BEEF sector representatives have returned fire at Victorian Nationals Senator Bridget McKenzie’s attack over an apparent lack of response to industry reforms laid out in the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) market study.
Last week Senator McKenzie accused beef industry leaders of having their heads “in the sand” and ignoring problems within the sector regarding market competition.
She reserved her biggest blast for the Red Meat Advisory Council (RMAC) based on testimony made at recent hearings of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee’s inquiry red meat supply chain issues.
But she also took aim at the Australian Meat Processor Corporation Cattle Council of Australia, Australian Meat Industry Council and Meat and Livestock Australia which also appeared at recent hearings in Canberra where questions were asked about progress on the ACCC’s recommendations.
Senator McKenzie said RMAC had been identified as an industry leader by the ACCC to progress the 15 recommendations made in its market study report released in March - but had rejected its leadership role in “such an emphatic way”.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s the ACCC inquiry, or the Senate inquiry, across the board this industry has problems of conflicts of interests, of collusion, of bad behaviour, or bullying and intimidation that end up in resulting in the producer not having confidence in the market,” she said.
“So for them to continue to stick their head in the sand around those issues, I find incredible.
“When I was questioning a lot of the peak bodies, I went specifically to the ACCC recommendations and their answers basically suggested they didn’t agree with the ACCC or the ACCC got it wrong but that’s not the case.
“I’ve asked the ACCC to respond to each of the answers by the peak bodies but my fear once again is the peak bodies turning a blind eye to reckless and anti-competitive behaviour that is rife in this industry.
“It’s not just Senators who are saying this and it’s not just farmers in NSW and Victoria.
“The ACCC which has conducted a market inquiry across the entire industry for over a year, they are also saying this.”
Peak bodies held a phone hook-up with ACCC Agricultural Commissioner Mick Keogh last Friday to show where industry had been progressing implementation of the report’s findings and stressed work was being done, to achieve workable outcomes.
However, they failed to respond directly to Senator McKenzie’s comments – which came after she met with state farming group livestock representative leaders from NSW and Victoria where they agreed a mandatory code of conduct was not the preferred outcome of the Senate inquiry - until today.
But in hitting back today, Cattle Council said Senator McKenzie’s public venting against peak industry councils’ handling of the ACCC report was a “complete misrepresentation of the facts”.
Cattle Council President Howard Smith said comments regarding lack of beef industry leadership were “surprising” and appeared to be an attempt to salvage some “semblance of credibility out of the ongoing Senate inquiry”.
“I fail to see where the ‘consolidation of the red meat processing sector’ has been addressed by this Committee - Senator McKenzie’s comments are at best political grandstanding,” he said.
“Despite the Senator’s accusations, Cattle Council has been actively engaging with red meat organisations in getting competition policy right and not stifling industry with another layer of red tape.
“It is worth noting that from the ACCC national 12-month study of the beef supply chain, there has not been a single case prosecuted against anyone.”
Mr Smith also defended the RMAC saying it had been “instrumental” in developing policies and shown “true leadership” in pulling together competing industry interests; as it was designed to do.
He said calling out the RMAC for a failure to abide by ACCC recommendations “only shows a lack of understanding of industry structures”.
“The Australian beef industry has a strong reputation on the global stage and comments like these from Senator McKenzie are of no use to our industry and are potentially harmful for our producers,” he said.
“Cattle Council is committed to working with all aspects of industry to put in place policy that enhances competition and gives producers confidence in the markets for their beef.”
RMAC Chair Don Mackay said Senator McKenzie’s attack on the $23 billion Australian red meat sector, and accusing leaders of continuing to ‘stick their heads in the sand’, was “extremely disappointing and offensive to thousands of Australian exporters, farmers, feedlotters and food manufacturers across the country”.
“RMAC, our members and the business community we represent would be the first to support prosecutions of anti-competitive behaviour,” he said.
“We expect leadership from decision makers like the Senator and ask her to come forward with evidence to back her allegations via the media.
“Senator McKenzie’s comments are offensive to our industry but also misguided and entirely inappropriate.”
RMAC takes responsibility as food producers “extremely seriously”
Mr Mackay said RMAC was behind robust competition policy settings that worked for businesses within the supply chain; not political “fear mongering”.
“We take our responsibility as food producers in this country extremely seriously from gate to plate when it comes to matters of anti-competitive practises like conflicts of interests, collusion, bad behaviour, or bullying and intimidation,” he said.
“As with other aspects in the supply chain from animal welfare to food safety, if there are players doing the wrong thing we believe they should be held accountable.”
Mr Mackay said that the ACCC study focussed on additional reporting and awareness activities - but its 15 recommendations “do not justify how they will improve competition policy within the beef cattle value chain”.
“In the absence of evidence from the ACCC we will continue to defend and promote the businesses within our supply chain who are doing the right thing,” he said.
“We will continue to engage with the ACCC Agricultural Unit to determine the best way forward to ensure the optimal competition policy settings for beef businesses.
“We call on decision makers from the ACCC to the Minister for Agriculture to assist industry in getting this right; and to join us in defending and promoting this critical Australian industry.”
RMAC said it released its response to the ACCC report today and called on Agriculture and Water Minister Resources Barnaby Joyce’s department to reject Senator McKenzie’s comments.
Australian Farm Institute Research General Manager Richard Heath said his group had conducted a study project last year for RMAC looking at how representative bodies could achieve financial sustainability and improve advocacy outcomes.
Mr Heath said a report was compiled for RMAC rather than in independent AFI study and he could not comment on its findings which he understood had not been publicly released.
But he said as a general comment, in light of the current debate on standards of industry leadership and advocacy, the Sheepmeat Council of Australia had adopted a skills based board which was “starting to kick some goals”.
Mr Heath said having a skills-based board was “critical” for developing an advocacy body which could achieve a sustainable financial model.
He said it was also valuable for farm industry representative groups to look outside of agriculture and select boards that offered a diverse range of skill-sets like marketing, finance and governance, rather than relying on grower based representatives.
It’s understood the ACCC is not planning to make any public comment until after the Senate inquiry hands down its final report which is due late this year and could recommend a mandatory industry code of conduct.
Senator McKenzie said the beef sector leaders were “swinging hard”.
“After two years of evidence and Hansard speaks for itself,” she said.
“Last week I asked industry peak bodies questions on notice re clarification of what is being done by industry to address ACCC’s recommendations and concerns raised by its market report.
“I am delighted they have responded to my questions so quickly,
“I will be discussing with the Victorian Farmers Federation and NSWFrmers going forward.”