ANGER has erupted over federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce’s controversial decision to jointly award the Australian grains representative organisation (RO) role to Grain Producers Australia (GPA) and GrainGrowers Limited (GGL).
The groups have been sparring for the role over the past four-and-a-half years, but Mr Joyce recently stated his intention to resolve the impasse by July 1.
This week, he wrote to the two groups confirming he had declared they would both be regarded as the RO under the Primary Industries Research and Development Act.
His decision came after they were unable to reach agreement on a single representative organisation, following a review 12 months ago.
It will mean both bodies now have responsibility for legislative oversight of the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), which spends about $200 million per year on industry research and development, and other services, combining grower levy and government funds.
However, it’s understood the decision sparked a series of heated phone calls to the Minister’s office and among senior industry leaders, protesting the move to elevate GGL to the RO position.
GPA has held the RO post since 2010, after forming after a national industry leaders’ roundtable meeting, to fill a void left by the demise of the Grains Council of Australia.
But the group has been attacked for having resourcing issues and few direct members, despite carrying the backing of State farming organisations’ (SFO) grains councils as the preferred RO.
GGL has also come under fire for having commercial conflicts of interest within its business structure by operating programs that receive GRDC funding for various industry activities.
They’ve also been criticised for inflating grower representative capacity by offering free opt-out memberships to levy-paying growers throughout Australia.
A copy of an internal GRDC document obtained by Fairfax Media shows GGL received more than $2m in funding from the researcher from 2011 to 2014, which represented 74 per cent of its allocation to industry representative groups.
In contrast, GPA received about $125,000 in the same time period, or five per cent of about $2.75m paid by GRDC to those groups, including SFOs.
Several sources said the Minister’s decision now questions whether GGL can continue receiving grower levy and government funding to run programs like its annual wheat quality report and flagship Innovation Generation event.
In his letter, Mr Joyce said he arrived at his decision after considering evidence demonstrating GGL had widespread industry support to be the grains industry representative body.
He said they had also outlined a strong case that demonstrated sound structure and governance, number of members, financial capacity and levy payer and member support.
GGL’s website says its board is elected by more than 18,500 members and consists of six growers and two non-grower members, while maintaining a sustainable capital base of $100 million.
Mr Joyce urged the two groups to work together with the GRDC, on information sharing, appointments, consultation and reporting required under the Act to maximise returns on R&D investment.
He said he was keen to see greater unity within the grains industry which was a great industry with a great future.
GRDC chair Richard Clark said his organisation looked forward to working with both of the industry ROs now.
“I understand the Minister has directed the two groups to come to a combined position on issues they want to raise with GRDC so we look forward to seeing them working closely together,” he said.
“We’re more than happy to consult with industry, as widely as possible.”
GPA chairman Andrew Weidemann said the Minister had made a decision and the industry needed to continue working together in a more unified fashion.
But he said the decision could also entrench opposing positions and “that is unavoidable now with having two RO organisations”.
“There’s no singular voice now. The Minister has said the industry has two voices and the job now is to try and come together as one unified body,” he said.
“We have to work out how that works in terms of GRDC oversight and that’s going to take some doing.
“Having said that, we’re putting forward constitutional reforms to allow all levy payers to have a direct vote on who represents them.
“That will also bring direct members and SFOs together in the formation of a policy council to benefit all Australian growers.
“There’s also a seat at the table for GGL and I hope they take that seat to allow their members to contribute to national policy.”
A time for leadership
In a statement, GGL said the Minister’s decision to appoint joint RO status was in the best interests of levy-paying grain growers and would help unify the grains industry and move it to a more harmonious and prosperous future.
“GRDC is highly regarded amongst growers and it is imperative that this remains the case,” the statement said.
“Our aim will be to work collaboratively with GPA to ensure that GRDC continues to deliver growers a great outcome from their levy investment.”
National Farmers' Federation president Brent Finlay urged calm over the controversy after tensions also flared last week between NFF members over the pending decision.
