Vale Graeme Acton - A Tribute to a Visionary Reformer
I first met Graeme Acton when I was invited to address an inaugural ABA meeting in Brisbane in 1998. Graham was one of the cofounders of the ABA and the 1998 Brisbane ABA meeting was attended by the Who’s Who of the Australian beef cattle industry.
There were a considerable number of prominent industry figures at the meeting and I cannot recall all those in attendance but I do recall Graeme Acton’s twinkling eyes and distinctive laugh, Dr. Rod Kater from Stanbroke who I think was the inaugural ABA chairman, Peter Hughes, John Ayres from Kidman’s, Sandy Munro, Roger Hann, Charlie Mort, Cameron McIntyre and Colin Hewitt.
I was asked to address that 1998 Brisbane ABA meeting on the structural issues flowing from the then recent reforms to the red meat industry organizational structures with particular emphasis on the differences between the Australian Meat Processor Corporation (AMPC) constitution – which I had helped to draft – and the Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) constitution. I found it somewhat daunting to address such a large congregation of prominent cattlemen and I can recall fielding searching questions about the differences between the AMPC and MLA constitutions and beef baron anger about the Federal government’s presumption that abattoir owners were responsible and sophisticated enough to be entrusted with the grassroots election of the AMPC’s directors whilst cattle producers were apparently not regarded as being capable of directly electing the levy funded producer corporation’s directors.
My next encounter with Graeme occurred some 12 years later at breakfast the day after the large Beef’s New Direction Forum, convened by JR McDonald of Bindaree Beef at Armidale in northern New South Wales in February 2010, which was attended by over 1000 disgruntled cattle producers concerned about the future of their industry. As I breakfasted by myself in preparation for my flight back to Sydney, I noticed a nearby tableful of Queensland cattlemen including Graeme and pretty soon Graeme, Richard Hughes and Cameron McIntyre came across to have a chat with me. Graeme asked if I would assist in organising a follow-up forum at Paradise Lagoons later that year.
The organisation of the Paradise Lagoons follow-up forum took place through a series of teleconferences over the next few months between cattle producers across Australia who called themselves, at Graeme’s suggestion, the United Beef Group, and I was asked by Graeme to prepare a Beef’s New Direction Strategic Plan to be launched at the forum. Significantly Graeme insisted that the Paradise Lagoons forum and the Beef’s New Direction Strategic Plan should address wider rural and regional issues rather than being restricted to beef industry concerns.
Consequently I was asked to arrange for Professor Julian Cribbs, the author of The Coming Famine, to address the Paradise Lagoons forum with respect to food security and the coming Asian Food Bowl opportunities. I was also asked to arrange for Senator Bill Heffernan and then Senator Barnaby Joyce to address the forum. Other speakers included local state politicians and processors as well as cattle producers.
The Beef’s New Direction Strategic Plan which was launched at the Paradise Lagoons forum touched upon the impact of the resources boom which had put upward pressure on interest rates and the value of the Australian dollar, the effect of that boom and government policy and government influenced costs and charges on the international competitiveness of Australia’s rural industries in the context of the substantial subsidies given to European, North American and South American farmers by their governments and the $6.2 billion Federal government bailout of the Australian car industry during the GFC, the problems that Australia’s rural industries had in obtaining access to low interest development finance compared to the low interest development finance structures available to Chinese and Brazilian farmers, the consequent decline in rural industry and beef industry profitability and regional rural population in the context of the importance of the Australian domestic market and the emerging Asian Food Bowl opportunities, as well as touching upon the need for industry organisational restructure.
The Beef’s New Direction Strategic Plan set out concrete solution proposals to meet these challenges including steps that could be taken by the Reserve Bank to address the uncompetitive burden of Australia’s high interest rates and dollar value and uncompetitive government influenced costs and charges and to increase real cattle prices, reduce beef industry costs, bring about beef industry organisational restructure , decentralisation and rural infrastructure investment and access to long term patient development finance, to enable Australian farmers to take advantage of the emerging Asian Food Bowl opportunities.
