SUBJECTS: LABOR’S RED MEAT STRATEGY DISCUSSION PAPER, LIVE SHEEP EXPORTS, MURRAY DARLING BASIN PLAN.
ZAC BEERS, CANDIDATE FOR FLYNN: It’s great to be here in Gladstone today and I’m joined by Joel Fitzgibbon, Labor’s Shadow Minister for Agriculture and the Country Caucus of the Labor Party. We’ve been here in Gladstone today doing some industry tours and today I’m proud to announce we are launching our Red Meat Discussion Paper. The red meat industry in Australia is worth $18 billion annually, $14 billion of which is for the export market. We know this is a massive industry and is a massive employer so we want to make sure we get it right when it comes to engaging with the industry. That’s why we are launching a discussion paper here today and are meeting with industry representatives this afternoon and we want to make sure that over time we engage with the industry to make sure we get it right when it comes to policy around the red meat industry. I’ll hand to Joel to talk a bit more about the discussion paper.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES AND FORESTRY AND SHADOW MINISTER FOR RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: Thanks very much Zac. It’s great to be back in Gladstone supporting Zac’s campaign. We have a deep seeded interest in the economic fortunes of this region as Bill Shorten demonstrated earlier in the week and it’s why we’ve chosen to have our annual Country Caucus planning day so we can talk about jobs and jobs creation here in the region. For the last 12 months or more senior members of Labor’s team have been consulting with key stakeholders in the red meat sector. Producers and those who run the meat processing facilities, those in the transport sector - to determine the best way forward in ensuring we lift both productivity and sustainable profitability in that sector. The culmination, or the first stage of the culmination of that work we are releasing today, the discussion paper is a comprehensive one and it identifies both the opportunities in the sector but the things importantly that are holding the sector back and the discussion paper will now form the foundation for another round of consultation with key industry stakeholders, consultations which will actually begin in Gladstone here today. That will allow a future Labor Government if elected to hit the ground running post-election to develop our Strategic Red Meat Industry Plan from the very first day of government. Our key objectives again is to raise sustainable profitability right across the supply chain. We have seen many of the challenges and one of the big ones is workforce. We have things like energy costs, we have still have non-tariff barriers to export markets. The list is a very long one so the work is compelling but also very, very difficult. I have been overwhelmed by the response of the industry. They are pleased a political party is taking this challenge on head first and determined to improve the fortunes of the sector. One of the great tragedies of the meat processing sector in particular is that while we spend most of our time talking about creating jobs in the regions, one of their biggest challenges is not securing enough jobs. Not being able to secure the people they need to work in their meat processing plants. Addressing that issue in particular but not just that issue, visas and other things coming into play, we need a whole of government approach. That’s why all senior front benchers with a stake in this have been working on the issue from education to migration to trade. Kim Carr in Industry for example because there is no one way forward in improving the fortunes of the sector. It’s also why Country Caucus is involved because it is a big piece of work and we want all hands on deck. The people with me today all come from regional Australia and they all have a deep seeded interest and therefore an enthusiasm for this topic. So that’s our commitment to the sector whether they be producers or processors or someone involved in the transport sector for example whether they are exporters, that we know the industry has done very well, as Zac pointed out, $18 billion of value it’s a significant player. It’s one of our largest manufacturing industries but it has enormous challenges ahead and if a government doesn’t take the initiative and start tackling these challenges then we fear the red meat sector will go into decline.
JOURNALIST: How many people are you meeting with today and from what industries do they represent?
FITZGIBBON: We have just peak industry groups like the Red Meat Advisory Council, the Australian Meat Industry Council today but over the course of the last 12 months we have been talking to individual producers right through to big companies. The unions have an important role to play and are very concerned about the barriers to people securing employment in the meat processing sector despite the fact they are crying out for skilled and unskilled labour. And one of the tragedies is that we are becoming increasingly reliant on overseas labour, and while that may always be a need in part, the Labor Party is determined that wherever possible Australians should take these jobs first.
JOURNALIST: The biggest issue today as we stand here in the red meat industry is the live export of animals from Australia. If elected, what will your stance on that be?
