Reactions mixed on Cattle Council reform

James Nason, 04/12/2013

Depending on where you sit in the cattle industry reform debate, the new Cattle Council of Australia structure officially adopted this week is either a strong step forward for effective national policy setting and representation, or a big step backwards.

Industry reaction to news that the Cattle Council has now formally approved a new structure that incorporates a direct membership channel and a much smaller 10-seat board has been predictably mixed, mirroring the level of debate that has surrounded the long-running restructure process this year.

The Australian Beef Association believes the new structure fails the democracy test because control of the board is retained by State Farm Organisations, which represent less than 20pc of all producers, while the remaining 80pc of producers will be represented by just two directors on the 10 seat board.

Under the new structure, any member of Cattle Council (whether they are direct-paying members of CCA, or members of CCA by virtue of their existing SFO memberships) will be able to nominate to stand for election to one of the two independent seats.

ABA chief executive David Byard said that in addition to being guaranteed one seat each on the board, each SFO could, if they wish, also promote their own candidates for election to one of the two indepdendent positions on the new board.

He said genuine independent candidates could find themselves opposing candidates backed by the resources and voting power of SFOs and facing little chance of election.

Mr Byard said the CCA had ignored the recommendations of the two writing committees it established during its restructure process in order to preserve the dominance of SFO-appointed councilors on its board.

“CCA has had a rather expensive roadshow around Australia to find out what producers want and again they have ignored any recommendations that don't suit the SFO-run board,” he said.

ABA’s view is that the most effective way to achieve democratic representation for all Australian grassfed cattle producers is to subject all nominees for the 10 board positions to a vote of all producers who pay the $5/head transaction levy.

“Why doesn't Cattle Council simply find out how many people pay a five dollar levy and give them a democratic vote, the same as Australian Wool Innovation?,” Mr Byard said.

“My guess is SFO's demand to stay in control, which is not fair or of benefit to producers.”

ABA also believes CCA should receive direct control of the roughly $56m generated from grassfed transaction levies every year.

“CCA cannot independently oversee MLA while it relies upon direct funding from MLA,” Mr Byard said

On the other side of the debate, AgForce Cattle president and CCA board member Howard Smith said the council’s new structure was a positive move in the right direction that would ensure greater representation for all producers and to harness more of the industry’s talent in policy setting.

“I think for too long we have probably lost a lot of intellectual capacity by not having broader representation on Cattle Council,” Mr Smith said.

“I think our task forces are working really well, and they’re not all made up with people from State Farming Organisations, but broadening our representation is going to be beneficial for policy development and will provide a more cohesive organisation going forward.

“Obviously under this new structure we will have a more viable, better funded and more effective organisation.”

Mr Smith said the challenge was now on producers to become members of Cattle Council to contribute to national policy setting and to build up the presence of direct members in the organisation.

In response to criticisms that the SFOs have too much say on the new board, Mr Smith said the issue came down to funding.

“It is pretty simple in the fact that SFOs are paying the bills at the moment,” Mr Smith said.

“We’re a lobby group, and you can’t use socialised funds and levy money to lobby.

“There is around $400,000 that SFOs pay to CCA, that can be firewalled for advocacy and lobby, where as you can’t use levy monies to do that.

“It will be interesting to see whether the direct members come on board so we can have those funds there to lobby.”

However Cattle Council was still working to access direct levy funds in future.

“We’ve got that service agreement at the moment with MLA, which we can utilise for policy development and what not, but the ultimate goal is that we get access to a portion of the levy,” Mr Smith said.

“Obviously there has been a change of Government, and it will be interesting to see where the senate inquiry on levies leads to.

“That could be a catalyst to explore Cattle Council getting a portion of the levy, and it is certainly in the forefront of our minds to keep pursuing.

“There are different views out there, some people want all the levy, others want a portion, so we will see where it falls I guess.”

One cattle producer who firmly believes that the Cattle Council of Australia should be able to administer the full levy is Cameron McIntyre, a producer from Central Queensland who was on one of the original writing groups established by Cattle Council of Australia to develop restructure models.

Mr McIntyre said those who believed cattle producers were not skilled enough to oversee the levy were not giving producers enough credit.

“The Cattle Council has been the weak link in our representative structure and the result they have come up with is really only a half hearted attempt to alleviate the concerns that most producers have got about the industry,” Mr McIntyre said.

“The most disappointing part is that they don’t believe that we have any people in the industry that are capable of administering our own levies, when other sections of the industry, the lot feeders and the live exporters and so on, administer their own levies.

“It is a disappointment to think that they believe there is no one with enough ability from our own ranks to actually collect and manage the levy.”

In relation to whether advocacy groups can access socialised funds, he said the previous Government had told delegations in which he participated that, provided levy proceeds were not used to directly fund political candidates or political parties, funds generated from compulsory levies could be used by industry organisations such as Cattle Council.

There are different interpretations as to how the previous Government viewed the use of socialised funds by industry advocacy groups like Cattle Council, but the big and yet-to-be-answered question now is how the recently elected Abbott Government views the same question.

That issue will no doubt be explored in more detail if and when a senate inquiry proceeds. 




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