Improving the effectiveness of farmers’ advocacy

Agricultural lobby groups in Australia have been subject to considerable challenges over the past few decades. These include:

  • agriculture has declined in relative importance in the national economy and the number of farm businesses has also reduced significantly, which has made the task of influencing policy-makers to favour agriculture much more difficult
  • the agricultural sector has been largely deregulated, reducing the direct role of agricultural lobby groups in formulating legislation
  • there has been and continues to be a centralisation of policy-making away from state governments to the Australian Government, which is changing the roles and potential influence of state-based agricultural lobby organisations
  • the rise of telecommunications, which have made access to information and communication channels instant and universal, reducing individuals’ reliance on industry organisations for information
  • there has been increased scrutiny imposed on agriculture by community and specific interest groups, including environmental and animal welfare organisations
  • the development of globalised agricultural markets has reduced the potential ability of farm lobby groups to have any significant impacts on the market prices received by farmers.

Recognising these challenges, the Australian Farm Institute’s Research Advisory Committee identified that research into ways that Australian farm lobby groups could improve their effectiveness should be a priority issue for the Institute.

A research project with these objectives is currently being undertaken by the Institute.

In the context of this study agricultural lobby groups are defined as organisations created, managed and operated mainly by farmers, through a representative system. Their objective includes advocating for their members’ interests to be taken into account in public policy decisions.

The research involves an initial investigation of existing literature in social science, business studies and public policy regarding the roles and effectiveness of lobby groups. A major issue is what is called the ‘free-rider’ problem, which arises from the fact that those in an industry who choose not to support a lobby organisation still benefit from any gains that are achieved. Electronic communication technologies have made access to information much easier and cheaper, increasing this free-rider effect. Part of this study involves an examination of how lobby organisations in other sectors of the economy deal with this challenge.

There is no absolute ‘science’ by which the effectiveness of agricultural lobby groups can be measured or quantified, so the research has involved the development of a series of indicators that might assist in making some objective judgements. These include the sustainability of an organisation’s business model (assessed through membership and budget information over time), the extent to which the organisation is formally recognised by government in policy-making forums, the cohesiveness of industry support for the organisation, the ‘competitiveness’ of the organisation in obtaining favourable decisions by government, and the standing of the organisation in the eyes of key groups including the media and policy-makers.

This study compares how farmers’ lobby groups in France, New Zealand and Canada manage these challenges and organise themselves to improve their effectiveness. It also studies the way Australian lobby groups in other sectors of the economy operate on behalf of their members. The research involves surveys of relevant stakeholders to gain a better understanding of their opinions about agricultural lobby groups and how they could become more effective.

Back to August 2013 Insights contents page.

Images:  Deniliquin Newspapers, Feral Arts, National Farmers’ Federation