unique to Australia. This productivity slump must be reversed if we hope to meet the growing demand for our limited food resources without irreparably harming our communities and ecosystems. I hope in my tenure as the Greens spokesperson for agriculture and rural affairs to continue to push for responses to these challenges from my fellow elected leaders and to stand up against a 'business as usual' complacency from those that benefit from the status quo.

The bill before us is the first legislative response to the committee inquiry into the collection and disbursement of research and development levies that was conducted last year. It was clear in last year's references inquiry into the levy system that the current processes are in need of reform—firstly, to better build on the transparency and accountability of the rural research and development corporations to levy payers; and, secondly, to better assist the RDCs in the performance of their responsibilities and effective dissemination of their work back to the community.

The legislation before us would amend the Primary Industry Levies and Charges Collections Act 1991 to allow the department to provide levy and charge payer information to additional rural research and development corporations and industry service bodies and to the ABS. Recipients, in turn, would be able to use the information for purposes including developing levy payer registers, publishing statistics and performing their functions. These shifts would increase the ability of RDCs to consult with their levy payers, helping shape research priorities, while enabling RDCs to better understand both the character and interests of their constituencies. Additionally, by empowering the Australian Bureau of Statistics to also access this information we open up the possibility of much more comprehensive agricultural statistical indicators, to inform our policy priorities both in this place and across departments.

When you are talking about data being accessible to a wider range of people, the Greens understand the privacy concerns associated with that and treat very seriously the concerns that were raised in some of the submissions to the committee. There are serious privacy implications for the handling of peoples data, especially when third parties are involved. And these need to be seriously addressed in further work that we do not believe has yet been completed. However, we do not believe the issues raised are enough for us to consider that this bill should not be supported. We also understand that the legislation does not explicitly empower industry representatives who have important roles to play in facilitating the relationship between the research and development corporations and levy payers.

We believe that collectively these concerns we have about this legislation do not amount to enough to give us grounds to reject the legislation before the chamber today. We believe that both the explanatory memorandum and the majority committee report do make a persuasive case for how privacy will be protected, potential misuses of information mitigated and the community consulted. However, there is clearly more work to be done to give certainty and to make sure that people's privacy is going to be protected.

We ask that the government take these reservations into consideration, and we echo the majority report of the committee in recommending that the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources consult with the research and development corporations, agricultural industry representatives and the wider community as it implements this new regulatory and administrative framework.

Following on from this, thcre is still a case for further reform in developing greater transparency and accountability processes between levy payers and RDCs, and there is a larger debate still to be had about the role of levy payers in voting on rates and setting research priorities. But we believe that is something we can continue to work on in the future. With regard to this bill, the Greens will support the legislation and we commend the bill to the Senate.

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