ENDING live exports is a “perverse” policy proposition that ignores significant advances in animal welfare standards over several decades, especially the past five years, and the market’s reality, says former Labor MP and cabinet minister Simon Crean.
Mr Crean also believes removing Australia’s growing and world-leading capacity-building influence over animal welfare outcomes in foreign markets would be another injustice and obvious contradiction of bowing to ongoing anti-live exports campaigns.
Now Chair of the Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council, Mr Crean was Regional Australia and Northern Development Minister in the Gillard government when the Indonesian live cattle trade was controversially suspended in mid-2011.
Speaking to Fairfax Media, he reflected on the complex political, ethical and business considerations the government was forced to confront during that intense period in office and subsequent industry crisis.
But rather than dwelling on the past, he pointed to rapid progress made since the ABC Four Corners broadcast shocked the Australian public’s conscience into unprecedented outrage over animal welfare, which jolted the former Labor government into suspending trade, on June 7, 2011.
That anti-live exports campaign included opposition from meat worker employee unions and meat processors who’d teamed-up behind the scenes, long before the ABC telecast, with animal rights groups, due to common interests, to pressure former Labor Agriculture Minister Tony Burke into banning the trade.
This week, the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union protested outside current minister and Nationals leader and New England MP Barnaby Joyce’s Tamworth office accusing live exports of “cannibalising” jobs in the local meat industry.
But Mr Crean said the common argument still being put forward by live export critics, that foreign markets like Indonesia would subsequently import packed and processed meat products from Australia, if live exports ended, was “fanciful”.
“It’s just not true and anyone who goes and understands the market would know that,” he said.
“The either/or argument (live exports vs local meat processing) suits anyone who has a specific, silo case to run.
“In fact the live trade has been responsible for lifting farm-gate returns to producers - it’s a supply and demand equation.
“What we’re dealing with is growing demand for protein, because that’s part of the food security challenge that all countries in the region are facing.
“You’ve got the quality of product but you’ve also got now, courtesy of ESCAS (Exporter Supply Chain Assurance System), the safest and best-welfare handling anywhere in the world.
“No other country, out of the 100 other countries exporting live, has the level of standard that Australia has to offer, so we are change agents.
“We have ensured that Indonesia, in that space of five years, has moved fundamentally to all cattle being stunned – 90pc plus – all operating under ESCAS and seeking to develop not just the feedlot operations but the breeding capacity.
“But if we left the trade, the Indonesians wouldn’t stop importing live, so how is taking Australia out of the equation helping animal welfare?
“Now they’re the facts.”
Mr Crean said the figures supporting animal welfare improvements and trade outcomes told an obvious story; especially the use of pre-slaughter stunning in Indonesian abattoirs lifting from 15 per cent in 2011 to over 90pc now.
According to ALEC figures, Australia exported more than 1.3 million live cattle in 2015, close to 2m sheep and about 90,000 goats for feeder and slaughter purposes, as well as 73,600 dairy cattle, mostly to China.
Mortality rates for sheep exports by sea in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s was about 2-3pc but hasn’t risen above 1pc since 2003 and was just 0.71pc in 2014.
Since 1995, cattle mortality rates have varied between 0.1pc and 0.42pc annually.
Of the 1.28 million cattle exported in 2014, the mortality rate was 0.12pc (1592), while increasing numbers of cattle shipments to South East Asia result in zero mortalities.
These are the numbers that the critics of the nation’s $1.9 billion live export industry don’t want the general public to see or absorb in detail.
Another statistic is that over 100 countries export live animals throughout the world but only Australia has the ESCAS supply chain scrutiny in place backed by investments to enhance welfare outcomes.
A report on the progress of ESCAS last year found that 1139 consignments had been exported to 18 countries by 21 exporters recording only 59 incidents of non-compliance.
There are now about 500 ESCAS approved abattoirs in 21 foreign markets lifting slaughter standards and animal welfare outcomes for animals exported from Australia but are no longer legally owned.
