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Thursday, 25 September 2014
Page: 7208

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (18:11): I commend Senator Back on his very fair reporting of the committee's conclusions. I was originally a full member of the committee and subsequently a participating member. I gave the one dissenting report on that committee in relation to two of the recommendations of the committee. Before I go into those I want to put on record my appreciation to the secretariat of the committee, who did an absolutely magnificent job. This was one of those inquiries that went right around Australia, as Senator Back has mentioned. There was a lot of information given and the committee secretariat, as always, come up with an excellent report.

It is clear from our inquiries right around Australia that the whole industry is a bit fragmented and does not really have anyone who can give a strong leadership voice to the industry at this time, particularly the grass-fed-cattle producers. I disagreed with the majority report in the recommendation that the government should set up an industry peak body. As I said in my dissenting report, I think the days of governments getting involved in setting up peak bodies for any agricultural or horticultural industry are long gone.

There was clearly some angst about the role of the Cattle Council of Australia. I accept some of that. The Cattle Council of Australia's problem is that it has no money. It is funded, currently, by contributions from state farming organisations. Regrettably, those state farming organisations are losing membership. They do not have a lot of money themselves and therefore their payments to the Cattle Council are diminishing. The Cattle Council has, I think, only five staff. To try and be the industry voice with such small resources was just impossible.

The Cattle Council realises this and has recently changed its constitution so that it can have individual members of the Cattle Council, to try and get more people involved, to get people voting and to get people standing for positions. That has only just happened. I hope that that might give to the nation—particularly the grass-fed-cattle producers of our nation—a body that can speak for them.

The difficulty is that the Cattle Council are supposed to be oversighting MLA, which is a big organisation with a huge budget and a big staff, and yet the Cattle Council gets some of its money—perhaps the majority of its money—from MLA. So it is a stupid situation where the Cattle Council is supposed to be oversighting MLA but can only exist with a little bit of money it gets from the state farming organisation plus the bigger bit it gets from MLA. So it is like the tail trying to oversight the dog, one might say; it is a system that cannot continue.

I would have thought that there needed to be some way that that the $5 dollar levy that is currently paid could be adjusted so that a portion of it could go to the Cattle Council or, if people did not like the Cattle Council, another body, but I thought the Cattle Council was better than any other suggestion—certainly a better suggestion than a government set-up peak body for primary producers; however, the current $5 levy paid on every transaction involving an animal a small portion of that should be allocated to an industry body—I suggest Cattle Council—to give it the resources to be a good advocate and manager on behalf of the grass-fed cattle industry.

Senator Back mentioned the current situation in the industry is that the grass-fed levy payers pay the majority of the contribution but it seems—and the evidence seemed to support this—that most of those funds were used by other sections of the industry: the feedlot industry, the processing industry and little of it came back in direct support for the grass-fed cattle producers. It was a bit like the old Boston Tea Party: no taxation without representation. The grass-fed levy payers were paying most of the money but having the least say.

MLA recognises this to a degree. MLA, up until now, had a very convoluted system of appointing its board. Effectively, it meant that the grass-fed levy payers, who contributed most of the money to the MLA, have very, very little say in who was appointed to the board. In fact MLA and a selection committee, which consisted mainly of existing MLA directors, actually suggested who the new directors might be but they only gave the voters one choice. So you have an election for the new director but he is the only one who we are nominating that you can vote for.

MLA, to its credit, has realised that that is just not sustainable either and they have taken steps to alter their rules to give the opportunity for more grass-fed levy payers to become members of the MLA board. There was a suggestion that one of the skills that is necessary for appointment to that board should be a direct understanding of the grass-fed cattle industry.

Whilst I support all of the other recommendations of the committee—and there were some very good recommendations—I did disagree with that first recommendation about a government set-up peak body. I think with a bit of goodwill, effort and getting the proper resources that I suggest in my dissenting report, Cattle Council could do the job.

The only other recommendation I disagreed with was recommendation 5—the abolition of the Red Meat Advisory Council that Senator Back has also mentioned. I took from the evidence and from my limited knowledge of the industry that, while the Red Meat Advisory Council, which comprises all elements of the meat industry, has been found wanting in certain areas, generally, it is able to give whole-of-industry advice to government. It cannot get involved where only one part of the industry is involved, for example, in the ban of live exports, because it comprises not only the grass-fed cattle producers but also the processors. Of course the processors were a bit happy when the ban on live cattle exports came in, because they could buy all the surplus cattle for next-to-no price and process it all through their processing shops.

Clearly, the Red Meat Advisory Council could not take any activity in the biggest issue that has confronted the industry in the last couple of decades, because it was comprised of too many. I think, again those sorts of bodies have their supporters and detractors but it did seem, I understood from the evidence given, that there was the need for an overall industry body and the Red Meat Advisory Council was that body and should continue.

Again, I thank all those who did contribute. It was a very interesting exercise. I did not know a great deal about the industry before this—I still don't know a great deal—but it opened the eyes of many of the senators to some of the issues and unfairnesses that are currently there, and perhaps some of the solutions that should be taken.

I wish Minister Joyce, the agriculture minister, all the very best as he sifts through the report and tries to respond and perhaps do something that will help the whole industry. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.