Importers and farmers are being warned to expect changes to the cost of importing and exporting from Australia, as the government seeks a new way to fund biosecurity services.
- Agriculture Minister Murray Watt says it is in everyone’s interest to have strong biosecurity
- He says all those who benefit from biosecurity should be paying to ensure Australia remains disease free
- The government has previously flagged it is looking at a new funding model for biosecurity
Speculation has been growing that the government will use next week’s federal budget to introduce a levy on imports — something the former government announced but failed to implement — to fund biosecurity services such as sniffer dogs and x-ray screening at ports and airports.
The extent to which the levy would be imposed, or an existing charge increased, remains unclear but the former Coalition policy would have raised hundreds of millions of dollars by applying charges on all imports from whitegoods to TVs to cars and computers.
Speaking in Brisbane this week, federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt stopped short of announcing a levy, but confirmed existing import charges needed to change and a more sustainable funding model was needed to fend off the threat of pests and disease.
Senator Watt suggested both importers and exporters should expect to pay to boost funding for national biosecurity.
“The federal government and taxpayers have a responsibility to help pay for our system to keep these sorts of diseases out, but I do think we need to ensure that the cost of providing biosecurity services is shared across the community,” he said.
“That includes making sure that the risk creator, like importers, and people who benefit from the biosecurity system all pay their way as well because it’s in all of our interests to keep agriculture safe and have a strong biosecurity system.”
Key beneficiaries of the system are understood to be exporters and farmers that trade on Australia’s reputation as a disease-free country.
Farm groups have long called for a sustainable funding model for biosecurity, arguing the existing funding is ad hoc.
Senator Watt said he believed farmers would welcome an increase to biosecurity funding.
New funding model needed
Climate change, human migration, online shopping and COVID-led changes to shipping routes have increased the movement of pests and diseases around the globe.
Senator Watt said the federal budget currently provided about $600 million a year for biosecurity services, which underpinned trillions of dollars of environmental assets, and tens of billions of dollars of tourism and farming each year.
But with a surge in demand for services, such as increased screening of travellers from Indonesia since foot-and-mouth disease was detected there, increased screening of mail due to an uptake in online shopping, and following financial issues faced by the Department of Agriculture, a new funding model is needed.
Asked directly if the government was preparing to announce a new biosecurity tax, Senator Watt said more would be revealed in the federal budget.
“I think I’ve given a pretty clear indication that we do need to make sure that we have sustainable biosecurity funding in this country,” he said.
“What that really means is about locking in every single year a predictable amount of money that provides the biosecurity services that we need. And if we can do that through this budget, or a future budget, then that will overcome the problem we’ve had for the last few years.”
The minister has hinted that any new fees, or fee increases, could be risk based.
That means those importing materials known to carry pests – such as vehicles known to carry dirt — could pay more than those importing low-risk products.
“Importers do pay different types of fees and charges, depending on the kind of import that they’re bringing in — whether it’s a container, that might be different to a car, which might be different to a horse — so it might not be possible to give you a uniform figure,” Senator Watt said.
“One of the things we’re consulting with importers about is known as the FID, one of the import charges that people pay for any import that comes in.
“We’re looking at having to increase that by $5 per import declaration because, again, that is a fee that hasn’t been raised for several years while costs have gone up … that’s an example of the kind of fee that we’re looking at increasing on importers to help pay for the protections that are needed.”
Increasing charges about ‘equity’
In March, the Department of Agriculture released a consultation paper about increasing biosecurity fees and charges that had not been reviewed since 2015.
The paper said it was proposing changes to all regulatory fees and charges to “ensure equity and minimise the impact of price changes in future years”.
Biosecurity services include the deployment of sniffer dogs, passenger and mail screening and surveillance activities such as those that led to almost 40 tonnes of high-risk foods, including turtle and frog meat, being seized by officials earlier this year.
An independent review of Australia’s biosecurity services in 2017 recommended the federal government introduce a levy on inbound freight to fund the biosecurity system.
In 2018, then-agriculture minister David Littleproud used the budget to announce a new import levy on inbound freight. It was budgeted to raise $325 million over three years, charging $10 per container or $1 per tonne on raw freight brought into Australia.
But after lobbying from the Minerals Council of Australia, cement industry and other industry heavyweights, the levy was dropped before it was ever charged.
In 2021, a report by the auditor-general found Australia’s biosecurity systems were not protecting Australia’s assets as well as they should be.
Australia faces several biosecurity risks such as foot-and-mouth disease, African horse sickness, African swine fever, and lumpy skin disease — an outbreak of which could decimate several livestock industries at a cost of billions of dollars.
Senator Watt made his remarks at the Port of Brisbane where there has been a 23 per cent increase in the number of new cars imported this year, compared to the same period in 2022.
In the first three and a half months of 2023, the number of contaminated cars that needed to be cleaned was the same as had arrived in the whole of 2022.
Next week’s federal budget is also expected to include a top-up to the Department of Agriculture’s coffers after it was revealed the department was hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.