Senate debates

Wednesday, 23 November 2011


Rural Affairs and Transport References Committee; Report

5:26 pm

Photo of Bill HeffernanBill Heffernan (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I present the report of the Rural Affairs and Transport References Committee on animal welfare standards in Australia's live export markets and on the Live Animal Export (Slaughter) Prohibition Bill 2011 (No. 2) and the Live Animal Export Restriction and Prohibition Bill 2011 (No. 2), together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

Because there is limited time to speak today and because there are several speakers who want to contribute, let me say that I am grateful to the members of the committee for the way in which they contributed to this hearing. We made sure that, in travelling around the north, we gave everyone who wanted to be heard the opportunity to be heard.

In addition to its terms of reference, the committee dealt with legislation that was before the parliament. This legislation followed on from what I call a perfect ambush of the northern cattle industry by the Four Corners program and Animals Australia. The ambush was designed to shut down the industry, regardless of the financial consequences for a lot of decent, hardworking people who live under pretty difficult conditions in the bush. It worked. Following the ambush the government made a pretty strong call, which I think was driven by panic, to shut down the industry, albeit temporarily. As a consequence of the adversity this caused has come opportunity and a better understanding by people who wanted to inform themselves of the strategic importance of the live cattle business to the viability of agriculture in Australia, including through added tension in the marketplace and the opportunity to present the right sort of cattle to the right market.

I have described the Four Corners program as a perfect ambush of the industry. I congratulate its makers, because the ambush worked. I think the ambush was driven largely by the opportunity for a Walkley award or ratings and by Animals Australia's wanting to shut down the industry. Animals Australia still wants to shut down the industry. However, we are now seeing, as a consequence, some good come out of the ambush. The first good thing that has come out of it for the long-term benefit of agriculture in Australia is the adoption by all cattle producers of the NLIS system. It is a great selling tool for Australia's agriculture that we have full traceability from birth to death. We also have a sharpening by both governments and the industry of oversight of the industry. We can see that in the Middle East now with the sheep industry. We have just gone through a big selling season over there with no events. I am sure, though, to put the parliament on notice, that Animals Australia will come back with a view that they would like to end the industry. This industry is complimentary to the beef industry of the world. To put that into perspective, Australia has about 26 million cattle. We absolutely make use of that protein source to places where it is critical, like Indonesia.

To put the opposite example of that, there are 276 million cattle in the largest cattle-producing country in the world—that is India—where they pat and milk their cattle. There is an illegal trade that competes against us into Indonesia. It is also a great risk to Australia's foot-and-mouth-free status. All of these things need to be taken into account. I would love the opportunity to go through them in great detail but, with respect to my colleagues, I will end my remarks with that.

Photo of Stephen ParryStephen Parry (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Before I call Senator Back, I understand informal arrangements have been made for the conducting of this debate. So, with the concurrence of the Senate, we will set the clock accordingly. Thank you, Senator Heffernan; we did not have to sit you down.

5:31 pm

Photo of Christopher BackChristopher Back (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank you, Mr Deputy President, for the opportunity to support the motion of Senator Heffernan. The winner out of the recommendations of the report of the Rural Affairs and Transport References Committee on animal welfare standards in Australia's live export markets and on the Live Animal Export (Slaughter) Prohibition Bill 2011 (No. 2) and the Live Animal Export Restriction and Prohibition Bill 2011 (No. 2) has been common sense in a range of areas, not least of which has been the fact that animal welfare standards will improve over time both in this country and in the countries to which we export. I am very proud of that fact.

Time does not permit me to go through the list of recommendations, of which there are nine. I am very pleased to say that it had the majority support of members of the committee. What I can say is that, as a result of the inquiry and as a result of the discussions that went on with all sorts of stakeholders, the importance of the live export trade to this country and to our target markets has been emphasised. I believe that is a critically important outcome of this particular inquiry. What people understand far more now is the importance of the industry to the producers, to those who support them, to Aboriginal communities across the north of Australia and to low socioeconomic recipients, specifically in Indonesia but also other markets in the Middle East and elsewhere. That is very important for the future and for the outcome of this report. It also puts to bed the nonsense that goes on about the capacity of the live export trade for the cattle industry to be replaced by an abattoir based industry in Australia. It is simply not the case. The capacity of the north of Australia is not there to produce finished cattle. The economic essential is the fact that abattoirs across the top of Australia all closed years before the live export trade got underway. So we have put that to bed.

