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TAS Country : August 5th 2010
32 Tasmanian Country Friday, August 6, 2010 Opinion MLA has to be open, transparent WELL-PAID: MLA regional manager for north America David Palmer. CHEWS theFAT David Byard PRIMARY Industry Minister Tony Burke has stated politicians should listen to farmers when forming poli- cies. I'm sure the apple people would've had a chuckle when they read this. He went on to say he doesn't believe it is OK for some research and development corporations to be inef- ficient and to create their own bu- reaucracy by paying some of their employees obscene salaries. I couldn't agree more. I'd also add we need to make sure organisations are returning good value for our tax payer dollar invested. But what I would like to know is, who puts the checks and balances on these organisations and checks the governance? It might work well if you are being viewed as being part of some agricul- tural club, but I don't know how those practices can be justified to the farmer who is forking out for the levies. For too long, we have accepted a culture where no one was allowed to criticise, and if you did, you were labelled a trouble maker. It is not simply a case of throwing money around --- our systems have to be managed and audited. Minister Burke sounds great. How- ever, that is where it stops. The MLA, with levy payers' money, pays its chief executive $450,000-plus per year, and other executives get paid huge salaries. Who determines these salaries? Who does the performance reviews, not only on the person but the position and organisation? In this day and age, it is simply not good enough to believe the rhetoric from the chairman --- there needs to be some external rigour to check on the performance of the organisation. MLA is a company limited by guarantee, with farmers footing by far the largest majority of funding through compulsory levies. Processors contribute a small amount, the Australian Government contributes dollar for dollar towards research only and the retail sector contributes nothing. But it seems strange to me the sectors that pay nothing or the least towards the running of MLA get to spend vast amounts of MLA's money on marketing and research, and reap the biggest financial benefits. As normal, it is the producers that bear most of the funding load. MLA judges its success or otherwise on the price of the retail meat but there can be a huge gap between what the producers and retailers get. The price of cattle at the farm gate over the past 10 years has remained about the same as costs to producers continue to rise dramatically. Meanwhile, the price of meat on the retail shelves has risen 40 per cent. The MLA thinks this is a victory, but as a producer I wonder how many people would agree with this, or think it is fair that the farmer misses out on some of the financial gains. Minister Burke correctly talks about a culture where people can't criticise, which seems alive and well in the upper reaches of the MLA. When levy payers ask about funding and joint agreements with processors and supermarkets, they are told this is commercial in confidence --- funny, when it is the levy payers that fund the organisation. This attitude shows in- grained arrogance and is dangerous. Employees and directors should be accountable to the very people who fund the organisations. Anyone wanting to complain can go to ASIC but it is powerless against MLA because it's a company limited by guarantee. Producers who fund the organisation through levies, being members not shareholders, are not entitled to see where their money has been spent. If one went to ASIC, they'd probably send you back to the minister who would then refer you back to ASIC. Accountability is important in our society and the government has checks and balances in place. If a minister will not give you information, you can go to freedom of information, unlike the MLA that can simply tell people to take a walk. Regular audits are done on the MLA and should be made public. The MLA board is appointed by a select committee made up in part by peak councils. Once a person has been anointed, they have to be ratified at the annual meeting --- a forgone con- clusion, when only a small proportion of levy payers attend. As red meat producers, we should not be so apathetic --- it is our industry. The industry structure for meat and funding is a very complicated affair. This was set up by Howard govern- ment's primary industry minister John Anderson in 1997, and allows funds from the old AMIC to fund peak industry bodies like sheep and cattle councils. It started with $40 million, the Australian meat Industry Act in 1997 MOU underpins these arrangements. The MLA spent in the order of $500 million from 1997 to 2008. There appears to have been no cost benefit analysis of what has been achieved. I suggest every member be given a complete breakdown of where their levies are being spent and with whom. MLA says it is open and transparent but if it is genuine, surely it can show all members where the money is going and the return on their investment. The way the meat industry is set up now, levy payers are paying obscene salaries for very questionable results. Minister Burke and other politicians should show true leadership to actually walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Your new look Tasmanian Country offers unprecedented opportunities for display advertisements, features and advertorials. 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August 12th 2010