Stakeholders debate MLA response to livex issue

James Nason, 21/11/2011

The performance of key industry organisations during the recent live export crisis was put under the microscope at Thursday’s Meat and Livestock Australia annual general meeting in Longreach.

With the dust starting to settle on the June/July ban, several industry participants used last week’s industry forum to question whether more could have, or should have, been done by industry bodies.

Longreach-district livestock producer John Seccombe opened debate during the forum when he asked whether MLA should have been more active in highlighting the Federal Government’s role in the crisis.

The Federal Government was responsible for issuing export licences, however, it deflected all blame onto MLA when the crisis broke. Mr Seccombe said.

“Where were industry leaders in highlighting the issue to the media that it was a Commonwealth Government problem, and not the responsibility or the fault of MLA?,” Mr Seccombe asked.

In response MLA chair Don Heatley said he believed the Government, like many in the media, the public and even in the livestock industry, were confused about MLA’s role as a service-delivery, as opposed to policy-setting, organisation.

In the first days after the Four Corners program showing Australian cattle being mistreated in Indonesian abattoirs aired, Mr Heatley said he “tried desperately” to explain the consequences of a possible market-wide shutdown to agriculture minister Joe Ludwig.

However, he said it was clear even at that time that the minister’s “mind was made up”. The ban was imposed five days later on June 7.

“I suppose you would have to say part of the reason why he and others decided to give MLA a bit of a towel-up was that we would probably be assumed as a very easy target,” Mr Heatley said.

“… the role of the company has been gravely misunderstood by many people for a long time, and I don’t blame them, but in the end, the Government fell into the same category.”

The suspension announcement was like “burley in the water” to the media, Mr Heatley said. All MLA could at the time was to try to explain its position in the face of what quickly became a towering inferno.

Mr Heatley was on the media front line during the debate, but also moved during the forum to stem any suggestion that peak councils such as Cattle Council of Australia were absent during the debate.

“The president of Cattle Council of Australia (Greg Brown) was on his back, broken with steel and pins being inserted. He spent six weeks (in hospital), and it wasn’t too easy for him to get near a microphone at the time…

“I would just like it known that it may be easy to take a critical swipe at the company and others at the time, but I can tell you, when these things come at you, you have got to move fast and do the best you can.

“We had a very, very unfriendly media at the time who chose not to investigate the story, and that is was what I found really disappointing.”

Central Queensland cattle producer Graeme Acton said that when the furore first erupted, Mr Heatley was in Japan and Mr Brown was in hospital. “We all knew it was going to happen any day,  where were the people to step into your shoes?”

Newly elected CCA president Andrew Ogilvie and vice president Peter Hall both spoke in defence of the peak body.

“I take offence at the suggestion that nobody stepped forward when Greg Brown was out of action,” Mr Ogilvie told the forum.

“I was the acting president at that time, I went to Indonesia twice, and Peter Hall went to Indonesia once with me, to come to grips with this problem.

“I did quite a bit of media, nowhere near as much as our CEO (David Inall), who went far beyond his bounds of duty to try and solve this problem.”

MLA managing director Scott Hansen also acknowledged the “enormous workload” that David Inall, Northern Territory Cattleman’s Association executive director Luke Bowen, AA Co managing director David Farley and recently-retired Consolidated Pastoral Co boss Ken Warriner shouldered during the crisis.

“I think it would be remiss of us not to reflect their contribution in defence of the industry,” Mr Hansen said.

NQ cattleman and Droughtmaster breeder Rob Atkinson, in comments reiterated by Graeme Acton, took the opportunity to publicly congratulate Don Heatley on his own performance. “Most people in this room are in awe of you, and will never know the pressure you bore over the live ex debacle,” Mr Atkinson said.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Georgina Pastoral Co’s Peter Hughes, who commended industry leaders for resolving the crisis so rapidly.

“I have got a fair bit of skin in the industry, I wasn’t on the frontline, but I know people that were at the front line, and I think what has come out of this and how they turned it around so quickly is not short of remarkable,” Mr Hughes told the meeting.

“I expected cattle coming over the hill from the north very cheaply in their thousands.

“And it just never happened, it was handled extremely well I believe and I think everyone who is involved in it has got to be congratulated for the result they got.”

Questions were also raised as to whether industry bodies should have played a more active role in defending the industry via comments to online media articles.

Central Queensland cattle producer Joanne Rea at last Thursday's MLA annual general meeting in Longreach.“The group I belong to seemed to be 90pc of the commenters at the bottom of articles,” CQ cattle producer Joanne Rea said. “The others had a strategy. When we started to get the critical mass in favour with our comments, they would just go to another site and start all over again with exactly the same lies. I just want to know, where was MLA?”

MLA communications director David Pietsch said MLA was not a representative body, but the organisation could have done better in terms of supporting and equipping industry people to tell their story.

He added that animal welfare groups were “incredibly well prepared” when the furore broke.

“They were working with the program, that was clear, the program was timed to coincide very well with the start of their campaign, so yes the industry was well and truly up against it from the moment it started.

“But I think a lot of really good work happened during that period and I think it raised awareness among producers.

“…Our number one role as we move forward now is to help to support and provide you with the information and to equip you with the tools.”

During the forum MLA chairman Don Heatley urged the industry to resist the temptation to point fingers.

“Looking back is not a smart thing to do,” he said. “Let’s just look forward and move on, and not get into a blame game for this.”



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