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Live Export ban: WA farmers and live exporters rubbish new ‘consultation panel’ as sheep shipping ban looms

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Adam PoulsenCountryman
WA’s live export industry has been left ‘bitterly disappointed’ by the Albanese Government’s plan to ban the State’s $92 million sheep trade and poked holes in a new panel appointed to lead consultation.
Camera IconWA’s live export industry has been left ‘bitterly disappointed’ by the Albanese Government’s plan to ban the State’s $92 million sheep trade and poked holes in a new panel appointed to lead consultation. Credit: The West Australian

WA’s live export industry has been left “bitterly disappointed” by the Albanese Government’s plan to ban the State’s $92 million sheep trade and poked holes in a new four-person panel appointed to lead consultation.

Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt on Friday revealed he had set up the panel — which includes a retired Labor MP and a former CEO of the RSPCA — to determine how and when the industry would be shut down.

He made the announcement during a surprise visit to Perth to launch a consultation process that will inform the phase-out, which still has no confirmed timeframe, but will not take place during the current term of parliament.

WAFarmers president John Hassell said Labor’s insistence on shutting down the trade was “disappointing” and “an insult to everybody in the country”.

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“The Labor Party was founded on the shearing industry, and in my mind, they’re pissing on their foundations,” he said.

“Apart from the fact that we have solved all the animal welfare issues, shutting down the trade is not based on sound reason and robust debate, it’s based on animal activism.”

The panel includes prominent WA agriculture expert Sue Middleton, retired Northern Territory MP Warren Snowdon, and former RSPCA chief executive Heather Neil.

Former Murray Darling Basin Authority CEO and senior public servant Phillip Glyde will chair the panel, which will provide its report to the Commonwealth by September 30 this year.

Asked what he thought of the line-up, Mr Hassell — a grain and sheep farmer at Pingelly in WA’s Wheatbelt — was scathing.

WAFarmers president John Hassell said Labor’s insistence on shutting down the trade was “disappointing” and “an insult to everybody in the country”.
Camera IconWAFarmers president John Hassell said Labor’s insistence on shutting down the trade was “disappointing” and “an insult to everybody in the country”. Credit: Cally Dupe/Countryman

“One would hope that with people like Sue Middleton and Warren Snowden, we’ll get actual outcomes for regional people, but the RSPCA, well, I give them zero bloody credibility, they’re just an activist group,” he said.

Minister Watt’s latest announcement comes 10 months after an animal activist group leaked the policy to ban sheep shipping just before last year’s Federal election after Labor refused to tell farmers its stance for weeks.

Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA president Tony Seabrook said he was “bitterly disappointed” and likened the announcement of a consultation process to “putting lipstick on a pig”.

Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA president Tony Seabrook said he was “bitterly disappointed” and likened the announcement of a consultation process to “putting lipstick on a pig”.
Camera IconPastoralists and Graziers Association of WA president Tony Seabrook said he was “bitterly disappointed” and likened the announcement of a consultation process to “putting lipstick on a pig”. Credit: Cally Dupe/Countryman

“I don’t rate the people that he’s put together to do this, and if you’re going to shut the trade down, what the friggin’ hell is the consultation supposed to do?” he said.

“I don’t acknowledge that the panel should even be there; I’m not going to participate in any way in his execution of this trade; I’m not going to acknowledge his process, or in any way get dumbed down into selling our trade down the drain.”

Mr Seabrook and Mr Hassell were among the leaders of 25 peak farm organisations nationwide who signed a joint letter to Senator Watt on March 1 vowing never to engage in government discussions about shutting down the industry.

Other signatories included the heads of the National Farmers’ Federation, Sheep Producers Australia, Wool Producers Australia, and State farming organisations from New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania, Queensland and the Northern Territory.

Mr Seabrook, a grain and sheep farmer at York, said the timing of Senator Watt’s announcement — just two days after receiving the letter — showed he “won’t listen to anyone” in the industry.

“25 of the biggest players in agriculture in Australia have asked the minister not to do this,” Mr Seabrook said.

“Labor were so desperate to get themselves into government that they made promises to people who they should never have made promises to, and now they say they’ve got a mandate.

“What they should have done was just let this lie and die, but now they’ve done this, they’re doing huge economic harm to a lot of people that the PGA represents, including myself personally.”

Mr Seabrook discussed the announcement with Minister Watt via Zoom on Friday morning and said he became so frustrated with the Minister’s “gobbledygook” that he walked out of the meeting.

WA Livestock Exporters’ Association chair John Cunnington accused Minister Watt of “turning his back” on the agriculture industry, saying the live sheep export sector had “done everything and more” that had been asked of it to reform.

WA Livestock Exporters’ Association chair John Cunnington accused Minister Watt of “turning his back” on the agriculture industry, saying the live sheep export sector had “done everything and more” that had been asked of it to reform.
Camera IconWA Livestock Exporters’ Association chair John Cunnington accused Minister Watt of “turning his back” on the agriculture industry, saying the live sheep export sector had “done everything and more” that had been asked of it to reform. Credit: JoshFernandesAE

“For a government to come and want to transition out of a legal, well-functioning industry that asks nothing of the government is just incredible,” he said.

“We’re disappointed to hear that he’s proceeding with this consultation period because we don’t believe that a transition is a right approach, and we maintain that the policy is wrong.

“For the Minister to turn his back on a united agricultural industry is a very scary thought for producers and the agricultural supply chain around Australia.”

Mr Cunnington was less critical of the panel itself, saying its membership appeared to be “balanced”.

“I think there was probably a better animal welfare expert that they could have used that doesn’t have such a clear agenda as the RSPCA, with Heather Neil,” he said.

“But to be honest, I don’t think there’s realistically a panel that anybody would ever be happy with.”

Australian Live Exporters’ Council chief executive Mark Harvey-Sutton said the ban was “not a done deal yet” and the industry would continue to fight for its survival.

Australian Live Exporters’ Council chief executive Mark Harvey-Sutton said the ban was “not a done deal yet” and the industry would continue to fight for its survival.
Camera IconAustralian Live Exporters’ Council chief executive Mark Harvey-Sutton said the ban was “not a done deal yet” and the industry would continue to fight for its survival. Credit: Supplied

“I think the real concern for agriculture is that every single industry has had some form of social licence challenge, so who determines that you should be shut down?” he said.

“Particularly when an industry has recognised its challenges, it’s addressed them, it’s exceeded them, and it’s become the best-performing industry in the world within that sector.

“Yet, because of this intangible concept of social licence, and for political expediency, it’s been determined that it needs to shut down. That’s why everyone’s worried.”

Murray Frangs, general manager of WA’s biggest live sheep exporter, Rural Export and Trading WA, said the policy was “confronting and devastating”.

Rural Export and Trading WA general manager Murray Frangs in front of the livestock carrier Al Messilah, at Fremantle Port. Thursday, October 6, 2022.
Camera IconMurray Frangs, general manager of WA’s biggest live sheep exporter, Rural Export and Trading WA, said the policy was “confronting and devastating”. Credit: Adam Poulsen/Countryman/RegionalHUB

“The industry has spent years and years updating and improving the operating practices to the satisfaction of the government, the regulator and the general public,” he said.

“It proudly stands as the best practice industry that is far superior to anywhere in the world — and well above any domestic requirement as well — but this is all ignored.

“Contrary to popular statements by the government, the industry has actually earned and maintained its social licence, and while the data and science validate our very existence, it is conveniently overlooked in favour of narrow political alliances and historical considerations.

“Now they want to backflip on years of improvement and operation in a legal and robust industry by just throwing it all under the bus in favour of a few votes.”

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