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Beef industry is threatened by United States quotas.

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ELEANOR HALL: Australia’s beef export industry is continuing to reel, with abattoirs closing down as the federal government grapples with the problem of sharing out a limited export quota. Two abattoirs in Victoria have already closed down because their access to the US market has been cut off and the Mudgee abattoir in New South Wales is only days away from shutting down too. All up, more than 600 jobs are expected to be lost and there could be more to come.


In a bid to fix the problem, John Howard has resurrected Senator Bill Heffernan, giving the Senator his first major role in politics since he was disgraced and forced to apologise for the wrongful accusations he made against Justice Michael Kirby. This report from Ross Solly in Canberra.


ROSS SOLLY: Australia’s beef export industry is in serious trouble. Regional meat processing plants in Wonthaggi and Poowong in Victoria have already closed, with 260 jobs gone. Another 100 jobs are under threat in Wodonga; 400 jobs in the New South Wales town of Mudgee. The problem is there are too many beef exporters trying to send to the US market. Australia is given a limited US quota every year, and usually there’s few problems. But this year, with all sorts of problems in the Japanese and Korean markets, more exporters are focusing on the American buyers.


Agriculture Minister, Warren Truss, has been warned for months a major problem was looming. Now it has arrived and those going under say: why didn’t you do anything? The Minister says it’s beyond his control.


WARREN TRUSS: The reality is that we have only 378,000 tonnes to distribute and jobs created in one town, or saved in one town, are jobs lost in another. The reality is it takes a certain number of people, a certain number of cattle to deliver 378,000 tonnes, and if we give those jobs to one community then they’re lost in another.


ROSS SOLLY: A Senate committee looking into the drama has recommended the Minister divvy up the remaining 30,000 tonnes of the US quota among struggling processors. The Mudgee abattoir is the twelfth largest meat processor in Australia. General Manager, John Harvey, was told this week there’s nothing left for his operation.


JOHN HARVEY: It’s extremely desperate. We received our notification from AFFA two days ago, which indicated that we would receive no quota at all.


ROSS SOLLY: Which basically means you’ve been frozen out of that export market?


JOHN HARVEY: It means that we’ve been taken out of a market that we’ve helped build over a period of more than 20 years and that we’ve been able to provide a service for our customers into for over 20 years.


ROSS SOLLY: Mudgee is in the electorate of Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, who’s believed to be taking a very hands on role now the problems are escalating. The Prime Minister is also getting involved. He’s drafted Senator Bill Heffernan into the chairmanship of the rural Senate committee, with a brief to sort the mess out. It’s evidence how serious the Prime Minister is taking the issue, having chosen this matter for the re-emergence of Senator Heffernan after his time on the outer for his comments about Justice Michael Kirby. Labor Senator Kerry O’Brien says everyone is trying to fix up Minister Truss’s mess.


KERRY O’BRIEN: He could have done a lot by doing his job earlier. We’re now seeing why the Prime Minister has got Senator Heffernan involved in the case, because he could obviously hear the cries from regional Australia that there was going to be a calamity and he was doing his best to see if the government could get itself out of the mess caused by Minister Truss.


ROSS SOLLY: For people like John Harvey in Mudgee, it’s too little, too late.


JOHN HARVEY: I think that if people had listened to the fact that Mudgee abattoir is unique and that it had fallen through the cracks, if they had listened to our representations and acted on it earlier, yes, from our point of view, from Mudgee’s point of view, this could have been averted.


ROSS SOLLY: Warren Truss will name, before the end of the week, the members of an independent tribunal to determine how to divide the beef quota. It’s not going to save many of the abattoirs in the short term. He says there’s just not enough room in the market.


WARREN TRUSS: Clearly people want confidence. They want to know whether they have any chance of getting some of that precious 30,000 tonnes. There again is not going to be enough to go around, so it would be misleading to suggest that it’s going to be able to deal with all of the concerns of all of the processors.


ELEANOR HALL: Agriculture Minister, Warren Truss, ending that report from Ross Solly.