The end is near for WA live sheep exports

Headshot of Paul Murray
Paul MurrayThe West Australian
Illustration: Don Lindsay
Camera IconIllustration: Don Lindsay Credit: The West Australian

It appears that the Turnbull Government’s attempt to hold back the tidal wave of public opposition to live sheep exports is doomed.

If the proportionately small number of affected WA farmers breathed a sigh of relief last week when Agriculture Minister David Littleproud announced his bandaid solution to the horrors of the summer trade to the Middle East, they should think again.

Even the Kuwaitis, by far the biggest client of the dwindling trade, can see the writing on the wall and are looking elsewhere for supplies.

And the politics at play in Canberra seem to be gathering the numbers to force much stronger sanctions on the industry than Littleproud advanced.

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An increasing number of coalition MPs are dissatisfied with the bandaid and are considering former minister Sussan Ley’s private member’s Bill to end the trade.

Moore MHR Ian Goodenough, one of the waverers who has considered joining Victorian Liberals Sarah Henderson and Jason Wood in backing Ley, says he has received 2000 emails opposing the trade.

“I, in some ways, compare this to the gay marriage debate, where several private member’s Bills were tabled over the years and they didn’t provide the immediate response, but they were all part of building the case,” Ley says.

“This has been really a trade marked by disaster-following-debacle and that’s gone on for 33 years.”

Federal Labor has formalised its opposition to live sheep exports. It will take only a few more from the coalition and a couple of crossbenchers to provide the absolute majority needed to force change.

So the time has come for the farm lobbies to focus on their exit strategy, rather than put all the effort into preserving a trade that is becoming increasingly uneconomic to meet new restrictions.

And that doesn’t mean making a case for compensation. A more reasonable approach would be a long phase-out cycle and access to capital for diversification.

From the heavy involvement of Federal farm lobbyists to defend what is primarily a WA-based sheep trade, it appears the long game is to ensure this controversy does not flow into the lucrative cattle export business.

If you want proof of that, look at the $146 million of Australian taxpayers’ money handed over by Littleproud in Vietnam just last month to help make their abattoir workers slaughter our cattle properly.

Even Ley, a former sheep farmer who represents a big cattle-producing area, virtually confirmed on Sky News on Monday that she wanted the beef business quarantined from the damage sheep exports had done.

It can’t be overstated, but the issues that have confronted the live sheep industry have no direct correlation with cattle exports. The cattle industry’s problems have been overwhelmingly in overseas abattoirs.

However, activist groups have a history of connecting one victory to the next target, regardless of how tenuous the link. So cattle producers are right to be wary.

And it’s to be hoped Littleproud has plenty of cash set aside to gear up Australian abattoirs to handle the influx of lamb which will eventually head their way.

The Brisbane-based veterinarian who Littleproud appointed to carry out the review, Michael McCarthy, trained at Murdoch University and worked in Esperance and the Kimberley with both sheep and cattle.

He was the shipboard vet on 65 live export trips for eight major Australian exporters, including Emanuel Exports, the company embroiled in last August’s Awassi Express debacle.

McCarthy got one thing right in his report right at the very start: “For the livestock export trade to continue, the public expects the Australian industry to uphold and comply with the highest animal welfare standards throughout the entire supply chain.”

The problem for McCarthy is that neither his report nor the minister’s decision meets that benchmark.

“Overall, this review concludes that the live export industry is at the crossroads,” McCarthy said.

“What has occurred in the past must not happen in the future, and industry must therefore retreat to a ‘safe’ position, consolidate and then build a new way forward based on science, trust and performance.

“The central issues relevant to sheep health and welfare during shipping to the Middle East in the months of May to October are stocking density, ventilation and thermoregulation in the sheep.”

However, despite Littleproud saying the Government accepted all of McCarthy’s recommendations, in practice that won’t fix the problem.

Paula Parker, the president of the Australian Veterinary Association, said both McCarthy’s report and the Government’s response did not address the impact of heat stress on sheep.

“Irrespective of space allocation, thermoregulatory physiology indicates that sheep on live export voyages to the Middle East during May to October will remain susceptible to heat stress and die due to the expected extreme climatic conditions,” Parker said.

So if the coalition doesn’t fix this mess before the Federal election, can a Labor government be trusted to do so in office?

Media reports suggest Federal and WA Labor are split. But WA Labor itself appears divided. Are Premier Mark McGowan and Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan even on the same page?

McGowan’s rhetoric has changed in recent weeks from backing MacTiernan’s bolshie threats of action under WA laws to plaintive pleas for truckies who depend on the live sheep trade. That sounds like a union push. Do they think sheep walk to abattoirs?

Even Labor’s Agriculture region MLC Darren West tweeted on Saturday: “I believe the end of the live sheep trade is now inevitable and that it’s time to speed up the transition back to chilled meat export.”

The numbers don’t lie. This is an export trade in terminal decline and the natural reduction over 15 years poses real questions about the arguments that some farmers will go to the wall if it ends.

Where are the stories of disaster in the drop from six million sheep being exported in 2002 to well under two million now? That appears to have been managed by diversification.

The bottom line is that it’s almost over. The debate should be on how the end is managed.

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