INDEPENDENT MP Andrew Wilkie says he’s prepared to visit northern Australia to meet with cattle graziers and other live export industry members, as “a matter of courtesy”.
But he’s confident his views - which include wanting to phase out live export over three years while expanding on-shore processing options - are well informed.
Recently Mr Wilkie renewed calls to ban Australian live exports after more graphic video footage surfaced of cruelty towards Australian cattle in the Gaza Strip during the recent Festival of Sacrifice.
The allegations are being investigated by the Agriculture Department but in the meantime Mr Wilkie is making his fifth legislative attempt in three years to end the trade.
He said he’ll be moving a Private Members Bill scheduled for debate early in the new year, to shut down the trade in 2016.
Mr Wilkie said the footage from Gaza “can only be described as shocking” and is “some of the worst animal cruelty footage we have seen - and we have seen a lot of animal cruelty over the last couple of years”.
He believed the live export trade is out of step with public opinion, and moving to expand on-shore processing would help to create more jobs in Australia and yield more benefits for the local economy.
His views are also backed by several Labor MPs and the Greens, who also plan to bring legislative action on next year in both Houses of Parliament to end the live export trade.
Standing alongside Mr Wilkie in response to the Gaza footage released by Animals Australia, the Greens said they’d be reintroducing their Bill that seeks to establish an Independent Office of Animal Welfare in the first sitting week of 2014.
However, live export industry members have been critical of Mr Wilkie and the Greens for wanting to ban live exports, and making repeated public comment without undertaking direct grass roots consultation in northern Australia.
In October, Mr Wilkie warned Tony Abbott against lowering animal welfare standards in the live cattle trade during the new Prime Minister’s first visit to Jakarta, which prompted the Australian Livestock Exporters Council (ALEC) to challenge the Tasmanian MP to start speaking directly to industry about any animal welfare concerns.
ALEC CEO Alison Penfold said Mr Wilkie hadn’t approached the Council for direct briefings or discussions on improved animal welfare standards in export markets like Indonesia.
She said Mr Wilkie’s electorate of Denison in Tasmania “couldn’t be further removed from the realities of the live export trade”.
But Mr Wilkie hit back at his critics this week saying he came from the bush, did three years of agricultural science at high school and had “many friends who are farmers, and I have spoken to them”.
“I am confident that my position is very well informed; not just about farming practices but also about how we need to restructure our economy for the future,” he said.
“And that includes re-opening abattoirs, building new abattoirs and processing these animals in Australia.”
Mr Wilkie said economic research showed Western Australia already had enough spare capacity to process all of the sheep currently being exported, which would create about 2000 jobs in that State, while 1000 jobs would be created around Darwin by processing cattle on-shore.
“There are a number of sides to the story; it’s not just about the farmers,” he said.
“Having said all of that, as a courtesy, I am prepared to go to northern Australia and to meet with this particular group of farmers, and for them to tell me their side of the story, and for me to explain my side of the story.
“I think having a conversation could be a helpful thing.”
Victorian Labor MP Kelvin Thomson has also been a regular outspoken critic of live animal exports calling for a trade ban, in response to animal welfare concerns in export markets.
Mr Thomson said he and other MPs had spoken to many people involved in the live export trade and heard from them directly about their position and the reasons for it.
“I think people are happy to go to northern Australia and speak with people directly but we have had direct conversations,” he said.
But Mr Thomson said transparency “cuts both ways” and the MPs critical of live exports also wanted those people to view the video footage and see for themselves “what goes on in Gaza”.