SPEECH – Red Meat Senate Report

13 September 2017

Senator O’SULLIVAN (Queensland) (13:40): I had intended to speak on other subject matter today, but we’re seeing some evolving responses from within the beef supply sector in response to the report of the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee which was tabled yesterday in this place on behalf of Senator Sterle. I want to once more pay credit to Senator Sterle—he happens to be in the chamber—for having chaired a very difficult, long-ranging inquiry into the beef supply chain from a set of references that this Senate provided to him 18 months ago. It was a long, arduous, and very, very thorough Senate inquiry into the beef supply chain. The report is well supported by our side of politics. In fact, there was no dissenting report—in effect, one could say that this is bipartisan, or tripartisan, or—I’m not sure what the term is once you get past three—

Honourable senators interjecting

 Senator O’SULLIVAN: Quart-partisan? Whatever it is, it has the support of all of the elements of this Senate, and there have been some interesting responses. In the limited time I have, I will concentrate on two of them.

The most remarkable is the response today from the chief executive officer of ALPA, the agents’ peak body here in Australia. ALPA was the subject of quite pointed efforts of the committee because of serious, longstanding allegations of corruption and collusion in the marketplace; particularly in the saleyards around this nation, where tens of millions of head of cattle are transacted every couple of years. Today, Mr Madigan has come out and criticised the committee, saying that he’s somewhat bemused and frustrated because the committee has made recommendations that ALPA should review and reform the practices around saleyards. We have found—and clear evidence was presented—that producers, and particularly smaller producers, were at a complete disadvantage in saleyards because of collusive and, I would say, corrupt behaviour over a long period of time.

The genesis of this was what we call the Barnawartha event, where nine of these agents, represented by Mr Madigan, boycotted the Barnawartha saleyards—it’s called the ‘Barnawartha Boycott’. There were thousands of head of cattle there, waiting to go to market, and the nine agents never turned up. The ACCC got involved and conducted an investigation. What were the reasons given by the nine agents? They certainly denied any collusion. They certainly denied any agreement. No. 1 said: ‘The dog got my lunch. The dog took my lunch and I couldn’t go all that way without something to eat.’ Another one had a flat tyre, and the third one said the wipers didn’t work on their car—and on and on it went. The ACCC reported to us in evidence that there’d been an increase in traffic in communication between these agents, some of whom had never spoken to each other before. So for the nine of them and—I say to you, Mr Madigan, straight down the barrel of the camera—for you to deny that there was collusion and difficulties in the saleyards of this nation is a very rich statement! In fact, in his evidence Mr Madigan had indicated that he himself had concerns about this in the saleyards. I’ll use his words:

In my experience I have seen buyers talk to one another—just have a little whisper. I have not heard what they have said. I have no proof of it, but I have seen it. They will go up and talk to one another. One will stop bidding and then walk away, and then they will buy the next pen. I have seen that, yes.

That was his evidence, verbatim. As recently as 28 August Mr Madigan has said, ‘At no stage did I say that’—that since the seventies he had witnessed collusive behaviour at livestock sales. The inconvenient fact for you, Mr Madigan, is that it was recorded on the Hansard. The tapes are here. If your memory is failing you, you should make a visit down here and we’ll make arrangements for you to listen to your own voice.

It suits the agents to have no reform. It suits the agents not to have Senate inquiries or anyone else in authority looking at the behaviour in the saleyards. We opened the inquiry with a leading processor in the industry. Senator Sterle will remember this—it was a magic piece of evidence. Forty years, he said, he had been in the beef industry, and not once had he ever heard, not even in a conversation down at the pub, that there was collusion in the saleyards in this nation.

I say to Mr Madigan and to others in the industry: the more you tell us there’s not a problem—because your credibility is in question—the more inclined we are to look more thoroughly again and again until your workplace, your marketplace, is reformed so that small producers around this country are not subject to collusive behaviour. If he thinks that we in this place are going to roll up into a ball and forget about the recommendations that we have just put through to the minister, then he has another think coming.

Then there is the Cattle Council of Australia. Deary me! I have no friends left in the beef sector, and, I suspect, neither do you, Senator Sterle, after our efforts over the last 18 months, but the Cattle Council represent literally nobody. There are 60,000 producers in this nation, and there is evidence that they quite literally represent nobody. There are eight stakeholder groups who wanted to come together and create what I’ve called a new cattle house. We have been putting pressure on them and engaging with them to consider that, because it was our intention that industry should sort its own problems out. The most brutal and inelegant way to resolve any problems in any sector is to have a Senate inquiry make recommendations to resolve them.

They have come out today. For the last year—they blew the candle out on the cake recently—they have been working in what’s called a transition committee. A very prominent cattleman and administrator in this country, Mr Troy Setter, has headed that up. We have in recent months been hearing snippets of information, anecdotal, some of it coming from members of that transition committee, to say that the Cattle Council really don’t have their heart in it. They want to remain as the Cattle Council. They don’t want to commit to the establishment of a much more transparent, skills-based board structure that will give these 50,000 or 60,000 producers around the country a voice. The Cattle Council have come out today—they’re finally out; the closet doors have swung open—and said that, actually, closing down the Cattle Council of Australia and creating a new entity would require a lot of work and time. I don’t have time in this contribution to articulate all the points that they have come out with in the media today. I know I’m going to be a few Christmas cards short this year, but here’s my message to the Cattle Council: this is the second time that recommendations have been made to my own government to strengthen the peak body, again as a result of the work of Senator Sterle and this Senate committee. The first ones have not been enacted. We will not rest now. We will persist until you restructure, until you properly operate in a transparent way that proves to your government and proves to your industry that you do represent the tens of thousands of small producers around this country who are getting it in the neck every time big processors or market conditions put them in a vulnerable place.

There’s been market failure around beef now for 30 years, and it has to come to end. The power inequities that exist have to be addressed. The recommendations of the Sterle report were 100 per cent supported by us all—not one alteration to the report, not one dissenting report and not one qualifying addition to the report made. I say to my own government and to the industry: ‘Listen up; you need to take these recommendations seriously.’ We need to put our shoulders to the wheel and we need to get this back to being a fair, transparent and equitable market environment for the many tens of thousands of Australians who make a big contribution to our nation’s wealth. (Time expired)