Last week one of the most ardent critics of the livestock export industry in Federal Parliament travelled to the Northern Territory to meet face to face with some of the people whose businesses and livelihoods rely directly upon the very industry he is publicly lobbying to shut down. In a telephone interview with Beef Central yesterday Independent Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie spoke about why he accepted the invitation to visit the north, what he found, and why he hasn’t altered his opposition to live cattle exports.
Beef Central: Why did you accept the northern cattle industry’s invitation to meet with people involved in the livestock export trade last week?
Andrew Wilkie: Although I am, and I remain very strongly opposed to the live animal export trade, I do believe it is important to give everyone who is involved a fair chance to explain their position and to give them a hearing, but also a chance for me to explain to them my position. So it was very much about ensuring there is a channel of communication, nothing is achieved when warring partners don’t talk to each other.
BC: Did the visit in any way change your views about the live cattle export trade?
AW: No. It didn’t change my views at all, but it is always a helpful thing to put a human face to an issue like this.
It is always helpful to see the people themselves who are involved and look them in the eye, to get a sense of them and the effect of the trade on their livelihood and their life, so that is always a helpful thing, and I think it is good for them to see me and to put a face to a name.
There was also the positive outcome in that I was invited, and accepted the invitation, to go on one of the vessels up to Indonesia, and see the conditions on that vessel and that I will stay on and look at a feedlots and abattoirs.
It will need to be after the wet.
But exactly when during the ensuing dry, it remains to be seen. I obviously need to juggle my other commitments. I also need to be careful to pick and choose the right vessel to go on. I don’t want to go on the best, most modern vessel. I want to go on a typical vessel to see what the conditions are like on a typical vessel.
BC: You met with people in the NT whose businesses and livelihoods are reliant upon an industry that you are trying to shut down. What was the tone of the meeting like?
AW: I think in the circumstances, the tone was good. It was civil, they were respectful of me and my views, and I tried to be respectful of them and their views, but there was understandably… clearly they disagree with me very strongly and they made that known, but in a polite and civil way.
And I in return made it absolutely clear that I am steadfast in my opposition to the trade, and also that I prepared between now and when the trade may be wound up to look at ways to improve animal welfare conditions.
BC: You’ve repeatedly said the live export trade is systematically cruel. The livestock export industry argues that improvements to transport and shipping and now ESCAS in overseas markets mean that strong animal welfare standards are now systematically embedded throughout the supply chain. Upon what do you base your comments that the trade is systematically cruel?
AW: It is true that there have been some improvements over the last three years, for example the number of Indonesian abattoirs accepting Australian livestock that use stunning has increased significantly, that is a good thing. The ESCAS regime is helpful. So yes, there have been some improvements, but they don’t go far enough, and we are continuing to see episode after episode of animal cruelty. In fact it has only been in the last week or two that the department released its report into the death of over 4000 sheep on a sheep carrier to the Middle East last September, that is a reminder that we still have problems. We are having the problems so regularly that it points to a systemic problem, not just one off problems.
So I still hope to see the trade wound up over time, and those producers producing cattle to be processed in Australia, but even if that can’t be achieved, there is room for great improvement. For example, the ways that you can improve things even if the trade continues, for example the conditions on the vessels, how much space each beast has for instance, the fact that the federal government has the administrative power to legislate that we only send cattle to abattoirs in Indonesia that do stun.
These are measures that are within the power of the Government to put in place, but they have decided not to, and I think it is counter productive for the industry, because frankly this industry will only survive over the long term, and will only be sustainable over the long term, if it can convince people in the community that it has effective animal welfare safeguards. And those safeguards don’t exist yet, not in full, and the trade does not have broad community support. So until effective safeguards are put in place, or the trade is wound up, the industry is going to be involved in this constant argy bargy with many people in the community including myself.
BC: The live export industry maintains that video images showing alleged breaches of Australian export regulations released by groups such as Animals Australia are not representative of how most animals in the trade are treated. What is your response to that?