I emphasise the absolutely critical importance of the engagement of senior government ministers from here in Australia, including the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, with their opposite numbers in the target markets with which we operate. Only then, when we have that long, strong and ongoing involvement by government ministers at that level, will we see the involvement of bureaucrats, particularly in our target markets. Only then will industry be able to achieve in the long term the goals, expectations and outcomes that we want. I do urge that that occurs.

This inquiry largely dealt with the cattle industry, but the sheep industry and markets including the Middle East, Turkey, Russia and other places were addressed. I would urge that the outcomes of this report and its recommendations, including the recommendation of the Farmer report, which was commissioned by the minister during this whole process, are listened to.

From an animal welfare point of view it is critically important that, of the 109 countries around the world that export animals live, there is only one—and that country is Australia—which invests heavily in the target markets into which it operates in areas such as animal welfare, nutrition, husbandry, management et cetera. If we exit those markets, or are caused to do so, the losers will be animals because animal welfare standards will once again deteriorate. Not only will we lose the live animal export markets but also we will lose those markets for chilled and other meats in those areas. More importantly, we will lose our influence to improve animal welfare and husbandry standards in those places. I commend the report to the Senate. I commend the recommendations to industry and to all interested participants. This has been a round and robust inquiry. I am very proud of its recommendations. (Time expired)

5:35 pm

Photo of Sean EdwardsSean Edwards (SA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support my colleague's comment in endorsing the recommendations of the report of the Rural Affairs and Transport References Committee on animal welfare standards in Australia's live export markets and on the Live Animal Export (Slaughter) Prohibition Bill 2011 (No. 2) and the Live Animal Export Restriction and Prohibition Bill 2011 (No. 2). From the outset it must be remembered that this debacle was of the Australian government's creation. The Australian government chose to ban the live cattle export trade to Indonesia. The government's actions have caused substantial damage to cattle breeders and affiliated businesses across Northern Australia. We just heard an inspiring speech by Senator Sinodinos—his first speech in this place—referring to the great frontier men, the northern cattlemen, and how they had their hopes dashed in those 30 days.

The Australian government's responsibility for this cannot be understated. It is therefore only fitting that the government bear full responsibility for the impact of its actions and the effect they have had on Northern Australia. With regard to the events leading up to the ban, as the report highlights, no-one condones the animal welfare violations which were seen in the Four Corners footage. The extent to which stakeholders in this industry—peak industry bodies, the Australian government, exporters and so forth—knew about animal welfare abuses is contested and is unlikely to be agreed by all concerned. It is abundantly clear, however, that it was the decision of the Australian government that crippled much of Northern Australia during that time.

The committee happily endorses in its report the sentiment of Dr Temple Grandin:

I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we've got to do it right. We've got to give those animals a decent life and we've got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect.

It is important for Australia to remain engaged with Indonesia to act as an agent of change for animal welfare improvements, particularly at the point of slaughter. Notwithstanding that if Australia were to withdraw from the live cattle export trade to Indonesia it is probable that Indonesia would source live animals from elsewhere, animal welfare abuse against any animal, not just those from Australia, is abhorrent. Australia should remain engaged to provide proper animal-handling practices, not just for the benefit of Australian exports but for all animals bred for slaughter in Indonesia.

I want to talk about the devaluation of Northern Australian land. Landholders have been left with significant uncertainty. There are residual issues with bankers over the devaluing of their properties through that period of time and there remains a cloud of insecurity over them. We have all had to deal with bankers in our time and we all know that they are human. To think that they could contemplate this happening again, when we have not seen the return of the values that these cattlemen were enjoying in the region at that time. These people were operating legitimate and legal businesses until the government decided to take away the security of their livelihood.

