Meat & Wool suffers from an excess of democracy

Without wishing to belittle the efforts of Kirsten Bryant and Anne Munro who have achieved historic success by being the first women elected to Meat & Wool New Zealand’s board, I am uneasy about the implications of the voting process for the organisation’s future. Kirsten Bryant was contesting a ward in which there was no sitting member, but Anne Munro unseated David Douglas, an experienced board member who represents MWNZ on Beef & Lamb NZ and the Animal Health Board’s representative committee.

All credit to the successful candidates for getting their message across to their electorate, but I’m not convinced the levy paying voters actually understand whether the changes they want have any hope of being realised. From talking to Chairman, Mike Petersen, it’s clear most farmers don’t have an accurate understanding of Meat & Wool’s role – for instance Mike said he could spend half an hour at the recent round of farmer meetings presenting facts about the strategies Meat & Wool is pursuing, then on opening the meeting up to questions, the next hour and a half would be all about areas which are not its responsibility, like industry performance and rationalisation.

Mike reckons the narrow majority in favour of the organisation’s continued existence for meat matters only and the loss of the wool levy in last year’s vote was the result of dissatisfaction with the wider industry as a whole, not just with Meat & Wool’s performance. The question is how directors can possibly hope to convince the voters in their wards they have achieved significant gains for the sheep and beef farmer, let alone the dairy farmer, when they come up for re-election, given Meat & Wool’s narrow mandate under the Commodity Levies Act.

The present situation is light years away from the rights of the old Producer Boards which had a wide mandate from the Minister of Agriculture under Act of Parliament to invest in any activities they saw as beneficial to their respective industries. This led to such masterstrokes as compulsory acquisition in the days before subsidies were removed and surely any farmer who was farming back in the early 80s will remember what a disaster that was. In contrast Meat & Wool’s rights under the CLA are restricted to the proposals in the voting papers on which farmers decide whether or not to extend the organisation’s mandate for another five years.

So it’s all power to the democratic process which controls Meat & Wool so tightly by preventing it from stepping outside those areas where it undertakes to spend money, but I can’t help thinking it gets unfairly blamed with the result incumbent directors inevitably get dumped when they come up for re-election. Federated Farmers could also be more helpful by not recommending farmers to vote against the levy proposals.

When I spoke to James Parsons after he joined the board 12 months ago he was all fired up from completing his Nuffield scholarship which had given him insights into ways of improving returns to farmers. A year down the track he is still enthusiastic about the board and its positive achievements, particularly the reorganisation following last year’s vote and the development of the strategic plan. Key positives include the emerging markets programme, more clearly defined objectives, and decentralisation of functions out to the regions. However he admits progress on an industry strategy is slow with industry structure which most farmers see as a prerequisite for better prices not even on the agenda,.

Mike and James both concede farmers will want to talk about the industry’s future as well as expecting Meat & Wool to do something about market prices, as long as returns are so low, even though it has no responsibility for setting prices. But they both know communication by directors of Meat & Wool’s responsibilities and achievements remains critical for the organisation’s survival.

If this doesn’t succeed, Meat & Wool and its directors will suffer the inevitable effects of democracy at the hands of the voters.

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2 Responses to “Meat & Wool suffers from an excess of democracy”

  1. Meat & Wool to be Sheep & Beef « Homepaddock Says:

    […] Alan Barber reckons Meat and Wool suffers from an excess of democracy. […]

  2. Monique Says:

    Hi Alan

    I am currently undertaking a group assignment on the meat industry. I would be very keen to talk to you this week to get your opinions on the industry, especially issues of power. Can you please email me and perhaps we can set up a time for me to give you a quick call?

    Kind regards
    Monique

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