The industry organisation responsible for overseeing Australia’s live export trade was not directly told by the Federal Government about its decision to suspend the $320 million live cattle trade to Indonesia, and only learned of the decision via second-hand reports from Indonesian customers.
Former Livecorp chief executive officer Cameron Hall told a senate inquiry into Australia’s live export trade last week that the organisation was first alerted to news of the ban on June 7 when Elders advised that AQIS had denied it permission to load a vessel in Port Hedland.
“Following that, we tried to ascertain the reasons why that permission to leave for loading had not been granted and we were unable to do so,” Mr Hall said.
“The actual announcement, or the impending announcement, came back to us through our people in the marketplace.
“They were hearing it from their Indonesian counterparts in the trade, via the Indonesian government, that the trade was to be suspended. We did not have that directly.”
Livecorp chair Dr Roly Nieper said Livecorp had been asked to visit the minister’s office on the Thursday prior to the ban being implemented to discuss the crisis surrounding the industry following the broadcast of scenes of brutality in Indonesian abattoirs by ABC Four Corners on May 30.
However upon arrival Livecorp was not invited to participate in discussions with the minister. Representatives were later met by a ministerial advisor who told them the minister was thinking about suspending the trade, Dr Nieper said.
“We discussed it and argued with the minister's adviser as to whether that was a good course of action,” Dr Nieper said. “That was, I think, on a Thursday. We were expecting something to happen over that weekend but it did not until the Monday, I think, when the suspension was announced.
“We were not asked for our opinions. We were told that it might be an option that they would have to take.”
He added that on the evening before the ban was publicly announced – and after Livecorp had learned about the ban via Australia’s customer member network – the minister’s staff advised Livecorp that an announcement would be made the next day.
At an earlier hearing of the same inquiry in August, WA Liberal senator Chris Back quizzed officials from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry about why the industry and Indonesian officials were not given the courtesy of being directly informed about the ban and had to learn of the news via second-hand reports.
He also relayed the convoluted process that he was told news of the ban took within Government ranks. “There was a direction from cabinet, presumably through the minister, to the foreign affairs minister, who was in Budapest and was instructed to communicate with the Indonesian foreign affairs minister, who fortunately was in Budapest. He in turn advised the President of Indonesia, who in turn advised primary industry minister or agriculture minister Suswono, who in turn advised livestock director-general Prabowo. It was from that gentleman that the live export executives learnt that the trade was being suspended. Is that an accurate reflection?,”
DAFF deputy secretary Paul Morris said he was not sure if that was the case, but added that Minister Ludwig did convey the news directly to his Indonesian counterpart minister Suswono on June 7 as well.
“Whether Minister Suswono first found out via the long complicated route you were talking about or whether he first found out from our minister I do not know.”
Former Livecorp CEO Cameron Hall, who left the position after five-and-a-half years in August to take up a senior management role with Landmark, also expressed deep concern during last week’s senate inquiry about Animals Australia and ABC’s decisions to sit on footage that showed cruelty in abattoirs for several weeks.
Mr Hall said in his regular visits to Indonesian abattoirs he had never witnessed the type of cruelty that was shown in the footage, and had repeatedly asked staff in the market to report any instances of poor practices in the market. He had never received reports about the type of practices depicted on Four Corners.
He said that when Livecorp learned that Four Corners had secured footage in Indonesian abattoirs, it made repeated requests to view the footage, which were denied.
He said Livecorp was finally given access to some of the footage on the Wednesday before the May 30 Four Corners program was broadcast. The condition was that the footage had to be watched in the presence of a Four Corners producer so their reactions could be recorded. Mr Hall said Livecorp was not shown all of the abattoir footage that appeared in the final program.
Livecorp’s response was to immediately order the suspension of Australian cattle to the abattoirs depicted in the Four Corners footage. Mr Hall added that Livecorp would have extended the ban to include more abattoirs at that time had it been given access to all of the footage in Four Corners’ possession.
Asked by NSW Nationals Senator Fiona Nash if he was surprised the footage was not reported to authorities straight away, given the type of treatment it depicted, Mr Hall said he was.
“Surprised, concerned and disappointed,” he said.
“I was personally disappointed because I had invested five years of my time and commitment around making those improvements and working with people who are in the Indonesian marketplace every day.
“They are very passionate about the work that they do and the success that they were having, in terms of improving the standards in animal welfare in the marketplaces.
"I was surprised and disappointed that those things were occurring and disappointed that it took eight-and-a-half or nine weeks to be brought to attention so that something could be done, because immediately upon seeing that footage we acted. We acted that afternoon.”
Industry commitment to animal welfare
In his opening statement to the inquiry Livecorp chairman Dr Roly Nieper said he did not believe that all of the criticism directed at the industry in recent months had been fair, balanced or based on facts.
Asked by senators to elaborate, he said that media coverage had largely overlooked the positive work the industry had done to improve animal welfare in overseas markets.
“If people had visited the market well before that video was taken they would have seen conditions that were far more atrocious. It has been the presence of MLA and LiveCorp in the marketplace that has seen the improvement of that over time. I think we have not been given credit for the work we have done in the marketplace and for the changes that have been bought about.
Dr Nieper said Australia’s live export industry had invested close to $30 million in joint programs to improve animal welfare.
It was not widely understood or appreciated that MLA and LiveCorp were the largest funders of animal welfare research and development in Australia.
He said the industry had built strong, long-term relationships with foreign government personnel and in-market stakeholders that underpinned Australia’s ability to influence animal welfare outcomes in export markets where Australian Governments could not exert direct regulatory control.
“It is fair to say that in many cases without the involvement of the Australian industry there would be reduced progress on animal welfare in these markets.”
Dr Nieper said the industry had still not had the ability to independently verify the footage that had been used to bring the indsutry to its knees.
"We still have not been privy to seeing the pictures taken. There is a lot of footage out there that we cannot verify and yet a billion-dollar industry is put up to ransom on a two-hour exposure."
Govt assistance sought
LiveCorp chief executive officer Rob Sutton told the inquiry that it would cost exporters up to half a million dollars per country each to roll out the infrastructure and management changes required to meet new Federal Government requirements for each market.
“There are 45 exporters and 29 countries,” Mr Sutton, a former global manager of Austrade’s agribusiness team, said.
“It is a major change as we roll out this program around the world. It is extensive change. It is culturally sensitive.
“Industry alone cannot reach into an overseas market or an overseas Government and encourage them to make all those changes, so it requires teamwork between all the agencies. It requires market access negotiation.
“We believe there is a need for a financial program or fiscal program, we have recommended that to the minister.”
Asked by NSW Nationals senator Fiona Nash if he believed the foreign aid budget was an appropriate source from which to draw funding, Mr Sutton said he could not see why not.
“I would have thought that an aid program was a logical participant in that process. It is a very big budget and it works in most of the markets, but not all of the markets. Some of the markets in the Mid East would not necessarily comply with an aid program.”
Australia donates up to $500 million a year to Indonesia in foreign aid.