LIKE all Australians, farmers in WA respect and expect a fair go.
And they trust that their elected representatives will act fairly and reasonable in doing their jobs – especially when they’re appointed Agriculture Minister.
That role gives them great responsibility for guarding the livelihoods of vulnerable people already facing extreme volatility, living and working the land battling unpredictable weather, while dealing with fickle markets where political intervention is becoming more fashionable than hating on American president Donald Trump.
But in the case of the current Labor Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan, there’s a complex challenge at play regarding the simple matter of trust and whether they’re getting a fair go.
The latest issue concerning live sheep exports to the Middle East provides a timely opportunity to consider some of these trust issues more deeply and provide some food for thought.
When it came time to choose a side, as farmers and industry supporters faced off with protesters who want to see live exports banned, at a 2013 rally in Fremantle, Ms MacTiernan made it clear where she stood.
A picture from the day shows Ms MacTiernan – then a Federal Labor MP – standing alongside a woman dressed up in a cow costume, referred to in the picture-caption as one of her friends, who was a protester opposed to live exports.
Ms MacTiernan’s opposition to the trade is not a fly-by-night position and to her credit she’s an experienced and clever politician who hasn’t kept her views secret.
A post on her Facebook page referring to the live exports yin and yang public demonstration at Fremantle in 2013 said, “Joined the punters opposing live export of sheep and cattle in Fremantle yesterday”.
“These are compassionate and reasonable people who say there is a limit to what we can expect animals to endure,” the post said.
“My view is that exporting livestock to the Middle East and Africa from Australia can never be made humane – even if all rules were complied, the travel time on a sheep ship of three to four weeks is intolerable.
“There is a big market for chilled meat and many producers are engaging with this.
“The world market for meat is growing and we don’t have to take the lowest cost option to have a thriving industry.
“I believe the live export trade between the Kimberley and Indonesia is different – travel times are much shorter and progress is being made in entrenching stunning.
“We can be smart about the meat industry and do the right thing at the same time.”
While credible analysts have constantly and consistently rejected these theories as economically irrational, Ms MacTiernan doggedly persists with her long-held views and motivations, despite the evidence.
In May 2001, as the then WA Planning and Infrastructure Minister, she gave a speech referring to 100 Kwinana residents who protested at parliament against plans to use a proposed private port at Fremantle for livestock transport.
She said the residents were also concerned about the negative effect on local amenity and in particular, the increased noise and road wear due to truck traffic and the offensive sight and smell associated with intensive trucking of sheep and cattle.
“They believe it will be a threat to the water quality of Cockburn Sound,” she said.
“The residents believe the export of the live animals to be inhumane and ask parliament to note that almost 30,000 Western Australian petitioners who oppose the live sheep trade have petitioned the Legislative Council to investigate it and recommended a period in which to phase it out.”
And it’s not just live exporters who need to consider the trust challenge confronting them and whether they’re dealing with a pragmatic minister with the capacity to see beyond seemingly extreme ideological limitations.
WA Labor’s policy “platform” statement of 2015 deserves to have a spotlight shined on it, just like the minister would want a public light shined on poor animal welfare practices aboard live sheep exports to the Middle East.
Page 69 of the 186-page document of “enduring Labor values”, under the animal welfare heading, says WA Labor would, “Work with stakeholders to reduce and eventually eradicate intensive farming in favour of humane food production”.
Ms MacTiernan said the Parliamentary Party determined policy – but her government’s agricultural policy was released prior to the 2017 election in their Growing Agriculture and Aquaculture document – and it didn’t contain that plan to ‘eradicate intensive farming’.
But whether it’s the WA Labor Party’s “platform” from 2015 or now actual government policy, farmers will remain extremely anxious and suspicious about the minister’s longer-term motives and plans and wonder whether she’s merely just a protester in disguise.