SUBJECTS: Government not allowing a vote on the live sheep export trade; Malcolm Turnbull has lost the confidence of his Party-room, Live cattle trade, Pauline Hanson.
LUKE GRANT: Let’s get the Shadow Minister on the line. Joel Fitzgibbon, greetings to you.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES, FORESTRY AND RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: G’day Luke, thanks for getting me just before I go for my 10 km run.
GRANT: What you’ve cut it back to 10kms? What the hell has happened to you man?
FITZGIBBON: Shocking fibber.
GRANT: There you go. What happened yesterday mate? I think you make the point don’t you that the Government had the chance, or the House rather, had the chance to make a real statement and the opportunity passed it by.
FITZGIBBON: It was pretty extraordinary in the House of Representatives yesterday. You will know that Sussan Ley gave, in fact introduced this Bill which did two things - it would immediately phase out that terrible northern summer live sheep trade but also phase out the trade more generally over the course of the next five years. The terms of that Private Members Bill were negotiated with me and others and we were happy with it, but then the Government brought forward a Bill into the same area that would have fairly dramatically increased penalties for people who breach animal welfare standards. Now we were prepared to support that, it does no harm but the reality is, that it doesn’t really matter if you increase the penalties because they are never imposed in any case. History tells us that these breaches continue to go on and no one even seems to ever be held to account. So I gave notice that I would amend the Bill. In the same terms as the Sussan Ley Bill so I was moving as an amendment to the Government Bill the phase out of the trade so having given the Government notice, the Government decided just to pull its own Bill because they were concerned that my amendment might just win. Remembering to bring the Sussan Ley Bill on for a vote we need what we call an absolute majority of the House of Reps, that’s 76 votes.
FITZGIBBON: To get my amendment up in general debate you only need a simple majority which would only be about 72 or 73 votes, so the Government was very worried. A number of their MPs would do the right thing, from my perspective, and cross the floor. So rather than be defeated, they pulled the Bill. Now it’s interesting because they said this was very urgent this matter and there needed to be an increase in penalties through the Parliament and now suddenly it’s not so important. So what Malcolm Turnbull has effectively done is put his own position ahead of the interest of animal welfare.
GRANT: Now that is fascinating because do we then go into this break until the Parliament comes back again in the middle of June with no change to the current law that exist or the regulations that exist governing the live sheep export trade? So no different to what was had in force when the 60 Minutes report was put to air.
FITZGIBBON: In fairness I have to say that as a result of the McCarthy Report which is what they called it, which followed 60 Minutes there have been some changes in the way the industry is regulated.
GRANT: So that’s a Littleproud legislation is it?
FITZGIBBON: Well he didn’t need legislation to make the changes. So they have reduced the stocking densities for example. The problem is, it’s a bit like saying you can’t leave three dogs in the car in the searing heat while you run into the supermarket, but you can leave two in the car.
GRANT: Got you, got you.
FITZGIBBON: I feel for the two that are left. So, he reduced some stocking densities and did some other things but he didn’t follow the science and the science clearly says, because of the heat and the humidity, no matter how you regulate or improve the standards, you can’t sustain animal welfare standards in this northern summer trade. He made some changes but from our perspective they are token as are the penalties. The only way to fix the northern summer trade is to ban it and the only way to do the right thing overall is to phase this trade out.
GRANT: Interesting you say that because around a week ago you would remember we have a Kuwaiti operator speak out and say that look we are already starting to look around and there is obviously no guarantee of supply. Almost to indicate that they weren’t going to be heavied by the Australian regulations or the Australian Parliament. Is there actually somewhere else for those markets that operate to go? Will they get sheep elsewhere?
FITZGIBBON: Yeah they can. They can access sheep from places like Africa and elsewhere and of course Government Members say – oh well you know if we don’t send it to them, they will get it from somewhere else and the animal welfare standards will be worse. Well I call that the drug dealers defence. It’s like saying if I don’t sell the drugs, someone else will. I mean it’s just no defence at all. Australia makes its own decisions. We have an international reputation to protect. Our competitive advantage is our reputation as a clean, green, safe and high quality and ethically produced food. The international community is looking at us now and they are seeing this scandal so we have to protect our reputation and we want to do more here in Australia Luke. We want to create jobs here and process our meat here and sell it on the market in chilled and frozen forms. Now some of these Middle Eastern countries are taking our live sheep, processing them there and selling them to other countries. So we exporting and offshoring our jobs. There are so many reasons why this trade shouldn’t continue. But Malcolm Turnbull has lost control of his Party-room. He put his own political interests ahead of the interests of animal welfare and indeed our economy today.
GRANT: What’s this Inspector-General position? I think when you were Agriculture Minister a few years back now, did you not appoint an interim Inspector-General and what would be that role going forward?
