Grains crown up for grabs

Jo FulwoodThe West Australian

The battle for national grains industry supremacy continues to rage, with discussions ongoing over which grains industry body should be the representative organisation overseeing the Grains Research and Development Corporation.

The representative organisation of the GRDC takes on responsibility for overseeing the governance of the statutory body, with funding of up to $100,000 attached to the role.

According to its strategic plan, the GRDC formally reports to grain growers through their representative organisation, which is currently Grain Producers Australia, the successor to the now defunct Grains Council of Australia.

Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has received two bids for the position, one from current holder GPA and one from New South Wales-based GrainGrowers Limited.

While the role has been played down by some spokes-people, others believe it is the crown in the play for leadership supremacy in the Australian grains industry.

Tensions between GPA and GGL over a number of years are well known among industry groups, but often not publicly commented on, with some stakeholders not willing to earn the ire of GGL, an organisation that has its significant financial roots in the merger of GrainCorp with VicGrain.

With GGL sitting on consolidated equity of more than $100 million according to its 2014 annual report figures, the question remains why the organisation is even interested in the role of overseeing the GRDC.

GGL chairman Andrew Carberry believes Mr Joyce would not have requested alternative bids for the role if he was happy with the status quo.

"The oversight of GRDC is really important and I would imagine that the minister wouldn't have asked for other bids if he was happy with current structure," he said.

"We think the GRDC needs to have stronger oversight than what its currently been receiving through GPA, through no fault of theirs since they are under resourced."

Mr Carberry said if GGL was appointed to the position, his organisation, unlike GPA, would not accept any financial recompense for the role.

"We would fund it within our organisation, we would refuse the salary," he said. "How can you be independent if you are funded by the GRDC."

But GPA chairman Andrew Weidemann believes it is more important for the organisation that holds the role to have the support of the majority of industry stakeholders, including State farming organisations.

According Mr Weidemann, a national teleconference of all industry representative organisations apart from GGL and the Pastoralists and Graziers Association was held late last week, with discussions centred on the representative organisation role and the potential decentralisation of the GRDC.

Mr Weidemann played down speculation there was an industry rift, while at the same time questioning GGL's capability to take on the overseeing role of the GRDC.

"The requirements of that role changes and a lot of the money that GPA gets, it simply hands on to other parts of the industry to do the work, so we are just the conduit really," he said.

"I suppose in some ways this position could be seen as a (symbolic crown) but the reality is, it's more about functionality, about being capable to do the job.

"They (GGL) would have to make sure they were conversing with everybody.

"They've been critical of the oversight process of GRDC, but they've been critical in areas where they don't have the same understanding of what is happening in GRDC as we do.

"We have twice yearly consultative meetings with GRDC, and up until the last few years, they haven't even come to those meetings.

"It's sad in a way that we haven't been able to pull things together, but I'm confident and comfortable that we are heading in the right direction.

"We've got to come up with an efficient structure that allows for everyone to be at the table. This is definitely the most together the industry has been for quite a long time."

Mr Joyce said recently he would prefer to see a unified voice in the grains industry.

"That wouldn't be such a startling statement, everyone would want to see that," he said.

"I want to always making sure that I'm working closely with the representative bodies and when I can have the representative bodies working in communion, or if they were to become one representative body, then the interaction between government and that representative body becomes a lot more effective."

But others in the industry are more forthright when it comes to the well-known fracture between the two bodies.

According to PGA western grain growers chairman John Snooke, in a meeting with GGL last year GGL representatives were simply interested in garnering ways to "defeat" GPA.

"That was their only interest," he said.

"They were wanting to grab the power of the GRDC. They said that they didn't agree with the GPA approach on the GRDC, and they don't agree with our approach either, but in regard to holding the representative organisation position, what they said they would do is start replacing people, rearranging the deck chairs so to speak.

"They named individuals at the top of the GRDC who they would instantly change.

"Clearly, we walked away from that."

Mr Snooke said the demise of AWB had left a power vacuum in the industry.

"People are desperately trying to fill that," he said.

Both WAFarmers and the WA Grains Group have previously supported GPA in its bid to secure the representative organisation position, but refused to comment further on the split between GGL and GPA.

A spokesperson for Mr Joyce would not confirm when an announcement would be made regarding the successful bidder.

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