ALEC also says that if the live export trade was stopped - as some sectors of the Australians community demands - for every one job gained, at least four full time jobs would be lost.
Since 2011, ALEC says over 9000 people have also been trained in handling and slaughter practices in 23 markets, with millions spent by exporters and importing customers on new infrastructure and equipment.
That investment includes stunning guns, restraining boxes and yards, the removal of old unsuitable equipment like Mark 1 boxes and animal welfare officers and supply chain managers overseeing the every-day wellbeing and welfare of livestock in-market.
Mr Crean said Indonesia was also highly engaged and committed to developing a sustainable industry around its food security needs, through the $60 million red meat partnership signed off by the then Indonesian president Yudhoyono and former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, in 2013.
“Where there have been difficulties in the political relationship with Indonesia the opportunity does present itself to develop common ground around a common objective and to do it properly, with Australia not just supplying a commodity but the know-how; training and skilling their population to develop breeding and feedlotting industries,” he said.
Mr Crean said a core component of that symbiotic relationship was lifting animal welfare standards which “no other country is doing”.
But he said Australia wanted to expand its animal welfare expertise and influences globally, via the Livestock Global Assurance Program (LGAP) which industry had invested in heavily, through research programs.
Part of the problem with ESCAS, he said, is that it places responsibility on exporters for imported animals in foreign markets, up to the point of slaughter.
“But you need to get buy-in by the importing countries because we’ve got no jurisdiction over their laws,” he said.
Mr Crean said “huge investment” by the live export industry and their importing partners, in developing capability around animal welfare should not be ignored, in any policy discussion.
He said that improvement came via the installation of animal handling equipment and the development of traceability systems that provided “line of sight” for exported animals, from arrival to point of slaughter, and a commitment to no leakage.
“Now that’s not to say that there won’t be instances of leakage, but where they are, they’re self-reported and we seek to continue to evolve and develop the corrective steps,” he said.
Asked if there was a better way to implement ESCAS than the government suddenly closing down the Indonesian trade five years ago, Mr Crean said crisis often prompted difficult policy shifts.
“We would be better off if we didn’t have to wait for a crisis but the truth is, the crisis is a defining moment,” he said.
“Would the industry have adapted and self-imposed ESCAS without it? Probably not.
“Did the response have to be total closure before implementing? Probably not.
“But this is what happens when you’re suddenly confronted with a problem that you have to respond to.
“I think we’ve got to look at this not as how you could have done it differently because that’s reinventing the wheel, but how quickly and how effectively government and industry have responded to the problem.”
Mr Crean said some people would never be convinced the suspension was necessary, with some farmers saying it was a terrible decision and they’d never forgive the government.
But he said some producers do say privately that it was the “best thing that could have happened” while others have called it “a huge wake-up call”.
“We had to respond and we did respond and now there’s been huge change in the industry,” he said.
“I think the test is more how you respond to the crisis rather than could we have avoided it and the issue is; how do you avoid it for the future?”
Mr Crean said the Red Meat Advisory Council’s 2015-2020 Meat Industry Strategic Plan (MISP) sought to address the industry risks associated with a potential repeat of the 2011 Indonesian suspension.
“In terms of the MISP, closure of the trade is the highest and most costly risk for the industry,” he said.
“That’s why so much effort is being focused on addressing it, coming up not just with constructive and humane solutions but also recognising that the trade isn’t going to go away.
“And the notion it can go away, if we simply stop exporting, is simply fanciful, because there are 99 other countries that export live animals.
“I’m more interested in a mechanism that changes their behaviour for the better, rather than taking the strength of what we’ve achieved and the leadership of what we’ve achieved out of the equation and lessening the standards.”
Mr Crean said even live exports critics had acknowledged the significant progress made since the 2011 Indonesian crisis.
But he said the evidence of those reforms doesn’t stop those groups repeatedly calling for an end to the trade “which I find perverse, quite frankly”.
