SUBJECT: Live Sheep Exports, trade, agriculture visa
BELINDA VARISCHETTI: Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon is sticking to his plan to phase out the live sheep trade if Labor wins power at the next Federal election. He is in Perth today to continue those transition talks with some of the key industry stakeholders. This morning he met with Pastoralists and Graziers Association and last week he caught up in Canberra with WA farmers. He is also having meetings with the state’s main grain handler, CBH Group and the horticultural and forestry industries while he is in Perth. Joel Fitzgibbon, the first sheep shipment to the Middle East left the Port of Freemantle on the weekend and it’s the first sheep shipment in months. However under a Labor Government, that shipment would not have been approved, so why isn’t Labor open to discussing a range of conditions to allow the trade to continue at this time of year rather than simply just shutting it down?
JOEL FITZGIBBON, SHADOW MINISTER FOR AGRICULTURE, FISHERIES, FORESTRY AND RURAL AND REGIONAL AUSTRALIA: Well it is true that we haven’t had a shipment of sheep go for something like 14 weeks and that is hurting people here in Western Australia. The current Government says it supports the trade but it has effectively stopped the trade without in any way reaching out to producers and others along the supply chain who have been adversely effected. So, Scott Morrison is in Government and his Government is hurting the trade as we speak. Labor takes a different approach. We said we would phase this trade out and work with sheepmeat producers, something we have been – people I have been talking with just this morning and that is the correct approach. They have been left high and dry by this Government.
VARISCHETTI: But effectively if Labor wins power at the next election and there is that six months of not being able to send sheep to the Middle East in that Northern Hemisphere Summer. That effectively is a ban of the trade straight up isn’t it? There is no time for transition because that it the peak time of the trade.
FITZGIBBON: Well that is a matter for the trade but the science is very clear. It tells us that you can’t ship so many sheep in those hottest of summer months while also meeting reasonable community expectations on animal welfare. So if that is the key part of the business model it’s clear that the business model is broken. We want to work with the sector to work out the best way of meeting those community expectations while maintaining profitability in the sheep production industry.
VARISCHETTI: What would be your plan? What is that transition plan?
FITZGIBBON: Well that’s why I am doing a round of consultations in WA today and that’s why very, very early in a Shorten Government term I’d be back here in Western Australia working through sheepmeat producers, abattoirs and every one along the supply chain to work out what that model looks like. But we stand ready and are determined to help them make that transition in stark contrast to what the current Government is doing and that is shutting the trade down effectively without reaching out to sheepmeat producers at all.
VARISCHETTI: Already one of the biggest importers of Australian sheep, that’s the Kuwait Livestock Transport and Trading has announced to the stock exchange its intention to set up a live exports subsidiary in South Africa where, as far as I’m aware, little or no animal welfare rules and regulations are in place. So under a Labor Government, by stepping away from the trade, the welfare standards won’t improve. With Australia in the trade and trying to set the example to others around the world, there is a chance that might catch on around other places but this just transfers the problem to another country. To animals in a different country.
FITZGIBBON: Well two points on that – the science is very, very clear. You say that we are doing it at a higher standard but the scientists tell us that in terms of that live summer trade it can’t be done in an acceptable way. Second, I don’t subscribe to what’s often called the ‘drug dealers defence’ that is that it’s alright for us to keep selling young people drugs because if we don’t, someone else will. It’s just not a solid defence and it’s not one which will cut with the broader Australian community.
VARISCHETTI: Some of the shipments of sheep have been highlighted in the media just in recent times and some of those appalling conditions and those deaths. No one approves those sort of conditions on board those ships. But the trade has been up and running for decades and successful shipment after successful shipment have transpired over the years. So why kind of isolate and highlight a few of the really bad examples when there have been so many other successful ones? Why not just address and try and work out a set of conditions that can be applied that make every trip a success?
FITZGIBBON: Well two points again on that point. You say they have been operating successfully for many years. That depends on how you measure it. Many people are agreeing now that mortality isn’t an acceptable way to measure success. Some arguing that those sheep that didn’t make the end of the voyage are the lucky ones in contrast to those who had to suffer for the full distance of the voyage. The second point is that there has been controversy in this sector for many decades. I have recently seen a Parliamentary Library chronology which shows these controversies have been emerging since 1934, I think it was, and yet the industry hasn’t seen the warnings and hasn’t transformed itself into something that is acceptable to the broader Australian community.
VARISCHETTI: On ABC WA this is the Country Hour and this afternoon catching up with the Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, who is in Western Australia for a range of ag industry meetings, catching up with some stakeholders here in Perth this afternoon. Joel Fitzgibbon, the escalating US China trade war [is] cause for concern for Australian agricultural exports, there is that fear that agricultural exports from Australia could get caught up in this trade war and China is such an important export market for our agricultural products. How are you reading the situation and how should Australia be responding to ensure market access to key markets like China?
FITZGIBBON: Obviously, Belinda, like most Australians, I am watching on with great concern. We are a relatively small trading continent, largely dependent on these export markets and we can only be victims of an escalating trade war between China and the United States. There is another point here too though, we should always be hedging or planning for a different world. Whatever trade war does escalate and starts affecting or infecting us all, as a government we should have a strategic plan which focusses as much on alternatives to trade, as important as that is, and have a look at how we increase demand here in Australia, how we do things differently, how we move products up the value chains, how we change natural resource allocation in a way which provides for higher returns for growers and producers. These are the things that we should be thinking about as a government, but these are the matters you hear nothing about from the current Government.
VARISCHETTI: I know later this afternoon you are catching up with a group of horticulturalists and discussing some of the challenges facing that industry. One of them being this agricultural visa to allow foreign workers to come into Australia to address the farm labour shortages. That visa now on hold after a backlash from the Pacific Island nations, which kind of like the current situation under the Seasonal Worker program and the Pacific labour scheme. How important is it for an agricultural visa for the horticultural sector do you think?
FITZGIBBON: As I do my industry consultations Belinda, not just in horticulture, but across the board, workforce is the single biggest challenge facing the agriculture sector, particularly obviously in horticulture. What we have seen from the Government is first the backpacker tax which exacerbated the problem, and now this lazy approach, you know, talk of an agriculture visa from a Government who doesn’t really know what this agriculture visa looks like and now of course you have got this backlash and internal divisions in the Coalition over what that visa looks like. What I would really like the politicians to do is start talking about building an Australian workforce to deal with this problem. It is seasonal in its nature and we will also always be somewhat dependent on overseas labour but let’s look at building an Australian workforce.
VARISCHETTI: So you wouldn’t be interested in an agricultural visa? Is that right?
FITZGIBBON: I am absolutely interested in lowering the barriers and difficulties people have in securing the workforce they need and a visa system will be part about that but just christening this idea “an ag visa” as if you can do that simply and all the problems will go away is both misleading and raises false hopes and expectations in the sector. The Government has handled this situation very, very badly.
VARISCHETTI: Joel Fitzgibbon, thanks for your time on Country Hour today.
FITZGIBBON: A great pleasure.