Senate debates

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Cattle Industry

3:04 pm

Photo of Ron BoswellRon Boswell (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (Senator Ludwig) to a question without notice asked by Senator Boswell today relating to live cattle exports.

The live cattle ban was placed in June 2011. I actually feel sorry for Senator Ludwig sometimes because I do not believe that he really wanted this. He was overridden by his party. He has been made to look completely inept and weak because he has never been able to stand up to the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities and other ministers that have overridden him. It was due to a perfect storm. The dollar was high, there was a drought and then there was a ban on live cattle. The repercussions of that have been felt right across Northern Australia—across north-western Australia, the Northern Territory and North Queensland. I have seen stations that have come onto the market and gone broke. They are just holding out to see if something turns up. Stations that have not changed hands for 100 years are going on the market and the price is so depressed.

The bans shattered the confidence of the Indonesian authorities. They relied on Australia. They thought we were honourable people. They could not believe that someone would just cut off their protein supply in a matter of a couple of days. They could not believe it.

I was one of those who went over to Indonesia to try and sort this mess out, about two weeks after it happened. The Indonesians are always terribly polite, but I could see that they were very disappointed. They were shattered by what we had done to them. They trusted us and we let them down badly.

Initially we were exporting 770,000 head of cattle, to a value of $480 million. In 2010, that went down to 520,000 cattle at a value of $320 million. But after the ban took place we exported just 278,000—well under half of what we had been—to the value of only $188 million. The Indonesians cut their quota in 2013 down to 267,000 head. They believed they had to be self-sufficient in cattle because they could no longer trust us as a No. 1 supplier.

And the hurt—the agony—and the financial hurt that you, the Labor Party, have caused out there because you marched to the Greens' band has been unbelievable. I have never seen such devastation. It would not have been so bad if you could have got rid of the cattle somewhere else, but what in fact happened was that the eight per cent of cattle raised for live export that should have gone overseas were forced back onto the market. It is a question of supply and demand. When that eight per cent hit the market it dragged down the price of the cattle that were meant for the domestic market and export markets in boxed beef. Yet no-one ever thought about that.

That is the trouble with the Labor Party—they never think about the repercussions their actions are going to have. For instance, they never thought about what was going to happen as a result of a carbon tax—they never thought a carbon tax of $400 on a car was going to have any effect! Mr Oliver, in charge of the unions, demands of the Labor Party that the workers not be penalised. They should not be penalised. But why do you guys insist on putting $400 on a car through the carbon tax and expect the car to be able to sell in Australia? It is the same thing with the Indonesian cattle export industry: no-one even thought of the repercussions. You have halved the trade since 2010. The industry is dying. Indonesia does not trust us. What a way to start being the food bowl of the world: with one stroke of a pen, pulling the rug out from under Indonesia and saying, 'Righto; there's no more meat coming in; you'll have to go and eat fish or chicken or whatever you eat.'

There are probably a million cattle out there that should have been exported. They should have gone overseas; they should have gone on the boats. But they are out there now in the stations. The stations have not been able to get rid of that year's cattle and they are doubling up. There is not enough feed. Consequently, the graziers are having to go out and shoot the cattle. (Time expired)

3:10 pm

Photo of Mark BishopMark Bishop (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Before I commence my contribution to the debate on this motion, I should echo the remarks from Senator Conroy. It is probably Senator Boswell's last motion to take note of an answer, so I congratulate him on a long and successful career in this place.

Photo of Ron BoswellRon Boswell (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Mr Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. I note those comments, but I will not be retiring until June 2014.

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

It is not a point of order, Senator Boswell, but thank you for that clarification.

Photo of Mark BishopMark Bishop (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

In that case, I still will not withdraw my remarks; I will just adjourn them to another time.

Senator Heffernan interjecting

Senator Heffernan, I do know a lot of things and I know about this. What I was going to say in my opening comments was that, when decisions are made, as Senator Boswell said, there are consequences and there are repercussions. I do not for one moment concede that this has not been a most difficult issue—it has been a difficult issue in Queensland, a difficult issue in the Northern Territory and a difficult issue in Western Australia. It has affected the owners of the properties in those places. It has affected the workers on those stations, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. It has affected those who are active in and participate in and make an income from participating in the trade.