The government assistance at the time was one size fits all, and I will be talking about this later on. But the glib announcements from the minister at that time that there would be $60 million of assistance and funding actually translated to interest rate subsidies on cattlemen's new borrowings of $60 million. I reserve the right to continue my remarks. (Time expired)

5:39 pm

Photo of Fiona NashFiona Nash (NSW, National Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Education) Share this | | Hansard source

I am proud to follow my colleagues in this debate. I don't think there has been a committee where we have seen such an avid interest in the issue from all members of the committee on this side. It was really quite extraordinary to see. What we saw with the government's banning of the live export trade was a very clear indication of the government's complete lack of understanding of rural Australia. They simply did not consider what the ramifications would be of banning the live export trade. They simply did not consider it. In the context of the inquiry, that became even more clear. We on this side of the chamber all knew what the ramifications were going to be. When we heard what had happened we knew what the ramifications were going to be, but through the course of the inquiry it became even more clear what they were going to be.

Let me read you one part of the report. We are talking about the announcement of the temporary suspension of live exports. Mr Philip Hams, one of the witnesses who appeared at the inquiry, said:

I was laying in bed at 12 o'clock one night when the news came on the ABC … that the ban had gone on for the next day. Outside not too far from where I stay four helicopters parked up and a whole heap of RTA road trains parked up. There were probably 30 people ready to roll the next day and at 12 o'clock the new comes. It was like a train crash—it just goes, 'Whoompa!'

That is precisely what the government did not understand. The government were reacting to what seemed to them to be a wave of community sentiment. There were, I would have to say, a plethora of emails going through to the government, but they did not think. The government and the minister simply did not think about what the ramifications were going to be. It was a knee-jerk reaction. This is indicative of the fact that the government will not think things through and that they do not understand rural Australia.

One of the things that became very clear during the course of the inquiry was the incredible people out there in rural Australia, farming, managing, working—not just cattle producers but all the people involved in the flow-on businesses. In the very short time I have available to me I want to take the opportunity to thank them very much for their evidence, because it was pivotal in making a change. It was pivotal in changing the practices of the government, what they were doing and how this whole issue was going to be taken forward. I take my hat off to them and thank them for what they do for this country. The government should start recognising what rural Australians, those people and families, are doing for this country. I thank them.

5:42 pm

Photo of Judith AdamsJudith Adams (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise also to say how much I appreciated the way people came forward to our inquiry. It was probably one of the most practical, hands-on inquiries, to follow on from what Senator Nash said. Having been a live sheep exporter for 38 years, I certainly understand how those people in the north felt. None of us liked what we saw on Four Corners. That was absolutely dreadful. I think it was an ill wind that has probably done a lot of good in educating the general community. I know that these bills were to stop the export trade forever, but thank goodness the committee came to the conclusion that it does not recommend that either of these bills be passed. That was the consensus of our committee.

To go to Senator Nash's point about the process that was used, it was an utter disaster. Once again, there was no understanding of how this industry works. I feel very sorry for all the people involved. Some of them will never recover; others will. But it has been such a hard hit for all of them—for the pastoralists, the shipping people, the musterers and the hay exporters, who are mainly from the area I come from, the southern area of Western Australia. It has just been so difficult for those men and women and their families trying to make ends meet after droughts, and then they were hit with a decision that was really nothing to do with them. And the way it was done too was hard—you just cannot cut off an industry like this. If that happened in the city, if something was closed down and the gates were locked and you could not go to work the next day, you can imagine what would happen. We had so many people saying, 'We can have abattoirs up in the north again.' I worked in the north years ago and the abattoirs were all closing down. They could not get manpower and the abattoirs were not suitable for what was being bred. Now we have specific cattle that are bred for the Indonesian market and people are doing a great job with the blood lines they are putting through. I think they should be given a chance to get on with what they are really good at and I wish them well in their endeavours.

5:45 pm

Photo of Lee RhiannonLee Rhiannon (NSW, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Unfortunately, this report does represent a lost opportunity to end the live export trade and a lost opportunity to introduce mandatory stunning. That should have been the very least that was gained out of this work. I thank both Senator Rachel Siewert and Senator Nick Xenophon for their work in initiating this inquiry. I congratulate Animals Australia and the RSPCA, and I really think that should be unanimous because from what I have heard everybody was disturbed about the animal cruelty that was witnessed. It was their work that ensured that this was exposed.

We know that the cruelty that was shown on the ABC Four Corners has not been resolved. Indonesia has no domestic animal protection laws to enforce mandatory stunning. The OIE guidelines and enforcement of standards in over 4,000 slaughter locations across Indonesia will obviously be near impossible or extremely costly to ensure that that occurs.

