F ollowing a review of Horticulture Australia Limited (HAL), a new body has been established to undertake the management of Commonwealth research funding and growers’ statutory levy funds. The new body, Horticulture Innovation Australia Limited (HIA), has commenced operation with a new Constitution and a new Board of Directors. The staff of HAL are now employed by HIA and the assets and liabilities of HAL have been transferred to the new body. A new Statutory Funding Agreement was signed between the Government and HIA on November 23rd that directs how the funds can be invested. What led to the review of HAL? Given that the major points being pushed in the publicity of the new body are greater transparency and the ownership of the new body directly by grower levy payers, the conclusion is that the previous ownership arrangement with industry representative bodies was not transparent. Speaking from the almond industry perspective, how much more transparent can it have been? On the ABA Board sit six grower directors representing each of the four producing regions, marketing directors from Olam and Select Harvest, the two largest levy payer businesses that grow, process and market nearly two thirds of the crop, and two marketing directors who represent the interests of grower shareholders, one the Managing Director of Almondco, a grower co-operative and the other the CEO of Nut Producers Australia. The ABA Board of Directors represents 97% of Australian almond production and hence statutory R&D levy payers. Under HAL, the ABA Board had responsibility to initiate changes to the R&D levy but maintained the levy as its close monitoring of the research program showed a strong return of investment. The return on investment to levy payers and the taxpayer of research is entirely dependent on the uptake of the projects’ outputs of new knowledge or technology. For the almond industry, strong uptake has been assured as the research projects endorsed by the industry and funded by HAL provided the missing knowledge and technologies to implement the industry’s strategic plan.
The ABA’s ownership of and accountability to growers for the plan’s implementation means that prioritised research outputs are well defined, the projects carefully monitored, industry assistance is provided to researchers and the work is undertaken in a logical and cost effective sequence. The ABA also addressed any impediments to the uptake of knowledge or new technologies as part of the strategies, so extension is not just the researchers providing their research findings to growers. The capacity of the ABA to undertake wide consultation amongst levy paying growers, processors, marketers, the domestic and international nut trade, researchers, government, suppliers of production inputs such as nurseries, equipment manufacturers, chemical companies etc. is viewed as important to getting good project outputs delivered and outcomes achieved. Funding of this role ceased at the end of October 2014. This collaborative approach of industry, researchers and the funding body working together is now in jeopardy and we await closely how the new HIA processes for R&D identification, prioritisation, approval, specification, monitoring, and industry assistance develop in the near future. The ultimate measure of HIA’s success will be the usefulness of project outputs to the implementation of the industry’s strategic plan that is developed by the industry growers and hence levy payers and other key industry participants. Many of the industry’s objectives mirror those of the Government in terms of export market development, input efficiency (particularly water), biosecurity, adaption to severe weather events and management of other risk areas, health benefits for the community, and growth in jobs and investment in regional areas. By any measure of these the industry has been successful. In the area of export market development, the almond industry was the first horticultural product to have annual export sales of $300 million. This was achieved in 2013 and in 2015 our export sales should exceed $500 million. The industry’s Market
Development Plan, an important element of the Strategic Plan, is approved by marketers responsible for selling 97% of the industry’s production on which the R&D levy is raised. The successful implementation of the Marketing Plan owes its success to a co-operative approach, both within the industry and also working with Government who are in the process of delivering free trade agreements in key markets that will facilitate further growth in export sales. The ABA has taken an open minded approach towards HIA though we do hold concerns regarding the uncertainty that surrounds the processes that have worked well for our industry in the past. We want the close linkage between the industry strategic plan and the R&D investment program to continue. The ABA, as the owner of the industry plan and responsible for actioning it on behalf of industry growers, processors and marketers should be involved in the R&D funding decisions. In concluding, it is interesting that accountability is cited as the reason for the change from HAL to HIA and the change of company ownership from the Industry Representative Bodies to individual grower members. It is difficult to imagine that you as individual growers will want to spend the time, effort and money that the ABA has in the past acting on your behalf to ensure the right research is being conducted, in the right sequence, with an eye to the impediments to uptake and understanding where it fits as part of an overall strategy to ensure the return on that investment is maximised. It is to be hoped the new model has not thrown the baby out with the bath water but it is the ABA’s intention to work to ensure the new model works to deliver the best possible outcomes from the 97% of the levy paid by the almond producers we represent.