(The following history of Cattle Council was prepared by Journalist/Consultant Tom Connors whose PhD thesis was a history of the National Farmers' Federation and published in 1999 as To Speak With One Voice)
The Cattle Council of Australia – the national voice for beef producers – had a long gestation and a difficult birth. Despite this, the Cattle Council has grown into a vigorous 20-year-old determined to protect the rights of producers and prepare them for the rigours of competing in the global economy of the 21st Century.
Cattle Council, through the hard work and dedication of its leaders, executives and staff, has won the respect of government and other sectors of the industry. It has done this by the quality of its research and the presentation of its arguments. It has never resorted to publicity stunts.
The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) celebrated its 20th birthday in style and there is no reason why the Cattle Council, one of its founding Councils, should not raise a glass to toast its success on behalf of all beef producers.
The reasons why it took almost 100 years for Australia’s beef producers to get their own national organisation are varied. Certainly producers were represented at State and federal levels but only as sections of organisations that were originally created to speak for woolgrowers. The wool industry was sharply divided into free marketeers and those wanting government intervention. The battle went on for decades and dominated the headlines while the beef industry maintained adherence to the free auction system and attracted less attention from government and the media.
Wool was once the glamour product and an old cliche declared that "Australia rode to prosperity on the sheep’s back". The public was never fully aware of the massive contribution that beef was making to the economy, and to the welfare of country towns where meatworks provided many well-paid jobs. In addition, beef exports have been a massive earner of foreign exchange. The beef industry rarely received the acclaim it deserved and a lot of this was due to the absence of its own voice.
Australia’s first federal farm organisation was the Pastoralists’ Federal Council (PFC), established in 1890 by large woolgrowers to combat the demands of shearers for closed shop shearing sheds. It was basically an industrial organisation that saw its right to hire and fire threatened by the rise of trade union militancy in the bush. The PFC remained a body of employers for some years showing less interest in the other major product of the pastoral industry, beef, or in unity with "farmers".
The PFC was determined to retain the vast acreages woolgrowers had acquired by fair or underhand means. This lead to the emergence of the Farmers and Settlers’ Association (FSA) in 1893 determined to change the colonial land laws so that small farmers could "unlock the land" from the clutches of the squatters and move into grain growing and other enterprises. The antagonisms between graziers and farmers ran deep. To the fight over land could be added a split over how produce should be marketed (the farmers generally favoured government intervention to eliminate the merchants) and class divisions.
As the two organisations gathered strength and influence, their interests spread beyond wool and land with divisions set up for meat and other commodities. While a number of industries, notably dairy, dried fruit, sugar and wheat, established distinct organisations, beef producers remained members of two federal farm organisations. They were the Australian Woolgrowers and Graziers’ Council (AWGC – the successor of the PFC) and the Australian Wool and Meat Producers’ Federation (AWMPF – the offspring of the Farmers and Settlers’ movement). Both spoke for beef producers at the federal level, although the advice they gave the federal government on beef was not as conflicting as that on wool, a product that continued to dominate their annual conferences.
There were constant rumblings from beef producers that they needed their own organisation with some complaining, especially within the AWGC, that they were being run by woolgrowers who were obsessed with wool issues to the detriment of beef.
In 1974, just two years before central Queensland beef producers broke away from the United Graziers’ Association (UGA) to form the Cattlemen’s Union (CU), the AWGC, bowing to rising pressure from its cattle producers, established the Australian National Cattle Council (ANCC).
This as later described by David Trebeck, former AWGC economist, as "largely a defensive measure by the AWGC in an attempt to head off a split or splinter groups". From the start the ANCC was seen as a creature of the AWGC, especially when that organisation decreed that ANCC spending "had to be sanctioned by the AWGC".
Invitations to the AWMPF, the Australian Dairy Farmers’ Federation and their affiliates to join the ANCC were ignored and it never became more than the beef section of the AWGC. In addition, the ANCC had its own internal divisions. Its Executive Director, Baden Cameron, complained at the 1977 AWGC convention that State affiliates were promoting their own identities on beef issues rather than that of the ANCC. The first attempt at uniting all beef producers under the one banner was a failure and so was the second.
