Barnaby Joyce began his time as Acting Prime Minister of Australia by flying to Lismore, where he announced funding for a program to help farming co-operatives.
Mr Joyce stepped into the prime ministerial role as Malcolm Turnbull touched down in China for trade and tourism talks.
Flanked by Page MP Kevin Hogan and Nationals deputy leader Fiona Nash, Mr Joyce announced $13.8 million to fund the Farm Co-operatives and Collaboration Pilot Program to be run by Southern Cross University.
He said he chose the Northern Rivers to make the announcement because it was home to existing co-operatives such as Norco (dairy), the Northern Co-operative Meat Company, NSW Sugar Milling, and the Ballina Fishermen’s Co-op.
“What better place to invest in co-operatives than in the area where co-operatives are pre-eminent, and that is the Northern Rivers,” Mr Joyce said.
“This is an area of Australia that absolutely prides itself on the business plan which is co-operatives.
“It’s something that links together so many people from so many different industries and, in some instances, different views, but co-operatives is the one banner they all rest underneath.”
In February, Mr Joyce was accused by Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon of pork-barrelling in the seat of Page when Mr Hogan was appointed to investigate co-operatives, despite the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) already being paid to do the job.
Model Will Help Improve Skill Base
Southern Cross University Vice Chancellor Peter Lee said he had been approached by Mr Hogan to put forward a national bid to run the program.
“It’s an acknowledgement that regional Australia can do it ourselves,” Professor Lee said.
“We’re rated well above world-class average in the research we do in agriculture, so Southern Cross is well-placed to lead in this area of developing co-operatives.
“Co-operatives are an old model … and it’s giving that model an injection to improve skill bases for a 21st century economy.”
Exact details of how the program will operate, including how many jobs may be created, are yet to be decided.
Mr Joyce said Southern Cross University would provide support to about 2000 farmers and 100 farmer groups across Australia until June 2018.
Co-op Expert Says Democracy Matters
The University of Western Australia’s Professor Tim Mazzarol, who has conducted extensive research into co-operative enterprises, said the program would need to emphasise the importance of democracy in the management of co-operatives.
“What’s really important is to understand that they’re different from conventional investor-owned businesses,” he said.
“We’ve seen in case studies around the world of co-operatives, that they have demutualised or de-generated for a number of reasons.
“Some of them [reasons] are due to the board members, directors and managers not understanding some of these democratic principles, and being unhappy with managing what is more like being the mayor of a city or a town than it is to be a CEO of a business.
“You’ve got to always talk to and lobby and rally the membership because of the democratic nature of their business structures, so this is where the devil’s in the detail.”
Professor Mazzarol said if the program was going to be of any use, it needed to take on board those kinds of in-depth issues.
“If it doesn’t, it’s going to struggle because it won’t be helping develop the understandings of how these business models should be designed,” he said.
Existing Co-ops Welcome Program
Norco and Co-operative Alliance chairman Greg McNamara said there was a gap in the market in terms of programs to help farmers establish co-operatives.
“One of the challenges of co-operatives has been about accessing capital, and how do you do all the things a normal business does,” he said.
“Co-operatives are an evolutionary process, so they might start off as a collective bargaining group or a group of people who want to get together to create a way of doing something.
“The centre [at SCU] will be around making sure there are skill sets and training and national programs in place to support those individuals who want to start to go down that path.”
Mr McNamara said he also hoped the program would result in improved farm gate returns.
“To do that we need to think about working in a more collaborative arrangement,” he said.
Labor Says Cuts Outweigh New Funding
Opposition deputy leader Tanya Plibersek, who was also visiting Lismore today, welcomed government investment in agricultural research, but said the co-op program funding was not equal to one quarter of the money that had already been cut from Southern Cross University.
“Over the next four years around $60 million will be cut from Southern Cross University because the Liberal/National Government have cut $12 billion of funding from our universities across Australia,” she said.
“It doesn’t go anywhere near replacing the funding cuts the university has suffered.
“If you add on funding cuts to organisations like the CSIRO, this doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the damage that’s been done.”