Live sheep exports: House of Representatives Standing Committee public hearing

Today the House of Representatives, Standing Committee is holding the first of two public hearings on the legislation to end live sheep exports by sea. Below is the opening statement by National Farmers’ Federation Acting CEO, Charlie Thomas:

Thank you for the opportunity to appear today and share our members’ serious concerns about this proposed legislation.

I’ll begin briefly on process.

From the moment this policy was inadvertently announced via an animal activist organisation just two weeks from the Federal Election, the process has been a farce, and the hard-working people of our industry have been treated with absolute contempt.

We had to fight each step of the way for affected producers to have a fair hearing with the Independent Panel. We saw industry’s advice to that panel go unheeded in its final report. Then we saw the Minister go even further – rejecting key elements of the Panel’s advice to adopt a plan even more radical than that of the panel.

Then of course we have this inquiry. This is the only process to scrutinise the actual merits of this policy. And we’ve been granted just four business days to share our thoughts, or seven days’ notice for farmers in WA to take a day out from their business to attend the Muresk hearing.

If you wanted to design a process to dismiss and marginalise our members who are impacted by this policy, this would be it.

Now, let me touch on some of the arguments put forward by proponents of this ban.

In summary, they will tell you the trade is:

  • in decline;
  • has lost community support; and is,
  • a missed opportunity to create local jobs.

Not only are each of these arguments untrue – with volumes up 30% year-on-year, pro-export petitions now exceeding those supporting a ban, and the Independent Panel itself casting doubt on job creation – they are each staggeringly bad reasons to impose an unprecedented legislative ban on an industry.

In what universe would this Parliament simply start cancelling industries because they’ve contracted? Or setting policies based purely on public popularity? That would be a grim state of affairs for lawmaking.

If we accept those arguments are insufficient to justify this Bill, then the remaining argument is of course animal welfare. Here again we know the facts are on our side.

In 2017, the incident involving the Awassi Express shocked and disgusted farmers as much as it did the general public. That’s why we demanded and embraced sweeping reforms.

Those reforms – from changes to stocking densities, on-board reporting and care, the Northern Summer moratorium and much more – have ensured that in the past seven years we’ve seen a shift to gold standard welfare outcomes onboard Australian vessels.

The data on mortality rates prove this. An Australian-regulated live export vessel is about the safest place a sheep can be.

The Ending Live Sheep Exports by Sea Bill will end a lot of things.

It will end Australia’s uplift of animal welfare standards in the Middle East.

It’ll end the livelihoods of farmers, shearers, truckies, agents and stock handlers in WA.

It’ll end the strong trade and interpersonal ties Australia has developed in the Middle East as a trusted food security partner.

In summary, it’ll end the tremendous amount of good this industry creates, both here and abroad.

Ironically, given the name, the one thing this Bill won’t end is live sheep exports by sea – because these markets have been categoric in their discussions with the NFF and publicly that they will simply shift supply.

Any fair dinkum investigation of the merits of this policy would see you step foot on a modern Australian live export vessel, and then go and do the same in Sudan, or South America.

By voting for this Bill, you are actively enabling practices we banned more than a decade ago.

This Bill sets a chilling precedent.

It tells us that where industries face issues, invest heavily in reform, and go on to meet best practice standards – they can still be shut down if a misleading activist campaign can get 40,000 signatures on a petition using imagery from 10 years ago.

We worry, because we know the stated goal of these same organisations is an end to animal agriculture in its entirety. We know the moment this is done, they simply shift their focus and questionable tactics to the next industry.

We know that every member of this committee is here because they share our passion for Australian farming. I trust that any of you thinking of supporting this bill are doing so because you believe that is ultimately in the best interests of our industry.

When it comes to our industry’s best interests, we implore you to listen to the farmers, not the fanatics. We are telling you loud and clear that this is a bad idea. I hope that something you hear during the course of these hearings will convince you of that. To read the NFF’s submission click here.

Acting CEO Charlie Thomas, Rural Affairs General Manager Charlotte Wundersitz and Farming Systems Committee Chair Chris Groves at Parliament House for today’s hearing.

/Public Release. View in full here.