But when this TV footage was released and caused an immense reaction right across Australia, out of the blue, our government took decisions affecting the live cattle trade that did have consequences and did have repercussions. We do not for one moment resile, and have not at any time resiled, from that decision we made and implemented, because always, since that decision was made, we have had one core purpose in mind: we wanted to have a strong, viable, sustainable, live cow, live sheep, live product, meat export industry out of this country. That is what we wanted then, that is what we want now and, most importantly in this discussion, that is what we have now.

All of our markets have been restored. Sheep, cattle and goats are being exported in larger and larger numbers and the significant community opposition that did exist and brought this to media attention has dropped right off. So I ask the question, in the context of the remarks on consequences and repercussions with which Senator Boswell opened his discussion: what are the consequences and what are the repercussions?

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

Mr Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. It is misleading the Senate to be factually incorrect about what is happening in the market. We have closed down—

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

No, Senator Heffernan, that is not a point of order. There is no point of order.

Senator Heffernan interjecting

Senator Bishop, you have the call. Senator Heffernan, you have the opportunity to seek the call shortly if you wish to contribute to the debate. I suggest you save your comments until that point.

Photo of Mark BishopMark Bishop (WA, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What I was saying was that, in the context of Senator Boswell's introductory remarks, there are consequences and repercussions—yes, there are. The markets that we had have been restored. The customers that we had have come back here. Our exporters are engaged in the business they were in. And we have growing trade, in terms of volume and in terms of prices received for the export of cattle and sheep and other products out of this country. So we are proud of the outcome.

We do not for one moment say that this export industry does not play an important part in our economy. The industry provides jobs for thousands of people—station owners, Indigenous workers, non-Indigenous workers—and, in addition, ensures food security for many countries across the world, not least, of course, for our near neighbours in Indonesia who rely heavily on meat and on the protein that makes up the base of it.

Let us put some facts on the table. Since the ESCAP arrangements have come into place through the new framework that has been established, over 2.35 million sheep, over 800,000 cattle and over 40,000 goats have been exported under those arrangements. As we come into the export season, the forecasts and the trend lines for tonnage to be exported are going up and up, because we now have an industry that has guaranteed markets. The competition cannot match the product we offer and those who were engaged in opposition to the market are unable to prosecute their arguments with any sense any longer because of the regulatory framework—the paradigm that has been established by this government for the tracking of cows and other product to be exported. We have an industry worth investing in. We have an industry that is safe. (Time expired)

3:16 pm

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

My God! Can I just correct the previous speaker? As Senator Back would know, the market has actually collapsed. The price now, Senator Bishop, is about $1.40 or $1.50, when it was $2.15. Do not come in here and say the market has recovered; it has collapsed. I point out to the Senate with great care that the reason we are in this trouble is that that mob over there do not get it. There is not one solitary soul in the government in this parliament, with the exception of my good friend Ursula Stephens, who actually lives or makes a living in the bush. They have no bloody idea.

I will go to a few facts. Sure, we have had a conflation of events. The agenda of Animals Australia is not to kill any stock. They do not actually think we should kill stock—and certainly you should not eat them. That is their final agenda. Then you ask them, as I have done: 'All right, so we don't kill them; what do we do with them, unless we castrate them all?' I have to declare an interest. This pocketknife is the knife which I have castrated thousands of calves with. It is a beautiful knife. That is what you would have to do to millions of cattle to stop them from breeding.

Honourable Senators:

Honourable senators interjecting

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

Yes, that is the knife—that is the famous one.

The contempt with which this debate treats rural Australia is unforgivable. Forget about what has happened so far. It is a complete mess. This debate overlooks that you are not allowed to speak about the fact that you can get a signature on any piece of paper in Asia if you pay them enough money. We will not talk about the facilitation money that goes into all this trade or about the case in the Middle East where two lots of bribery money had a head-on collision and we ended up with a whole shipload of sheep having to be put down the chute. We will ignore all that.

