Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.GRASSFED cattle producers are a step closer to directly electing who represents them on the industry’s peak body, following a watershed agreement by producer groups on arrangements for a new representation structure.
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Lots of detail remains to be fleshed out around the agreement – notably, how the new body might be funded, and its relationship to Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA).

But the principle of a producer-elected peak council, announced in Canberra on Tuesday, is now certain to be at the centre of how Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce resonds to the recommendations made by the Senate Inquiry into disbursement of grassfed cattle levies.

The new body, codenamed ‘NewCorp’, will be built on a policy council made up of directly elected representatives from 15 regions.

Seven members of the policy council will sit on NewCorp’s board, with provision for two extra skills-based positions. A director appointed to the board on the basis of skills can also act as independent chairperson.

“It will give grassfed levy payers a direct say on how their money will be managed,” said Cattle Council of Australia (CCA) president Howard Smith.

“Prior to this, unless you were a part of a State farming organisation, you didn’t have that mechanism.”

“The keys to the industry are in the hands of the grassfed levy payers now. If their representative or their board don’t do a good job, they will be out in the next election.”

CCA reached an unexpected consensus on NewCorp with a cross-section of other producer groups, some of whom have been its keenest critics. All State farming organisations (SFOs), the Australian Beef Association (ABA), Concerned Cattle Producers and Australian Meat Producers Group (AMPG) have signed off on the concept.

“Producers should be excited, because they are getting exactly what they wanted – or we hope they’re getting what they wanted,” said ABA’s Linda Hewitt.

“Producers want total control of their money: that’s in the hands of the Minister, but they do have their own elected board.”

Barnaby rejoicesMr Joyce’s relief at finding consensus within a tangled and often bitter debate was evident.

“It’s really an agreement of industry where the minister comes in with a bit of an imprimatur rather than stating what the minister wants,” he said after announcing the agreement.

“I’ve always said to industry, in any portfolio, when any minister makes a decision, you can bet your life everybody hates it, so I always prefer to have the industry come to their conclusion and work with them to finalise it.”

Much more debate is yet to flow under the political bridge – especially around the question of funding.

CCA has recieved about a third of its funding – $410,000 – from the SFOs, in return for the SFOs having a seat at the CCA table.

Under the direct-election model, those SFO seats will no longer be automatically available, and nor presumably will the funding.

NewCorp will need a new source of funding to replace the SFO money, plus extra – considerably extra, in the view of many – to function at a higher level than the financially-constrained CCA.

Access to levy fundsGrassfed producer groups have unaminously argued that the peak council should have access to a greater proportion of the levy dollar, if not all of it.

Just what that proportion might be is the next big reform question, Howard Smith said.

“The ball is in the Minister’s court as to how this new organisation is to be funded – whether it’s a portion of the levy, or all the levy. That’s all yet to be debated.”

Mr Smith, politically a product of the Queensland SFO, AgForce, thinks the change might be a shot in the arm for the State organisations.

“SFOs have been bankrolling all the peak councils; they have been paying the bills. And I think they could utilise all the money they spend back in their own organisations, or through more investment into the NFF, something like that.

“Eighty-odd percent of the stuff you deal with is a State-based issue anyway. SFOs are still going to be very relevant – and they can put up reps in the regions for election to the grassfed cattle peak council.”

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