THE decision by Cattle Council of Australia (CCA) to walk away from efforts to reform producer representation via a new organisation has raised big questions about the value of senate inquiries.
Australia’s beef industry has been subject to 13 senate inquiries in the past 17 years and two Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) examinations.
These investigations have become increasingly high-profile and criticised for bringing economically-significant industries into unfair disrepute.
Now, with a key recommendation from the past two beef senate inquiries around grassfed cattle producer representation being ignored by both industry and government, they are being labelled irrelevant.
The 2014 grassfed cattle levy inquiry’s recommendation for a new producer-owned body established by legislation with the authority to receive and disperse transaction levy funds found no political appetite.
The recommendation late last year from the latest beef inquiry, into red meat processing, seeking to replace CCA with a “transparent and accountable producer-owned body” has now been shunned by CCA and state farming organisations.
Of course, senate inquiries are conducted with the understanding they have an advisory function only.
However, given the cost of conducting these inquiries to the taxpayer, where recommendations go nowhere it seems fair to ask what is the point?
Plenty, says former Liberal Party senator and Junee livestock and grain producer Bill Heffernan, former star of the senate standing committee for rural and regional affairs and transport, which handles agriculture.
Ignore senate inquiry recommendations at your peril, he warns both industry and government.
There are many differences between a bureaucratic brief and the paddock and senate inquiries had proven that time and again, according to Mr Heffernan, who retired in 2016.
They were perhaps the best tool available for taking an objective, commonsense approach to looking at a particular industry’s problems and what solutions were possible, he said.
Their successes had made a big difference, he said, citing protected biosecurity status of Australian primary industries and systems like traceability in beef that have provided enormous marketing advantages.
There were also many examples, he said, of where the warning had been sounded via a senate inquiry and ignored – to great cost.
One of those was with white spot disease in the prawn industry.
“The bottom line is a senate inquiry is not some political BS exercise,” he said.
“We don’t play politics, we do what is right for the industry. The expose of the strengths and weakness of an industry is accurate. A senate inquiry tells it as it is.”
Who is in government should be of no consequence and if the recommendations are knocked back, it was up to senators to “jam it up them,” according to Mr Heffernan.
“Make a fuss and follow up because history has shown us the dire consequences of not listening to the outcomes of these inquiries,” he said.
The most outspoken senators during the latest beef inquiry, including Senator Barry O’Sullivan, Bridget McKenzie and Glenn Sterle, have not made a comment in the wake of CCA’s decision to resign from the implementation committee setting up a new producer advocacy model.
New Agriculture Minister David Littleproud sent Fairfax Media a statement saying the Coalition Government had contributed $500,000 to towards a transition, however it was a matter for the cattle industry to determine what organisational structure was best to represent a united voice for farmers to government.
How much did the last beef senate inquiry cost?
BEEF industry sources estimate the cost to conduct the senate inquiry into the effect of market consolidation on the red meat processing sector, which handed down recommendations late last year, was more than half a million dollars.
Secretary of the senate standing committees on rural and regional affairs and transport Dr Jane Thomson said it was difficult to provide a cost for individual inquiries.
“This is partly because the costs are not limited to expenditure by the senate committee office but also include the time devoted to the inquiry by senators and their staff, the costs of travel undertaken and the costs of other parliamentary services such as broadcasting,” she said.
“It would also include the time and resources that submitters and witnesses put into providing evidence to the committee which is something that would be extremely difficult to calculate.”
The cost of the senate committee office in 2016/17 was $10.6 million but, again, that would be impossible to break down to the individual inquiry level with any accuracy.
“As a general rule, the committees that we support table more than 100 substantive reports each year. In 2016-17, this figure rose to 158 reports,” Dr Thomson said.