SUBJECTS: Live exports; Turnbull Government’s failures on biosecurity.
MATT BRANN:. I am joined now by Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon who is the Shadow Minister for Agriculture in this nation. A few weeks ago now, it was a big announcement by him, he said that if Labor wins the next Federal Election it’s committed to phasing out live sheep exports. Now even though the Territory doesn’t send sheep off to Indonesia and the likes, that announcemen,t I know, made quite a few cattle producers and exporters up here in Darwin quite nervous. Now Joel Fitzgibbon you met with producers and exporters last night in Darwin, how did that go?
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES, FORESTRY AND RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: I did Matt. And great to be with you. It went very, very well. I was able to reassure them that the Labor Party continues to provide strong support for the live cattle industry. It is a much different industry than sheep exports which relies upon a model which I think is fundamentally broken. Back in 2011 we obviously had an incident, that incident wasn’t about the voyage, it was about the conditions in abattoirs in Indonesia. A Labor Government fixed that problem and since then the cattle trade has been able to demonstrate it can both continue to trade strongly and meet community expectations on animal welfare.
BRANN: So, how are they different? How’s live sheep trade and live cattle trade different?
FITZGIBBON: Well, there are a number of differences. For a start, the cattle trade is five times the value of the sheep trade but only exporting half the volume. The voyages are typically shorter. And it is absolutely in the interests of the owners of the cattle to get it to Indonesia, for example, in good shape, in good condition for fattening for later slaughter. Now of course our northern producers here rely very heavily on the live export trade because they just don’t have the natural resources to grow cattle to full slaughter weight. There are other economic imperatives as well. It has behaved itself, if I can put it that way, and proved its capacity to meet community expectations on animal welfare and, on that basis, we continue to support it. Last night, can I say, we did consume some good Australian agriculture product, both wine and grapes, hops and barley, as you would expect to do when you meet with the cattle industry. We spoke about buffalo and other products as well, which can provide great opportunities for Australia as well.
BRANN: On one of those points you made about the difference, you talk about much shorter distances, what about cattle going out of Fremantle to Israel, cattle out of the bottom of Victoria potentially going to China? They are long journeys and these are the questions that you face if you phase out live sheep. The opponents will be saying “right-oh”
FITZGIBBON: What has happened in the live sheep trade is that the animal welfare abuse and breaches have been externalised in the economic sense. So what has been happening there is that exporters have been able to make more money than they should because they are packing more sheep onto voyages in the hottest of conditions. And then sending some of that premium profit back to the sheepmeat producers. That can be a good thing of course but it is not a good thing in nett terms if it is coming at the expense of our community standards on animal welfare. So they are much different propositions.
BRANN: If you take out the exporters, what do you think will happen to the price of sheep?
FITZGIBBON: If we take out exporters? Well it depends Matt on your approach. The big difference between what I have said and what the Labor Party has said, and what the Turnbull Government has said is this: they say they continue to support the live sheep industry and yet they are just killing it overnight by regulation. With LSS withdrawing from the trade and Emanuels being suspended from the trade you have taken about 80 per cent of the capacity, at least, out of the trade. Now what impact has that had on sheepmeat producers? No one is acknowledging it ,and the Government is not doing anything about it. By contrast, we have said look, we think it is fundamentally broken, we are going to phase it out and at the same time we are going to work with sheepmeat producers, and other stakeholders along the supply chain, to get a transition plan in place so that farmers are not unnecessarily adversely affected.
BRANN: One person here at the conference knew I was going to have a chat to you and he said, it is an absolute vote winner. He doesn’t believe in it. What would you say to that?
FITZGIBBON: A suspension?
BRANN: A phasing out. He said it is a vote winner and he doesn’t believe in it.
FITZGIBBON: He cynically believes we are doing it for the purpose of securing votes? Well, you know me Matt I am from rural and regional Australia, that is my natural constituency, I hold what the Electoral Commission defines as a rural seat, cattle and sheep both in large number in my electorate. And I am a supporter of rural and regional Australia. I want the best outcomes.
BRANN: Can you understand why the cattle producers are nervous with the sort of language that is being used by Labor with the live sheep trade?
FITZGIBBON: I can tell you why cattle producers are nervous, because our political opponents always like to take them back to 2011 and the suspension, a suspension Matt, a suspension for about four weeks as bad as it was, as a way of making a political point. But when Conservative politicians, those from the National Party and Liberals, respond to our sheep phase out by saying “cattle will be next”, what do they do? They put fear and uncertainty into the cattle sector and they do it recklessly and they should stop doing it.
BRANN: Let’s quickly turn out attention to biosecurity. Did you watch Four Corners on Monday?
FITZGIBBON: I watched Four Corners very, very closely. Obviously I was aware it was due to come on.
BRANN: What can government do to improve the situation that looks pretty broken?.
FITZGIBBON: Well after five years under this Government Matt we have a lot to do and it won’t happen overnight. It starts with rebuilding the CoAG process. Both the Commonwealth and the States have critical roles to play in making sure our biosecurity system is as strong as it can possibly can be and needs to be. You know Whitespot in Queensland, the Commonwealth Government did not even tell the Queensland Government what it knew months before the Queensland Government finally became aware. We have got to fix that very, very large problem. We have got an Inter-Governmental Agreement between the Commonwealth and States which has now expired. A five year old Agreement which is now expired. This Government has not lifted a finger to put a new Agreement in place. We have had a review of the first five years and the independent committee made 42, I think, recommendations about what we need to do to improve the system. Now those recommendations came out many months ago and the Government still hasn’t responded to them.
BRANN: Do you think you could fix it quickly if re-elected?
FITZGIBBON: It would be a courageous minister or aspiring minister to ever say they could give 100 per cent guarantees on our biosecurity system but given our key competitive advantage is our reputation as a producer of clean green safe high quality and ethically produced food, it is the most critical thing an Agriculture Minister does on his or her watch. And I would be giving it my absolute.
BRANN: Thank you for time today here in Darwin.
FITZGIBBON: A great pleasure.
BRANN: I appreciate it. That is Joel Fitzgibbon here in Darwin for Food Futures.