AW: I disagree with that position, because we are seeing so many episodes and across a diverse range of countries that it points clearly to a systemic problem. In the last three years we’ve had revelations from countries as diverse as Israel, Turkey, Egypt, the Gulf countries, Pakistan, and Indonesia of course. You simply don’t have so many episodes across such a diverse range of countries unless you have got a systemic problem. Of course there are some corporate players that are becoming more notorious than others, and it begs the question, why won’t the government shut them down.
There is one in particular that has been accused of repeated breaches of animal welfare safeguards. It would actually be in the livestock export industry’s best interest if the Government shut that particular firm down, or any other firm that had repeatedly breached the rules. I think the Government is being quite naïve by failing to take strong action. I think the industry would have a more certain future if stronger action were taken from time to time.
BC: The livestock export industry makes the point that Australia’s presence in foreign markets is helping to improve animal welfare standards overseas, and removing that presence will remove the only positive force that exist for animal welfare improvements in the markets and countries in which it operates. Do you agree with that view?
AW: We have clearly failed historically to do what we could have done to really improve animal welfare practices in a number of our markets. And the behavior of MLA in particular in Indonesia a few years ago showed that MLA has let down beef producers for years. What happened to all the money that MLA was accepting, so much per head, where did that money go, why did we have to learn three years ago on Four Corners that they were happy with the Mark I knocking box, whereas my friends in the industry were appalled by that device, they can’t believe MLA was out there and happy with that in the Indonesian market place.
So I think the point that we’re out there improving conditions, well maybe we’re doing a better job now, but historically, we didn’t, not to the degree we could have done to improve conditions.
Regardless of what other countries do, we have an unambiguous, ethical responsibility to treat the animals in our care with the best of care.
The third point I would make is that the Federal Government should be playing a role here, and should be allocating a greater proportion of our foreign aid in developing countries to help them improve animal welfare practices. If there is a problem in Indonesia for example, with abattoirs unable to afford to introduce stunning devices, or better refrigeration or better training, whatever is needed, well that is a legitimate way to spend some of our foreign development budget.
BC: Do you currently have legislation in the House calling for a phase out of live exports?
AW: In the previous parliament I unsuccessfully tried to progress bills, a couple in particular that would have wound up the trade over a few years and put in place safeguards in the interim, but also another bill which simply required that export permits only be granted for livestock going to overseas abattoirs that meet Australian standards. I received virtually no support for all of those bills. I now have drafted, and I hope to progress in the new parliament this year, another version of one of those bills to try and wind up the trade over a few years. But whether or not the parliament even allows me to bring it on to debate in a vote remains to be seen, and whether or not I can get any support in the chamber remains to be seen. The only support I received in the bills I’ve referred to in the previous parliament, only one of them reached the stage of being voted on, and the only person to vote with me was the Green Adam Bandt. No one from any of the other parties, including some very outspoken members of the ALP in particular, outspoken in support of ending the trade, wouldn’t even vote with me, they wouldn’t break ranks in the party.
BC: A key reason that the live export trade exists is because it provides a means of supplying meat at affordable prices to low-income consumers in countries such as Indonesia. Opponents of the trade want to see meat processed here in Australia and then exported in boxed form to live export markets, which would make the exported meat more expensive and perhaps too expensive for those consumers who currently rely upon meat supplied by the live export trade for affordable protein. What are your thoughts on this?
AW: I think this point is overstated by the industry. At the end of the day the industry is a collection of businesses. And, at the end of the day, they are skewed towards trying to make a profit. That is not to say there aren’t good people in the industry who also see the importance of providing protein in developing countries, but I don’t think we should be overstating that point.
At the end of the day, part of the beef industry has skewed towards live animal exports purely for business reasons. It is worth remembering that there are enormous potential markets for Australia’s boxed meat which we’re yet to take advantage of. The Chinese market for example is an enormous market.
It is interesting that the Australian Agricultural Company is building an abattoir near Darwin. Good on AA Co for doing that, and I hope it works. They clearly have confidence in their business model, which is based on processing in the north. So if they can do it, why can’t others. I know there are considerations about animal breeds and the type of meat those breeds produce and whether it is palatable for Australian tastes or not, but look at AA Co, they’re going to be sending I understand everything they can process to the American hamburger market.
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