Improving democracy at Dairy Australia and increasing engagement with dairy farmers
By David Beca
The annual election of directors at Dairy Australia (DA) is the one formal opportunity for farmers to convey to the Board and management how they assess DA’s performance, as there are no shares to trade, no opportunity to move their levies to another service provider, and levy votes are now a rare occurrence. However, director elections are generally poorly supported by farmers with just 4%-6% of eligible votes traditionally being cast (2%-3% of total dairy farmers), and around one third of all dairy farmers ineligible to vote as they have not registered to do so with DA. This situation confirms a significant level of disengagement with DA by most dairy farmers in Australia.
Although there was a lift in the number of votes being cast at the 2020 AGM, this was primarily a result of having all three director positions contested by farmer-nominated candidates, something that has not occurred previously. Unfortunately, there are a number of barriers to farmers fully expressing their democratic rights, with farmer-nominated candidates finding DA places multiple obstacles in their way, including not organising a single opportunity via post, email, web-based or in-person meeting for farmers to familiarise themselves with the candidates. DA officeholders then get directly involved in supporting their chosen candidates after the candidates are announced, with DA’s nominated candidates confident of winning the vote with little, or no, direct communication by them with the wider group of levy payers. If left unchanged, the present election process is likely to continue to discourage farmer-nominated candidates from standing, as has been the case historically, and create an ongoing feeling amongst many levy payers of being substantially disenfranchised.
If DA wishes to increase engagement by dairy farmers, then there is an opportunity to review the director election process with the goal of running open, fair and transparent elections in future. If the election process is left unchanged, then it could reasonably be concluded that DA is comfortable with less than 5% of dairy farmers taking part in this democratic process, with the DA board then making decisions on behalf of all levy payers without a demonstrated mandate to do this.
In addition to recommending DA set targets for both the percent of levy payers that are registered as Group A members, and the percent of Group A member votes that are cast at an AGM, there are 10 specific recommendations for changes to how directors are elected with the goal of ensuring future elections are open, fair and transparent.
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