DO THE producer groups seeking to control levy funds really understand what they are getting themselves into?
Mick Keogh is concerned that they don’t. The executive director of the Australian Farm Institute (AFI), who conducted a global study of farm representation models in 2013, is worried that the effect of these movements could be politicisation of the research and development funding process, and all the “moral hazard” that goes with it.
It might also deal a fatal blow to State farming organisations (SFOs), which could have unforseen consquences for the commodity group funding model.
A distance between political representation of a commodity and its research and development corporation (RDC) is essential to the current model, which handsomely leverages producers’ levy contribution.
Of the $1 billion spent each year on agricultural research, about a quarter comes from producer levies, and another $250 million provided by government in matching funds. The remaining $500 million, or thereabouts, comes through other sources.
“It’s the failing of the representative groups that’s causing a lot of the current angst among producers, and they are transferring that concern to the RDCs,” Mr Keogh said.
“I think they are mixing up the responsibilities of the two.”
Some producer groups are agitating for greater control, a voice - but Mr Keogh said it’s hard to know how that’s meant to work.
“There are real issues around who marks the homework and who makes recommendations about the use of levies, and how those uses are reviewed; but I don’t think you need to go to an agripolitical representative structure, because I don’t see how that structure would turn out sound long term decision making about R&D investment.”
Direct election of those who sit on the commodity groups would also have ramifications for the SFOs, which currently staff the commodity peak councils with representatives elected from their own commodity groups.
Take away the conduit for SFOs to have a voice on the peak councils, and the SFO funding that currently supports those councils is also likely to disappear, Mr Keogh observed.
(The SFOs themselves might also be in trouble. If through their levies, a producer is automatically a member of a national organisation with political reach, Mr Keogh wonders whether they will also bother to voluntarily pay to be a member of their SFO.)
The AFI’s global research shows that commodity advocacy is seldom - if ever - adequately financially supported by memberships to a peak council.
Exhibit A: Cattle Council of Australia (CCA), which after extensive lobbying opened the council up to direct membership, but has only received about 200 new members as a result.
“All the research we did around the world gave the very clear impression that almost without exception, every farm organisation globally has fee for service offering in order to be commercially viable for members,” Mr Keogh said.
“The representation is a bit of a side issue.
“If you look at the Farm Bureau in the US: the bulk of the organisation’s income comes from State farm insurance companies, and their commercial offerings, and that’s why they have 6 million members in a country with two million farmers. The commercial operations give them the luxury of carrying out the advocacy work.
“It’s the same in Europe: the organisations basically survive off a range of services like compliance with EU regulations or extension services on behalf of the government. None of them survive off pure representation or advocacy.”
That’s hardly surprising, Mr Keogh thinks. Once, commodity organisations were the sole conduit between producers and policymakers. Now, there are many channels for getting a message out.
The old system, where a grassroots proposal worked its way up through a complicated system of committees before it reached a peak council, was often frustrating but it tended to refine a raw idea in the process.
Now, “if you’ve got five people and a computer, you can be broadcasting material here, there and everywhere very quickly”.
That sometimes puts ideas into the echo chamber that would have benefited from more rigorous input before they were released.
Sitting underneath all these issues is something more fundamental, regardless of the commodity representation model: how do you determine the direction of useful R&D, and measure its effectiveness once its done?
The benefits of R&D investment can take 15-30 years to realise - long after the agripolitics of the day is dust.
“One of the projects the AFI has got in front of us this year is about how we make decisions about how much R&D is necessary,” Mr Keogh said.
“One of the frustrations with the whole system is that if a group has to make a decision about the level of R&D, the basis for making that decision is obscure. No-one can seem to come up with a good logical framework that says, here are the sort of questions you should ask, here’s the sort of information you should have to make that decision.”
“It’s almost, if it feels alright, let’s go with it.”
And for now, that’s the case for whoever is in charge.
More on this in Mick Keogh’s AFI blog post: Time for a few home truths in agricultural levy debate.