The north is a mess, as Senator Boswell points out, due to a combination of factors and the collapsing of the market. Bear in mind: if you think the market at $2.15 was profitable and at $1.40 you can still do what you did before, think again. It does not even pay the freight. So we have thousands of mature cattle up there that are overweight, are unsuitable for the local domestic market and have to go 3,000 kilometres to be slaughtered. When you do that, instead of getting a cheque in the mail you get a bill for the freight. The freight is worth more than the cattle because the market in Australia has collapsed for mature age cattle, broken pizzled bulls and broken mouthed cows.

So we have a serious problem. As I have said previously in some places, we have to solve this. It is not only about putting a few cattle into the national parks, which would help. There is a lot of Indigenous sit-down country that you could put cattle into, which would help—and it would certainly help the local Indigenous Australians as long as the water is there. There are different management techniques. Some of the operations up there are in more trouble than others because of the water management. Cattle need more water points so they do not have to walk as far to get a feed, because if they have to walk too far to get a feed they cannot walk back to the water.

As Senator Boswell said, there could be one million cattle that are going to die. If the worst comes to the worst—and the Barkly Tableland and some of that country up there looks now like it usually looks in September, just before the wet—why wouldn't we, on the premise of playing no politics and so on, give consideration to what we did with the sheep years ago? Instead of saying to people, 'Send your cattle to slaughter, take up all the slots in the abattoirs and overload the grinding market,' why don't we say to them, 'We'll give you a certain amount of money'—whether it is $50, $60, $80 or $100—'to put them in a pit'? Do not wear out the trucks; do not use the fuel. This is a last resort thing. We are not there now, but we have to plan ahead because, if this dry continues and they miss the early wet, there is going to be a catastrophe. The RSPCA, Animals Australia and others will probably all go bonkers because these poor buggers will be trying to truck the poor cattle—which are not fit for trucking thousands of kilometres. I know the industry is a bit sensitive about this, but it is bloody well time someone talked about it. Why don't we give consideration to a slaughter levy to put them in a pit? Then at least they will get paid to get rid of them, rather than getting a bill in the mail for trucking them away.

The bush up there is in trouble. Some places are in more trouble than others and some are better managed than others, but we have to have a plan about the future as much as worry about the past. (Time expired)

3:21 pm

Photo of Claire MooreClaire Moore (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Again we have this discussion which impugns people on this side as though we have no knowledge of anything to do with rural Australia. Again I point out that I come from a family with four generations of beef producers. I myself am not one, but, if you go to any meeting of my family at any time in Queensland, you will hear major discussions about what is good for this industry and what is not. Yes, everyone knows that there are severe pressures and problems for the beef industry in Australia at the moment.

But to say that all those problems can be attributed to the decision of this government to look at the issue of live cattle export is just not true. The people over there know that because they know the producers better than or as well as I do and it is never a single issue causing these problems. Already we have heard, both in Senator Boswell's questions and in Senator Heffernan's extensive speech taking note of the answers, of a range of issues emerging about what the conditions are like at the moment in northern and western Queensland—and, I believe, in other parts of Australia. There are serious problems in the market.

The decision that this government made to suspend live cattle exports several months ago was an exposure of a serious problem in the system. I defy anyone to say that is not true. There was an issue about the treatment of animals in some abattoirs in Indonesia, an issue which should have been addressed earlier. Again, who can say that is not true? The issue of poor treatment of animals in some of those areas has been identified. There have been statements made, and we even have film—although I do not always trust everything that is on film. But no-one can deny that there needed to be some process put in place to ensure that those scenes that went across the world would not be seen again. The people who work in this industry value their stock. When they produce stock in northern Australia they do not expect that the end result will be the treatment we saw some of that stock receive.

The process that happened after the suspension caused pain. There is no doubt about that. I have spoken with many producers from the north and also from the Northern Territory who have come to this place to talk with us about how they feel about what has happened to their industry. The industry has to look at future processes, the way it markets and the way it operates—again, a point that Senator Heffernan made in his statement. There must be a way that we can effectively work with the department at the federal level, with the departments around the states, with the consumers and with the producers to ensure that we can have a safe, effective beef and other animals trade. I do take the point that Senator Boswell's original question was about beef and not the other animals that came into the further discussions.

