Taking Stock - Opinion
The late J.R McDonald, a beef processor with a mind to producer interests, would have approved of Meat and Livestock Australia's recent decision to verify who, exactly, are its levy paying members. The move highlights a flaw within the organisation whereby those who pay a levy at the point of sale are not necessarily the ones who vote on outcomes. That's because producers have to apply to be members of MLA to make their opinions counted at the annual general meeting - the right does not automatically come to those who sell a beast into the supply chain and pay the cattle transaction levy.
As well, members have not been required to tell MLA about their levies paid if they do not wish to vote at the AGM. Such action was voluntary only, through a "Levies Notice" process.
Vocal critics of the system point to inconsistencies surrounding the payment of levies by processors from those who directly consign their cattle to slaughter on an "over the hooks" basis. Processors can pay the levy but generally deduct the amount from the payment to producers. There are no obvious checks and balances to ensure that the processors nominate the producer as the ultimate levy payer. And they point to the fact that processors in many cases own substantial numbers of cattle, both on the properties they may own and in feedlots, which makes them a producer in the eyes of the MLA.
There has long been an argument that because of these anomalies, the processors could potentially in fact control the MLA more than the producers, in whose name the organisation was founded.
From July 1 the register requires a more detailed list of which agents have collected levies from producers, the commodity and the levy amount. Agents are required to collect that information immediately and to begin reporting to the Federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) by the end of September.
Those who are quick to criticise the MLA are saying such a register should have been established years ago in response to concerns expressed by beef levy payer organisations.
Former chairman of the NSW Meat Industry Authority, John Carter, didn't see eye to eye with J.R McDonald when it came to expansion of the processing sector, and he now rues the fact that two multi-nationals dominate the killing space in Australia - but the pair agreed very much on policy when it came to the MLA.
"It was set up in such a way as to be virtually untouchable," Mr Carter said. "It was flawed to begin with."
While he welcomes a new register of levy payers he also wonders if rural producers political appetite "has disappeared". In the early 2000s he led a push to vote against raising the levy "but the amount of work involved contacting producers was incredible", he recalled.
"As with Parkinson's Law, the bureaucracy grows while the active component continues to contract. That's what we've got."
J.R. McDonald's close friend and Hereford breeder Vince Ptolemy, Kyogle, cut his teeth on the floor of the Sydney fruit market and never lost an appetite to rally against structures that had the potential to breed corruption. Mr Carter calls him "a man of principal to be commended".
"We need to know who has got all the votes in the MLA," Mr Ptolemy says. "The system cannot operate if there is un-eveness in voting bloc."
The late Mr McDonald was supportive of the actions of the Australian Beef Association (ABA) whose leadership under Tasmanian based chief executive officer, David Byard has repeatedly called for transparency regarding the number of MLA levy payer members and their voting entitlements.
"In 2014, one of the recommendations of the senate committee was to have an automated levy register for all levies paid by cattle producers," he said. "At the time we were assured that this would happen quickly. Now we are told in July 2021 the data will be collected and will be available after 12 months, so July/August of 2022."
"Grass fed cattle producers who pay a compulsory levy are entitled to transparency ," says Mr Byard. "Until this happens, producers will continue to do the paying while others continue to do the saying."
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