Industry groups have slammed the Australian Greens’ calls to replace live animal exports with on-shore meat processing.
In aposition paper released on Monday, the Greens urged the federal government to address five key issues they believe will create a more “economically robust and humane” alternative to live exports.
The move foreshadows Labor’s final Caucus meeting for the year in late November which will face increased pressure from vocal backbench MPs on a dedicated animal welfare working group, who have reignited calls for a total trade ban, in the wake of the Pakistan sheep crisis.
Greens animal welfare spokesperson Senator Lee Rhiannon said the public was “distressed” over live export cruelty and wanted the trade to end.
“The government needs to respond – not with half baked inquiries but a comprehensive plan to stop exporting livestock for consumption and process the meat in Australia,” she said.
“Growing domestic meat processing for local and export markets will reduce animal cruelty inherent in the live export trade while boosting Australia’s economy and assisting farmers.
“These key issues are critical to ending the live export trade and hopefully the Labor caucus will consider them before parliament resumes.”
The paper says, following a series of “scandals” in the live sheep and cattle export trade, a critical point has been reached in the debate about whether this trade should continue, with its “unstable economic basis, high levels of risk and animal welfare problems”.
Senator Rhiannon plans to visit northern Australian cattle producers in Western Australia next March to seek feedback on the proposal, which matches her legislation before federal parliament seeking to ban the trade.
At this stage, she has no plans to visit the Northern Territory.
The paper also calls for the establishment of new divisions within the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry to take responsibility for growing domestic processing options and building overseas meat markets.
They also called for the establishment of an independent Office of Animal Welfare; a move also flagged by the ALP’s animal welfare working group.
But the Pastoralists and Graziers Association (PGA) of WA said releasing the paper was “just another Greens’ furphy, totally lacking in facts or commercial nous”.
PGA spokesman Sheldon Mumby said the Greens were again making “loose use of facts”.
Mr Mumby said the “scurrilous claim” by the Australian Meat Workers Union (AMWU) – outlined in the Green’s paper – that live exports have led to 150 meat processing plants shutting down over the last three decades and 40,000 lost jobs is “complete and utter nonsense”.
He said abattoirs have been closing down and consolidating for decades after becoming unviable, due to the AMWU’s industrial action and demands for higher wages.
Higher wages have made it more expensive to process an animal in Australia than the nation’s main boxed beef trade competitors in the US, China and Brazil, he said.
“If there is all of this processing capacity available and calls from our overseas customers for more boxed exports, then why did the price of sheep drop by 40 per cent in WA when live exporters were not buying sheep in September?” he said.
“Surely if there is sufficient demand, the processors would have jumped into the market.”
Mr Mumby said the Greens continuing calls for the establishment of a northern Australian abattoir had some merit, but that the only way this could be economically viable was if the facility was continually subsidised by the taxpayer and staffed with foreign workers on 457 visas.
“How do you boost regional communities in the north by telling farmers and pastoralists to make a loss and restructure their operations into what the Greens call more socially acceptable practices?” he said.
“Farmers, like everyone else deserve to make profit and it is this profit that comes from the live export trade that is the true economic multiplier for regional Australia.”
Mr Mumby said the Greens’ claims that only a small market segment was exclusively dependent on live exports, due to the low number of applications for income assistance resulting from the 2011 trade suspension to Indonesia, are “insulting to every hardworking farmer and pastoralist who chose to tough it out in the hard times, rather than accept government assistance”.
Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council chief executive officer Alison Penfold said the Greens’ proposal to close down live export represented economic “vandalism” for livestock producers and rural communities.
“The loss of jobs and economic consequences for rural communities will be devastating, as we witnessed in the Northern Territory last year with the ban on live cattle exports to Indonesia.
“The pain is still being felt in those locations with property prices depressed and the banks are banging on doors.
“The live export industry isn’t restraining the growth of the meat processing sector; it’s a range of factors including access to labour and finance, seasonal conditions and global economic conditions.
“The simplification of this argument, that we can simply replace live exports with processing meat here, is doing a complete disservice to those people who would be affected by a closure of the trade.
“Real improvements to animal welfare will only come with Australia being in the market, not out of it.”
Federal Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig said as “an important trade with a strong future”, the live animal export industry supports 10,000 jobs across regional Australia and contributes $1 billion to the economy.
“There are some in the community who simply do not want this trade to continue, regardless of the steps we take,” he said.
“I am not one of them.”
Minister Ludwig said Australia leads the world in animal welfare practices – especially in the live export trade.
“We have built and implemented a system that sets a high standard internationally,” he said.
“The community has legitimate expectations about animal welfare and the government and industry have taken significant steps to address them.”
Minister Ludwig said more than 1.5 million animals have been exported under the new supply chain assurance system, which puts animal welfare front and centre.
He said the new system was the result of a lot of hard work from government and industry and the large majority of industry is operating effectively within it.
“This government remains committed to the live export trade and the jobs and communities that rely upon it,” he said.
“The importance of Australia’s live export trade, to our regional communities and to the markets it serves, should not be underestimated.”
Shadow Agriculture Minister John Cobb accused the Greens of being “out of touch ideologues on live exports”.
He said the Greens didn’t care about the welfare of animals outside Australia.
“The Greens are ignoring the massive improvements in animal welfare standards Australia is leading around the world,” he said.
“Without Australia’s effort animals sourced from other countries have little or no protective safeguards whatsoever.”
The Greens’ five key issues the government must address to end live exports and build domestic meat processing
Senator Lee Rhiannon. Photo: JACKY GHOSSEIN