On 11 May 1976, about 1,000 cattle producers gathered at the Leichhardt Hotel in Rockhampton to endorse a "grass roots" organisation that would work to present "a single dynamic voice" for the industry. The CU split from the UGA because that organisation would not accept its remedy for the slump in beef prices; a minimum price to underpin the market.
Most other cattle producers refused to believe that the solution to low prices was so simple and the CU’s push to enlist members in southern States proved a difficult exercise especially when it refused to join the fight against picketing meatworkers trying to stop the export of live sheep. The CU did not want to risk a meatworks strike in Queensland or a threat to live cattle shipments.
The unity movement that produced the NFF was, by that stage, well underway in NSW and beef producers were playing a major role. The NSW Graziers’ Association and the United Farmers and Woolgrowers’ Association had decided it was time to forget past differences and unite. Their agenda went beyond the State to the federal scene and they let it be known that, as the biggest and richest of all farm organisations, they would fund only one federal body. Australian farmers needed a strong united voice to be clearly heard in Canberra.
The overwhelming vote for unity in NSW was the starting gun for the federal organisations to accelerate the negotiations that had commenced before voting actually got under way in July 1977. To ensure the support of beef, sheepmeats, wool and grain producers, a system was devised for Commodity Councils to operate with full autonomy on industry matters while the NFF would speak on issues of concern to all farmers. The Cattle Council of Australia was established in July 1979 and shortly afterwards elected its executive and nominees to sit on the NFF Council. Unlike the ANCC before it, the Cattle Council had real autonomy.
For a while it was feared that the CU would stand alone and continue its bid to be the one voice for the beef industry but hard bargaining and compromise on both sides saw an acceptable division of Queensland seats between it and the UGA. The fireworks expected when the Cattle Council held its inaugural meeting did not eventuate and it was a tame affair compared with the Wool Council where a fierce battle raged over leadership. Victorian Des Crowe was elected first President and Maurice Binstead of the CU, Senior Vice President.
This year, 1999, was a landmark for Queensland beef producers with the CU and the UGA uniting with grain growers as AgForce Queensland, an organisation that will represent them on both the Cattle Council (as AgForce Cattle) and the NFF.
In his report to the first annual conference of the Cattle Council in 1980, inaugural President, Des Crowe, said it was imperative that cattle producers "arrive at a consensus on matters of vital importance so they could act with a degree of unanimity". The days were gone, he said, when producers could shut their eyes to what was happening outside the farm gate. His remarks were endorsed by the Presidents who followed him.
First 20 Years – The Highlights
Much of the work of the Cattle Council goes unnoticed. It includes submissions to inquiries, consultations with government ministers and public servants and the hard relentless grind that has gone into developing policies that will stand up to harsh scrutiny and benefit all beef growers whether members of Cattle Council affiliates or not.
Networking is time consuming but vital to develop good relations with politicians on both sides, the ambassadors and agricultural attaches, departmental officers, journalists and other lobby groups. Cattle Council, through the quality of its research and its honest approach to issues, is one of the most respected organisations operating in the national capital. Of great importance is the emphasis Cattle Council places on consultations with producers in the bush – it goes out to them and listens.
When it comes to specific achievements a number stand out:
This is a world first for the Cattle Council. It focuses on the increasingly important question of hygiene and food safety. International consumers, disturbed by mad cow disease and other real or imagined meat quality scares, demand the best in hygiene standards and are ready to switch to other foods if they lose confidence in meat.
Producers adopting CATTLECARE® as standard practice introduce a series of checks and balances to ensure their cattle are "green and clean", free of chemical contamination and demonstrate little if any bruising and hide damage. Herds are improved with the aid of better record keeping. With CATTLECARE®, meat processors are assured that they are getting the best product available and one to which they can safely apply their own quality assurance systems.
