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Thursday, 7 July 2011
Page: 4359

Senator BACK (Western Australia) (15:49): I rise to take note of the ministerial statement of Senator Ludwig, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. He is to be acknowledged for the fact that this suspension has been lifted as of last evening. Some of the comments made by previous speakers—Senator Scullion and Senator Sterle—are certainly acknowledged. The tragedy is that there never was a need to completely suspend the trade. On 3 June this year I circulated very widely a media release; I will quote from parts of it. I called for immediate action to improve animal welfare practices in Indonesian abattoirs and to restore confidence to the Australian public—producers and, of course, the wider community. But I went on to say that we should not do anything at all to ban the export of live animals to Indonesia, because it would pose significant risks to biosecurity, marketing and diplomatic relations. Regrettably, my predictions were true.

In his statement, the minister has made the observation:

Following the provision of the footage—

that is the ABC footage—

the Government moved to suspend supply of Australian livestock to the featured abattoirs …

The coalition strongly supported the minister at that time to that extent and, had he stopped at that point, he would have continued to enjoy that support. But, despite the advice given to him by people who know the industry, who understand well the animal welfare and other implications and who understand well the outrage of the community—quite rightly—at the footage we saw, regrettably he took that step of completely suspending the trade, placing Australian producers, Australian supporters of the industry and the welfare of animals in the north of Australia at risk and, of course, not only severely damaging the diplomatic relations we have with Indonesia as a favoured neighbour but also placing at risk the supply of much-needed protein for the community there.

There is a lesson here for everybody in this parliament, and the lesson is one of not jumping to a quick conclusion based on tele­vision footage and social media reactions. I will not speak in this place at this time about the fairness, the bias or the validity of that ABC footage; that is for another time in this place. What I will, however, comment on is the severity of the reaction which forced this government to act. Let me comment by way of contrast that the same program, Four Corners, only this Monday evening ran an horrific series of footage on the atrocities visited upon women in Sri Lanka by both sides of their political movement in recent times, the sort of footage vastly worse, surely, addressed upon human beings. I will not relay what has been put to me of that footage, but what has been the outcry around the Australian community in the last 72 hours to that footage? Practically nil; yet the terrible footage we saw of the absolutely unquestioned cruelty visited upon those animals in Indonesia led to an email campaign where I received hundreds of thousands of emails.

Regrettably, I was able to confirm only this morning that an email apparently sent to me by one of my relations in fact was false—it was a fraud. I rang him and said, 'Rex, it is unusual: if you had that degree of interest and concern, knowing that we are related and that I have been in this game of 40 years, I would have thought you might have called me.' He said, 'Chris, I am outraged at the reaction that occurred in the first place that actually caused the suspension of the whole trade.' He also comes from an agricultural background. How many more of those emails were fraudulent? It was an absolute disgrace.

I certainly do acknowledge the minister has now moved to this position whereby the trade will reopen. The point I want to make is that, with proper consultation with the industry and with Indonesian interests, we need never have suspended the trade to those abattoirs that do already meet and, indeed, exceed OIE international animal health requirements—and I speak of some managed by Indonesians, some managed by Australians.

The traceability to which the minister has referred in his document is quite correct. Australia, unknown to others, leads the world already in national livestock identification. We are the only country to have it. You might say, 'Well, why aren't the pastoral cattle already identified in the scheme?' The reason is that, quite simply, it was a scheme designed so that, if somebody had an adverse reaction to meat they had purchased from a retailer yesterday or the day before, that meat could be followed right back to the farm of origin. That was the purpose for which we brought the NLIS into place. But when it was brought in the northern pastoral industry went to govern­ment and said: 'Look, our calves are born on the station, they grow, they go from the station to the port, from the port to the feedlot in Indonesia and then to the abattoir. We believe that there is no need for an NLIS association with our cattle.' That was agreed upon. The point to be made now is that the Australian industry is so well versed we have already got in place the only international NLIS. To fill that gap and complete that loop always was an easy task.

One of the comments I made in my release on 3 June was the need for an:

... independent assessment by competent people to review the welfare and management standards in Indonesian abattoirs, including those processing Australian cattle ...

That 'was essential' as was the reporting back to the Australian community. I am pleased that the minister has acknowledged the contribution of the Australian Veterinary Association, with whom the minister and his department have worked closely to achieve what was announced last night. I have long maintained that well-experienced veterinar­ians are the very people to be able to satisfy interests here in Australia, the community, producers and others. He has announced that it will be audited by international independ­ent audit agencies. I am very happy with that process. I make the point simply that it was not necessary to close the trade down to achieve that outcome.

What is the impact of closing down the trade? Animals are not like a mine site. If the price of gold or iron ore is not right, you can just leave the minerals in the ground. Animals are not like a production line of motor cars. If something adverse occurs, if there is an interruption in supply or a problem with labour or a problem with power, you can just turn off the switch, close the doors and everybody goes home. Even an airline, dare I say, with an animal related name like Tiger—regrettable and all as that is, and I hope for everybody's sake that safety issues can be addressed and that that airline can start flying again—does not require daily feeding. The planes are not out there growing, they are not out there repro­ducing and they are not out there having calves like the cows in the range lands are at this very moment. That is a lesson that is surely learnt for the future. We cannot have a circumstance in a livestock related enterprise where we just close it down with no consultation with producers, with exporters, with those involved in the supply chain and particularly with our end market.

I have made the point before, and my colleague Senator Scullion has made it also, that we are now going to see overstocking on the rangelands. We are not going to get back to exporting 500,000 or 600,000 cattle a year. We are going to see overgrazing on the rangelands. This year's calves are going to be competing with last year's calves, which should be on ships and which should be going to Indonesia.

I make the point again that the properties we are speaking about are leasehold proper­ties in which the pastoralist has no equity. He cannot go to the bank and use his pastoral lease as collateral. It is questionable now what the value of his livestock is. Therefore, if these pastoralists have to walk off their properties, regrettably they will walk off them with absolutely nothing.

I conclude my comments with the Indo­nesian relationship—one, as I pointed out yesterday, that has been built up over many years and one in which the Indonesians have built up confidence in us. I hope that they will not see the events of the last five weeks as being irreparable. I hope they will see that we have invested heavily with them over time, that we have walked beside them over time and that we want to continue walking beside them over time to once again become a reliable supplier of product, of protein, of expertise and of shared technology. I hope we never have the circumstance again in which Australia is an unreliable supplier.

Question agreed to.