FITZGIBBON: Well Labor has made it very clear that we support the live cattle export sector. It’s a $1.3 billion industry and it’s particularly important to central and northern Australia. It’s an industry that has demonstrated an ability to meet reasonable community expectations on animal welfare and we welcome that. Live sheep exports has been a different story. Based on the science and the best advice, we have come to the conclusion that industry is unable to meet reasonable community expectations on animal welfare and on that basis we have made it clear we will phase the industry out, but importantly and it is part of this Red Meat Strategy a Labor Government will work with sheep meat producers and other stakeholders to allow them to make an orderly transition to something better. And that something better can be more profitable, but it can also be something that creates more jobs here in Australia. The current government has deserted those in the live sheep export industry. They have effectively closed it down for almost 30 weeks now, without in any way extending a helping hand or even consulting with affected sheepmeat producers. That is why I see one of the key farm leadership groups in WA is now starting to call for the resignation of Minister David Littleproud.
JOURNALIST: What is your outlook, I suppose, on the recent suggestion that animal liberation groups have been paying for videos on live export ships?
FITZGIBBON: We have got to be careful to separate two things here. There is nothing wrong with the community reporting to authorities abuses of animal welfare, nothing wrong with that whatsoever, in fact I would encourage that. I don’t think any farmer or any member of the broader community condones abuse of animals. When you venture into the other, further, territory of people trespassing for example, or demonising farmers, the Labor Party absolutely rejects and does not condone that action.
JOURNALIST: Is there any particular reason this is being launched in Gladstone?
FITZGIBBON: The Country Caucus has a planning day every January to talk about policy in the regions and to strategise how we might develop those policies and articulate them out there in regional communities and we choose a different area, a different region each year. For example, last year we did it in Tasmania. So I thought it was a good opportunity given it is the beginning of the year, and we are creeping much closer to an election, to finally release the paper and to give us sufficient time between now and the election to go into that second round of consultation. But, of course, it is no accident we are releasing it here in Central Queensland which is of course the Beef Capital of Australia, and it is a way of us expressing our support and commitment to that industry.
JOURNALIST: Does the discussion paper offer some suggestions for how to tackle some of the issues facing the industry, and if so, what are the main ones?
FITZGIBBON: It first identifies the opportunities and the challenges and then it articulates the issues that have been raised by our stakeholders. I went through some of them, trouble with visa arrangements, dependence on foreign workers, inability to secure a workforce, non-tariff trade barriers, the list is very long. We have in turn highlighted those and in some cases posed suggestions which have been made by others, so now as we go through the second round of consultation people can say to us, yes that is a good idea, or we think that is a bad idea, or we think there is actually a better path to take. That, as I said, will give us all the information we need; the consultation is effectively done so we can hit the road running if we are given the opportunity to serve in government.
JOURNALIST: If we could just move away from red meat for one moment, the other huge issue in the agriculture industry at the moment is the Menindee Lakes and the fish kills. Cotton growers are coming under fire for that, if elected what would be your plan to try and diffuse the situation in the Darling, and for growers across Australia?
FITZGIBBON: I don’t think there is any Australian anywhere who hasn’t found the vision out of Menindee confronting over these last few weeks, and of course, what it really highlights is two things: the first is that we have to have honesty and transparency. It is alright to have a bipartisan and agreed model but we need people working within that model to be doing the right thing and we need governments to hold people accountable. Let’s not pre-empt future enquiries but there is a lot of suspicion out there that people haven’t been working and keeping in the spirit of the Murray Darling Basin Plan. The second thing this highlights is the very sensitive issue that does exercise the minds of the community, and if we are going to be successful in managing the Murray Darling Basin and getting that balance between the needs of irrigators and the needs of the environmental flows right we need to maintain a level of bipartisanship. It took almost a hundred years to get a settlement on the Murray Darling Basin Plan, we finally did that in 2012, there was some compromise from here and there but in the end we had bipartisanship. Bipartisanship gives you certainty for the future. What we don’t want is the Barnaby Joyces of the world riding in and telling his friends that he is going to dispense with that bipartisanship and undermine the Plan. This is the foodbowl of our nation and we must maintain that bipartisanship and remain committed to the health of those river systems. Thanks everyone.