Mr RAMSEY (Grey–Government Whip) (15:44): I was a farmer for 30 years, and like all farmers-like all Australians-I was appalled at the images on the 60 Minutes program about the Awassi Express. It is clear that, as a nation, we will not tolerate this kind of treatment of our animals, and the industry is unsustainable if it continues. But our response must be guided by facts. On so many issues, I am dismayed by the power of uninformed opinion to influence debate.
I applaud the minister for his actions. Obviously angry, like so many of us, he ordered an immediate, sharp and stiff review and announced a stream of interim measures including mandating departmental inspectors on every boat. The stakes are high. The last time the live trade was suspended, untold damage was done to the cattle industry. While the numbers exported live are but a small part of the national market, the track record of 2011 demonstrates that the knock-on effect of termination of the industry is likely to be a significant depression on the rest of the market, far beyond whatever the differential may be at any time. I have no doubt the transportation of the sheep to the Middle Eastern markets can be done in an acceptable manner. It does happen on the vast majority of occasions. That’s why we know it’s possible. What we need to do is make sure that it occurs that way not just some of the time but almost all of the time.
We don’t know yet what the specific circumstances surrounding the Awassi Express were, and it’s important that we don’t make precipitate decisions until we do. Without making any presumption of innocence and without knowing that the minimum standards were or were not observed, I make the comment that even in nature things go catastrophically wrong from time to time. This is never more evident than when we find a pod of beached whales. The McCarthy review is due next week, and I ask on behalf of my farmers and my rural communities that depend on a competitive meat trade that we wait for that report, its recommendations and the minister’s response.
I estimate that around 10 per cent of the live trade in sheep comes out of my electorate. A friend of mine rang me last week. He doesn’t often sell to the live export trade, but he said the last time he did he received a $25-a-head premium, and he remarked that, for 60,000 sheep on board, that’s about $1½ million. Indeed, over the last three years the national numbers have averaged about 1½ million per annum, and if that premium is extrapolated you end up with a figure getting close to $40 million. It would not be any stretch to assume that, if the top payer in the market were taken out of the market, prices across the board would recede by a similar amount or even more. Even if we estimate a 10-million-a-year turnoff across the whole sheep sector, multiplied by a factor of $25 a head premium, it’s an extraordinary loss that will be borne by farmers who have done absolutely nothing wrong. They are the innocent parties.
Some of my colleagues are considering supporting a bill phasing out the live trade. I understand why and I respect their views, but I do urge caution. It is possible-indeed highly likely-that as a result of the McCarthy review operators will be required to undertake significant capital expense to bring their vessels up to standard-perhaps even to a totally new standard. If that is the case and they are presented with a termination date, it would almost certainly mean that investment would not occur, and so the trade would effectively be terminated immediately.
Hardworking Australian farmers need us to take a fact-driven and considered path. While I know members are being bombarded with emails at the moment and are concerned about the repercussions, it is worth reflecting that, after the early accolades the Labor government received for suspending the trade in 2011, the situation turned poisonous as stock were left in the paddock, growing too big for the market. Farmers faced ejection from their farms, and public attitudes changed very quickly. I won’t forget that process.
I ask the public of Australia and the members of this place to reflect on what the end game is for organisations like Animals Australia, who are sponsoring the email campaign. Do not think that, if they win this battle, the war is over. A quick visit to the Animals Australia website will tell you they are opposed to a wide range of practices in the wool industry, including shearing, lambs being born in the paddock, mulesing and artificial insemination. They oppose greyhound racing-and we saw what happened in New South Wales a little over 12 months ago-and horseracing, citing the mental and physical stress for the horses. They are opposed to zoos, rodeos, animal testing and a plethora of other things which are normally highly regulated activities in this society. I ask people to consider who is making the bullets they are being asked to fire.