What is apparent is that both Meat and Livestock Australia and LiveCorp have failed to adequately monitor or improve animal welfare practices in foreign markets to which Australian animals are shipped. We really have to be clear here: it is implausible that MLA or LiveCorp were unaware of the animal welfare issues in Indonesia, including the failure of facilities where the slaughter of Australian cattle was not meeting OIE standards. The Greens agree with the committee view that the industry must review the delineation of authority and strengthen communication channels between government stakeholders and the community. Clearly, the government need to play a greater regulatory role over the industry to ensure the animal welfare standards which Australians expect should be met. It is crucial that the government take an active and hands-on role in the implementation of any traceability systems, including the auditing of such systems. This compliance and audit role cannot be left to third parties.

Ultimately, the Australian Greens believe that there is no way to implement safeguards that can guarantee the humane transport and slaughter of animals in overseas markets and so do not believe that the implementation of a traceability system will adequately protect Australian animals from cruel treatment. The need to look at how to improve and increase processing in Australia to support local producers and jobs remains a priority that the Australian Greens will pursue, and we believe should be the priority work of this parliament and this government, and should have been the outcome for this report.

5:48 pm

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | | Hansard source

Time is short so I will stick to the salient points. There is unanimity in this chamber about issues of animal cruelty. We were all shocked by what we saw on the Four Corners coverage. From my visits to the Northern Territory, from my participation in this inquiry and in Western Australia, it must be noted that producers in Australia have high standards of animal welfare and act in good faith when it comes to live exports. They do not to deserve to have their livelihoods put at risk because of regulatory and planning failures. But these issues have been raised on many occasions over the years.

There have been serious failures in the regulatory processes and Australian producers have been let down. It is still my belief that in the longer term we need to phase out the live animal trade, to process animals here and to value add here. But I acknowledge, as I did in the report to the committee, that there ought to be a longer time frame in conjunction with industry and RSPCA consultation. Three years is not practical.

We need to look at mandatory stunning. We need to look at the best practice. We also need to ensure that there are no exemptions to preslaughter stunning in all Australian abattoirs as well. On the one issue where I think there is unanimity with my colleagues in the coalition, there ought to be a much better system of compensation. The producers that have acted in good faith do not deserve to be out of pocket. I was very concerned by the evidence heard from good people who have done the right thing in the way they have looked after their animals in Australia. They deserve a much better system of compensation. Those involved in ancillary industries deserve much better compensation so that they are not out of pocket. There needs to be a much better way of dealing with this. Essential expenses are not currently covered under the existing compensation scheme and that is a very deep flaw.

It also needs to be taken into account that if we want to transition away from live exports and at the very least to ensure that there are fewer animals slaughtered overseas and more processed here we need to look at the economics of that. We need the feedlots, the economics and the infrastructure in place to allow for that. That would unambiguously be a good thing for producers to have greater choice in their markets. That is an issue that I like to think we can all work on constructively. Having said that, this is an important issue. The government in the short term needs to ensure that the producers are subject to much more generous compensation that is fair and equitable so that those in the north of Australia can deal with what has occurred recently as a result of what I believe was not their fault but regulatory failures on the part of other bodies.

5:51 pm

Photo of Alan EgglestonAlan Eggleston (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I support the live export trade but do so on the understanding that Australian livestock are not subject to grossly inhumane treatment, as appears to have been the case in several Indonesian abattoirs. I would like to focus on our relationship with Indonesia. The Indonesian government was caught completely off guard when the Gillard government stopped the live export trade. There was no call from the Prime Minister to the President of Indonesia and no information whatsoever was given to the Indonesians. Yet the live export cattle trade from Australia is a very vital part of their food chain and protein supply.

I happen to know that from the very highest levels of the Indonesian government there was enormous irritation, even anger, and great surprise that the Australian government had treated them so discourteously. It is a very interesting story. During estimates I asked the head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade whether the government had sought advice from them before the ban was imposed and I was told that, indeed, the government had. I asked what the advice was. I was told it was not to impose the ban in the way that was subsequently done but to have discussions with the Indonesians. That was very important.

