NT cattle producers muster in Darwin

James Nason, 02/04/2012

Australian red meat industry structures were again put under the spotlight when hundreds of northern cattle producers gathered in Darwin for the 28th annual Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association (NTCA) annual conference last Friday.

The event represented the first major industry gathering in the north since last year’s Indonesian export crisis.

The NTCA opted for a different format this year, cutting back the number of speakers and replacing it with a forum to allow members to express their views on industry issues and to discuss potential solutions to guide the industry forward.  

Members also had the chance to direct questions to a high-level industry panel which included Cattle Council of Australia president Andrew Ogilvie, National Farmers Federation president Jock Laurie, Australian Live Exporters Council chairman Peter Kane, AgForce president Brent Finlay, Meat and Livestock Australia chairman Rob Anderson; retiring Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association president Rohan Sullivan and Rabobank’s head of food and agribusiness research and advisory in Asia, John Baker.

Key developments at this year's conference included:

  • David Warriner from Tipperary Station was elected to replace retiring Rohan Sullivan as NTCA president; 
  • Tom Stockwell from Sunday Creek was appointed to replace Roy Chisholm as NTCA’s representative on Cattle Council of Australia; 
  • Tributes were paid to the work of the past two NTCA presidents Roy Chisholm and Rohan Sullivan for their strong leadership through some of the toughest times the association has faced in its 28 year history;
  • NTCA life memberships were awarded to Mick Maloney and David Crombie; 
  • An announcement by NT Agriculture minister Kon Vatskalis to contribute $9m in funding for road works towards AA Co’s planned Darwin abattoir (there is no official word yet on whether combined Federal and NT Government funding for the required $36m in support infrastructure will be forthcoming).

The forum touched on a range of issues, with industry representation and the need for agriculture to project a positive public image dominating discussions. 

Industry structures in spotlight

Several questions at the forum went to the relevance of the Red Meat Advisory Council as an industry voice, particularly in light of its inability to represent the views of northern producers to Government during last year’s export ban because another of its members, the Australian Meat Industry Council representing processors, held a contrasting view.

The Red Meat Advisory Council is an over-arching body that speaks with one voice on behalf of Australia’s red meat industry when its various member groups achieve an agreed stance on a particular issue.

Its members are the Cattle Council of Australia, Sheepmeat Council of Australia, the Goat Industry Council of Australia, the Australian Lot Feeders Association, the Australian Livestock Exporters Council and the Australian Meat Industry Council.

A number of producers at last Friday's forum questioned the value of the current structure when RMAC was effectively muzzled whenever two or more of its member groups disagreed.

The forum was asked whether the industry would be better served with single organisation representing all producers, and another representing the downstream supply chain.

Panel members acknowledged the concerns, but warned that going to government with different voices allowed the government to play one industry group off against the other.

“What I do know is that as a lobby group we have to determine who the lobby group are, whether we’re farmers and commodity groups and whether the supply chain should be involved in that,” NFF president Jock Laurie said. 

“There will be a lot of issues in which all sides agree, but there will also be points upon which different sides will have completely different perspectives.

“So do you engage them in developing up the 80 or 90pc of policies that you do agree on, and then use that combined strength to try and drive policy through the Federal Government, or do you keep it separate and then on those issues have variations in where you want to go, which allows the Government to do whatever it wants to do.

“In the end we keep getting splintered because we keep going through with 10 or 15 different views on life.”

Outgoing NTCA president Rohan Sullivan said last year’s visit to Canberra by NTCA members during the live export ban was a turning point that helped to highlight the impact of the suspension on northern families.

“There was a perception that the peak bodies weren’t doing what they were supposed to be doing,” Mr Sullivan said.

“The RMAC model says that if they can’t get a consensus then the individual members have to go and paddle their own canoe with the Federal Government, so that throws the single voice out the window.”

Cattle Council of Australia executive director David Inall said when red meat industry groups achieved consenus on single issues, such as the carbon tax, the existing structure worked very well.

“The perfect result with lobbying is the RMAC chairman on behalf of everybody and Jock Laurie going to parliament house, instead of all six of us going up, and that is a very powerful voice.

“There are a lot of areas where it does work.”

Mr Inall added that one of RMAC’s major roles was to manage the Red Meat Industry Fund left over from the windup of the AMLC and the sale of meat research stations when the industry was last restructured in 1998.

The fund was originally worth $31 million and its value moved up and down with the share market. It currently has a value of $42m.

Proceeds from the fund go towards providing operating revenue for industry representative groups. Cattle Council of Australia for example receives $550,000 per year from the fund, which compares to the $200,000 a year it receives from producer membership fees paid to State Farm Organisations.

The high-level of confusion surrounding representative structures was highlighted by a diagram which sought to explain the inter-relationships that exist between each body. As new layers of lines and arrows were added to complete the picture, the graphic quickly earned nickname the “spaghetti diagram”, and was repeatedly referred to as a symbol of producer frustrations with the prevailing industry arrangements.

A number of producers called for a review to start with a blank sheet of paper, and proposed that money from the Red Meat Industry Fund be used to pay for the review and restructure.

ALEC chairman Peter Kane, who also sits on the board of RMAC, said that path may not be possible under under RMAC’s current charter.

“I don’t know that we can assume that it will be within RMAC’s remit to undertake this type of analysis.

“It might well be, but I just thought I would put a cautionary note out that RMAC may not be able to take this particular course in regard to one aspect of red meat industry, in this case the cattle part.”

CCA executive director David Inall added that the Government had originally stipulated that the managers of the Red Meat Fund must continue to grow it at CPI.

“That was a decision the Government made when they brought the fund in, that is not the board’s decision.

“Currently the fund is not doing as well as one would like, and hence one decision that is confronting the RMAC board is potentially to reduce disbursements to peak councils for our regular income, so there is already pressure on that fund for what is its daily activity.” 

A show of hands at the meeting indicated that a majority of NTCA members were interested to see the concept of using RMAC funds explored further. 

* More from the NTCA conference on Beef Central tomorrow


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