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Live export: Farmers defiant despite warning to start planning for ban now

Olivia FordCountryman
Farming leaders are refusing to accept the possibility of losing the live sheep export trade despite an independent report warning producers should not wait for the ban to be overturned.
Camera IconFarming leaders are refusing to accept the possibility of losing the live sheep export trade despite an independent report warning producers should not wait for the ban to be overturned. Credit: Cally Dupe

Farmers are refusing to accept Federal Labor’s looming live sheep export ban, despite warnings they should “plan for the future” now and not hold out hope the policy will be overturned.

The long-awaited Independent Panel Report: Phase Out of Live Sheep Exports by Sea, released earlier this month, stressed sheep producers and other businesses should not delay making changes to their business models.

If they did wait, the report warned they may not survive the transition in four years.

“The panel does not believe that producers should delay making decisions in the hope that the Government policy to end the live export trade of sheep may be overturned,” it said.

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“Instead, clear and early communication will enable producers to plan for the future.”

However, nearly three weeks after the May 2028 deadline for the trade’s shutdown was announced, the agricultural community is ramping up demands that the Albanese Government overturn its decision in the face of the panel’s calls for “acceptance, adjustment and planning”.

Community leaders have also demanded the Government prove the transition plan actually has “strength of purpose” and have called for answers on the promised support and funding.

‘Speculation, not law’

Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA president Tony Seabrook said he would not accept a phase-out, regardless of what the panel — which Federal Labor appointed to hold industry and community consultation before handing down its report — said.

“I don’t concur with anyone that says we need to make plans to phase out, we need to accept the money on the table, (and) that we need to agree with the process,” Mr Seabrook said.

“We need to tell (the Government) outright it’s a stinking, rotten policy and it ought to be turfed.”

Pastoralists and Graziers Association of WA president Tony Seabrook.
Camera IconPastoralists and Graziers Association of WA president Tony Seabrook. Credit: Justin Benson-Cooper/The West Australian

Mr Seabrook said he was not interested in any talks about Government support, citing Federal Labor’s $107 million “transition package” for farmers.

“I will not be part of any discussions about money or where the money gets spent or how it’s divided,” he said.

“(I’m) just not interested. They can stick their money where it came from.”

He said the agricultural community was ramping up the campaign to save the trade, including creating a new group tasked specifically with fighting the ban.

Wagin shire president Phil Blight also slammed any suggestion people should be making changes to their businesses in anticipation of the 2028 deadline.

“We haven’t seen a Bill, we haven’t seen a draft of the law, so to go changing your business model based on a thought bubble, any other business that did that would almost certainly go belly up very early,” he said.

“We’ve gone as far as we can. I certainly think the majority of farmers now aren’t prepared to take the poor performance of the ag minister lying down.”

Wagin Shire president Phil Blight with local giant ram Bart.
Camera IconWagin Shire president Phil Blight with local giant ram Bart. Credit: David Charlesworth/RegionalHUB

The Government has confirmed legislation “to end the trade in law” will be introduced in the current term of Parliament.

In response to questions from Countryman, a Government spokesperson said live exports were regulated under the Export Control Act and associated Animal Rules.

They said the end date would be “designated through primary legislation” and that “changes to regulations will be required in the future”.

Both the Liberals and the Nationals have vowed to axe the legislation and scrap the policy if they win next year’s Federal Election.

Mr Blight said if the Government’s transition plan actually had “strength of purpose”, the Government needed to “ramp up” and provide more processing capacity in the form of a whole new abattoir.

“We simply don’t have (the kill space) and I’m of the thought we’ll never have it,” he said.

“Without it, what they’re basically doing is just cutting off our access to market.”

‘Timing is critical’

Katanning shire president Kristy D’Aprile said she firmly supported the trade and called the ban “heartbreaking” for the local community.

“It’s very uncertain times for our farmers because first of all they are trying to grapple with what their new business models look like,” she said.

“They (sheep farmers) are trying to grapple with the fact that some of their major business assets have significantly lost value.”

Shire of Katanning President Kristy D’Aprile.
Camera IconShire of Katanning President Kristy D’Aprile. Credit: Harry Grigson/Great Southern Herald

Ms D’Aprile said she had heard anecdotally of people who had already made changes to their businesses, either by leaving sheep farming altogether or reducing their flock size as a result of the “lack of confidence” in the industry.

The panel report also mentioned some sheep farmers had already turned away from the live trade over the years, arguing it would not be a major transition for some.

However, Ms D’Aprile said the timing of the announcement “could not have been worse” as farmers face dry seasonal conditions.

“It is very, very critical, so getting that support out, it needs to be happening now,” she said.

Ms D’Aprile said if the Federal Government refused to budge on the ban, the Shire of Katanning would advocate for more support for sheep producers and for that support to come now.

“When they are taking away a whole industry, a billion dollar industry from our economy, a $107m package of which $65m is directly aimed at growers ... It’s hardly adequate,” she said.

“It would be interesting to find out when this support is coming because our farmers need it now.”

Merredin shire president Mark McKenzie said farmers in the area were also looking at making business changes, however, the dry season and lack of support programs had been of concern for many who were worried about losing their livelihoods.

“No doubt the farmers are under stress, financially and mentally, and are also trying to transition and adapt during one of the driest years we’ve ever had… they’re all trying to work out, ‘what now?’” he said.

The report, along with the announcement of the 2028 deadline, was made public only on May 11 — five months after the panel had made its recommendation.

The report recommended the Government implement early actions by the first half of 2024, including providing funds and concessional loans to improve WA’s on-shore sheep processing capacity, and providing additional funding for industry-linked organisations to develop their markets for Australian sheep products.

However, the funding for these initiatives was only just allocated in the recent Federal budget through the $107m transition package.

When questioned by Countryman, Federal Agricultural Minister Murray Watt’s office could not provide any details on how the funding would be allocated and what exact support measures would be made available, despite now being halfway through 2024.

The Government also did not clarify if any support would be given to businesses which may not survive the transition away from live trade, despite panel recommendations to do so.

The panel also recommended the implementation of both a transition action group and a transition advocate to promote community trust and engagement in transition process.

The Government has committed to appointing a transition advocate but has not revealed if it will implement a transition action group.

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