INVESTIGATING the merge of the wool and sheep research and marketing bodies has been proposed as the rift between Australian Wool Innovation (AWI) and Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) widens.
What appears to have triggered the public battle is polarising ideologies on animal welfare issues, mulesing in particular.
MLA managing director Richard Norton has been campaigning for substantive change, speaking at every major sheep and wool event in the eastern states in the past month.
Mr Norton’s focus has been on consumers and the power they hold in imposing industry change.
While the mulesing contention may have captured the headlines, the true cause of the fight may have only reared its head this week – the battle for industry control.
In an interview with Fairfax Media, Mr Norton said rationalising the sheep and wool Research and Development Corporations was a relevant debate.
“Any mature business like the Australian sheep industry should start having these discussions,” he said.
“The income levels now are getting very close to being the same from sheep and meat with dual purpose sheep.”
Merging the two bodies would have a combined bank balance of $245 million, with AWI’s annual revenue nearly $80 million and MLA about $165m.
He said the discussion should be about merging the research, development and marketing of commodities.
“Inside MLA, you can’t talk about eating quality and not have the marketing team involved,” Mr Norton said.
“You can talk about a lot of the research you do on-farm in the meat industry, and not have a direct link to the marketing – the two work hand-in-hand in the meat industry.”
He said change would be stirred by the Australian sheep and wool industries.
“I have had a lot of people from the meat side of the industry asking why their two per cent wool levy (from meat sheep) can’t come back into the meat industry,” he said.
“I get asked these questions a lot. The only people that can change these arrangements are levy payers through their peak industry councils.”
Further punches were thrown during the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee’s inquiry into competition concerns in the red meat sector on Thursday.
During questioning, Mr Norton criticised AWI’s lack of effective peak council oversight.
This concern was backed by WoolProducers Australia chief executive Jo Hall who said the current wool industry structure lacked industry oversight.
Ms Hall said compulsory levies must be effective and utilised efficiently.
“One of the problems with the current system is that the majority of people that identify as lamb and sheepmeat producers sell wool at some stage; the crossover works the other way with wool industry producing for the mutton trade,” she said.
“The industry dynamics are changing and we need to ensure levy utilisation is reflective of these changes.
“We are supportive of investigating (a single sheep RDC) because it is so important all compulsory levy systems remain contemporary.
“In terms of how that may look, we can’t make that comment until all options are investigated and thoroughly considered by all industry stakeholder.”
Sheepmeat Council of Australia chief executive Kat Giles said more progress would be achieved through greater collaborative investment of sheep and wool levies.
Dr Giles said examples of this effective collaboration was the Live Export Program, which was funded by both MLA sheep levies and Livecorp live exporter levies.
“These programs reduce operational costs, reduce duplication and drive greater outcomes for sheep producers,” she said.
“RDCs are a vital part to improving productivity in the sheep industry, but it is important RDCs are efficient and effective, including minimizing operational costs and maximising levy investment.”
Red Meat Advisory Council spokesperson said it was a “call for sheep producers and levy payers”.
Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce declined to wave the white flag in the industry body fight.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Mr Joyce said the Federal Government was open to industries bringing forward proposals to change levy arrangements at any time.
“MLA and AWI are big enough to settle their own issues without government intervention,” a spokesperson said.
“The Coalition Government strongly supports the agricultural levy systems.
“Decisions on research and development priorities and investments for particular sectors are a matter for the relevant industries working with their RDCs.”
National Farmers Federation chief executive Tony Mahar said the peak farming body would listen to its members to understand their position on any proposed changes to the current RDC system.
AWI was contacted for comment.