Getting representation right

When you are led to water and refuse to drink, you have no right to complain about being thirsty.

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?

    Pete Mailler

    Pete Mailler

    is a farmer on the Qld/NSW border and a co-founder of the Country Party of Australia
    Date: Newest first | Oldest first


    Bout time
    14/06/2014 5:48:57 AM

    Amen! well said Pete.
    14/06/2014 6:44:15 AM

    Well said Pete. To often I see a short sighted and often ill informed self appointed expert yelling about what is wrong and bereft of any clue to a solution. Often the critique by the fence sitters is measured against a personal moral that has no bearing to the responsibility or complexity of the role. The rural industries reap what they sow in continuing to be fractured and focused on differences rather than the greater good. If farmers want a top down dictate keep on keeping on.
    15/06/2014 1:06:10 PM

    OMG, just what you have been after all along Pete, another farmer supplied levy to keep this jobs for the boys so called peak representation going so you blokes can continue to put your people in the top jobs. Give us a break you lot, the game is up, time for proper representation with democratically elected reps, not this consensus crap you lot invented to keep the new NFF Grains Policy Council from doing its job. I was told the NFF GPC council was ticking along quite well until the GPA loving delegates allowed GPA into the membership and that's when it all stopped.
    not comfortably numb
    17/06/2014 6:10:51 AM

    The more I study society the more I see the majority are comfortably numb, govt could come out and tell them they were corrupt and the majority would go ho hum and continue with life without no expectation of change. Those who try to bring about change are not comfortably numb (for whatever reason), however are ostracised by the numb majority. I feel farm representation need an orator, just like margy Osmond, Obama, mitch hook or whoever. someone who is not a farmer, but a puppet to us and can handle the media/govt well on a united front. Our many reps mean we are divided and conquered.
    Jock Munro
    18/06/2014 7:46:44 PM

    Don't be fooled by Pete Mailer's long winded opinion on producer representation. He is all about corporate style representation which will see an unrepresentative few decide what they believe is grower consensus on any subject. The old Grains Council which was torn down by SAFF, VFF and Agforce during the single desk debate, was one of the world's most successful grower advocacy organisations. It will take years for grower representation to recover but it will happen when grain producers across Australia experience a deregulation induced disaster.
    Burrs under my saddlePete Mailler is a farmer on the Queensland/NSW border. His perspective and opinions are borne from seeing more than one side of many problems in his various farm leadership roles and in wanting to ensure a future for his children in agriculture.


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