Industry representative organisations and research and development corporations will soon be given unprecedented access to every levy paying producer in their industry, under new legislation passed by Federal Parliament this week.
The changes mean industry representative organisations in each industry, such as Cattle Council of Australia in the grassfed cattle industry, which in recent times has struggled to engage growers and attract new members, will soon be able to communicate directly with every levy paying cattle producer in Australia, regardless of whether they are members of the organisation or not.
Under the new amendments to the Primary Industries Levy and Charges Collection Amendment Bill 2016 passed this week, Research and Development Corporations (RDCs )in each industry, such as Meat & Livestock Australia, will be able to gain access to previously off-limits levy payer information from the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources, and create a levy payer register for their industry.
The changes are the Government’s response to calls by consecutive Senate inquiries for levy payers to have more say over how their levies are invested in research and development, and how industry policies are developed.
The new legislation also paves the way for the automatic identification of levy payers, the amount of levies they pay each year, and the allocation of their voting rights for each year’s industry annual general meeting accordingly, a smoother process than the current votuntary, paper based system.
Minister Barnaby Joyce’s office told Beef Central this week that there will be restrictions on the use of the information in levy payer registers.
Use will be restricted to RDCs “consulting on specified purposes such as R&D and marketing activities, biosecurity or National Residue Survey purposes, or other activities of the RDC that benefit industry”.
Industry representative organisations will also be able to ask the Department of Agriculture for access to the registers so they can communicate directly with growers.
Provided their request is approved by the Department, they will be able to communicate with all levy payers as often as they wish, Beef Central has been told.
The development delivers grower groups an extraordinary and unprecedented level of access to every levy payer in their industry.
In the past representative groups have had to perform to win grower support. This gives groups a level of access to growers that they have not necessarily earned. How they use this access, and whether restrictions will be placed around it, will be an interesting issue to watch. Will communications for example be limited specifically to purposes that benefit growers (and how would that be defined), or will it become a channel for groups to bombard growers with self-serving propaganda?
The Minister’s office told Beef Central the register can only be used for the purposes allowed by legislation.
The explanatory notes accompanying the legislation say these purposes for RDC’s include:
- matters relating to the development and maintenance of levy payer registers;
- the ability to make public any statistical, de-identified information;
- for any functions required of the recipient under Commonwealth laws or under a funding agreement between the RDC and the Commonwealth.
- RDCs will also be able to use levy payer registers to allocate voting rights for industry polls more efficiently and accurately, without the need for paper-based statutory declarations.
For industry representative organisations, the legislation permits the disclosure of information included in the levy payer register “to industry representative bodies for consulting levy payers on R&D plans or demonstrating support for a levy amendment proposal’.
The legislation says levy payers also must be given the ability to ‘opt-out’ of receiving information from industry representative bodies, should they choose do to so.
Sources have told Beef Central that industry representative bodies will not be able to use the access for “agripolitical purposes”, which in itself is not clearly defined, but that they will be able to use it n a range of ways to boost their revenue bases.
Some examples given included directing growers to information about how to become a member of their organisation, or encouraging growers to fund their organisation through another form such as a voluntary levy outside of the statutory channels.
Minister Barnaby Joyce’s office told Beef Central the legislation was based on strong and consistent feedback received from industry and Senate Inquiries.
“It’s an important principle that farmers and primary producers have a say in how their levy funds are invested in R&D. Direct feedback from levy payers will also help research and development corporations (RDCs) ensure their R&D investments align with industry priorities,” the minister’s office said.
Prescribed body status to be reviewed every five years
The Government has also agreed to a Senate request for industry representative bodies which enjoy “prescribed industry body” or peak industry council status under legislation to have that privileged status reviewed every five years, to ensure the process remains contestable.
Responding to that recommendation in the Senate inquiry into agricultural levies, the Government said it agreed that prescribed industry councils should be required to demonstrate every five years that they deserve their “prescribed industry body” status.
However, despite agreeing to that recommendation in its formal response to the inquiry back in May, the Government has not yet enshrined that requirement in legislation.
Cattle Council: ‘An exciting moment in history’
The Cattle Council of Australia described the news that the bill had passed as “an exciting moment in the history of Australian agriculture”.
“Cattle Council of Australia has strongly advocated in favour of the Bill, seeing the ability to communicate directly with levy payers as a vital step forward in strengthening and growing the grassfed beef industry,” Cattle Council president Howard Smith said in a media release following the legislation’s successful passage.
“We have strongly lobbied for prescribed industry bodies to have access to levy payer contact details for specific purposes.
“The ability to communicate directly with levy payers is a huge win for producers and industry bodies.
“Gaining access to levy payer details provides benefits to the whole of industry including that the database captures an accurate profile of the industry, allowing for improved disease management and prevention, improved extension services and more targeted communication and policy.”
The data collected in the levy payer register can be used effectively to better advocate for producers, Mr Smith said.
Mr Smith said the development also provided potential for Cattle Council to identify new options for its funding, but did not specify what those options were.
Since 2013, he said, the Council had been pushing towards structural change, including a sustainable funding model, to adequately deliver the advocacy, policy and strategic services the grass-fed industry needs.
“We see this as an opportunity to ensure all prescribed industry bodies and research and development corporations can be truly answerable to Australia’s producers,” Mr Smith said.
Cattle Council of Australia has announced plans to move to a new, fully directly elected board structure, but that process has been stalled as it tries to identify a sustainable way to fund the new organisation.
An implementation group headed by CPC chief executive officer Troy Setter and containing a cross-section of representatives from different grassfed cattle industry groups has recently been established to guide the restructure process from now on.
What has MLA ever done for us! I’ll be opting out of this little show.
Great outcome. Very positive step forward for the Beef industry.