SAVING farmers from being in cast into the “black books” and taking a “holiday” for speaking out against suppliers for anti-competitive conduct, is a prime motive behind a new anonymous complaints service offered by the competition watch-dog.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) online facility for registering agricultural supply chain grievances was introduced recently to assist with gathering critical information off farmers and others, to spark potential investigations into consumer law breaches.
ACCC Commissioner Mick Keogh heads-up the competition watch-dog’s Agricultural Enforcement and Engagement Unit and told a recent agribusiness industry gathering the new service was designed to avoid potential retribution for farm producers.
Mr Keogh said that was an issue of concern that he’d noticed during recent public forums, held in regional areas, where the revised Horticulture Code of Conduct, which came into force in April this year, was debated amongst farmers.
He said it was also a concern raised during contact with members of the dairy sector during recent consultations on competition issues and was also important to the viticulture industry.
“It’s the issue of producers who feel that they have been unfairly treated by a processor or downstream purchaser of a product not game to make complaints because they feel that will result in them being completely in the black books and not able to continue doing business,” he said.
“We did a series of seven or eight workshops around Australia associated with the Horticulture Code where we had, often between 50 and 100 producers in the room talking about the Code and where it was going to go.
“It was intriguing to me the number of times the expression ‘I’ll get a holiday’ was relayed.
“It wasn’t just in one centre where we heard that expression - it was everywhere we went.
“The other intriguing thing was the number of times that we were approached after the meeting with a discussion about a particular incident; rather than anyone standing up in the meeting and talking about a particular incident.”
But Mr Keogh said the ACCC had subsequently put in place what it called a “whistleblower” or an anonymous reporting mechanism whereby people can go onto the ACCC website and leave information.
“Whether or not they want to be identified with that information is entirely up to them,” he said.
“There is also a communications network there that allows the ACCC to send information back to them, but still not know who they are.
“That is being trailed in the agriculture sector and looked at more widely as a mechanism.
“It probably is a parallel to some of the whistleblower type arrangements that are being put in place to avoid the retribution problems that occasionally arise or are claimed to arise from some of these issues.”
Senior Nationals MP Darren Chester said the new online reporting tool removes a “disincentive” many farmers face when considering whether to inform the ACCC of their concerns.
“If we can remove that disincentive to reporting, the information flow to the ACCC will improve and the commission will then be able to get to work and consider what steps need to be taken,” he said.
“The ACCC can’t act if our farmers don’t feel comfortable coming forward and providing the information.”