Retiring Meat and Livestock Australia chairman Don Heatley has implored the Australian livestock industry to work together to tackle the industry’s mounting challenges, and to avoid engaging in activities that divide and destabilise.
The Northern Queensland cattleman will draw the curtain on a highly respected agri-political career that has spanned 33 years when he chairs his final MLA board meeting in Longreach this morning.
His final task as MLA chairman will be to oversee a vote by the organisation’s board to elect a sitting director as his successor.
Fittingly, the final chapter will take place in the very same building in which Mr Heatley’s industry representative career began in 1978, when as a young cattleman he joined the Central and Northern Graziers Association (now part of AgForce) in Longreach.
In a heartfelt final address to yesterday’s MLA annual general meeting, Mr Heatley reflected on his 13 years as a member of MLA's board.
The address was not without emotion, with Mr Heatley’s voice wavering on a number of occasions as he paid tribute to the industry, to the MLA staff and to his family, many of whom were in the audience including his wife Laurel, sons Peter and Scott, and his ’82 years young’ mother Joan.
The past year alone has involved 180 days away from his family’s Home Hill cattle operation. He was now looking forward to spending more time with family and on the cattle business to make sure it prospers for years to come – with the help of course of MLA-driven research and development and management tools.
Mr Heatley said he had seen the industry’s resilience tested and proven time and time again over his past 13 years on the MLA board.
“I have seen mother nature give us a drought, and then flick the switch and give us flooding rains.
“I have seen the Aussie Dollar swing from 49c to 110c US.
“I have seen demand in global markets run hot and cold.
“And I have seen livestock markets ebb and soar.
“But no matter what has been thrown at us, we have stuck to our knitting.”
A key highlight over the past 13 years had been the industry’s shift towards consumer driven production. This was underlined by the development and growing uptake of the Meat Standards Australia eating quality assurance program, which now accounts for 20pc of all cattle slaughtered in Australia and generates a consistent premium of 12-15c/kg premium for participating producers.
Mr Heatley also discussed the shock and distress that had engulfed the industry during the live export ban earlier this year.
While the live export industry now shouldered a greater regulatory burden as a result, significantly the assurance system introduced by Government now meant that any future breach of the new system would result in only non-compliant supply chains being closed, not the entire trade.
The issue had also brought confusion about MLA’s role to a head, not only among the Australian public and in the media but within the industry as well.
MLA was not an animal welfare agency, and nor did it have any legislative authority in export markets. It was not a commercial operative, it did not buy or sell livestock, and it was not the industry’s representative or policy body.
“What we are is a marketing and R&D service provider to industry, what we do is at the direction of industry,” Mr Heatley said.
However he said MLA had also overreached on services to industry, above and beyond those it was established to deliver, and the focus of the MLA board since the appointment of new managing director Scott Hansen since July was to bring the scope of MLA “back to basics”.
Mr Heatley was also visibly moved as he discussed the destruction he witnessed in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami struck in March. As part of the Australian beef industry’s Japan initiative, Mr Heatley and other MLA representatives visited affected areas to distribute Australian donated hay to farmers. He spoke of sitting at a kitchen table with a husband and wife who ran a feedlot in an area devastated by the event.
“They lost eight family members, and still have family unaccounted for. Their new home, and all the feed for livestock, was completely decimated by the Tsunami.
“But sitting there in the kitchen, (the Japanese farmer) was in tears as he expressed his gratitude to the Australian cattle industry for its support to the Japanese industry.”
“Almost every component of this assistance has been funded by the commercial sector. I’m deeply proud of the Australian cattle and beef industry for providing this kind of support to this very, very loyal market.”
Mr Heatley also paid tribute to the staff of MLA, which he described as an amazingly loyal and hard working group. “They deliver a dedication to our industry that is immeasurable, and often goes unnoticed, and they ask for so little in return, I take my hat off to every one of you.”
In his parting words to the industry, Mr Heatley said his message was a simple one.
The industry should celebrate its victories, constructively analyse its failures and work together to turn them into the next opportunity.
He urged the industry to focus on outcomes, not structure. Outcomes were produced by people, and the industry had many good people to draw upon.
However, it was vital that the industry worked together.
“Our industry has and will continue to face challenges that are bigger than us all,” Mr Heatley said.
“We cannot afford to put our energy into activities with the potential to divide. The only way we stand a chance of beating the challenges is to pull together and tackle them as one.”