Opportunities to improve Australian agricultural advocacy groups’ effectiveness

‘To speak with one voice’ was written by Tom Connors in 1995 and told the story of the formation of the National Farmers’ Federation of Australia (NFF) in 1979. Over the ensuing 34 years, a great deal has changed in farming and in Australian society which begs the question of whether agricultural advocacy groups like the NFF are successfully moving with the times.

The Australian Farm Institute has recently undertaken research examining agricultural advocacy in Australia in light of these changing conditions with the aim of improving its future effectiveness. The research takes a comparative and objective approach in assessing the effectiveness of advocacy groups in Australia and internationally. Although a wide range of academic literature that explores the drivers of ‘collective action’ or ‘influence’ was covered in this research, there exists only a small amount of literature specific to these drivers in the agricultural sector.

It is generally agreed by academics that both globalisation and the so called ‘digital revolution’ have modified the ways lobby groups or not-for-profit organisations can influence public policy decisions. When assessing an organisation’s advocacy effectiveness, it is critical that the analysis goes beyond the size or past performance of an organisation. Increasingly, the ability of any group to influence public policy depends on that group’s support within the wider community. In effect, successful lobbying has transformed from the backroom deals of the past to slick public relations and media campaigns.

To obtain a broader perspective on this complex issue of lobbying power and influence, the research investigated the effectiveness of agricultural advocacy groups in New Zealand, Canada and France. It also analysed advocacy groups in other sectors of the Australian economy including the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and CHOICE. The research does not aim to pick winners or losers but it does look at the factors that contribute to an organisation’s overall effectiveness.

New Zealand has an almost unique farm lobby group structure. Farmers who choose to belong to Federated Farmers of New Zealand can expect both their specific commodity and general issues to be heard. These New Zealand farmers know that they belong to one of the most respected lobby groups in Wellington and hear consistent messages at both the local and national levels.

In France, as in most other developed nations, the level of engagement of farmers in voluntary collective organisations has decreased. French agricultural advocacy groups counteract this declining trend (to some degree) by providing a range of services in addition to public policy lobbying, and play a particularly important role in the governance of the local Chambers of Agriculture, which deliver public services to farmers. Interestingly, despite perceptions that French farmers have a strong national voice, there are at least three different French agricultural lobby groups each with independent values. This fragmentation can create noisy public policy discussions at times, but also allows for clearer and consistent strategic goals for each group.

Canada’s agricultural lobby group structure is another very interesting example which has many similarities to the structure of Australia’s agricultural lobby groups. Agricultural advocacy groups in Canada are fragmented along commodity and provincial lines. This fragmentation is also impacted by different funding models, with advocacy groups in some provinces able to use levy funding while other provinces are restricted. The Canadian Federation of Agriculture is one group that is conscious of its limitations and focuses on areas where it can claim a degree of legitimacy, such as drafting the National Food Strategy or developing the Canada Brand. In Canada, this model avoids the challenges and inefficiencies of trying to represent every commodity group and every farmer.

The results of this research will be detailed in a forthcoming Australian Farm Institute report. This research report was discussed at the seminar: ‘Effective Agricultural Advocacy’, in Sydney on the 8th of November 2013.

Images:  bagaball, Mick Keogh, Roger McCutcheon, NFF 

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