Senate inquiry calls for “beef-up” of peak beef cattle representation

Queensland Nationals Senator and Committee member Barry O’Sullivan.
Queensland Nationals Senator and Committee member Barry O’Sullivan.

LABOR NSW Senator Sam Dastyari has tabled the highly-anticipated report today from the long-running federal Senate inquiry into competition issues in the red meat processing sector, making seven recommendations.

The inquiry survived the change of parliament last year after initially starting in March 2015, and involved numerous altered reporting dates.

It was conducted by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee that’s chaired by WA Labor Senator Glenn Sterle – but the final report was tabled today by Senator Dastyari, in his absence.

List of recommendations

The Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources consider requesting Meat and Livestock Australia to conduct a study into pre and post-sale weighing to provide the southern industry with an evidence-base on which to consider selling methods at saleyards.

The Australian Livestock and Property Agents Association (ALPA) lead the development of industry Standards of Practice that cover all commercial transactions in relation to livestock – including online, paddock and saleyard transactions. The Standards of Practice should include guidelines which encourage all parties to conduct transactions in good faith, do not mislead other parties, and ensure that all such transactions are negotiated under the law.

The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources conduct a review into the operations and capability of AUS-MEAT to determine whether it is the most appropriate body to oversight the installation, inspection, calibration, replacement and quality assurance auditing processes of the new DEXA technology. The review should also identify what reforms and resources AUS-MEAT would require to fulfil this role.

The Australian Government provide immediate support, including appropriate financial assistance, to the grass-fed cattle sector in its efforts to replace Cattle Council of Australia with a transparent and accountable producer-owned body as the sector's Peak Industry Council.

The Australian Government officially recognise Cattle Australia as the grass-fed cattle sector's Peak Industry Council under the Australian Meat and Live-Stock Industry Act 1997 and Red Meat Memorandum of Understanding once it is operational and has a membership structure in place.

“A joint industry and government meat and livestock task force be established to conduct a comprehensive review of all aspects of the Red Meat Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).

As part of the Red Meat MOU review, the joint industry and government meat and livestock task force should consult widely across the industry and consider options for reform. The task force should present a report to the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources within two years of its establishment. The report and its recommendations should be made public. To ensure full transparency and encourage industry ownership over the reform process, the task force should endeavour to publish its preliminary findings during the review period as well as bi-annually.

Queensland Nationals Senator and Committee member Barry O’Sullivan spoke about the report in the Senate and one of its core recommendations that the Australian government provide immediate support, including appropriate financial assistance, to the grass-fed cattle sector in its efforts to replace Cattle Council of Australia with a “transparent and accountable producer-owned body as the sector's peak industry council”.

“What is agreed to I think by everyone in industry – we need to beef up the peak industry body that represents these producers,” he said saying there were reports of between 30,000 and 60,000 levy-paying producers of varying sizes.

Senator O’Sullivan said the advent of new technologies - and newly passed legislation - would allow the peak body to learn who their levy-payers were that pay about $50 million per year in research and marketing levies.

“I want it to be a very powerful body that can get its way on behalf of producers,” he said.

He said it also needed to be a transparent representative body with a skills-based board that also needed to be remunerated .

“We will know we have arrived at this point when Senators and ministers break out into a sweat when they know this peak industry body has entered the parliament,” he said.

“I want it to be a very powerful body that reflects the importance and economic contribution of this great industry.”

Senator O’Sullivan has regularly backed the need for a strong producer representative, advocacy body that’s well funded, to address power imbalances in the red meat sector. 

Senator O’Sullivan said over time there had been a collapse of “confidence and trust” between producers and processors.

Victorian Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie said for now, the Committee had declined to opt for a mandatory code of conduct in its recommendations but maintained her view of the need for an industry led response to implement the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s beef cattle study, 15 recommendations.

Senator McKenzie said the inquiry was instigated and the report had made a series of recommendations following concerns about a culture of collusion at cattle saleyards.

She said the committee report shared the concerns of stakeholders, particularly producers, in relation to a number of saleyard practices, including the behaviour of commission buyers.

The purpose of the inquiry was to examine the red meat processing sector in response to meat processors¡¦ boycott of the Barnawartha Saleyards in Victoria in February 2015, she said.

“When nine meat processors all decided not to turn up to the Barnawartha saleyards, it was a watershed moment for producers, prompting me to initiate this Senate inquiry following an outcry from local farmers,” she said.

Senator McKenzie said the committee inquiry, which received 122 submissions, was a “key way forward” for the red meat sector to regain the confidence of processors and farmers.

“Our report recognises geographic differences in red meat markets, structure and funding should reflect those differences,” she said.

Victorian Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie.

Victorian Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie.

“This is the eighth inquiry into the red meat sector and the time to get it right is now, farmers and others in the sector are relying on us and we will not let them down.”

“Senator McKenzie said this report along with the ACCC’s inquiry, called for urgent changes to the way business is conducted at cattle saleyards.

“There must be simple, easily interpreted price grids ahead of livestock auctions, post-sale weighing and general transparency across the sector,” she said.

“That is the only way to return confidence to the red meat industry, a call echoed by the ACCC and supported by the Victorian Farmer¡¦s Federation.

“I call on the industry peak bodies in the red meat industry to take up the challenge and support these recommendations to the sector.

“They cannot ignore the evidence to the Senate over the past two years or the recommendations of the corporate regulator.

“I have been supported in these calls by the ACCC and the VFF and now I hope that these changes will be made so the red meat sector can move on.

“There must be transparency, there must be changes and there must be ownership of these problems to resolve them and move on.”

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