CATTLECARE® accreditation ensures Australian producers are better armed to face highly competitive export markets. Beef is one of the last industries to adopt quality assurance and, without the Cattle Council pushing hard, the reform would still be some way off.
The meat industry has gone through several restructures. Some may remember the Australian Meat Board, followed by the Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation which was itself restructured mid-term and now we have Meat and Livestock Australia Limited (MLA).
Cattle Council was not completely happy with the MLA model determined by then Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, John Anderson, but is working hard to make the new industry arrangements a success. The major advantage of MLA over its predecessors is that producers are now totally in charge of how their levies are spent. In the past, other sectors, because they were forced to pay levies, had an equal, and at times dominant, say in outlays and programs.
MLA is a further demonstration of the Federal Government’s desire to retreat from the intervention of the past and allow industries to run their own affairs and be driven by the market place.
Cattle Council has new responsibilities on behalf of beef producers in advising MLA, keeping abreast of its operations and making a major contribution to the proper functioning of the Red Meat Advisory Council and the fulfilment of the Meat Industry Strategic Plan (MISP). Cattle Council’s Beef Industry Strategic Plan (BISP) contributes greatly to the MISP.
Cattle Council is implementing ways to extend contact with producers all around the nation so that all can become involved in the formation of policies. Government has handed the industry back to producers and they must be given every opportunity to play a part. Cattle Council is working in co-operation with State and federal organisations to plan an extended range of consultations to ensure this happens. From regional meetings all viewpoints are considered for inclusion in the BISP and the broader MISP.
Cattle Council has updated its media strategy to ensure a wider coverage of industry issues and to get its messages to a wider audience. It is working even harder to develop closer relations with politicians and the public servants advising them.
The Mexican Initiative
As an example of the beef industry taking charge of its own affairs, a Cattle Council delegation travelled to Mexico late last year to share with that country Australia’s BREEDPLAN genetic evaluation system and AUS-MEAT, the through-chain system of product description that engenders a high level of industry responsibility. The friendly transfer of technology is good public relations that can lead to collaboration for the benefit of the meat industries in both countries. Australia is also looking to Mexico to reduce its import tariffs on cattle, beef and beef products. Mexico could be a door to better relations with other nations of Central and South America.
Market access is critical for the Australian beef industry. A lot of Cattle Council’s work is directed through the mechanisms put in place by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Cattle Council has worked with the Government, other sectors and through MLA in:
- developing an appropriate WTO action against Korean import restrictions;
- developing a priority list for negotiations within the next WTO round;
- applying pressure for an improved HGP separation/declaration system for access to the European Union market;
- maintaining strong links with producer organisations overseas to resolve trade access issues;
- working with the relevant organisations to improve Australia’s status for low chemical residue;
- co-operating with other industry sectors to open and fund an MLA European office.
Structural changes to boost competitiveness
Cattle Council has worked closely with the NFF to ensure the tally system is scrapped by the Industrial Relations Commission. After 30-odd years, the tally system was finally removed from the Award in September 1999. The NFF has a strong ally in Cattle Council in promoting faster reform to the waterfront and the transport system and urging an extension of enterprise bargaining.
Cattle Council worked with AQIS to reduce meat inspection costs and is central to the development and trial of a Young Cattle Futures index and played a central role in MLA’s development of improved market intelligence systems. Cattle Council has encouraged MLA to establish industry leadership training programs, assisted the development of SAFEMEAT, a crisis management plan, and supports the development of Rangelands Australia.
A Reputation Earned
The reputation enjoyed by Cattle Council as the national voice for cattle producers was achieved by hard work. The Canberra lobby scene is a tough one with a myriad of organisations competing for time with Ministers and public servants and for space in the media. In such a hot house it is tempting to overplay your hand, especially in dealings with the media, to impress your constituents.
With Cattle Council, the executive and the staff call it as it is and do not waste the time of busy public servants or journalists. Cattle Council is respected and that, alone, is cause for celebration.