The independent chair of the Australian Dairy Plan John Brumby has delivered a clear warning that the industry must not fragment.
In an interview with Stock & Land, John Brumby trod a tightrope, balancing empathy for struggling farmers with positivity about those still making a profit.
There was optimism from the Australian Dairy Plan chair about the process guiding the plan tempered with an acknowledgement that trust was in need of repair.
But John Brumby delivered a clear warning when asked about the competing interests that might thwart its implementation.
"If the industry fragments off, if it can't unite around a medium and longer term plan, then really, the public will lose confidence in the industry and government will lose confidence in the industry," Mr Brumby said.
"The consequence of that will be a declining industry and I think a sad and disappointing story for regional Australia for whom the dairy industry is so significant."
Mr Brumby said he had a sense of the industry's challenges when approached to become independent chair.
"Many farmers are feeling extreme pressure and I feel deeply for them because you can work 80 hours a week, do everything right and still not be profitable," he said.
"We all feel for those farmers but we shouldn't forget many farmers in many regions are profitable and are succeeding.
"One of the challenges is how we lift the whole of the industry now."
Workshops revealed commonalities, Mr Brumby said.
"There are differences in emphasis but there's a degree of consistency," he said.
"First, there's profitability, so pricing and costs.
"Advocacy, the need for the industry to be united and to speak with a single voice.
"Getting the narrative right about the clean, green healthy product.
"There's obviously been some focus on imports and dumping.
"There's been quite a bit on relationships and trust.
"We've got to try to repair relationships between farmers and processors and that won't necessarily be easy but for the industry to speak with one voice and be united in terms of a plan, we've got to try to get everybody together."
The ADP process itself, Mr Brumby said, was key to rebuilding trust.
"To tackle that lack of trust, the peak bodies have tried to adopt what would be seen as best practice in policy and plan development," he said.
"To have somebody outside the industry - that's me - come in as an independent chair so that it can't be said that the plan's in someone's pocket.
"My role as independent chair is to make sure we look at propositions on their merit and, building on that again, the four peak groups appointed an independent group to do the regional consultations."
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Mr Brumby said the complexity of the industry brought added challenges.
"I hope it will be possible at the end of the day to get everybody in the tent but I know that's ambitious," he said.
"We've had the process with farmers and I've already had one meeting with processors.
"I'll be having a further sort of formal meeting with them if I can put it that way.
"I'll be meeting with service providers, some of the investors in the industry and retailers.
"Those are a few of the groups I'll be meeting with to try and ensure I've got a full range of perspectives."
Asked how the views expressed during workshops from people across the supply chain were weighted, Mr Brumby said they had not been analysed separately.
A National Dairy Workshop will be held later this month, with around 150 carefully selected participants.
"We really want this plan to be focused around the medium and longer term but, with that background in mind, the national workshop will be over two days in late July," Mr Brumby said.
"Our goal is to get representation from all sides of the industry, so that'll be farmers, processors, service providers, government - not politicians, it will be departments - what we might call experts and peak bodies.
"There will be some bias towards some of the younger farmers as well.
"People are worried about the future of the industry and they're worried that it's not attractive enough to young farmers - so we want to hear from those young farmers."
Mr Brumby stressed the plan was not a short-term fix.
"I'll also be trying to ensure that we don't focus too much on all of the immediate pain points," he said.
"We really want this plan to be focused around the medium and longer term of the next five years and beyond.
'Our aim is to complete the plan by later this year.
"Our immediate targets are what we need to do over time to restore profitability, to restore confidence and to get a cohesive and united industry.
"Our objective is to get a plan which will then be agreed by all of the key partner organisations and that, having committed to the plan, they'll have effective ownership and accountability of it and they will translate into their plans the appropriate measures for implementation over the next five years and beyond.
"We haven't talked directly to politicians at this stage. We've stepped back from that.
"We want this to be in the first instance a plan that's really from the bottom up.
"Obviously, government is going to be an important player.
"I think at state level, at federal government level, at local government level across all political parties, there is and always has been, strong support for the dairy industry but we've got to get the plan right."
Asked how organisations would be held to account under the plan, Mr Brumby said the possibility of inaction was hypothetical.
"If we get the plan right and organisations sign up and then don't deliver, there'll be issues for the membership and/or for government, I think, in the future," he said.
"It's hypothetical but that's the normal remedy, isn't it?
"If an industry group is not performing, members will exercise their rights and try and change the group, or if it's a government-appointed group, government will look closely at the issue."
- This story first appeared on Stock & Land
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