SUBJECTS: McCarthy Review into northern summer live sheep exports, Labor’s plan to transition away from live sheep exports.
KATH SULLIVAN: Welcome to the program Mr Fitzgibbon. Labor has said it wants to phase out the live export of sheep over five years. Do you concede now that was perhaps a little bit premature given the McCarthy Review and today the Government has given the green light for the industry to continue?
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES, FORESTRY AND RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: No I don’t regret that and I genuinely believe that the Government took the soft option today and just kicked the issue down the road and indeed beyond the next election. You can be as sure as night follows day, even in these new settings sheep will continue to suffer on those long, hot voyages and another incident will occur on television screens sometime in the future.
SULLIVAN: Can I take it that you are committing, should you be elected to Government, to phase out the trade?
FITZGIBBON: Yes Labor has been very clear we want to work with sheepmeat producers to phase out the trade. We have very high aspirations for Australia’s food and fibre sector and our producers and growers have so many opportunities. And critical to our competitive advantage is our reputation as a provider of clean, green, safe, high quality and ethically produced food and that reputation is our key competitive advantage. We want to work with the producers and growers more generally to ensure we capitalise on those opportunities in the future. The science is in. I mean the Prime Minister and the Minister said they would follow the science. The science is very clear and I have studied very closely much of it including the Australian Veterinarian’s Association’s Report. It all says there are no conditions or standards under which you can guarantee animal welfare standards on these very hot summer voyages.
SULLIVAN: Let’s just come back to your plan to phase out the live export of sheep. Sheep Producers Australia say that the trade is worth about $250 million each year. Two million sheep going overseas. What exactly is going to happen to the farmers who produce those sheep?
FITZGIBBON: Well they will be selling their product into meat processing and other value added process here in Australia chasing premium markets particularly in Asian. Now I think over I believe a five year period we can work with them to get them to that point and they will be the winners, animal welfare will be the winners and the Australian economy will be the winner.
SULLIVAN: When you say you will work with them, are you talking the processors or the consumers because we know that people in the Middle East do want to buy the live product.
FITZGIBBON: We know people everywhere want to buy higher value products and Australia is well place to provide them and I have said consistently that we will establish a Strategic Red Meat Industry Plan, which will be a whole of government and a whole of government approach to making sure that the settings are in place to do that value adding here in Australia. Now there are lots of challenges there, including things like energy costs, providing the workforce, and indeed a supply in times of drought. But we believe working together we can overcome all those challenges.
SULLIVAN: But do we have the capacity to process here in Australia? If you leave aside the fact there are markets which want live animals, rather than boxed meat, do we actually have the facilities, do we have the labour, do we have the will-power to process the meat here in Australia?
FITZGIBBON: I have been speaking with a number of the big processors over the last few weeks, they say unequivocally the answer to that is yes. But I can see they will need some assistance in particular on workforce issues, we need to get more Australians into these jobs, and indeed willing to do these jobs. It is interesting, David Littleproud is sending a subliminal message, and that message is that he is going to talk so tough on regulation that he is going to drive people out of the live export trade, well I have been more honest with the sector than that. I am saying we want to make that transition, but unlike David Littleproud, we will have a plan in place to help producers make that transition. The other point he hasn’t really focussed on is, he is talking about reducing density rates on vessels, now both the Veterinary Association and the RSPCA said that in the hot summer months, it doesn’t matter what the density is, animals will suffer. Have a think about this, he is saying he will reduce sheep on vessels by 30 per cent, if you aggregate that across the vessels, that is a lot of sheep that producers were going to send overseas that are now not going overseas. Unless they are going to get a lot more vessels going. He has no plan in place to manage the shock on the industry.
SULLIVAN: Well it sounds like you might need to get your plan organised pretty quick sticks if you think you can phase it out in five years.
FITZGIBBON: Well Kath, I am a member of Her Majesty’s Opposition; and we have already started that process of developing that plan and we will continue. I have had a number of roundtables with key stakeholders already on these questions and we have already begun the work and if we are so fortunately as to become the government we will continue that work and over that five year period we will make sure sheep producers are better off as a result of this transition. By the way Kath many are telling me they are looking forward to those different and better opportunities.
SULLIVAN: Joel Fitzgibbon the Opposition’s agriculture spokesman is our guest on the Country Hour this afternoon. I just wanted to ask you a point that Allan Piggott touched on there at the end, this campaign has been driven by Animals Australia who are activists, are you concerned about their impact on livestock industries here in Australia?
FITZGIBBON: I know Allan and I have had conversations with him recently as well, and I absolutely respect his expertise and view on these things but he is sadly mistaken and the sector is mistaken if they believe this is just an inner-city Green push . It is much more than that. There is widespread community concern about live sheep export. Talking about export opportunities and our reputation, increasingly consumers here in Australia are insisting on higher animal welfare standards. They are prepared to pay more for free-range eggs, more for organic produce, that will continue. Reputation will be absolutely everything to our food and fibre producers. So let’s move, let’s get ahead of the game and make sure we are meeting those expectations and this is all part of that formula.
SULLIVAN: We look forward to seeing your plan. There is going to be plenty more to come on this issue. Thanks for your time today.
FITZGIBBON: A great pleasure.