It was with more of a whimper than a bang that the much-anticipated Senate Inquiry into grassfed beef cattle levies got underway in Canberra last Friday.
The inquiry represents the first independent opportunity grassfed industry stakeholders have had to express their views about existing structures and levy arrangements since the restructure that led to the creation of Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) and the Red Meat Advisory Council (RMAC) 16 years ago.
The inquiry has received more than 180 written submissions, mainly from producers expressing concerns about wide-ranging issues such as the level of producer and processor control over the producer-service organisation MLA, the transparency of its activities and its culture, the effectiveness of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by MLA on marketing and R&D in the face of stagnating farm-gate returns for producers, the concentration of competition in the processing and retail sector, and the effectiveness of the State Farm Organisation-controlled Cattle Council of Australia as the industry’s peak representative group.
The inquiry’s first public hearing last Friday gave Senators the chance to drill down into some of these concerns with direct questions to representatives from MLA, RMAC, Cattle Council of Australia, the Australian Meat Processing Corporation and the Australian Beef Association.
However the day’s proceedings resulted in more shallow paddling than deep diving as several Senators used the limited question-time available to ask questions about basic points of detail such as how industry structures work, where lines of authority run and where levies currently flow.
While structures in the grassfed industry are indeed complex, more homework prior to Friday’s hearings on the part of several Senators could have enabled the issues raised in written submissions to be explored in greater depth.
Opportunity still exists for that to happen, however, with committee chair Senator Glen Sterle telling each group on Friday that they may be recalled to front future public hearings, which commence again in about seven weeks’ time.
The next public hearings will be held at Broome on May 6, Katherine on May 7 and 8, Rockhampton on May 21 and Albury on May 22. While the NT and northern WA are well serviced by these locations, large cattle producing regions such as northern and southern Queensland and northern New South Wales for example have been largely overlooked.
During last Friday’s hearings representatives of the Australian Beef Association called on the Senators to recommend that the minister for Agriculture Barnaby Joyce conduct a referendum of all levy paying producers, asking whether a compulsory levy should be paid, and, if so, at which level it should be set.
Asked if the restructure model recently chosen by CCA was satisfactory, ABA director Brad Bellinger said it failed the democratic test because eight of the 10 seats on the CCA’s new board will be appointed by State Farm Organisations, and only two will be elected by a popular vote of members.
The hearings heard that CCA currently claims to represent 15,000 cattle producers nationally, identified as cattle-producing members of SFOs, and a further 98 producers who have paid to become direct members since that pathway opened in late January. (CCA is due to conduct its first election for an independently elected director when the number of direct members reaches 200).
Asked how many members it represented, ABA chief executive officer David Byard told the hearing that the number had been around 1000, but was now “slightly down” on that.
The ABA session also focused on the issue of transparency and accountability within MLA, with ABA directors telling the hearing that from 4000 research projects funded by MLA, only 260 had resulted in a final report being produced.
Liberal Senator for NSW Bill Heffernan said that while he was aware that MLA had challenged those numbers, even if they were 50pc wrong they would still be “outrageous”.
“What is the proposition where you can get a grant but not ever have to report happened with the money,” Senator Heffernan said.
“Even if (those figures) are just 10pc right, if you get a research grant surely you have to account for it.”