It hasn’t taken long for Meat & Livestock Australia’s recent commitment to improve stakeholder engagement to face its first serious test.
Criticism of MLA’s approach to engaging with stakeholders during an independent review of its Livestock Production Innovation R&D systems last year and the recent Senate inquiry has prompted MLA chair Michelle Allan and new managing director Richard Norton to pledge to oversee a new era of stakeholder engagement, transparency and accountability.
With those assurances still fresh in people’s minds, the public retraction of a high-level MLA email to the research sector this week has re-focused industry attention on the service-organisation’s commitment to stakeholder engagement.
Last Friday members of the Red Meat Co-Investment Committee (RMCIC), which oversees the implementation of the National Research and Development and Extension Framework, received an email from a senior MLA executive announcing significant changes to MLA’s future approach to R&D funding.
The email from the general manager of MLA’s Livestock Production Innovation (LPI) unit said the changes were in response to the recommendations of last year’s MLA LPI R&D systems review.
As part of that process, the email said MLA was re-assessing its interactions with committees such as the RMCIC, the Northern Australia Beef Research Committee (NABRC) and the Southern Australia Meat Research Committee (SAMRC).
The email then announced MLA had made a decision to withdraw from the RMCIC, which MLA itself established in 2005, on the basis that MLA believed “it needs to be able to act at arm’s length from the investment decisions of RMCIC members (which include State and Federal ag departments, the CSIRO and several universities) and other research organisations”.
The decisions and significant changes to MLA’s future R&D investment strategy announced in the email came as a “bolt from the blue” according to research industry stakeholders contacted by Beef Central this week, because there had been no consultation.
Several also said they did not believe the position outlined in the email was in line with the recommendations of last year’s independent LPI R&D systems the review, and in fact was a direct rejection of the review’s main recommendations, which included that MLA “publicly and unambiguously take ownership of the National RD&E strategies for beef and sheepmeat production”, implement formal strategies to improve stakeholder engagement, and “urgently develop a more inclusive culture that is more outward looking and cognizant of the needs of concerns of all of its key stakeholders.”
Events then took a significant turn on Monday morning when MLA managing director Richard Norton sent an email to members of the RMCIC asking them to disregard the previous email, advising that it had been sent “without MLA Board approval”.
“I apologise for the e-mail as it was a case of miscommunication through the handing over process to my position,” Mr Norton wrote.
“The MLA board will consider the matter on the 23rd of July and I will immediately advise the outcome of the Board meeting.”
Both emails have been widely circulated around the research and rural community this week and have also been forwarded to Beef Central.
As Mr Norton pledges to usher in a new era of improved stakeholder engagement, the “rogue email” issue has revived questions raised during the LPI review and the Senate inquiry about who is making the major strategic investment decisions within MLA, how committed it is to consultation and collaboration, and how much control the board itself has.
Mr Norton said the fact that he acted quickly and decisively to publicly retract the email on Monday should be seen as evidence that his commitment to improve stakeholder engagement and accountability is genuine.
“Obviously with the email trail and the people on it we anticipated that it would (enter the public realm) but it is what it is,” Mr Norton told Beef Central this week.
“It is me saying that this hasn’t had the stakeholder engagement that I wanted it to have, so I pulled it back.
“To give it clarity, I am making the decisions and if I, in my opinion, wasn’t showing leadership, I probably would have let it keep going.
“But that decision clearly has to go back to the board, the board has to be informed of these decisions and it has to understand all the options on the table so it can make a decision.”
Mr Norton said the position outlined in the original email was “just one” of the options being considered as MLA sought to act on the recommendations of last year’s LPI R&D systems review.
The MLA board will hold a special out-of-session meeting next Wednesday, July 23, where all options and the positions for and against each will be discussed, and any recommended action will then be discussed with stakeholders.
Mr Norton said the industry would then have the opportunity to express views as to whether the recommendations should or shouldn’t proceed.
“What I have communicated is that it is going to be transparent, it is going to have consultation and it has got to have stakeholder engagement.”