Mr Finlay said he had heard various accusations about the credibility of both groups – including attacks on membership status and individual leaders.
But he said he put some of that speculation down to “grains industry politics” heating up around “crunch-time” of the Minister making a tense decision on a long-running issue.
Mr Finlay said he spoke to several grains industry leaders following the Minister’s notification letter arriving yesterday (Tuesday) and had urged them to be calm and focussed on outcomes for farmers.
“It’s a time for leadership in the grains industry and putting farmers first and doing what’s right by the farmers,” he said.
“If anyone has an issue they need to talk to the Minister about it because he’s the one who’s made the decision.
“Some people will be happy with the decision and others won’t be so happy but we need people to work together.
“We need to put logos and egos to the side and put the farmers first.”
GGL is currently a commodity council member of the NFF, while GPA recently applied to be a small associate member of the peak national farm body, with a decision pending.
The ongoing battle over the RO role has also led to formation of the NFF’s Grains Policy Council (NFF-GPC) comprising GPA, GGL and SFOs.
After a meeting of the key groups in Melbourne last month, representatives said they were making constitutional changes designed to 'morph' the various entities into a single unified national body, for the grains industry.
NSW Farmers grains council chair Dan Cooper said the Minister’s decision was disappointing but “we now have to move on and get on with the job and work with GrainGrowers moving forward”.
“The decision is like a football referee. There’s nothing we can do anything about it now,” he said.
“We’ve wasted too much time on this issue but we need to get on with it now and kick some goals for growers with our oversight of GRDC.”
Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) grains president Brett Hosking said he was disappointed the wrong decision had been made by Mr Joyce.
Mr Hosking said it would encourage further disunity in the Australian grains industry but stressed his group would continue working with both ROs to engage on behalf of VFF members, despite backing GPA.
He said VFF would continue developing the united industry representative model, progressed at a recent meeting of industry leaders in Melbourne, to give every levy-paying grower a strong voice at the national level.
“We need a lot more detail on how the Minister’s office sees this working now and they will also need to provide good direction for both parties,” he said.
“I hope it’s something the Minister’s office has actually thought about in the lead up to this decision and they also have some good ideas on how both parties can work together, especially on the Emergency Plant Pest Response Deed and ensuring growers are protected from potential biosecurity threats.
“While government is a significant contributor to the GRDC growers still outweigh the government contribution and we need a strong voice into the RO organisation.”
Mr Hosking said the industry was sorting the issue out and heading towards a unified model but “just one organisation has chosen not to participate and unfortunately the Minister has now got involved”.
He said VFF supported the structure behind GPA rather than the body itself, which provided a forum for SFOs to represent levy-paying growers.
“When you talk about representing growers and levy-payers, we must remember the strongest connection is with the SFOs and GPA have worked with the states and created a new entity that provides a process for our members to advocate and put forward their case at the highest level,” he said.
“In every situation our members choose to be a member of the VFF grains group and pay a subscription and put their money where their mouth is by becoming a member and that gives us an obligation to represent them.
“We’d like to see all organisations have accountability back to their members and one of the challenges for GGL in the past has been developing that accountability to their members.
“How individual organisations develop membership numbers is up to them, but that being said, I’d like to see some rigor applied to say, exactly how many farming, levy-paying members GGL actually have.
“And we want to make sure they’re actually members that GGL engage with on a two-way basis.”
GRDC managing director John Harvey said the Minister had implored all groups to work co-operatively to represent the interests of the Australian grains industry which they agreed with.
“We echo the Minister’s message about the need for industry to present a single unified voice, to better represent and advocate on behalf of the growers we all serve,” he said.
“We will continue to consult with the representative organisations to ensure the GRDC research priorities reflect the biggest issues facing our community.
“As we strive for a profitable and sustainable Australian grains industry, we encourage the representative and peak organisations to work together in a transparent and well governed environment, to ensure the best outcomes for growers.”