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Federal Government’s live export class action compensation delay ‘undermining’ national biosecurity scheme

Headshot of Aidan Smith
Aidan SmithCountryman
NT Livestock Exporters Association chief executive Tom Dawkins.
Camera IconNT Livestock Exporters Association chief executive Tom Dawkins. Credit: Jess Wright/Jess Wright

The Federal Government has been accused of “undermining” its own national biosecurity scheme by dragging its heels in compensating Northern Australian pastoralists for mammoth losses caused by the snap live cattle export ban in 2011.

It has been two and a half years since the Federal Court ruled in favour of the cattle industry’s class action against the suspension of the trade, and so far only one claimant, the Brett Cattle Company, has received compensation to the amount of $3 million.

The total compensation pay out is expected to be more than $800m.

The front page of the Countryman on June 16, 2011.
Camera IconThe front page of the Countryman on June 16, 2011. Credit: Countryman/Countryman

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The Labor government suspended that trade for six months in Jun 2011, in which time about 88,000 head of cattle would have been sent to Indonesia via boat from northern Australia.

The Commonwealth has recently offered other claimants compensation but that has been rejected, as it was too little, and negotiations are underway to reach a compromise and bring the matter to a close sometime this year.

Department of Finance spokesperson said the department, through Comcover, is managing the legal action on behalf of the Commonwealth, as a significant matter under the Legal Services Directions 2017.

“Finance continues to engage constructively on the matter in accordance with its legal obligations,” the department said.

“On December 23, 2022, the Commonwealth made an offer through Minter Ellison to settle all claims for all Group Members.

“We have not yet received a substantive response to that offer.”

A Kimberley cattle station.
Camera IconA Kimberley cattle station. Credit: Jenni Stalwell / Pastoralists an/Pastoralists an

Northern Territory Livestock Exporters Association chief executive Tom Dawkins said cattle producers’ efforts to adhere to and prepare biosecurity protocols on their properties, or in their businesses, were being impacted by the “delays” of the Commonwealth.

“The biggest thing undermining the work I’m doing in biosecurity at the moment is the Federal Government’s delay, and delay, and delay, in not paying out those claimants in the live export class action,” Mr Dawkins said.

He said all the work that had been done on biosecurity in the NT was so that “if there was an outbreak of some disease and the animals had to be humanely destroyed to preserve the national herd, that there would be some kind of compensation for that, and that the guys in Canberra would compensate us for that”.

“Four thousand Indo steers (in the Darwin feedlot) is a lot of money these days - and you would all know what’s standing in your yards, and what that compensation looks like,” he said.

“The denial of that cashflow for six to 12 months could cripple your business - it could cut your circulation.

“The insurer in that scenario is the Commonwealth - they are the ones that pay that compensation.”

He said during discussions with his association members and stakeholders, particularly in the NT, about the part in the scenario where they have to destroy their cattle - “they say, that’s $20m worth of animals there”.

“I tell them, ‘you’ll be compensated, we’ve got sophisticated compensation schemes’,” he said.

“They stop and laugh - ‘the Commonwealth will pay it? We are claimants in the live export class action and we are still waiting for those bastards to pay for that!’.

The front page of The West Australian on June 9, 2011.
Camera IconThe front page of The West Australian on June 9, 2011. Credit: Countryman/Countryman

“How can we trust, in that split second, that if we go and kill those animals that it’ll be a good outcome for us?”

Mr Dawkins said that lack of trust in the system was scary.

“If you don’t think the insurance company, that the whole system relies on, is going to cough up when it counts, I don’t think you are fully subscribed - you are not a full believer in that system,” he said.

“That scares the hell out of me.”

He said it was important for the Federal Government to resolve the claims because there were businesses that don’t exist now and people that have died that never saw justice.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Mr Dawkins said.

Mr Dawkins wasn’t just pointing the finger at the Federal Government.

He also took aim at the agricultural sector itself in not having “gold standard” representation for industry towards government.

He said agriculture needed a much more united, singular advocacy voice that had the ear of the government so that when issues did arise they could be discussed and resolved better.

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