Australia’s red meat industry reform process would suffer a setback if Bridget McKenzie is removed from the Agriculture portfolio, industry representatives fear.
As a backbencher Senator McKenzie played an active role in senate inquiries from 2013 to 2017 into grassfed cattle industry governance arrangements, competition in the red meat processing sector and agricultural levies.
She is regarded in the red meat sector as a Federal Agriculture Minister who has a good understanding of the issues and who is genuinely committed to helping the $18 billion per year industry overcome divisions and achieve long-worked-for modernisation and reform.
The minister and Deputy Nationals Leader is facing pressure to resign from Cabinet over her handling as then-Sports Minister of $100 million in sports grants to marginal seats ahead of the 2019 election.
She has resisted calls to step down, saying “no rules were broken” and all projects that received funding were eligible.
However, she is still awaiting the findings of an investigation into her management of the sports grants, amid unrelenting opposition and media pressure for her to stand down.
Red meat industry structural and levy reform requires the support of the Federal Government, as both legislator and industry funding partner, and thus a good working relationship between the industry and the Federal Agriculture Minister and the Department is crucial to progress.
Regularly changing agricultural ministers have not been helpful to the process.
In May last year after the 2019 election Bridget McKenzie became Australia’s fourth Agriculture Minister in three years. She was preceded by Barnaby Joyce (2013-2017), Malcolm Turnbull (who oversaw the portfolio briefly as Prime Minister from October to December 2017 following Mr Joyce’s resignation from Cabinet), and David Littleproud (2017-2019).
Building on the earlier interest she took in senate inquries in industry issues, Ms McKenzie has gained the trust of industry leaders as a Minister who is seen as having a genuine appetite for reform.
In September last year she ordered a review of options to modernise agricultural Research and Development Corporations, a process which is understood to be around 75 percent completed.
In an interview this week with Beef Central about the progress of the Red Meat Memorandum of Understanding review process, Red Meat Advisory Council independent chair Don Mackay said the Senator would be a big loss if she is forced to leave the Agriculture Ministry.
“The Minister has been very good,” Mr Mackay said.
“She has worked collaboratively with our industry, across all parts of our industry, and she has been publicly supportive of the red meat industry for being proactive (through the Red Meat MoU white paper reform process).”
It is a view shared by Cattle Council CEO Travis Tobin who said McKenzie was genuinely committed to strong producer representation and that her clear understanding of the challenges of whole-of-industry reform meant she had rapidly built a strong rapport with producers and representative organisations.
“The Minister and Cattle Council enjoy a very strong and effective relationship, not just in terms of industry reform and but also with regard to our biosecurity, trade and farm-gate productivity priorities,” Mr Tobin said.
While yet to be formerly tested, Minister McKenzie is also seen as having a more liberal view than her predecessors on the use of levy funds for policy development, which is central to the red meat industry reform model recommended by the Red Meat MOU Review taskforce.
The uncertainty surrounding the Minister’s future comes as the Department of Agriculture transitions into the new mega Agriculture, Water and Environment Department.
Andrew Metcalfe, who previously served as Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry in 2013, is set to commence as Secretary of the new Department of Agriculture, Water and Environment within the next week, taking over from Daryl Quinlivan who has served as Secretary of the Department of Agriculture since 2015.
Mr Metcalfe is already well known to the red meat sector through his previous public service roles and more recently with Ernst & Young, which should ensure a smooth transition for red meat industry leaders in their relationship with the Department.
Cattle Producers Australia, which was created by a group of producers to give life to recommendations of the Senate inquiry into the effect of market consolidation on the red meat processing sector in 2017, which Bridget McKenzie participated in, also paid tribute to the minister in a statement this week.
CPA chair and Taroom cattle producer and veterinarian Dr Paul Wright said Senator McKenzie has played a vitally important role as Minister for Agriculture, through her initiatives to seek reform of grass-roots cattle producer representation, and her work to ensure biosecurity measures were in place to protect the beef industry’s future.
“Minister McKenzie has been supportive of industry reform and CPA has initiated much commentary over the past couple of years urging reform to strengthen transparency within the industry and ensure cattle producers do get a fair go,” the CPA statement said.
“The grass-fed beef industry is seeking reform to enable grass-fed producers the opportunity to engage in the decision making processes with regard to levy collection and expenditure and policy development within the cattle industry”.
“In 2013 then Agricultural Minister Joyce called for a senate inquiry into the industry structures and systems governing levies on grass-fed cattle resulting in seven recommendations to counter the fundamental structural flaws that inhibit levy payer engagement, direction and control of levy expenditure.
“Following on from those recommendations there was industry-wide agreement to reform the cattle Peak Industry Council to a fully democratic inclusive organisation to meet the needs of grass-fed cattle Producers. There was also a strong call to review the Memorandum of Understanding between the industry structures that underpin the red meat industry.
“In 2015 Senator Bridget McKenzie called for another Senate inquiry, triggered by producer outrage over the alleged buyer boycott at Barnawartha. The Senate Inquiry report into the effect of market consolidation (September 2017) found that a contributing factor to the alleged abuse of market power by processors was a lack of the countervailing power of a strong financially sound cattle producer representative body.
“The report supported the findings of the 2014 Senate inquiry in relation to deficiencies in cattle industry representation by existing peak bodies and called on Government to provide immediate support for a transparent and accountable producer-owned body and to officially recognise Cattle Australia (now Cattle Producers Australia) as the grass-fed cattle sector’s Peak Industry Council.”
Dr Wright said the Minister had recently corresponded with CPA, stating that the Morrison Government recognises the importance of contemporary world-class structural arrangements that allow the red meat industry to meet its economic potential, and that the current arrangements are not optimal evidenced by the number of reviews into the sector over the years, including the 2014 inquiry.
“The Minister also commented on the more recent review into the red meat MoU and has assured CPA that the Red Meat Advisory Council’s (RMAC) White Paper is not viewed as an implementation proposal and that Government is committed to listening and working with everyone in the sector to make sure we get any new governance arrangements right. The Minister also shares CPA’s view that the input of and the support from levy payers would be a critical part of any new structure.
“The Minister has more recently announced the Government’s plan to improve and modernise the rural Research and Development Corporation (RDC) system and has advised an innovation advisory panel will be established to lead engagement with stakeholders on options to improve and modernise the RDC system.
“Red meat industry reform is widely recognised within the industry as essential and CPA recognises Minister McKenzie’s positive contribution to these ongoing considerations.”
TOMORROW – Where is the Red Med MOU White Paper process up to, and where to from here?