The federal government has refused to reveal whether it has or has not provided or received guidance relating to a long-awaited container levy being introduced in Australia due to legal privilege.
Agriculture Minister Murray Watt said last May that he would ask the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry to identify any trade law issues around the potential introduction of a container levy to ensure it stood up legally.
However, the government on Monday would not confirm whether Mr Watt had received the legal guidance or even asked for it.
The information was said to be necessary to ascertain if a container levy was consistent with Australia's international trade law obligations under its membership of the World Trade Organisation.
Any new levy would also need to satisfy requirements under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and Free Trade Agreements.
The agriculture sector has been calling for a sea-freight import charge to be introduced for several years.
Peak representative body Cattle Australia, in a media statement released on Monday, urged the government to "clarify the future implementation of a container levy and if WTO trade reasons will prevent this approach."
Meanwhile, GrainGrowers also asked for "clear guidance" from the government on the situation in a statement released last Friday.
The two main considerations for the viability of a container levy were China's reaction to what it would likely view as a new tariff placed on its exporters and the potential for another nation to challenge any new levy at the World Trade Organisation as an unfair tariff.
Mr Watt said he did not want to introduce a new container levy that could be legally challenged, but believed it relevant to explore the possibility.
The previous Coalition government had attempted to introduce a container surcharge, predicting it would raise $325 million over three years, but the legislation was not introduced and the plan abandoned in 2020.
While the current government was unwilling or unable to provide information around any legal advice that has or has not been provided to Mr Watt, a spokesman said that it had increased revenue from importers as a result of new biosecurity regulatory fees and charges introduced on July 1 last year.
"Cost recovery revenue from importers was $211.4 million as year-to-date February 5, 2024," the spokesman said.
"This includes extra cost recovery revenue of $26.9 million which importers would not have paid under the old fees and charges, prior to 1 July 2023."
A hitchhiker pest levy was also introduced in January 2023.
The new charges on importers were part of the government's new sustainable $1 billion biosecurity funding model announced in last May's Federal Budget.
The spokesman said the contribution from importers is estimated to increase by around 35 per cent, or more than $100 million a year, between 2021-22 and 2025-26.
"We are raising the same amount from importers as the National Party said it would raise through its failed container levy. They said it was a silver bullet but it never raised a single cent for our critical biosecurity," he said.
Meanwhile, legislation for a 10 per cent biosecurity protection levy that will be imposed on top of all existing agricultural levies has yet to be introduced into the Federal Parliament.
The levy will collect about $48 million a year to help bankroll the revamped biosecurity system.