AUSTRALIAN Farm Institute (AFI) Executive Director Mick Keogh and former Regional Australia Institute (RAI) CEO Su McCluskey are in the front running to become the nation's first ever Agricultural Commissioner.
The new Commissioner’s role was unveiled in the Abbott government’s Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper released in early July.
The $4 billion strategic policy document unveiled $11.4 million to enhance the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) agricultural expertise through an Agricultural Enforcement and Engagement Unit.
It’s understood Mr Keogh is Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce’s preferred choice for the Commissioner’s job while Small Business Minister Bruce Billson, who has carriage of the ACCC, is considering Ms McCluskey’s suitability.
It’s believed federal Treasurer Joe Hockey also has a preferred candidate in mind but will consult with the other two ministers on the final appointment.
Mr Joyce told Fairfax Media that Mr Keogh wasn’t the only candidate under consideration but did not speculate on any other names.
However, he said he wanted to see the ACCC’s Agricultural Unit and new Commissioner “happening as soon as possible”.
“This is not something that requires legislation so we’re going through the assessment of candidates now,” he said.
“We’ve had discussions around a number of candidates and we’ve put names backwards and forth.
“We want to make sure that the person (appointed) has had a long term engagement in rural industry, has a clear understanding of some of the issues pertaining to competition and to market power within that industry and has the capacity to work with the other ACCC board members in an effective way, so as to bring about better outcomes for people on the land.”
Mr Joyce said the ACCC’s Agricultural Unit was another aspect of the Agricultural White Paper aimed at “trying to make sure that people are dealt with fairly”.
“So often, small producers say to us, ‘I’m just being squashed. When I go out there to sell my product, I feel my rights completely capitulate’,” he said.
“When we hear this complaint over and over and over again it’s incumbent on us in government to react and we have reacted by making sure that the enforcement of the law provisions that are there are administered or assisted by a person with a particular knowledge, or a deep and thorough knowledge of the agricultural sector.
“Mr Keogh certainly has that but he’s not the only one.
“We’re going through a range of candidates and they’re all of excellent calibre.”
Mr Keogh has been at the helm of the AFI for more than a decade conducting important and timely research into public policy issues impacting the Australian farm sector.
He has gained a nationwide reputation for his work analysing the agricultural and rural sectors which includes promoting policy solutions that support the economic and social wellbeing of farmers.
The AFI boss hails from a family farm near Holbrook in southern NSW and spent 10 years with NSW Farmers Association as both deputy CEO and policy director before being named the founding executive director of the AFI in 2004.
He was also Chair of the National Rural Advisory Council (NRAC) which merged with the Agricultural Industry Advisory Council in late 2014 as part of the Abbott government’s move to reduce bureaucratic agencies.
NRAC was a skills–based independent advisory council that advised the Agriculture Minister of the day on issues like drought and taxation and most recently reviewed the Rural Financial Counselling Service.
NRAC has also investigated other areas of interest including; the feasibility of setting up a multi-peril crop insurance program in Australia; and the effectiveness of the Farm Management Deposits scheme
Mr Keogh told Fairfax Media he was unaware of any considerations for the ACCC Agricultural Commissioner’s role and declined to comment further.
Ms McCluskey was the inaugural CEO of the RAI which launched in March 2012 but resigned from the rural policy development and analysis body earlier this year, to pursue other opportunities, like her appointment to the Regional Telecommunications Independent Review Committee.
She has been highly praised by Mr Billson for her work on the expert panel of the extensive Harper Review into national competition policy conducted by the Abbott government which reported earlier this year.
However, working against Ms McCluskey’s potential appointment is the Harper review’s recommendation that Commissioners no longer be designated with specific responsibilities, like for small business or consumer protection, but that the Commission as a whole be required to have regard to all sectors and interests.
Ms McCluskey also declined to comment when contacted by Fairfax Media.
The White Paper’s ACCC initiative was prompted by accusations the ACCC was out of touch in its analysis of decisions like the JBS Australia takeover of the Primo Group and Archer Daniels Midland’s play for GrainCorp and major supermarkets selling milk at $1 per litre.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said delivering the new ACCC agricultural agency, via the White Paper, aimed to assure farmers and everyone in the agricultural sector that “we are serious about ensuring that competition is free and fair”.
“All sectors from time to time are subject to a degree of, if you like, corporate overreach and it's important that all sectors are appropriately policed,” he said.
“But what we want to see is more expertise, more insight and more focus on the agricultural sector.”
In his analysis of the White Paper, Mr Keogh said the proposal to increase funding for the ACCC to improve its understanding of agriculture would be of little benefit unless the root cause of many of the issues - the lack of market transparency in concentrated markets - was addressed.
“As the milk wars and the Coles supermarket case have demonstrated, without market transparency, it is very difficult for a regulator to get to the bottom of illegal activity by dominant players,” he said at the time.