THE Representative Organisation (RO) for the grains industry in relation to the Primary Industries Research and Development (PIRD) Act is now under formal review by Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.
I have an interest in the issue as the past chairman of the incumbent grains RO, Grain Producers Australia Ltd (GPA). This gives me intimate knowledge of the role of the RO and a broader appreciation of the issues affecting grower representation at this level.
There is no doubt that grains representation remains sadly fractured and growers are not getting the best representation possible while constant niggling and destabilisation undermine the function of the RO. However, contrary to the many ill-informed and overly judgmental claims, the struggle around the RO role is not just all about egos, power trips or access to some mythical trough of money.
The Ministerial decision to formally review the grains RO role is well and truly overdue, but it’s also a timely opportunity for reflection on the state of grower representation for the broader agricultural production sector generally. Similarly, the Minister has an opportunity to look beyond existing structures and potentially establish a mechanism to depoliticise the tenure of the PIRD RO role and create a stable and sustainable model for grower representation across all commodity sectors.
In contrast to our overseas competitors, Australian farmer representation generally is struggling to survive and or even be relevant. There are a range of constraints at play in the Australian agri political landscape, including money, grower engagement, leadership talent and political relevance. If you then overlay the complexity of sometimes competing state and federal agendas and the need for action on behalf of growers at both levels of government it becomes a highly fractured and often dysfunctional mess.
Many growers have disengaged from their representative structures and some are hyper critical of the effort undertaken on their behalf and in their absence. My perspective may be a little jaded here, but many of the people I hear loudly attacking farmer representatives don’t show up when they are asked or engage in the process when their input is sought. Their outrage and protest after the event is frankly pathetic and does nothing constructive. When you are led to water and refuse to drink you have no right to complain about being thirsty.
The reality is that no representative can be all things to all people and there is no point in trying, but it is important to have a process for making decisions that is open and transparent and robust so that these decisions are legitimate. There is no doubt that there is room for improvement in many, if not all representative bodies, but it is ridiculous to refuse to participate and then complain about poor representation.
The grains industry created a new federal representative model in 2009 to address some of the structural problems in the former national representative model. The people engaged in that process were acutely aware of the failings of the old system, but were heavily constrained in developing an ideal solution, particularly by the lack of political courage by the Minister of the day.
In reviewing the models that work elsewhere there were some common themes: Culturally committed to service of the sector rather than control of the sector. Securely funded directly by the people it purports to represent on an ongoing basis. Directly accountable to its constituency. Culturally committed to courageous and honest decision making for and on behalf of its constituents rather than just trying to be popular with vested interests, including members. Robustly governed by transparent and rigorous protocols to provide confidence in the integrity of the structure and its processes. Committed to researched policy development including willingness to source relevant expertise and capacity even from outside the constituency.
The most effective model for funding farmer representation in Australia exists in South Australia where funds are collected under the South Australian Primary Industries Funding Scheme 1998. This is a voluntary levy that is mandatorily collected at first point of sale and farmers have the option to claim their levies back through the department if they want to opt out of the scheme.
The federal government mandates levy collections for research and development under the federal Primary Industry (Excise) Levies Act 1999. These levies fund arguably the best public agricultural R&D structures in the world. It is a natural grower expectation that these well-resourced structures should act in an advocacy capacity and some aspects of non-political grower representation are legitimately funded under the PIRD Act. However, the PIRD Act constrains these bodies short of providing or funding grower advocacy per se.
Perhaps one of the best national agricultural industry bodies is Australian Pork Limited (APL). This company is set up to provide distinct business lines to provide research and development, marketing work, policy development work and industry communications. In effect, APL is a much more capable industry advocate, with a funding concession on the deployment of levies collected under the Primary Industry (Levies) Act. The APL model is quite impressive, but being a relatively small and less diverse sector means the model does not translate directly to all sectors. However, the structural principle presents an interesting possibility although it is enabled through specific legislation.
In the consultation process for a new grains representative model voluntary levy models like the South Australian model and APL were canvassed. However the lack of corresponding political courage and will in the then Minister’s office precluded any model that required political intervention.
The current Minister has announced a welcome review of the grains representative structures in relation to role of the RO for the grains industry under the PIRD Act. This review would be far more relevant and useful if it extends beyond reviewing the existing bodies and considered a template that could be applied across commodity sectors to restore a capable grower presence in Canberra.
Grower representation is a problem that needs a solution. Resolving funding and structural constraints to representation could be a lasting legacy that does not cost Treasury a cent and yet delivers huge ongoing benefit to Australian producers. Will Barnaby walk through that door?