POWERFUL political lobbyist Mitch Hooke has been recruited to try to resolve lingering issues over disputed national representation in the Australian grains industry.
Mr Hooke facilitated a one-day meeting this week in Canberra between grower directors on the two warring boards of Grain Producers Australia (GPA) and GrainGrowers Limited.
GPA is currently the grain industry’s representative organisation (RO) under federal legislation, charged with oversight of the $200 million per year Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) and other key issues, like biosecurity management.
But GrainGrowers – a commodity member of the National Farmers' Federation (NFF) - also wants to assume the industry’s RO role, despite GPA being supported by state farming organisations.
Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has placed GPA and GrainGrowers on notice this week of his intention to ultimately decide their fate on the RO’s position over the next month.
One of the potential outcomes of his decision-making could be that the two groups are both anointed as the RO, unless they can reach agreement to form a single representative model, likely through the NFF’s Grains Policy Council.
Mr Hooke was CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia from 2002 until 2013, where he forged a national and international reputation as a fierce political lobbyist in advocating for the mining sector.
Before that, he was CEO of the Australian Food and Grocery Council for seven years and was previously executive director of the Grains Council of Australia.
He was credited with exacerbating the demise of former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd over the Minerals Council’s vocal public campaign against the minerals resources rent tax which the Coalition eventually removed after winning government in 2013.
It’s understood Mr Hooke facilitated the meeting between the GPA and Grain Grower board directors on a pro-bono basis.
However, the meeting concluded without a solid agreement being reached on an unified action plan.
In foreshadowing a likely move by the Agriculture Minister, GPA also applied to join the NFF last week as a small associate member for a $5000 fee.
GPA chairman Andrew Weidemann said the two boards sat down this week with Mr Hooke, to try to work out how the industry could come together in a “singular voice”.
He said that goal, which had underpinned ongoing discussions over about four years, was now being brought to a head by Mr Joyce.
“The minister wants the grains industry to try and pull itself together to have a single voice for grains - and that’s been the objective of every minister,” he said.
“Growers want that outcome too, but we need a policy development process that’s transparent and allows growers on SFOs and direct members to all work together.
“I think evolution of the NFF Grains Policy Council will need to be discussed.
“We’re all coming together for a meeting in Melbourne on June 15 to discuss a range of issues with the GRDC - I think that’s also a great time, given the impetus from the minister, to try and bring this to a head and come out with a workable solution for industry.”
My Joyce said his preference was always to see a unified voice from agricultural industry groups, “and that would not be such a startling statement”.
“I want to always make sure I’m working closely with the representative bodies and when I can have the representative bodies working in communion or if they decide to become one representative body then the interaction between government and that representative body becomes a lot more effective,” he said.
“I always believe they know vastly more about their industry than I do - but it’s vastly easier for any government when they’re listening to one voice... rather than a multiplicity of voices.”
Mr Weidemann also warned against appointing two ROs for the grains industry.
“If we end up with the two-RO situation you’ll end up with entrenched positions that are really going to fracture the potential of bringing everything together under one single voice for grains in terms of the way our industry is represented,” he said.
“It has never been our intention that the industry should be divided - it should be together, so big decisions will need to be made for the outcomes of that meeting.”
Mr Weidemann said Mr Hooke was well known to the grains industry and a “guru” of the Minerals Council.
“Mitch Hooke was fantastic in terms of his approach to the grains industry and I think he’s trying to put something back into the industry as well,” he said.
“The theme of the meeting was that it’s an unworkable option to have two groups putting forward national policy and there was definite agreement that it confuses government and everyone else and is not a good look for industry.
“We need a single voice and we need to find a way of bringing the NFF Grains Policy Council national position together - and also have GrainGrowers national policy group working somehow into that process.
“It was a really good positive day in terms of the dialogue but now it’s about where we go to from here and the minister has basically given us the shot in the arm that we needed.”
Mr Weidemann said it would take about 40 days to process the GPA’s application to be an NFF small associate member.
“We believe, with the processes and changes about to happen within the NFF, the grains RO needs to be at the table,” he said.
“We always felt we were part of an industry revolution and we’ve been around six years now, so it’s time for everyone to be around the table with the NFF.
“It’s also a particularly important time for Australian agriculture to have its leaders working together on these issues - and being an NFF member gives GPA the ability to be there at the table and have our voice heard.”