Many voices confuse ag message

18 Nov, 2014 01:00 AM
Australia has at least 93 different State and federal organisations representing farmers

AUSTRALIA'S chances of becoming a profitable player in the burgeoning global food trade are being hobbled by - among other things - a cumbersome plethora of farm organisations, says agribusiness boss Tim Hart.

Far from being a significant help in making farmers more competitive and effective, Ridley Corporation's chief executive officer said the web of groups representing the ag sector lacked the strength, influence or nationally-focused strategies to assist with long-term profitability.

He is advocating a non-aligned, independent body, possibly similar to the Australian Football League's official governing authority, the AFL Commission, to swiftly make peak industry judgements and strategies for the good of the whole sector.

Australia has at least 93 different State and federal organisations representing farmers at the farmgate level, according to the Australian Farm Institute (AFI).

Additionally, numerous industry-related bodies such as research and development corporations, supported by farmer funding, also have advocacy roles.

Mr Hart said Australia's industry-by-industry and state-by-state agri-political lobby structure undermined farming's ability to effectively fix its high cost and export competition challenges, such as poor logistics and commodity-handling infrastructure and recent lopsided free trade agreement (FTA) outcomes for farm exports.

Too many groups had their own priorities and were unable to deal with big issues properly because of inadequate and shrinking resources.

Invariably they wasted energy and funds competing with each other and were ignored or "divided and conquered" by governments and big business because the whole sector lacked a single forceful, independently managed strategic agenda.

"We need to get rid of sectarian bodies and drive this discussion further so we're not representing one industry group at a time, but instead look at what will benefit the whole agriculture agenda," Mr Hart said.

Drawing parallels with the Aussie Rules code he said the national game's fate almost imploded before an independent governing commission replaced the Victorian Football League's process of having 12 club presidents around a board table deciding what was best for the game.

"Every club wanted its own priorities and ideas dictating VFL board decisions based on what was best for them, not necessarily the long-term future of the code Australia-wide," he told a recent competitive challenges forum hosted by Rabobank.

Similar examples, including the business-focused birth of the Food and Grocery Council of Australia were also identified at the Rabo leadership forum - 'can-do' management structures which now replaced various membership groups within their industry.

"It's a hard thing to do, but there's a lot of waste, confused messages and disappointment in agriculture at the moment," Mr Hart said.

"It was particularly obvious when you look at outcomes like the recent free trade deals with Korea and Japan."

Not for government to fix

AFI executive director Mick Keogh concurred, noting "in a sense it's because the representative structure in agriculture is not strong enough to insist on a key role in trade negotiations".

Mr Keogh said New Zealand agriculture's single voice and strength ensured it had representatives "at the table, swapping notes with the negotiators" during FTA talks with trading partners.

They could guide and respond immediately to developments.

Australia, however, tended to leave negotiation tasks to its government trade teams which later reported back on progress and outcomes of specific issues.

"In many respects all roads lead to Rome," he said suggesting stronger agriculture sector representation and strategic focus may well achieve more profits, efficiencies and cost savings across the supply chain.

"Better representation could simply result in a lot of agriculture's current industry problems disappearing.

"The Agriculture Minister (Barnaby Joyce) would like to hear a clearer voice representing agriculture, too, but it's up to the industry to make it happen.

"This isn't something which can be left for government to fix."

Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall

is the national agribusiness writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


Peter Comensoli
18/11/2014 3:03:00 AM

With a near-static share prices for the last 25 years, Ridley is in no position to comment on trade performance. Its boss has clearly been dispatched by the NFF as one of its non-farming-full-voting-members (adding to the mess of farm representation) to smash down history so a single farm body can be given a run-up start. Sorry, bad strategy. I want one farm body too but it's designers need to come up with enthusiasm for farm representation in general rather than thinking all will be solved by a single voice. The form of that voice is less vital than its enthusiasm and unity.
Rob Moore
18/11/2014 5:57:47 AM

Highly paid staff sitting in all the capitals Will NEVER be a voice or a convincing negotiator for the "out of sight " primary producers which are now old debt ridden and defeated by drought and years of poor returns. IF levies MUST persist- then only levy payers and their elected spokesmen or women MUST ALL have the means to pass an opinion on any issue or policy that may be looming to affect their livelihoods.Controvesial issue can be polled securely using an id number. Pretty simple HEY!Won't be popular because all the power will move back to the producers paying the piper!
Chris Kelly
18/11/2014 6:11:46 AM

I know where Tim is coming from and there are a lot of good points to support his comment but, there a also a raft of good opposing ones. I am just looking for some good analogies to simplify the case and one that springs to mind was shire amalgamations. I was actually in favour of this but one out come of this was that it deprived many stakeholders of input to the many decisions made in local government. In agriculture, policy formation may seem like a dogs breakfast at the moment but the issues are properly examined by the many stakeholders so outcomes generally have consensual support.
practical farmer
18/11/2014 6:55:14 AM

Sounds great, but as a beef producer, I don't want my industry's future decided by a consensus of grain, sugar, chicken, dairy, horticulture, pig, etc., producers, who all have differing priorities. The difference between a domestic and an export industry is stark for example.
Independent Farmer
18/11/2014 6:58:12 AM

I have always found it interesting that in society we have many voices all participating in the competition of ideas. The only people that oppose the melting pot of ideas are generally communist thinkers, who want it all their own way. Yet in agriculture it is now common place to spruik unity as a means to obtain utopia. Agriculture has opinions that traverse a wide spectrum from free marketing to full government intervention into all aspects of production and marketing. Open debate is important, it stops society going down the wrong path, with one ag voice that is what will inevitably occur.
18/11/2014 7:24:35 AM

Government prescribed bodies representing farmers has resulted in the plethora of independent bodies. Very few farmers want a government body dictating to them, and being told that your industry (the prescribed government body) supported destruction of disease infected crops/animals due to government quarantine stuff ups and with zero compensation. This system is undemocratic and ready for the dustbin. Many farmers think being members of a government body funded by levies is a good idea, until they are the receiving end of an "industry' agreement!!
Chick Olsson
18/11/2014 8:47:54 AM

What, another body supposed to be representing farmers? You have to be joking Mr Hart.
18/11/2014 12:48:58 PM

Add one more to 93 and you get 94. Must be a shortage of jobs for board directors at the moment. Well said Archibald. We don't need more, we need the ones we already have to actually represent our views not those of Govt. These ladder climbers change jobs every couple of years and most don't care one bit about representing us. If NSW Farmers actually represented our views their membership would increase. The way it is set up you cannot get your views across or vote. It is a very undemocratic association hence the falling membership.
18/11/2014 4:24:13 PM

One vote, one value! No delegates or proxys, no federated model and low or no membership fees. Check it out at
18/11/2014 5:48:51 PM

True, the AFL has made enormous strides financially since it has eliminated the competition from state leagues by making them dependant on the AFL. But who is the AFL dependant on - Government, especially Big Government. The average Joe can't afford to go to the footy, even though his taxes underwrite a large component of AfL expenses like stadiums. The WA govt is spending nearly a billion on a stadium in Perth while essential services like hospitals are neglected. The players economic freedom is restrained by the draft.
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