Today, the ACCC announced that it is taking Murray Goulburn to the Federal Court for unconscionable conduct. It will also pursue MG’s former MD, Gary Helou, and CFO, Brad Hingle.
That’s a bit of a relief after Gary Helou told the Senate Inquiry in February that he had not been questioned by investigators. If there’s a villain in the whole dairy disaster we can all agree on, it is Gary Helou. I, for one, am glad he will have his day in court.
I am also relieved the ACCC has shown the wisdom of Job when dealing with MG. As the ACCC said in its statement:
“The ACCC has decided not to seek a pecuniary penalty against Murray Goulburn because, as a co-operative, any penalty imposed could directly impact on the affected farmers.”
On the other hand, many farmers will be disappointed the ACCC has chosen not to take any action against Fonterra. The watchdog explained that decision in a quote from ACCC chairman, Rod Sims:
“A major consideration for the ACCC in deciding not to take action was that Fonterra was more transparent about the risks and potential for a reduction in the farmgate milk price from quite early in the season,” Mr Sims said.
Rod Sims is right. Fonterra did say, more than once and from early on in the season, that the milk price was unsustainably high. Why, I was one of the farmers upset with Fonterra big banana, Theo Spierings, for broadcasting this via the newspapers eight months before the price collapse. That much, I do understand and, with the benefit of hindsight, Fonterra was doing the right thing.
Fonterra was in an impossible position. While, technically, Fonterra could have cut its price earlier and, therefore, less savagely, the reality was that it had little choice. It would have haemorrhaged supply to MG and, if the co-op had delivered on its promises, the Bonlac Supply Agreement would have forced Fonterra to match MG’s price – no matter how unrealistic – anyway.
What it does not excuse, however, is the way Fonterra responded once MG announced its price cut.
At first, Fonterra sat on its hands, apparently caught by surprise like the rest of us. Then announced a slashing of the milk price from $5.60 to $1.91kg MS – the equivalent to 14 or 15 cents per litre. It gave no notice – actually, it revised the price for May and June on May 5. There was no time for farmers to plan and we were all faced with a frenzy of late-night nightmarish decision making.
On top of that, the Fonterra response failed to consider the devastating effect it would have on farmers with autumn-calving herds. Fonterra moved the goalposts a week later to spread the pain more evenly across its farmer suppliers but, for those who’d been most responsive, it was too late. Cows had been culled and the decision to send milkers to market is absolutely final.
Even now, farmers who chose not to accept the low-interest loans Fonterra offered to partially fill the void are still paying a mandatory levy to fund the scheme.
The weeks of insanity in May and the pain it continues to wreak on farmers cost Fonterra Australia loyalty that took it decades to build, as Australian GM of Milk Supply, Matt Watt acknowledged in this excerpt of an email to suppliers just minutes ago:
“You will have seen today that the ACCC released its findings into their investigation into MG and Fonterra over last season’s step down. The ACCC advised that they have decided not to take action against Fonterra.”
“I know the last 12 months have been incredibly challenging for you and your families, your communities and our industry.
“We’ve listened to you, and we’ve learned a lot over the past year. What you’ve told us has informed the steps we’re taking to ensure a stronger dairy industry.
“As you know, we’re working with BSC Board on greater transparency on price and as mentioned earlier I look forward to sharing more on that at the upcoming cluster meetings. We’re also fully engaged in the Dairy Industry Code of Conduct.
“We understand it will take time to rebuild confidence, and this is something we are firmly committed to.”
Neither of the two big Australian processors covered themselves in glory a year ago. At least we now have some prospect of justice, if not recompense, for all the farmers affected by the reckless behaviour of the man at MG’s helm that sent so many to the rocks.
It’s a sign – a good sign – that the dairy community will chart a better course and keep a closer watch in the years to come.