PEAK agricultural representative organisations came in for a fair degree of unfavourable scrutiny at this year’s big farming commodity forecast conference, Outlook, in Canberra.
Prominent meat business Teys, which processes as much as 25 per cent of Australia’s cattle, gave a rare insight into why it has opted not to join the processing advocacy body.
General manager corporate services Tom Maguire delivered a scathing critique of what he sees as a lack of effectiveness and innovation within the Australian Meat Industry Council (AMIC).
Management consultant Brian Ramsay said he was not alone in his views.
It was disturbingly common to see most of the value in an ag industry not in membership of a peak body, he said.
“One chief executive officer told me: “We represent 20 per cent of the 80pc who do 20pc of production,” Mr Ramsey said.
“What his organisation is doing is amplifying the squeaky wheel.”
Yet representative bodies were disproportionately influential, he said.
They are the go-to for media, governments and many other parties.
“The assumption is they are the best people to consult with but they are not necessarily representative,” Mr Ramsay said.
It’s a problem which is putting a big handbrake on the progress of industries like Australia’s red meat sector and transformational, sweeping change was required, not simply incremental improvement, a panel of speakers on the topic agreed.
The session on industry representation at the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Science (ABARES) conference yesterday centred around the idea that world class agricultural industries require world class bodies supporting them.
Mr Maguire’s contribution was exceptionally telling.
He outlined some of the key challenges the beef processing sector faced that were outside the control of individual businesses - government-induced costs and charges, access to labour and skyrocketing utility costs.
Add in the billions that technical barriers to trade were costing the industry and there is plenty for an effective industry organisation to be across.
Yet all those issues were identified at the 2000 ABARES conference, he said.
“So just how well have we done in advocating our issues?” he said.
AMIC represents less than 50 per cent of processing capacity in Australia, Mr Maguire said.
“They don’t represent the majority and legal status to represent in lieu of members can not fix this,” he said.
“We’ve had senate inquiries, years of debate about whether Cattle Council of Australia represents anyone at all - the problem is all this is not helping industries adapt to change.
“Beef industry associations love to fight in the media. What message does that send to producers about the trust they can have in supply chains?”
The best argument for overhauling peak bodies was the importance of the beef industry to Australia, according to Mr Maguire.
Many Australians rely it.
“It’s a pretty sad town where a meatworks has shut down,” Mr Maguire said.
Teys alone has six plants across the Eastern Seaboard, feedlots which meet about a third of those needs, and 4500 employees. It’s Australia’s second largest meat processor.
In the towns it has plants, the likes of Rockhampton, Wagga Wagga and Naracoorte, it is very important.
“Yet we come to this town (Canberra) and try to lobby and we’re one of 50 walking into a minister’s office for our ten minutes,” Mr Maguire said.
Also vying for space with governments and the community are likes of well-oiled machines such as Greenpeace and Animals Australia.
“We need an effective lobby group behind us to compete with that,” Mr Maguire said.
Australian beef will also need to deal more and more with emerging alternative proteins, along with out-of-context and often inaccurate claims from activist groups.
“We’ve got a huge weight of evidence to say we do a good job but we need an effective organisation to get that out there,” Mr Maguire said.
“My hope is this starts to generate a debate among people who earn a living from this industry because we can do it better.”
Mr Ramsay said peak groups should be about shaping the direction of industries to make them more successful. They should be orchestrators of change.
“Businesses are asking how and what are these people doing to help me make more money, or save money, or enhance our industry and product reputation,” he said.
“Industry leaders are very aware of the problem and the frustrating thing is how many good people have tried unbelievably hard to change arrangements - it’s way more difficult than you may think.
“In most cases, if you don’t innovate you die but ag industry associations seem to linger on.”
The typical cycle, he explained, was membership drops, the organisation is losing money so a consulting firm is brought it, options are developed and engagement begins.
But that mostly comes from those who are very unsatisfied or very satisfied with the status quo while the larger majority watch from the sideline.
The debate becomes about the model, the process gets stuck and the end result is incremental or no change and so the cycle begins again.
“It’s not that we don’t have good people who are passionate and committed, it’s that the business models are not what they should be,” Mr Ramsay said.
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