FITZGIBBON: When I was Ag Minister I announced we would establish the independent Inspector-General. I made an interim appointment but it needed to be consolidated by legislation. But of course we lost the election some weeks later and Barnaby Joyce of course said, we’re not going to have any of that and he gave a complete leave pass to the sector and that’s basically what brought it undone in the end, but the Inspector-General is a statutory officer who keeps an eye on the regulator so if there is a breach of animal welfare standards, he or she takes a look, makes sure the regulator investigated the thing properly, came to the right conclusions and imposed the right sort of sanctions and penalties. Now, I believe if Barnaby Joyce hadn’t come in an jettisoned that position, we might not have had that terrible 60 Minutes footage so I have Private Members Bill trying to reinstate that position. There is only one reason that Malcolm Turnbull is opposing this and that is because it’s my idea, Labor’s idea.
GRANT: Oh you’re a nice bloke, what’s he doing? Hey?
FITZGIBBON: It’s stupid stubbornness. You know we still support the live cattle trade. It’s a much different sector but from time to time there will be incidents like there will be in any industry and you have got to be able to say to people, look the regulator has independent oversight and build some confidence that these things are being properly investigated. Barnaby Joyce created this culture in the regulator. He made it clear that he didn’t really want any real oversight of the industry. He saw the political advantage of that but in the end often sometimes your best friend is your worst enemy. He gave the industry a leave pass and that creates a culture of risk taking or worse. And the result is what you see on 60 minutes.
GRANT: Is there nothing that Littleproud has put forward. We spoke about the numbers. But having an independent so-called observer or extra vets on board, there is no midway point between tidying it up and the phase out to nothing? Or you think I suspect Joel they have had too many last chances have they?
FITZGIBBON: Well they have had many, many chances. Every time this happens, they mea culpa and say - yes we have done a terrible thing. We are going to fix it. The scientists have made it clear, you just can’t send that many sheep into such hot and humid conditions and expect to meet community standards. On the trade outside the northern hemisphere summer, what we are saying is look they are in decline anyway. See we traditionally exported to developing countries but those countries are coming out of developing status, they have a new emerging middle class and they are looking for higher quality products. So we are saying to the industry, look, we will give five years to make this transition. We think farmers can come out of this better if they are pursuing higher value markets rather than the back end commodity market which is live sheep.
GRANT: You have had your battles with Barnaby Joyce. What about David Littleproud? How do you two get on and is there a way forward where you can work together for a resolution here?
FITZGIBBON: Despite our combative political fights, Barnaby and I got on alright personally. David Littleproud and I get on well too, but you know he made a pretty good start and I extended a bipartisan hand on the live sheep thing and I thought the best way to fix this and to fix it properly was to work together. You don’t want the policy changing every time there is a Government change but he talked the talk for a while but he wasn’t walked the walk. I think the McCarthy Review, that is the review of the live sheep trade was a bit dodgy and think they got the result they were looking for. And now David Littleproud finds himself in no man’s land. He hasn’t satisfied the Right of his Party because they wanted him to do less and he certainly hasn’t satisfied the Left because he wanted them to do more. So he has failed on this one. I am always happy to give him another chance and always happy to work with him, but he has been a bit of a disappointment.
GRANT: Mate, they sometimes throw up when this debate is carried out what happened in northern Australia with cattle and they submit the fact that that was potentially an overreaction. As someone who was there at the time what would you say when that is introduced into that debate?
FITZGIBBON: They love doing that and it was a mistake because what they should be saying is they should be sending a signal to the market – hey the Labor Party says it supports live cattle and let’s get on with it rather than say – you know as sure as night follows day, it will be sheep today and cattle tomorrow. But they are very different industries and you know when Gillard suspended the trade for four weeks or so it was really tough. But the industry only gave her two options. Do nothing or do everything. I mean the industry had had incidents in the past and they should have been thinking, wow, we better prepare ourselves and protect ourselves from shocks into the future. But what did come out of that of course was a new auditing system that has put the trade on a sustainable footing and we take credit for that and that has been a good thing. It stands in stark contrast to what Barnaby Joyce did giving a free pass, you go and do what you like, you will get the ongoing protection from Government no matter what. That’s ended in tears.
GRANT: Yeah, last one. I don’t know if you saw Pauline Hanson on the Bolt Report last night with Ben Fordham but are you sensing in the corridors it’s all coming to a pretty messy end for One Nation?
FITZGIBBON: It’s disintegrating, there’s no doubt about that. Interestingly, at the risk of reminding you of how old I am now mate, I was there in 1996. Pauline Hanson and I were elected together.
GRANT: To be fair you were 18.
FITZGIBBON: Exactly, that’s right, thank you. But I have seen her disintegrate before and it happening again. There is inevitability about it, you know. She is populist and she doesn’t get it very well. She’s not very interested in evidence based policy. She is just interested in what gets her the next Senate vote and you know when that is your approach it always ends in tears.
GRANT: Keep at it mate, good to talk.
FITZGIBBON: Good on you mate.