Interview with Gary Adshead, 6PR Mornings

MONDAY, 13 MAY 2024

SUBJECT: The Albanese Government phasing out live sheep exports

GARY ADSHEAD, HOST: All right, let's go back to the debate around the live sheep export industry, and the date that's been put on it now is May 2028 when it will finish. The person that announced that was Murray Watt, the Federal Agriculture Minister, and he joins me now. Thanks very much for your time, Minister.


GARY ADSHEAD: Now, our Premier says that this is devastating for the WA industry. Do you agree?

MURRAY WATT: No, I don't. I respectfully disagree with the Premier on that point. I actually think this is about setting up the WA sheep industry for well into the future. What we've seen in a number of other states across Australia, they used to do live exports of sheep by sea. They got out of it, moved more into wool production and onshore processing, and now they're reaping the benefit of that. And I want to make sure that WA get that benefit as well. We've seen over the last 20 years, the number of live sheep exported from Australia, particularly WA, has plummeted by about 90 per cent. And at the same time, we've seen the growth in demand for sheep meat, lamb, mutton, other commodities as well, is going through the roof. And I want to make sure that WA gets its fair share of that growth market and all of the jobs that can come with it.

GARY ADSHEAD: So, the argument there is that there just simply isn't the places to process the sheep meat here in WA. What do you say to that?

MURRAY WATT: Right now that is definitely right, Gary, and that's why we have gone with a four-year phaseout. There are some people out there who want us to phase out this trade immediately. And if we were to do that, I think that would be catastrophic for the WA sheep industry. But what we've done is accept the recommendation of our independent panel that May 2028 is the right time to go for. And that actually gives us now four years to increase the processing capacity in WA.

We've already seen in the last twelve months a couple of the big abattoirs in WA already starting to expand production. There's an appetite for it, literally. And we know there's a growing market for sheep meat right across the world, including here in Australia. And some of the grants that we'll be offering through the transition package, the $107 million taxpayer funded transition package that will go towards helping processes scale up. It might be about providing feedlots to fatten sheep up before slaughter. It might be about providing more cold storage so they can process more and then keep them in storage frozen until the demand is there. So, definitely there's not enough processing capacity right now, but we're confident we can get there over the next four years.

GARY ADSHEAD: All right. I was speaking to David Littleproud before, and he's just saying that, you know, this is the east coast meddling. Have a listen.

DAVID LITTLEPROUD: There are some pretty dark decisions being made by sheep producers in Western Australia at the moment about having to destroy animals. I can understand their anger. East coast politicians just need to wake up themselves and understand Western Australia does this better than anyone else in the world and we should get the hell out of their way.

GARY ADSHEAD: What do you react to that?

MURRAY WATT: For starters, I absolutely have sympathy for those farmers who are really struggling with drought at the moment. Western Australia is obviously going through drought. We're seeing it in parts of Tasmania and NSW as well. And that's a really horrible thing for any farmer and rural community to go through. And I'd certainly be encouraging people to take up the federal support that's available for people going through drought right now.

But more broadly, I just don't accept the argument from David Littleproud that this is an east coast view being imposed on the west. If you look at any of the research that's come through, even last year, research showed that about 70 per cent of Western Australians support phasing out this industry. So, unfortunately, I think that David Littleproud is the one who's actually out of touch with Western Australia.

GARY ADSHEAD: Just the way you did it, I mean, I'm just reading on my text line there's criticism of that. Did you sort of Zoom into WA, is that how you did it? I mean, it's not something that it seems like the Federal Government's doing with a great deal of conviction, I mean, hardly standing by the Prime Minister to tell the farming community this is what you're going to do.

MURRAY WATT: Well, actually, I did travel to Perth on Friday, Gary, and stood up in front of one of the largest press conferences I've done in Perth on Saturday morning. And I thought it was important to front up, personally, explain to the public through the media what we're proposing to do. This is all being funded in tomorrow night's Budget. And I guess we had the option of just burying it in the Budget and not talking about it, but I thought it was important to front up.

I did do a Teams meeting with about 70 or so stakeholders on Saturday morning. And, of course, that included farm groups, but also animal welfare groups and a range of other groups, too. But I think anyone can see, in my travels to Perth over the last couple of years, I've met with the sheep representative groups and their members, sheep farmers, on more than a dozen occasions, face to face. So, I think that people have had a good hearing and we've tried to take their views into account. I recognise that not everyone's supportive of this decision, but as I say, for all the cabbies, the couriers, the nurses, everyone who's listening to your program, who's chipping into this $107 million package, I think that's a fair and reasonable outcome.

GARY ADSHEAD: There's a chapter there, of course, that talks about individuals and communities in the report that is attached to this decision for 2028. When you talk about the fact that you accept that there will be mental wellbeing challenges in this, does that mean you'll take responsibility if farmers decide that they can't go on?

MURRAY WATT: We obviously, as a government, take responsibility for all of the decisions that we make, whether it be this one or anything else. But as I say, I'm confident that through the package that we've put together, that this actually maps out an optimistic future for the industry. I don't believe that people need to be getting out of the industry. It will change. It'll be more about onshore processing rather than live sheep exports. But that's actually a massive opportunity for WA that other states are already taking up. I want to see that high value production and those jobs that come with it rain down on WA, just as they are in other states at the moment as well.

GARY ADSHEAD: Just finally, it's pretty obvious that the cattle industry has also had its issues with export, but they seem to be given that second chance. Why sheep, not cattle?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I think a couple of reasons, and we've been very clear that we will not be ending the live cattle trade. It's obviously a really critical pillar of the economic base of northern Australia, including in WA. But really, even from animal welfare grounds, the reality is that cattle are hardier species than sheep. They travel much shorter journeys than sheep journeys. So, we think that the trades are fundamentally different from an animal welfare perspective, but also from an economic perspective as well.

GARY ADSHEAD: All right. So, the raw politics of this is that, you know, obviously it doesn't sound like the farmers are going to go away anytime soon. The Coalition say that they will reverse this decision. Do you accept that that could happen if you were to lose the election?

MURRAY WATT: That's obviously a matter for the Coalition. But what I would point out also is that over the last few years, we've seen a number of very senior Liberal Party Members in Canberra speak up and speak out against live sheep exports. Sussan Ley, who's now the Deputy Liberal Leader, she introduced a bill of her own into Parliament while they were still in government trying to end live sheep exports. We've seen it from Sarah Henderson, from Jason Wood, from Warren Entsch. There's quite a number of senior Liberals who've previously spoken out against this trade. So, I guess it'll be interesting to see where they end up. But as I say, we think that this is the best outcome for the sheep industry. It will deliver better animal welfare, more value adding jobs in WA. And, of course, this was an election commitment, and we think it's important that we carry through and deliver it.

GARY ADSHEAD: Just quickly then. So, the 2028, I mean, why 2028, not 2030 or not 2026?

MURRAY WATT: A couple of reasons, Gary. This was the recommendation of the panel that we appointed that May 2028 was the right timeframe. And I guess given the work they'd done, listening to everyone who's got a view on the industry, we thought it was important to listen to them on that. But also, I think that is the right kind of time period to allow for an orderly transition. As I say, if we rush this too soon, then that could really be chaotic. But equally, if the timeframe was too long, then there's not an incentive for the industry to move towards that high value adding future.

GARY ADSHEAD: Thanks very much for joining us today, Murray. Appreciate it.

MURRAY WATT: Good on you, Gary.

GARY ADSHEAD: That’s Murray Watt, the Federal Agriculture Minister. There you go. You've heard both sides of the arguments.