At the recent 5th Annual Agribusiness Law Conference, Donald McGauchie AO (Chairman AACo) outlined just some of the many issues legal teams faced throughout the year.
“One of the things we have certainly seen during this period affected by the Covid Pandemic is the great pressure put on the internal and external legal teams. They have had to find ways of navigating things in a period of great uncertainty and very rapid change and therefore have had to adjust very quickly to changing operational environments.”
He goes on with examples from AACo and other organisations he is involved in of not just Covid related legal issues, but the vastly changing landscape that has been 2020 including:
- Disappearing markets: Markets were massively impacted. Food services and the Hospitality industry that had been targeted very successfully for a period pretty much disappeared overnight – both here and around the world. Legal teams needed to work out ways to make rapid changes.
- International Trade routes were massively impacted. Airfreight disappeared and finding ways back into the market became a focus.
- People movement. People working from home and importantly across borders, with properties that even straddle Queensland and Northern Territory. Working out permits, in an ever-changing landscape became another element of Legal Team's work.
- Standard Legal Assumptions were challenged – As high up as how Parliament will work in a COVID-19 situation, to how do Boards proceed or how do management, boards and shareholders communicate and work together. All were all questioned this year. Legal Clarity on normal assumptions has been paramount.
- Rapid Redirection of exports from one market to another. With the disappearing local markets finding other markets was important. Was China (where there was high demand), or other markets more viable in the long run? These were questions and risk analysis the AACo team and other Agribusiness legal teams faced as well as managing the entire process for each possibility.
- External Market – challenge and uncertainties. Geopolitical tensions increasing with China, Information and telecoms issues with 5G, and more importantly cybersecurity and increasing hacking have been just some of the issues faced by Agribusiness Legal Teams, risk Management and Disclosure at the forefront.
- Domestic and international taxes – A range of tax issues both here and overseas have also tested the Legal teams. A key example has been the Chinese government's legalisation to allow fully finished products to exempt from tax but maintained taxes on ingredients.
- A raft of new Legislation and frameworks has needed to be considered.
WTO – framework, such as for barley exports and bio-security regulations – how those things are to be resolved.
Directors’ duties. With increasing pressure due to COVID-19, but in general, the onerous nature and disclosure rules modified.
Climate Change rules. What is significant? With so many agencies involved, there have been many challenges that should be dealt with.
Activist shareholders – Activism amongst shareholders has increased. While many still have the company’s best interests at the forefront, many are now pushing wider political agendas.
Industrial manslaughter – new legislation – different laws in different states and different agencies and police, liability, and burden of proof and how to manage an investigation.
These were just some of the complex issues faced by Agribusiness Lawyers in 2020. We will wait to see what next year brings the Industry and its professionals, but as reiterated by Donald, “This conference was at least as important as it ever was. There should be no shortage of work for us in 2021 and going in 2022 as we grapple with all of these issues.”
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