CATTLE Council of Australia President Howard Smith has hit back at recent, escalating and persistent pubic criticism of the peak national producer group, declaring legal action is under consideration.
Mr Smith spoke to Fairfax Agricultural Media after his group issued a strongly worded media statement today highlighting what it described as “extensive inaccuracies of recent ‘opinion pieces’ and online commentary”.
Mr Smith said Cattle Council accepted fair criticism but some of the allegations - hot on the heels of the recent Senate committee inquiry into competition issues with the beef market - had overstepped the mark.
He said the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs Committee inquiry - that was also shortly after completion of a separate examination by the Senate into the grass fed cattle levy - had started out as a means to investigate a boycott by nine buyers in early 2015 of the Barnawartha cattle saleyards in Victoria.
But he said it had “morphed” into an inquiry into the merits of cattle producer representation, with one of its core recommendations being funding backing to replace Cattle Council with a with a “transparent and accountable producer-owned body as the sector's peak industry council”.
Mr Smith said “the ongoing misrepresentation of the facts needed to be clarified”.
He said “certain individuals” had made “false and misleading claims that were unsubstantiated” Cattle Council was making legal inquiries aimed at protecting the reputation of staff and board members.
In particular he pointed to a false claim which alleged Cattle Council was broke.
“That means we’re criminals because we’re trading insolvent but it’s not true,” he said.
“We don’t want to get into litigation but we’re getting legal advice because peoples’ reputations are being damaged – some of the board and staff – by some of the allegations.”
Mr Smith said allegations were also being made that Cattle Council staff members were being paid $300,000 per year and some also flew business class to meetings.
“That’s false,” he said.
“There’s a long list of things in replies to letters to editors and those sorts of things.
“We don’t mind free speech but we’ve had enough.”
Cattle Council expressed concerns about “negative” reporting in a range of different media outlets on current issues and comments in social media putting forward false claims, and at public meetings.
Mr Smith said he’d made personal phone calls to some of the sources of the alleged defamatory comments to point out the clams were false, with some of the comments subsequently removed.
“You’ve got to be careful because you don’t want to give people a platform to vent their issues but if you don’t address the false allegations that some people are making, other people may well assume its fact,” he said.
“Why should our members be vilified by a minority of people who have an agenda?
“We can always improve what we’re doing but over the years we’ve also come up with positive policies that have improved the cattle industry.
“We don’t mind copping constructive criticism where its warranted - but we’ve reached the point now where we need to respond and we’re not going to cop comments like ‘we’re on the take’, when most of us are doing this work on a voluntary basis.
“I’m happy to do the job and it’s a privilege and still is a privilege but when you’re accused of making some sort of personal gain from it, that’s very disappointing for the 80 odd people who give up their time voluntarily, to do the right thing by our industry.”
Mr Smith said the CCA decision making processes included extensive consultation with producers who were supported by highly skilled and committed staff.
He said Cattle Council represented the industry at the national level by participating in more than 80 committees across all issues affecting producers.
“CCA has a responsibility to engage internationally to ensure the Australian beef industry remains competitive for the future,” he said.
Mr Smith also pointed to Cattle Council’s restructuring process in moving towards an independent direct-elected representative model that encourages levy payer direct engagement through consultation and policy development.