Turnbull Government at sea over live sheep exports

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New Limited are notorious for misreporting this issue (Image screenshot from video (Animals Australia / @AnimalsAus)

The Coalition faces a stern test as global outrage escalates over the horror and cruelty of Australia’s live sheep trade. Alan Austin reports.

TRAINEE Agriculture Minister David Littleproud faces a challenge early in his new career which would test a veteran. He has to steer a passage through widespread global outrage at the cruelty of Australia’s live sheep exports, an angry local animal rights lobby and a highly nervous livestock industry.

He will be well aware of the Gillard Labor Government’s similar dilemma in 2011, when footage of cruelty to Australian cattle in Indonesian abattoirs became a highly damaging saga.

In an early move to forestall such destructive attacks on his Government, Littleproud sought the collegial support of a scarred veteran of the agriculture portfolio:

"I also contacted Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon to keep him updated on the issue ... we must reach across the aisle, put the politics aside and work together."

Yes. Exactly the opposite of the Coalition’s tawdry tactics seven years ago.

Littleproud well knows how devastating the campaign by the Coalition and the Murdoch media – spearheaded by The Australian – was for Labor. It was a toxic issue at the 2013 election which Labor lost resoundingly.

It was still an issue at the 2016 election when The Australian reprised its well-worn lines:

‘In a rural affairs debate ... the Deputy Prime Minister [then agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce] launched a scathing attack on the Gillard government’s decision to suspend live exports and suggested it had affected Australia’s relationship with Indonesia.’

The Australian still misreports the issue, even in 2018.

But whereas the immediate ban quelled international outrage in 2011, the absence of a ban this time may allow global anger to escalate. It is already widespread and damaging.

Global outrage

Horrific reports of the suffering of Australian sheep, most with videos, have appeared in the Ukraine, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Japan, New Zealand, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and elsewhere in the Middle East. These are all customers for Australian live sheep.

Negative reports have also appeared in France, Britain, Switzerland, Morocco, Italy, Germany, Luxembourg, Indonesia and elsewhere.

Of course, after the Coalition’s vicious condemnation of Labor’s 2011 temporary ban of live cattle exports, Littleproud cannot do the same. His department has, however, delayed a shipment leaving Fremantle for the Middle East until inspectors are satisfied all is well.

The Turnbull Government may well rue the fact that it can’t halt the trade if it turns out the backlash costs Australia other trade deals.

It is highly likely Littleproud’s department is advising him that while the four-week ban was a PR disaster for the Gillard Government, it probably saved the industry.

What really happened in 2011

The prompt ban curtailed any nascent campaign to boycott Australian cattle. Had this not happened, boycotts of other products – both in the cattle importer nations and elsewhere – could have escalated.

And on all the evidence, despite the frenzy by the media and the Coalition parties, it did the industry no harm.

Yes, 2011 was a bad year for graziers. Many went into receivership or asset management. But that was due to the devastating drought followed by a severe wet season. Total live cattle exported in the first quarter of 2011, according to the Bureau of Statistics, dropped 34.8% on the previous quarter. That was the lowest since December 2007.

But that collapse occurred two months before the live cattle ban.

Straight after the trade suspension – from 7 June until 6 July – the industry improved across the board. Just a few weeks later, in September 2011, head of live cattle sold to Indonesia was the fourth highest monthly tally on record. Total monthly value to all countries was the third highest. That’s from Livecorp’s detailed trade data.

Prior to the ban, for the first four months of 2011, January to April, volumes sold to Indonesia averaged 30,452 per month. After things had settled, for the last four months, September to December, volumes averaged 43,227 per month. That’s up a whopping 41.9%!

Sales volumes to all countries also shot up after the ban. For the first four months of 2011, January to April, cattle to all countries averaged 50,305 per month. For the last four months of 2011, September to December, total averaged 70,323 per month. That’s up 39.8%.

Prices also shot up after the halt. The average price for all live cattle exports for the first four months of 2011, January to April, was $838.82. Average price for the last four months, September to December, was $950.71.

So the ban seems on the figures to have done far more good than harm — for suppliers to Indonesia and to the national industry overall.

Yes, there was disruption during June and July – for which compensation was paid at the time. But recovery was not only swift, but highly remunerative in volumes and prices.

The trading halt was successful, not just in addressing animal cruelty, but in rectifying other problems. Two messages were sent loud and clear. To client countries: “Don’t mess with Australia or we will restrict your supply.” And to Australian producers: “Uninterrupted trade depends on sound practice.”

Both were heard in Indonesia, in Australia and across the world.

We will soon see how this minister acts and, in due course, the impact on the industry and Australia’s trade overall.

Whatever happens, he can rest easy that there will be little fallout for the Government. The mainstream media has as much interest in reporting accurately this event as it had last time.

You can follow Alan Austin on Twitter @AlanAustin001.

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