Indonesia is our closest neighbour. It is a country which is very friendly towards Australia. It is very important that this government in particular needs to learn to deal more sensitively with Indonesia and the countries of the Asian region in general. Rather than the imposition of this blanket ban without notice, it would have been much more preferable if the Australian government had discussed the problem with the Indonesians and sought a joint solution.

The impact of the ban on the cattle industry, particularly in the north-west of Western Australia, where I came from before I came into the Senate and where I attended hearings on this matter, was enormous. The pastoralists of the Pilbara and the Kimberley were hit very badly by this export ban and, unfortunately, their cattle have now grown too heavy to be exported to Indonesia. Eighty Indigenous properties across the north of Australia, employing some 14,700 people, were also affected by the ban. The bottom line is that we must learn from this experience and never again treat our close neighbour and friends in Indonesia in the way that they were treated in this case. We also need to remember that there are people, businesses and livelihoods involved in the farming organisations which were affected by this ban.

5:54 pm

Photo of Ian MacdonaldIan Macdonald (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Northern and Remote Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

So that Senator Colbeck can have a very brief stay I am going to confine my remarks to about two minutes. I draw the Senate's attention to the last two recommendations of this report—that is:

6.45 The committee recommends that the Australian government, in consultation with the live export industry and other ancillary businesses develops a package of further assistance or reallocates existing packages of assistance to address those identifiable and otherwise irrecoverable financial costs incurred as a result of the temporary suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia.

A lot of people who cannot afford it lost a lot of money through no fault of their own. I hope and urge the government will take notice of that recommendation to get a proper package of assistance ready.

I also draw to the Senate's attention the final recommendation, which, summarising, asks the government to establish a dialogue with financial institutions with regard to the financial difficulties faced, as a result of the suspension, by producers and businesses involved in the live export cattle industry. It is an area that I come from—it is Northern Australia's biggest industry apart from mining—and banks are being rather nasty to people up that way in the approaches they are taking. I hope the government and the Treasurer can put some pressure on the banks to get them to deal very leniently with their defaulting beef producer clients. There is a way through it. The banks will not achieve anything by foreclosing on farmers. If it were possible for them to work cooperatively and for the government to lean on the banks to do that then we might get something out of this. I will conclude my remarks there so that my colleague may be able to have 60 seconds or so.

5:56 pm

Photo of Richard ColbeckRichard Colbeck (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Fisheries and Forestry) Share this | | Hansard source

I acknowledge Senator Macdonald for giving me a few moments on this report, which is a very important one. I acknowledge Senator Siewert too, who has not sought the call, because I know this is an important issue to her and she has spent a lot of time working on this through estimates and through the committee process.

This report again highlights the failure of the government's decision-making processes. We learnt through the estimates process and through freedom of information documents that have been released that the government made this decision to ban the live export trade through a cabinet process but without formal papers. We know, through that process, that the government was not in possession of all of the information or, most critically, the impact on the industry in Northern Australia. They were not appraised of what that impact was going to be because they had not sought that information.

In the lead-up to this decision, in fact the day before the decision was taken, when the Minister for Foreign Affairs was talking to his Indonesian counterpart, we know that the discussions the government had were that it would continue to work with the Indonesians to resolve the issues that needed to be resolved within the live cattle trade. I acknowledge comments in Senator Xenophon's dissenting report where he indicates that it is a tragedy that it takes such a crisis to make the quantum leap that has occurred in this particular trade. It should not be that we need a program like Four Corners to advance this. I hope that the government is now alert to the fact that it needs to work very closely with our trading partners. In fact, I have had that conversation with the RSPCA and other people who are interested in this, that the government needs to be proactive in working with our trading partners so that every effort is made to ensure that high animal welfare practices are in place.

It is also a disgrace that the Indonesians found out about this decision to ban the trade in the media. Despite the fact that they were having conversations about us continuing to work with them, they had to find out through the media that the decision-making process was not robust enough to ensure that there was proper communication. I have had the opportunity to see what good can be done when we work closely through the provisions that are put in place in Egypt. It is a tragedy that some people will never recover from this bad decision. I urge the government to seriously consider the recommendations of the report.

Photo of Trish CrossinTrish Crossin (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The time allotted for this debate has expired.