“I would have thought if there is recognition of the significant progress and there is recognition that we’re trying to genuinely extend that and get pressure on, there’s more strength in supporting the case for change globally, and doing it through international bodies like the OIE and that’s the basis of the engagement we’ve got to try and extend,” he said.
Mr Crean said exporting countries coming out of poverty - where farmers are being urged move beyond subsistence level - are being encouraged to diversify and vertically integrate.
But he said they can’t do that without capability, which Australia’s closer economic partnership agreement with Indonesia seeks to address.
“You can’t ask developing countries to open their markets unless you’re also equipping them with the ability to lift their capability to compete in them,” he said.
Mr Crean said Indonesia had 260 million people and growing demand for protein and was only four or five days away for cattle transported by sea.
“The demand for beef and beef products is huge, but they also have fundamental infrastructure and cultural issues,” he said.
“They’re a Muslim country and have the wet markets because they don’t have the capacity for refrigeration throughout the country.
“Their culture and tradition is to eat the hot meat and their basis for distribution is to kill at night and sell first thing in the morning.”
AS for turning back the clock five years, Mr Crean said he watched the Four Corners broadcast, “A Bloody Business” on the evening of May 31, 2011, in his Canberra office during a week of parliament sitting.
“The imagery was very confronting and it was a compelling story,” he said.
“Most Four Corners programs are.
“They are very well produced and the program rightly deserves its reputation.
“It was very confronting and I knew that there would be a huge issue the next day.
“I guess I didn’t understand how big it would become because I subsequently found out the program itself didn’t actually have high ratings on the night.”
However, Mr Crean said the email response in his Melbourne electorate office the next day and his Canberra ministerial office was unprecedented.
“It generated a huge social media response and that is what confronted us all in government,” he said.
Mr Crean said the initial ALP caucus position was to ban cattle exports to the 12 abattoir facilities in question, the day after the ABC broadcast.
But subsequent to that, he lamented that the decision to actually close the “totality” of the trade was not taken through a consultative process.
Mr Crean said he wasn’t consulted about that second suspension order, initially signed for up to six months, even though he was the Minister for Regional Australia and the Minister for Northern Australia, at the time.
“There was no discussion with me, even though most of the trade came out (of northern Australia),” he said.
“It’s another example of where it’s really important in politics to go through the process.
“The decision could well have been the same - could have been - but it’s important to go through the process and test the options.
“In any event the trade was closed and then we moved quickly to try and get the circumstances for re-opening which was ESCAS, and the rest is history.”
But Mr Crean said he was comfortable that the first decision was the right measured response, to close those abattoirs “because that was a supply chain response”.
“Penalizing the facilities that were in breach made sense - and of course that is the sanction under ESCAS,” he said.
“I agreed with and supported in the caucus, that decision (and) I think there’d been some consultation with some wiser heads.
“That was the position I left the country on and then became aware subsequently that the decision (was) to close the trade.
“It annoyed me that there hadn’t been the proper consultative process or even the preparedness to warn us about it, but, you know, it happened.”
But Mr Crean said in re-starting the trade, he saw the importance of using the foreign aid program with Indonesia to build capability, and subsequently urged Mr Rudd to utilise the Indonesia-Australia Closer Economic Partnership Agreement.
“It was really not saying we necessarily had to spend more money, but let’s look at the aid budget and see whether we can direct some of it to the capability question, on the ground up there (In Indonesia),” he said.
“I was always arguing you’ve got to be creative and join the dots (and) there was a bit of creative dot joining that could work.
“And the other thing that was interesting was there was an immediate awareness from the industry people who came to see us that they needed a lasting solution, that there was a problem here, it couldn’t be ignored and we needed to address it.
“The question was, how do we take that renewed commitment – or that awakening – draw on their knowledge - because they were receptive and weren’t just saying open the trade, they were saying we know we’ve got a problem and we can’t open it until we address it, so I saw that as a positive.”