Barnaby Joyce needs to learn a thing or two about expectation management.
Many cattle producers in the grass-fed sector feel they receive insufficient return for the compulsory levy they pay for research and marketing purposes.
Most don't mind paying and investing in their future. They understand that only a collective approach can bring the necessary innovation, productivity and sustainable profitability they understandably yearn for. But they would like a greater say in how their money is spent and greater accountability on those who spend it.
In the lead up to the last Election Barnaby Joyce – who wasn’t the Shadow Minister for Agriculture – sought to capitalise on the discontent amongst cattlemen by promising to do something about their concerns if elected. He did so knowing there were no easy answers and once appointed Minister, he sent the issue to the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs Committee.
Members of the Committee – Labor, Liberal, Nationals and Greens – believed Barnaby Joyce was serious about reform of the levy system so they threw themselves into the inquiry with great enthusiasm and energy.
The Committee received 192 submissions and held public hearings in Canberra, Broome, Katherine, Rockhampton and Albury. It heard from more than 80 witnesses: public servants; peak industry group leaders; business and producers.
The Senators left no stone unturned and worked collegiately. Indeed Liberal Senator Ian Macdonald said of the Chair, Labor Senator Glenn Sterle, “I want to congratulate the Chairman of the Committee, Senator Glenn Sterle for his skill and fairness in chairing the inquiry and ensuring that all those who wanted to be heard were given the opportunity of a fair and open hearing by the Committee”.
But the good Senators were not alone in their work. A whole range of organisations and individuals put an enormous amount of effort and resources into the inquiry and anticipated reform process.
While they had their differences, everyone agreed that reform was needed. As the work of the Committee marched on, expectations grew that real reform was imminent. When the final report and recommendations were tabled in September 2014, there was much to applaud.
While I have no space here to cover all the issues and Committee recommendations, the centrepiece of the proposed reform was a recommendation proposing a new producer-owned body which would be elected by and accountable to the cattlemen who pay the levy. Their money ($56 million annually) would go to the new body rather than to the Meat And Livestock Corporation, as is the current arrangement. The new body in turn would decide where and on which projects the money would be spent.
But then came nothing but a long wait. People and organisations, particularly the Cattle Council, kept their lives on hold awaiting the Abbott Government response.
Barnaby Joyce finally responded a little more than a week ago: nine months after the Senate Committee tabled its report.
And his response? “Nothing”, is the disappointing answer. To use the Australian vernacular, he squibbed it. The sector is understandably frustrated. Its leadership was ready to accept and progress reform and devoted considerable time and money to the Senate Inquiry and has now also lost two years of valuable reform time.
Meanwhile, over in the grains sector two grower organisations with different strengths are in a tussle for the right to be the sector’s formal “Representative Organisation”.
Both sides were looking for leadership from Barnaby Joyce; they were happy for the Minister to make a call in the best interests of the sector.
And Barnaby’s decision? Well, after a long wait he appointed both of them! I now hope the grains industry will be able to show the leadership that has been poorly lacking by the Minister.
It’s been a bad month for Barnaby Joyce: a disappointing agriculture White Paper; a big reduction in Indonesian cattle import quotas; battles with his Prime Minister over the ABC’s Q&A, the Shenhua Mine; further damming revelations regarding “Hansardgate”; various commodity price falls; and now heavy criticism from both the grains and cattle sectors.
I suspect Barnaby Joyce may be finally learning a thing or two about expectation management but the lessons of leadership are much harder.
This article was first published in FARMONLINE on Monday, 27July 2015.