In 2010 the rural press described the United Beef Group Beef’s New Direction Strategic Plan as naïve.
Since that time however, the nation has caught up with the Graeme Acton and the Beef’s New Direction Strategic Plan vision, with the recognition that, as the mining boom slows down, Australia’s economy becomes more dependent upon agricultural and manufacturing exports. A central focus of Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey’s budget speech last night was the somewhat belated recognition of the need to stimulate the rest of Australia’s economy as the mining boom slowed. As the sub-headline in today’s Financial Review states, ´The government will rely on major infrastructure projects as the mining boom fades.”
In recent years the Reserve Bank of Australia has actively moved to reduce Australian interest rates and put downward pressure on the value of the Australian dollar. The Australian government has put increasing priority on finalising free trade agreements with Asia, and there is a bill before Federal Parliament for the provision of rural reconstruction and development finance. Tony Abbott is committed to the provision of infrastructure, describing himself as the infrastructure Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the National Party, Warren Truss, deliberately chose to retain the infrastructure portfolio in the new government. The Minister for Agriculture, Barnaby Joyce, has initiated a Senate inquiry into the grass fed levy funded structures and systems and has induced the government to take a more concerted approach on foreign acquisition of Australia’s prime rural land in order to preserve Australia’s food security interests.
One cannot help but think that the beef industry, rural Australia and the national economy would be much better off today if the Government and our rural industry bodies had responded to Graeme’s and the Beef’s New Direction Strategic Plan 2010 reform calls at the time rather than leaving it to the last year or so to react.
Following the successful Paradise Lagoons United Beef Group forum in July 2010 which was attended by over 500 of Queensland and Northern Territory’s largest cattle producers, Graeme, along with JR McDonald of Bindaree Beef, Cameron McIntyre, Ashley MacKay and other members of the United Beef Group, helped convene the Australian Meat Producers Group (AMPG) which was a think tank made up of some of Australia’s largest and most influential cattle producers and representatives of some of Australia’s largest meat processors and feedlot operators as well as prominent stock and station agents and rural industry advocates.
Graeme helped convene and chaired one of the AMPG’s earliest meetings in Brisbane in 2011 attended by Cameron McIntyre, Ashley Mackay, Josie Angus, JR McDonald, myself and others. Later that year Graeme and Cameron McIntyre co-chaired an AMPG meeting with representatives of the Cattle Council (the CCA) in Brisbane to consider beef industry organisational reform options. I can recall that current CCA president Andrew Ogilvie, CCA director Peter Hall, immediate CCA past president Greg Brown, then CCA CEO Doug Inall and current CCA CEO Jed Metz represented the Cattle Council, while AMPG members and invitees included amongst others, meeting facilitator Alastair Henderson, John Berry from Swifts, Tony McCormack from Stanbroke, JR McDonald from Bindaree, Michael Spencer from AAco, Tony Gooden from Elders, Paul Holmes a Court from Heytesbury Holdings, and central Queensland cattle producers Ashley Mackay and Ian McCamley.
As a member of the AMPG I later had the honour of travelling down to Canberra to meet with Graeme, his mate Cameron McIntyre, Tony McCormack from Stanbroke and John Berry from Swifts to discuss beef industry organizational reform issues with Federal politicians. I recall a pre-meeting conference where Graeme raised the question of declining State Farm Organization (SFO) membership and funding which he felt was seriously undermining the ability of rural advocacy groups to adequately represent the rural constituencies. Graeme looked at me and asked what steps could be taken to obtain some levy funds to help finance rural advocacy. I remember replying negatively, pointing out the conventional dogma that governments generally do not agree to the levy funds being utilized to fund advocacy groups to lobby politicians. I can still recall Graeme’s gruff response, “Hunt, you’re meant to be the bloody adviser. Don’t tell us what we can’t do, tell us what we bloody well can do.”
