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Shadow Minister calls for John Anderson to be stood down over damage to the credibility of Australia's meat exports

JOHN HIGHFIELD: Returning to our top story of the day, the problem between the United States and Australia over meat exports with Federal Primary Industries Minister, John Anderson, saying he's moving quickly to reassure American authorities that there's been a misunderstanding over the role of meat inspectors. It is a big story for the rural industries today. Neil O'Keefe is the Shadow Minister for Primary Industries. He's joining us now on the telephone; speaking to him, Matt Peacock.

MATT PEACOCK: Neil O'Keefe, what do you make of this latest letter from the USDA?

NEIL O'KEEFE: Well, Matt, in my 14 years in Parliament, I have never seen a government to government letter so scathing in its criticism of a particular Minister, and today I'm calling on the Prime Minister to sack John Anderson. I believe he has misled the meat industry, he's severely damaged Australia's credibility in one of our most vital export markets, right at a time when our Asian markets are drying up, even when we're looking at military action in the Middle East with the Americans as allies. They're all just stunned by his ineptitude, Matt.

MATT PEACOCK: What effect do you think this will have on our export market and, in particular, on Project Two, which of course the Labor Government started?

NEIL O'KEEFE: Well, I think no one should underestimate the seriousness of this. Look, it took the former Labor Government years to rebuild the trust with the Americans following the meat substitution scandals in the Fraser years, and now Anderson's blown all this out of the water, this trust out of the water in just one stupid action. And, look, it was solely designed to gild the lily and blow his own bags, and now he's got the Americans saying, 'How can we work with you? How can we trust you?'

MATT PEACOCK: The Minister says that his comments have been misreported.

NEIL O'KEEFE: No, there's no question of them being misreported. Very specifically, in the letter that's come from the US today, they have outlined, point after point, where his claims have just misled the Australian public and misrepresented the position of the Americans. In fact, you know, they have said in the letter that they are plain untrue and misleading, and they've required him to change them.

MATT PEACOCK: Given the sort of consumer concerns that have been expressed both here and in the United States to this idea of company-employed inspectors, is it time perhaps to abandon the idea altogether?

NEIL O'KEEFE: Well, Matt, for some years, we were working through a process with the meat industry and with the US and with our other export customers, where we could certainly move from a system that relied totally on just meat inspectors standing there checking the meat going past to building in quality assurance systems within our whole industry, and we all wanted to do that, but we never, at any point, proposed that you would remove the direct government oversight in the form of meat inspection by government-certified meat inspectors. The National Party, and John Anderson in particular, have this irrational view, just like they're sort of irrational about the wharfies. They think that anything that's gone wrong for the meat industry is the fault of meat inspectors.

MATT PEACOCK: Neil O'Keefe, we'll have to leave it there.


MATT PEACOCK: Thanks for joining us.

JOHN HIGHFIELD: Neil O'Keefe, the Shadow Minister for Primary Industries, speaking to us from the back of Cairns in northern Queensland.