When red meat producers were unable to agree on how to restructure their industry back in the mid 1990s, then primary industry minister John Anderson stepped in and restructured the industry himself.
Stakeholders were basically presented with the model, and told to ‘go and make it work.’
The current grassfed cattle industry restructure debate has now been dragging on for four years, drawing the focus of industry leadership away from the core business of representing grower interests, and still without a definitive result.
Is it time for a repeat of 1997?
Beef Central put that question to the former Primary Industries minister John Anderson during a recent interview, and he agreed that it is now time for decisions to be made.
“I doubt very much whether there is room for a great deal of further debate, it is probably time for decisions,” he said of the long-running grassfed industry restructure process.
Central to the industry restructure debate in the mid 1990s was the division between southern and northern producers over whether or not to split marketing and R&D of sheepmeat and beef.
While a report he commissioned as the Minister for Primary Industries recommended splitting the two, Mr Anderson decided to keep them under the same roof within the then newly formed Meat & Livestock Australia.
“I decided against that because it was just too much fragmentation,” he said.
“Two restaurants, one kitchen can work.
“There was just too much potential for wastage of producer and tax payer dollars by having two organisations researching red meat when there was significant overlap.”
The current grassfed industry restructure debate is centred more specifically around the issue of producer involvement and whether they have an adequate say over how their levy funds are spent on R&D and marketing.
That has in turn led to a calls from some growers for grassfed levy funding to be removed from the Research & Development Corporation Meat & Livestock Australia and given to a newly formed grassfed grower elected and focused body to control.
Mr Anderson said a core aim of the 1997 restructure was “to make the whole process as democratic as we could”.
He said the constitution prevented levy funding from being controlled by popularly elected bodies.
“The fact is that if you want access to taxpayer levies, both the levies that are collected are taxes, and the contributions that are made by the Government are taxes of course, and you can’t have a popularly elected body other than the parliament oversighting those taxes constitutionally.
“I think you will find the Government can’t even if it wants to, because, rightly, the constitution demands the minister be accountable for all taxes collected and all taxes disbursed in the parliament.
“And I think that is a right and proper protection, our forefathers knew what they were doing. The history of producer bodies, with the best will in the world, indicates that it is a very good thing if they remain accountable to the parliament, even if they chafe occasionally.”
While people tended to focus on structures, often the culture was to blame, Mr Anderson said.
“Looking at MLA, it is the old story, very often cultures do get a little inward looking, and they need a little bit of a shakeup.
“But sometimes it is very easy to say the architecture is wrong when all you need is to freshen up the personnel and reinvigorate the organisation.
“One of the things I have learnt over the years is that almost any organisational structure will work if you have the right people with the right motivation in place.
“People get carried with structures.”
Asked if he would take the same action that he took in the mid 1990s if he was the agriculture minister today, Mr Anderson simply answered: “I think there has been enough time extended now”.