GOING into bat for Australia's livestock farmers is key to MP Rick Wilson's 2015 game plan, with several changes aimed at improving profitability on the legislative agenda.
Speaking to Fairfax Agricultural Media, the Western Australian Liberal MP said he supported new laws proposed by WA Liberal Senator Chris Back to address increasing incidents of on-farm trespass by animal rights activists, and was also looking into working visa changes and live export issues.
Mr Wilson, a Katanning sheep and grain farmer, said he would vote for Senator Back’s Private Senators' Bill when it comes before the House of Representatives in 2015.
Senator Back says the draft legislation is aimed at protecting animals and strengthening biosecurity protocols, and seeks changes under the Criminal Code to ensure video footage gathered by the activists is handed to proper authorities.
Animal welfare the first priority
Like his colleague, Mr Wilson said anyone who witnesses animal cruelty should have to report it “without delay”.
“If someone’s working in an abattoir and there’s an improper practice going on they should report it; that’s what the law is in place for,” he said.
“Witnessing cruelty and putting video footage together over time and then releasing it to achieve maximum political impact is contrary to what I would see as best practice animal welfare.
“If you witness any systemic cruelty of animals it should be reported immediately.”
Mr Wilson said there was also strong grass roots support for the legislation that aimed to protect farmers’ rights.
“Industry does feel that it’s being victimised to a degree, and everyone I meet and talk to is horrified by some of the footage we’ve seen,” he said.
“But farmers, more than anybody, want to see that sort of behaviour stamped out - so if people have evidence or footage of mistreatment of animals they should bring it forward and deal with it on the spot.
“That’s what Senator Back’s legislation is about and I’ll certainly be looking forward to supporting that when it’s introduced into the Lower House.”
Working visa focus
Mr Wilson said he also wanted to ensure 417 holiday visas, or backpacker visas, remained relevant to agriculture and helped to fill workforce shortages.
At the moment, 417 visa holders must work 18 weeks in a remote or regional area to secure an extended visa. But Mr Wilson said moves had been made by the tourism industry to change the visa criteria so more backpackers could work as bartenders along the east coast.
Mr Wilson said the Coalition agriculture backbench committee was “very strongly opposed to that” and wanted to ensure the 417 visa arrangements benefit farmers.
He said the Fletcher International Exports abattoir situated at Narrikup, WA, had 90 backpackers in its workforce of 400 and was only 30 kilometres away from the large regional city of Albany.
“It is a market failure because people just won’t work in that industry,” he said.
ESCAS important for industry
Mr Wilson said he was also pleased to see the Coalition continuing its commitment to growing and supporting the live export trade unambiguously in 2014 and that continuing in 2015.
“From day one this government has been rock solid behind the live export trade,” he said.
“The Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce have made it very clear this government won’t be responding on an ad hoc basis to bits of horrendous video footage dug up by Animals Australia and others.
“If they’ve got the footage they must bring it forward and have it dealt with on a case-by-case basis.”
Mr Wilson said live exporters might complain about the regulatory burden of the Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System (ESCAS) introduced by the former Labor government, but exporters must be able to allay the community’s concerns about their industry.
A review of ESCAS – that’s understood to be completed but has yet to be released by the Coalition - is expected to recommend changes to streamline the system and cut costs while maintaining animal welfare standards.
“Most of the emails that my office receives are concerns about live exports, often as part of orchestrated campaigns,” Mr Wilson said.
“But there are also plenty of individuals out there in my electorate, an agricultural and mining electorate largely, never mind a Sydney or Melbourne suburban electorate, who have genuine concerns about live exports.
“ESCAS does help the government to allay some of the genuine fears - from genuine people, not activists, but people who are genuinely concerned about animal welfare - that there’s a process in place to deal with these breaches when they happen.
“That system comes with a cost unfortunately, and that cost is passed down to the producer at the end of the day.
“But we’re better off having a live export trade we can defend than one that’s indefensible and sooner or later will be shut down by a future government.”