In February 2018, Labor’s national president, Mark Butler, urged the labour movement “to have a no-holds-barred debate about the place of unions in Australia”. It seems the Shadow Minister for Agriculture Joel Fitzbibbon has taken on this suggestion with creative enthusiasm, except he has skipped the debate bit, and given half a chance, will be going straight for implementation.
The Australian agricultural industry has long been on notice that Fitzgibbon is not happy with how the Rural Development Commissions, including MLA, GRDC and Dairy Australia, have operated. Ever since the 2011 Productivity Commission Inquiry into the RDCs recommended changes to rural R&D funding, he has been wanting to implement the report’s recommendations. This shadow agricultural minister has made it clear that he intends to revisit all the report’s recommendations if they win power on May 18.
Fitzgibbon has complained that few Australians know about our RDCs, partly because many have removed ‘research’ from their branding. He points out that the 15 RDCs between them, receive around $400 million in taxpayers’ money each year. This investment matches money they receive from their levy paying farmers.
Fitzgibbon’s primary complaint is that the RDC’s have grown bloated with non-research activities.
“They suffer ‘silo syndrome’ – too little cross-sectoral research takes place and too often they act more like industry leadership groups than research organisations. They tend to invest only to the level where the Government’s matching funds dry up. Their work in marketing is important but too often can be a distraction from the main game,” he said.
So far, so good. WAFarmers has no problem with any of this because many of our members can see room for improvement in how the RDCs spend their money. Farmers understand that research dollars are scarce and we need to ensure that every cent invested is a cent well spent. But hidden deep in the ALP’s 300 page election manifesto is a promise to not only review the performance of the RDCs, but also concludes that their governance arrangements would benefit from having union representation on their boards.
Apparently, farmers can expect that following the overhaul of the RDCs the new boards will benefit from the skills and input of a union official helping growers spend their levy money. This sparked a hot debate with Joel Fitzgibbon at a recent meeting with the National Farmers Federation and all the state farming organisations. The shadow minister for agriculture was adamant that the unions had much to offer as they too had a strong interest in productivity, which was surprising news to all the farming organisations’ representatives around the table.
This is going to be an interesting argument for a future ALP Minister for Agriculture to run across Australia’s farming communities, particularly those who remember the long and bitter fights with the unions on the wharves and meat works. But maybe the world has changed, and the unions really are interested in agricultural productivity.
Unfortunately, if comments by the current President of the ACTU Sally McManus are any indication, one would suspect productivity and the interests of farmers are the least of their concerns. For instance, she is on record as saying that she has no problem with unions breaking laws if they think the laws are unjust. But what is just about MUA picketers holding hostage millions of dollars of fruit and vegetables at the VICT Melbourne port in December 2017 over a port decision not to hire a casual worker with a criminal conviction. By all indices, Australia’s heavily unionised ports continue to drag their feet when it comes to productivity, which is a direct cost to Australian farmers. Just as the unions’ strident opposition to working holiday visas and calls to increase wages for local workers without any discussion of productivity improvements, ignores the fact that Australian workers don’t want to pick mangoes in the hot north and strawberries in the cold south.
Union membership in the private sector is less than 10% of the total 1.5 million union members. Less than 1.7% of this – or just 25,000 members – are agricultural workers, a big drop from 250,000 in 1996.
So here we have a nice correlation of farm productivity going up as union membership goes rapidly down.
How the shadow minister can expect to be taken seriously running an argument that the RDCs need a union hack on board to support productivity is beyond me. It’s nonsensical and clearly a sop to the push to extend the unions’ reach into all parts of the Australian economy. Already we have the unions controlling $1 trillion across the 30 industry super funds. We don’t need them also controlling our R and D funds.
WAFarmers urges the ALP to rethink this blatantly political policy and stick to putting independent qualified people on the RDCs to represent the governments interests, stick with the CSIRO not the CFMEU.