SPEECH – Animal Export Legislation Amendment (Ending Long-haul Live Sheep Exports) Bill

18 June 2018

I rise to make a contribution to the debate on the Animal Export Legislation Amendment (Ending Long-haul Live Sheep Exports) Bill 2018. Oftentimes when bills and issues like this present, my temptation first of all is to come in guns blazing—two six-guns out, cocked and ready to go. But, Senator Hinch, I have a great deal of respect for you. I tell the yarn that I’m in love with one of Senator Hinch’s former wives, but he tells me that’s okay; he’s still in love with the magnificent Jacki Weaver as well. I don’t want to do anything that might impede my opportunity to meet her in the future!

I know that some of the concerns you’ve raised are shared by all Australians. It doesn’t matter whether they’re in pastoral industries, they’re involved in the live export industry itself or they’re mere observers of what’s happening. But the thesis of my contribution will be that prohibition is not the answer. It is within the powers of this nation and the people in this industry to engage in the export of live animals in a humane fashion. We ought not ever see a repeat of the events that have obviously given rise to your bill and to the current concerns of the Australian people. It’s important that we all acknowledge that that footage was traumatic. The behaviour of the people who were responsible for the circumstances and conditions that that consignment of live sheep found themselves in—and I know there have been other incidents and other episodes. As far as I’m concerned, they should be expelled from the industry, and our government should take whatever measures are required to ensure that we mitigate, neutralise and, in fact, abolish circumstances where we see anything like that again in the future.

Before I get to the key points, I want to go back to the farm. I’ve been involved in pastoral activities now all of my adult life. In fact, I happen to be part of a fifth generation Australian family that’s been involved in pastoral industries—predominantly the cattle industry, although there has been engagement with the sheep industry and other live animals over that period of time. Whilst there are always exceptions to the rule, I can tell you, through you Mr Acting Deputy Chair to Senator Hinch, that almost to a man and woman, in terms of the producers of livestock, there is massive respect for the animals that are in their care. I’ve said it in this place before—and my experience is no different to thousands of others, who, in the early hours of the morning, by the lights of the utility have been pulling cattle and sheep out of the bogs and ensuring that their water supplies operate efficiently. In fact, I got a text from my nephew this morning on one of our family properties. It was minus three degrees up there, and it would seem that just about every water pipe on the property has busted from its source. We’ve got 19 bores there that supply water. I’ll tell you what the staff there are doing today, into tonight, and probably through until tomorrow, and that is to make sure that they repair the reticulation of water so that all of our stock have access to it as a matter of life.

It leads me to the second principle: it is simply not in the interests of people who produce live animals to do anything that damages them—even if they were just to treat them as a commodity, and they do not. I can say that, of the entire population, it doesn’t matter where you are, there will be people who will be cruel to animals. It is very hard to oversee. We have 360,000 complaints of animal cruelty in this nation each year. It is a shame on us as a society that so many domestic animals and pets are treated in the manner that they are. We’ve seen it in the greyhound racing industry. We’ve seen it with different individuals outside of the commercial livestock sector. I haven’t even heard you disagree, Senator Hinch—you may not have turned your mind to it and it may not play a large part in your motive in relation to this bill, but I haven’t heard anyone in this place directly attack a culture within the livestock production industry that’s directed at the principal producers. I know, as I’ve said from my life’s experience, that that is not there as a feature.

It is possible to transport animals—whether by truck, with drovers by road, by ship or by other modes of transportation, such as rail—and not have this problem. We have cattle that are transported by truck in my home state of Queensland, where in excess of 60 per cent of the national herd resides. Sometimes that journey can take up to 30 hours. There are rules and regulations in place as to how that will happen. For example—and I’ll use cattle as an example—cattle are offloaded, they are given periods of rest from standing, fresh water and feed. There are rules around that, but even before there were rules, a pastoralist knew the impacts of transporting livestock. There is no other way to take them to processing plants or to market other than to transport them. We’re talking about massive distances here, thousands of kilometres in some instances. There are tens of millions of livestock that are moved by one or more of those modes of transport each year here in my home state of Queensland. I imagine the same challenges exist in the northern part of Western Australia and in many of the western parts of New South Wales, and I know they exist in the Northern Territory. We all want to live in Tasmania or Victoria, where you can load stock and be at a marketplace or a processing plant within a matter of hours. But that’s not the nature of our nation.

We have demonstrated and continue to demonstrate an ability for industries to create an environment for the humane transport of livestock from point A to point B. I’m not going to retreat from the fact that the circumstances that give rise to our debate, with respect to the consignment of sheep that went to the Middle East, offended almost every single principle. It would seem the ship wasn’t properly designed to transport that cargo. It would seem that the supervision in place wasn’t, how would one say, instructive enough to ensure that problem didn’t happen. That problem was all but foreseeable long before those sheep were loaded onto that ship. As far as I’m concerned, everyone in the chain of events that led to those sheep being on the ship ought to be punted. There is no space or job for them in pastoral industries, now or into the future, with respect to the transport of livestock. But it remains within our reach to design both procedures and environments for these sheep—and let’s just concentrate on sheep for a moment—to be transported to the Middle East in a humane fashion so that their life in transport meets all of the high standards that we have in general transport in the country.

