Legal options may be last avenue for BJD-hit producers

James Nason, 21/05/2013

The Australian Johne’s Alliance believes legal action may be the only avenue left for producers affected by the ongoing BJD trace-forward program in Queensland to be fairly compensated for their losses.

The AJA has represented sheep and cattle producers affected by Johne’s Disease management regulations across Australia since the early 2000s.

It has branded the financial assistance package released by the Queensland Government last Friday as inadequate and "an insult" to producers at the centre of the state's BJD response.

In December last year Queensland Government ministers Jeff Seeney and John McVeigh issued a press release stating that individual cattle producers would not have to carry the burden of the state’s response to Bovine Johne’s Disease.

“We understand it is not viable for individual producers to bear the burden of this response alone,” Mr Seeney said at the time, adding that arrangements for compensation and counselling were being discussed.

The resulting compensation package released last Friday entitles affected producers to maximum assistance of $50,000 in the first year and a total of $200,000 from the package going forward.

The stud at the centre of the crisis, the Kirk family’s Rockley Red Brahman Stud near Rockhampton, stands to lose $400,000 a year in annual bull sales alone as a result BJD eradication policy, which was agreed to by cattle industry and state government leaders.

Ashley Kirk said his family was bitterly disappointed by the limited scale of the package. The available assistance would do little to help the operation rebuild its herd, and provided no incentive to commence an eradication and testing program, he said.

He also questioned whether other producers were likely to contribute to a voluntary levy, expected to be set somewhere between 50 to 70c a head, given the limited scope of assistance under the scheme should they be affected by a future biosecurity problem.

“We sat with the minister (McVeigh) at the table here and he said you won’t be carrying the financial burden for industry,” Mr Kirk told Beef Central.

“If we’re not carrying the financial burden I don’t know what carrying the burden means, I’m sure we’re carrying it at the moment.”

At a BJD forum held at Rockhampton in February, agricultural compensation expert Ian Aberdeen said producers affected by the BJD response were entitled to adequate compensation.

"Adequate compensation is the sum of money that will put the cattleman back in the position he would now be in but for the BJD problem," he said.

Australian Johne’s Alliance spokesman Don Lawson said affected producers in Queensland would now have to consider legal options in relation to compensation.

Mr Lawson said that when millions of dollars worth of sheep were being slaughtered under the Ovine Johne’s Disease eradication programs in 2001, the alliance raised $100,000 to fund and promote anti-Johnes Disease regulation rallies throughout New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

“As a result there were two senate inquiries and a Victorian government inquiry,” Mr Lawson said.

“The sheep people got relief in that there was a speedy release of the Gudair vaccine.”

Under existing BJD policy in Queensland, determined by industry organisations such as AgForce and the Queensland Government, outbreaks of BJD must be controlled and suspected animals culled to maintain the State’s Protected Zone status.

The rules are in place to stop the disease from spreading throughout the state’s cattle herd and to prevent BJD from being used as a potential barrier to overseas markets for Australian cattle exports.

For the past decade the AJA has been lobbying against eradication-focused Johne’s policies, arguing that Johne's Disease is a disease of minimal consequence because it typically affects less than 1pc of cattle in infected herds; poses minimal threat as a trade barrier because it already exists in every market Australia exports cattle to; is found in many species of native and introduced fauna and is therefore all but impossible to eradicate; and can be effectively managed on-farm by producers with vaccines, as is the case with other diseases such as Leptospirosis and Pestivirus.

The alliance says existing BJD regulation is a classic case of the cure being far worse than the cause.

Mr Lawson said the alliance is now working with legal firm Holding Redlich in Melbourne to explore potential legal options including class actions on behalf of affected producers.

“The Rockley incident has cost the beef industry mega dollars for what?,” he said.

“In my opinion just wiping out a business without proper compensation is totally unethical and must come to an end.”

Mr Kirk said legal action would be a last resort but the size of the compensation package announced last Friday left affected producers with few other options but to explore it.

“It would be a last resort but when you’re set to lose that amount of money you look down every avenue,” Mr Kirk said. 



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