THE recent senate inquiry into grassfed beef levies made it patently clear that levy payers did not want to see current Meat & Livestock Australia directors on the board selection committee, incoming managing director Richard Norton says.
During his first interview with Beef Central since joining the industry service delivery company a month ago (see this morning’s main article), he said this was one of a range of messages MLA had taken from the senate inquiry into grassfed levies.
“MLA has agreed to cross that bridge again, and be absolutely transparent in trying to modify the constitution so that changes can be made to reflect that view,” he said.
“We’ll take advice around whether we need to make a constitutional change to do that, but at this point, we understand such a constitutional change is necessary, and it’s likely to be a resolution up at the next AGM in November.”
“We’ll do anything that industry wants us to do to assist in that process,” he said
Another key question out of the inquiry was around how levy payers transact, and how that transaction ultimately converts to votes at the MLA annual general meeting.
“Again, that bridge was crossed in 2006, involving a stakeholder committee that also included agents, but I suspect it’s just a matter of systems and software for the whole of industry to make that happen,” he said.
“But MLA is only an enabler. If industry wants it, then its MLA’s role to make these transitions happen.”
When questioned about the timing of MLA’s internal review, which was launched in parallel with the recent senate inquiry, Mr Norton defended the decision, denying that it had anything to do with being ‘seen to be taking action in some attempt to dilute senate or ministerial recommendations or changes.’
“After our first board meeting a fortnight ago, it was very clear to me that the MLA board wants this change process implemented. The board felt it could not sit around and wait for what recommendations the senate inquiry might come up with, before beginning this process – or whether or not the minister takes them up,” he said.
“Having hung around a few corporate board structures, I can tell you, after just one board meeting, that this MLA board is very much focussed on outcomes for levy payers. Our first board meeting was quite intense, and I was amazed at their level of focus on what has to be done within MLA.”
Mr Norton said having come out of the ‘more corporate’ sector of agribusiness before joining MLA, if the board had wanted something ‘closer to status quo’, it would perhaps have appointed an MD with more experience in operations within the sector.
“I think the fact the board chose somebody with a stronger commercial, customer-focussed background suggests there is a strong mood for change,” he said.
“In the corporate world, reporting to financial shareholders makes you accountable for everything you do in the business. Every decision you make, you know you have to defend that in front of shareholders.”
“It’s no different in this role: every decision made at MLA, has to be defended in front of levy payers. And having been around this industry for 25 years, I know levy payers, by and large, are smart individuals who won’t cop misuse of industry funds.”
“Knowing that, it’s clearly my intention to ensure that everything that MLA does in market access, R&D and marketing is invested wisely.”
Mr Norton said another role he saw for himself was in engaging with levy payers so they clearly understood the arrangements under which MLA functions.
One of the challenges was that many levy payers, at this point, did not appear to understand the complexity of the industry structures, and the fact that grassfed levies come into the organisation, which operated under a corporate governance, AOP-agreed to by peak industry councils.
“There’s a very stringent process around how levies are used, and we need to communicate and demonstrate that better to stakeholders, so they understand what is MLA is doing, and how it has to go about it,” Mr Norton said.