WEST Australian Liberal Senator Chris Back says the title of a new book about the controversial 2011 Indonesian live cattle export crisis carries an “uncanny” resemblance to his last name.
But the contents of, ‘Backlash – Australia’s conflict of values over live export,’ co-written by RSPCA Australia Chief Science and Strategy Officer Dr Bidda Jones – conflicts with his version of history.
The book was launched by ABC Four Corners host Sarah Ferguson who won a Gold Walkley award for the Four Corners episode that ignited the unprecedented political and public reaction which saw the Indonesian market shut for up to six months in reaction to substandard animal welfare practices in Indonesian abattoirs.
In response to its release, Senator Back unleashed a passionate Senate speech this week about the subversive campaign underpinning the Gillard government’s trade suspension and its crippling impact on Australia’s cattle industry.
He said while ‘Backlash’ had an uncanny resemblance to his surname it “gives a view that is very much at variance to my own”.
“On Monday, May 30, 2011 the Four Corners program on the ABC, led by Sarah Ferguson, showed images of shocking cruelty to animals in meatworks in Indonesia,” he said.
“This was followed soon afterwards by a carefully orchestrated media and email campaign - of which all of us in this parliament were victims - that led the Labor government of the day to collapse at the knees and summarily ban the trade of live cattle to Indonesia without reference to anybody in the industry or anybody, including those in this place, who might have known a bit about it.
“This is not the place for me, today, to discuss the integrity or otherwise of the footage that we saw on that evening of May 30.
“That is for another place and another time.
“What I do want to do is investigate and expose the integrity of those who were part of the process that led to the ban.”
Senator Back said the video footage came into the possession of animal activists at the end of February or start of March and then Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig requested to see it, in a meeting on April 6 and subsequent phone call on April 12.
But he said those requests were refused while he and then Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Richard Colbeck, were also denied the opportunity.
Senator Back said the video footage was withheld to assist the activists’ objective to “destroy if not the entire beef industry across north of Australia then certainly the live export trade”.
“If there were a few victims along the way - and there were - that was just collateral damage,” he said.
He said the campaign was time to occur at the end of May, early June, when the entire northern cattle industry was the bottom of its income curve having received their last income in October the previous year and at the top of the expenditure curve.
“Guess when all of the costs associated with supporting stations, all of the costs associated with mustering - helicopters, trucking, station staff et cetera – happen?” he said.
“Right at the time when this ban was brought on.”
Senator Back said he didn’t blame Senator Ludwig but held the then Labor government responsible due to its motivation of wanting to “get carbon tax and then Prime Minister Gillard off the front page of the paper”.
He said the “scandalous circumstance” was also timed to coincide with feed supply starting to reduce on the rangelands while leaving cattle stranded that should have been on ships headed to Indonesia.
“The timing was so careful and so successful,” he said.
“Certainly, and regrettably, the RSPCA seems to have been involved, because it would have been within their power earlier in the year to have produced that footage so that the minister and the department could have done something about it.
“Certainly GetUp! was very much involved.
“We know that animal activists were very much involved.
“If the meat processors and the meat industry unions were involved they stand condemned for trying to do to a kindred part of their industry what ended up happening to that industry.”
Senator Back said suspension’s impact included damage to Australia’s relationship with Indonesia and “mass bankruptcies and we had suicides” while “massive starvation” occurred on the rangelands through 2011-12 which he’d predicted.
“Did any of those animal activist groups or the RSPCA express any interest at all in the wellbeing of those animals that died of starvation on the rangelands?” he said.
“No, they did not.
“It is the vision of the RSPCA to be the leading authority in animal care and protection.
“Well, they went missing between 2011 and 2012 in the north of Australia and I regret to say that.”
Senator Back conceded standards in Indonesian abattoirs needed to be improved but the events that unfolded at that time, was not the way to achieve it.
He said of the 109 countries that export live animals for production purposes only Australia has ever invested money, people and time to improve animal welfare standards.
“If someone purchased a pup or a kitten from an RSPCA shelter and subsequently brutalised that animal, would anyone say it was the RSPCA's fault?” he said.
“Of course not.
“But in the live export trade, if there is a failure of animal welfare somewhere in the Middle East, somehow it is all of a sudden the fault of the industry here.
“If they had any interest in the welfare of animals beyond Australia's borders they would be saying that what Australia is doing is fantastic, that what the exporters are doing, what the Agriculture Department and what the Minister has been doing is excellent.
“But, no, we are not hearing about that.”
RSPCA Australia declined to comment in response to Senator Back’s speech and failed to provide excerpts of the book, as requested by Fairfax Media.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott has described the ban as the worst policy decision made by the former Labor government while Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has also conceded the situation could have been handled better, at the time.
It also subject to an ongoing class action damages claim in the Federal Court against the Commonwealth of up to $1 billion.