Livelihoods depend on Governments we can trust

For those watching closely, some worrying signs for the agricultural sector have emerged from the Labor Party during this election campaign. With polls indicating that Labor could win Government, this recent behaviour foreshadows a potentially difficult road ahead.

While more than a decade has gone by since the last Federal Labor Government left visible scars on the northern beef industry, some within the Party still appear comfortable making knee-jerk decisions without speaking to the people who are actually affected by them.

On 27 June 2011, in the midst of the Live Export Ban, then Minister for Infrastructure Anthony Albanese appeared on the ABC’s Q+A and defended the decision made by the Gillard Government, going as far to as to say that it was “the right thing to do.”

At the same time Mr Albanese made these comments, Northern Australia was in turmoil. Members of the NTCA and beef producers across the north had been forced into letting their staff go, bringing their children home from school and university while desperately trying to decide what to do with a business that no longer had a market to sell to. Even before the ban, many of these families were struggling through drought – something the Government knew at the time.

As the ban continued, trucking companies had to cancel invoices and delivery dates. Vets were desperately tending cattle and trying to support producers in dire situations. Industry, and even Government Departments, were forced into rolling out emergency feed provisions for animals stuck in export yards that could not be returned to properties who had sold these cattle in the first place – because of the effects of drought. 

It is a sombre moment to look back at, especially considering then members of the Labor Cabinet knew this was happening, and still felt comfortable publicly defending the decision they had made.

The Brett Cattle Company Case, the class action brought against former Labor Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig for the banning of the live cattle export trade in 2011, revealed that the Labor Government knew the effect of an outright ban would be devastating, had advice from industry and Government Departments that told them so, and chose to ignore this advice – crippling the industry and destroying livelihoods.

As said by Justice Rares, who presided over the case:

“I am comfortably satisfied, based on the whole of the evidence, that the Minister was recklessly indifferent as to …  the injury which the order, when effectual, was calculated to produce. Accordingly, the Minister committed misfeasance in public office when he made the Ban Order on 7 June 2011.”

This judgement has resulted in a damages bill that is estimated to surpass $1 billion. Still, it appears Labor has not learnt that they cannot show a ‘reckless indifference’ to the beef industry and beef producers across Northern Australia – in favour of interest groups based in Sydney and Melbourne.

Last week the animal rights community claimed victory in pressuring Federal Labor into recommitting to a phase out of the live sheep exports industry (if they are elected).

It was reported in the Australian Financial Review that Labor’s Shadow Minister for Agriculture, the Hon. Julie Collins, had given an animal rights organisation the Labor Party’s election policies for animal welfare, prior to these policies being announced publicly by the Party. This was seemingly done to reassure them that Labor shared their values. 

The decision to quietly engage with these organisations appears to reveal a lot about the current Labor Party, especially in regard to the power dynamic between them and the animal rights movement.

Labor’s policies were leaked to the media by the same organisation with whom they were shared. The same group who later conducted a number of interviews in the media further explaining Labor’s policies. Labor has not publicly reprimanded them for this, nor contradicted any of their claims.

Worse still, when asked about these policies, Leaders within the Labor Party seemed not to be sure what they were. 

So far, we’ve had the Federal Shadow Minister for Trade confirm that it is Labor’s policy to phase out the live sheep trade. When asked about this same policy, the WA Premier, also Labor, then appeared to contradict his Federal colleagues, saying he thinks a phase out isn’t necessary. The next day, Mr Albanese spoke at a press conference, stating that the policy had ‘changed’ regarding the live sheep trade. Next up to bat was the Deputy Opposition Leader Richard Marles, who explained that Labor’s policies were ‘clear’ and that a phase out would occur. Most recently, we’ve had the Shadow Minister for Agriculture come up and try to clear up any confusion. Mrs Collins has explained that Labor supports northern cattle exports to SE Asia, just not sheep, and that a phase out will definitely be happening.

If you’re confused by this, don’t worry, you’re in good company.

In the lead up to the election campaign, Labor have been happy to say that they support our industry and the live cattle trade with SE Asia. As recently as January of this year, Anthony Albanese stood in a cattle yard in North Queensland and said:

“My message to farmers is we’re on your side. We’re on your side when it comes to backing your industry.”

So far in this election campaign, there’s no way anyone in the agricultural sector will feel like they can place their trust in this statement. At the very least, when it comes to Live Exports, and the producers who rely on it, Labor appears to still be more interested in what the animal rights groups think than the people who actually own cattle. Or sheep for that matter.

A week out from election and we stand uneasy. It is unlikely reassurance will be forthcoming. Even if it is, based on the actions of the last week, if someone within Labor does offer support – can we trust it? Can they?

Maybe the organisations with which the Labor Party has been quietly sharing information could come out and explain their position for them again. Certainly the Party still don’t seem to know what it is.

While support for the northern cattle trade is welcomed, it appears lost on Labor in offering this support, that they held the exact opposite position last time they were in Government – when cattle were banned but sheep were allowed to continue. This political disregard for the agricultural policy setting, coupled with the refusal to admonish the animal rights movement who campaign against us, is all too familiar.

We’ve seen this sort of behaviour before. We remember it from last time. Our industry is made up of those who are still here. Those who have not forgotten. Those who fought for ten years to prove that the actions of the last Labor Government were illegal. Those whose livelihoods will be destroyed if the Government gets it wrong – again.

Will Evans

Chief Executive Officer, NTCA

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