Who will speak for grass-fed cattle producers?

Who will speak for grass-fed cattle producers?

Beef
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New peak advocacy body work continues as Cattle Council CEO leaves

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As discussions continue around forming a new national advocacy body for grass-fed cattle producers, it's now clear that Cattle Council of Australia does not expect to continue beyond June.

CCA, which has served as the peak industry body for the largest producer sector of the beef industry for more than 30 years, has announced its chief executive officer Travis Tobin has resigned and will finish up at the end of this month.

CCA issued a statement saying it would put in place an acting CEO until the end of the financial year, after which 'it is intended a new representative structure will be in place.'

Just before Christmas, it was revealed a steering committee had been meeting with the intent of establishing a new, yet-to-be-named body and an independent chairman, consultant Andrew Macaulay, was appointed.

The committee is made up of equal numbers of representatives from CCA, State Farming Organisations (SFO) and producer groups Cattle Producers Australia and the Northern Pastoral Group.

NPG is a longstanding organisation made up of most of the larger pastoral companies across the north, which shares best management practices and research but is rarely involved in agri political activities.

CPA has grown up out of efforts to reform producer representation in recent years.

Other grass-fed producer groups including the Australian Beef Association and the United Stockowners of Australia say they have been cut out of the process of forming a new national body and have criticised what they call a 'behind closed doors' approach.

Short timeline

A timeline for the formation of the new body, and the realisation of its funding, has been set at July 1 this year.

The understanding is a key feature of a new peak body would be directly elected board members.

CCA has only two independent directors, with SFOs - who provide the bulk of membership dollars - each putting forward a nomination which is then endorsed.

Agitation for a more democratic election system for what should be the most powerful beef industry lobby group has been extensive over the years and at one stage CCA did announce it would go down that path. That has not progressed.

A key challenge has always been ongoing sustainable funding.

While CCA receives funds from the RMAC-administered Red Meat Industry Fund, and from service agreements with Meat & Livestock Australia, there was little doubt it relies heavily on SFO membership.

SFOs are unlikely to ever agree to handing over funds without direct guaranteed leadership involvement, although some appear less stringent on that point than others.

Argument at times has been made for leaving grass-fed producer representation entirely to SFOs, given the different needs of each states.

Agforce in Queensland, and the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association, for example, have been very effective in fighting battles many producers consider crucial.

Industry stalwarts, however, say that option would dilute the voice of the cattle producer. An industry which exports three quarters of what it produces needs a single, strong voice at a national and global level, they say.

No details yet

The steering committee driving plans for the new group has not yet provided details on the structure or funding options being investigated.

Mr Macaulay, who has been given the job of sole spokesperson, says that information will be forthcoming at the appropriate time.

No details have been provided about how the steering committee is funding its work at the moment, although suggestions have been made that family and corporate beef enterprises have put up money.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud this week told FarmOnline there had been a government offer of funding to investigate the formation of a new peak body and that was currently being negotiated with the steering committee.

Naturally, that would not be an ongoing source of funding but rather start-up funds.

The lack of official detail on these two key aspects has sparked concern in some quarters that the short timeline can't be met.

The fear is grass-fed producers may find themselves in a position later this year of having no national representation at all.

Some experienced producer representatives say that is probably what needs to occur to 'wake the sector up'.

"There should be an enormous amount of concern out there for the position we are in," one said.

Accessing the levy

One of the options for a funding stream could be securing 50 cents of the $5 cattle transaction levy that producers pay per head at point of sale.

This compulsory levy is divided between industry research and development, marketing, animal welfare, biosecurity and the sector's involvement in the National Residue Survey.

At the moment, $3.66 is directed to marketing, overseen by MLA.

The industry is tasked with advising governments how it wants to distribute that levy, provided the plan meets all legal criteria.

It has been suggested there would be widespread producer support for funds to be redirected from marketing to industry representation, particularly in today's climate of high cattle prices and strong demand for red meat both domestically and globally.

An opt-in, opt-out 50c distribution from the transaction levy to the new peak body has been touted.

The avenue for obtaining the necessary producer mandate, and whether what is effectively a tax collected by the government can legally be directed to advocacy, may be the hurdle.

Some industry people believe the opt-out option could address legal concerns, and a levy payer register is the means by which to obtain the mandate.

Others say definitions of political activity will be key. A peak body with the primary agenda of raising public awareness about key societal issues may have a strong case.

Either way, 2022 could be the first time levy payers have an opportunity to vote on how the compulsory levy is spent since 1998, when the current red meat industry structure was put in place.

ALSO SEE: Supermarket beef shortages loom as COVID keeps meat workers at home

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