The minister for agriculture, Mr Littleproud, has taken this matter very seriously from the get-go, and I support his mode of solution. His approach was not to leap immediately to prohibition of the trade, as happened in 2011 with the live export trade; his approach was to make a statement that we have a capacity to get this right, and that he’s going to leave no stone unturned to ensure that that’s what happens into the future. Mr Littleproud brought down the wrath of his office, not only regarding the events that occurred—a number of inquiries are going to look at them thoroughly; one has made some interim recommendations and the other one, I understand, is a work in progress—but also onto the department of agriculture, to find out how we found ourselves in these circumstances in the first instance. I’ve conceded that they were almost foreseeable. If you put too many sheep in a confined space and take them into a northern summer, with the climatic conditions and temperature variations as they are, you’re going to have the same result again and again. But it is fixable.

Can I go back to the marketplace itself. Let me indulge the chamber in some short discussions about what happened in 2011 when we suspended the live cattle trade. We will talk first about the impacts on people, particularly on the producers. They are not just the producers of cattle destined for Indonesia, in that case, but the producers of cattle nationwide here in Australia. That suspension was a wrong decision. I note, Senator Hinch, that you have a phase-in period for your suggestions, and that much in itself is welcome. But that suspension was a wrong decision at the time, where hundreds and hundreds of families, generational families on properties, lost their properties. We had quite literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of head of livestock that couldn’t stay where they were—that were destined for an export market—come into the domestic market, as opposed to those that perished. We had reports of tens of thousands of head of livestock that perished in the paddock because that decision was so abrupt. The impacts on the domestic market were enormous and are still playing through the balance sheets of many farms, and many of those farms that were impacted went into this prolonged drought event.

What are the alternatives? If we were, for example, to suspend or bring in a prohibition on the export of live sheep from this country to the Middle East, what happens to the sheep that have been produced, and have been produced for a very long period of time, for that purpose? It is no good our sitting here thinking that the domestic market simply will absorb that capacity. It cannot. It doesn’t have the capacity to, and if it did it would collapse the market price. There would be so much downward pressure on the value of sheep that it would have a crippling effect. In fact, some producers would run at a loss if they moved the sheep to market. We saw this in the 1970s, when millions of head of cattle and sheep at various times were euthanised in the paddock because the market collapsed under their feet.

I hear the argument frequently that we should process these commodities onshore and export chilled carcasses or boxed meat. That would be all right if the market at the other end wanted chilled carcasses or boxed meat, but it does not. There may come a time when it does. There may come a time in the future when the middle class of Indonesia and parts of the Middle East all will have the capacity to have a two-door fridge in their home so that, like us, they can take in and keep commodities that need to be chilled or frozen, but that’s not the case now, so there is no market.

One thing I disagree with in your presentation, Senator Hinch, related to the argument that if we fail to get it right, if we fail to create a humane environment and export these sheep and meet these market demands, we ought not care about where the market is met somewhere else in the world. I said this in estimates recently: the little piggy doesn’t want to go to market in the first place. But if little piggy has to go to market little piggy would prefer to be an Australian little piggy going to market, where we make at least the best endeavours—and for the most part we are successful—in humane transportation and in oversight of the way they are processed at the other end. We are the only country to do that to the standard we do. I don’t think we should relax the standards or the objectives that we set out to create an almost foolproof humane environment for the transport of these animals. But I don’t think it is fair to say, ‘I really don’t care about North African sheep. I care about my sheep. I care about our sheep’—these are sheep that won’t exist in the future if this market is prohibited—’but I don’t care about millions of sheep across the water.’ I don’t want to reflect on other nations, but we do know that it is a matter of accepted course that other nations do not have the same high standards of humane treatment of animals as we do in Australia. There have been some horrific stories from North Africa.

There are a million pigs killed in a large Asian nation to the north of where we are, and I have physically witnessed the treatment of those animals as they go to abattoirs. They’re often pulled out of the back of the transport with a baling hook driven into their shoulder, their rump or whatever is facing the transport operators at the time to drag them off the truck. That is horrific. As a nation in a global marketplace I don’t believe that we can simply say, ‘That doesn’t matter. That feature does not come into play as we consider what we do’.

If it is in within reach for us, as a developed nation, to create an environment where we can, and should as an obligation, humanely transport livestock for export then I think that needs to remain writ large an objective of our nation if it makes a contribution to animal welfare across the world. I don’t accept the argument that we’ve just got to look after our backyard, because if that were true we’d talk about the 340,000 complaints of animal cruelty in this nation each year. If that were true we’d talk about how cats, dogs and canaries are treated in our homes. I’m not challenging your genuine concern in this space. From before you arrived here, Senator Hinch, you have been consistent in your resistance and in the diligence that you’ve applied to making sure that we get this right.

As my time expires, I want to leave the point that I’ve made. Prohibition is not the answer. Prohibition is not the answer for people who produce for this export market. Prohibition is not the answer for clients nor for the marketplace at the other end—wherever they are destined for. I for one—and I asked you, Senator Hinch, to join me—don’t want to abandon the ideal that in a modern society we can design ships, we can design the environment on the ships and we can design all of the preprocessing that occurs. We had ewes on the ship that lambed, and that is unacceptable. We were told that there were processes in place to prevent a pregnant ewe going onto the ship. Well, obviously that failed. That technology is there. It’s been around for decades now. We simply have to get this right. We, as a nation, have to get this right.

Senator Hinch, if your voice and the voice of others join the voices of us who are in these industries and who fight for these industries, we will have a much better chance of changing the environment around the transportation of these animals so that we are able to achieve what ought to be a basic moral goal on behalf of a nation, and that is moving animals who have no control over their own environment that are controlled by us. I will take this up with you outside of this contribution. I’ll be urging you to join me to become an evangelist to get it right—not to stop it; but to get it right in the first instance.