Dairy farmers face silencing in accountability quest

Dairy farmers face silencing in accountability quest

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ACCOUNTABILITY ACTION: UDV Corangamite branch secretary and dairy farmer, Ian Morris.

ACCOUNTABILITY ACTION: UDV Corangamite branch secretary and dairy farmer, Ian Morris.

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Grassroots farmers calling for transparency in dairy industry decision making have been warned.

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A storm has erupted over "jobs for the boys" protected by secrecy throughout the dairy industry, culminating with the Victorian Farmers Federation threatening members with expulsion.

Representatives of United Dairyfarmers of Victoria branches in the state's south-west were last month called before a VFF Grievance Panel to deal with "behaviours exhibited by the guest attendees including inappropriate email exchanges and other types of communication with internal and external stakeholders".

The VFF subsequently threatened membership termination if they again breached its code of conduct.

Regional dairy jobs

It reached boiling point after branch executives called for the resignation of the WestVic Dairy chair over what they called a lack of accountability.

The said their objection was not personal but, rather, reflected a much wider failure of governance across dairy bodies.

WestVic Dairy is the regional arm of peak research and development body Dairy Australia and new board members are appointed by existing board members without any elections.

The existing board creates a selection committee, which must consist of the WestVic Dairy chair, a UDV representative from outside the board and, say its rules, "one representative from either Dairy Australia, the Victorian Department of Primary Industries, or one of the regional tertiary institutions that conducts research funded by the dairy farmer levies administered by WestVic Dairy."

That panel then simply makes recommendations to the board for approval.

There is no mechanism for levy payers to appeal decisions, force elections or demand meetings, though it controls a $1.6 million budget, mostly comprised of payments from DA - which, in turn, draws almost all of its income from mandatory farmer levies and taxpayer funds - to carry out programs.

In fact, there can only be nine members of WestVic Dairy.

But it's not just WestVic Dairy. GippsDairy has a very similar arrangement and, while those of DairyTas and Murray Dairy are a little different, board members are appointed by a small selection panel.

UDV Corangamite branch secretary and dairy farmer, Ian Morris, did not leak the grievance documents but said he shared the concerns expressed by branch executives.

Mr Morris, a former World Bank economist, has been investigating the transparency and accountability of dairy industry bodies and said the lack of accountability of WestVic to regional levy payers was "emblematic of all that is wrong with dairy industry structure and accountability to levy-paying farmers".

"Peeling back the layers reveals a total lack of accountability to regional levy payers," he said.

Dairy dough and dons

And the Australian Dairy Plan's industry reform process appears to have adopted the same approach with its selection of those who will build the model presented to farmers.

The plan last week announced the establishment of three working groups to present recommendations to the newly-formed Organisational Reform Steering Committee: processor involvement, governance and representation.

"It was up to the chairs of the steering committees," said Australian Dairy Farmers president, Terry Richardson of the group memberships.

"I appointed them to the various working groups and then they went and approached others to sit on that particular working group they were responsible for, and have drawn from other organisations and a couple of people from outside the industry."

The five members of the processor involvement group are all processor representatives.

Only one member of the governance group, Bruce Donnison, has dairy farm investments, but is known for his long and very senior career with Fonterra.

Three of the five members on the representation group are dairy farmers but all of them are, or have recently been, directors of the existing dairy bodies.

"The mechanism for selecting the three working groups is a demonstration of the boys' club on steroids," Mr Morris said.

The cost of the Dairy Plan is also undisclosed.

"The forecast spend on the Dairy Plan was $900,000," an Australian Dairy Plan spokesperson said.

"The project has evolved and total costs will be determined post the finalisation of the plan."

He would not say what percentage of the funds will be sourced from farmer levies and neither would Gardiner Foundation or ADF.

An ADF spokesperson said it would need to consult the other "industry partners" - DA and peak processor body Australian Dairy Products Federation - but did not provide details in the days before Stock & Land went to print.

UDV circle of silence

Mr Morris said the problems extended into state advocacy arrangements.

Each UDV branch, for example, appointed a policy councillor to represent it, who was then not accountable to the branch.

"Our policy councillor, while not being accountable to the branch, tries very hard to keep members informed subject to the constraints placed on him by the charter of the policy council," Mr Morris said.

"Under that charter, no policy councillor may disclose how they voted and why or, in some instances, even what position the council had reached."

Mr Morris also said the VFF president recently overruled the UDV president's decision to allow him to read the minutes of the UDV Policy Council.

"The brief summary minutes are all members need, according to the VFF president," he said.

"It's astounding that this happens in a membership-based organisation.

"To this day, UDV members do not know what the position of the Policy Council is on the draft Dairy Plan - not even summary minutes have been released."

The VFF declined to comment on the grievance proceedings, which it said were held in confidence.

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