Live export - 20,000 leagues of incompetence
13 May 2013
Recently, it was announced that the Federal Government would provide a one-off $21.6 million payment to the Disney Corporation to attract the filming of the Hollywood movie ’20,000 Leagues under the Sea’ to Australia.
However, this generosity shown by the Gillard Government to this already profitable, multinational behemoth is farcical when compared to the $30 million business assistance package offered to the entire live export industry as a result of the suspension of trade in June 2011.
The maximum sum available to affected industry participants was $20,000, a truly derisory amount when you consider Australian Agricultural Company Ltd has recently revealed the ban has contributed to approximately $51.2 million in property write downs and lost profits.
For the sake of clarity, I abhor the manner in which the cattle in the 4 Corners program ‘A Bloody Business’ were treated. However, the panicked rush from Government to effectively white-ant a critical part of the beef industry by suspending trade was beyond any basic comprehension, particularly given that it was done on the back of one television program and the subsequent alarmist hysteria fomented by animal extremists in the aftermath of the report.
The lunacy of Minister Ludwig’s decision to ban the trade came as a direct result of the usual lack of consultation that has become a hallmark of the Gillard government. It was subsequently confirmed that then Minister for Regional Australia, Simon Crean, believed it was a hasty decision that was not thought out, did not take proper advice or consultation into account and was made without regard for the serious financial consequences that would follow.
Animals Australia and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) failed to prove the issues identified in the program were endemic throughout the abattoirs in Indonesia that accepted Australian cattle. Irrespective, the fact a few ‘rogue’ abattoirs were not meeting World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) standards was not sufficient justification for shutting down the live export trade.
By way of comparison, the Federal Government’s response to the tragic loss of four young men’s lives resulting from electrocution during the faulty installation of ceiling insulation (the first in a conga line of blunders by this administration) was not to demand that all electricians down tools for over a month while the issue was dealt with i.e. this dreadful loss of human life by a number of rogue insulation companies did not cause the closure of a related industry.
However, that is exactly what transpired in this particular case to the cattle producers and support industries, who have suffered greatly as a result of the ill conceived and hasty decision by the Minister. In a revealing interview with an ABC journalist on 31 May 2012 last year, the Minister acknowledged that ‘... the producers had no line of sight ... [they] now have a line of sight from where their cattle go into the export markets and what happens to their cattle at the end’.
Essentially, the producers had no idea what was happening in the overseas abattoirs, so why were they subjected to this enormous penalty as a direct result of Minister Ludwig’s decision to ban the trade?
Minister Ludwig, when asked about the damage inflicted upon the industry, frequently trots out the well worn chestnut ‘the industry was to blame as self-regulation had failed’. The mere mention of self-regulation reveals the fundamental lack of understanding that the Minister has in relation to the operation of the industry.
It is beyond clear that the industry was (and is) subject to massive amounts of regulation prior to loading and during the voyage. The exporters (and producers) met every regulation that was required of them in getting the cattle to the importing country. If they had not, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) would not have allowed them to load the cattle onto the relevant vessel. As a result, there was no room for self-regulation on their part.
DAFF’s November 2006 ‘Australian Position Statement on the Export of Livestock’ (which was still in force when the program aired) reveals that:
‘The Australian Government’s jurisdiction over the animals ceases when disembarkation is complete. After disembarkation, the health and welfare of the livestock is the responsibility of the importer, under the authority of the importing country.’
The DAFF position statement is clear that the importer was responsible for the welfare of the animals. This was true given that once the exporters unloaded the cattle, they had no more involvement in the process. The exporter was contracted to do a job, which was to get the cattle to the importing country, nothing more. The thinking in this debate is akin to expecting a pet shop owner in Australia, who sells an animal to a customer, to keep track of the animal throughout its life. The pet shop owner is not signing up for that, and neither did the exporters prior to the introduction of the Export Supply Chain Assurance Scheme (ESCAS).
The enormous pain and suffering the industry has experienced since the imposition of the ban, could have been avoided if Minister Ludwig had consulted more widely and shown more moral fibre when confronted by the ‘squeaky wheel’ politics of the animal welfare lobby.
There were a number of alternatives that were available to the Minister, instead of banning the trade and trashing a close trading relationship with Indonesia, namely:
- MLA and LiveCorp could have been put on notice that the trade would be suspended within a certain time frame (i.e. one month) if they could not satisfy Minister Ludwig that all of his concerns had been addressed
- inspectors could have been sent to nominated abattoirs to ensure that OIE standards were being complied with until such time that the new ESCAS framework was in place, or
- given that Australia’s aid contribution to Indonesia for the 2011/12 period was in the order of $558 million, part of this aid contribution or future contributions could have been tied to the improvement in animal welfare standards in relevant Indonesian abattoirs.
Questions also need to be asked about the ongoing regulatory role of the RSPCA in handling matters relating to animal cruelty and the fact that it is one of the few non-governmental bodies that has an investigatory and prosecutions role.
The RSPCA has made it very clear it is opposed to the live export trade and, of course, it is entitled to do so. However surely this opens the discussion as to whether it can continue to act in its prosecutorial role, and casts doubt over its ability to remain objective in relation to the assessment of primary production animals, given this opposition.
By way of example, if an animal cruelty complaint was raised against a producer that was involved in the live export trade, questions could be rightly asked about the impartiality and motivation of any investigation carried out by the RSPCA given its clear views on the trade.
Serious consideration needs to be given to whether the RSPCA continues to have a role in prosecuting primary producers, given the clear potential for conflict, or whether its role needs to be reduced to dealing with just companion animals and pets.
Further, the RSPCA’s criticism of the industry is becoming so rabid it is doing great damage to its brand. A recent example of the typical misrepresentation by the RSPCA in relation to live export was a press release issued following the release of a DAFF report into a complaint about animal handling practices at an Israeli abattoir.
The DAFF report revealed that the breaches in question had occurred prior to the first consignment of cattle exported to Israel under ESCAS. Further, and critically, the exporter which was the subject of the complaint provided information to DAFF confirming the cattle in question were not part of the exporter’s consignment i.e. the exporter had nothing to do with the cattle.
Despite the obvious lack of nexus between the exporter and the cattle, the RSPCA trumpeted the ‘failings of ESCAS and the auditing system used to implement it’. It is exactly this sort of sensationalism and misleading reporting that is causing people to reconsider their attitude towards the formerly respected animal welfare group.
Critically, the oft repeated cherry by the RSPCA is that they are speaking for the wider community in seeking to have the live export trade shut down. However, the National Farmers Federation in November 2012 commissioned an independent research body to undertake 1,000 interviews regarding people’s attitudes towards the live export industry. Overall 69% of respondents supported the continuation of the trade working with industry to ensure continuous animal welfare improvements, while 21% opposed the trade.
The survey also asked respondents whether they would be pleased or concerned if their Federal MP supported a ban of the trade and 60% of respondents said that they would be concerned, whereas only 22% said they would be pleased with such action.
Given the current drought conditions and a high Australian dollar, the debilitating effect of the live export ban is now hurting northern producers and stifling production and economic development in the region more than ever.
Few would have thought a number of years ago that our own government would take such a guiding hand in the destruction of a profitable industry – a cautionary tale that once only Walt Disney himself could conjure.
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Trent Thorne is an agribusiness lawyer with McCullough Robertson Lawyers. He has previously worked as a jackeroo on a vast NT cattle property (Wave Hill Station) and has family members with deep ties to the cattle industry.
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