Finally, and I believe it has taken too long, we have a process in place which can trace stock from where it is produced all the way through the transit process—which has another series of issues—to where it ends up. It can trace the way it is slaughtered and the way it is brought into the market in other countries. We are focusing in this discussion on Indonesia and that is fair. But there are other areas where this same process must work.

It is too easy to blame one issue for all the problems of the beef industry. Beef prices are at a really bad level. Believe me—our family discusses that at length. However, the prices cannot be attributed solely to the decision to suspend live cattle exports. What we need to do is look at a range of things. I take Senator Heffernan's point—though I do not think his references to that knife added anything—that we need to work together to look at what we do for people who rely on this industry. They are people who have served our country well. They produce fine stock. Australian beef is renowned across the world for its quality.

There have been real problems with beef cattle that were destined for the export market but could not go there. There were major issues, particularly in northern Australian ports, around that time. That is a reality and the department has been taking up that point. This discussion needs to continue. We as a nation have determined that there will continue to be a live export trade. We need to make sure that works as well as possible. But we cannot have beef slaughtered the way it was in Indonesia.

3:26 pm

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

I rise to reflect on the fact that we are in the midst of, and will see develop even further, the worst animal welfare disaster in Australia's history. It can be put down to two causes: one was the dishonest actions of animal activists and the second was the action of Prime Minister Gillard. Why do I speak of dishonesty on the part of the animal activists? I just ask one question: how was it, if footage was found in January or February of 2011, that it took until the end of May or early June of that year before we saw that footage on public television? Answer that question and I will be satisfied. I have demonstrated that that footage was dishonest and I will continue to say so.

I now turn to the actions of the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister took this action because she wanted to get the carbon tax—a tax she said would not happen under a government she led—off the front page of the newspaper. At the time this happened, I begged the minister for agriculture not to ban the trade to abattoirs in Indonesia that were compliant with international standards for slaughtering cattle, yet he went ahead and did so.

I had no difficulty, as the only veterinarian in this parliament, with him banning the trade to abattoirs that did not comply. If there was any truth at all in the footage we saw then those abattoirs should have been banned. On what basis, though, would we ban the trade to abattoirs that are internationally acceptable? On what basis would we turn around and remove the protein supply to 69 million Indonesian people of low socioeconomic background who were relying on this country—once a proud country that would never ever have been the subject of discussion about sovereign risk. Imagine if another country did that to our country, Australia, without consultation, without negotiation, without even informing us that they would turn around and ban that trade.

I regret that Senator Bishop came in here now and said that the trade has increased, that prices have increased. I can assure Senator Bishop and anyone else listening today: that is false. We do have cattle dying. I indicated after 2011 that, if we had a poor season, if we had an ongoing drought and if we had poor conditions, we would see an animal welfare disaster of a type we have never seen before. You are right, Senator Boswell, we will see the death of up to a million cattle.

Recently the cattlemen went through AgForce to the Queensland government and asked it to reopen some national parks and state parks that were themselves cattle stations. We are not talking about the Daintree Rainforest; we are talking about areas that were themselves cattle stations. The Queensland government, acting responsibly—no, Senator Conroy, not acting irresponsibly—have allowed graziers to turn their cattle in there. We now have environment minister Burke threatening to use the legislation to not only demand those cattle be removed but actually to fine those graziers. Be clear on this: why do we have that disaster?

The cows are about to calve in North Queensland and across the North. The calves from last year should be being prepared to be shipped overseas—they are still here. And the calves from two seasons ago should long have been in our export markets. I have to stand there now, talking to colleagues from Indonesia, to those from the Middle East with whom I was associated when I was a veterinarian in the live animal trade, and explain to them why it is that Australia's reputation has been trashed.

I will finish on the point of animal welfare, where I commenced. Of all of the 109 countries in the world that export live animals, only one attends to animal welfare and management of husbandry and transport in its target markets—Australia, and we have done so for years. It is Australia that has elevated the standards of animal welfare in our target markets, and if we are caused to exit those markets then I will tell you what will happen to animal welfare standards in those countries. Rest assured, they are still importing. The Saudis, who used to import three million sheep a year from us, are still importing nine million sheep a year. I have to stand there and face the pastoralists and the farmers who are shooting stock and who themselves are facing suicide as a result of the decisions of this government. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.