SUBJECTS: Transitioning the live export sheep trade
BEN FORDHAM: Labor says its unviable for this [live sheep]industry to continue. On the line right now Joel Fitzgibbon, the Shadow Agriculture Minister. Joel Fitzgibbon good afternoon.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES, FORESTRY AND RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: Good to be with you Ben.
FORDHAM: Thank you for joining us. Is this the right call? To ban this industry because you guys learnt the hard way the last time around when Labor decided to ban the live cattle export industry only to backflip at a later date.
FITZGIBBON: Well if I can just respectfully correct you there, we haven’t announced a ban on the trade. What we have announced is an orderly transition over a number of years out of the trade to get the focus back on adding value here in Australia, creating Australian jobs and pursuing those premium fresh markets in Asia, in particular. That’s what we are about, doing more here in Australia. The market is moving anyway, sheep exports are in decline. If you didn’t do anything here, consumer preferences in those overseas nations are changing, this thing would ebb away anyway but it would take a long time. What we are talking about doing is doing it in a smart and orderly and strategic way creating value here, creating jobs here. I believe this can be done to benefit the farmers as well because if we can pursue those high value markets they will benefit.
FORDHAM: Look, I’ve got to say when I saw this footage of the sheep, my reaction was probably the same as most people; and I was against Labor’s plan when it came to live cattle exports because I thought it was a knee-jerk reaction and everyone was being punished for the sins of a few. Although they have had so many chances, the live export industry, and when this footage came out I just thought, well, these guys should have cleaned up their act a long long time ago. When you talk about consumer preferences changing overseas, are you saying there is not strong demand for live sheep overseas anymore?
FITZGIBBON: The main consumers of live product have traditionally been developing nations which are now emerging out of that status and into greater levels of wealth, and as they do consumer preferences change, people have got more money, they are looking for those fresh premium products. We are more than capable of providing those from Australia. We have got a large number of abattoirs across this country either closed or running at partial capacity because we lack strategic government guidance. They can’t the workforce they need; their quarantine inspection charges are too high; we need to help this sector to employ people here to add the value and take these benefits on overseas markets. But frankly you don’t want me getting political but I suspect the Government asleep at the wheel. Industry itself admitted this week that no matter what Government does, these incidents are typically climatic and if you get a climatic event on one of these ship voyages there is nothing anyone can do about it. So no matter how hard we regulate, no matter how much we threaten these people with penalties, these things by their own admission are outside their control. Now that is not sustainable.
FORDHAM: Now let’s have a listen to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull:
[RECORDED] What the Labor Party has done today has just shown how reckless they are in protecting the jobs of Australians.
Is that what you are – reckless – when it comes to protecting jobs? Because you have been in the agriculture space for a long time Joel Fitzgibbon, and you know that there will be plenty of farmers today who will be furious at this decision.
FITZGIBBON: And they will continue to be angry if Malcolm Turnbull continues to mislead them. Can I say, this is the first time Malcolm Turnbull since the 60 Minutes footage has uttered a word about Live Ex. I mean, this has been mainstream, front and centre in the political discourse now for a month and Malcolm Turnbull finally says something and what does he say? He plays the old churn, we have got to keep the farmers poor, keep them in these commodity markets. When what we are talking about doing is pushing them up the value curve to higher profitability in those new markets.
FORDHAM: If it will be so good for the farmers, why do the farmers hate the decision?
FITZGIBBON: Well we need Government to explain these things to them Ben. Some of these people have been doing things a certain way for a number of years now. I wonder whether on that sprawling cattle station Malcolm Turnbull has in the Upper Hunter, he runs any sheep? And if he does, I’d like to ask him would he be prepared to sell those sheep into the live export market as we know it today? I’d like to think his answer would be no.
FORDHAM: Did you consider thinking alright why don’t we put a policy in place whereby we can guarantee the safety of these animals when they are being exported overseas as opposed to introducing a blanket ban? Even though you don’t want to call it a blanket ban and you are saying it is going to be phased in or whatever. You know what it is, when you say this industry doesn’t have a future in five years or ten years or whatever it is that is effectively what it is. Bringing an end to this thing, this trade. You didn’t think that we could clean it up as opposed to killing it off?
FITZGIBBON: Ben when we all saw that horrible 60 Minutes footage I reached out to David Littleproud the Minister I said, mate, let’s do this on a bipartisan basis, we are only going to get deep and meaningful reform if the major parties work together. In addition to that, we don’t get the next Government changing it, we agree and it stays in place. So I was determined that we more heavily regulate this industry, improve the oversight, improve the penalties, etc, but I have come to the conclusion that it is just not going to happen. Again, by its own admission, one of the key industry leaders this week said, no, when you get these climatic events there is nothing anyone can do. Well, that is enough said. It is not going to work. By the way, during that transition period if we were in Government, we will still be more heavily regulating , we would be increasing oversight, penalties and we would be bring back the independent umpire, my Inspector General of Animal Welfare. I appointed that position in the short time I was Minister. The first thing Barnaby Joyce did was abolish that position. That was crazy stuff.
FORDHAM: While I have got concerns about farmers who haven’t done anything wrong being punished as a result of this, I will say what I said when this footage first came to light, and that is, when you find yourself having to look away from a piece of footage then you know something on that screen is seriously wrong. And when I interviewed industry representatives I got a real feeling from them that they didn’t want to know about this and when I said to them, look, why didn’t you put CCTV cameras in on these ships a long time ago, it seems to me they don’t really want to confront what is going on on there.
FITZGIBBON: Ben, John Howard suspended the sheep trade in 2006, you think they may have moved very quickly then to prevent these incidents happening again. And here we are in 2018, they are still happening. By their own admission it can’t be done with a guarantee that animal welfare standards will be met at a level with community expectations. You can’t just put 50000, 60000 sheep on a vessel for a month or more into the hottest part of the world and claim that it can be done in a humane basis. These sheep cannot lie down, they cannot get to water without climbing over one another and it is just terrible. I don’t see any circumstances where you can make that work. If you halve stocking densities for example, would it then be economic? I don’t know at what point it becomes uneconomic but I suspect it is not. But again, I believe this can be a win for farmers as well. Farmers don’t want to see their sheep going -
FORDHAM: The live export industry has really got a lot of questions to answer here. I thought the decision on the live cattle industry was a knee jerk reaction because there was footage and all of a sudden it was banned. But as you say, 2006 John Howard suspended the live sheep export industry and twelve years later we are still seeing these appalling conditions and I really feel for the farmers involved and the people who are doing the right thing in the live export industry. You must feel some sorrow for those people as well Joel?
FITZGIBBON: Absolutely, I have spoken to farmers who are just pained by the idea that the sheep they have raised have been treated in such a terrible way, and it is always dangerous trying to defend the 2011 decision; but it was a four week pause that drove reforms in the industry that has put the cattle export trade on a sustainable footing. It been recently pretty much incident-free. The pause was tough. I wish it could have been done differently at the time but the industry hadn’t give the Government too many options. It was a four week pause. Good things came out of it, as tough as it was, and the live cattle export industry is going along pretty well.
FORDHAM: Joel, we appreciate you coming on. Thanks for your time.
FITZGIBBON: A great pleasure Ben.