POLITICAL pressure continued to confront the Australian beef cattle sector in 2017 amid several significant reform challenges.
A long-running inquiry into competition issues within the beef cattle supply chain by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee was finally tabled in September.
One of the committee report’s core recommendations called on the federal government to provide immediate support and appropriate financial assistance to the grass-fed cattle sector’s efforts to replace the Cattle Council of Australia with a “transparent and accountable producer-owned body as the sector's peak industry council”.
The inquiry was initiated in response to the controversial boycott of the Barnawartha cattle saleyards in Victoria in early 2015 by nine buying agents, which was also investigated by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
The Senate inquiry’s final report was delayed as the committee allowed extra time for the beef cattle industry to move forward and implement the 15 recommendations from the ACCC’s inquiry into the cattle market, handed down in March.
But tensions between the committee and industry boiled over in public just before the Senate report was tabled, as the Red Meat Advisory Council ) and others rejected criticism they’d failed to respond appropriately to the ACCC’s suggestions. Victorian Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie said the ACCC identified RMAC as the industry leader to implement the report’s 15 findings – mostly pricing and market transparency measures – to avoid government intervention but had instead continued “to stick their head in the sand”.
However, Cattle Council president Howard Smith said industry had sought to implement the ACCC’s reforms, and comments regarding lack of beef industry leadership appeared to be an attempt to salvage some “semblance of credibility out of the ongoing Senate inquiry”.
RMAC chairman Don Mackay said Senator McKenzie’s attack on the $23 billion Australian red meat sector was “offensive, misguided and entirely inappropriate”.
Senator Barry O’Sullivan threatened to impose heavy-handed government regulatory intervention via a mandatory code of conduct over cattle saleyard operations, to improve transparency, as an inquiry outcome.
The ACCC also foreshadowed advocating government regulation – but the committee’s final report suffered criticism by industry groups for falling well-short of its foreshadowed and expanding expectations.
However, Senator O’Sullivan maintained his and the committee’s view – including WA Labor Senator Glenn Sterle – of the need to “beef up” the peak industry cattle producer representative body to resolve the power imbalance between them and meat processors.
“We will know we have arrived at this point when Senators and ministers break out into a sweat when they know this peak industry body has entered the parliament,” he said.
Cattle Council hoped the report would suggest a funding stream to assist it with a sustainable resource base to restructure into a grassroots representative model.
But that ambition was squashed again when the federal government ruled out allocating a portion of the mandated cattle levy funding, towards representation for cattle producers.
The Cattle Council’s plans to adopt a directly-elected representative model also suffered a setback mid-year due to the shock departure of CEO Duncan Bremner after only six months in the job.
Mr Bremner was replaced by interim CEO Margo Andrae who has now been appointed to the role full time.
Tensions between meat processors and cattle producers also surfaced later in the year with a call to review what went on between industry and government behind the scenes to resolve the disruptive ban on beef exports to China over labelling issues that was estimated to have cost $1 million per day.
Cattle Council president Howard Smith said 2017 had presented a few “ups and downs” but his group’s recent annual general meeting had seen “a really positive vibe” towards next year.
Mr Smith said Cattle Council was buoyed to receive $500,000 from the federal government’s $5m Leadership in Agricultural Industries Fund to assist with its restructuring process.
“We’ve still got to come up with a long-term sustainable funding model for the new organisation,” he said.
He said some of the Senate committee report’s recommendations - through Red Meat Advisory Council – were “getting dealt with”.