WA’s northern cattle industry was “brought to its knees” by the Federal Government's live export ban, with the industry losing up to 30 per cent of its trade, a Senate inquiry in Broome has been told.
The inquiry, into animal welfare standards in Australia’s live exports, heard that many pastoralists still see no light at the end of the tunnel after the disruption to their industry.
WA Agriculture Minister Terry Redman told senators it was hard to put an accurate figure on the losses to date, but the live trade industry was worth about $100 million to WA, with 170,000 head of cattle exported to Indonesia last year.
Mr Redman said the temporary ban had had a significant ripple effect along the whole supply chain.
“Since that ban was put in place ... we believe there could be anything up to 20-30,000 head of animals that would meet the spec of the Indonesian market but won’t get there,” he said.
“We believe that compared to a normal season, (there has been) something like a 20 to 30 per cent impact. I fear that it won’t get back to where it was – and if it will, it will be a long, long time to get to that point.”
Senator Bill Heffernan also queried whether the Australian Government should seek to strike a one-off deal with the Indonesian Government to accept cattle above the 350kg weight limit for the next 12 months for a flat rate, to ease cash flow.
“It’s a better option than spending $150 and going downstream to an abattoir and getting a lot less money,” Mr Heffernan said. “”Having tested it with a few people, I don’t think it’s a bad idea.”
But Landmark agency principal Andrew Stewart said he doubted the proposal was workable.
“You can’t go to one of our major trading partners and tell this is what we want – we’re the ones who have insulted them by putting this predicament in front of them to start with,” Mr Stewart said.
Senator Nick Xenophon canvassed the idea of re-establishing abattoirs in northern WA to give producers an alternative to sending cattle overseas, but Mr Redman rejected the idea as financially unfeasible in the short to medium term.
“You still have logistical issues with distance and isolation and a whole range of other factors,” Mr Redman said. “Right now, the raw numbers don’t add up ... there would need to be some very significant capital investments.”
Mr Stewart agreed that the plan was not workable: “It’s been done before – every time there’s been one put together or started back up again, it’s gone broke,” he said.
“The main thing is a guaranteed supply of animals for 12 months of the year – our season only runs between five, six or seven months of the year. Who do you get to staff it?”
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert grilled witnesses on the extent of their knowledge of the cruelty towards animals in Indonesia, as shown on an ABC television documentary in May.
“My questions still remain: why didn’t MLA, LiveCorp and the industry see this coming,” Ms Siewert said.
“It’s quite obvious that people were aware of animal welfare issues and yet it got to the point where live export had to be banned before any action was taken.
“Quite clearly, the system has not worked – the only way changes are made to address animal welfare issues is when cruelty is exposed.”
Mr Stewart defended producers, saying they had had no reason to question Meat and Livestock Australia or the Government about practices overseas.
He said every time producers sold cattle, they paid a fee to MLA which was supposed to be spent on making sure that “everything done at the other end is 100 per cent right”.
“MLA may or may not have let the system down – time will tell.”
Ms Siewert said some of those levy funds held by MLA should be paid towards compensation and support for struggling pastoralists.
Outside the inquiry, Mr Xenophon said he had not changed his mind about ending the live export trade, but admitted he was shocked at the extent to which producers had been “left in the lurch”.
“I want to see a long-term phasing out of this industry, but ... I don’t want an animal welfare crisis to turn into a human welfare crisis and that’s a real concern here,” he said.
“These producers look after animals well and have high standards in terms of animal welfare – they are not to blame for what happened overseas. I think there are a lot of questions for MLA.”
Mr Xenophon said the Federal Government must pull out all stops to make sure that producers are not left out of pocket. “They don’t want welfare, they don’t want compensation – but where there has been a loss of income, that ought to be made up by the Federal Government,” he said.
He said the possibility of re-establishing northern abattoirs should be investigated as a “matter of urgency”, despite the views that it would not work: “That to me is a long-term solution,” he said.
“The Minister has not ruled it out completely – clearly there is scope for reviving this trade, but it’s got to be done sensibly and it’s got to be done on an economically feasible basis.
“The fact is, there used to be a viable abattoir industry here in the north-west – let’s look at reviving that.”
Northern pastoralists from across the Kimberley are due to give evidence this afternoon.