THE threat of legislation as a means to solving competition issues in the beef supply chain doesn’t appear to be ruffling many feathers among processors or producers.
It is more the desire to move away from the boom and bust price cycle that is driving efforts on the part of beef industry leaders to deliver more unity.
Response has been mild to a fairly severe chastising of both the producer and processor sector from Queensland Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan in a Senate speech last week.
Senator O’Sullivan delivered a clear message that government regulatory intervention was on its way if the industry did not pick up its act and come up with solutions to issues like competition and transparency in the supply chain.
He also let fly at the fact the two peak bodies, Cattle Council of Australia (CCA) and the Australian Meat Industry Council (AMIC), did not have all producers and processors respectively behind them.
CCA was not sufficiently reflective of the 40 or 50-odd thousand cattle producers in Australia and they needed to be, he said.
Likewise, AMIC could not not boast two of the nation’s biggest processors as active members, Senator O’Sullivan said.
Producers and processor representatives contacted by Fairfax Media were in agreeance the "non-representative" criticism was off the mark.
They pointed out very few advocate groups could boast 100 per cent membership, with one producer saying “a bit of breakaway opinion is always healthy anyway.”
For processors, a host of other issues which are affecting the ability of businesses to remain competitive on an international stage were considered far more important.
General manager of AMIC’s processor group, Patrick Hutchison, said the immediate priority was to address critical policy matters impacting the competitiveness of the red meat industry such as non-tariff trade barriers and the significant cost of regulatory compliance.
That priority was supported by the whole processing sector, he said.
Neither of the two big processors, JBS and Teys, wanted to comment.
CCA president Howard Smith, meanwhile, said the proportion of producers who were members of his organisation was actually considered very good and was higher than many other similar agriculture bodies.
Few political parties had full membership of all those they claimed to represent, he said.
As to the scolding on how long it was taking CCA to reform, Mr Smith said it was not from a lack of trying.
CCA had been pushing towards structural change since 2013, but implementation of the new structure could only progress with government support, he said.
The lack of a long term, sustainable funding solution was what was holding up the process and “if anyone has the answer to that, we’d very much like to hear it,” he said.
“We have been to government with one solution - that a proportion of the producer levy be allocated to fund our responsibilities that do not conflict with our lobbying role - but that has been rejected,” he said.
“We’ve looked at many organisations around the world and many other industries and there is no silver bullet.”
The key for the new organisation would be the ability to focus on delivering the best outcomes for grassfed producers, instead of being impeded by funding concerns, he said.
“Which is why we continue to work closely with the government to progress the issue,” Mr Smith said.
CCA acknowledged it had to constantly improve and provide value for members.
A transition to a more direct-elected model was already well underway with two independent board members now serving, Mr Smith said.
On the issue of processors and producers being “at one”, as championed by Senator O’Sullivan, industry representatives said that was clearly the desire by all but the path to it was not a simple one.
Long term sustainability for all stakeholders hinged on Australia’s ability to remain competitive in the global market, given the industry was export-exposed, Mr Smith said.
“Everyone has to take ownership of that,” he said.
“There must be a way to iron out the bumps without interfering with market forces, but everyone will have to come to the table.
“If we don’t sort something out, we’ll be back to same situation we were two years ago where producers were receiving unsustainable prices.”
Indeed, that motivation appears to be driving efforts to solve what is, ultimately, an issue that has been with the industry since day one, rather than the fear of politicians bringing down new laws which many believe would be very difficult to draft, let alone enforce.