The senate committee inquiry investigating potentially anti-competitive practices in the red meat processing sector industry has heard much in the way of anecdotal evidence of possible buyer collusion and unfair cattle pricing practices.
But, as yet, the three public hearings held so far have heard little in the way of what could be termed conclusive, hard evidence of anti-competitive behaviour.
Some argue that direct evidence is very difficult to capture, given that collusion can take the form of something as simple as a private pre-sale conversation between two buyers. A number of producers have also stated that the competition watchdog, the ACCC, has either been uninterested in following up their complaints, or were ineffective when they did try to investigate the reported buyer boycott of the first Barnawartha cattle sale near Wodonga earlier this year.
Therefore, they say, a lack of hard evidence does not necessarily mean that anti-competitive practices do not happen.
However, if definitive proof does not come forward at the inquiry, it is hard to see how the process can achieve much in terms of meaningful change for those who say they are most affected.
For their part processors have vehemently defended their sector during the inquiry, arguing among other points that saleyard purchases represent a small percentage of how stock are procured by most processors these days, and if saleyard purchasing was so beneficial for processors, it would follow that they would buy significantly more stock that way.
There is also a view that the lack of hard evidence of anti-competitive behavior can be put down to producers, agents and others who may have such evidence being too scared to reveal it publicly for fear of potential marketplace retaliation down the track.
At the public hearing in Roma (which has been followed by public hearings in Canberra and Albury), Liberal National Party Senator for Queensland Barry O’Sullivan voiced his opinion that the inquiry should conduct “in-camera” hearings to allow anyone who believes they have conclusive evidence of anti-competitive behavior to present it to the committee confidentially, without having to reveal their identity.
Cattle Council of Australia has also told Beef Central that it believes the committee should conduct an in-camera hearing to give people who believe they have evidence with a chance to put it forward without fear that their identity will be disclosed.
In preparing its own submission for the inquiry, the council asked producers to supply it with examples of instances when they felt they had been treated unfairly or illegally.
It said the process was designed to ensure producers could provide information without fear of jeopardising their commercial relationships, and enabled producers to submit examples confidentially via a form on the CCA website.
CCA chief executive officer Jed Matz said examples were provided on a confidential basis and therefore it was difficult to elaborate on individual examples.
However he said themes of the examples provided to Cattle Council were consistent with the recurring themes from the inquiry so far – those being:
- Reluctance from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to investigate complaints;
- Buyer collusion in saleyards; and
- Consistency and transparency of feedback from processors.
“The Cattle Council supports the Senate Committee having as much information as possible in order to make informed recommendations. Given that there is reluctance amongst producers to provide commercially sensitive information we would support in camera sessions,” Mr Matz said.
Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport committee chairman and Labor Senator from WA Glenn Sterle told Beef Central that if people who believed they had actual evidence of anti-competitive behaviour – which were more than simple claims they “saw two blokes talking in a pub” – they could contact the Senate committee to arrange an in-camera hearing.
Beef Central understands that at least one party has already requested the opportunity to provide evidence to the committee via an in-camera session.
Senator Sterle said the committee also expects to conduct at least one more public hearing before the end of the year, which will involve representatives from the ACCC and the Department of Agriculture.
The ACCC has confirmed to media that it did send investigators to monitor buyer behavior at a Barnawatha sale in late February, following the reported buyer boycott of the sale. It said investigators were sent to assess whether “the alleged conduct of the processors may raise concerns under the Competition and Consumer Act (2010)”.
However, the commission has not yet revealed any outcomes from those investigations. A spokesperson told Beef Central the ACCC has no further comment on that investigation at the moment.
Under Senate rules, committees are empowered to hear evidence in private, and witnesses must be offered the opportunity to apply at any time for their evidence to be heard in camera. The committee must then consider their application, and, if it is refused, it must notify the witness of its reasons for refusing the application.
The rules further state that before giving evidence in camera, a witness must also be informed that the committee, and the Senate itself, has the power subsequently to publish the evidence if they so decide. The witness must also be informed whether in fact the committee intends to publish all or any of the in camera evidence. It is also an offence punishable by the Senate to publish evidence taken in camera without permission.
The Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport committee is due to complete its inquiry and submit a report with recommendations to Government by the last sitting day in March 2016.
For more information on the inquiry you can view its home page here