Graeme’s gruff response was typical of his determined and positive attitude and as luck would have it, during the day one of the then Agriculture Minister Senator Ludwig’s advisors, Michael Carey, pointed us in the direction of the Australian pork industry organizational model under which pork industry advocacy, marketing and R&D functions are carried out under one roof by levy funded Australian Pork Limited whose directors are elected by levy payers.
Graeme, Cameron McIntyre, Tony McCormack and I subsequently met with Brian Ramsay the former CEO and founder of Australian Pork Limited to discuss the pros and cons of the Australian pork industry organisational model and later the AMPG think tank published submissions suggesting that the Australian beef industry organization be restructured to provide for a combined advocacy marketing and R&D levy funded cattle producer Corporation whose directors were directly elected by levy payers.
My next mental snapshot of meeting with Graeme was at the 2012 MLA conference at Longreach and a visit with him and other members of the AMPG to the Longreach Stockman’s Hall of Fame, which was one of Graeme’s passions, and follow-up AMPG meetings to discuss industry issues and meetings by various AMPG members with the Cattle Council, Sheep Council and ABA members to discuss reform options.
I can also recall meeting with Graeme and Cameron McIntyre for lunch in the dining room of the Wentworth Hotel in Sydney and receiving and accepting a telephone invitation to meet with him and his wife Jennie at the chairman’s lounge at the Hilton Hotel in Sydney to discuss beef industry organisational reform.
Early this year Graeme joined with me and other members of the AMPG think tank and Queensland members of the concerned cattle producers (CCP) to prepare a submission for the Senate Committee Inquiry into grass fed cattle levy structures and systems that had been convened at Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce’s instigation. Graeme donated a full page Ad in the Queensland Country Life to draw cattle producers’ attention to that inquiry urging them to either put in their own submission, or join in with the CCP submission, or lodge a CCP electronic questionnaire submission.
The AMPG/CCP submission to the Federal Senate Committee Inquiry into grass fed cattle levy structures and systems drew upon the just released Australian Farm Institute report into the declining effectiveness of Australia’s rural advocacy groups as a consequence of falling membership and resulting loss of funding. The Australian Farm Institute report examines a number of rural advocacy group structure alternatives including overseas models that combined levy funded marketing, R & D and policy development functions with membership fee and membership service income funded advocacy.
Finally, the SFOs are coming to grips with the structural funding and representative problems facing SFO based rural advocacy groups that Graeme had identified so precisely some four years previously.
To go full circle, my last meeting with Graeme was at the Global Food Bowl conference convened by Visy Board, The Australian newspaper and the Wall Street Journal earlier this year where Graeme and fellow cattle baron Peter Hughes were guest speakers. Graeme spoke about the Food Bowl opportunities for Australian agriculture and the need for government to provide the necessary infrastructure and access to development finance to allow Australian farmers to grasp those opportunities, with the same passion and vigour as he had at the Paradise Lagoons forum in 2010.
During a break in the conference Graeme greeted me with his characteristic warm grin and we chatted for a few minutes about Professor Julian Cribbs address on the Asian Food Bowl opportunities and food security issues at the Paradise Lagoons forum and the current Senate Committee inquiry into grass fed cattle levy structures and systems.
To sum up, my perception of Graeme was that he was a perceptive reformist visionary who looked forward rather than back and was often ahead of his colleagues, waiting for them to catch up. Graeme was interested in ideas and outcomes, did not play the man and respected the institutions and people that he was trying to reform, as well as his fellow reformists.
Graeme was a man in full, larger-than-life and will be remembered long by those who had the privilege of knowing him. Those of us who remain owe it to Graeme to do our best to ensure that the industry reforms that he was calling for are implemented. The achievement of those much-needed industry reforms would be the best legacy, the best memorial, to Graeme that we could leave for the next generation.